My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Last Man Standing’

While Willie Nelson isn’t the last of the great country music stars of the 1950s and 1960s (Roy Clark, Jan Howard, Stonewall Jackson, Connie Smith, Charley Pride and Bill Anderson are still around), the title still seems appropriate as Willie is one of the few still active, albeit less active than previously.

Last Man Standing is the 2018 release for Willie, containing original songs co-written by Willie with the album’s producer Buddy Cannon. Most of these songs were penned shortly after the release of last year’s Nelson release God’s Problem Child.

The album opens up with the title track, a song which poses the dilemma faced by the aging – we want to keep living but there are times when it seems that all of our friends are disappearing. This is a great song that country radio won’t play but which can be heard on Sirius XM and other sources.

I don’t wanna be the last man standing

Or wait a minute maybe I do

If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line

And decide after thinking it through

Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry

Like heaven ain’t waiting for you

I don’t wanna be the last man standing

On second thought maybe I do

 

It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out

Cuts like a wore out knife

One thing I learned about running the road

Is forever don’t apply to life

Waylon and Ray and Merle and old Harlan

Lived just as fast as me

I still got a lotta good friends left

And I wonder who the next will be

The next track is “Don’t Tell Noah”, a funky number somewhat difficult to characterize, but which reminds somewhat of the sort of lyrics that Mose Allison penned. This is not a religiously themed song.

I suppose all of us have been plagued with “Bad Breath” at one time or another, but as Willie notes “bad breath is better than no breath at all”. This song features the harmonica playing of Mickey Raphael. This song is about more of the problems associated with aging.

“Me and You” reflects the state of affairs that I think everyone experiences at one time or another. For most of us, after all it really comes down to one trusted companion.

Turn the sound down on my TV

I just can’t listen anymore

It’s like I’m in some foreign country

That I’ve never seen before

 

So come now here to think about it

What in the hell are we goin to do?

after all is said and all is done

It’s just me and you

 

It’s just me and you

And we are definitely outnumbered

There’s more of them than us

Just when you think you made a new friend

They throw you under the bus

So it’s just me and you

It’s just me and you

Willie slows down the tempo for the contemplative “Something You Get Through”. This song deals with the emotional effects of loss. Mike Johnson plays some lovely steel guitar on this track.

“Ready To Roar” kicks up the tempo for this western-swing flavored track. We’ve all been there – “It’s Friday and we’re ready to roar”.

“Heaven Is Closed” is Willie’s take on reasons to keep living after his girl has left him. It’s an odd perspective but rather appropriate anyway.

Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded

So I think I’ll just stay where I am

So many people, well it sure is lonely

But who even gives a damn?

I hear someone callin’, “Come in from the craziness”

But there ain’t nobody around

Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded

So I think I’ll just stay where I am

 

Heaven left for California on a midnight plane

Hell stayed behind so I wouldn’t be lonely

For reasons that’s hard to explain

Could it be hell is heaven and that heaven is hell

And each one are both the same thing?

Well I hope heaven finds what she’s lookin’ for

And that hell treats us both just the same

“I Ain’t Got No Nothin’ “ is a rollicking mid-tempo honky-tonk ballad that might as easily been played by Fats Domino, Bob Wills, or Amos Milburn with only slight changes of instrumentation.

  I got a dog, I got a cat

An I-phone and a hip-hop hat

But I ain’t got nothin’ ’cause you ain’t here with me

 

I got house, I got a barn

A big truck and a red Jaguar

But I ain’t got nothin’ ’cause you ain’t here with me

Willie remains in this mid-tempo honky-tonk mode with “She Made My Life” then shifts gears with “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time”, a somewhat religiously themed slow song about trying to keep to the God’s path.

“Very Far To Crawl” closes out the album, a song about the end of a relationship and the desperation of someone looking to rekindle it. The instrumentation is very bluesy and I can see this song being picked up by blues performers, should they chance to hear the song.

 I knew that you had hurt me bad

The brokest heart I ever had

And I’m still right where you let me fall

So I don’t have very far to crawl

 

You kicked me right in the heart, babe

I shouldn’t even be here at all

Tryin’ hard to get back to you

I don’t have very far to crawl

In recent years Willie would release three or four albums per year and while those days are probably gone, what we have here is an excellent album, which found Willie (mostly) good voice, accompanied by a group of musicians who truly understand what Willie is all about

I would give the album as described above an A- ; however, the version of the album I have was purchased at the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain and contains three bonus cuts that add value to the album:

The Front Row – another Nelson & Cannon collaboration that I love

Who’ll Buy My Memories – a piano and acoustic guitar remake of an older Nelson tune

Summer of Roses / December Day – also piano and acoustic guitar, originally Willie’s RCA years

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Album Review: Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection is a follow-up to Willie Nelson’s 2014 collaboration his sister Bobbie, December Day:  Willie’s Stash, Volume 1.   This time around Willie is teamed up with his two youngest sons, Micah and Lukas, who join him on eleven country classics and one contemporary number that leans heavily on the Hank Williams catalog.

Material-wise, there are no real surprises here.   As always when Willie Nelson records cover material, the unknown is always how much Willie will deviate from the originals.  In the case of this album, the answer is not much.   The seven Williams songs are handled reverently.   The two younger Nelsons, despite their youth, show great enthusiasm for the material and one gets the distinct impression that they have great respect and passion for, it and that these are not just a bunch of old songs that Dad forced them to record.    The three Nelsons harmonize well together, as family groups typically do, and there are some fantastic steel guitar solos courtesy of Mike Johnson.  Rarely have these old chestnuts sounded so energetic.

The one thing that did surprise me is how good Willie’s voice sounds throughout the album, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that has been apparent on some of his recent work.  From what I can gather, these recordings were made in 2011 and 2012, so that partially explains it.  However, his voice is noticeably stronger than it was on 2010’s Country Music collection for Rounder.  Whatever the reason, it’s good to hear Willie in such good vocal form.

This album could have been titled The Nelsons Sing Hank, since some of country music’s famous Hanks wrote the marjority of the album’s songs.  In addition to the seven Williams numbers (“Move It On Over”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” , “Cold Cold Heart”, “Mansion on the Hill”, and “Why Don’t You Love Me”), the album contains a remake of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, and Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which is my favorite song on the album.  Set to the melody of “Red River Valley”, it was a hit in 1973 for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely, and it was later recorded by Willie for his Red Headed Stranger album in 1975.

The album is rounded out by a cover of Willie’s original composition “Healing Hands of Time” and a modern-folk tune “My Tears Fall” written by singer/songwriter Alyssa Miller.  This contemporary number fits in surprisingly wel l with these old classics and doesn’t sound out of place at all next to them.

Buddy Cannon’s production is tastefully understated and for the most part the album has a sitting around the living room jam-session type feel to it.  I cannot find any fault with it, other than to say I wish it had been released as a double album.   I highly recommend it without reservation.

Grade:  A+

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

Music In My Heart is Charley’s first new album since Choices, which was issued in 2011. Charley is now 79 years old; however, his voice seems to have hardly aged at all. I suspect that he may have lost a little off the top of his range but the quality of what remains is outstanding.

Noted songwriter Billy Yates served as the producer of this album, as well as providing several of the songs and singing background on a few of the songs. Yates provides Charley with an updated version of the Nashville Sound minus the strings and soulless vocal choruses. Such stalwarts as Mike Johnson, Robby Turner and Scotty Sanders handle the steel guitar, while Stuart Duncan handles fiddle and mandolin.

The album opens up with the Tommy Collins classic “New Patches” that served up the last top ten single for Mel Tillis back in 1984.

Now and then an old friend tries to help me
By telling me there’s someone I should meet
But I don’t have the heart to start all over
‘Cause my heart is laying at another’s feet

[Chorus:]
You just don’t put new patches on old garments
I don’t want no one else on my mind
I just don’t need nobody new to cling to
I still love someone I’ve known a long long time

“Country” Johnny Mathis (1930-2011), so named so as to not be mistaken for the pop singer of the same name, is nearly forgotten today, but he was a fine songwriter and “Make Me One More Memory” is a fine mid-tempo song, handled with aplomb by Pride.

Take my heart, my soul, my heaven
Take my world away from me
All I ask is one last favor
Make me one more memory

Ben Peters provided Charley with many big hits so it is natural for Pride to raid the Ben Peters songbag for material. Co-written with son Justin Peters, “Natural Feeling For You” is the kind of ballad that could have been a hit during the 1970s or 1980s.

“All By My Lonesome” reminds me of the 1992 Radney Foster song “Just Call Me Lonesome”, although this song comes from Billy Yates and Terry Clayton. This is a mid-tempo ballad with a solid vocal by Pride.

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

Drinkin’ and cryin’
So close to dyin’
I’m next to no one
All by my lonesome

Thanks for sendin’ someone by to see if I’m alright
I appreciate your concern tonight
But I don’t need no company
To offer up their sympathy
If it ain’t you then I would rather be

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

“It Wasn’t That Funny” was written by Yates and Dobby Lowery. The song is a lovely ballad about an almost breakup, that a couple experienced and can laugh about now, but brought moments of anguish along the way.

Lee Bach penned “The Same Eyes That Always Drove Crazy”, a mid-tempo ballad of a chance meeting after years of separation. This song would have made a good single at any point before about 2005. The song features some really nice steel guitar by Mike Johnson and piano by Steve Nathan.

Billy Yates and Billy Lawson chipped in the introspective ballad “I Learned A Lot”, in which the narrator relives the lessons he’s learned from losing his previous love. The song first appeared on Billy’s album Only One George Jones.

“You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine” was written by Lee Bach, Larry Mercey and Dave Lindsey. The title references what was on the jukebox the first time the narrator met his love. The song has a nice Texas shuffle arrangement (the song references the Ray Price classic “Crazy Arms” and mentions taking out Ray’s old records). Again, this is another song that would have made a good single in bygone years.

“The Way It Was in ‘51” was written by Merle Haggard and was the title track for one of the Hag’s great albums and was the B-side of Hag’s “The Roots of My Raising”.

Sixty-Six was still a narrow two-lane highway
Harry Truman was the man who ran the show
The bad Korean War was just beginning
And I was just three years too young to go

Country music hadn’t gone to New York City yet
And a service man was proud of what he’d done
Hank and Lefty crowded every jukebox
That’s the way it was in fifty one

“Lee Bach” wrote “I Just Can’t Stop Missing You”, a nice ballad that makes for a good album track but wouldn’t ever have been considered for a single. This song apparently has keyboards mimicking the sound of strings giving it more of a Nashville Sound production than the other tracks on the album.

“Whispering Bill” Anderson wrote “You Lied To Me” a song that I don’t think he ever recorded, but Tracy Byrd recorded it on his 1995 album Love Lessons. Charley does a bang up job with the song

You looked at me as only you can look at me
You touched my cheek and told me not to cry
But you said you’d found somebody you loved more than me
And you told me I’d forget you by and by

But you lied to me, yes you lied to me
You said time would close the wound that bled inside of me
But every breath I take brings back your memory
You said I’d forget you, but you lied to me

“Standing In My Way” comes from Billy Yates and Jim McCormick, an interesting ballad of self-recriminations.

The album closes with a spritely up-tempo number from “Country” Johnny Mathis, “Music In My Heart”.

I really liked this album. In fact I would regard this as Charley’s best album in over twenty years. I like the song selections, I like the arrangements and I like Charley’s vocals. Radio won’t play these songs but they should – it’s their loss! Maybe Willie’s Roadhouse will play it – after all octogenarian Willie believes in giving the youngsters a chance. This album doesn’t have a dud among its tracks – solid A.

Album Review: Johnny Lee – ‘You Ain’t Never Been To Texas’

you aint never been to texasIt has been many years since Johnny Lee has released an entire album of new material. Born in 1946 in Texas City, Texas, Johnny was a good journeyman county singer playing the honky-tonks of his native Texas, with moderate recording success for GRT records between 1976- 1978 with five charting singles, with Johnny’s “Country Party” (a country cover of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party”) reaching #15. Along the way Johnny became friend with Mickey Gilley and worked Mickey Gilley, on tour and at Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas. The soundtrack from the 1980 hit movie Urban Cowboy, which was largely shot at Gilley’s, catapulted Lee to fame. The record spawned several hit singles, including Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love.”

In addition to “Lookin’ for Love”, Lee had five songs reach the top of the Billboard country singles chart: “One In A Million” (1980), “Bet Your Heart On Me” (1981), “The Yellow Rose” (1984), and “You Could Have Heard A Heartbreak” (1984). His other major hits include “Pickin’ Up Strangers” (1981), “Prisoner of Hope” (1981), “Cherokee Fiddle”, “Sounds Like Love”, “Hey Bartender” (1983), “Rollin’ Lonely”, and “Save The Last Chance” (1985).

The top twenty hits ceased at the end of 1985 but Johnny had some additional smaller hits through 1989, at which point he disappeared from the charts. Johnny continued to tour and as his hit recordings fell out of print, we occasionally released new recordings of his older hits with some newer material mixed in.

Johnny’s new album has a decidedly country album with a few songs having a distinct western swing feel to it, with Mike Johnson & Scotty Sanders on steel guitar and Brent Mason on lead guitar and an unacknowledged fiddle player.

“Lonesome Love List” is an up-tempo western swing number written by Wil Nance, Ted Hewitt and Jerry Kilgore, that I think would make a good single.

Next up is the Rafe Van Hoy composition” What’s Forever For”, a song that Michael Martin Murphey took to #1 in 1982. Johnny Lee’s version compares favorably to Murphey’s version.

“Who’s Left, Who’s Right” is country ballad written by Bill White and Allen Ross. It’s a bit moralistic but still a nice country ballad.

“Deep Water” is a classic western swing number, written by Bob Wills and successfully covered many times by such classic singers as Carl Smith and Gene Watson. Buddy Hyatt plays some classic swing piano.

“Never Been To Texas” was written by Roger Springer Tony Raymee & Jerry Lane. The song extols the virtues of Texas. The song has a solid seventies-eighties production.

“Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” was a 1973 hit for the great Ray Price, Ray’s last #1 record. Johnny is not Ray Price but his version holds up well. The song was written by Jim Weatherly and later poached by Gladys Knight & The Pips who took it to #1 on the R&B charts.

“Good Lovin’ Woman Bad” was written by Bill White, Mark Morton and Gary Lloyd – it sounds like a song that could have been a hit in the mid-1980s.

“Wish That I Could Love That Way Again” was co-written by Johnny Lee and Tony Raymee, Johnny’s only writing credit on the album. If Brooks & Dunn ever reunite to record another album they should cover this song.

“2 Steps From The Blues”, written by Don D. Robey & John Riley Brown, finds Johnny invading T. Graham Brown territory, complete with horns.

Mel Besher and Bobby Taylor teamed up to write the nice ballad “Who Did You Love”.

“Bullets First” by Kelly Kerning and Tony Raymee is an anti-gun control song (“if you’re coming for my guns, I’ll give them to you bullets first”).

“Worth Watching” by Tony Raymee and Trey Matthew, recounts the moments in a life worth watching.

I would like this album more if Johnny had spent more time exploring western swing, but all of the cuts are country, all of the songs are good, and Johnny Lee is in good voice throughout.

A-

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Craig Morgan’

CraigMorganAlbumIt is hard to believe that Craig Morgan’s debut album, released by Atlantic Records, came way back in 2000. While this album proved to be a false start for the 36 year old Morgan in that Atlantic shut down its Nashville operations in 2002, the resulting album revealed the US Army veteran to be a fine singer capable of drawing both on past experiences and imagination in selling a song.

The album opens up “Paradise”, a song written by Craig with Harley Allen. The initial military cadence sets the song apart from any other song I’ve heard recently. The song tells of Craig’s experience as a soldier and how it affected his outlook on life. As the chorus to the song notes:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die

Now I’m a little older and not afraid to try

Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive

When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life

Is paradise

“Paradise was the second single released and topped out at #46, more a reflection of Atlantic’s promotional efforts than the song’s merits.

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Album Review: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – ‘Django & Jimmie’

django and jimmieDjango & Jimmie is the latest endeavor by the ageless comrades Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. While the title suggests an album of songs made famous by Django Reinhart and Jimmie Rodgers, the Django part of the equation would be impossible to pull off since Django was a Gypsy guitarist whose musical compositions were instrumentals, “Nuages” being the most famous.

Instead what we have is an album of interesting songs, mostly new but some old, and taken from a variety of sources.

The Django connection for Willie Nelson is quite strong; you can hear it every time Willie plays his guitar. While Willie is an excellent guitar player, he is not in Django’s class (almost no one is) but listen to some Django recordings and you will know why Willie’s guitar playing sounds like it does.

As for Merle’s connection to Jimmie Rodgers, Merle and those such as Lefty Frizzell who influenced Merle, grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the height of his commercial prowess in 1969 (he released six albums in 1969), Merle felt strongly enough about the music of Jimmie Rodgers that he recorded a two album set that he got Capitol Records to release. Ken Nelson, Merle’s producer must have cringed at the idea of releasing a two album set of blues, yodels, thirties pop music, Hawaiian music and parlor songs but release it he did. Nelson also put Rodgers’ “California Blues” as the B side to “Hungry Eyes”.

Surprisingly, the title song “Django and Jimmie” was not written by either Willie or Merle, coming instead from the pens of Jimmy Melton & Jeff Prince. In this jog-along ballad, Willie and Merle discuss where their styles came from

W

illie I’m a kid with a guitar
Trying to play “Nuages”, when they ask
Where does your style come from?

Merle I know what you mean
‘Cause I learned to sing
Listening to blue, yodel number one

Willie We love Hank and Lefty
Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash
But if we had to pinpoint
The start of who we are
Or who we go by

Both The Django and Jimmie
Paris, Mississippi
A young singing brakeman
A jazz playing gypsy
Might not have been
A Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie

The rest of the album really has nothing to do with Django or Jimmie, except to the extent that Django and Jimmie flavor all of their music.

“It’s All Going To Pot” has nothing to do with marijuana but instead comments on the general state of the world and the state of their own lives. The song was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell with Jamey joining Merle and Willie in vocalizing. The song is very upbeat in tempo with some Mariachi horns (played by Jamey Johnson):

Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
All of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
It just couldn’t hit the spot
I gotta hundred dollar bill, friend
You can keep your pills
‘Cause it’s all going to pot

“Unfair Weather Friend” is a gentle ballad about friendship. Penned by Marla Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, the song is the flip of the concept of fair weather friends.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a recent Merle Haggard composition on which Merle and Willie and Bobby Bare swap lyrics and stories about Johnny Cash. The song is an affectionate look back at their departed friend. This is another jog-along ballad that probably cannot be covered in a believable manner by anyone else. Here’s one of Willie’s verses:

Well now Johnny Cash wore black attire
And he fell into that Ring of Fire
He came up swinging like a Boy Named Sue
And he married June Carter and he [?] too
He wrote his songs from deep within
And he hit the stage with a crooked grin
He and I were both Highwaymen
And that record became a smash
Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash

Here’s Bobby Bare’s verse:

Johnny Cash never walked no line
Johnny Cash never did no time, but
When he sang a Folsom Prison Blues
You knew good and well he’d paid his dues
True, he always dressed in black
But he loved folks and they loved him back
Carried his pills in a brown paper sack
Well I don’t care if they found his stash
I’m missin’ old Johnny Cash

Shawn Camp and Marv Green wrote “Live This Long” and I suspect that they wrote it specifically for this album. Another slow ballad, this song look backward at life and what might have done differently if the narrators had known that they would live this long.

“Alice In Hula Land” is a Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon co-write. As performed here, the song is yet another slow ballad, but with a very Hawaiian sound. As best as I can tell, this song is about a groupie, although I may be very mistaken in my interpretation.

Alice in Hulaland
Come sit here on the front row
And get close to the sound
As close as you can
Are you there for the melody?
There for the lyrics?
Or just for the boys in the band?

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is the Bob Dylan classic from treated as a straight-ahead country ballad with steel guitar featured prominently (Mike Johnson &/or Dan Dugmore) and harmonica by Mickey Raphael featured at points in the song also.

“Family Bible” was one of Willie’s first successful songs. Willie sold the rights to the song so the songwriter credits read Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk and Walt Breeland. Merle sings the verses on this song while Willie limits himself to playing the guitar and singing harmony on the choruses. THis is a very nice recording, perhaps my favorite recording of the song.

WIllie Nelson and Buddy Cannon collaborated on “It’s Only Money”. I don’t know who Renato Caranto is, but his saxophone work. Mike Johnson’s dobro and Jim “Moose” Brown’s keyboards really shine on this up-tempo song.

“Swinging Doors” was a huge Merle Haggard hit in 1966. If you ever wondered how Willie Nelson would tackle the song, here’s your chance to find out. Willie and Merle swap verses on this one.

“This Is Where Dreams Come To Die” is yet another Willie Nelson – Buddy Cannon composition. This slow ballad would make a lovely single in a less brain-dead musical environment.

This is where dreams come to die
This is where dreams come to die
Then they fly back to heaven
But this is where dreams come to die

They’re fun when you dream them
Everyone is laughing at you
And it’s fun, watching them wonder
And all of the dreams are coming true

“Somewhere Between” is a old Merle Haggard song from 1967, an album track from his 1967 album Branded Man. Suzy Bogguss had a nice recording of the song about twenty years ago, but the song never has been a big hit for anyone, being mostly relegated to being an album track on countless albums. Willie sings the vocals on this one.

Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high that it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go
And sometimes, I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key

Yet another Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon song is next, a cowboy western ballad titled “Driving The Herd”. The subject matter seems self-explanatory, but the song can be interpreted either as a song about a cattle drive, or a song about a singer gauging his audience.

The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”, another recent Merle Haggard composition that could be about either Merle or Willie in their younger days. The tempo is that of a slow ballad.

This album is fine – although older, Willie’s voice is in better shape than Haggard’s, but the band is tight, the songs are very good and the songs are treated with proper respect. It’s pretty clear that neither artist has an ego problem because the ebb and flow between Willie and Merle couldn’t be better

Grade: A-

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’

my heroes have always been countryA new album from Gene Watson always is cause for celebration, and My Heroes Have Always Been Country is no exception to the rule. What you get with this album is eleven excellent traditional country songs sung by one of the best male vocalists in the business. Although Gene is now seventy years old, his voice is still in fine shape although perhaps pitched a little lower than in his prime.

The album kicks off with Dottie West’s biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”. The song won Dottie a Grammy in 1965 and provided her with her first solo top ten record in 1964. Gene’s version is true to the spirit of the original recording although minus the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings of strings and choral accompaniment. I don’t know if the effect was intentional, but the female backing singer, Cindy Walker, sounds like Dottie West would in singing harmony on the choruses of this song. Producer Dirk Johnson’s work on keyboards is prominently featured in the arrangement as are the fiddle of Aubrey Haynie and the steel guitars of Mike Johnson and Sonny Garrish.

Here comes more tears to cry
Here comes more heartaches by
Here comes my baby, back again
Here comes more misery
Here comes old memories
Here comes my baby, back again

“Don’t You Believe Her” comes from the pen of Nat Stuckey. While never a hit single, both Ray Price and Conway Twitty had nice recordings of the song as album tracks

She can give you a reason to live if she wants to She can make you forget other loves that you have known She has two lips and two arms that thrill you as very few do And if you want her to give them to you, just ask and she will

Don’t you believe her – I did and soon she’ll be leaving me
Don’t you believe her – if you do then soon she’ll be leaving you too

It takes a brave man to cover Johnny Paycheck’s “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” (a number seven hit for Paycheck in 1977) but Gene is up to the task. In fact I actually like Gene’s version better than the original.

Gene has been featuring Hank Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” in recent performances, and why not? Although the song was a hit at least three times (Timi Yuro, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold) it is a great song well worth hearing again. Gene’s version is a little more straight-forward country than the Price or Arnold versions, but Gene is as skilled and nuanced a singer as either Ray or Eddy and delivers a memorable performance of the song.

“The Long Black Veil” receives a dramatic, but not melodramatic, reading from Gene Watson that burnishes the Danny Dill / Marijohn Wilkin classic with a new luster. I think Lefty Frizzell would approve of Gene’s version.

I suppose you can’t do an album of modern classic country without reaching into the Merle Haggard song bag. In this case Gene has pulled out a tune written by Glenn Martin and Hank Cochran titled “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. Gene has always been the master of the medium-slow ballad and this song is no exception.

No, it’s not love, not like ours was, it’s not love
But it keeps love from driving me mad
And I don’t have to wonder who she’s had
No, it’s not love but it’s not bad

Haggard took “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” to number one in November 1972.

Gene reached deep into the George Jones catalog and found the Sandra Seamans / Kay Savage-penned “Walk Through This World With Me”. The song spent two weeks at number one in 1967 and is one of the many great songs that George recorded for the Musicor label. For my money, the best George Jones recordings came from the United Artists and Musicor labels during the 1960s. I prefer George’s recording but just by a hair.

Walk through this world with me,
Go where I go
Share all my my dreams with me,
I need you so
In life we search and some of us find
I’ve looked for you a long, long time

And now that I’ve found you,
New horizons I see
Come take my hand
And walk through this world with me

Those of us over 60 remember “(Turn Out The Lights) The Party’s Over” as the song ‘Dandy Don’ Meredith sang on ABC Monday Night Football as soon as the game was out of hand and the winner inevitable. Younger folks may remember hearing the venerable songwriter Willie Nelson sing it in concert. After hearing Gene’s version, you’ll think of it as a Gene Watson classic.

“I Forget You Everyday” was written by Merle Haggard but was never issued as a single. The truth is that during his peak years Merle Haggard was writing more great songs than he could ever get around to issuing as singles. Consequently, this song languished as an album cut on one of Hag’s fine Capitol albums, unheard to any but those who purchased the album. I hope Gene issues this as a single, although I don’t expect radio will play the song.

Memory is a gift a man can’t live without
And in times we can’t control the things we think about
So sometimes I still remember you in every way
But for a little while I forget you every day

“Count Me Out” was written by Jeanne Pruett, a song that she recorded for RCA during the mid-1960s. It didn’t chart for her and Marty Robbins’ 1966 recording of the song only reached number fourteen but it’s a really good song and kudos to Gene for unearthing it.

Taking me for granted was your first mistake
And that was the beginning of my last heartache.
And then you added insult to my injury
When you started treating me just as you please.

Count me out of future plans you might be making.
No more foolish chances am I taking.
You played love’s game too rough.
As for me, I’ve had enough
‘Cause the going’s got too rough so count me out.

Gene closes out this album with a song commonly associated with Buck Owens. Although Buck never issued the record as a single, he did cut it as an album cut and kept it in his live shows for a decade. Orville Couch co-wrote “Hello Trouble” and took it to number five in 1962. In 1989 the Desert Rose Band took it to number eleven on both the US and Canadian country charts. The song is a short (1:55) up-tempo song that makes a perfect closing note for yet another fine album. While cheerful in its sound and feel, the narrator of the song knows that the cheer is but of short duration.

Gene Watson covers no new ground in this recording, instead doing what he does best, singing good and great songs as well as anyone ever will sing them.

Producer Dirk Johnson’s production is solidly modern traditional country with fiddle and steel featured prominently throughout. In lieu of the symphonic strings featured on the original versions of some of these songs, fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Gail Rudisill-Johnson have created some nice string arrangements that complement the songs without overwhelming them.

Although hardly an essential part of the Gene Watson canon (except to the extent that every Gene Watson album is essential), it will please all of his many fans and hopefully gain him some new fans.

Grade: A (or 4.5 Stars)

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent – ‘Your Money And My Good Looks’

What happens when you pair the best male country vocalist of the last 35 years with the reigning Queen of bluegrass music ? You get the best album that will be released in 2011. I can think of no recent duet album that I’ve enjoyed as much as this album. Released on the Upper Management Music label, this album contains the warning ‘Contains REAL Country Music’, and truer words never were spoken.

Although Rhonda is a bluegrass artist, and there are touches of bluegrass on a few of the tracks, this basically is a modern traditional country album, with fiddles, steel guitar and truly outstanding vocals, both individually and in harmony with each other.

The title cut is probably the weakest cut on the album. This isn’t to say that Gene and Rhonda don’t sing it well, because they do, but the song itself is nothing special. The next two tracks “Gone For Good”, a slow ballad about breaking up, and “It Ain’t Nothing New” a mid-tempo ballad co-written by bluegrass legend Larry Cordle, are both really good songs, and on many albums they would be the standout tracks but on this album they are merely the hors d’oeuvres.

With the fourth track the album shifts into overdrive with a cover of Gene Watson’s 1976 hit “You Could Know As Much About A Stranger”. I had never thought about this song as a duet, but it works really well, as Gene and Rhonda trade verses and duet on the choruses, accompanied by a lightly updated version of Gene’s original backing.

From here the album covers a 1977 hit written by Cathy Gosdin for her brother Vern Gosdin, “Til The End”. Covering Vern Gosdin is a treacherous task at best, and while I regard Gene Watson as being the superior overall vocalist, Vern Gosdin had no peers at singing melancholy slow ballads. Still Gene and Rhonda do an admirable job on the song.

The Billy Yates-penned “Alone Together Tonight” is a clever twist on the theme of a lonely boy and lonely girl in a honky-tonk. The melody reminds me of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Would You Catch A Falling Star”.

Next up is a cover of Gary Stewart’s 1974 hit “Out Of Hand”. The arrangement and instrumentation are very similar to Stewart’s recording, but with very slight alterations to the lyrics, it makes a very successful male-female duet.

“This Wanting You” was co-written by Bruce Boulton, T. Graham Brown and Bruce Burch. I don’t recall the song being issued as a single but it was one of the standout tracks on TGB’s 1988 album Come As You Were and also appeared on a Bruce Burch collection.

“Making Everything Perfect Tonight” was penned by Rhonda Vincent, a spirited mid-tempo romp about life and one of the joys of domestic life.

“Sweet Thang” was a top five for its author Nat Stuckey in 1966; however, no one remembers Nat’s version anymore because of the spirited version done by the dynamic duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn the following year. While the ET-LL version wasn’t a big radio hit, it was a popular concert favorite for years to follow. Gene doesn’t have quite the same degree of ‘rascal’ in his voice that Ernest did, but his vocals are better.

Saving the best for last, Gene and Rhonda demonstrate their blues chops on the old Hank Williams classic, “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. The track runs over five minutes so even in the good old days, it wouldn’t have received much airplay. I referred to Gene Watson as the best male vocalist currently performing in country music today but Rhonda Vincent may be the best female vocalist in country music, although most of her efforts have been focused on bluegrass. Rhonda had a crack at becoming a mainstream country star on Giant Records back in the 1990s but was let down by the material the label foisted off on her. Carrie Underwood should listen to this track, as she could learn a lot about singing from Rhonda’s vocals on this track. Carrie has a vocal range very similar to Rhonda’s but with much less command and control of her vocal abilities.

There actually is a ‘bonus track’ on the album, a bluegrass instrumental “Ashes of Mount Augustine, featuring Michael Rojas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Johnson, Michael Rhodes and James Mitchell.

This album won’t be released until June 6, 2011. By then I will have listened to the album a couple dozen times !

Album Review: ‘Brad Paisley Christmas’

The following review was written by MKOC reader and commenter Ken Johnson:

My favorite holiday albums are those that reflect the true style and sound of the individual artist. Nothing has been more disappointing than when my favorite country star abandoned their distinctive style to morph into Nat “King” Cole or Bing Crosby complete with a lush orchestra and chorus. Brad Paisley did not make that mistake. His 2006 Brad Paisley Christmas CD mixed all-time standards with original holiday songs to perfectly mirror his style, personality, humor and versatility. Those are also the very qualities that helped Brad to win the Entertainer Of The Year Award from the CMA this year.

A bright and twangy “Winter Wonderland” leads off the collection. Brad modified the lyrics by adding lines about fellow Grand Ole Opry member Jim Ed Brown. He gave nods to two of Jim Ed’s best known hits: “Pop A Top” and “The Three Bells.”

In the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is Jim Ed Brown.
We’ll sing “Pop A Top” with Mr. Snowman with chapel bells a-ringing all around.

“Santa Looked A Lot like Daddy” revives the Buck Owens – Don Rich 1965 holiday classic. Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt both recorded versions for their Christmas albums during the 1990’s that have kept this song alive on country radio holiday playlists. Brad doesn’t spare the twang here either by adding extended improvisational instrumental solos.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” begins with the song’s often deleted original intro.

I am dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do.
And although I know it’s a long road back, I promise you
I’ll be home for Christmas…

Brad’s laid back vocal blends perfectly with understated orchestration punctuated by outstanding lead guitar solos and smooth steel guitar and fiddle fills. This is my favorite track on the CD.

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Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Your Man’

The title track and lead single to Josh Turner’s sophomore effort Your Man was released in August 2005 and saw him reaching the Top 10, as well as the #1 spot on the charts, which was no mean feat for a traditionally-based artist in the early part of the 21st century. The album that followed shortly thereafter in January 2006, was also a commercial success. Frank Rogers was once again on board as producer, without Mark Wright this time. Turner had a hand in writing five of the album’s eleven tracks.

The album opens with “Would You Go With Me”, which was the second single released from the set. Like its predecessor, the Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill composition reached #1. it is followed by another Camp song, with Herb McCollough as co-writer, the surprisingly upbeat-sounding “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama.” The lyrics read like a three-hanky tale about a broken marriage, but this is no crying in your beer song. Turner sounds anything but devastated and even winds up the song by commenting that he is glad that his ex took her Chihuahua with her. Both “Would You Go With Me” and “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama” prominently feature the dobro, by Mike Johnson on the former and Steve Hinson on the latter track.

“No Rush” is a more lushly-arranged, bluesy style song that initially seems like an odd choice for Turner, but it works surprisingly well. Stylistically, it reminds me of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and sounds like something that Ray Price would have sunk his teeth into in the early 70s.

Some marquee guest artists are on hand for a couple of tracks: members of Diamond Rio supply the background vocals to “Me and God” a religious number written by Turner, in the same vein as his earlier hit “Long Black Train.” The legendary Ralph Stanley also makes a cameo duet appearance, sounding a lot like Roy Acuff in his later years. The track became the album’s third and final single. Peaking at #16, it did not fare as well as the album’s previous two singles, but it performed respectably for a religious-themed record. More star power is on display with “White Noise”, written and performed with John Anderson. Surprisingly it is one of the weaker tracks on the album, and as its title implies, it is merely filler that name-checks Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and the Grand Ole Opry.

The most fun track on the album, and one on which Josh sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself is Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders’ “Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln”, which finds Turner fantasizing about buying a car once owned by the Coal Miner’s Daughter and cruising around Nashville in it with her and Dolly Parton. It’s just not possible to dislike this song.

My favorite track on the album is Josh’s cover version of the Don Williams classic “Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy”. It easily rivals the original version and deserved to be released as a single. You just can’t go wrong with a Bob McDill song.

The album closes with Turner’s “Way Down South”, a satisfying if slightly self-indulgent tribute to home. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, it turns into a jam session towards the end. While not one of the stronger songs on the album, it is an enjoyable listen that would have been better had it been pared down by a minute or so.

Overall, Your Man is a very satisfying collection of songs from one of today’s better artists, albeit one that is still struggling to break away from the rest of Nashville’s current pack of male singers. It is Turner’s most successful album to date, earning double-platinum certification for sales in excess of two million units. Two of the album’s singles, “Your Man” and “Would You Go With Me” were certified gold for sales exceeding 500,000 units each.

Grade: A-

Your Man is readily available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection.

Steel Guitar Rag

One of the many regrettable consequences of country music’s devolution towards mainstream pop is the relegation of the once prominent steel guitar to the background.   Here are some of my favorite songs where the steel guitar is front and center, where it belongs:


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