My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Paul Franklin

Album Review: Midland – ‘On The Rocks’

New country band Midland have received a certain amount of online criticism based on their perceived inauthenticity. I will say that the image as presented on the album cover comes across as trying too hard to be self-consciously retro, but no more so than Gram Parsons did in his day. That aside, is the music worthwhile? I wouldn’t call this a hardcore traditional record, but it has a lot of solid country input, and reminded me a little of the early work of the Mavericks.

All the songs were written by the band’s guitarist Jess Carson, mostly with other band members Cameron Duddy (bass guitar) and singer Mark Wystrach, and some outside input. Wystrach has a fine smooth tenor voice with a sophisticated crooning style which works best on ballads.

The lead single ‘Drinking’ Problem’, written by the band with their producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, was a considerable success for them, getting to #3 on the country airplay chart and sales being certified gold. It’s an excellent song in traditional vein about a man drinking to forget the woman who has broken his heart, with a memorable melody:

People say I got a drinkin’ problem
That ain’t no reason to stop
People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom
Just ’cause I’m livin’ on the rocks
It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem
So pull the bottle off the wall
People say I got a drinkin’ problem
But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

They keep on talkin’
Drawin’ conclusions
They call it a problem
I call it a solution

There is even a steel guitar solo from Paul Franklin. It’s so good, in fact, I’m amazed it was so well received at country radio.

New single ‘Make A Little’, from the same writing team, raises the tempo and is decent but not that memorable, with a slightly annoying melodic twist on the hook. The best of the other songs written with McAnally and Osborne, ‘Nothin’ New Under The Neon’ is reminiscent of early George Strait, although Wystrach has an annoying habit of occasionally veering off into a falsetto which detracts from the song. ‘Burn Out’ is another good song about hanging out in a bar room because the protagonist’s love life hasn’t panned out, although this time he is smoking as well as drinking. ‘More Than A Fever’ is a pleasant sounding love song with the vocals failing to capture the passion evoked in the lyrics. ‘Electric Rodeo’ is not very interesting and slightly over produced.

Opener ‘Lonely For You Only’ is a another well sung crooned ballad, and a very good song, written by the band with Osborne and Rhett Akins. This partnership also produced the closing ‘Somewhere On The Wind’, a very nice valediction featuring Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. Akins and Rodney Clawson teamed up with the band to write ‘Altitude Adjustment’, quite a fun mid-tempo tune about heading off to Colorado. McAnally and Luke Laird helped to write the mid-tempo breakup song ‘Out Of Sight’ which is quite good with retro backing vocals.

Jonathan Singleton wrote two songs with the boys. ‘At Least you Cried’ is a bit boring and the brassy production flattens out Wystrach’s voice. ‘This Old Heart’ (also cowritten with David Lee Murphy) is okay but undistinguished. Finally, the band’s Jess Carson wrote one song on his own. ‘Check Cashin’ Country’ is a likeable mid-tempo number about life as a struggling country band.

Overall, this is a pretty good record. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s much better than most current major label releases. I would definitely recommend downloading ‘Drinking Problem’ and ‘Altitude Adjustment’ with a number of the other tracks worth checking out.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All’

This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All was the eleventh studio album released by the former Don King Road Band and their fourth studio album for Curb Records.

Released in 1995, the album was the first top ten country album for the band since 1989’s The Boys Are Back, although it actually sold fewer copies than two of the three most recent prior albums. Four charting singles were released from the album: the title track, “‘Round Here”, “Treat Her Right”, and “She’s Gettin’ There”. Although this album and the next two albums would all be top ten albums, the success of the single releases was beginning to slow down. Whereas eleven of the previous twelve singles reached the top five, only one of the four singles would crack the top ten (and there would be only two more top ten singles after this album).

The album opens with “Nothing Less Than Love”, one of four Mark Miller-Hobie Hubbard collaborations on the album. This song is a mid-tempo ballad. “Big Picture” by Mark Miller & Mac McAnally is another mid-tempo song that might have been considered for single release. “I Will Leave the Light On” by band member Duncan Cameron is a nice slow ballad.

The up-tempo “(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All” comes from the pens of Dave Loggins and Ronnie Samoset, and reached #11 on the country charts. I was surprised that the song didn’t crack the top ten since here in Central Florida it seemed as if I could not escape from the song as it received a little bit of pop and Adult Contemporary airplay. It is a good song (Loggins was always capable of cranking out good material) and one of my favorite Sawyer Brown songs. This was the first single taken from this album:

Rich man grew old, owned a mansion on top of the hill
Now he’s sitting at the table with his lawyer
Goin’ over his will ’cause he’s ill
The kids don’t call, they’re waitin’ for the man to die
He’s gonna leave ’em all a little somethin’
But they’re gonna be real surprised

There’s a poor man livin’ on a budget at the bottom of that hill
With a wife and two kids and a worried mind
About how he’s gonna pay the bills
Well, only the rich man knows, see
That’s where a lot of his money goes
To the man that brought wood in the winter
To take a little weight off his shoulders

There’s this thing called wantin’ and havin’ it all
If you’re gonna get there, you’re gonna have to walk
But first, you’ll have to crawl
And you know you’ve gotta do it step by step
Miss one and you’ll fall into this well
Called wantin’ and havin’ it all

“Another Mile” written by Miller & Hubbard is a typical ‘we can make it’ ballad that fits well in the context of the album although I can’t imagine it being released as a single.

The second single, “Round Here” has Miller & Hubbard joined by Scotty Emerick as the songwriters. This single reached #19 is a mid-tempo ballad extolling small town virtues:

Sue and Jack fell in love ’round here
They been goin’ steady now for years
He couldn’t afford much of anything
But he worked and bought her a diamond ring
And that’s the way we do it ’round here

That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here
That’s the way we live and that’s the way we love ’round here
Strong hearts and folded hands
A workin’ woman and a workin’ man
That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here

There is an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and “She’s Gettin’ There” (composed by the team of Mark Miller, Scotty Emerick, John Northrup, and M.C. Potts (remember her?) is the weakest song on the album, a generic endeavor. It was released as the fourth single and died at #46, the first single to miss the top forty after fifteen consecutive top forty singles.

The third single, the Lenny LeBlanc-Ava Aldridge composition “Treat Her Right” was the big hit off this album, a tender ballad that peaked at #3.

A good woman ain’t easy to find
The faithful and the loving kind
And if you don’t hold her tight
She’ll slip right through your hands
Love gives more than it takes

So be willing for her sake
Stand by her when the strong winds blow
Even when it hurts, don’t let go

The album closes with two songs that are pitched to rural and small town America. The first song, a lovely ballad written by Mark Miller and Bill Shore, “Like a John Deere”, laments that hearts should be as reliable as John Deere tractors:

Oh, if hearts were built like John Deere tractors
There’d be happy ever afters
Strong, true and tough, and made of steel
They pull through when times get hard
And never fall apart
If hearts were built like a John Deere

The final Miller – Hubbard composition closes out the album with “Small Town Hero”, a story of what might have been and what actually happened.

I just turned twenty-nine three years in a row
Too young to be the president
Too old to turn pro
But when the seventies came and Elvis died
I could not fill his shoes
But oh, how I tried

It was the life and time of a small town hero
But it’s another day
I’ve got my wife, my kids, a job and it’s ok
This letter of intent now, is just for show
They say it’s lonely at the top
So I did not go

As I noted earlier, the album sold well, but the rural/small town orientation of the songs was not likely to entice urban country disc jockeys and programmers to be totally sold on the singles, a trend hat carried through on the next two albums, each of which featured one top ten single and several singles that missed the top ten. That said, this is a decent country album, which features three different steel guitar players (Jay Dee Maness, Dan Dugmore, Paul Franklin) and to my ears sounds how I think a country album should sound. Producers Mac McAnally and Mark Miller again demonstrate the ability to make an appealing album by keeping the tempos sufficiently varied to retain the listeners interest.

Mark Miller and Hobie Hubbard continued to progress as songwriters and there really isn’t a dud on this album. I suppose that I should try to find it on CD, as my copy is a well-worn cassette. I would give this an A-

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

kid-sisterThe Time Jumpers’ third album is in many ways a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, who died of cancer in December 2014.

Dawn makes her last appearance on record on ‘My San Antonio Rose’, a Freddy Powers song which is quintessential western swing, and performed as a duet with Dawn’s husband Kenny Sears – an unexpected bonus. (Powers also died this year.) Dawn also sang harmony on ‘I Miss You’, a Vince Gill/Ashley Monroe song which was recorded for Gill’s solo Guitar Slinger album but didn’t make the final cut. It is an affecting ballad about enduring love for one who has gone, the verses of which Gill has rewritten to fit Kenny’s grieving for Dawn. ‘This Heartache’ is a very moving song written and sung by Kenny, inspired by his feelings about Dawn’s loss. The title track, written by Gill, was also inspired by Dawn, and the band members’ collective feelings about her.

Vince has written a charming introduction for the band, ‘We’re The Time Jumpers’. ‘Honky Tonkin’ is not the Hank Williams classic, but an entertaining love song written by Gill with Troy Seals, about adopting a simple domestic life and abandoning the protagonist’s old ‘favorite thing to do’. Some fabulous fiddle is particularly notable.

The band revive the effervescent ‘I Hear You Talkin’’, written by Cindy Walker with country legend Faron Young in the 50s. Joe Spivey sings lead on the Time Jumpers’ delightful version.

Moving away from western swing, ‘Table For Two’ is a gorgeous sad country ballad originally written by Gill with Max D. Barnes for Loretta Lynn. The Time Jumpers’ performance has weeping steel and a lovely vocal from Gill, and would have fitted in perfectly on one of his classic solo albums. Beautiful. The delicate ballad ‘The True Love Meant For Me’, which has an exquisite Gill vocal, is also outstanding.

“Ranger Doug” Green sings his own ‘Empty Rooms’, a stately mid-tempo tune about living with a broken heart. The quirky ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ is a cover of an old Hank Penny tune, which is an amusing takedown of a drunken partner:

Your eyes look like two cherries
In a glass of buttermilk

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell you’ve been out on the spree
It’s plain that you’re lying
When you say you’ve been crying
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Looks like our little romance has kinda quietened down
You oughta to join a circus
You’d make a real good clown

‘Blue Highway Blue’ is a smooth jazzy ballad sung by band member Billy Thomas; a bit less to my personal taste than other racks, but very well done. The Gill-fronted blues ‘Sweet Rowena’ was also not quite my cup of tea.

Wonderful steel guitar player Paul Franklin is nominated for the umpteenth time this year as CMA Musician of the Year – isn’t it time he won? As a key member of the Time Jumpers, he contributes throughout the album, but gets a special chance to shine on his self-composed instrumental ‘All Aboard’.

I was very much looking forward to the release of this album, and I am pleased to report that I am not disappointed. Brilliantly played throughout, this is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A

Edited to add: the Time Jumpers are currently running a contest on facebook to win a copy: https://www.facebook.com/TheTimeJumpers/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED&fref=nf

Retro Album Reviews: Joe Nichols – ‘Real Things’, and Tracy Lawrence – ‘For The Love’

for the loveBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

REAL THINGS – JOE NICHOLS (2007)

Other than Brad Paisley, I cannot think of another of the current Nashville acts that has as good a grasp on what is or isn’t country music than Joe Nichols. This album simply is a delight from start to finish.

The opening track “Real Things” sets a nice placemat for the current single “Another Side of You” (currently a top 25 and rising). For this album Nichols has tapped the cream of Nashville’s songwriting community for good songs. Only one old song was selected for the album and that is the late Blaze Foley’s classic “If I Could Only Fly” performed here as a duet with Lee Ann Womack and with the legendary John Hughey on steel guitar (Paul Franklin plays steel on the remaining tracks where steel is used). All of the material is top-flight and my only fear was that it may prove “too country” for today’s wimpy country radio.

The copy of the CD I purchased has a 14th track on it, a wry song titled “When I’m Hurtin'” in which a country singer apologizes to the audience that the only time he really sings well is you know when. This song is easily a 5 star effort and should have been released as a single.

Grade: A

FOR THE LOVE – TRACY LAWRENCE (2007)

Among the younger singers, Tracy Lawrence has the best pure country voice this side of John Anderson and Randy Travis. Like previous efforts, this CD has two or three cuts that are merely okay, and the rest are terrific. My favorite songs is “Til I Was a Daddy Too” , as meaningful a song as you will ever encounter. “You Can’t Hide Redneck” is a fun romp and “Rock and A Soft Place is another highlight. Such is the vocal prowess of Tracy Lawrence that his solo cut of “Find out Who Your Friends Are” is considerably better than the cut on which he is joined by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, both lesser vocal talents. I love this disc, an early nominee for CD of The Year honors.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Fall’

fallI have always liked Clay Walker as a performer and admired his courage in pursuing his career in the face of adversity, in the form of multiple sclerosis which was diagnosed in 1996 when Clay was twenty-seven years old.

A similar fate befell country superstar Donna Fargo in 1978, definitely affecting her career; however, by 1996 significant progress had been made in the treatment of the illness, so that Clay was not forced to restrict his live appearances to the same extent that Fargo had been forced to do. Accordingly his career surged on, seemingly without missing a beat (although there were lifestyle and dietary changes that Walker made in combating his illness).

Fall was released in April 2007, on Asylum/Curb records, nearly four years after his previous album, A Few Questions, was released on RCA. Clay had signed with Asylum/Curb in July 2005 but, following its usual pattern, it took until February 2007, before the label got round to issuing any new music on Clay.

That brings us to the current album with the first single release being the humorous “‘Fore She Was Mama”. The song tells the story of a ten year old boy who discovers a “box of forget-me-nots” (or old memorabilia) in his parents’ closet.

There was one of her, flippin’ the bird
Sittin’ on a Harley
And a few with some hairy hippie dude
Turns out his name was Charlie
Her hair, her clothes, her drinkin’, smokin’
Had us boys confused
I’ll never forget the day us nosy kids got introduced…

To mama ‘fore she was mama
In a string bikini, in Tijuana
Won’t admit she smoked marijuana
But I saw mama ‘fore she was mama

I was stunned to find that this song only made #21 on Billboard’s country charts, since the song received very heavy airplay throughout most of the southeastern USA. In fact I know of four radio stations where the song soared to #1 on the local survey. The song was Clay’s first chart record since 2004.

Track two is the title track, which was the second single released. “Fall” would return Clay to the top ten reaching #5. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad which the narrator offers moral support to a partner who has had a bad day. The song might have had crossover potential, but Curb released a pop version of the song by Kimberly Locke, another artist signed to Curb, thus killing Clay’s shot at a crossover hit.

Hold up, there you go again
Puttin’ on that smile again
Even though I know you’ve had a bad day
Doin’ this and doin’ that
Always puttin’ yourself last
A whole lotta give and not enough take

But you can only be strong so long before you break

So fall, go on and fall apart
Fall into these arms of mine
I’ll catch you every time you fall
Go on and lose it all
Every doubt, every fear, every worry, every tear
I’m right here
Baby, fall

Released ten years earlier, the third track “Workin’ Man” would have made a good single. Unfortunately by 2007, country radio was looking for music more in line with the schlock being produced by Rascal Flatts or Jason Aldean.

He slips on his warn out jeans
She buttons up his shirt
A sleepy smile and a goodbye kiss
And he’s up and off to work

He puts in a forty hour week
But she’s on his mind full-time
And he’ll give it everything he’s got
And he’s all her’s at five

‘Cause he’s a workin’ man
He don’t mind workin’ overtime
For the trust and the touch of a woman
Come rain or shine

“Miami and Me“ is a mid-tempo song about a love that couldn’t be

Meet her in Miami
Conversation turned to wine
We talked and we talked
Yeah we hit it off, just fine
Stayed down by the water
Slept beneath the stars
We laughed and we danced
Made love in the sand
I held her in my arms

But I couldn’t make her stay
California called her away
And tonight the moon turned as blue as the sea
And she left Miami and me

Track five, “She Likes It In The Morning” is a lovely slow ballad that proved to be the third and final single released from the album. For reasons I will never understand, the song died at #43.

And she likes it in the morning
And I run my fingers through her hair
And she smiles when I call her darling
She looks like a angel laying there

And she wants me in the evening
To listen close to how she feels
She needs to know I need her
And Heaven knows I always will

‘Cause she loves me every single day and night
And she says we are everything that’s good in her life
She says she loves me more than anything on earth
And that’s almost as much as I love her

Track six “Mexico” is an up-tempo island-vibe track that makes for a good album track. Ditto for track seven “You’re My Witness”, a gentle ballad.

Track eight “Average Joe” is a mid-tempo ballad about the average Joes in any town. The lyrics are a bit of a laundry list, but the song has a nice melody and the song hangs together well

I don’t mind working
I don’t mind drinking
When I need to unwind
And I like listening to a
Country song on a Friday night

I’m a welder in the shop downtown
The drywaller in your brand new house
Yeah I’m your Average Joe
I’m the guy that fixed your van
I’m the painter
I’m your concrete man
Yeah I’m your Average Joe

Track nine, “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)”, is a tender ballad about, well, various things including appreciating the good things in our lives

Got home and told my wife bout what I’d seen
She grabbed her purse, took me by the hand and said come with me
We drove around until we found the three of them
I wondered who was blessing who when they got in
We bought them food and clothes and drove to a toy store
And the little girl said I don’t need a brand new doll
As she hugged the broken armless one they found before
She said this one needs me more

She ain’t pretty, but she’s beautiful
She ain’t perfect, but she’s wonderful
She might be broken, but she’s lovable
She ain’t pretty, but she’s beautiful

Track ten, “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” features the late great Freddy Fender in a duet with Clay. The song was a country and pop #1 in 1974. This would prove to be Freddy’s last recording before his death on October 14, 2006. The duet comes off very well and it is nice to know that Freddy’s last recording was a really good one.

The album closes with a pair of nice ballads in “I’d Love To Be Your Last” and “I Hate Nights Like This”.

My friend Brady Vercher of the 9513 blog gave this album three stars and most reviewers at the time of the release had this at 3 to 3.5 stars. My review on Amazon (4/19/2007) was as follows:

“Clay’s first album of new material in several years delivers the solid country sound that one has come to expect from Clay. The first single “‘Fore She Was Mama” received considerable airplay, and seems to hold up well upon repeated listening. I am surprised that “Mama” topped out on Billboard at around 21, because its appeal in the Sunshine State was considerably stronger than that. If radio stations still maintained their own charts, I would expect that this would have been a top five song on stations throughout the Southeastern and Southwestern parts of the USA, perhaps tanking north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The album features a nice mix of slow and up-tempo songs. One of the slower songs “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” is a bit maudlin, but for me it’s the best song on the album. Another highlight is Clay’s recording of “Before The Last Teardrop Falls”, a duet with the late Freddy Fender. Freddy’s death isn’t acknowledged anywhere in the CD booklet, but I’m pretty sure it was his last recording.

The current single “Fall” is receiving substantial airplay. I would not have picked it as a single, but I can see where its lyrics would have a strong appeal to female listeners with its strongly supportive message to the wife (or girlfriend).

“Average Joe” is a song that should resonate with many, and it features legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Paul Franklin plays steel on all tracks, but several fiddlers share the spotlight on the various tracks (Rob Hajacos, Stuart Duncan, Larry Franklin).

Welcome back Clay – four stars”

My opinion of the album has not changed since then, although I do not regard “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” as the best song on the album anymore.

Track Listing
1. “‘Fore She Was Mama”
Casey Beathard, Phil O’Donnell
3:43
2. “Fall”
Sonny LeMaire, Shane Minor, Clay Mills
3:37
3. “Workin’ Man” M. Jason Greene, Clay Walker 3:55
4. “Miami and Me” Greene, Walker 4:02
5. “She Likes It in the Morning”
Greene, Walker 3:50
6. “Mexico” Greene, Walker 2:41
7. “You’re My Witness” Greene, Walker 3:38
8. “Average Joe” Ed Hill, Don Poythress, David Frasier 3:09
9. “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” Doug Johnson, Nicole Witt, Kim Williams 4:00
10. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” (duet with Freddy Fender)
Ben Peters, Vivian Keith
2:39
11. “I’d Love to Be Your Last” Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate, Sam Tate 3:24
12. “I Hate Nights Like This” Walker 4:20

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101 2’

highway 101 2The title of Highway 101’s sophomore album is not, as you might think, the number 2. Rather, it is the symbol for squared. Pretentious title aside, the material isn’t quite as consistently strong as on their debut album, but it is still a very rewarding record, and helped to maintain them as one of the top country groups of the late 80s.

The exuberant lead single, ‘(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes’, was the band’s third #1 hit. It was written by Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins.

It was followed by my favourite track on the album, the sweetly sung, regretful ballad ‘All The Reasons Why’, which reached #5. Written by Paulette Carlson with Beth Nielsen Chapman, its guilty protagonist has just broken up with her unfortunate spouse, who can’t understand why:

You’ve asked what you’ve done wrong,
And if there’s someone new
What has changed my heart
And what else can you do
Oh darlin’ can’t you see
It’s not so cut and dried
And who knows where love goes
And all the reasons why

She wants to stay friends, but it’s hard to see that happening.

There was a change of pace for the third single, the urgent ‘Setting Me Up. This was a cover of an album cut by the British rock band Dire Straits, written by that band’s Mark Knopfler. Apparently he was unaware that his publisher had some country demos recorded of his songs, resulting in this and other cuts, but he did have some country influences – in 1989-90 his main project was a country-rock-blues band called the Notting Hillbillies, which also featured steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, and he later made an album and toured with Emmylou Harris. This song isn’t particularly country in its rhythmic structure, but was another to 10 hit, and allowed more of a band feel than usual, with some superb playing by the guys and a share of the vocals.

The last single, another top 10 tune, was the excellent ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, written by Jim Photoglo and Russell Smith. It is a rather upbeat breakup song in which the protagonist has grown up since meeting her ex in a bar, and now wants more to life:

The night life isn’t my life anymore
What matters most to me is a home and family
But you can’t find that behind those swingin’ doors…

I won’t play second fiddle to the beat of your honky tonk heart
Go on back to the bar where I found you
Go on back to your so-called second home
You’ll feel better with your good-time friends around you
And I’ll be here but I won’t be alone

Photoglo also co-wrote (with Wendy Waldman and Josh Leo) the solid mid-tempo ‘Road To Your Heart’.

‘Somewhere Between Gone And Goodbye’ is an excellent song written by Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’, given a sparse production and great harmonies. An anxious woman lies awake wondering when her man is coming home:

How many nights must I lay me down and wonder
Will I wake up tomorrow without you by my side?
I’m feeling worn and thin as the sheets that I lay under
Lying somewhere between gone and goodbye

Late night headlights out in the driveway
Drivin’ me crazy again
No need to sneak in
I wasn’t really sleepin’
No need to tell me
I know where you’ve been

It feels like the prequel to ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, and would have made another good single.

A vibrant and authentic sounding cover of Buck Owens’ ‘There Goes My Heart’ reminds us of the band’s California roots. ‘Feed This Fire’ is an earnest love song written by Hugh Prestwood about the need to work at keeping the romance going; it was subsequently a hit single for Anne Murray. Paulette fights temptation she knows has no good ending in ‘Desperate Road’.

Finally, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Long Way Down’ is a strong story song about a young woman musician who has fought her way to stardom from tough beginnings, but can’t rest on her laurels.

While the album lacks the classics of their debut, this is a very strong follow up with no weak songs.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack ft Paul Franklin – National Anthem

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘Doug Stone’

dougstoneReleased towards the end of the New Traditionalist movement, Doug Stone’s eponymous debut is his best and most traditional album. The Epic album was produced by Doug Johnson and featured top-notch songs and an impressive roster of musicians including Mark O’Connor, Mac McAnally, and Paul Franklin. The album’s first single was the superb country weeper “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)”, an indulgent tale of self-pity written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark. Songs like this are the reason many people dislike country music, but they are also the reason so many of us love it so passionately. Stone knocked it out of the park on his first try; although he released many songs after this that I thoroughly enjoyed, nothing ever matched this masterpiece. It peaked at #4 but deserved to go to #1, and I’ve often thought it might have become a top charter if it had been held back and released after Stone had built up some name recognition, instead of being the first out of the box. But chart position aside, it’s a great record.

The rest of the album is almost as good. Doug’s follow-up single “Fourteen Minutes Old” is another break-up song despite its uptempo arrangement. Written by Dennis Knutson and A.L. “Doodle” Owens, it topped out at #6. The Harlan Howard tune “These Lips Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”, another favorite of mine, fared slightly better by reaching #5. Stone finally reached #1 with the album’s fourth and final single, “In A Different Light”, which was written by the great Bob McDill along with Dickey Lee and Bucky Jones. It is the album’s least traditional song, but its biggest hit, perhaps foreshadowing country music’s imminent shift back to a more pop-oriented sound. It also allowed Stone to showcase his skills as a balladeer and it cast the template for many of his future hits.

I’ve often second-guessed record label choices for singles, but in the case of this album I think that Epic got it right. The album’s remaining songs are good, but not as strong as the ones sent to radio. “Turn This Thing Around” is not quite as good as Keith Whitley’s version from the year before. “High Weeds and Rust”, my least favorite song here, was later covered by its songwriter David Lee Murphy. Producer Doug Johnson’s “We Always Agree On Love” isn’t quite as strong as the rest of the album, but I really liked Randy Boudreux’s “My Hat’s Off To Him” and “It’s A Good Thing I Don’t Love You Anymore” by Bobby P. Barker and Keith Palmer.

I was still in college when this album was released and it certainly does not seem like nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then. In listening to the album again, though, it’s age is sometimes betrayed by the electronic keyboard arrangements, which were considered cutting-edge at the time but seem quite dated today. Thankfully, producer Doug Johnson avoided being too heavy-handed with them, and they are not as intrusive as the keyboard arrangements on other records of the era. It is however, the album’s sole flaw, albeit a minor complaint overall. Albums this good were not uncommon in the early 90s, and thus were sometimes easy to take for granted. This one is especially worth dusting off and listening to again, particularly for those fans who have become disillusioned with the current state of mainstream country. Inexpensive copies of Doug Stone are easy to find.

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.

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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.

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.

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

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.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year where we publish our picks for the best singles and albums that country music had to offer during the previous twelve months. Usually I begin by lamenting the meager selections from which we had to choose. But not this time; for the first time in a long time, it’s been a very good year for country music. One wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio or watching the major awards shows, but a lot of my old favorites reemerged in 2013 with new offerings. Here are my picks:

10. The Woman I Am — Kellie Pickler

Pickler has made tremendous strides as an artist with her last two releases. Last year’s 100 Proof paid homage to the artists and sounds of yesterday, while the more contemporary and surprisingly good The Woman I Am shows the way forward for the next phase of her career. I hope she can overcome the disadvantage she faces in not having major label promotion. This album deserves to be heard.

9. Like A Rose — Ashley Monroelike a rose

The long-awaited return of Ashley Monroe did not make many commercial waves, but this Vince Gill-produced project is an artistic triumph. A guest appearance by Blake Shelton reassures those of us who had begun to fear that he was no longer capable of making good music.

8. Hammer Down — The SteelDrivers

Another personnel change didn’t prevent my favorite bluegrass band from releasing another stellar collection of new tunes. Hammer Down is a step up from 2010’s slightly disappointing Reckless, and is neck-and-neck with the group’s debut album for the best album of their career so far.

7. To All The Girls — Willie Nelsonto all the girls

At age 80, Willie’s voice not is not what it once was, but he sounds better than he has in years on this collection which boasts an impressive roster of female guest artists from both within and outside the country music community.

6. Love Is Everything — George Strait

Although he plans to continue recording, King George is in the process of wrapping up his touring career. Coinciding with his farewell tour is his best collection of songs in quite some time.

5. The Bluegrass Album — Alan Jacksonthe bluegrass album

Alan Jackson chose mostly new material for this project, unlike most artists who have mined the back catalogs for their bluegrass collections. The result is one of the best hour’s worth of music that 2013 had to offer. Jackson’s hitmaking days appear to be over, but from a creative standpoint he is as strong as ever.

4. Cheater’s Game — Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison

I’ll always regret that Kelly Willis was so under-appreciated during her major label days. Her albums these days are few and far between so it is a real treat when she releases something new. I prefer this effort with her songwriter husband Bruce Robison to 2007’s less rootsy Translated From Love.

3. Influence Vol 1: The Man I Am — Randy Travisrandy
Randy Travis’ voice has been deteriorating for years and it was especially noticeable on “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the George Jones tribute that served as the lead single for this project. I wasn’t expecting much from the rest of the album, but like Willie Nelson, Randy sounds better on his current project than he has in a long time. He’s suffered from serious medical problems this year; we wish him the best and hope that 2014 holds better things in store for him.

2. Old Yellow Moon — Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

This duet project was a return to form for Harris and Crowell, both of whom who were cast aside by Nashville and who have been making their mark in the Americana world for the past several years. I’d like to hear more music in this vein from them, both separately and together, should they be inclined to team up in the studio again for a follow-up project.

1. Bakersfield — Vince Gill & Paul Franklinbakersfield

Vince Gill doesn’t ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of artists who are associated with the Bakerfield sound, but he shows he is more than capable of handling these classic Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs and the participation of of steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin was the icing on the cake. This is by far the new album in my collection that got played the most this year. May we have some more, please?

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own on Bakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Album Review: Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

BakersfieldIn recent years, covers and tributes albums have been a dime a dozen; it seems that nearly every artist past his or her commercial peak has released a collection of songs that he/she grew up listening to. Bakersfield, the recently released effort from Vince Gill and steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin, takes a different approach; instead of paying tribute to a particular artist or compiling their favorite songs, they opted to pay homage to a specific sub-genre of country music: the Bakersfield Sound, which emerged in California in the late 1950s, in response to the increasingly crossover-oriented countrypolitan music being made in Nashville at the time.

The two most successful and well-known Bakersfield artists were Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and it is from their catalogs that the material on Bakersfield is culled. Although some of Buck’s and Merle’s big hits are represented here, Gill and Franklin, who produced the project themselves, also delved deeper into the two legends’ discographies and included some lesser known gems.

There isn’t a Vince Gill album that I don’t own, so from the time that this project was announced it was a must-have for me. Paul Franklin’s participation was a bonus, as it ensured that the album would include a generous amount of pedal steel guitar, arguably the most important instrument in country music, and one that is criminally underrepresented on most contemporary country recordings.

Although I did initially have some reservations that Vince could do justice to some of the Haggard tunes, he rises to the occasion most of the time. Both “Branded Man” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” are performed beautifully with the wonderful Dawn Sears taking over harmony duties from Bonnie Owens. However, “The Fightin’ Side Of Me”, while good, doesn’t pack the same punch as Merle’s original 1969 version. I’m not as intimately familiar with the Buck Owens material, so I’m inclined to slightly favor the ones that are newer to me, namely “But I Do” and “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”.

I can find no fault with the material or how it is performed; these recordings are impeccably performed and are a reminder of what country music once was and what it ought to be. The album falls short only in what it does not provide — namely, more music. It contains a mere ten tracks and clocks in at just under 37 minutes. I wish that it contained a few more tracks, and that Gill and Franklin had seen fit to include a few songs from other Bakersfield artists. It’s inevitable that Owens and Haggard will dominate a project like this one, but it would have been nice to have heard a Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins or Maddox Brothers and Rose song or two. Let’s hope that a second volume is in the works to rectify these omissions.

It goes without saying that Bakersfield will receive no support from country radio, but it is worthy of a Grammy nomination and I hope that it sells respectably and gets the critical acclaim that it so richly deserves.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Lorrie Morgan

lorrie-morgan-07During Monday night’s broadcast of An Intimate Evening with Eddy Stubbs featuring Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, Gill said:

“Our very earliest memories of why we love country music so deeply is because of when it hit us.” 

I’ll never forget hearing Lorrie Morgan sing “What Part of No” when I was five and being hooked. I was a fan of the Eagles before then, but Morgan’s 1993 #1 hit was my first exposure to country music and began a reverence for 1990s country that still holds strong today. From Morgan I discovered Alan Jackson, Collin Raye, and George Strait. Needless to say, the music seeped into my soul and became an integral part of who I am.

But Morgan was the artist who started it all. She was born, ironically, Loretta Lynn Morgan June 27, 1959 about a year before that other Loretta Lynn charted with “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl.” She was born in Nashville to country singer George Morgan, who’d taken his sole #1, and signature song, “Candy Kisses” to the top ten years earlier. I remember hearing Morgan say the similarities between their names were pure coincidence.

Morgan made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 13 singing “Paper Roses,” and her father passed away in 1975. She subsequently took over his band, only to leave two years later and join Little Roy Wiggins. Morgan then held a receptionist and songwriting job at Acuff-Rose Music before joining Ralph Emery’s morning television show as a featured vocalist.

Her music career began in 1978 when she charted a single with minor success. A similarly received and electronically dubbed duet with her dad followed, as did opening slots on tours featuring the likes of Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely. Morgan was also a regular singer on Nashville Now, part of the Opryland USA Bluegrass Show, and a touring duet partner of George Jones. She scored another minor hit in 1984, the same year she became the youngest person to ever join the Grand Ole Opry.

Morgan was already divorced from George Jones’ former bass player when she met and married up and coming country singer Keith Whitley in 1986. The couple had a son, her second child, a year later. Whitley was notoriously known for his drinking and Morgan was said to have handcuffed them together with a bathrobe tie while they slept, in order to keep him from getting up to drink. She hit the big time when, now under the care of RCA Nashville, her single “Trainwreck of Emotion” went top 20 in 1988. The follow-ups were more successful – “Dear Me” hit #9 and “Out of Your Shoes” went to #2.

She was in the middle of an international tour and on her way to Alaska when she received the call that Whitley had died May 9, 1989. Morgan rushed back to Nashville. Two days later, May 11, her debut record Leave The Light On was released. That week Morgan gave an emotional performance of her hit “Dear Me” on the Grand Ole Opry, and famously accepted his CMA Single of the Year Award for “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” that fall.

Morgan reached another milestone when her single “Five Minutes” became her first #1 in 1990. That same year she charted with “Till A Tear Becomes A Rose,” a duet with Whitley. They’d win the CMA Vocal Event of the Year Award for their record that same year. She also married a one-time truck driver for Clint Black, and released Something In Red in 1991. The title track, a top 15 hit, would become her signature song.

Her third album Watch Me dropped in 1992, featuring her second #1 “What Part of No.” She divorced her third husband the following year and took up with Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman. Watch Me became Morgan’s third consecutive platinum album, making her the first female artist to reach that feat.

Morgan was now a hit with the fans, as displayed in her win for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1994 TNN/Music City News Awards (a win she’d repeat several times), the fan voted award show that’s since morphed into the CMT Video Music Awards. Her fourth album War Paint, released that May, saw three singles tank on the charts. A Greatest Hits album and her final #1, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” followed a year later. She was also romantically involved with US Senator and Actor Fred Thompson.

A fourth marriage, to country singer Jon Randall, took place in 1996. A duet between the pair, “By My Side,” went top 20 and led Morgan’s Greater Need album, which also included the top 5 “Good As I Was To You.” Morgan embarked on a headlining tour with Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter that summer. Her final big hits came from Shakin’ Things Up in 1997 – “Go Away” went top 5, while “One Of These Nights Tonight” peaked top 15. She released her autobiography, Forever Yours, Faithfully that fall.

Her hits may’ve dwindled, but the spotlight was shining bright. A duet with Sammy Kershaw (1999’s “Maybe Not Tonight”) led to the pair’s wedding in the fall of 2001. They released a duets album and Morgan said she’d never get divorced again. Their tumultuous six-year marriage (Morgan’s fifth) was a mess – they constantly fought, he allegedly tried to kill her, and broke up only to make up numerous times. She released an independent album, Show Me How in 2004.

The past decade has been the tamest of Morgan’s career. She filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in 2008, and married her sixth husband beachside in 2010, the same year she was set to perform on Broadway in Pure Country, a part that never came to fruition. She’s currently touring as one half of the duo Grits and Glamour with Tillis. The pair released their long-awaited duets project Dos Divas late last month.

Hope you enjoy our (drama free) look back at Lorrie Morgan’s career throughout the month.

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘The Time Jumpers’

Nashville’s very own 11-person supergroup, the Time Jumpers may have started as a side project allowing its members a regular live outlet, but they have now come into their own on record. Their mixture of country, jazz and western swing has been showcased before on two live albums, and the members’ brilliant musicianship and sheer love of music shines through at every turn on this, their first studio album, out now on Rounder Records.

Instrumental tracks often tend to be tacked on at the end of an album, seeming almost like an apologetic afterthought. It is rare for one to open proceedings, and the Time Jumpers’ decision to place ‘Texoma Bound’, composed by Larry Franklin, one of the group’s three fiddle players, allows them to show off their chops in dazzling style. Members include regular CMA instrumentalist of the year nominee Paul Franklin, perhaps Nashville’s most in-demand steel guitarist, as well as superstar Vince Gill.

Fiddler Kenny Sears sings lead on his own song ‘Nothing But The Blues’. It’s a pleasant western swing song with a relaxed feel and a great instrumental section, but Kenny is an average vocalist. The same goes for Ranger Doug, better known as lead singer of the retro-western group Riders in the Sky. His western ballad ‘Ridin’ On the Rio’ suffers from his limited vocals, but is quite a nice song, and an interesting reminder of a marginalized sub-genre.

Kenny’s wife Dawn on the other hand, has a fabulous voice and knows how to use it with subtlety. Her bid for a solo career never really got off the ground, but she is an aoutstanding vocalist, and shows that here. My favourite of her cuts here is on her own song ‘So Far Apart’, a regretful look at a once happy marriage which has grown cold. Dawn’s vocal interprets the emotion beautifully, supported by Paul Franklin’s equally perfect steel guitar , and this sounds like a lost classic from the 1960s. I also love her version of the Harlan Howard-penned Someone Had To Teach You, which George Strait recorded 20-odd years ago on Livin’ It Up. Dawn then comes across as sultry jazz chanteuse on ‘Faint Of Heart’, written by Vince Gill and Al Anderson.

Dawn and Kenny duet on the western swing ‘Texas On A Saturday Night’, written by minor 70s act Mundo Earwood. It is entertaining, but more about the overall groove and musicianship than the vocals. This is definitely music to dance to. Dawn sings with Ranger Doug on ‘Yodel Blues’, the title of which is explanatory.

Vince Gill, long a member of the group when other commitments permitted him, makes his first appearance with them in record now that he is free of his major label deal. ‘New Star Over Texas’, which he wrote with Leslie Satcher is a rather charming western swing ballad with prominent steel, while ‘On The Outskirts Of Town’ (which he wrote with Reed Nielsen) is lyrically slight but the swingy feel and sparkling playing carry it off.

‘Three Sides To Every Story’ is a classic styled country ballad about the end of a relationship following cheating and lies. This excellent song is quintessential Vince Gill and my favourite track. ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’ is another really fine traditional country song loaded with Paul Franklin’s steel, which has Vince lamenting the fact that the love of his love has moved on to somebody new. He really shines vocally on these songs, and they show his songwriting is on a roll as well. Hopefully another solo album is not too far away.

While this is clearly a democratic group with every member allowed to shine, Dawn Sears and Vince Gill are the clear vocal stars of the group, and the songs on which they take the lead are the highlights.

Grade: A