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Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

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Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Uncharted Mind’

unchartedmind1990’s At Last was Gene Watson’s major label swan song but it was by no means the end of his recording career. After leaving the Warner Bros. roster, he continued to release music on a variety of independent labels, beginning with 1992’s In Other Words on the Broadland label. The following year’s Uncharted Mind was the first of four albums released on the Step One label.

Produced by Ray Pennington, Uncharted Mind finds Gene including some more contemporary-soundings songs with the usual traditional fare, with varying degrees of success. The opening track “Glass Hearts” is a pleasant number that was in the realm of what was considered mainstream at the time. Released by a younger artist on a bigger label, it might have been a hit. “Snake In The House”, however, doesn’t work quite as well. It is somewhat of a stylistic departure for Watson and sounds like something that might have been released a decade earlier during the Urban Cowboy era — ironically, a period in which Watson was one of the few holdouts still recording tradtional country. It is arguably the album’s biggest dud. The other contender for that dubious honor is “Simple Minded Heart”, a sickeningly sweet pop-country number that sounds like something Doug Stone turned down and has little to recommend it, despite being co-written by Mel Tillis. It is certainly one of his — and Watson’s — poorer efforts.

Fortunately the rest of the album is much better. Among the highlights is a majestic cover of the Marty Robbins classic “You Gave Me A Mountain”, whch Watson had previously recorded for 1975’s Paper Rosie. His vocal peformance on the 1993 re-recording is every bit as impressive as it had been almost two decades earlier, but I slightly prefer the production on the 1975 version. The meat and potatoes of the album, however, are the more traditional numbers, which were always Watson’s strong point. The toe-tapper “Back In Texas” is a particular favorite of mine, as is Sanger D. Shaffer’s “Cool Ole Fool”, a light-hearted number about someone who is arguably going through midlife crisis. Curt Ryle, Mel Tillis’ co-writer on “Simple Minded Heart” redeems himself with the more traditional and much better “Mirrors Don’t Lie”, on which Gene turns in another stellar vocal performance.

Independent releases weren’t always easy to find in record stores (remember those?) in 1993, so many fans may have missed out on Uncharted Mind when it was first released. If you are one of those people, pick up a cheap used copy. The album is a little more uneven than some of Watson’s earlier efforts, but it still has much to recommend it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Heather Myles – ‘Highways & Honky Tonks’

highways and honky tonksHeather’s third studio album, and fourth overall, saw her move to Rounder Records. It consists almost entirely of self-penned originals, all very well written and well-suited to Heather’s voice and style. Pete Anderson, best known for his work with Dwight Yoakam, plays lead guitar.

Rounder was a little more aggressive in its marketing than her previous labels, with a couple of the less hardcore honky tonk numbers released as singles, although neither received much airplay.

The excellent ‘True Love’ is a wearied but compassionate declaration of love for a man who is out playing the field, with an underlying acknowledgment of her own folly in waiting for him despite her friends’ advice. The second single, the ballad ‘Love Me A Little Bit Longer’, is a love song about a relationship which has seen its hard times but still has some life left in it. Both are mature and believable depictions of realistic situations.

The opening ‘You’re Gonna Love Me One Day’ is quite a good mid-paced song which offers a warning that the man leaving her will eventually regret it.

‘Broken Heart For Sale’ is a more traditional heartbreak ballad with melodic steel, while ‘You’ve Taken Me Places I Wish I’d Never Been’ has a grittier feel with Anderson’s twangy guitar particularly prominent.

The tender ballad ‘No One Is Gonna Love You Better’ is a duet with Merle Haggard, with some lovely fiddle dominating the arrangement. Haggard is in fine voice and their voices meld very well, while the lyric (about a relationship which may not last, but is the best they’ll ever have) nods to Hag with the line,
I know you’re a ramblin’ man

This is a definite highlight. Another favorite, ‘Who Did You Call Darlin’’ has a Tex Mex feel which makes it sound upbeat despite the accusing tone of the lyrics, in which a wife calls out her cheating, drinking husband, who comes staggering in “smelling like a perfume factory”.

The honky tonker ‘Playin’ Every Honky Tonk In Town’ is also great, while later she pleads for ‘Mr Lonesome’ to leave her alone. ‘Rock At The End Of My Rainbow’ while still solid, is perhaps the least interesting song included.

A couple of covers are thrown in: the sunny Charley Pride hit ‘Kiss An Angel Good Morning’ and a very enjoyable version of Ray Price’s ‘I’ll Be There’, but the meat of album is Heather’s own excellent songs. She really should have been a bigger star.

Grade: A

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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Album Review – Lorrie Morgan – ‘Greater Need’

LorrieMorganGreaterNeedIn light of the lukewarm response to War Paint, Lorrie Morgan took a year off to regroup. BNA Nashville released Reflections: Greatest Hits in June 1995, which spawned three singles. The upbeat “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” returned Morgan to #1, while “Back In Your Arms Again” peaked top 5, Morgan’s best showing in over two years. Both are excellent as is “Standing Tall,” a traditional ballad that criminally struck out at #32. All three are essential Morgan cuts and her best singles since the Watch Me era.

With newfound creative juices Morgan replaced Richard Landis with James Stroud as producer for her fifth album. Stroud’s clean contemporary production didn’t quite reverse Morgan’s fortunes at radio, but it helped Greater Need keep some of the momentum she gained from the Greatest Hits project, which went double platinum.

Constant Change wrote the album’s lead single “By My Side,” a duet with Morgan’s then fourth husband Jon Randall. The fiddle heavy ballad is excellent but Randall sounds like a prepubescent Vince Gill with his falsetto-drenched vocal. The track peaked at #18, a far cry better then second single “I Just Might Be,” which hit #45. The track itself is a wonderful bluegrass flavored number that ranks among Morgan’s best tracks. Like “Standing Tall,” it deserved to be a much bigger hit.

Pop-leaning ballad “Good As I Was To You” was the album’s biggest song, peaking at #4, and has since joined “Something In Red” as one of Morgan’s most iconic singles. It’s a dynamo of a song, a sequel of sorts to “Guess You Had To Be There,” with the woman confronting her cheating spouse at a restaurant they used to frequent. Her vocal could’ve displayed more bite, but she sings the hell out of the lyric as it is.

Travis Tritt and Vince Gill join Morgan on the honky-tonk rocker “Stepping Stones,” which is good, but feels like three solo performances thrown together (i.e. as though they all recorded their parts separately), not a cohesive whole. Their vocals are stellar, but the song is pure filler. Much better is a brilliant cover of Billy Walker’s “Don’t Stop The World (If You Don’t Mean To Stay),” written by country music legend Ray Pennington. Morgan and Stroud bring the track to life with a fabulous fiddle and steel drenched arrangement and Morgan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.

Paul Nelson, Gayla Borders, and Jeff Borders’ “Reading My Heart” is a fairly ordinary lyric but Stroud gives it a wonderfully fiddle and steel drenched mid-90s arrangement that elevates the somewhat mundane number. Nothing can save “She Walked Beside The Wagon,” not even its generous helping of steel. The lyric is prodding, especially in the second verse, when reference is made to JFK’s funeral. Morgan sings it well, but that’s about it.

In concept, “Back Among The Living” is great. Morgan is singing about finding the space within a broken heart to get back out there again, but the melody fails to elevate the somewhat lackluster lyric. Morgan has the experience to bring the song to life, but she’s failed by a piano heavy production that lacks enough noticeable steel guitar flourishes to make it stand out. Similarly “I Can Buy My Own Roses” has a wonderful concept, but the idea has been done so much stronger on countless other songs throughout the years. Morgan is let down again by a less then stellar lyric that never quite reaches it’s full potential. Thankfully “Soldier of Love” has a wonderful thumping production, confident vocal, and above average lyric to help it stand out.

I so wanted to give Greater Need an A, as the strongest tracks are among Morgan’s best. But there are too many instances where either the production or lyric hinder enjoyment enough to be problematic. That being said it’s still a good album overall and well worth cherry picking from.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown’

Following the monster success of Highways and Heartaches (platinum sales, 3 #1s and a #2), Ricky Skaggs issued Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown on Epic Records in 1983. It was his second consecutive number one album and featured 3 number one hits and sold a respectable 500,000 copies.

The mid-tempo title track, made famous by the Stanley Brothers, was written by Ray Pennington and Roy E Marcum and became Skaggs’ seventh number one overall. The twangy ballad is stellar warning from a man to the woman sleeping around behind his back:

How can I stand up to my friends and look ’em in the eye

Admit the question that I know would be nothing but lies

You spend all your past time, making me a clown

But if you’re gonna cheat on me, don’t cheat in our hometown

Much like Sawyer Brown’s “All These Years,” “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown” offers a unique perspective on the classic cheating scenario, one in which the man is made into the fool. The role reversal is excellent and Skaggs brings that sense of victimization to his venerable vocal.

A spirited and comical cover of Mel Tillis’ “Honey (Won’t You Open That Door)” was released in the winter of 1984. Driven by a jaunty drum and organic guitar riffs, “Honey” is one of my favorites of Skaggs’ recordings thanks in part to the songs’ ability not to take itself too seriously while dealing with substantive subject matter.

It seems like another dimension now, but there was a time when a track like Bill Monroe’s marvelous “Uncle Pen” could not only gain the attention of country radio but top the charts as well. Another favorite of mine, “Uncle Pen” is brilliant in how it blends an obvious bluegrass sensibility with mainstream country. The fiddle heavy hoedown is spectacular and I love how it blends so easily with the acoustic guitars.

Dolly Parton joins Skaggs with a haunting harmony vocal on Carter and Ralph Stanley’s “Vision Of Mother.” The somewhat disturbing mandolin ballad finds a man seeing a vision of his dead mother preying for him. The song succeeds because of the vivid imagery, although the vocals are a bit too sharp for my tastes.

“I’m Head Over Heels In Love” is a fabulous steel led thumper, in the same vein as Exile’s hits like “Woke Up In Love.” I love the uniquely slick style of the track; it fits Skaggs like a glove. I also enjoy the traditional “A Wound Time Can’t Erase,” another example of modern mid-80s country that a carries a nice dose of twang. Skaggs’ vocal may be a bit too dragged out on some of the notes, leading his voice to sound a bit nasally, but it doesn’t take away from the overall tune.

The other more traditional numbers are also quite strong. “She’s More To Be Pitied” is a fabulous fiddle-led number by Ruby Rakes, while “Keep A Memory” is a wonderful traditional bluegrass tune penned by Carter Stanley. I also love Fred Stryker’s “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” the best such song among the album tracks. The album closes with “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” an excellent traditional gospel number that’s made all the sweeter thanks to the myriad of harmony vocals.

Overall, Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown is another excellent collection of bluegrass and country tunes and was dedicated to the Stanley Brothers upon its release. While the song selection may not have been as strong as his previous release, it remains timeless thanks to expert musicianship, and remains an essential listen today.

(NOTE: Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown was reissued in 2009 and included a DVD respective. That version can be found easily online.)

Grade: A

The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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