My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Randy Scruggs

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Ridin’ Shotgun’

Jessi’s career slowed down in the late 70s as her radio success fizzled out and she and Waylon had their first (and only) child, Shooter, in 1979. However, in 1981 she recorded a popular album of duets with Waylon (Leather and Lace). This prompted her to return to the studio on her own account, and she resumed her deal with Capitol. Waylon shared production duties with Randy Scruggs.

Although jessi’s duets with Waylon had been hits, it turned out that country rado was now really only interested in jessi as Waylon’s wife. Her solo singles were roundly ignored, with the most successful release from this album, ‘Holdin’ On’, peaking at #70. This is a nice quite upbeat song about splitting up, written by Jessi and Waylon with Basil McDavid.

McDavid is the main co-writer for the album, with another five songs credited to him and Jessi. The charming love song ‘Ain’t Making No Headlines (Here Without You)’ about coping with separation was also covered by Hank Jr, with slightly altered lyrics.

Slightly different versions of the bluesy title track bookend the album. ‘Ridin’ Shotgun (Honkin’)’ features backing vocals and harmonica and ‘Ridin’ Shotgun (Tonkin’)’. ‘Hard Times And Sno-Cone’ is a little quirky; its precise meaning is unclear but with its references to a man who ‘called her a woman but he knew she was a child’, it may possibly have been inspired by Jennifer Harness, Jessi’s teenage daughter by her first marriage to Duane Eddy. She had had a baby at just 15, who Jessi and Waylon helped to raise alongside their own son Shooter, just a year older, and married soon afterwards. The most interesting of the McDavid co-writes is the airy ‘Jennifer (Fly My Little Baby)’, to and about Jennifer. Jennifer and Waylon both guest on vocals, making this a real family affair, with Jennifer singing:

Mama don’t worry about Jennifer
Jennifer’s gonna be fine
I know it won’t be easy
Mom I’m gonna give it a try
You gave me some dreams
Now I’ve got wings and I’m headed for the sky
I have the trust in you to have the faith in me
So come on won’t you watch me fly…

Jessi and Waylon then advise:

To all you mamas and daddies
Who have a Jennifer you love so
If you wanna hold on to her
First you gotta learn to let her go

Jessi throws in a pair of very current covers: Waylon’s 1981 hit ‘Shine’, and Corbin/Hanner’s spiritual ‘On The Wings Of My Victory’, later recorded by Glen Campbell. She also takes on a much older song, the delicately pretty ‘A Fallen Star’.

‘Somewhere Along The Way’, the only solo Jessi Colter composition on this album, is a subdued ballad about regret for past choices. Co-producer Randy Scruggs contributed ‘Nobody Else But You’, a pretty love song with a lilting melody.

The album is available on a three-album/double CD with Mirriam and That’s The Way A Cowboy Rocks And Rolls.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘I’ve Learned To Live’

i've learned to liveMost fans will know Dean Dillon as a fine songwriter, who cranks out hits for other artists. Unfortunately, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. By the time this album came along in 1989, Dillon had already largely figured out his fate in life (although he still harbored some delusions of grandeur as a singer) and mostly had quit trying to save his best material for himself. I’ve Learned To Live consists largely of material he had not been able to pitch elsewhere. That is not to say that there aren’t some good songs here, just that the material with real hit potential had already been channeled to George Strait, Vern Gosdin and other top-shelf artists. That said, I really enjoyed this album, which I regard as his best solo effort.

The album opens up with “Just In Time” an up-tempo song co-written with Frank Dycus. There is some nice mandolin playing on the track by Randy Scruggs.

“Changes Comin’ On” is a slow ballad that probably is the best song on the album. Co-written with Jimmy Darrell and Buddy Cannon. Alabama and Gene Watson recorded this song on albums.

Well, I’m still hooked on Haggard
But the Beatles can’t come back like we hoped they would
In Memphis, Tennessee, King is gone
As I put my kids to bed, oh, I wonder what lies ahead for them to see
‘Cause I can feel the change comin’ on

I can feel changes comin’ on
People still are singin’ different songs
They’re searchin’ for the place where they belong
I can feel changes comin’ on

“Who Do You Think You Are”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that would have made a good single for someone.

“Don’t You Even Think About Leaving” features the great Tanya Tucker duetting with Dean. The song is quick, sassy and well suited for a duet. Johnny Gimble plays fiddle as only he can.

“I’ve Learned To Live”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that Shelby Lynne also recorded. Dean does a nice job with the song

Like a child lost in the wilderness I knew not where to go
Surrounded by the emptiness of a love that left me cold
I stumbled through the darkness of nights that have no stars
And days that have no sunshine to warm my naked heart

Like a bird in flight brought down by stones from an unknown assailant’s sling
A stranger took you from my arms and I lost everything
In days to come I nearly ran out of ways to stay alive
But through it all I never lost the will to survive

But I’m not over you and I doubt that I’ll ever be
So I’ve learned to live and you won’t be the death of me oh no
Yes I’ve learned to live and I’m doing well but I’m not over you

“It’s Love That Makes You Sexy” was one of two singles issued from the album. It’s not a bad song (actually the Dean Dillon / Frank Dycus pairing didn’t write any bad songs) but Dean just wasn’t a marketable singer. Despite Sonny Garrish’s nice steel guitar work, this one died at #61 in 1989.

The next single “Back In The Swing of Things” fared even worse, dying at #89 (it reached #70 on the Canadian Country charts). Dean’s version of the song really does swing – with Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Sonny Garrish on steel, how can it not swing? Co-writer Vern Gosdin also recorded the song on an album. The song really should have been a hit – I would rate it as the second best song on the album.

Hank Cochran collaborated with Dean on “Summer Was A Bummer”. It’s a nice song but nothing special.

“Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” sounds like a country song from the 1965-1975 period with the steel guitar serving as the lead instrument with Johnny Gimble lending a few flourishes with his fiddle. Glenn Martin co-wrote this song and also wrote a bunch of hits for people like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, either of whom would have had a hit on this song during their heydays.

Her thinkin’ I’m a doin’ her wrong
Ain’t a doin’ me right

The album closes with “Holdin’ Pattern, a nice ballad that Dean sings well.

Dean’s prior album Slick Nickel reeked of 1980s production values. In contrast, this album has more authentically country production with but slight traces of the sound that characterized the early 1980s. He has an ace fiddle player in Johnny Gimble, a superb steel player in Sonny Garrish, a multi-instrumental wizard in Randy Scruggs, and a solid second fiddler in Paul Anastasio. Unfortunately, if this album couldn’t produce any hits for Dean, it would seem unlikely that he could ever break through as an artist. I’d give this album a B+.

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘The Rest Of The Dream’

the rest of the dreamThe follow up to Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol 2 was always going to be a challenge. The band kept Randy Scruggs, who had overseen the Circle II sessions on hand as their producer for 1990’s The Rest Of The Dream, but did not attempt to copy that album at all. Instead it is a solid return to the country-rock which had done so well for them in the 1980s. Unfortunately they may have lost momentum with their focus on the less overtly commercial Circle II, while country radio was being engulfed with fresh new faces and the move to a more traditional sound. Sadly, they were never again to enjoy a top 40 country hit.

The lead single was a cover of rock star Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’. A dramatic story song about a young girl who elopes with first one man and then another, then shoots her second lover, while the abandoned husband awaits her release from prison, it is delivered in upbeat fashion. It sounds very radio friendly (and convinces as a country-sock song), but peaked at a very disappointing #65. The pleasant but forgettable ballad ‘You Made Life Good Again’ didn’t do much better.

The sunny mid-paced title track, released as the last single with a supporting video, failed to chart at all. It was one of a brace of songs contributed by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who had appeared on Circle II. It’s enjoyable enough, but I prefer the other one, ‘Just Enough Ashland City’, a charming up-tempo story song in which the narrator finds true love and learns not to judge by outward appearances:

I was Mr Sophisticated and she was “just a country girl”
She wound up showing me everything
I’d ever been dreaming of
I may have known the way to San Jose
But I didn’t know a thing about love

This might have been a more successful single, as might aacouple of other tracks. The gentle ballad ‘Waitin’ On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail), is an excellent tune, about holding on to forlorn hope and defying the reality that the narrator has been stood up.

Also great is ‘Blow Out The Stars, Turn Off the Moon’, an excellent song about the end of a relationship written by the brilliant Bobby Braddock, filled with images of their romantic nights under the stars:

When our love was new as the first evening star
We both said “I worship you just as you are”
Then I tried to change you, girl, and I don’t know why
You tried to change me, hey, might as well try
To blow out the stars, turn off the moon
Fade out the crickets and the nightingales too
Take down the magnolias that ride the soft wind
Another love story has come to an end

It is sensitively sung by Jeff Hanna, and beautifully played by the band. This lovely song is my favourite track.

The band’s Jimmie Fadden co-wrote (with Kim Tribble and Bob Garshelis) the charmingly quirky ‘Snowballs’, fantasising about winter walks with a sweetheart, throwing snowballs at the moon:

And after every throw we’d share a little kiss
Make sweet love together every time we’d miss

Hillbilly Hollywood (covered by John Anderson a year or so later on his comeback Seminole Wind album) is about the draw of Nashville for a young musician, which was written by Vince Melamed and Jim Photoglo. I prefer Anderson’s version, but this one is decent.

Jimmy Ibbotson co-wrote ‘Junior’s Grill, a tribute to a favorite diner which would be a great commercial jingle but is a little dull as a song. All four current band members (Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden and Bob Carpenter) cowrote ‘Wishing Well’, but the song is disappointingly bland.

Overall, though, this is worth picking up –especially as used copies can be found cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘I Witness Life’

i witness life - 100 children1970 would prove to a year of steady development for Tom T Hall as two he would release two albums, I Witness Life and One Hundred Children, that would both crack Billboard’s top forty country album chart. The albums in turn would provide him with four chart singles. I mention the two albums together because the German reissue label Bear Family coupled them on a fine CD which, aside from engaging in a vinyl hunt, is the only format in which you will find either album. This article is about I Witness Life.

The instrumentation for the album finds the Mercury ‘A’ Team at work of Jerry Kennedy on guitar and dobro, Harold Bradley on guitar, Bob Moore on bass, Buddy Harman on drums and Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins on piano with other artists such as Randy Scruggs (banjo), Pete Drake (steel guitar) and Charlie McCoy (harmonica) appearing on some tracks. All but one of the tracks were recorded in February or March of 1970.

One of the most unusual songs ever to grace the country airwaves opened the album as “Salute To A Switchblade Knife” gave Tom T his fifth top ten single, reaching #8. The song is based on Hall’s U.S. Army service in West Germany. As he put it ‘not necessarily an incident one would want to write Mother about ..’

Me and Yates an army buddy of mine
Were doin’ three years in Germany at the time
We came upon these Frauleins in the bar
Yates said, “Darf ich Sie begleiten?”, they said “Ja”
(spoken) And ‘Darf ich Sie begleiten means?’, ‘Can we sit with you all?’
Oh we must have drunk ten quarts of German beer
My conscience and my sinuses were clear
I asked that Fraulein if she was a spy
She said, “Nein but do bis ain bissel high”
(spoken) A condition not uncommon to the American soldier
***
And the army has a new policy if you can’t move it, paint it
If it has a switchblade knife, salute it
(spoken) Not necessarily an incident one would want to write mother
about, Germany being full of good soldiers …

I guess everyone has to start somewhere and for Tom T Hall, after his stint in the army ended in 1961, he headed to the Connorsville, Indiana home of an army buddy and started his career in earnest. In “Thank You, Connorsville, Indiana” Hall recalls his early days of playing all night for near peanuts

Well, after seven hours of ‘Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Wildwood Flower’
I had my seven dollars, eighty cents
I gave it to a waitress who was going to have a baby;
She said she needed just that much to help her pay her rent

“Do It To Someone You Love” was a nice song that became a top twenty hit for Norro Wilson, a record producer for various labels and a fine songwriter in his own right with the Charlie Rich classic “A Very Special Love Song” among his credits.

The words I love you come easy to the lips of a liar or a fool
If love talking is what you’re thinking of then do it to someone you love
Do it to someone you love

Some little things to let them know they’re all you’re thinking of
This day and time a little thing you do could mean so much
So do it to someone you love

“The Ballad of Bill Crump” is based on a true story, according to Hall. Whether or not there is any truth to the story, it makes for a fine song. Tom T plays some harmonica on this track joined by Charlie McCoy (overdubbed at a later date):

Now I hear a lot of tall stories since my business is writin’ songs
And every now and then if you listen real close
A good true one comes along
And this is the story of old Bill Crump from the North Carolina Hills
Nat Winston of Nashville knew this man real well

He built the church and he built the pews
He built the cradles and the furniture for the schools
Folks in Avery County say that he was better than good
Probably one of the reasons the Lord made wood

Now men have faults and Bill’s fault was
He loved to sip that corn
He lived ninety some years that way
Don’t guess it was hurtin’ him none

The end of the song finds Crump building his own casket !

If Tom’s music often has the feel of bluegrass, “Chattanooga Dog” makes no bones about it with Randy Scruggs (Earl’s son) prominently featured on banjo. Pete Drake supplies some delicate steel guitar shadings that do not detract from the bluegrass feel.

There’s a fairground down in Chattanooga
Where a kiddy train runs up and down the track
There’s an old black hound that always hangs around
And he chases that train down and back
And I’ve been chasing you like that Chattanooga dog
Even though I know you don’t care
I’ve been chasing you like that Chattanooga dog
And it ain’t gonna get me anywhere

The War in Vietnam (aka LBJ’s War) was one of the great tragedies in American history. Tom T. Hall describes the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C., as ‘an ongoing eternal funeral’. “Girls In Saigon City” reflects the situation that many a soldier found himself in during the Vietnam War. Apparently the idea came from one of Tom’s friends.

There’s a place called Da Nang Village cross the ocean far away
In deep concern for one young woman that’s where I abide today
Today, I got a dear-John-letter from that young woman in the USA

When I was called I knew I’d lose her it don’t matter anyway
There are girls in Saigon City waiting there with open arms
On my leave I may go see them in this other world called Vietnam

“Hang Them All” is a very up-tempo song, with a comic sense that tends to obscure the serious message. Hall describes it as the first protest song he ever wrote.

If they hang ’em all they get the guilty
If they hang ’em all they cannot miss
If they hang ’em all they get the guilty
Been a lot of problem solved like this
Indeed

“Coming To The Party” is the story of a man who is trying to get over an old love by heading to a party to try to find a new love. It has somewhat of the quality of the George Jones hit “She Thinks I Still Care”.

Coming to the party tonight
And I’ll find someone new to hold me tight
She thinks I’m home crying won’t she be surprised
Cause I’m coming to the party tonight

“America The Ugly” is probably the most thought provoking song on the album. It’s not really a protest song, although some at the time thought of it that way. As Tom T Hall explains in the liner notes for the Bear CD: ‘This song is not simply about injustice in America, but also points out that those internal injustices hurt us abroad’.

There was a man, came to see the USA from a foreign land
To photograph the progress of dear old Uncle Sam
He got off the boat in New York, went down to the Bowery
I know what the man went to photograph and to see

There were hopeless, hungry living dead
Winos who sell their souls for a bottle of a cheapest red
That’s the picture that he wanted
And that’s what he got they say, America the ugly today

***

There were some folks, had plenty and some had none at all
The enemy knows when a heart gets hard, the country is bound to fall
If we get heads and hearts together we won’t have to hear them say
“America the ugly today, America the ugly today”

The album closes with “That’ll Be All Right With Me”, a nice reflective song which apparently came from an earlier recording session than the rest of the tracks on this album. Regardless, it’s a nice song and a fitting end to the album.

It’s not my sun, man, and if it’s not shinin’
When I wake up tomorrow morning, hmm, that’ll be all right with me
They’re not my birds, man, and if they’re not singin’
When I wake up tomorrow morning, hmm, that’ll be all right with me

One Hundred Children was not one of the albums we planned on presenting this month, but since it is paired with I Witness Life on the Bear Family CD, I though I’d say a few words about the album. Even though the album was recorded only seven months later in August and September 1970, you can hear an evolution in the arrangements of producer Jerry Kennedy. While the basic ‘talking blues man’ accompaniment is largely maintained, there are tracks where string overdubs are used to augment the basic accompaniment – yes, the dreaded ‘Nashville Sound’. Tom T Hall’s voice is distinctive enough that the strings don’t drown him out or change the fundamental qualities that made him such a distinctive artist. Temperate use of such embellishments would make Hall more accessible to a wider audience. Although neither of these two albums broke the top thirty, for the next five or so years, Hall’s albums would reach the top ten.

The singles from 100 Children were the title song, which reached #14 and “Ode To A Half A Pound of Ground Round” which reached #21.

The title track is one of those fairly meaningless family of man songs, akin to the later “We Are The World”. The synthesis of Randy Scruggs on banjo with a full string arrangement make this track sound better than the song actually is, but the rest of the album is full of much better songs.

The three standouts on the album are “I Can’t Dance” which is the story of my life (“I can’t dance, I never could, I guess my feet don’t match”), “Pinto The Wonder Horse Is Dead” (a nostalgic look at childhood) and “Ode To A Half A Pound of Ground Round”.

I think many of us have experienced circumstances similar to the narrator in “Ode To A Half A Pound of Ground Round”.

(spoken) This song is about the time I nearly starved to death in Roanoke Virginia

I woke up Wednesday morning in my little motel bed
Knowing I would die the minute that I moved my head
I felt around to make sure I was in my bed alone
I meet some friendly people when I’m stoned

My payday was on Friday I had two more days to go
Even in my agony I knew that I was broke
Lemme pay the check I said and keep the change my friend
She wiggled out of sight with my last ten

At noon I realized there wasn’t any way to eat
For lunch I just went out and shuffled up and down the street
At four o’clock I had a funny feeling in my chest
How long’s it take to starve a man to death

I found some pennies in a jar and bought a candy bar
Divided it in pieces and I ate one every hour
I just rolled into town and didn’t know a single soul
There wasn’t any way to make a loan

The next album would be In Search of A Song, Tom T’s first top ten album and featuring (arguably) Hall’s most famous solo hit, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died”.

Country Heritage: Earl Thomas Conley

ETCEarl Thomas Conley was the oldest and most successful of the triumvirate of somewhat similarly named country artist of the 1980s. Born on October 17, 1941, in Portsmouth, Ohio, ETC (as he was often called) had an extended run of success, both as a recording artist and as a songwriter. Between 1980 and 2003, ETC recorded ten studio albums, including seven for RCA. During this same period he charted more than 30 singles on the Billboard country charts, with 18 reaching #1.

Earl was raised in a working class family that had a love for music and the arts, and painting – which he started when he was 10 – was Earl’s first love. At age 14, Earl’s father lost his job with the railroad and Earl went to live with an older sister in Dayton, Ohio, where he continued to paint and develop his skills as an artist. While painting was his first love, Earl’s father had introduced him to music and Earl began to be more aware of it as an influence in his life.

After graduating high school, Earl decided against college, joining the Army instead. While in the Army, Earl became a member a Christian-influenced trio, where his musical talent and vocal ability were first placed on public display. At some point Earl decided that performing might not be a bad way to make a living. Accordingly, he delved more deeply into the classic country sounds of artists such as Merle Haggard and George Jones. During this period Earl first tried his hand at songwriting. In 1968, some time after his discharge from the Army, Earl began commuting from Dayton to Nashville.

With nothing happening for him in Nashville (and tired of back and forth commuting), Earl moved to Huntsville, Alabama, to be 150 miles closer to the recording industry. While in Nashville on a song-plugging visit in 1973, Earl met Dick Herd, who produced the great Mel Street. This meeting eventually led to the Conley-Herd collaboration on the song “Smokey Mountain Memories”, which Street took into the top 10 in early 1975.

Prior to Street’s recording Earl had moved to Nashville, where he met record producer Nelson Larkin, who signed Earl to his publishing house and helped sign him with independent label GRT in 1974. Larkin placed one of Earl’s songs with his brother Billy Larkin, “Leave It Up to Me”, which Larkin took to #22 in late 1975. Nelson Larkin would produce Earl’s sessions through the end of the 1980s.

GRT released four of Earl’s singles without much success. Meanwhile, Earl placed “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me,” with Conway Twitty, who took it all the way to the top in 1975, giving Earl his first #1 record as a songwriter.

On the strength of his successful songwriting, Warner Brothers signed Earl to a recording contract. Unfortunately, the three singles Warner Brothers issued in 1979 on ‘Earl Conley’ failed to achieve much traction.

After his stint at Warner Brothers was over, Earl Thomas Conley (as he was now billed) trod water briefly before signing with the independent label Sunbird Records, where he recorded the album Blue Pearl, reuniting with producer Nelson Larkin. “Fire & Smoke,” released as a single and given a decent promotional push to radio, emerged as Earl’s first major hit, eventually reaching the top of Billboard’s county chart, thus giving Earl his first #1 record as a performer at the relatively old age of 40.

The success of “Fire and Smoke” caused RCA to pick up Earl’s contract and purchase the rights to Earl’s Sunbird recordings for release on RCA. Ultimately RCA became his home for the next decade during which time the following songs reached #1:

•“Somewhere Between Right and Wrong”
•“Your Love’s On The Line”
•“Holding Her and Loving You”
•“Don’t Make It Easy For Me”
•“Angel In Disguise”
•“Chance of Loving You”
•“Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart it Breaks)”
•“Nobody Fall s Like A Fool”
•“Once In A Blue Moon”
•“I Have Loved You Girl”
•“I Can’t Win For Losing You”
•“That Was A Close One”
•“Right From The Start”
•“What She Is (Is A Woman In Love)”
•“We Believe In Happy Endings” (w/Emmylou Harris)
•“What I’d Say”
•“Love Out Loud”

While Earl Thomas Conley tended to regard himself as a straight country artist, his rather smoky voice helped gain him acceptance across the board. Earl appeared on the television show Soul Train in 1986, and to the best of my knowledge he is the only country artist to be so featured.

Chart success basically ran out for Earl at the end of the 1980s although there were a few minor chart hits as late as 1991. Since then, Earl has continued to tour occasionally and write songs but has done relatively little recording, with a seven year recording hiatus 1991-1997. This hiatus was due to a number of factors, including vocal problems, disenchantment with record label politics, road fatigue and mental burnout. Earl finally emerged with another album in 1998, aided and abetted by long-time friends Randy Scruggs and Curly Corwin. Earl still performs occasionally, typically two or three dates a month.

Read more of this post

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Four The Record’

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.  Read more of this post

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Pain To Kill’

Released in 2003, after the relatively disappointing commercial performance of Fearless, Pain To Kill marked a change in producer for Terri, with the recruitment of Byron Gallimore, perhaps the leading commercial country producer of the day. It looks as though the label was hedging its bets with regards to the direction of the album, with Gallimore working on half the album, and old standby Keith Stegall being brought back in for the remainder of the material. Byron Gallimore applied a fairly sophisticated pop-country sound to mainly outside songs, and successfully balances Terri’s voice with a radio-friendly sheen.

Keith Stegall, meanwhile, tackled the bulk of Terri’s own songs, with a sound more in keeping with her past work. Gallimore’s tracks front load the set listing (and provided all three of the singles), with most of the Stegall tracks relegated to the second half of the set. Throughout the album, Terri’s vocals sound great and very committed to the material, and there is an overarching theme of relationship troubles and moving on which helps give a cohesive feel to the set as a whole.

The contemporary sounding lead single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Mad’, written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller, made a good start with radio, peaking at #2 in 2002. It is my favorite of the single choices from this album with its convincing and mature lyric about a couple married for seven years (when “some days it feels like 21”) and squabbling over the little things, while affirming the underlying strength of their relationship:

I think I’m right
I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just wanna be mad for a while

The woman-on-the-verge-of-leaving whose story is conveyed in ‘Three Mississippi is less successful. While well sung, it’s a rather pop-leaning song written by Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges and Angelo, whose rather uninteresting tune and overdone production drains the emotion from the lyric. It was closer to a flop, only just making the top 30. The life-affirming ‘I Wanna Do It All’ is better, if not very memorable. It took Terri back to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #3.

The title track is a radio-friendly mid-tempo number written by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard, with a cheery approach to partying away the troubles of life. The very contemporary Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song ‘Working Girl’ (comparing an ordinary working woman’s life to glossy media images) was previously recorded by Loretta Lynn. It suits Terri better than it did Loretta, but is still one of my least favorite Terri Clark recordings.

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Mark O’Connor and the New Nashville Cats – ‘Restless’ (ft Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill)

CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Everybody Knows’

After four fine albums, Trisha’s fifth effort, released in 1996, was a bit of a disappointment for me. She was in her usual fine vocal form and Garth Fundis produced as usual, but the record overall feels just a little too tasteful at times. The overall mood leans towards AC, and is rather ballad-heavy with a few nods to radio.

The lead single was the radio-friendly ‘Believe Me Baby (I Lied)’, written by Kim Richey, Angelo, and Larry Gottlieb, which hit #1. The bright production belies the regret-filled lyric and passionate vocal as the protagonist admits she never really wanted her man to leave.

It was followed by the broadly similar #3 hit ‘Everybody Knows’, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, with the protagonist this time fighting with all her friends and family members’ well-intentioned advice about how to cope with her broken heart. Opening track ‘I Want To Live Again’ fits into the same sophisticated mid tempo contemporary radio friendly template with broad commercial appeal.

The third single, ‘I Need You’, flopped in the 30s. The downbeat ballad about a neglected wife pleading for her husband’s renewed attention is a fine song with a beautifully delivered vocal, but it was perhaps a little too subtle or bitter for casual listeners as she comments,

The television seems to be your life’s ambition

And begs for a return to:

That boy
The one that chose me over every other choice

I like all the singles, but my favorite track is the Kevin Welch story song ‘Hello, I’m Gone’, a fiddle-led number about a woman leaving a man in Texas with nowhere particular in mind to go, and nothing but one suitcase, a broken down pickup truck, and a gun:

Man, she’s just running
It don’t matter where
She figures she’ll know where she is when she’s there
And she didn’t leave nothin’ she can’t do without
That’s enough reason for leavin’ no doubt
She turns down the window, turns up a song
Laughs at the weather and says
Hello, I’m gone

Almost as good is the delicately sung AC ballad ‘Maybe It’s Love’, written by Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman about the uncertain feelings at the start of falling in love with someone after a period of having frozen her heart. Trisha’s lead vocal and Vince Gill’s harmony are exquisite.

The other highlight is the bitter ‘A Lover Is Forever’, written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. This is a rejected lover’s diatribe against the man who is leaving her to wed another:

You think a ring upon your hand
Will solve your insecurity…

I know you think you’re so damn clever
You can marry any time you want
But a lover is forever

There is little overt to criticize with the remainder of the material, but it tends to blend together rather. Songs like the soothing ‘It’s Alright’, written by Jamie O’Hara and Gary Nicholson, with husband Robert Reynolds’ Mavericks bandmate Raul Malo on harmony, and ‘Little Hercules’ are the epitome of tasteful production, beautiful singing and thoughtful lyrics that somehow manage to end up less than the sum of their parts. A little more interesting is ‘Under The Rainbow’, written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs about finding domestic contentment in the real world.

The international version of this album boasted three additional tracks, the delicately sung portrait of ‘Even A Cowboy Can Dream’, the boring ‘Find A River’, and the cheery up-tempo ‘The Chance I Take’ (my favorite of the three), but none of these really adds substantially to the album.

The album is easily and cheaply available.

Grade: B

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Still Country’

Loretta’s first solo album in a decade was recorded in 1998 and released two years later released on the independent Audium label. Her voice was, sadly, not quite what it had been, but the songs are stronger than they had been on her last MCA album and the production from Randy Scruggs is exemplary throughout.

The heart-wrenching piano-led opening track ‘On My Own Again’ sounds as though it must be autobiographical addressing Loretta’ own experience of widowhood following Doolittle’s death in 1996, but it was actually written by Randy Scruggs, who produced the album. The woman in this song, unlike Loretta, is childless, but in other respects this must have felt very close to home. It is definitely a highlight, filled with intense emotion.

She did write one personal expression of her loss in ‘I Can’t Hear The Music’ credited as a co-write with Cody Jones and Kendal Franceschi, who finished it off when the weight of emotion overwhelmed Loretta herself from doing so. Tears audibly fill her voice as she talks about her feelings for Doolittle, and the effect is genuinely moving:

He showed me there was more to me
When I thought I had nothing else to give
God knows he wasn’t perfect
Ah but then again nobody is
He always told me the truth
No matter how hard it was to hear
When he’d say “I believe in you”
That was music to my ears

Oh each word’s like a note,
Like a beautiful tune
The kind that inspires
And helps you get through
Oh if I said “I can’t” he’d say “you can”
He was my toughest critic
Oh, and my biggest fan
Now he’s gone to a distant shore
And I can’t hear the music any more

By all accounts, including Loretta’s own in her two unflinchingly honest autobiographies, he was a bad husband in many respects – constantly unfaithful and an alcoholic, but her love for him is undeniable.

Her other composition here is the bouncy gospel-cum-tribute to Kentucky (“the closest place to Heaven that I know” of ‘God’s Country’, with hoe-down style fiddle and Earl Scruggs on banjo. The decline in her vocal powers is all too obvious, but her personality comes through engagingly, as it does on ‘Country In My Genes’, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Key, and the other track featuring Earl Scruggs. This was the single released to support the album, but perhaps unsurprisingly it failed to chart. Here Loretta defies attempts to change her image; it’s a bit shouty at times but still enjoyable:

I got country in my genes
Country in my blood
It goes back generations
It’s something I’m proud of
It’s something I was born with
Whatcha get is what you see
I’m just an old hillbilly with a country song to sing
Lord I’ve got country in my genes

Yeah country’s hit the big time
Me, I’m still the same
I ain’t above my raising
And I ain’t about to change

Max D Barnes and Vince Gill wrote the pretty but mournful look at lost-love, ‘Table For Two’ which has the best vocal and is one of my favorite tracks. I’m surprised that Vince never recorded this beautiful song himself. Another favorite track is the poignant ‘Hold Her’, the third-person tale of a woman planning to leave the husband she wrongly thinks doesn’t love her, and the man who could keep her if he only showed her he did, written by Don Wayne and Irene Kelley:

All he’d have do to hold her is to hold her
Tell her how he feels down deep inside
All he’d have to do to hold her is to hold her
There’s no way she would ever leave his side

I enjoyed the sprightly cover of John Prine’s charmingly optimistic ‘Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love’, with its almost-Caribbean rhythms, and the closing track, a version of ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’, previously recorded by Rhonda Vincent on her underrated 1996 release Trouble Free. ‘Don’t Open That Door’, written by Jerry Salley, Coley McCabe and Robin Lee Bruce, is a great song about struggling to resist the temptation to get involved again with a bad-news ex, but Loretta’s voice sounds strained on the sustained notes in the chorus.

The least successful track is ‘Working Girl’, a Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song with Matraca and Carolyn Dawn Johnson on backing vocals, a disastrous attempt at sounding contemporary. It just doesn’t work, with Loretta sounding very strained vocally, and is actually painful to listen to. It was covered more successfully a few years later by Terri Clark.

Loretta had been out of the limelight for some years, due in part to Doolittle’s illness, and this record was largely ignored. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the material, it is a little disappointing, revealing Loretta had passed her best vocally.

Grade: B-

Spotlight Artist: Loretta Lynn (Part 2)

The 1970s were Loretta Lynn’s most productive and most successful decade. She opened the decade by releasing her signature hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “After The Fire Is Gone”, the first of a long string of successful duets with Conway Twitty. In 1972, she won her second Female Vocalist of the Year award from the Country Music Association. She’d previously won in 1967; Tammy Wynette took the trophy home for the next three years, and in 1971 it was awarded to Lynn Anderson. Conway and Loretta also took home the Vocal Duo of the Year trophy in 1972, but the icing on the cake that year was when Loretta Lynn became the first female artist to become the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. To commemorate the occasion, her label released an album in 1973 called Entertainer of the Year, which produced another #1 hit, “Rated X”. It was Loretta’s first release on the MCA label, which had purchased Decca and absorbed its artist roster. In 1973 she also became the first country artist to grace the cover of Newsweek.

The hits kept coming; it was during this period that Loretta released “One’s On The Way”, “I Wanna Be Free”, “You’re Lookin’ At Country”, and “Love Is The Foundation”, among others. In 1975 she released “The Pill”, her most controversial record, completely eclipsing the controversy that had surrounded “Rated X” two years earlier. Believed to be the first song about birth control, “The Pill” was considered very risque and was banned by many radio stations. Nevertheless, it managed to crack the Top 5.

During the early part of the 70s, Loretta severed her ties with the Wilburn Brothers. As her song publishers, they owned the rights to all of her compositions and Loretta saw very little in financial renumeration. While the matter was being fought out in court, Loretta stopped writing songs altogether, rather than to continue lining the Wiburns’ pockets. As a result, the music she released in the latter part of the 70s had a more polished, pop influenced sound in comparison to her earlier work.

In 1976, Loretta published her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which became a New York Times bestseller. A film based on the book was released in 1980, earning some high-profile mainstream attention for Loretta, and an Academy Award for Sissy Spacek for her portrayal of the country star. Tommy Lee Jones co-starred as Mooney. As the 70s came to a close, she was named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music.

The 1980s were marred by the beginnings of a career decline and personal tragedy. It was the age of the Urban Cowboy, and Loretta’s style of country had begun to fall out of favor with country radio. Her records continued to chart, but she was no longer consistently making the Top 10 with her solo efforts. “I Lie” became her final Top 10 solo hit in 1982. She fought with her label, which wanted to push her in a more pop direction. She refused to renew her contract; MCA eventually relented, but by that time it was clear that Loretta’s reign at the top of the charts was over. She racked up her final Top 20 hit, “Heart Don’t Do This To Me” in 1985, and in 1988 she released her final album for MCA. That same year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A few years earlier, in 1984, Loretta’s 34-year-old son, Jack Benny Lynn drowned in a river near the family ranch. In her second book, Loretta says that she believes she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of this tragedy, but she did not receive any medical treatment for it. She became less focused on her career, and although she continued to tour, she recorded less frequently.

Loretta spent most of the 1990s out of the spotlight. She no longer had a record deal and she stopped touring for the most part in order to care for Mooney, whose health had begun to fail. In 1993 she collaborated with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette for the Honky Tonk Angels album. Though it received virtually no radio airplay, the album reached #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. In 1995 she did a brief series for TNN called Loretta Lynn & Friends. Mooney Lynn died in 1996 from complications from diabetes.

In 2000, Loretta released her first solo album in twelve years, titled Still Country. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and released on the Audium label. The lead single, “Country In My Genes”, on which she was joined by half of Nashville on the chorus, received enough airplay to reach #72 in Billboard. The subsequent singles, which included “I Can’t Hear The Music”, which she’d written as a tribute to Mooney, did not chart. Despite being largely ignored by country radio, the album was generally well received by critics. However, it was her next album, 2004’s Van Lear Rose, that is considered her true comeback. Produced by Jack White of the White Stripes, it was an interesting fusion of country and alternative rock and a radical departure from her previous work. At nearly 70 years of age, Loretta Lynn was suddenly hip again. Van Lear Rose earned her two Grammy Awards in 2005: one for Best Country Album, and one for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for “Portland, Oregon”, a duet with producer Jack White.

In between Still Country and Van Lear Rose, Loretta found time to publish a second autobiography, Still Woman Enough in 2002. In 2001, CMT ranked her at #3, behind Patsy Cline (#1) and Tammy Wynette (#2) on their 40 Greatest Women of Country Music special. She was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2003, and in 2008 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.

At age 75, Loretta is showing no signs of slowing down. She remains a concert draw and is reportedly working on two new albums which will tentatively be released later this year, though no dates have been announced.

The term legend is used much too freely these days, but Loretta Lynn truly belongs to an elite inner circle of performers, without whom it is difficult to imagine what country music would have been like. We hope that you will enjoy our look back at the life and career of a woman who has become an American icon, and who is arguably the most important female artist in the history of country music.

Album Review – Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album

Keith whitley tributeOne of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.

The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).

Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.

Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.

Read more of this post

1989 Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two’

200px-circle_ii_album_coverAlongside our reviews of albums produced by the ‘Class of ’89’, we’ve been taking the opportunity to look in depth at some of the other great albums released that year. Perhaps the most ambitious of those was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, which harks back to the early days of country music and shows how that heritage was still influential.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in the California folk-rock movement of the 1960s. They revealed their country leanings in 1972 when they produced a legendary triple LP entitled Will The Circle Be Unbroken in collaboration with some of the seminal figures of bluegrass and old-time country music, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, bluegrass great Earl Scruggs and many others — mostly artists who were past their commercial peaks. If the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never again ventured into country music, this album alone would have sealed their place in the music’s history.

In the 1980s, however, after a period using the name the Dirt Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rebranded themselves and forged a very successful career in contemporary country music. In 1988, they decided the time had come to produce a follow-up to their classic. Many of the original collaborators had died, and this time the guests included some contemporary acts and some artists from outside country music altogether, or who were from related genres. The album liner notes say, “This time they drew the circle bigger”, and talk about “the many hyphenated hybrid styles writers have used to describe all sorts of American music that comes from the heart. Big enough to embrace gospel, blues, honky tonk, Cajun and traditional folksong”. In other words, the term might not have been invented yet — but in many ways this was perhaps one of the the first self-consciously Americana albums. The result was a little more commercial-sounding than the original, but it strikes a fine balance between showcasing musical history and showing that that heritage was a living thing. Read more of this post