My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Pam Tillis

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Let That Pony Run’

Christmas Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Pretty Paper’

Classic Rewind: Don’t Tell Me What to Do – Pam Tillis and Loretta Lynn – ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’

Album Review: Kristy Cox – ‘Part Of Me’

part of meI loved Australian bluegrass singer Kristy Cox’s previous album, so I was keen to hear her latest work, produced, like its predecessor, by songwriter Jerry Salley. She is in great form vocally; last time around I felt she was better on the ballads than the up-tempo material, but now she sparkles on the faster songs too, and is reminiscent at times of Rhonda Vincent.

‘Another Weary Mile’ opens the album briskly in typical bluegrass style. Written by Michael Rogers, Joshua D Trivett, and Jason Barie, it is one of only two completely outside song, with the remainder coming from the pens of Salley and/or Cox. A vibrant vocal brings the tale of life on the road and the lure of home alive.

Kristy co-wrote four songs. Allen Caswell helped her with ‘William Henry Johnson’, a mournful murder ballad about ‘a hero and a villain’ who breaks the protagonist’s heart and ends up dead as a result. Caswell collaborated with Kristy and Jerry Salley on ‘You Walked In’, an upbeat song about the joy of new-found love. Equally sweet is ‘Young Love Never Gets Old’, a romantic tale of a lifelong love story against all the odds, written by Kristy and Jerry. Kristy and Jerry wrote one more song, the pacy but regretful ‘I’m No Stranger To This Lonesome Road’.

‘The Part Of Me (That’s Still In Love With You)’ is a wistful ballad about the emotional power of a memory overshadowing a current relationship, which Salley wrote with Pam Tillis, with a lovely melody.

‘Little White Whiskey Lies’, written by Salley with Tammy Rogers, picks up the tempo with a bluesy edge. ‘Baby, You Ain’t Baby Anymore’ is a bluegrass burner, written by Salley with Jenee Fleenor, which has Kristy bemoaning a faltering relationship. The brisk ‘Your Train Don’t Stop Here anymore’, written with Dani Flowers, is also solid, while the set closes with an optimistic gospel tune penned by Salley with Sally Barris, ‘That’s Where The Faith Comes In’.

Finally, there is a lovely cover of Chris Stapleton’s moving ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’. Kristy’s vocal style is about as different from Stapleton’s rough hewn soul as one can imagine, and her version adds sweetness and a gentle regret. Beautiful.

The sparkling playing and immaculate arrangements make the perfect backdrop for Kristy’s clear, pure voice. This is an excellent album which I recommend strongly.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Letting Go … Slow’

51bUlVvWr7LI’ve been a fan of Lorrie Morgan ever since I first saw her video of “Trainwreck of Emotion” on TNN back in 1988. I’ve followed her career ever since, though admittedly not quite as closely since her days as a major label artist ended about 15 years ago. I’ve always felt that the true artists are the ones who continue to make music after they’ve peaked commercially. Morgan certainly falls into that category; she released three solo albums and one collaboration with Pam Tillis in the years since her tenure with BNA Records ended. But post- commercial peak projects are often a mixed bag, particularly for artists who don’t write a lot of their own material. Finding good songs is frequently a challenge – and then there is the added problem of declining vocal power, which often plagues aging artists.

Fortunately, Morgan has overcome both of those obstacles on her latest collection Letting Go … Slow, which was released by Shanachie Entertainment last week. In an interview with Country Universe she said that she spent a considerable amount of time working to get her voice back in shape. The effort has paid off in spades; she sounds better on Letting Go … Slow than she has in years. And although she relies heavily on cover material to compile an album’s worth of songs, she’s managed to dig a little deeper and come up with some gems that are deserving of another listen but have been largely overlooked by the plethora of artists releasing covers albums in recent years. Read more of this post

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Christmas Time’

rhonda vincent christmas timeRhonda Vincent’s music is always worth hearing, so I was keen to hear her new Christmas album. The tasteful acoustic arrangements are bluegrass at its most mellow, with nothing really up-tempo or challenging. The musicians all play impeccably, with Stuart Duncan’s fiddle in particular shining, supplemented on a few tracks by additional strings. Rhonda’s lovely voice is crystal clear and expressive throughout.

Rhonda wrote four brand new songs. The opening ‘Dreaming Of Christmas’ sets the mood nicely with an upbeat depiction of a family celebration. The pleasant ‘Christmas Time At Home’ is on a similar theme. The melancholy title track is a melodic ballad about missing a loved one no longer there to share the joys of Christmas. The ultra-perky ‘Milk And Cookies’ is as up-tempo as the album gets, and rests right on that fine line between fun and annoying, falling over the latter edge at the end when she pops in a product placement for her long time sponsor Martha White.

The most memorable track is a bright and irresistible version of ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’, featuring a starry lineup comprising the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, an instantly recognisable Bill Anderson whispering the “nine ladies dancing” line, an equally recognisable Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap (not recognisable), Gene Watson, Larry Gatlin, a sweet trio of Jeannie Seely, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis (on “three French hens”), and child singer Emi Sunshine. This is not usually one of my favorite Christmas songs, but the effervescent mood is absolutely charming.

The other well known secular tune included is ‘Jingle Bells’, which rattles along genially with some super fiddle.

A number of well worn carols fill out the remainder of the tracklist, starting with a reflective reading of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’. A straightforward reading of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is also nice, with a string quartet accompaniment. ‘Away In A Manger’, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ are all beautifully done, but do we really need another version of any of them? Rhonda obviously had difficulty narrowing down her selection of material, because she closes up with a medley of a further seven carols apparently strung together at random, accompanied by solo piano. Standing out among these is an intense vocal on ‘O Holy Night’ and the choice of ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’. Maybe she should have hived this medley off into a completely separate EP.

So this is a lovely sounding bluegrass/acoustic country album, but not necessarily an essential purchase if you’ve already got a lot of Christmas music in your collection.

Grade: B

Christmas Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Mr Christmas’

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Paint the Town’

51uqPseH44L1989’s Paint the Town, the third entry in Highway 101’s discography, was the band’s final full length album before Paulette Carlson’s departure as lead singer. Like its two predecessors it was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The songwriting credits boast a number of prestigious names including Kix Brooks, Matraca Berg, Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, Gretchen Peters, and Roger Miller. While not quite as commercially successful as their previous albums, the material is top notch and it received a warm reception from country radio.

“Who’s Lonely Now”, written by Don Cook and a pre-Brooks & Dunn Kix Brooks was the lead single, and it quickly became the last of Highway 101’s four chart toppers. It was followed by my all-time favorite Highway 101 song, “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”, which was written by Justin Tubb and the great Roger Miller, who made a memorable guest appearance in the song’s video. Despite the mournful sounding title and subject matter, it’s a bouncy uptempo tune with plenty of pedal steel. It peaked at #4 and was the band’s last excursion into the Top 10. “This Side of Goodbye” just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11.

The rest of the album is a mix of contemporary and traditional country. On the contemporary side are the opening track “I Can’t Love You Baby” and “Rough and Tumble Heart”, a Pam Tillis co-write that Tillis would cover herself a few years later. More traditional are the plaintive Gretchen Peters-penned “I’ll Paint the Town” (blue, not red — this is no party song) and a gorgeous, version of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, which closes the album. Featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica, a touch of pedal steel and a stellar vocal performance by Paulette Carlson, the track is simply stunning and a good example of why it pays to dig a little deeper into any artist’s catalog to find the hidden gems that are overshadowed by the radio hits.

The album is a mere ten tracks, which was standard for the day, and plays for just over 33 minutes. Though lean and mean it may be, the songs are all winners, with just one dud. “Midnight Angel” had been a Top 20 hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1976. I’ve always liked the song very much and at first it seemed like a number that Carlson could easily nail, but the Highway 101 version is surprisingly lackluster. It’s probably my least favorite track on any of the band’s first three albums. That one misstep aside, however, Paint the Town is top-notch affair that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first released 26 years ago.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘All The Good Ones are Gone’

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Spilled Perfume’

Pam Tillis enjoyed a big hit with this Dean Dillon song.

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Week ending 2/14/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

Charley-Pride_19811955 (Sales): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1955 (Jukebox): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1965: You’re The Only World I Know — Sonny James (Capitol)

1975: Then Who Am I — Charley Pride (RCA)

1985: Ain’t She Something Else — Conway Twitty (Warner Bros.)

1995: Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life) — Pam Tillis (Arista)

2005: Bless The Broken Road — Rascal Flatts (Lyric Street)

2015: Take Your Time — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2015 (Airplay): I See You — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Week ending 2/7/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

pam1955 (Sales): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1955 (Jukebox): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Let Me Go, Lover — Hank Snow (RCA)

1965: You’re The Only World I Know — Sonny James (Capitol)

1975: City Lights — Mickey Gilley (Playboy)

1985: A Place To Fall Apart — Merle Haggard (Epic)

1995: Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life) — Pam Tillis (Arista)

2005: Mud On The Tires — Brad Paisley (Arista)

2015: I See You — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Talladega — Eric Church (EMI Nashville)

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton & Friends – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Like A Hurricane’

likeahurricaneThis 1998 release, Hillman’s first solo effort since 1984’s Desert Rose, found him back on the Sugar Hill label and working once again with his former Desert Rose Band colleagues Herb Pedersen, who produced the album, and Jay Dee Maness, who played steel guitar. Jerry Douglas and David Crosby also appear among the musician credits. Hillman co-wrote eleven of the album’s twelve songs, ten of them with Steve Hill.

Like A Hurricane is a combination of country and rock, with a touch of folk and the occasional pop flourish thrown in. It’s not terribly different from Hillman’s work with the Desert Rose Band, although it is not as slickly produced. Had it appeared a few years earlier, it would probably have been considered a solidly mainstream release and not relegated to a roots-oriented indie label such as Sugar Hill.

In the hands of a lesser artist, an eclectic album like this would seem choppy and disjointed, but Hillman makes the transition from more acoustic and rootsy fare like “Angel’s Cry” and “Second Wind” to harder-edged rock numbers like “Run Again” and “Livin’ On The Edge”, seamlessly and effortlessly. At first glance, the Jackie DeShannon-penned “When You Walk Into The Room” seems out of place on this album. A 1964 pop hit for The Searchers and a #2 country hit for Pam Tillis in 1994, it is the only non-original song on the album, and although it appears to be an odd choice, Hillman puts his owns stamp on the song, and I enjoyed this version much more than I thought I would.

Not surprisingly, Like A Hurricane didn’t produce any charting singles, but it contains a number of well-crafted songs, such as “Second Wind” (my favorite), the title track, and the beautiful “Heaven’s Lullaby” which closes out the album. The folk-tinged “Carry Me Home” reminds me of something that Irish singer Maura O’Connell might have recorded, in no small part due to the dobro-playing of Jerry Douglas. I was slightly bored by some of the more rock-oriented songs like “Livin’ On The Edge” and “Run Again”, which will come as no surprise to my long-time readers.

Like most non-major label releases by artists over the age of 50, Like A Hurricane received little radio airplay and was likely overlooked by a large segment of the record-buying public. If, like me, you missed this ablum when it was first released, you may want to give it a try now. There is much here to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘UnCovered’

UnCoveredBeth Nielsen Chapman was one of the finest songwriters in Nashville in the 1990s, getting a lot of high-profile cuts (and hits), particularly among female artists. More of a genreless singer-songwriter than a purely country one, she enjoyed several hits herself on Adult Contemporary radio in the 90s. Her writing style nonetheless fitted in well with the diversity of 1990s country radio, with her songs running the gamut from sensitive ballads to commercial pop-country. Here she revisits a number of her songs recorded by country artists, focussing on those she never recorded herself.

My favourite song here is the excellent ‘Five Minutes’, a one-last-chance ultimatum delivered by a wife about to leave. Back in the late 80s this was recorded separately by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, becoming a big hit for the latter, and in a nice touch, both women help out on backing vocals on Beth’s version. Her lead vocals are great and the intimate arrangement works perfectly.

I also really enjoyed her version of ‘Nothin’’ I Can Do About It Now’ (Willie Nelson’s last chart-topper). Beth’s version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Strong Enough To Bend’ is also attractively done, mixing vulnerability and strength.

She recruits occasional tour partners Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg to provide call-and-response backing vocals on ‘Almost Home’ , which she wrote with and for Mary Chapin Carpenter. The sunnily positive mid-tempo ‘Here We Are’ was a #2 country hit for Alabama in 1991. I hadn’t realised Beth wrote this one with Vince Gill, but so it appears. Vince makes an appearance to sing the high harmony on this version. Beth wrote the moody ‘Sweet Love Shine’ with the late Waylon Jennings, and it was originally recorded as a duet between Jennings and Andy Griggs. Jessi Colter and Duane Eddy guest on Beth’s cover.

The pretty good piano led mid-tempo ‘Simple Things’ was an AC hit for pianist Jim Brickman with country artist Rebecca Lynn Howard on vocals, and it could have easily been covered in a mainstream country version. The sensitive Maybe That’s All It Takes’ (a late minor hit for Don Williams) is tastefully performed in an AC style with Darrell Scott on harmony. ‘Pray’ is a beautifully sung contemporary Christian song with an ethereal Celtic arrangement and backing vocals from co-writer Muriel Anderson and Amy Grant.

But while Chapman is a fine songwriter, she has some less stellar copyrights to her credit. I always hated Faith Hill’s monster hit version of ‘This Kiss’, and I don’t care for this one much more. The bluesy ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (written for Bonnie Raitt) is a bit bland. She wrote ‘One In A Million’ for the ill-fated Mindy McCready, and it too is poppy and lacking in depth.

I always enjoy hearing songwriters reveal their own take on songs they have written for other artists, and while this is not particularly country, the arrangements are generally tasteful while Chapman’s rich, warm vocals work well on most of the songs included.

Grade: A-

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Country Albums of 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

jason-isbell-southeastern

9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

American_Kid_cover

8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

AnnieUp

7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Woman I Am’

picklerI wasn’t terribly impressed with Kellie Pickler when she first arrived on the scene and quickly wrote her off as a marginal talent without a lot of staying power. I was forced to reassess my opinion of her with the release of last year’s surprisingly good 100 Proof, which found her eschewing the trappings of contemporary country in favor of a more traditional sound. Predictably, 100 Proof’s singles received little support from radio and the album sold poorly. Pickler’s contract with BNA Records was terminated shortly thereafter, and I figured that the artistic growth she showed on 100 Proof was just a one-off. But once again Pickler proved me wrong. She signed with Black River Entertainment last fall, and The Woman I Am, her first album for the indie imprint, was released just this month.

Like 100 Proof, The Woman I Am was produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. Unlike 100 Proof, it is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, serving notice that though Kellie may no longer be a major label artist, she still has her eye on the charts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider most of today’s mainstream releases unlistenable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this album. It has a couple of weak songs and some questionable production choices at times, but from beginning to end it maintains a semblance to actual country music and never dissolves into the lackluster Lite-FM sound that mars so much of today’s country music.

Two singles have been released so far. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a decent ballad that I probably would have liked a lot more if I’d never heard Pam Tillis’ version. The uptempo “Little Bit Gypsy” is Kellie’s current single. I quite enjoyed this one, despite the slightly cluttered nature of the production towards the end. Sadly, neither single has garnered much attention from radio. I don’t know how aggressively Black River will continue to promote this project, but there are several other worthy contenders for future single release.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Pickler is no exception as she opts to hock her engagement ring rather than return it to her two-timing ex-fiance in “Ring For Sale”, which was written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton. “Bonnie and Clyde”, on which Kellie shares a co-writing credit with Kyle Jacobs and Liz Rose, is also quite good, despite a somewhat heavy-handed “Indian Outlaw” like arrangement. It is the ballads, however, on which Pickler truly shines, particularly on the lovely title track, which she also co-wrote, and “Tough All Over”, a Gary Nicholson and Leslie Satcher composition and not the 1990 Shelby Lynne song of the same name. “Buzzin'” is pleasant but lyrically shallow, and “No Cure For Crazy” quickly disintegrates into a too loud and too cluttered sonic mess.

The Woman I Am isn’t an outstanding album, but it is a very good one that proves that 100 Proof wasn’t just a fluke and that there is more substance to Kellie Pickler than one might have guessed based upon her first two albums and the dumb blonde shtick she engaged in at the time. The Woman I Am deserves a listen, even if like me, you weren’t a huge fan of Kellie’s early efforts.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘This Is America’

shepherdIt’s always interesting to see what artistic changes will occur when an artist moves from a major label to an indie.  The conventional wisdom tends to dictate that that artist, now unencumbered by corporate restraints, will be free to release the masterpiece that he or she always wanted to make.  In reality, however, the changes are more likely to occur due to budgetary constraints and access (or lack thereof) to first-rate songs and the guidance of a good producer.  On This Is America, Ashton Shepherd’s  new self-released collection, there isn’t a huge change in artistic direction, which is not entirely surprising since she’s always played a major role in writing her material.  It does suggest that MCA gave her relative freedom to record what she wanted during her two-album stint with the label, though they may not have always marketed the final product aggressively.   The production on This Is America is a little more spare and somewhat generic; whether this is due to personal taste or a smaller budget is not clear.   I haven’t been able to find a producer credit anywhere for the album, but in an interview Shepherd did say that all of the vocal tracks were recorded in one day, which suggests that costs were kept to a minimum.  Unlike the recent self-released album from Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, however, the sound quality on This Is America is excellent throughout.

I enjoy patriotic songs as much as any red-blooded American, but a steady diet of them in recent years, has somewhat eroded my appetite, particularly since many of them appear to have been motivated not by a profound love for God and country but by a desire to capitalize on the emotions of the nation since the September 11th attacks nearly a dozen years ago.   So I can’t say that I was particularly excited when “This Is America” hit iTunes back in July as the album’s advance single.  However,  Ashton sings the song with a great deal of sincerity,  and the song has grown on me with repeated listenings, even though it doesn’t say much that hasn’t been said before.

Like patriotism, nostalgia plays a big role in this album, beginning with the opening number, “Andy”, which looks back at simpler and happier times (that probably never truly existed) and unfavorably compares them to the state of modern life.   Though Ashton is too young to remember The Andy Griffith Show during its initial airing, she does seem to draw more upon her own experiences in the album’s other nostalgic tune “Seventeen Again”, which finds her letting her hair down and reliving some moments of her youth, in an attempt to escape the drudgeries of day-to-day life.   It’s one of the album’s best tracks, and one that with some major label promotional muscle behind it, might have had some commercial potential.

“The Next Time You Cross My Mind”, which sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have recorded in the nineties, is my favorite song on the album, followed by a remake of “Golden Ring”, the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic, with Daryle Singletary acting as Ashton’s duet partner.   Also quite good is “For Boosin’” (sic) , which tells the tale of a now washed-up country singer whose shot at the big time was sabotaged by a drinking problem.  “Final”, an ambitious ballad that follows a relationship through its various stages – courtship, marriage, divorce and death — is reminiscent of Martina McBride, although Ashton’s performance is much more restrained that I imagine Martina’s would have been.

Overall, This Is America is a solid but not outstanding effort, not unlike Ashton’s major label work.  It doesn’t contain anything truly outstanding or memorable, but it is a pleasant listen and in this age of obnoxiously overproduced arena rock, pleasant is enough.   The album is available for download at iTunes and Amazon, and CD copies can be purchased directly from Ashton’s website.

Grade: B