My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Morgane Hayes-Stapleton

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2017

Another year has come and gone, and once again we lament the deplorable state of mainstream country music, while pointing out a few glimmers of hope that will never be heard on the radio. Among this year’s highlights are:

10. Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent had quite a year, which included being inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in March, followed by the release of one of the best bluegrass albums of the year. This generous sample of bluegrass and spiritual tunes is the perfect showcase for the duo’s trademark harmonies.

9. Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

Not to be outdone, Darrin’s big sister Rhonda also turned in a stellar collection, teaming up this time with her former label mate Daryle Singletary. Although heavily reliant on cover material, there are some new songs here as well. This is a real treat for those who are starved for some real country music.

8. Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

The legendary Charley Pride returned after a six-year recording hiatus, with one of the strongest offerings of his post-major label career. Sirius XM subscribers who listen to Willie’s Roadhouse will no doubt be familiar with “You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine”, which was my favorite song on the album. Like the Vincent/Singletary album, this one has its share of remakes but there’s not a weak one to be found.

7. Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

Reba McEntire is my favorite female singer, but I’ve been disappointed with her offerings over the last decade more times than I care to remember. This double album which is divided evenly between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs shows that when commercial considerations are cast aside, Reba is still in a class all by herself. I’m cautiously optimistic that this album is a sign that she’s finally stopped chasing chart success and ready to release some worthwhile material again.

6. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

While it’s regrettable that Sunny Sweeney never enjoyed the mainstream success she deserved, getting out of her major label deal was the best thing that ever happened to her from a creative standpoint. While Concrete was a bit too eclectic for my liking, Trophy gets it just right and is her best offering since Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. “Bottle By My Bed”, which she co-wrote with Lori McKenna, would be a monster hit in a sane world.

5. Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

Alison Krauss is another artist with whom I’d become a bit disillusioned, but she redeemed herself nicely with this collection of cover songs, which aren’t quite classics for the most part, but deserved to be introduced to a new audience. This is the best album she’s done in years — arguably the best of her career.

4. Zephaniah OHora with the 18 Wheelers – ‘This Highway’

This collection of original material which recreates the Bakersfield and countrypolitan sounds of the 60s was a pleasant surprise. Although it could have benefited from a little more variety in tempo, this a wonderful album and I hope that it is the first of many from this native of Brooklyn.

3. & 2. Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2’

These widely anticipated follow-ups to 2015’s Traveller were presumably intended to be a double album, but Mercury Records seems to have gotten cold feet about the sales potential of a double set, so they split it into two separate releases. Both discs feature very sparse production and gorgeous harmonies from Chris’ wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. With a heavy blues influence, theses albums are not traditional country, but there are a perfect antidote to the overproduced pop masquerading as country music on the radio today. I liked the second volume slightly better than the first.

1. Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection finds the Red-Headed Stranger teaming up with his two sons Lukas and Micah and digging deeply into the catalog of Hank Williams. Despite their youth, the younger Nelsons show obvious enthusiasm for the material, proving that Willie raised those boys right. This was a pleasure from start to finish. My favorite track was the Hank Cochran-penned “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which was hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1973 and later recorded by Willie for his Red-Headed Stranger album.

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Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From A Room Vol 2’

Chris Stapleton’s second blues-influenced album of the year is broadly similar in mood to the first, but feels a little more consistent and cohesive. Wife Morgane Hayes Stapleton’s delicate harmonies augment Chris’s rougher yet soulful voice, and they could easily be billed as a duo rather than Chris as the solo star.

There are a couple of outside covers bookending the set. Kevin Welch wrote the opening ‘Millionaire’ around the turn of the millennium, and it is a laid back slightly loungy tune about true wealth coming from love. ‘Friendship’ is an old jazzy soul song which works well for Chris.

He wrote the remainder of the material with various partners. A couple of songs were written with Kendell Marvel. ‘Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind’ was slightly more country as done by Marvel on his own excellent album this year, with Chris’s version leaning more bluesy and feeling sleazier. The rock-edged honky tonker ‘Hard Livin’’ is on a similar theme of looking back at a life of hard drinking and wild living with some regret as he grows older.

‘Scarecrow In The Garden’, co-written with Brice Long and Matt Fleener, is a family story song about immigrants coming from Northern Ireland to farm on bad ground in West Virginia, ending with a doomladen picture in the third generation:

There’s a scarecrow in the garden
That looks like Lucifer
I’ve been readin’ Revelation
With my bare feet in the river

I know every single fencepost
Every rock that goes around
I’ve been starin’ at the red oak
Where I know they’ll lay me down

The fields ain’t what they once were
The rains just seem to flood
And I’ve been thinkin’ about that river
Wonderin’ how it turns to blood

I’ve been sittin’ here all morning
I was sittin’ here all night
There’s a Bible in my left hand
And a pistol in my right

A gentle acoustic arrangement allows the song to breathe.

Another highlight is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, written with Jameson Clark, an honest confessional with a stripped down acoustic arrangement:

I wish that I could go to church but I’m too ashamed of me
I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees
And I hope He’ll forgive
The things you ain’t forgot
When I get drunk and talk to God

Mike Henderson, once a band mate in the SteelDrivers, co-wrote two songs. The subdued, sad ‘Nobody’s Lonely Tonight’ is extremely good, but ‘Midnight Train To Memphis’ is raucous Southern rock which is not to my taste at all.

Morgane’s father Darrell Hayes helped Chris write ‘A Simple Song’, a weary, gentle song about a working class man’s life, suffering in hard times but satisfied by family and home.

As with the previous release, there are only 9 tracks, which is disappointing.

However, while Stapleton is certainly not traditional country, his music is head and shoulders above most of the current ‘mainstream’ crop, and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

Ever since he swept the 2015 CMA Award and his career-defining performance with Justin Timberlake at that show, Chris Stapleton has been regarded by many as the savior of country music, who will lift the genre out of its creative doldrums and set it back on a path towards traditionalism. The great irony is that Stapleton’s music is really not that traditional for the most part. Roots-oriented, organic, and substantive yes, but he’s hardly the modern day equivalent of Randy Travis in 1986. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the genre has benefited from his success. He has a powerful voice but his style owes more to blue-eyed sound southern rock than traditional country. His style is not usually my cup of tea, but I actually like Chris Stapleton quite a lot and have ever since he was the lead singer for The SteelDrivers. And regardless of whether or not one likes his vocal style, one can’t help but root for someone who can have commercial success while bypassing the cesspool that is country radio.

The follow-up to his immensely successful debut album Traveller was originally envisioned as a two-disc set, but Mercury apparently had some reservations about a double album and opted to release From a Room in two volumes, with the second set tentatively slated for an autumn release. One of the unfortunate consequences of his is that the first volume consists of a mere nine tracks. No album should consist of less then ten songs, in my opinion. I was annoyed when RCA trimmed back its albums to nine tracks in the 1980s and the practice, though rare nowadays, still does not sit well with me. Surely there were more songs recorded that could have been used to flesh out the album a bit. That criticism aside, From a Room is, for the most part, an outstanding collection.

Like Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 was co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb and recorded in RCA Studio A. Eight of its nine tracks were co-written by Stapleton (many apparently from his extensive back catalog), the sole exception being a stunning version of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which was a #2 hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. It tells the story of a morning in which everything goes wrong: the delivery of a past-due bill notice, an alarm clock that fails to go off on time, a spilled pot of coffee, among other things, culminating in the narrator’s wife or girlfriend calling an end to their relationship. Stapleton’s wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton provides the harmony vocals.

Another tune that will be familiar to many listeners is “Either Way”, which was originally included on Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album in 2008. A ballad about a relationship taking its last dying breaths, it is the perfect vehicle for Stapleton’s powerhouse voice. Wikipedia lists it as the current single. Don’t expect to hear it the radio.

“Up to No Good Livin'”, the sole traditional track on the album, is my favorite. Again featuring Morgane signing harmony, it is a pedal-steel drenched up-tempo number about a reformed hell raiser whose wife refuses to believe that he’s mended his ways:

Wish I could come home from workin’
And not have her checking my breath
I’m tired of her turning her questions
Into the Gettysburg Address
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t trust me
The fact that she don’t makes me mad
Can’t count all the times that I’ve begged her
Honey, just let my past be the past

I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog
Without a whole lotta sh*t not committed by law
People called me the Picasso of painting the town
I’ve finally grown up
I’ve finally changed from that someone I was
To somebody I am
But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around
So I’ll probably die before I live all my
Up to no good livin’ down

It’s no surprise, given Stapleton’s reputation as one of Nashville’s best songwriters, that From a Room: Volume 1 consists of very well-crafted and well executed songs. The sole dud is “Them Stems”, a tongue-in-cheek number about a marijuana user who has come to the end of his stash and desperate for a fresh supply. It’s catchy, but songs about drug use make me uncomfortable and as a result, I really can’t get into this one. One throwaway track on an album is no big deal but it’s a little harder to overlook when there are only nine songs in total.

From a Room: Volume 1 is sure to be one of 2017’s best sellers, and deservedly so. I’ve already played it several times and actually prefer it to Traveller. I’m looking forward to hearing the second volume in a few months.

Grade: A