My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Patty Griffin

Album Review: Mandy Barnett — ‘Strange Conversation’

The last time we heard from Mandy Barnett was 2013, when she released I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson. It’s taken five years for her to follow it up and she does so with an album that finds her exploring uncharted territory in her 22-year career.

As Barnett puts it frankly, Strange Conversation isn’t a country album. She recorded it in Muscle Shoals, and through inspiration from the area’s classic sound, she plays instead under the umbrella and within the sonic textures of modern-day Americana and she’s enlisted drummer Marco Giovino and guitarist Doug Lancio to serve as her producers. The former has worked with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller while the latter has collaborated with John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.

Strange Conversation opens with “More Lovin,’” an excellent cover of the song originally recorded by Mabel John. The groove, created by a nice mixture of upright bass and crashing percussion, gives the song an appealing jazzy groove. She travels back to the 1960s for her R&B and soul-infused version of “It’s All Right (You’re Just In Love),” which originates with the Alabama-based band The Tams.

“Dream Too Real To Hold” jumps ahead to 1997 and came to Barnett via Greg Garing, who among his many contributions, worked with Kenny Vaughn to revitalize Lower Broadway in Nashville some time ago. It’s another excellent song, with nice jazzy undertones. The title track is a pleasant ballad which finds Barnett turning in a sultry vocal performance.

The album continues with “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” originally recorded and released by Sonny & Cher in 1972. Barnett mostly keeps the song within the same vein as the original, retaining Hiatt to sing on it with her. They work fine together and the lyric is good, but I hate the fuzzy and cluttered arrangement, which unnecessarily drowns them out. I know it’s in keeping with how the song was intended when written, but it’s very unappealing to my ears.

Tom Waits originally released “Puttin’ On The Dog” in 2000. The lyric, a sexual innuendo, is slinky and the song is downright obscure. Like the Sonny & Cher cover that preceded it, it’s also not to my taste. “All Night” is pure lounge and torch, as though it comes straight from an old smoky jazz club. It fits perfectly within Barnett’s classic wheelhouse.

Neil Sedaka pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett directly. She evokes Rosanne Cash, who I could easily hear covering this song, on the sparse ballad, which she knocks out of the park. “The Fool” is not a cover of the Lee Ann Womack classic, but rather a tune written by legendary country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The barroom anthem, one of the album’s best tracks, revives Barnett’s classic sound and gives the latter half of the Strange Conversation some much-needed pep and variety. She closes the ten-track album with a cover of Andre Williams’ “Put A Chain On It,” a slice of straight-up R&B that features backing from the McCrary Sisters.

Besides insisting Strange Conversation isn’t a country album, which it most certainly is not, Barnett also says it purposefully doesn’t rely on the full-power of her voice. This choice, which makes use of her sultry lower register, gives the music a different feel from her previous albums, which I like. I certainly appreciate Barnett’s artistry and feel the end result is the album she set out to make. The tracks are on YouTube and I highly recommend you go check out the album for yourself.

Grade: B+

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Song Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Hollywood’

Ever since debuting “All The Trouble,” Lee Ann Womack has been busy preparing for the Oct. 27 release of her ninth album, The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone. She completed a mini acoustic tour with Patty Griffin and starred as the main attraction at AmericanaFest in Nashville, sponsored by The Americana Music Association. Events included the annual Lee Ann Womack & Friends concert and an intimate conversation and performance at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum moderated by Peter Cooper.

Womack also participated in the Build Series in New York City (The interview is on Facebook) and gave a wide-ranging interview with Noisey, a music brand created through Vice with the mission “to document new and exciting music across the globe — from pop’s heavy-hitters to tiny garage bands and everything in between.” Womack vented her frustrations with mainstream Nashville and revealed she had to constantly battle her traditional tendencies with the need to satisfy her major label’s bottom line.

Amongst these performances and interviews, she premiered “Hollywood,” which she also co-wrote with Waylon Payne and Adam Wright. The ethereal ballad finds Womack in familiar territory, as the wife in a disintegrating marriage with a less than forthcoming spouse. Like all her songs, the wife has every clue what’s happening before her eyes, so much so she routinely begs her husband to have a substantive conversation with her, both at the breakfast table:

Morning cup of coffee, not a single word

And if you do say something, it’s only about work

Every time I ask you, you just say we’re good

And in bed, where he admits his anticipation:

We say good night, I love you

We never miss our cue

I ask you if you mean it

You say yes I knew you would

The wife is clearly exhausted from fighting for everything he won’t give her, which Womack brings out in her performance, strong yet breathy. Like any woman who trusts her intuition, the wife only wants one thing out in the open — the truth:

Like the silver screen, its a technicolor dream

We pretend it’s real, but it’s only make-believe

But it’s the killer hook that drives everything home. The wife only doubts herself once, right after he fails to give her the answers she so desperately needs:

Either I’m a fool for askin’

Or you belong in Hollywood

I’ll freely admit it took me a minute when I first heard “Hollywood” to digest the presentation, from the dark production and background singers to Womack’s vocal, which goes in and out from her soprano to her falsetto. But on repeat listenings, I get what’s going on here. This song is so old Hollywood, so Mad Men-esque it’s almost scary. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it eventually finally got me.

Grade: A 

Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

imageIf there was ever a time for Dixie Chicks to mount a comeback tour in the United States, it would be now, while we’re in the midst of the most decisive presidential election in our nation’s history. Dixie Chicks are a political band, for better or worse, and not just because they register folks to vote in the concession area before, during and after each show.

The election does play a role, albeit a small one, in this latest production. The MMXVI Tour, as it’s being called, exists to commemorate the watershed moment Natalie Maines replaced Laura Lynch as lead singer twenty years ago. The success that followed forever changed the trajectory of mainstream country music, although this show, fierce country-tinged rock, spends more time ignoring that legacy than honoring it.

The balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Soldier” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incarcerated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘The Majestic Silver Strings’

MajesticSilverStrings-AmazonReleased in 2011, The Majestic Silver Strings finds Buddy Miller teaming up with guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz for an album combined mostly of classic country covers. The group is joined by a slew of guest vocalists along the way.

Much as I suspected, the record is a guitar-based album comprised of instrumentals with the guest artists providing the vocals. There are, however, a few such instrumentals sprinkled throughout. The album opens with a haunting take on Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call.” The band strips the tune of its western themes, which is a bit odd but otherwise excellent. “Freight Train” is jauntier and just as sonically appealing.

Lee Ann Womack joins the group on two tracks. “Meds” is a dark ballad about a woman in a mental institution that renders Womack, who sings in a breathy tone, almost unrecognizable. “Return To Me” features a long instrumental opening before Womack begins with an aching vocal.

Ribot takes the reins on three tracks. “Barres De La Prison,” a prodding ballad he doesn’t elevate with his dreary, but appropriate, vocal. The group turns “Why Baby Why” into 1950s rockabilly funk, which comes off slightly jarring. For his third contribution, Ribot tackles “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” This track is also extremely slow and very difficult to get into.

Ann McCrary joins the group on “No Good Lover,” a jazzy number with Western Swing undertones. Chocolate Genius fronts “Dang Me,” which is one of the stronger tracks on the project. Although I do find it weird, they find the sinister side of the song Roger Miller didn’t even hint at with his original recording.

Patty Griffin joins the band on “I Want to Be with You Always,” a brilliant recording that finds her harmonizing with Miller6a00d8341c630a53ef014e5fa47bba970c framed in Pedal Steel. Shawn Colvin takes the lead on “That’s The Way Love Goes.” The Merle Haggard standard is turned into a sparse ballad that beautifully allows her voice to shine through.

“Why I’m Walkin’” is yet another ballad, this time fronted by Emmylou Harris. The track is very slow and isn’t helped by Harris’ far too breathy vocal. The final track, “God’s Wing’ed House” spotlights Miller’s wife Julie. It’s actually a duet between the pair and it’s lovely.

To say the least, I didn’t enjoy this album. I adore the concept and found a couple of the tracks appealing, but it just didn’t do much for me overall. The jazzy overtones that complete the sonic makeup of the record just aren’t to my taste at all. I still think you should seek out your own opinion as it could differ greatly from mine. This isn’t a terrible album in the least and I can see the quality within it. But it just wasn’t for me.

Grade: B-

 

Spotlight Artist: Buddy Miller

buddy millerAnyone whose resume’ includes a spell leading Emmylou Harris’s backing band is going to be a great musician (just think of alumni like Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs), and this month’s spotlight artist is no exception. Born in Ohio in 1952, where his father was serving in the Air Force, Steven “Buddy” Miller was raised in New Jersey, where he started out playing stand-up bass in his high school bluegrass band. He is now best known for his brilliant guitar playing – and, of course, for his songwriting and production, as well as being an artist in his own right.

He met future wife and musical partner Julie Griffin (born in 1956) in Austin, Texas, in 1975 when he joined Rick Stein & the Alleycats, a band of which she was a member (she was a dissenting voice). They subsequently moved together to New York and formed the Buddy Miller Band. Julie’s personal journey led her to leave the band (in which she was replaced by singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin), and she returned to Texas. Buddy followed her, and he and Julie married in 1981, and lived for periods in Texas, Seattle and California before eventually settling in Nashville in 1993.

streetlightJulie was now set on a career in Christian music. The band Streetlight, which featured Buddy, Julie and one other man, released a six-track Christian contemporary EP in 1983 for the Sparrow label. Julie, a distinctive vocalist and excellent songwriter, began making solo records in 1990, still as a Christian artist. Her solo career slowed after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, with no new solo recordings since 1999, but she has continued to work with Buddy, and they have recorded several duet albums.

Buddy and Julie found congenial musical company in Nashville, and their songs have been covered by many country, Americana and other artists. Buddy found work playing on sessions, and discovered a gift for producing. He has built a recording studio in his Nashville home, and has been acclaimed for his production work on records by Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, soul singer Solomon Burke, and Ralph Stanley. He served as music director for the second and third seasons of the TV drama Nashville.

In c.1995 Buddy became the guitar player for Spyboy, the trio Emmylou formed to support her tour promoting her Wrecking Ball album, and he stayed with her for eight years. He has also toured in the bands of Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In 2008-9 he took front stage alongside Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin on the Three Girls And Their Buddy tour, interrupted by a heart attack from his fortunately made a full recovery.

Alongside his sidesman and studio duties, Buddy began recording his own music in 1995 with Your Love And Other Lies. He has interspersed solo records with duet projects with wife Julie, and one with old friend Jim Lauderdale. Buddy’s latest project, Cayamo Sessions At Sea, was released last Friday, with a host of guest stars, and we are delighted to be spending February focussing on his music here.

Album Review – Radney Foster – ‘Everything I Should’ve Said’

RF.EISHS-11To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Grade: B+

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – Patty Griffin – ‘American Kid’

American_Kid_coverThe loss of a parent is a monumental milestone and common denominator we all share as humans. As ‘The Greatest Generation’ whittles down, our living links to twentieth century history become non-existent. And if you’re like Patty Griffin, you weren’t prepared for this inevitable moment. The gaping hole caused by the death of her father, Lawrence Joseph Griffin, a veteran of WWII, became the geneses for her seventh studio project, American Kid, her first album of all-new material in six years.

Griffin covers the extremes of her feelings with sharp poignancy, opening the record with a jaunty ode to the hereafter (“Go Wherever You Wanna Go”) and a cynical tale about dying in the Sunshine State (“Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida”). The acoustic guitars and mandolin, coupled with Griffin’s warm cheerful vocal, heighten the sanguinity in the former while that same mandolin strikes an aggressively angry tone on the latter that works with her biting yet somewhat esoteric lyric. She closes the album on a similar note; opting to speak to her father directly on the beautiful but slow “Gonna Miss You When Your Gone.”

Self-reflection is one of the great virtues of American Kid and Griffin spends a lot of time in her father’s shoes, panting exquisite portraits of his full-life and grappling with his inner psyche. This approach would’ve backfired in lesser hands, but Griffin clearly knows exactly what she’s doing. A simple acoustic guitar frames “Faithful Son” a haunting manifestation about being taken for granted, while those same feelings of inner pondering are brought to a new dimension on the revelatory “Not Another Man” as a conversation between man and God.

“Irish Boy” finds Griffin in a near-whisper as she recounts a failed romance her dad encountered after the war, while she penetrates jubilee on the sing-song-y “Get Ready Marie,” likely the origin story of her parent’s love affair. Both are excellent, although I wish she’d picked up the pace a little on “Irish Boy” – it’s just too slow. “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” is a cover of the Lefty Frizzell classic, but with Griffin’s delicate reading, you would’ve thought she wrote it herself.

First single “Ohio” is one of only a handful of places where Griffin isn’t in deep reflection about her dad and one of two to feature both lyrical and vocal assistance from her beau Robert Plant. It’s a masterpiece, and one of those rare records that only come around about once in a generation. The other is the deeply evocative “Highway Song,” proving these two need to make a collaborative record together before long.

Through the winning combination of her gorgeously articulate songwriting and deeply expressive voice (which boasts a remarkably similar tone to Lori McKenna’s), Griffin lays her pain on the floor and bares nothing at the expense of the listener. The record sags in the middle, where one too many slow jams beg for some change in tempo, but the production never obstructs the quality of Griffin’s pen, which always shines through.

American Kid is the first fully realized artistic statement of 2013 and one of the more personal albums of the decade so far. Even though I couldn’t say it on my first go around, I’m in love with the beauty and deep penetrating ache of this record and beg anyone looking for the essence of artistry to seek out a copy.

Grade: A 

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Emotion’

220px-Martina_McBride_Emotion_album_coverFollowing the triple platinum success of Evolution, Martina McBride’s most consistent project to date singles-wise, didn’t prove an easy task. By the time “Whatever You Say” finished its chart run, the climate of mainstream country had changed. The traditional sounds of Patty Loveless and Vince Gill were gone, replaced by pop fare championed by Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain. And to keep up with the times McBride followed suit, releasing her sixth album Emotion, easily her slickest to date, in September 1999.

The changes worked. Lead single “I Love You,” an uptempo rocker by Keith Follesé (who also co-wrote McGraw’s “Something Like That”), Adrienne Follesé, and Tammy Hyle, not only topped the country charts for five weeks, but became a top 20 pop and adult contemporary hit as well. The popularity of the song, one of my favorites of her uptempo numbers, was only helped by its inclusion on the Soundtrack to the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere film Runaway Bride.

Second single “Love’s The Only House” brought McBride back to the “issue” songs she’s made her trademark. A top 5 hit, the song (written by Tom Douglas and Buzz Cason) touches upon the common denominator of love in various situations. Drenched in harmonica and electric guitars, it’s good but weird enough to turn some people off. I’ve never really loved it, although I’ve let it grow on me over the years.

Third single “There You Are,” a piano-laced pop ballad, wasn’t much better in quality, taking zero chances both vocally and thematically. The track, a  #10 peaking hit, was featured on the Where The Heart Is Soundtrack in mid-2000. Much better is the now largely forgotten fourth single, “It’s My Time.” Composed by Tammy Hyler, Billy Crain, and Kim Tribble, the up-tempo number is a throwback to the Way That I Am and Wild Angles days. It’s catchy, has a well-constructed story, and deserved better than its #11 peak at country radio.

I can see where people strongly dislike this album. In one release McBride went from a strong intellectual songstress to a purveyor of two-bit candy coated pop. The majority of the album tracks simply have nothing substantial to say, and this effort feels like a calculated move to reach Hill’s adult contemporary heights. Tracks like “Do What You Do,” “Make Me Believe” and “Anything and Everything” are dreck, empty filler. Thankfully “I Ain’t Going Nowhere” is catchy so it rises above the pack, but her less than engaged vocal fails to draw the audience in.

Luckily for the audience McBride hadn’t completely lost her sensibilities, and broke up the pop monotony with some well-chosen covers. Matraca Berg co-wrote “Anything’s Better Than Feeling The Blues,” a very good ticked off revenge number. Gretchen Peters wrote the album’s highlight “This Uncivil War,” a stunning play-on-theme relationship song comparing a couple’s battle to that of an actual war. Also strong is Patty Griffin’s “Goodbye,” although the recording would’ve been a knockout had McBride recorded a country vocal on it, opposed to imitating the sweet and breathy high notes favored by female pop singers.

Emotion is a very mixed bag; an album that feels like it was designed for soccer mom types who prefer their music light, airy, and void of substance. It’s by no means McBride’s worst recording, that would still be coming down the line in the decade to come. A good majority of the tracks are very, very strong and she deservedly won the 1999 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award based on the success of “I Love You.”

But I wish McBride had tried just a little harder to find stronger material that she could’ve sung with more energy. Even she sounds a little bored at times.

Grade: B 

Random playlist 5

Here are five songs I’ve been playing a lot recently…

Elizabeth Cook – “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” … I’ve been re-watching my Weeds DVDs in anticipation of season eight’s premiere (it’s this Sunday!) and thanks to the show’s excellent taste in and use of popular music, I was reminded of the sorta-title track to Cook’s 2007 Rodney Crowell-produced album. This bit of raucous ear candy is bitingly funny in its flippant take on the old gender double standards.  Even if it’s not your style, it’s worth a spin if only to hear the lady sing the word “honey”. It’s great.

Waylon Jennings – “You Asked Me To” … I’ve been adding to my limited Waylon Jennings collection lately. After I got a copy of Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes set, it was this top 10 hit I kept spinning. It’s a straightforward confessional from a man devoted to the woman he loves and his lack of regard for much else. Because it’s Waylon, it comes with a powerful bass line and plenty of the singer’s strong-jaw personality . Co-writer Billy Joe Shaver later recorded it with Willie Nelson and Elvis even took a shot at it, but Waylon owns this one outright.

Carrie Underwood – “Wine After Whiskey” … I hope the Carrie Underwood camp releases this to radio at some point. It has all the elements of my favorite classic country music: a tale of lost love told with an alcohol metaphor. Underwood turns in an unusually understated performance on this track she co-wrote with Dave Berg (of current Rodney Atkins’ hits fame) and heavy hitter Tom Shapiro, and the steel guitar flourishes almost make up for the lack of fiddles.

Dwight Yoakam – “Intentional Heartache” … Woman scorned, gets pissed, takes revenge. Not so much an original concept. But one should never underestimate Dwight Yoakam’s ability to make a retro theme sound like the first time you heard it. Could be because in this snide tale of said scorned woman motoring to North Carolina to return her man’s prized possessions – “boots, Bud cap, and signed Dale Jr. poster” (but not before spraypainting them and his Monte Carlo neon green) – Yoakam sounds positively delighted to not be on the receiving end this time. That’s my theory.  And a blistering bluegrass meets rockabilly band jams while it all happens.

Reba & Kelly Clarkson – “Up to the Mountain (Live in Dayton, Ohio)” … I was at this show, but I didn’t capture this video. On their 2 Worlds, 2 Voices Tour, the two spent the entire evening turning their respective hits into duets. The result was a vocal showdown of shouting and warbling for the most part. But they kept their showboating to a minimum on this verse-trading number (and a few others) and with a simple piano backdrop turn in a definitive performance of my favorite Patty Griffin song.

What’s your current fancy on your chosen listening device?

Album Review – Lori McKenna – ‘Lorraine’

The mark of a great album lies in the ability to match exceptionally well-written and well-crafted songs, with an equally as powerful a singer. When one element is missing, the whole project fails. In the case of McKenna, she has crafted perfection. Lorraine is also the best country album by a female artist since Miranda Lambert’s Revolution. The mixture of both heartbreak and hope, coupled with a sense of deep longing, make this project sparkle. Never has the emptiness of loosing a parent at a young age (McKenna lost her mother when she was seven) been so palpable and the ache in moving forward so heartbreakingly real.

To listen to McKenna is to hear the truth of a woman who has endured and lived. She lives with her husband, a plumber, and their five children in Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was quietly perfecting her sound when, in 2005, she caught the ear of Faith Hill. Hill was so taken aback by what she heard, she demanded to hear everything McKenna had ever written. As a result, Hill included three of McKenna’s songs (“Stealing Kisses”, “Fireflies,” and “If You Ask”) on her 2005 Fireflies album. McKenna has since gone on to record a major label country album (2007’s Unglamorous) and have her songs covered by the likes of Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, singer/actress Mandy Moore, Jimmy Wayne, and most recently Keith Urban. And a track she co-wrote, “Chances Are,” was sung by actor Garrett Hedlund and included in the movie Country Strong. The major label deal has since ended, and her new album Lorraine, her given name, and that of her mother, is self-released through Signature Sounds.

McKenna’s greatest appeal isn’t her singing and songwriting – it’s the throwback nature of her music. She isn’t bred from the same cloth as Jennifer Nettles or Carrie Underwood and she’s more accessible to the mainstream audience than either Patty Griffin or Lucinda Williams. McKenna is most importantly a thinking person’s country singer, a modern day Emmylou Harris, and the rightful torchbearer of that all but dead subset of the genre. Her country is neither polished or glossy – it’s just her truth as she knows it.

On the 13 tracks, McKenna proves she is leaps and bounds ahead of her peers by actually having something substantive to deliver to her audience. By staying clear of the cliche machine that is Nashville, she never once succumbs to the trickery of the business. Making her mark by taking complete creative control and forging her own path, McKenna puts quality first – something sorely missing from 99 percent of the recordings emerging from Music City. Lorraine showcases a woman free to do what she pleases and deliver spectacular results.

The opening song, “The Luxury of Knowing,” recently scooped up by Keith Urban for the deluxe edition of his Get Closer album, sets the scene. Both somber and brooding, “Knowing” commands attention for McKenna’s stunning vocal alone. She stretches her unmistakeable twang further than ever before, creating an emotional ache so palpable you feel right along with her. Credit must also go to Urban who clearly knows a true gem when he hears it. It’s just too bad his version will never bring the song the mainstream attention it deserves. It hardly matters anyway, after hearing McKenna’s performance on the song, no one else will dare touch it.

Another standout track, “Still Down Here,” the story of a person talking to their loved ones up in heaven, is an early favorite for song of the year. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a close relative or friend will instantly relate to McKenna’s yearning to be remembered by those from beyond the grave. With all the attention focused squarely on “Knowing,” “Here” will likely be left in the cold. But if you only buy one song this year, make it this one. Very rarely does a song come along, especially nowadays, so compelling in nature. It’ll haunt you long after it’s over.

The remarkable thing about Lorraine is the production – never too loud or too soft, the musical arraignments fit each song perfectly. One mark of a great album is the ability to let the lyrics take center stage. When the musical arraignment swallows both the lyrics and vocal performances, all potential for greatness is lost. One could argue McKenna needs to rock a bit harder every now and then but what would that prove? Optimism and joy aren’t her nature and it isn’t like she’s looking to stand alongside Kenny Chesney at football stadiums. With Lorraine she’s found the perfect marriage every major label artist should be striving for – you don’t need to make noise to be heard. Let it be a lesson for everyone.

One could argue that McKenna spends far too long as the brooding sufferer – the wife begging for attention from the man who once couldn’t get enough (“Stealing Kisses”) or the woman allowing herself to forgive the man who strays (“If You Ask”). To listen to her music is to listen to someone hurting. You could also fault McKenna for still seeming stuck by the most significant moment of her childhood. But to write her off is to turn your back on one of the most important singer-songwriters working today. Lorraine is a masterpiece because of its authenticity and because it’s a clear anecdote to every current trend in country music. Simply put, Lorraine has visible heart and soul. She doesn’t pander or succumb to anyone but her own gut – and she’s all the better for it in the end. I couldn’t ask for more.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Rosanne Cash’s first inroads on the country charts came from the minor hits on Right Or Wrong, but it would be Seven Year Ache, with its disparate themes of melancholy and female-empowerment, coupled with exceptionally cerebral material, that set the standard for Cash’s next decade of recording. The memes set here, of folk singer-songwriter sensibilities meets modern pop-country production, have since been repeated by the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and any number of other fringe-favorites.

I’ve already written about this album’s first single and its impact on me as a country fan.  Even today, with a seriously out-dated production – the kind of synthetic hand-clap percussion employed here went out with the Atari, and for many of the same reasons – the track still packs a mighty, meaty punch. The dark, contemplative mood of the song – the internal monologue of bewildered, yet determined individual – is offset by the breezy melody and the entire affair is framed by a looping and driving steel guitar track supplied by Hank DeVito. Cash reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband and producer Rodney Crowell.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  ”That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.  In 1981, “Seven Year Ache” hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, #6 on the Adult Contemporary list, and #22 on the Hot 100.  It’s been covered several times over the years, most notably by Trisha Yearwood (with Cash featured on vocals, providing the harmonies Emmylou Harris sang on the original recording) on 2001’s Inside Out.

The second single and second #1, Leroy Preston’s “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train”, more than any other track Rosanne Cash has recorded save for covers of the Man In Black’s songs, is a testament to Johnny Cash’s musical influence on his oldest daughter.  The steady and chugging back beat is accompanied by blistering guitar work, and progressive lyrics like:

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

“Blue Moon With Heartache” is the only song here besides the title track Cash herself put pen to paper to create. On this brooding number, the results were less satisfying. The story of a woman living in a troubled relationship, and daydreaming about leaving, is played out amid the intrusive electric piano and a swelling, but hushed, string arrangement.  This, too, topped the country singles chart, but a much better candidate for the final single would have been “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”, written by Merle Haggard and Red Simpson. “Go” is the most traditional country song on the album with steel guitar flourishes and no signs of pop or rock influences, and while simple in form is an effective heart’s-breaking lyric.

At times, Cash seems bent on pushing the boundaries of a female country album as far as she possibly can, in both form and function. Listening to the roadhouse rocker “What Kinda Girl”, clearly as influenced by Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones as by Loretta Lynn and The Tennessee Three, the cheeky lyrics – “I don’t wear pajamas and I don’t sniff glue” – and butchered-grammar rhyme scheme will turn your head on the first few listens, but the track loses much of its appeal soon after you’re over the cheap tricks.  “Only Human” may be the first time, and maybe still the only, instance of a woman using the word “stoned” on a mainstream country album. Keith Sykes’ honest lyric is marred somewhat by the straight ’80s pop production and the loud backing vocals, but is a marvelous song nonetheless that finds the narrator lamenting her own mortality for the anguish it indirectly causes. Another miss is  “I Can’t Resist” which ventures into easy-listening territory with Phil Kenzie’s saxophone playing and the singer’s detached vocal. “Where Will The Words Come From” with Crowell and Harris providing perfectly desolate harmonies, save for a minimal amount of the era’s background noise, follows the singer’s more recent sounds with its spare production.

Seven Year Ache was an album of firsts for Cash, not just in style and substance, but for being her first #1 charting album, housing her first #1 country singles, and her first pop hit.  It also marks the singer’s first instance of finding her artistry. Despite the missteps in production, which can easily be blamed on the release date as much as the artist and producer, this is a collection of great songs that set the stage for the first phase of a remarkable career.

Grade: A-

The album was released as a 2-for-1 with Rosanne’s U.S. debut album and has been re-released on CD and for digital download.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘All I Intended To Be’

Emmylou Harris’ third album for the Nonesuch label found her reunited with producer and former husband Brian Ahern. All I Intended To Be would feature Harris’ most country arrangements in over a decade, and would be hailed by most as the singer’s triumphant return to a traditional country sound, which it certainly is. More than a return to form, this is also an album that finds Harris bringing the broader songwriting selection that characterized her Americana work, and striking the perfect balance between the two in sound and song. Peaking at #4 on the Country Albums chart and #22 on the Billboard 200, Harris earned her highest showing on either since her hit-making days.

The slow-burning opener ‘Shores of White Sand’, is a tale of a woman not sure where to go in life and features steel guitar flourishes to help illustrate the lonely feel of it all.

The album’s centerpiece is Jude Johnstone’s exquisite ‘Hold On’,a tender tune addressed to a man who behaves as if life has lost all spark. As the singer attempts to assuage his uncertainty and remind him of better times,

I know you didn’t plan for this
But that’s the way it always starts
Just lookin’ for a little kick
Instead you bought a broken heart

the tempo progressively builds, aided mostly by dualing acoustic and electric guitars, and Harris’ delivery becomes more forceful.

Emmylou co-wrote ‘How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower’ which tells the story of A.P. and Sara Carter, with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, after the three saw a documentary about the legendary country music family. The recently deceased Kate McGarrigle appears on this sweetly acoustic track singing harmonies, and plays a banjo solo as well.

Aside from those co-writes, Emmylou’s songwriting is represented here with ‘Take That Ride’, a melody-driven mid-tempo tale of a flame burned out, with the narrator staying more out of lack of interest in leaving than love. Harris also wrote the sparse ‘Not Enough’, which recounts the story of the death of a dear friend, and the emotional steps that surround it. As Harris’ plaintive vocal bends the hard-hitting lines – “Oh my dear friend, what could I do, I just came home to bury you” – it’s clear she’s mastered the art of melancholy story-telling.

Emmylou’s songs stand up with the other Americana mainstays like Patty Griffin and Tracy Chapman she’s included here. That’s best evidenced by the must-hear ‘Gold’, with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill contributing harmonies. In it, the singer admits defeat in a relationship where she simply couldn’t meet her lover’s ridiculous expectations. ‘Gold’ also features the album’s most traditional arrangement, complete with a rolling steel guitar solo.

A nod to two of country music’s greatest songwriters come from Emmylou’s take on Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’, where exquisite harmonies from Stuart Duncan, Mike Auldridge, and John Starling play perfectly with the mournful fiddle backdrop. She includes a mostly acoustic, and somewhat plodding, take on Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’, sang as a duet with John Starling.

While re-exploring the more acoustic sound of her best-known work, Harris delivered an album of solid songs, made all the better by the greatest instrument in the credits: her own seasoned voice.

Grade: A-

Buy it at amazon.

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Single Review: Gwyneth Paltrow – ‘Country Strong’

“Country Strong” is a very conventionally-produced power anthem, with fluffy lyrics performed by a beautiful blonde singer. In other words, it has all the trappings of a potential smash hit. Having grown weary of the steady onslaught of outside-the-genre celebrities trying to crack the country music market in recent years, I was initially more than a bit skeptical upon learning that Gwyneth Paltrow was releasing a single to country radio. Therefore, I was a pleasantly surprised after listening to the song to discover that Paltrow proves herself to be a competent, if non-distinctive, vocalist, though admittedly the excellent harmony vocals provided by Vince Gill and Patty Griffin help to camouflage Paltrow’s vocal shortcomings. I may revise my opinion of Gwyneth’s singing depending on how her live performance on the upcoming CMA Awards show goes, but in the studio, at least, she is definitely up to the task.

Written by Jennifer Hanson, Tony Martin and Mark Nesler, and produced by Byron Gallimore, “Country Strong” is the title track of a new soundtrack album being released by RCA this week, to promote the upcoming motion picture of the same title. In the film, Paltrow portrays a fallen country star, struggling to recover from alcoholism and rebuild her career. Tim McGraw co-stars as her manager and husband.

There is nothing particularly memorable or interesting about this record, and in fact, a strong case can be made that the last thing country radio needs right now is another generic, relentlessly positive female empowerment anthem. However, since the track’s purpose is solely to act as a promotional tool for a movie, and since Gwyneth Paltrow is not normally known as a singer, I’m prepared to cut her and the record a little slack. And since, presumably, Paltrow’s character triumphs over her adversities by the end of the film, the positive message is entirely appropriate.

A music video of “Country Strong” can be viewed on YouTube. The single can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon. The soundtrack album, which also contains contributions from Chris Young and Patty Loveless, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, Trace Adkins, Lee Ann Womack, and others is also available from Amazon.

Grade: B

ACM Awards: My Kind Of Country’s choices

Last week we revealed our predictions for Sunday’s ACM Awards ceremony. Now we’ll let you know who we’d actually like to win. We had a number of unanimous predictions, mainly relating to Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, but we’re a bit more divided when it comes to our personal choices.

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
Kenny Chesney
Toby Keith
Brad Paisley: J.R. Journey, Occasional Hope, Meg
George Strait: Razor X

Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

J.R.: I think Brad is about 3 years overdue for an Entertainer of the Year win. He’s one of the best we’ve got.
OH: He apparently puts on a great live show, has a good image, is a popular choice to co-host awards shows himself, and it’s his turn. Actually, as J.R. says, it’s been his turn for a while, and he keeps getting overlooked. Now his commercial star seems to be waning a bit, I hope he doesn’t miss the boat on this award at one of the major awards shows. It’s a shame this category is fan-voted.
Meg: Top tour, great sales & #1s, appearances everywhere – Brad’s been working hard and deserves this.
Razor: This is a pretty underwhelming list of nominees. I don’t think the Zac Brown Band has risen to the level yet where they can be taken seriously as contenders for this award – and the veterans who usually get nominated (Chesney, Urban, Keith, and Paisley) haven’t done anything that spectacular in the past year. For that reason, I’m picking my favorite from this list of entertainers as the person to whom I’d like to see this award given.

TOP MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley: J.R., Meg
Darius Rucker
George Strait: Occasional Hope, Razor X
Keith Urban

Razor: Again, I’m going strictly by personal preference. Strait is the only really decent singer in this group of otherwise weak vocalists.
OH: He’s the best singer of these guys and has the best current album release.

TOP FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Miranda Lambert
Reba McEntire: J.R., Meg, Razor X
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood
Lee Ann Womack: Occasional Hope

Razor: She is simply the best in this group of nominees, and against the odds, has had a resurgence at radio in the past year.
J.R.: Who else would I pick? She did have a great album which was just certified gold and recently released the longest-running chart-topper of her 33 year career and is currently part of the hottest country music ticket on the road right now. This is Reba’s 14th nomination with 7 wins in this category in the past 25 years. That’s impressive.
Meg: She’s had a great year with a super single in ‘Consider Me Gone’ at #1 for 4 weeks, a gold album, and arguably has the best vocals and interpretation out there.
OH: I love her voice the most of the nominees, and although flawed I liked her album the most. I hope her new album is better than the lead single though.

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Songwriters sound off

The recent minor Twitter storm elicited by Miranda Lambert’s hurt feelings over singer-songwriter Patty Griffin saying in Entertainment Weekly that she thought the latter’s cover of her song ‘Getting Ready’ on 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was “loud”, has led me to think about the question of whether what writers say in public about covers of their songs is generally what they truly think.

In the original interview, Griffin was asked for her opinion of several covers of her songs:

”It doesn’t have to be loud,” she says of Lambert’s raucous ”Getting Ready.” ”To me, it’s tongue-in-cheek. When you’re younger, forces inside of you are telling you to stand on a table and scream and tell people to look at you.”

This is actually a rather more fundamental criticism than the initial impression that volume was the problem. Rather, this sounds like the writer of a song who feels an artist misinterpreted it, in this case by taking the lyric too much on face value.

I have some sympathy for both parties here; it seems perfectly reasonable for Miranda Lambert to be disappointed that her effort did not meet with the approval of Ms. Griffin, who is (or was) obviously someone whose work she admires, and I have no doubt that she approached her cover of the song with a genuine sense of respect. Yet to me it seems naive, and perhaps even disingenuous of any artist to assume that they have done such a favor to a writer by covering their song that it must be met by nothing but grateful plaudits, which is the impression given by Miranda’s follow-up Tweet, “Sad when your hero’s [sic] let you down”.

I believe an artist should have the freedom to interpret a song as they choose, and not necessarily follow the style or feel of the original. But I also believe that the writer is entitled not to like the results, and to say so if they choose to do so. Professional songwriters whose living depends on getting cuts must feel they should keep a tactful silence should they dislike any particular version of one of their songs. I am sure that many more left-field singer-songwriters are also grateful for the money and the name recognition which comes when a successful chart act covers a song – but that doesn’t mean they should feel obliged to say they love the recording whenever they’re asked.

Dolly Parton, on the other hand, stands on the opposite side of the spectrum. She is a very generous songwriter who has been very open to wildly different takes on her songs, for instance Whitney Houston’s pop-R&B reimagining of her ‘I Will Always Love You’ and the stylistic variety of the covers on the tribute album Just Because I’m A Woman. But she is in a different position to some degree given her own status; these covers, whether successful or otherwise, cannot detract from the success Dolly herself originally had with the song. She rarely speaks negatively about anyone in any case. Similarly, Randy Travis, who made his name reclaiming traditional country from pop influences in the 80s, was politely complimentary about current pop-country singer Carrie Underwood’s version of his 1988 hit ‘I Told You So’, and was rewarded by a cameo on the single.

Do you think songwriters should take the money and shut up, or say only nice things about covers of their songs?  Or should they be free to criticize a singer’s interpretation of their lyrics?

Our Grammy predictions

The 52nd annual Grammy Awards show airs January 31, 2010 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Earlier we told you who we’d each like to see winning in the country categories this year. Now it’s time to go out on a limb and say who we expect to win. We didn’t do very well last time, due to collectively underestimating the CMA voters’ enthrallment to commercial success.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance
Trace Adkins – ‘All I Ask For Anymore’: Chris
Billy Currington – ‘People Are Crazy’
Jamey Johnson – ‘High Cost Of Living’: Jordan Stacey, Occasional Hope, Razor X
George Strait – ‘Living For The Night’: J.R. Journey
Keith Urban – ‘Sweet Thing’

Jordan: The Grammys always go for this type of song: critically acclaimed, sold a lot of albums, and has been listed in best of lists all year. The Grammy’s won’t ignore Jamey Johnson.
Razor: While I like the Trace Adkins song very much, I think the award for Male Vocal Performance will – and should – go to Jamey Johnson. It received a tepid response from country radio, but the Grammy’s are somewhat less inhibited and Puritanical in their selections. This was a true highlight of 2009, and I expect that the Grammy voters will recognize that and reward the song appropriately.
OH: See my comments below on Song. I believe Jamey will win at least one of these categories, but possibly not both.
J.R.: Strait is long overdue for a string of trophies from the Grammy’s. His first-ever statuette came from the NARAS last year in the Best Country Album race, and I think he’ll add to his collection this year.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance
Miranda Lambert – ‘Dead Flowers’
Martina McBride – ‘I Just Call You Mine’
Taylor Swift – ‘White Horse’: J.R. Journey, Occasional Hope
Carrie Underwood – ‘Just A Dream’: Chris, Jordan Stacey, Razor X
Lee Ann Womack – ‘Solitary Thinkin”

Razor: ‘Just A Dream’ and ‘White Horse’ are the only two songs in this category that can legitimately be called hits. It would be a further travesty for Taylor Swift to win over Carrie in a vocal performance categeory. The Grammy’s are more prone than the CMAs or ACMs to reward artistry over commercial success. While ‘Just A Dream’ is no artistic masterpiece, Carrie is hands down the superior vocalist.
OH: The Grammy voters don’t always care if something’s a hit, but nothing here is sufficiently artistically compelling to win on that account. I agree it’s between Taylor and Carrie, and travesty or not, I think Taylor will carry it on her current awards and commercial momentum.
J.R.: Taylor is white hot right now, pardon the pun. Grammy voters have traditionally either went for tracks that make strong artistic statements or the flavor of the day. This year, with nothing really standing out from the pack as brilliant in this category, I think name-recognition will swing it for Swift.
Jordan: They seem to like Carrie, and it’s a much stronger song than ‘Last Name, so she will probably walk away with this one.

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Blockbuster Albums – ‘Fly’ by The Dixie Chicks

The album cover for Fly

This is a new feature that I’m trying, focusing on extremely big albums that had a big impact on country music — albums that were major for their respective artists or a breakthrough in some way. For this edition, I’ll be discussing Fly, by the Dixie Chicks!

So why am I calling this album “legendary”? Well, as of now it’s not. However, I really think it will be someday, so here’s why:

-It’s certified as a Diamond album (Shipped 10 million units) in the U.S.
-Has many defining songs for the group (“Cowboy Take Me Away”)
-Had 5 top-10 country singles (Two #1’s), 8 singles total
-Is an amazing album

Unfortunately, in the future it will probably not be remembered over the Chick’s next album, Home, which is a masterpiece, but this album deserves to be remembered years from now. Any album that sells diamond is big, even though it’s impossible to do now, but this album is so good that it merits that level of success. I was only 7 when this album was big, but I remember hearing all the songs on the radio because my parents were huge Chicks fans at the time. “Cowboy Take Me Away” was always playing in our house — it became ingrained in my mind.

I never heard of the album again (due to my parents shelving the Chicks after the incident; they still won’t listen to them) until 2 years ago when I saw the music video for “Goodbye Earl” on CMT one day. Then I rooted around for the CD, found it, and eagerly listened to it. I discovered a wonderful contemporary country album, done right — unlike most current albums. The album felt like an old friend that I hadn’t seen in a while, since I had heard it so many times.

This album manages to balance being commercial, country, artistic and successful, to great success in my opinion. The singing is top-notch,and the production is perfectly engaging, but not distracting — it still sounds good after 10 years!

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