My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Miss Leslie – ‘Lucky’

luckyNeo-honky tonk favorite Miss Leslie is ringing the changes with her latest, Kickstarter-funded project. Miss Leslie wrote 11 of the 13 songs, and the mood is a depressed one, clearly influenced by her recent divorce. This is a much more introspective and less hardcore honky tonk record than she has released previously, but it is a fine record in its own terms. She sounds better vocally than she ever has before, and the songs, while mostly downbeat, are mature and well written.

One highlight is the quietly melancholic ballad ‘I Don’t Go There’, with the protagonist choosing not to revive an adulterous relationship because of the pain it would cause all concerned. A pretty, soothing melody and Amber Digby’s delicate harmony do not hide the pain of loss. The wearied ‘Honky Tonkin’ Fool’ is similarly gently sad rather than defiant, not what I was expecting from the title but good in its own way.

The pain and anger of splitting is evident in ‘I Get The Bar’, another of my favorites, on which Miss Leslie’s own fiddle and the honky tonk piano give a more traditional sound. Here, the narrator is happy for her ex to take all their material possessions, as long as she gets sole use of the bar they frequented together. Her assertive attitude includes a nice little swipe at her ex:

I think you’ll be okay
Your friends like me better anyway
You can keep the bartender
And all the other girls you screwed
Cause I get the band
I get the beer
And I get the bar

But although there is a vein of wry black comedy running through it, this is no triumphant seeing off of an ex; the vulnerability of heartbreak remains at the heart of the matter:

You can have my heart
It’s yours already
Because it’s worthless
Cause it’s broken in two

Also with a sense of humor but much lighter in mood is the cheerful honky tonker ‘You Were Drunker than I Was’, which rehashes a series of drunken misadventures. The change of both mood and pace is very welcome. Also on the positive side, ballad ‘Fifty Years Ago Today’ is a sweet tribute to an older couple on their golden wedding anniversary, inspired by her former husband’s parents.

‘After The Storm’ contrasts bad weather with a failing relationship, with a wistful Miss Leslie ending up looking forward to dealing with the aftermath of two shattered hearts. ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ is not quite as good, but another slightly depressed ballad about struggling with the emotions of a relationship on the rocks. ‘This Old Guitar’ is a slightly downbeat song using a favourite instrument as a metaphor to evoke the sorrow of lost love, with a stripped down arrangement with just guitar and steel.

A couple of the tracks have little connection with country music. The bluesy groove of ‘I’ll Take What I Can Get’ is a bit boring, and ‘It’s Rainin’ Inside’ is a sophisticated jazzy ballad with strings which is extremely well done, just not really to my taste.

‘Outside The Outsiders’ took a while to grow on me, but it is an interesting, thoughtful look at the struggles of a lonely life. An accordion adds a faint Tex-Mex feel to the tune. A more subdued accordion is in the mix for ‘Angels That Promise The Stars’, which was written by Miss Leslie’s sister Hilary Sloan. Another introspective ballad with a poetic, somewhat obscure lyric about a troubled soul and gentle tune, assisted by Amber Digby’s close harmony.

The only truly outside song, the steel-laden ‘Nice Girl’ (written by Davin James) is a well-written song with unusual clipped phrasing. It is the lament of the woman who has been done wrong and is taking refuge in the kind of dive she wouldn’t normally be seen in:

This girl’s been too good too long
For a man who couldn’t see
A lady has the right to deal with loneliness
That’s what a nice girl like me
Is doing in a place like this.

Although it may be a change in style from her earlier work, this fine and clearly largely autobiographical record represents a maturation of Miss Leslie as an artist. It’s well worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Available from Miss Leslie’s website.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Miss Leslie – ‘Wrong Is What I Do Best’

This blog’s very first Spotlight Artist, back in January 2009, was the independent neotraditionalist Miss Leslie, who has just released her fourth album. She is not as great a vocalist as Amber Digby (to whom she can be compared in many respects) , but she has the advantage over her of being a songwriter. She has written all but one of the 14 songs on this album, and they are all pretty solid songs in the traditional honky tonk style. The instrumental backing is positively drenched with Miss Leslie’s own fiddle and her husband Ricky Davis on steel, and this record is a sheer joy to listen to from start to finish.

Miss Leslie balances her musical diet of hard honky tonk music and themes rooted in the traditions of country music, with the sensibility and experiences of a 21st century woman in what she calls a ‘patriarchal world’ in the liner notes. These contemporary attitudes are evident from the opening track ‘I Need Me (A Whole Lot More Than I Need You)’ as the protagonist determinedly reclaims some self-respect when she decides she’s better off single and lonely than trying to be what her lover wants.

The theme almost bookends the set, as towards the end of the album we see someone defeated in the same battle. ‘She Gave Up On Herself’ tells the story of a woman who gives too much of herself to the man “she thought she needed so bad” and loses “the best thing she had”, her sense of self. The protagonist of ‘I Can’t Live With You, But I Can’t Love Without You’, is determined not to make that mistake, as she struggles to cope with a difficult relationship, where love is not enough to make everything okay.

Modern technology makes an appearance in the irresistible up-tempo tale of the ‘Drunk Dialer’, who incessantly calls, voicemails and texts her unfortunate sober and sleeping friends through the early hours of the morning. The vibrant title track balances traditional themes with the modern world, with Miss Leslie boldly claiming the honky tonking attitude more usually associated with male performers:

You say that it’s wrong
You’re tired of me leavin’
You’re tired of my late nights
Drunk fights
And mornings without a sound
You got one thing right
I’ve stopped believing
And it makes no sense at all
For me to stick around

Because wrong is what I do best
If I’m not good enough for you
I’ve got one choice left
I try to do what’s right but I end up wrong
And I’m tired of failing all your tests
Because wrong is what I do best

A little more conventionally, ‘Anyone’ is a neat little swipe at an ex who claimed anyone would be better than her, and finds out the hard way he’s wrong:

Anyone could love him and I hear he’s had a few
Yet he still goes on searching for just anyone that will do
So he’s found out that not anyone could be everything he needs
He’s not looking for just anyone
He’s just looking for me

Sad songs and broken hearts are the life blood of country music, and I love the classic sounding heartbreak ballad ‘Turn Around’, where Leslie begs her man not to leave, with copious steel and a beautiful tune. In the deeply resigned ‘All You Do Is Make Me Cry’ the protagonist has given up, realizing there’s no point talking it over any more. ‘There’s Two People Here Not Talking’ is a wry look at a couple not communicating.

Elsewhere, we share the story of a lovelorn woman with a crush on the guitarist playing in her local bar ‘Every Tuesday Night’, with its wider resonance:

Love is just a memory for a broken heart
As you try hard to forget who you have known
But a honky tonk can cure what pulls us all apart
For we’re fools who once a week rely on songs to turn us on

There is clearly going to be a happier ending for the couple in the engaging ‘Let’s Start Over’, as independent traditional country artist Jason Allen joins her on a very retro-styled let’s-get-back-together duet which is very pleasing, with their voices blending well.

There really isn’t a track here I don’t like; the closest is the up-tempo ‘Lie Lie Lie’, which is just okay but doesn’t stick in the mind. The dramatic closing track ‘The Last Time I Drank’ is the confession by a woman who kills her child drunk driving. This may verge a little on the melodramatic, but it is emotionally convincing, and is part of a long tradition of tragic songs of this kind in country music.

The one song Leslie did not write herself comes from her sister Hilary Sloan, and moves out of the honky tonks. ‘Some Things They Can’t Take Away’ is a serious and heartfelt response to the economic downturn, based on its impact on one person. This deeply emotional, sympathetically delivered, song is the highlight of the record, urging a loved one who can’t find work and is struggling to make ends meet, to hold on to their undying human spirit:

Hold on to the little that’s left of your pride
Keep it close to you deep down inside
And remember there’s one who will love you always
Some things they can’t take away

You imagined that you’d find a better life here
Couldn’t get no worse, this must be your year
If you could only break even, then you’d be okay
But you’re back to begging – you’d do anything

Miss Leslie is an artist who is getting better with every release, and this album is thoroughly recommended to anyone who enjoys the more traditional honky tonk end of country music.

Grade: A

You can listen to and buy the Wrong Is What I Do Best from Miss Leslie’s official site.

Year In Review: Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2009

The general consensus is that 2009 has been a less than stellar year for mainstream country music. Most of the artists that I like have fallen out of favor with radio, so it’s little surprise that most of the songs on my list were not huge radio hits.

10. Consider Me GoneReba McEntire
9. Living For The NightGeorge Strait

In a way, both of these songs are testaments to the weak state of country music in 2009. Both are decent songs, but neither is among the artists’ very best work.

8. Red, White and Pink Slip BluesHank Williams, Jr.

An accurate and sometimes scathing commentary on the current economic crisis. This song would have resonated with the masses if only they’d had a chance to hear it.

7. White Liar Miranda Lambert

I haven’t completely gotten on board the Lambert bandwagon yet; I’ve considered her an artist with a lot of potential and have been waiting for her to come out with a song that just blew me away. This isn’t quite it, but it comes closer than anything else I’ve heard from her so far.

6. Staying Together Gene Watson & Rhonda Vincent

It’s always great to hear new music from Gene Watson. He and Rhonda Vincent sound terrific together on this cut.

5. Love’s Gonna Live Here Tanya Tucker with Jim Lauderdale

I’ve always liked this Buck Owens classic, no matter who was singing it, so when one of my favorite artists covered it, it was a no-brainer that it would end up on my favorites list.

4. Drunk Dialer Miss Leslie

Who would have thought that a retro honky-tonk sound would work so well with lyrics that deal with modern conveniences such as voice mail and texting? This song puts the mainstream to shame.

3. Backwoods BarbieDolly Parton

This was Dolly’s strongest single in years, and it deserved, but did not get, a shot at radio. It would probably have received a warmer reception had Dolly not committed the mortal sin of being over 60.

2. ‘Til The Last Shot’s FiredTrace Adkins

For reasons that are comprehensible only to those strange beings known as record label executives, Capitol chose not to take advantage of Trace’s powerful performance of this song at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards by releasing it to radio. However, the live version was sold as an iTunes exclusive to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project, so technically, it qualifies as a single, and it is without question, a highlight among this year’s slim pickings.

1. Busted Patty Loveless

The Harlan Howard-penned classic, heard for the first time with the original coal-mining lyrics. Far too country for today’s market, this single was dead on arrival at radio but it is the year’s best single, nonetheless.

Recommendation: Drinking songs

Miss Leslie Sloan

Miss Leslie Sloan

I’ve been a big fan of Miss Leslie and her Juke Jointers for about a year now.  The first time I listened to her Between The Whiskey And The Wine album – which she gave away through her website – I was hooked on her music, so much that I made her our inaugural Spotlight Artist here at My Kind of Country.  And the honky tonk sounds of Miss Leslie are still in heavy rotation on all my music players.  

I particularly enjoy Miss Leslie when I’ve had a few beers or when I’ve been drinking some wonderful bourbon.  Nothing goes better with good bourbon than Miss Leslie, except maybe George Jones.  On her last album, Miss Leslie single-handedly wrote each and every song, and most from personal experience or observation as she told me herself.  The theme of drinking comes up in over half the songs on the album, with varying outcomes.  

One of my favorites is the opening track, ‘I’m Done With Leaving’.  So it’s my recommendation this week. In it, Miss Leslie sings of a man who just keeps doing her wrong. And after leaving him so many times, she proclaims she’s just done, finished with it all.  Twin fiddles cry as she delivers the lyric, and man, I can’t get enough.  If you haven’t heard Miss Leslie’s music, you are certainly missing out.

What songs or artists would you recommend to your inebriated friends? Or, what do you listen to when you’re drinking?

Listen to ‘I’m Done With Leaving’ at Miss Leslie’s MySpace page.

Also check out the official Miss Leslie site.