My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mother Maybelle Carter

Album Review: The Whites – ‘A Lifetime in the Making’

mi0001612026In 2000 the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? came from nowhere to sell eight million copies, on the strength of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The record went on to claim the Album of the Year Grammy and kick off a mini-revival of acoustic based sounds within country music. This was the period of time in which Nickel Creek first came to prominence and Alison Krauss saw renewed acclaim for her music. The Whites weren’t necessarily a part of this although they did contribute an excellent rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” to the soundtrack.

They released A Lifetime in the Making, their twelfth album, in August, just before the craze hit. The record, their only for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records, was lovingly produced by Jerry Douglas. The album, which retains the acoustic feel for which they’re best known, is an impeccable collection of songs from beginning to end.

The disc kicks off with “Always Comin’ Home,” a dobro and mandolin drenched uptempo Gospel number, written by Don Gillion. They continue in this vein on “Jesus is the Missing Piece,” a mid-tempo ballad in which Buck takes over the lead vocals. “Key To The Kingdom” is stunning, with Sharon’s soaring and throaty lead vocal commanding attention.

Billy Joe Foster, a Bluegrass musician who died in 2013 aged 51, is represented with two tracks. “Texas To A T” is acoustic Western Swing while “Before The Prairie Met The Plow” is a gorgeous bluegrass ballad nodding to Midwestern sensibilities. “How Many Moons,” which was co-written by Claire Lynch, wonderfully showcases their family harmonies.

Patty Loveless originally recorded “I Miss Who I Was (With You)” on The Trouble With The Truth. Both versions are excellent and I was glad to see that Loveless’ recording retained the organic elements of the song. The Whites had the first version of “Old Hands,” another tune about farming life. I’ve never heard of Adam Brand, but he nicely covered the song two years later. Emmylou Harris joins the band for a stunning rendition of Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Buck White solely wrote “Old Man Baker,” a strikingly good uptempo instrumental. “Apron Strings” is an appealing ballad about the stronghold our mother will always have on our lives. The album’s final track, “The Cowboy Lives Forever,” is a breakneck uptempo number about an everyman who found his home on the Western Plains.

There truly aren’t words to describe the high quality of A Lifetime in the Making. The album is superb through and through even though it hardly breaks new ground within this style. I’ve never spent any time with The Whites, despite always knowing who they were so reviewing this album was a treat. I highly recommend it for those who may have missed it the first go-around or just want to listen to it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters – ‘Keep On the Sunny Side’

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

ngdb 1980s

Is it folk or rock or country?
Seems like everybody cares but us

Lots of people have had that question about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The answer, of course, is all of the above, with the band’s origins lying in the roots scene of 1960s California, but their greatest strength has been as a country rock band in the 1980s, and in the role bringing together country heritage with younger performers and listeners in the Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy.

The band was founded in the 1960s in Long Beach, California, by Jeff Hanna, as a folk-rock jug band. The first members included Jimmie Fadden and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne (soon replaced by John McEuen). Hanna, Fadden and McEuen are still members today, although the lineup has seen a long list of changes. They soon signed to Liberty Records and from 1967 released a series of folk-rock albums.

Jimmy Ibbotson joined the group in 1970, and the four plus Les Thompson recorded their most country influenced effort to date, Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy. They really made their mark on country music, and a place in country music history, with the ground-breaking and legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken in 1972. The genre has always balanced change with reverence for its heritage, but by the early 1970s the oldest artists were no longer at the forefront. The triple album – a rarity at the time – revived many classic and oldtime country songs, and collaborated with veteran artists including Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, and Earl Scruggs among others.

They were still not a straight country group, playing for rock audiences much of the time. In 1975 Ibbotson left the band, and they changed their name to the simpler The Dirt Band, adopting a more rock and pop direction, although they continued to record some country songs like Rodney Crowell’s ‘Voila An American Dream’, which was a pop hit for the band in 1980.

Reverting to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band name in 1982, the core group of Hanna, McEuen, Ibbotson and McFadden made a concerted bid for the country mainstream. They enjoyed immediate success with the single ‘Dance, Little Jean’ becoming their first top 10 country hit. After their first mainstream country record they transferred to Warner Brothers Records. They were rejoined in 1983 by Bob Carpenter, who had been with them for a while in the late 70s, and for a few years Bernie Leadon of the Eagles took the place of McEuen.

At the height of their success, the neotraditional sound was sweeping country airwaves. it was the ideal moment to revisit the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Recruiting some more recent stars alongside survivors from the original, Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume II was a tour de force, winning two Grammy Awards and the CMA Album of the Year. A third instalment would following 2002.

Their commercial appeal faded a little in the 1990s, and they wandered between labels, issuing material on MCA, Capitol, Liberty, DreamWorks and independent labels. They are still active touring – appearing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in California on 5 October, and in Canada the rest of the month. They released their last album to date in 2009.

We’re happy to announce they will be our Spotlight Artists for this month. We will be focussing on their mainstream country period.

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003”, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003”, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin'” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind – Mother Maybelle Carter – ‘Wildwood Flower’

A truly special performance from the pioneer who helped define our modern definition of Country Music. Included here is rare footage of her discussing the famed Bristol Sessions from 1927, known as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” Those sessions featured her, A.P., and Sara Carter (The Carter Family) along with Jimmie Rogers and others.

The song she sings here, “Wildwood Flower” was written circa 1860 with lyrics by  Maud Irving and music by Joseph Philbrick Webster. The original title of the song was “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.” It became an American standard when The Carter Family recorded it on the Victor label in 1928.

“Wildwood Flower” would see a second life when Hank Thompson and Merle Travis recorded it as an instrumental in 1955. Their version would peak at #5 on the charts that year.

Actress Reece Witherspoon also has a version of the song, performing it in the film Walk The Line. She won The Best Actress Oscar for portraying June Carter Cash (Mother Maybelle’s daughter) in the 2005 film.

Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 68.

Album Review: Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – ‘Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down’

Of Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down Marty Stuart says, “This record is the subtotal of a 40 year journey. It represents most everything I love about Country Music.” And that’s what Stuart has created, a historical document embodying the past while transporting it into the present.

Picking up where 2010’s Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions left off,Tear The Woodpile Down follows in Stuart’s tradition of marrying newly written originals with well-chosen covers and instrumentals. He once again displays his acute skill of writing music that sounds and feels decades old while his band, His Fabulous Superlatives, have never played with such heightened intensity.

The Superlatives proficiency as a tight unit, due to recording the album with Stuart in the same room, is perfectly displayed on the title track, a honky-tonk number distinctive for its muscular guitar, strong harmonies, and banjo work by the legendry Buck Trent. “Tear The Woodpile Down” is easily the coolest sounding song on the album; a convergence of honky-tonk meets country rock that never looses traditional sensibilities yet feels modernistic in execution.

But the track’s selling point is the memorably comedic lyric. “Tear The Woodpile Down” details the trouble a man finds himself in while on the town with a gal – a night in jail and time before an unsympathetic judge. The sense that it doesn’t take itself too seriously only adds to the overall enjoyment of the story.

Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives also cut loose on “Hollywood Boogie” the sole instrumental among the ten tracks. Like “Tear The Woodpile Down,” “Hollywood Boogie” is brawny in nature but acts as a showcase for the band’s playing prowess, most notably Harry Stinston’s mesmerizing drum work. It’s rare in modern music to find this talented a band and “Hollywood Boogie” is a wonderful showcase for the breadth of their abilities.

In keeping with Stuart’s finest work, the heart and soul of Nashville, Volume 1 comes when he celebrates the past, something he does for most of this project. A favorite of his for years, Dwayne Warwick’s “Sundown In Nashville” first appeared on his 2003 album Country Music with far more distracting instrumentation. This mix is much more tasteful, allowing the cautionary tale painting Music City as the land of broken dreams (“A Country Boy’s Hollywood”), to breathe and sink in with the listener.

Stuart also resurrects two country classics – Jerry Chestnut’s “Holding On To Nothin’” which Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton brought to #7 in 1968 and “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” A Hank Williams, Sr classic written as a Luke The Drifter poem.

“Holding On To Nothin’” succeeds because Stuart, a fan of the song from The Porter Wagoner Show, remains faithful to Wagoner and Parton’s record down to bringing in Trent to reprise his banjo work. Stuart’s version, though, has one key difference – he makes the guitar more prominent and in turn modernizes the overall feel of the song.

In contrast, “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” has had so many versions over the years; it’s hard to pick a definitive one. Doesn’t matter, though, as the inclusion of Hank III makes this essential listening, with his pure and raw vocal drawing me in. It’s my favorite song from Tear The Woodpile Down and one of the top album tracks of 2012 thus far because of his stunning guest vocal.

Another standout is “A Song of Sadness,” written by Stuart for Lorrie Carter Bennett (Anita Carter’s daughter and Mother Maybelle Carter’s granddaughter) to sing with him. Another smart choice on his part, her vocal adds extra flavor and creates beautiful contrast to his deeper vocal tones. But the framing of their voices against the backdrop of pedal steel is the real selling point. The mix is so effortless it feels like he has sung with her all is life.

The final resurrection comes in the form of a trucker’s anthem, a seemingly lost ideal in modern country music. “Truck Drivers Blues,” which contains the records only mention of Connie Smith, celebrates the truck driving lifestyle with radiant authenticity. Another fantastic catchy sing-a-long, it comes complete with a mandolin heavy arrangement that helps it stand out for more than just extremely clever lyrics alone.

Tear The Woodpile Down also includes three Stuart originals (“Matter Of Time,” “Going, Going Gone,” and “The Lonely Kind”) that bear trademark Nashville Sound ideals. “A Matter of Time” glides along with a gorgeous guitar riff that repeats throughout, “Going, Going, Gone” mixes pedal steel and electric guitar with an effortless lyric that slithers off the tongue, and “The Lonely Kind” has a moody vibe to distinguish itself from the pack; almost reminiscent of Gary Allan’s “Smoke Rings In The Dark” or classic Roy Orbison.

Overall, I’ve rarely heard a ten-track album this perfectly constructed in my more than fifteen years of listening to country music. While additional songs and a guest vocal by  Smith would’ve enhanced the listening experience, it’s hard to improve upon what Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have created here. To call Tear The Woodpile Down astonishing would be an understatement. It’s a record for the ages, essential listening for anyone with a love of country music.

Grade: A+