My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Merle Haggard

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Mama’s Prayers’

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘A Friend In California’

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘If I Could Only Fly’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Vaquero’

vaqueroAaron Watson is an old favorite of mine, with his honest Texan country style and high quality songs. His latest album is a bit of a mixed bag, but has some very bright spots.

There is the kernel of a concept EP within the album, with a brace of songs addressing the Mexican American experience. The title track paints a portrait of an old Mexican cowboy offering some useful homespun advice, set to a pretty tune. A rather lovely Spanish guitar instrumental, ‘Mariano’s Dream’, fits nicely into this category, leading into ‘Clear Isabel’, a dramatic, empathetic story song about a Mexican cop fleeing the drugs cartels for the safety of the US, where his daughter marries the rancher narrator but her father is deported and murdered.

The opening ‘Texas Lullaby’, a moving story song about a soldier’s WWII love story, is perhaps my favorite track. ‘Be My Girl’ and ‘Big Love In A Small Town’ are attractive love songs with pretty melodies. The latter of these benefits from the harmonies of co-writer Heather Morgan.

‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To’ talks about social and economic changes in a way reminiscent of some of Merle Haggard’s songs. It needs more of a melody, as far too much of the song is on a single note, but it’s an interesting song deeply rooted in Texas:

Well no news is good news, tell me whose news really tells the truth
The death toll rises high as gas prices shoot straight through the roof
Meanwhile politicians preach while some preachers politick
Well we need is lots of love, yeah lots of love might do the trick

Instead we criticize, we glamorize who’s right or wrong, who’s left or right
Missin’ out on so many beautiful colors, fightin’ over what’s black and white
We’ve gotta forgive, gotta learn to live together, make the world a better place
Maybe someday somebody somewhere will look back on today
Look back on us and say

They don’t make ’em like they used to

‘The Arrow’ is a life-affirming philosophical number aimed at Aaron’s children, set to a gentle tune, which I liked a lot:

Aim for the stars in the sky
Take heart, pull it back and let fly
On the wings of an angel
Let it fly with the grace of a dove

Let it fly with kindness and love.

‘Diamonds And Daughters’ was written especially for Aaron’s daughter Jolee and is a pretty song about the father-daughter relationship.

Disappointingly from an artist known for his solid Texas country style, a few tracks here are over produced in modern radio style. The main offender is the (admittedly quite catchy in its way) lead single ‘Outta Style’. ‘Amen Amigo’ is just too loud. ‘Run Wild Horses’ is a pretty, wistful ballad under a layer of over-production. I enjoyed ‘One Two Step At A Time’ and ‘Rolling Stone’, although again the production is intrusive. ‘Take You Home Tonight’ is rather forgettable. ‘These Old Boots Have Roots’ isn’t a bad song.

But the less good tracks are definitely overshadowed by the good stuff, especially as there are a generous 16 tracks, allowing for the odd misstep to be overlooked. This is another strong offering from Aaron, the quality of shoes writing is improving all the time.

Grade: A-

Week ending 3/4/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

92df52cf5d67b83799c3a62467aef3291957 (Sales):Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox): There You Go/Train of Love — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1967: I’m a Lonesome Fugitive — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1977: Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow — Tom Jones (Epic)

1987: I Can’t Win For Losin’ You — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1997: Running Out of Reasons to Run — Rick Trevino (Columbia)

2007: Ladies Love Country Boys — Trace Adkins (Capitol)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Jamey Johnson ft Merle Haggard – Long Black Veil’

Two great singer songwriters cover one of the greatest story songs in country music:

Album Review: Dale Watson & Ray Benson – ‘Dale & Ray’

61mjexmhfpl-_ac_us400_ql65_Duos have been a staple of country music almost from the very beginning. At one time it was fairly common for successful solo artists (usually one male and one female signed to the same label) to regularly collaborate for duet albums in addition to their solo projects. In more recent years it’s been more common for artists to collaborate on one-off or occasional projects rather than working together on a regular basis. Thus, such collaborations became regarded to be “events”.

The coming together of Dale Watson and Ray Benson – like-minded individuals who have fought hard to preserve the genre’s integrity, against the prevailing commercial trends of the day – seems on the surface as though it would be just such an event, but unfortunately it’s a project that never quite comes together. It’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly; it’s just that Watson and Benson don’t complement each other very well vocally, with Benson being the stronger vocalist of the two. The songs themselves are strong, and the backing musicians are superb but Dale & Ray never quite exceeds the sum of its parts.

The album gets off on the wrong foot with the opening track “The Ballad of Dale & Ray”, a tongue-in-cheek number that they first performed at the Ameripolitan Awards. The humor falls a bit flat; however. It may have worked onstage but it probably wasn’t worthy of being memorialized on record. Things improve considerably with the second track, “Feelin’ Haggard”, a tribute to Merle, who of course, passed away last year. They also play homage to Merle’s Bakersfield mentor Buck Owens on “Cryin’ For Cryin’ Time Again”. They also cover “Write Your Own Songs” which lacks the punch of Willie’s original. Their version of “I Wish You Knew” isn’t bad but a Louvin Brothers cover really needs vocalists who can harmonize better together to truly do it justice.

This is an album that I really wanted to like — and I do like it. I just don’t love it the way I thought I would. It’s the kind of music I love but given a choice I’d rather listen to Asleep at the Wheel or Watson’s solo albums. Together Watson and Benson lack chemistry and the album definitely suffers from a lack of synergy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Runaway Train’

runaway-trainThis is Flatt Lonesome’s third album and each has been a slight improvement on the album before, a difficult task since the debut and second albums were indeed excellent. On my list of favorite albums of 2016, I had Runaway Train at number two on my list and I gave serious thought to placing it at #1.

Flatt Lonesome hails from Callahan Florida, a town just big enough to avoid jokes about the entering and leaving signs being on the same signpost. They have become huge favorites at the bluegrass festivals for the simplest of reasons – they sing well, are very proficient on their instruments, and select great songs to record. The group is essentially a family band with sisters Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson joining brother Buddy Robertson in handling most of the vocals. Kelli plays mandolin, Charli plays fiddle and Buddy plays guitar. Paul Harrigill, who entered the family by marrying Kelsi, plays banjo and other instruments as needed. Non-family members Michael Stockton (dobro & lap steel) and Dominick Illingworth (bass) round out the team.

The album opens with a tune written by Danny Roberts (of the Grascals) and Paul Harrigill titled “You’ll Pay”. Buddy takes the lead vocals with his sisters adding harmony vocals on this song about retribution.

Next up is “Still Feeling Blue”, a song by Gram Parsons, a would-be country artist of the 1960s. Kelli takes the lead vocals with her siblings providing the harmony vocals. Parsons was greatly influenced by the Louvin Brothers and it definitely shows on this composition. This really is a good song and the trio vocal work just shines on this song.

Time can pass and time can heal
But it don’t ever pass the way I feel
You went away a long time ago
And why you left I never knew
The lonely days and lonely nights
Guess the world knows I ain’t feelin’ right
And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow
And now I’m still feeling blue

Dwight Yoakam would seem to be an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover, but “You’re The One” really is a great vehicle for Charli’s lead vocals and the harmony trios. This song, a slow ballad, was a huge hit on bluegrass radio.

Kelsi penned “In The Heat of The Fire” and takes the lead vocals on a fine religiously themed mid-temp ballad. Michael Stockton takes a nice dobro break and Charli does likewise on a fiddle break.

If you’re like Jonah
In the belly of the whale
Running so far
And headed for hell
Cry out to him
He’ll hear your voice
And answer your prayer

He’s in the valley
He’s in the storm
He’ll be your shelter
He’ll keep you warm
He is your solid rock
In the midst of the mire
You can still hear his voice
In the heat of the fire

The Bluegrass Cardinals wrote and recorded many fine songs during their two plus decade run. “Don’t Come Running” by the father and son team of Don and Dave Parmley is just one of the many fine songs, Buddy takes the lead on this song.

Well you tell me today you were going far away
You tell me you wanna be free
But if your new friend breaks your heart in the end
Don’t you come running back to me

Oh my darling go and stay if you want it that way
You don’t love me and that is plain to see
If your new love turns you down, I won’t be hangin’ round
So don’t you come running back to me

Kelsi penned “In The Morning”, a nice religious ballad. This time sister Charli takes the lead vocals.

“Road To Nottingham” is an instrumental written by Paul Harrigill and Brayden McMahon. The song gives the entire band an opportunity to shine.

Dolton Robertson II is the father of Charli, Kelsi and Buddy but it turns out that he is a pretty good songwriter as “New Lease On Life” attests. Charli sings the lead vocal and Kelsi takes the harmony vocals.

“Casting All Your Care On Him” was a husband and wife collaboration between Paul and Kelsi, with Kelsi taking the lead vocals and her siblings taking the harmony on this up-tempo religious song.

When I first heard “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” on XM Radio I was floored that a group this young could unearth an old Tommy Collins-Merle Haggard classic from the mid 60s. The song first saw the light of day in 1966 on Collins’ first Columbia album The Dynamic Tommy Collins. Haggard recorded the song in 1967 on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album. It probably isn’t fair to compare Buddy Robertson to either Collins or Haggard, I would say that he acquits himself well, and manages to imbue the spirit of Tommy Collins into his vocals. It should be noted that both Collins and Haggard used the title “Poor Broke Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

Paul & Kelsi collaborated on “Letting Go”, a downer of a song that asks if love ever really existed.

The album closes with “Runaway Train”, written by Australian artist Kasey Chambers . This song isn’t even remotely a bluegrass song, but is the mark of a group’s excellence that they can take left field material such as this and make it fit in the context of a bluegrass album.

I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take ya where your heart won’t break ya
And the water tastes like wine
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line

We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we’ll live off honey
When the train goes underground
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round

Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, the first of many such awards that will be forthcoming for this talented group. In terms of trio harmony, they have few peers. This is a group will continue to grow in stature. I can hardly wait for their next album.

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Merle Hagard – ‘Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)’

Week ending 11/12/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

hqdefault-101956 (Sales): Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1956 (Jukebox): Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1966: Open Up Your Heart — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1976: Cherokee Maiden — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1986: Diggin’ Up Bones — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

1996: Like the Rain — Clint Black (RCA)

2006: Before He Cheats — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2016: Setting the World on Fire — Kenny Chesney featuring Pink (Blue Chair/Columbia)

2016 (Airplay): Move — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

Read more of this post

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House’

take-me-to-your-worldReleased in January 1968, Take Me To Your World/ I Don’t Wanna Play House, was Tammy’s second solo album and represented another step forward in Tammy Wynette’s career, rising to #3 on the Country Albums chart. Not only that, but the two singles released from the album both rose to #1 giving Tammy her first two solo #1 records and her third overall #1 (her duet of “My Elusive Dreams” with David Houston reached #1 in 1967).

For me, the apogee of female country singers was reached in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While female singers may have achieved better chart penetration later, qualitative the major label crop of female singers was abundant and excellent with the likes of Connie Smith, Wilma Burgess, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepard, Dottie West, Skeeter Davis, Lynn Anderson, Liz Anderson, Norma Jean, Rose Maddox, Jeanie Seely, Jeannie C Riley, Barbara Mandrell and Wanda Jackson being among the competition. There also were a host of second-tier artists on the major labels and many female artists on minor and independent labels. Within a few years the likes of Tanya Tucker and Barbara Fairchild would appear on the scene. The ghost of Patsy Cline was also on the scene.

While Tammy Wynette did not have the sheer vocal power of a Jean Shepard or Loretta Lynn, she did have the advantage of a record producer who was perfectly able to overcome Tammy’s vocal limitations and devise accompaniments to perfectly frame the essential teardrop in Tammy’s voice, and to write (when necessary) to showcase the voice and the production.

(As an aside, when I refer to the term “Nashville Sound”, I am referring to recordings where steel guitars and fiddles are accompanied (or sometimes replaced) by symphonic arrangements and choral accompaniments. The chief architects of this style were Chet Atkins at RCA, Owen Bradley at Decca, and Billy Sherrill at Epic. In Sherrill’s hands the arrangements were sometimes referred to as ‘country cocktails’. The style was very effective in covering up a singer’s lack of range, particularly in the higher registers.)

The album opens with “I Don’t Wanna Play House” a Billy Sherrill-Glen Sutton composition that won the 1968 Grammy for Best Female Country Performance. In the song, the narrator, a woman whose husband has left her, hears her daughter tell a neighbor boy that she doesn’t want to play house and the reason why she doesn’t want to play. This is a very compelling song:

Today I sat alone at the window
And I watched our little girl outside at play
With the little boy next door like so many times before
But something didn’t seem quite right today

So I went outside to see what they were doing
And then the teardrops made my eyes grow dim
‘Cause I heard him name a game and I hung my head in shame
When I heard our little girl say to him.

I don’t want to play house; I know it can’t be fun
I’ve watched mommy and daddy
And if that’s the way it’s done
I don’t want to play house; It makes my mommy cry
‘Cause when she played house
My daddy said good-bye.

Next up is “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, a minor hit for Norma Jean in 1967. Tammy does as nice job with the song.

“Broadminded” comes from the pen of Leona Williams and Jimmy Payne. At some point Leona would become one of Merle Haggard’s wives and would have some success on the country charts, although never as much as her talent would have warranted. The Leona Williams version of the songs is far superior to Tammy’s rendition, but if you’ve not heard Leona’s version you will likely like Tammy’s recording. At this point in her career Tammy really hadn’t become quite assertive enough to give this sassy up-tempo song the proper reading.

Broadminded, narrow minded man
Every night I catch you sleepin’ with a smile on your face
And a-callin’ names that I don’t even know
If it ain’t Carmel, Pat and Gracie
Aand drinkin’ down at Stacey’s
It’s making plans to see a girly show

Broadminded, I just don’t understand
A broadminded, narrow minded man

“Cry” was a big 1950s hit for male pop singer Johnnie Ray. Tammy gives it a straight ahead reading, but the song works better in the hands of someone with a bigger voice – both Lynn Anderson (#3 in 1972) and Crystal Gayle (#1 in 1986) would have big hits with the song in the upcoming years.

“The Phone Call”, written by Norris “Norro” Wilson, is just album filler, a phone call between a daughter and her mother, telling her mother her tale of woe about a man who mistreated her.

“Take Me To Your World”, a Glen Sutton-Billy Sherrill collaboration, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment by Sherrill. The song is an outstanding effort and showcases Tammy vocals perfectly.

If you can find it in your heart to just forgive
I’ll come back and live the way you’ve wanted me to live
All I want is just to be your girl
Please come and get me, and take me to your world

Take me to your world, away from bar rooms filled with smoke
Where I won’t have to serve a drink, or hear a dirty joke
All I want is just to be your girl

“(Or) Is It Love” was written by Buddy Ray. It too, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment, turning a piece of filler into a worthwhile effort. Harry Mills’ “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego” is a song about a woman essentially talking her man off the ledge and into returning home. The production on this song is very country, including use of a dobro.

With one elbow on the bar you’re drinking double
Tryin’ hard to drown up my memories
And you’re tellin’ all your buddies all your troubles
Layin’ the blame smack upon me.

If you set that bottle down and while I listen
You lose your pain inside that hurts you so
Neither one of us is all to blame baby
It’s your foggy woggy, wishy washy, fuzzy wuzzy ego.

My vinyl album contains “It’s My Way” a song credited to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. It is a good song, but it does not appear on my digital version of the album.

Glen Sutton’s “Good” would have made a good single, a tale of a woman torn between good and bad, who simply cannot keep herself in line. The production is subdued Nashville Sound.

Now I’m back here in a barroom,
A waitress again.
The good world I’ve lived in,
Just came to an end.

For temptation comes easy
To a woman like me.
And regardless of my chances,
I know that I’ll never be.

Good like I used to be;
I guess it’s just not in me.
With all my heart how I wish I proved
I’ve been good like he wanted me.

“Ode To Billy Joe” is a cover of the Bobbie Gentry hit from a few years earlier. Tammy gives the song a satisfactory rendition, but she does not have the soulful Gothic feel of Gentry’s original.

“Soaking Wet” is the bonus track on my digital copy of the album, a straight ahead country treatment devoid of Nashville Sound trappings. I have no other information concerning this song.

At this point in Tammy’s career she and Billy Sherrill were still looking for that magic formula that would turn Tammy into a full-fledged star. Consequently this album features songs with the full Nashville Sound treatment, some songs with scaled back Nashville Sound treatments and a few straight ahead country arrangements.

While Tammy and Billy were still experimenting here, the very next album would answer all the questions and set the trajectory for subsequent albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Asleep At the Wheel

asleep-at-the-wheel-1970Whatever the actual origins of Asleep At The Wheel, the holistic origins of the band date back to the decision by Merle Haggard in late 1969 to record a tribute album to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the time Haggard was the top dog in country music, with every single and album rising to the top of the country charts, and enough clout with his label Capitol to be allowed to record some albums of lesser commercial potential.

During the 1930s and 1940s Bob Wills had led hot string bands (the term “western swing” would become common after 1944) both large and small with success that sometimes dwarfed that of the more mainstream country artists. During the 1950s Wills toured with smaller units and by the 1960s, Wills usually travelled with a vocalist and used house bands that really did not understand his music. His health started failing in the 1960s, and in 1969 he suffered a stroke that forever robbed him of his ability to play the fiddle.

Haggard took the Wills project so seriously that he learned to play fiddle for the album and enlisted six former members of the Texas Playboys to join his band The Strangers in recording the album A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player in The World (or My Salute To Bob Wills). The album, recorded in April 1970, was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in November 1969. The album sold reasonably well, reaching #2 on Billboard’ s Country Albums Chart (and #58 pop), and despite having no singles released from the album, the album would influence upcoming artists such as Commander Cody and George Strait and our October Spotlight artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) was formed in 1969 in West Virginia by a couple of Jewish fellows from the Philadelphia area named Ray Benson Seifert (aka Ray Benson) and Rueben Gosfield (aka Lucky Oceans). The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody. AATW was originally a country–rock band but switched gears upon hearing the Haggard album described above, becoming great students and disciples of the Wills art form now known as western swing. By the time the first album (Comin’ Right At Ya) was released in 1973, the transformation to being a western swing band had already been completed.

The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody but in 1974 Willie Nelson convinced the band that they should be headquartered in Austin, Texas. They have remained a part of the Austin music scene through the present day.

AATW has been comprised of anywhere from eight to fifteen musicians during its long history. As might be expected for a band that has been touring for forty-five plus years, there has been substantial turnover in personnel with band members coming and going (and sometimes coming back). The initial crew included Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans, Leroy Preston and female singer Chris O’Connell, but while only the 6’7” Ray Benson remains, the musicians that he has enlisted have always been top-notch performers. While in many bands the lead singer hogs the spotlight, whether on record or on stage, Benson has always shared the spotlight. Taking the lead from Merle Haggard, AATW has often toured with member of the Texas Playboys as part of the group.

Like Bob Wills before them, AATW finds its repertoire from a number of roots music sources, including classic western swing repertoire, original compositions, blues, “jump blues”, big band swing, jazz, roots rock, honky-tonk country and even pop standards. The core, of course, remains western swing, but virtually anything can become western swing in their capable hands.

AATW has recorded for many labels over the years with many different singers and musicians. Consequently, even if an AATW album features songs that they have recorded previously, the recording is likely to sound quite different from other AATW recordings of the same song. AATW has toured with many of the biggest names in music including Bob Dylan and George Strait, and served has the backup band for the “Last of The Breed” tour with Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. They have appeared on television and in movies, written for theater plays, have won many awards and issued many fine albums
We will be reviewing a representative sample of the AATW’s studio albums, but be sure to check out their live albums and DVDs. Also many AATW alumni have gone on to be successful session musicians and/or have successful solo careers.

We trust you have and will enjoy the music of our October Spotlight Artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Retro Album Reviews: New and old music from some veteran artists in 2007

last of the breedBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

LAST OF THE BREED – HAGGARD, NELSON & PRICE

This may be the Holy Grail of classic country recordings. Three legendary figures in Ray Price, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, singing twenty-two selections containing some of the greatest country songs ever written, although not necessarily the biggest hits of Willie, Ray or Merle (except a cover of Ray’s “Heartaches by the Number”). On eleven (11) of the tracks all three artists appear. Ray and Merle each have a solo (Ray’s with Vince Gill assisting), and the rest feature two of the three (with Kris Kristofferson assisting on “Why Me”). The backing band consists of top current session men and some legends who played in the bands of the legends such as Buddy Emmons and Johnny Gimble. Plus the legendary Jordanaires can be heard on several tracks.

Ray Price has had the lowest profile of the three over the last ten or so years, but even at 81 years of age, he is one of the most effective singers on the planet. It is no knock on either Willie or Merle to say that neither is in Ray Price’s league as a pure singer – no one else is either. Maybe this CD will sell well enough to introduce a new generation to the music of Ray Price. If so, it will have done everyone a big favor.

To summarize: Buy It.

Grade: A+

THE RAY STEVENS BOX SET

Good recordings of classic Ray Stevens material but quite a few remakes that lack the sparkle of the originals. In a nutshell, if it was originally issued on Curb or Clyde, it’s probably the original recording but if it was issued on Mercury, Barnaby, Monument, MCA or RCA then it’s likely a remake.

If you haven’t heard these recordings before, or its been a long time since you’ve heard them, beware – you may bust a gut laughing.

Even with the remakes, it’s well worth purchasing.

Grade: B+

16 BIGGEST HITS – JIMMY DICKENS

While it could have been better, this collection gives a balanced look at Jimmy’s career. Best known for his diminutive size and novelty tunes, Jimmy was a superior ballad singer as tunes such as “My Heart’s Bouquet”, “Just When I Needed You”, “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)”, “We Could” and “Violet And A Rose” amply demonstrate. Yes, the novelties are here as well as a few of the jump tunes, but it’s the ballads that will enhance your appreciation of Little Jimmy Dickens. I would like to see a more encompassing collection, including more of his hillbilly boogie and his recordings on MCA /Decca, but until that happens this is a fine collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Kevin Denney – ‘Something In Between’

something-in-betweenYou may remember Kevin Denney, a neotraditional country artist who had a handful of modestly performing singles on the Lyric Street label in the early years of the new millennium. Since then he has worked as a songwriter, and at last has produced new music of his own. His voicve has echoes of fellow Kentuckian Keith Whitley.

The likeable mid-paced opener ‘I Want The Real Thing’ sets out Kevin’s stall, accepting no substitutes for tasty but unhealthy food, and also rejecting internet romance and video games in favour of real love and playing music.

Tracy Byrd previously recorded ‘Cowboy And A Dancer’ ten years ago, an excellent story song about a pair of life-weary Texans in search of new lives in California, and finding one together. Kevin’s own version is very nice indeed, with a sympathetically delivered vocal.

‘Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody But Me’ is a neatly observed song about a man in a bar, knocking back the drinks and struggling in the aftermath of a breakup.

The philosophical ‘Everybody Just Calm Down’ recommends a slower and more peaceful way of life. The same theme emerges in the relaxed Kenny Chesney style beach song ‘Get A Lotta Living Done’, in which a city guy turned beach bum.

The lilting ‘Even The River’ is a look at a dying small town, where everyone with any ambition wants to leave :

I feel just like that water
Even the river runs away from this town

The sun don’t ever shine around here
It’s always empty lonesome and grey
One old blinking caution light
About the only thing working all day
There’s for sale signs in the windows
And they’re shutting down the mill

The title track is about finding a balance between extremes in life, with a religious twist. ‘Everybody Grew Up But Me’ looks back on childhood and the different paths taken by a group of friends, with the protagonist leading the life of a struggling musician. The gritty ‘Honky Tonk Highway’ also lauds the life of a country musician.

‘I’m That Country’ is a good natured paean to the joys of rural life, which unlike too many songs of this nature does actually sound very traditional country. The musical namedrops, too, are bluegrass and traditional country: Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and J D Crowe. ‘What Does God Look Like’ is rather a sweet song about children’s understanding of God, although it doesn’t really go anywhere.

The album closes with an acoustic cover of Denney’s biggest hit, ‘That’s Just Jessie’.

This is a very nice, fairly low key album from an artists who deserved to be a much bigger success.

Grade: B+