My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Peter Rowan

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Saddle The Wind’

The rise of the New Traditionalists in the late 1980s meant that the sooth pop-country which had served Janie well earlier in the decade was sounding dated. Janie was also now over 40, as younger artists came forward, and radio abandoned her, with no really successful singles from her 1987 album After Midnight. She took on the challenge with gusto, adapting to a much more traditional country style for 1988’s Saddle The Wind, with the help of producer Steve Buckingham. She was still, incidentally, using the new spelling of Frickie, which she had adopted for Black And White.

There were three singles to promote this album. Unfortunately, none did very well, but they are all excellent songs, beautifully sung and unmistakeably real country. ‘Where Does Love Go (When It’s Gone)’ is a brisk Peter Rowan song with a bright upbeat feel despite a lyric pondering the reasons for a breakup.

‘I’ll Walk Before I’ll Crawl’ is a lovely mid-paced ballad (written by Gidget Baird and Linda Buell) gives a cheating husband an ultimatum. The third and last single, ‘Heart’, was written by the ultra-successful writing team of Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet. It is an excellent song about a woman desperately tempted to cheat on her husband.

On a somewhat similar theme, Hank Cochran’s classic ‘Don’t Touch Me (If You Don’t Love Me)’ explores the draw of sexual desire knowing the loved one cannot offer what the protagonist needs:

Your hand is like a torch each time you touch me
That look in your eye pulls me apart
So don’t open the door to heaven if I can’t come in
No, don’t touch me if you don’t love me, sweetheart

Your kiss is like a drink when I am thirsty
Oh and I’m thirsty for you with all my heart
But don’t love me, then act as though we’ve never kissed
Oh, don’t touch me if you don’t love me, sweetheart

Janie’s intense vocal is superlative on this song.

Several other classic covers are also included. Willie Nelson’s ballad The Healing Hands Of Time’ is another true classic song given an exquisite vocal, with some tasteful steel and piano. The album opens with a sprightly version of the Western Swing ‘Sugar Moon’ which is delightful, and Janie also revives the up-tempo ‘Crazy Dreams’, one of Patsy Cline’s lesser known early recordings.

‘I’m Not That Good At Goodbye’, a much recorded song written by Bob McDill and Don Williams, has another excellent vocal from Janie. ‘If I Were Only Her Tonight’, written by McDill with Bucky Jones and Dickey Lee, is another fine song about unrequited love and the pull of an old flame.

There is a Marty Robbins Mexican flavor to the title track, with Spanish guitar accompanying a story song written by the album’s producer Buckingham, about a star-crossed border romance with a bandido.

Janie had a truly lovely voice, but at her commercial peak she was too often buried under poppy production. In this album she finally married her voice to great production and songs, making this by far her best work. I would recommend it to anyone.

Grade: A+

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Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘True Love’

true loveAfter just three albums, the band released a Greatest Hits compilations (A Dozen Roses). Alongside the hits were a couple of new songs, minor hit ‘Will This Be The Day’ and the less successful ‘Come A Little Closer’. Changes were on the way. Steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness left in 1990, replaced by former Buckaroo Tom Brumley, while Tony Brown took up the producer’s role for the groups’s fourth studio album. The result was a mellower, more low key album than their first three, but although its pleasures are more subtle than the joyful country rock of their commercial heyday, this is a fine album.

Neither of the two singles selected did well. The first of them ‘You Can Go Home’ (written by Hillman with Jack Tempchin, best known for writing the Eagles’ ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’), is actually an excellent song about the impossibility of going back again to a former life. ‘Twilight Is Gone’ (one of four songs written with Steve Hill) is also good, a reflective mid-tempo song about loneliness and regret over a failed relationship. It may have been too low key for radio play.

The title track (another of Hill’s co-writes) is a warmhearted celebration of love. The urgent ‘Glory And Power’ is about the central importance of love in one’s life, in the context of a man who finds it hard to communicate his feelings. ‘Shades Of Blue’ is a tasteful ballad.

The best of the other songs is the pretty ‘Undying Love’, the only non-Hillman tune (it was written by Peter Rowan), which is a duet with Alison Krauss. Krauss’s angelic tones work well responding to, and harmonising with Chris. She was not yet well known in country music circles, or perhaps this would have been a single.

The philosophical and optimistic ‘It Takes A Believer’, co-written with Michael Woody, is pleasantly melodic. Woody also co-wrote the more downbeat ‘Behind These Walls’.

Herb Pedersen sang lead on the brisk ‘No One Else’, which he wrote with Chris, and which is perhaps the most reminiscent of the band’s earlier work. ‘A Matter Of Time’ has a solid country rock groove although it isn’t that memorable lyrically.

The album lacked the bright tone and sparkle of the group’ s first three albums, and I can see why it slowed down their career. Tony Brown had a reputation as a hitmaking producer, but it may have been a mistake to call on him this time. But the album has a lot to offer the more thoughtful listener.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

My Kind Of Country’s 2011 Grammy predictions

Sunday evening sees the premier all-genre music awards ceremony at the Staple Center in LA, and broadcast on CBS. These awards relate to music released in the eligibility period from September 1, 2009 to September 31, 2010. A lot of the country music awards will be awarded in the non-televised portion of the show, but news of the winners will be keenly awaited nonetheless. Last year saw Taylor Swift winning three country categories and the all-genre Album of the Year; she is not nominated this time. Who will dominate the country honorees this time around? And will Lady Antebellum who, like Taylor last year, are nominated in several all-genre categories, match or outdo her? One general point I’ve noticed is how many bluegrass based recordings have been nominated across the country categories this year, and I wonder if this will be reflected in the results.

Country Album

Dierks Bentley, Up On The Ridge
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song : Razor X
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now : Occasional Hope

Miranda Lambert, Revolution : J.R. Journey

Razor X: This is an unusually strong list of contenders. Bentley is the outlier in this group since his album had the least commercial success. I’m a bit torn as to whether I’d like to see him or Jamey Johnson take home this trophy. But if I’m forced to choose, I like the Johnson album a little better so that’s my pick for who should win. Since the Grammys have a tendency to recognize artistic merit a little more than either the CMAs or ACMs, I think Johnson will probably emerge as the winner.

J.R.: In a category full of top-of-their-game albums, Johnson and Lambert go into the Grammy show this year as the decided critics’ favorites, which usually spells win with NARAS voters. Both had broken through with their preceding albums, and with all eyes upon them, the leading man and woman of traditional country music turned in sets that not only built on their previous work, they both turned a couple more switches on in the process. With The Guitar Song Johnson embraced his southern rock and storytelling side, while still exploring even more and darker themes than we heard on That Lonesome Song. Revolution finds Lambert channeling the serious and introverted songwriter inside herself more than anything she’s done before, but she still retains the amped-up simplicity and accessibility we’ve come to love her for.

OH: Jamey Johnson’s double album is both the best and the most ambitious of these albums, but this is a more than respectable lineup . Dierks’s genre-blending mix of bluegrass, country and rock, the Zac Brown Band’s organic rootsy rock-country, and Miranda’s strong vocals and songs (notwithstanding the overbearing production/mixing), this is a group of albums all (with one jarring exception ) displaying real artistic ambition. I’d be happy with any of those four winning, but I’m going to be pessimistic here, and assume the Academy will be dazzled by commercial and crossover success, and pick Lady A’s high-selling but extremely bland Need You Now, which has also been nominated for the main Album of the Year category. I don’t think they’ll follow in Taylor Swift’s footsteps there, just because she is the only country winner of that category ever, but I think they should walk away with this one.

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