My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Nanci Griffith

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘Old Fashioned Girl’

Lisa McHugh, born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, moved to her parents’ Irish homeland In 2010, aged 22. Her debut album was released the same year, and made a very promising start to her career. Her clear, sweet voice is showcased on an interesting mixture of country and Irish folk material.

The title track is a rather charming mid-paced tune written by Joni Harms, an American singer-songwriter whose recorded work has focussed on cowboy songs/Western music. Her songs suit Lisa’s pretty voice very well, and three of them are included on this album. ‘When I Get Over You’ is a lovely sad ballad about coping with a breakup. ‘Catalog Dreams’ is a nicely observed story song about a farmer and his wife longing to buy a mail order tractor and sewing machine respectively, which is very much in an American setting rather than an Irish one.

The Irish side of Lisa’s music is represented by two songs in particular. ‘Buchaill On Eire’ is a very pretty Irish folk ballad with Gaelic lyrics. Lisa’s version sounds absolutely lovely, although I have no idea what it is about. She also covers the Northern Irish folk singer-songwriter Tommy Sands’ song ‘There Were Roses’, a gutwrenchingly moving song about a pair of friends across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, who are both killed during the Troubles in the 1970s, based on a true story. Lisa sings it beautifully, using the arrangement and minor lyrical changes made by another fine Irish folk singer, Cara Dillon, in her 2005 version.

Centuries of hatred
Have ears that do not hear
An eye for an eye
it was all that filled their minds,
And another eye for another eye
Till everyone was blind.

I don’t know what the moral is
Or where this song should end
But I wonder just how many wars
Are fought between good friends
And those who give the orders
Are not the ones to die
It’s Scott and young MacDonald
And the likes of you and I

There were roses, roses,
There were roses
And the tears of the people ran together

Also very good is ‘Beyond The Rainbow’s End’, a beautiful ballad about a loved one who has died, written by Daniel O’Donnell, the leading Irish country singer of the 1980s and 90s. The accordion-led ‘God’s Plan’, written by Derek Ryan, one of Lisa’s contemporary Irish country peers, is an attractive love song. ‘Ramblin’ Man’ is a cover of a song associated with Philomena Begley, the top female Irish country star of the 1970s and 80s.

There is an enjoyable version of ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man’, together with some less known covers. Lisa’s energy works well on the Gail Davies song ‘I’m A Little Bit Lonely’ and the sassy ‘You Were Right’ (from Australian girl group The McClymonts):

The biggest damn mistake I made was loving you
Well, you were right, you were right, you were right
Until I proved you wrong
You can fight all night to say what you like
I’ll still be gone
You said I’ll never make it out there on my own
You were right, you were right, you were right
Until I proved you wrong

The Nanci Griffith song ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ is more plaintive, and Miranda Lambert’s ‘Love Letters’ is also very effective.

This is a very strong album which I enjoyed a great deal. I would recommend checking it out.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[Chorus]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Album Review: Joy Lynn White – ‘Wild Love’

51rfk9fctwlReleased in August 1994, Joy Lynn White’s second album for Columbia basically tanked, not charting at all. Moreover, only one of the two singles released charted at all with the title track reaching #73. To this very day, I remain mystified as to why this album was not her breakthrough to commercial success.

The album opens with “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”, a song the Dixie Chicks would take to #6 Country/ #46 Pop in 1999.  Composed by Mary Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, I think Joy Lynn gives the song its definitive reading.

Next up is “Bad Loser”, a Bill Lloyd – Pam Tillis tough girl composition that I don’t think Pam ever recorded. Joy Lynn definitely nails the performance. The sing was released as the second single and failed to chart. Although I like the song, I don’t think I would have picked it as a single.

You’re bringing out a side of me I never knew was there
I took pride in cut’n dried goodbyes I never wasted a tear
Living in an easy come easy go world
Look what you’ve done to this girl

I’m a bad loser when love’s worth fightin’ for
I’m a bad loser don’t wanna ever see you walkin’ out my door
This love of ours took me by surprise it wasn’t part of my plans
Hey ain’t it easy sittin’ on the fence and ain’t it hard to make a stand
You took me farther than i’ve ever been
And baby now i’m playing to win

“Too Gone to Care”, written by John Scott Sherrill, is a tender ballad that demonstrates that Joy Lynn can handle more subtle, less rambunctious lyrics as well as she can handle the tougher songs

You see that big old yellow cab is always just a call away
And you can catch a Greyhound just about anytime of day
And all along the harbor ships are slipping out of town
Way out on the runway that’s where the rubber leaves the ground
She keeps thinking that it’s too hard to fake it
When it isn’t there

He’s gonna tell her he’ll be too late to make it
But she’ll be too gone to care
They got trains down at the station you know they run all night
They got tail lights on the highway that just keep fading out of sight   

 

The next song asks the eternal question “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”. This is another John Scott Sherrill song ballad, but this song has very traditional country instrumentation (the prior song was a little MOR), but in any event, Ms White again nails the song:

I’ve put away all the pictures
All the old love letters too
There’s nothin’ left here to remind me
Why can’t I stop loving you?
Got back into circulation
Till I found somebody new
But there was always something missing
Why can’t I stop lovin’ you

“Whiskey, Lies and Tears” is the only song on this album that Joy Lynn had a hand in writing. The song is an up-tempo honky-tonker of the kind that Highway 101 sometimes did, and which has disappeared from country radio these days. Joy Lynn strikes me as a better vocalist than either Paulette Carlson or Nikki Nelson.  I wonder if Highway 101 ever considered Joy Lynn for the role. This song would have been my pick for the second single off the album.

The last time I said next time is the last time
And the last time came stumbling in last night
So now it’s time to say goodbye forever
To the whiskey your lies and my tears
Well I’ve almost gone insane…
All the whiskey your lies and my tears

“Wild Love” has bit of a heavy backbeat – I would describe it as more rock than country but it is well sung and melodically solid.   Then again, Dennis Linde always produced solid songs.

Pat McLaughlin wrote “Burning Memories”. This song is not to be mistaken with the Ray Price classic of bygone years, but it is sung well. I would describe the song as a sad country ballad.

“On And On And On” was written by “Whispering Bill” Anderson, one of country music’s great songsmiths. Joy Lynn gives a convincing and timeless interpretation to the song:

And this loneliness goes on and on and on
All the things come to an end
Yes that means we’ll never love again
The end of our love the end of my dreams
The end of almost everything it seems
Except these heartaches these teardrops
And this loneliness goes on and on and on

I’ve heard Bill Anderson sing the song, and Connie Smith recorded the song on her 1967 album Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson. Connie’s version has the full ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings applied to it. Although Smith is the better vocalist, most modern listeners would probably prefer Joy Lynn White’s version.

The penultimate song is Jim Rushing’s “You Were Right From Your Side”. The song has interesting lyrics and Joy Lynn does a good job with it:

Starin’ out an airport window on a morning hard as stone
Watchin’ a big Delta Bird taxi through the dawn
A lonely chill sweeps over me as that smokin’ liner climbs
You were right from your side I was left from mine
Now you’re gone you’re flying high above the clouds
And I must walk my tears through this faceless crowd
And in the goodbye atmosphere I can hear a thousand times
You were right from your side I was left from mine

The album closes with “I Am Just a Rebel” written by the redoubtable trio of Bob DiPiero, Dennis Robbins and John Scott Sherrill. The trio wrote the song while they were in the band Billy Hill in the late 1980s. Confederate Railroad recorded the song later, but I prefer Joy Lynn’s version to any of the other versions

Being a hillbilly don’t get me down
I like it like that in fact you know it makes me proud
Yeah I’m American made by my ma and pa
Southern born by the grace of God
And I’m bound to be a rebel till they put me in the ground
I am just a rebel can’t you see
Don’t go looking for trouble it just finds me
When I’m a walking down the street people stop and stare
I know they’re talking about me they say there goes that rebel there

Wild Love  enabled Joy Lynn White to show all sides of her personality from tender to tough , from rocker to honky-tonker. With a crack band featuring Paul Worley and Richard Bennett (guitars); Dennis Linde (acoustic & electric guitar, clavinet); Dan Dugmore (electric & steel guitar); Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar); Dennis Robbins (slide guitar); Mike Henderson (guitar); Hank Singer, Blaine Sprouse (fiddles); and  featuring  Harry Stinson, Pat McLaughlin, Cindy Richardson, Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffith, Suzi Ragsdale (background vocals), Wild Love should have propelled Joy Lynn White to the top.

It didn’t propel her career, but I still love the album and would grade it as a solid A, very close to an A+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Lone Star State Of Mind’

A rare clip of Lorrie Morgan covering Nanci Griffith:

Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

DM_cover_5x5_300RGB2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Grade: A

Christmas Rewind: Nanci Griffith – ‘On Grafton Street’

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Well Travelled Love’

welltravelledloveDuring the second half of the 1980s, MCA Records signed a handful of roots-based artists that were considered to be outside of the mainstream, in the hopes of expanding the definition of country music. Artists such as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith were all signed to the label during that time. Kelly Willis, who joined the label in 1989 with the aid of Lovett and Griffith, somewhat falls into this fringe category, although her music was always much closer to the mainstream than the others mentioned. To further put things into context: Hat Acts were the popular trend in country music at the time, and most of the female artists who came to dominate the era — Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood — had not yet been signed to record deals. Reba McEntire, who was the marquee name female artist at MCA had yet to enjoy her first million-seller.

Willis’ debut disc, Well Travelled Love, if released today, would be relegated to the Americana category, but in 1990 it was considered a somewhat left-of-center country effort, perhaps in part due to Kelly’s slightly quirky vocal style, but also due to songs written by the likes of John Hiatt, Steve Earle and Kevin Welch, although more mainstream songwriters such as Paul Kennerley and Emory Gordy, Jr. are also represented. Willis’ then-husband Mas Palermo wrote about half the album’s songs. Paul Kennerley’s excellent and retro-sounding “I Don’t Want To Love You (But I Do)” was the album’s first single, that sadly failed to chart. A similar fate befell “River of Love”, which may have been too rockabilly for country radio’s taste at the time and “Looking For Someone Like You” likewise failed to gain any traction at radio.

Although I like all of these songs, I believe that some of the album’s other songs would have been better choices for singles. First and foremost is the Monte Warden and Emory Gordy, Jr. tune “One More Time”, a beautiful and steel-guitar drenched ballad that should have been considered very radio friendly at the time. Not releasing John Hiatt’s “Drive South” as a single seems like a missed opportunity; Suzy Bogguss took it all the way to #2 just two years later.
The title track, another Mas Palermo number, reminds me of “I’m In Love All Over”, the opening track to Reba McEntire’s Have I Got A Deal For You album. It’s an upbeat number with some excellent guitar picking and a strong vocal peformance from Kelly — the type of song that would perhaps work better in concert than on radio. “I’m Just Lonely”, Willis’ only songwriting contribution to the album (a co-write with Palermo) is also one of my favorites.

That an unsuccessful album by a largely unknown artist is available at all nearly a quarter century after its release is something of a minor miracle. Don’t expect to find any cheap used copies; Well Travelled Love can still be purchased on CD but at prices that will put a dent in your wallet. It is, however, available for download at much more reasonable prices and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Kelly Willis

Kelly WillisOur August spotlight artist isn’t someone you’ve heard a lot of on the radio, but she has long been a favorite of critics and the MKOC staff writers.

Kelly Willis was born on October 2, 1968, in Lawton, Oklahoma and spent her high school years in Annandale, Virginia. During that time she became the lead singer of a rockabilly band. Shortly after graduating from high school, she married the band’s drummer and moved to Austin, Texas. The band didn’t survive very long, but Willis quickly caught the attention of two famous Texas musicians — Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, who were both signed to MCA Records at the time. Griffith and Lovett convinced Tony Brown to offer Willis a contract, and she joined the label’s roster in 1989. Her first album, Well Traveled Love, produced by Brown and John Guess, was well received by critics and well promoted by MCA, but it was not commercially successful. Her two subsequent albums for MCA didn’t fare much better. Without any hit records and uncomfortable with the sexy image that MCA was trying to create for her, Willis departed the label in 1994.

During her tenure with MCA, Willis’ marriage to her high school sweetheart ended. She began dating Texas songwriter Bruce Robison in 1992. The pair married in 1996 and eventually became the parents of four children. Also, in 1996, Willis released an EP called Fading Fast for A&M, which performed about as well as her MCA albums. It was her only project for the label. After leaving A&M, she began recording for independent labels, and although none of them produced any hit singles, all of them charted higher than her major label efforts on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. 2002’s Easy, released by Rykodisc, is her highest charting solo effort, peaking at #29.

In 2008, the demands of family life caused Willis to put her career on hold and she has performed and recorded only sporadically since then. Her two most recent efforts, last year’s Cheater’s Game and Our Year, which was released this past May, are both collaborations with Bruce Robison and both were reviewed here at time of their release. We hope that you’ll enjoy our look back at an artist who, despite a lack of mainstream recognition, is a talented vocalist and songwriter who desrves to be heard.

Album Review: Darin and Brooke Aldridge – ‘Flying’

flyingHusband and wife bluegrass duo Darin and Brooke Aldridge have been steadily rising through the ranks of bluegrass over the past few years, and they show here how deserving they are of the accolades they have been receiving. The sweet, confident voice of Brooke takes the lead on the majority of songs, and female songwriters (notably Lisa Shaffer and Becky Buller) dominate, with at least one woman contributing to every song included. As one might expect from a happily married couple, the material leans to positive love songs with spiritual undertones, but any lack of variety in themes is made up for by an excellent ear for melodies in whoever was responsible for choosing the songs (none of them composed by the duo) and Brooke’s compelling vocals.

Lisa Shaffer wrote a couple of songs with Bill Whyte, the brightly upbeat ‘Trying To Make Clocks Slow Down’ and the melodic and winsome ‘I Gotta Have Butterflies’, about the need for that special spark when falling for someone. ‘To The Moon And Back’ (written by Shaffer with Wil Nance and Steve Dean) is another charming love song with a pretty tune, this one about anticipating growing old together. It is my favorite of Shaffer’s songs here. Shaffer and Buller together wrote ‘Higher Than My Heart’, which has very nice closely harmonised vocals by Darin and Brooke, and a driving banjo underpinning an idealistic lyric.

Becky Buller (the couple’s fiddle player) also wrote ‘Love Speak To Me’ (with Jimmy Fortune and Jeff Hyde), the only track which has Darin on lead. He has quite a pleasant, if not very distinctive, voice, and it’s a nice song. Buller teamed up with Bethany Dicker-Olds to write the soaring traditional bluegrass of ‘Laurie Stevens’, a dramatic story song involving a young woman tragically drowned in a raging creek on her way to see her sweetheart; Brooke’s vibrant vocal grabs the listener’s attention from start to finish, and the change of mood from the overall positive vibe of the record is also welcome.

The charming mid-tempo ‘Maybe Just A Little’, written by Haley Dykes Johnson, is another of my favourite tracks, with Brooke questioning whether a romantic interest is out of her league. ‘Love Does’, written by Jamie and Susanne Johnson with Jenee Fleenor, is a duet between Brooke and Darin, and is a semi-religious song with a light and airy feel. ‘Little Bit Of Wonderful’ allows Darin to contribute some solo lines, and it is a positive and catchy love song with a charming delivery by the pair.

An unusual choice is a cover of the Nanci Griffith/Tom Russell song ‘Outbound Plane’, with phrasing very similar to that of Suzy Bogguss’s hit version.

This is a very attractive sounding record which feels full of joy. It should appeal not only to bluegrass fans but to those who enjoy top-notch female vocalists on good, generally upbeat material with strong melodies, in an acoustic setting. There are a lot of fine female vocalists in bluegrass, but Brooke Aldridge is rapidly becoming one of my favourites.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Hank Williams Jr and friends – ‘Born to Boogie’/’Young Country’

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Aces’

acesThe first time I heard Suzy Bogguss sing, I was sure that she was on the verge of becoming country music’s next big female superstar. It was, therefore, both surprising and disappointing when her first two albums and the singles released from them all performed poorly on the charts. Her commercial fortunes began to change in 1991 when she teamed up with her Capitol labelmate Lee Greenwood for a duet, the Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook-penned “Hopelessly Yours”, which rose to #12, her best performance to date on the Billboard country singles chart. The record’s success proved to be the breakthrough she needed and paved the way for her subsequent solo recordings.

Suzy was always a bit of a folkie at heart, as opposed to a hardcore country traditionalist, and the song selections on Aces, her third album for Capitol Nashville, reflect that preference. The album’s advance single was a revival of Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s “Someday Soon”, which had been recorded numerous times by a number of artists, including Judy Collins and Moe Bandy. Suzy’s excellent version reached #12, matching the success of “Hopelessly Yours.” Suzy and co-producer Jimmy Bowen slowed down the tempo ever so slightly on Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane”, giving the song more mainstream appeal than Griffith’s original and more quirky recording from a few years earlier. “Outbound Plane”, which peaked at #9, found Suzy cracking the Top 10 for the first time. Recognizing that the folk connection was proving successful, Capitol selected the album’s title track, written by folk singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, as Suzy’s next single. Like “Outbound Plane”, it reached #9 and is one of the songs for which Suzy is best remembered today.

The album’s fourth single — and its most successful was the more conventional “Letting Go”, written by Suzy’s husband Doug Crider and Matt Rollings. A tale about leaving home and the adjustments required by both parent and child, it peaked at #6 in the fall of 1992 and made an appearance on Suzy’s next album Voices In The Wind.

More often than not, I find that there are always one or two songs on every album that should have been a single, but for one reason or another, was not. Tony Arata’s “Part of Me” falls into that category this time around, although for the most part, Capitol showed good judgement in its selection of singles. There’s nothing particularly memorable about “Yellow River Road”, which is noteworthy only because it is the album’s only song in which Suzy had a hand in writing. The bluesy numbers “Save Yourself” and “Let Goodbye Hurt” require more soulful performances than Suzy was able to provide, and her version of “Still Hold On”, though good, cannot compare with Tanya Tucker’s grittier performance from a few years earlier.

Aces was the best and most successful of Suzy’s major label albums, and the only one to earn platinum certification. Inexpensive copies are easy to obtain.

Grade: B+

Concert Review – Kathy Mattea at Silver Center For The Arts in Plymouth, NH

Kathy MatteaKathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Matttea – ‘Time Passes By’

As the 1990s began, Kathy Mattea was the reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and for her first album of the decade, she made a subtle shift away from mainstream country, releasing a collection that leaned slightly more towards the folkabilly-style music that Nanci Griffith had done a few years earlier. Time Passes By, Mattea’s sixth release also bears the stamp of Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean, who contributed one of his own compositions and also shared production duties with Mattea and her husband Jon Vezner on a cover version of “From a Distance”, a Julie Gold-penned son that had recently been popularized by Bette Midler. There is a distinct Celtic feel to many of the tracks, foreshadowing a more pronounced move in that direction that Kathy would make a few years later.

Mattea deserves credit for taking some creative risks, even though Time Passes By is somewhat of a hit or miss affair. Not surprisingly, it was not as well received at radio as the three albums that preceded it, and though it still sold enough units to earn gold certification, it marks the beginning of the end of Kathy’s reign at the top of the singles charts. The title track, which is the most mainstream song in the collection, was the album’s biggest hit, charting at #7. Written by Jon Vezner and Susan Longacre, it is somewhat reminiscent of Kathy’s recent hit “Come From The Heart”, but the live-for-the-moment message is less effective this time around. It was the only single from the album to reach the Top 10. Kathy would only reach the Top 10 one more time in her career, three years later.

Following the positive tone of “Time Passes By”, the second single “Whole Lotta Holes” does a complete 180 and is a distinct downer. It barely scraped into the Top 20, peaking at #18. The next single, the Hugh Prestwood tune “Asking Us To Dance” is a lovely ballad that deserved to rise higher than #27.

There are a handful of standout tracks in this collection, as well as a few duds. Among the gems are “What Could Have Been”, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, and “Summer of My Dreams” which is my favorite song from this set. Dougie MacLean’s “Ready For The Storm” is also quite good. Not so good are “Quarter Moon”, on which Mattea sounds screechy as she attempts to hit some high notes that are just out of reach, and “Harley”, an offbeat number about a biker couple that whose child becomes lost when the sidecar he is riding in becomes detached and rolls away, unnoticed by his parents. The child is subsequently found unharmed in a field by a farmer and his wife who raise him as their own. It’s meant to be a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek number but it doesn’t quite work for me. Mattea’s version of “From A Distance”, which closes out the set, is a slight disappointment. It is beautifully sung, and the sparse, acoustic arrangement starts off well. I even like the bagpipes that chime in about two minutes into the song, but clocking in at five minutes, the song is dragged out too long, and it would have been a lot better without the chorus chanting “God is watching us” repeatedly as the track fades out.

Although Time Passes By is not Kathy’s very best work, it is a decent effort. It doesn’t contain any of her biggest hits, so casual fans may be inclined to give it a miss, but those who do give it a listen are bound to find a few tracks that they really like.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walk The Way The Wind Blows’

1986’s Walk The Way The Wind Blows marked a turning point in Kathy Mattea’s recording career. Following two moderately successful albums for Mercury Records, it marked a major change in direction, both creatively and commercially. She cast aside the pop-country arrangements that had characterized her previous two albums and the stripped-down folk-flavored sound proved to be a good fit with radio during the then-fledgling New Traditionalist movement.

Mattea’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s first single, “Love at the Five and Dime”, which included harmony vocals by Don Williams. It is notable both for being her first Top 10 hit, peaking at #3, and for gaining recognition for its songwriter Nanci Griffith. Griffith’s own recording of the song appeared that same year. The song’s success stands as a testimony to the remarkable era in which it was released; nothing about the well written story tune is, on the surface, particularly radio friendly, and it is unlikely that would ever have been a hit during any other era in country music. It most certainly would not be given much attention in today’s environment.

The upbeat title track, written by Tim O’Brien was selected to be “Love at the Five and Dime’s” follow-up hit. This one seems to be more in line with what radio is typically looking for, but it did not perform quite as well as its predecessor, peaking at a still respectable #10. Mercury chose another ballad as the album’s third single, the lovely “You’re The Power” written by Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Though it reached #5, this one doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered today as some of Kathy’s other hits, but it is beautifully performed and is my favorite song on the album. The album’s final single was “Train of Memories”, which peaked at #6, but was ultimately overshadowed by the bigger hits that followed it from Kathy’s next album.

The introspective “Leaving West Virginia” gives us a rare glimpse at Kathy Mattea the songwriter. The protagonist is heading for California rather than Nashville, but it seems quite possible that the tune is semi-autobiographical. “You Plant Your Fields” and “Up Grinnin’ Again” are the album’s two weak spots. They are not bad songs, and if included on any number of other albums, they might not stand out as the weakest tracks, but they don’t quite rise to the level of most of the other songs on the album. The album does close on a high note, with a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song For The Life”, which would become a hit for Alan Jackson eight years later.

Like its predecessor From My Heart, Walk The Way The Wind Blows was produced Allen Reynolds, who was probably most famous up to that point for his work with Crystal Gayle. He would continue to be Kathy’s producer for the rest of the decade before going on to even greater fame producing hits for Garth Brooks.

Though it was released over 25 years ago, Walk The Way The Wind Blows has held up exceptionally well. The production does not sound dated and the only clue to the album’s age is the fact that this type of music would not be considered commercially viable today. It is available for download and used CD copies can be purchased at bargain prices. It’s worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Kathy Mattea

Born in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia on June 21, 1959, Kathy Mattea started singing bluegrass as a teenager and in 1978 dropped out of college to move to Nashville to pursue her country music dream. She found work singing songwriters’ demos, and the songwriter Byron Hill was sufficiently impressed by her voice to bring her to the attention of Mercury Records, who signed her to a recording deal.

Her early career gave no real indication of what kind of artist she really was. Her first two albums, 1984’s self-titled debut (co-produced by her mentor Hill), were solidly pop-country efforts with mainly up-tempo material which seemed radio friendly enough but which failed to make an impact at country radio. Moving to Allen Reynolds for 1985’s From My Heart was a step in the right direction, but the album was still mired in the pop-country sound then popular at radio in the years after the Urban Cowboy movement. Mercury kept faith with Kathy, and tried a third album, allowing a fundamental change of focus.

Adopting a more rootsy sound just as the neotraditional movement swept in proved to be a great move. Kathy’s folky sound was just distinctive enough to set her apart from her rivals, while her pure, clear voice shone through the less cluttered backing she preferred. Although she wrote relatively infrequently in her career, she has been a great picker of songs, frequently popularizing songs from left field songwriters like Nanci Griffith. It was a cover of Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five And Dime’ that catapulted Kathy into country stardom, as the song became her first big hit.

It was the first of a string of 15 straight top 10 hits over the next six years, including four chart-toppers. She won Grammies for her performance on the single ‘Where’ve You Been’ (written by husband Jon Vezner) and for her Christmas album Good News, which premiered modern Christmas classic ‘Mary, Did You Know’. She was also named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year twice, in 1989 and 1990.

In the early 90s she started branching out more artistically, including more folk, bluegrass and Celtic elements, and while her song selection remained top-notch, she drifted away from the mainstream. When the hits dried up and she left Mercury in 1997, she was soon picked up by another major label, MCA, but her sole album for that label, 2000’s The Innocent Years was disappointing.

A couple of independent releases followed before she really found a new impetus and direction for her career. In 2008 she released the critically acclaimed bluegrass concept album Coal, which paid tribute to the coal mining community she grew up in. Originally intended as a one-off project, it has in fact changed her approach to music, and she builds on that with her new album. Calling Me Home draws on folk and the Appalachian mountain music which fed the roots of early country music, and is out on acoustic specialists Sugar Hill Records on September 11.

We will be taking a look back at her career over the month.

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, part 4

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

“Everybody Needs Love On A Saturday Night”– The Maines Brothers Band
This 1985 song was the biggest hit (#24) for a bunch of talented musicians, some of whom went on to bigger and better things. Lloyd Maines is a leading steel guitar whiz and record producer – his daughter is Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Three other brothers of Lloyd’s were in this band, as well.

I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” – Barbara Mandrell
This 1988 slightly re-titled cover of Warren Smith’s big hit  from 1960 was to be Barbara’s last top ten recording. It is one of my favorite Barbara Mandrell recordings.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

My First Country Song” – Dean Martin with Conway Twitty
Not really – Dean had recorded many country songs to great effect, although never with country accompaniment. The album from which this 1983 song was taken, was actually the last album the 66-year-old Dean would record after a hugely successful career as a pop singer, movie star , television star and stage performer. In his time very few performers were bigger stars than Dean Martin. Conway Twitty wrote this song and performed it with Dean. It wasn’t a huge hit (#35) but it was an interesting ending to one of the greatest careers in American entertainment history.

You Are My Music, You Are My Song”– Wayne Massey with Charly McClain
Wayne Massey was a soap opera heartthrob and his wife Charly was stunningly attractive. This 1986 hit was one of two top tens the duo would have, although Charly had a very successful career as a solo act.

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Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post