My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rebecca Lynn Howard

Retro Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Straight From The Heart (2007)

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

Daryle Singletary never managed to become a megastar, mostly because he has too much soul and integrity for today’s Nashville. Simply put, Daryl is “too country”.

This album picks up where Daryl’s 2002 album That’s Why I Sing This Way left off, with one original song “I Still Sing This Way”, one cover of a recent hit, the Larry Cordle-penned Rebecca Lynn Howard hit “Jesus and Bartenders”, and ten classic country covers sung with feeling.

The cover songs are as follows:

“The Bottle Let Me Down” – a Merle Haggard hit from 1966

“Black Sheep” (w/John Anderson) – a #1 for John Anderson in 1983

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” – a #1 for Don Williams in 1977

“Promises” – a minor Randy Travis hit which Randy co-wrote

“I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” (w/Ricky Skaggs) – a Buck Owens classic from 1965

“These Days I Barely Get By” – a top ten George Jones record

“Miami, My Amy” – Keith Whitley’s first top twenty record from 1986

“Lovin’ On Back Streets” – a #5 record for Mel Street in 1973. Like Daryle , Mel Street was ‘too country’, and like Daryle, he was a fine, emotive singer.

“Fifteen Years Ago” – Conway Twitty’s immediate follow up to “Hello Darling”, I always thought that Conway’s performance was better than the song’s rather maudlin lyric. Daryle also handles it well, although it’s still a silly song.

“We’re Gonna Hold On” (w/Rhonda Vincent)- a George & Tammy classic from 1973 that comes off very well. No surprise, really since Rhonda is a superior singer to Tammy, and Daryle hold up his end of the bargain.

The presence of legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins lends a strong sense of authenticity. Best of all no electronic keyboards or synthesizers – this is real country music played on real country instruments.

I’ve heard a bunch of good albums this year and this was my favorite album so far this year, better even, than the Nelson – Haggard – Price collaboration. This is not to say that Singletary is quite in their league as a singer, but his pipes are at least 30 years younger and in better shape.

Grade: A+

Christmas Rewind: Rebecca Lynn Howard – ‘The Christmas Song’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Constant Sorrow: Tribute To Ralph Stanley’

constant sorrowAn interesting selection of mainly country artists pay tribute to the legendary Ralph Stanley, in a project helmed by his grandson Nathan.

Stanley’s son Ralph II opens with the Celtic-sounding ‘Katy Daly’, II’s naturally melancholy tones counterpointing the upbeat tune about a 19th century moonshiner to enjoyable effect. Nathan takes on ‘A Robin Built A Nest On Daddy’s Garden’, which is also very good. Stanley’s old bandmate Ricky Skaggs sings the traditional ‘Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet’.

Jeff Bates sounds like a real bluegrass singer on ‘I Think I’ll Just Go Away’, a lovely old Stanley Brothers lost love tune. Lovely – I’d like to hear a full bluegrass album from Jeff. Rhonda Vincent is beautiful on ‘The Darkest Hour’, another highlight. My favourite track, though, is Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard duetting on an authentic and compelling murder ballad, ‘Pretty Polly’.

Insofar as Ralph Stanley has a signature song, I’d say it would be ‘O Death’, which he sang on the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. The great Gene Watson offers a powerfully intense reading here. Marty Raybon gets the now-iconic ‘I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow’, and does a nice job, partnered by Sonya Isaacs.

Southern gospel duo (and real life husband and wife) Jeff & Sheri Easter perform ‘Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures’, and The Lewis Tradition (a spinoff from/second generation successor to Sheri’s mother’s family band the Lewis Family) offer a pleasant traditional four part harmony on ‘Dad’s Ole Rocky Field’.

Harmonica whiz Charlie McCoy gives a70s outlaw country-meets-bluegrass twist to ‘Little Maggie’, which works surprisingly well.

‘Room At The Top Of The Stairs’ is a haunting Randall Hylton song about a lonely woman who refuses to believe the protagonist can offer the love she longs for. I remember it fondly from Kieran Kane’s 1993 solo album Find My Way Home. I hadn’t been aware of Ralph Stanley’s version, and Jimmy Fortune’s take made a nice surprise.

This is a lovely tribute album: some great singers on excellent songs, with a tasteful bluegrass production backing them. I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘UnCovered’

UnCoveredBeth Nielsen Chapman was one of the finest songwriters in Nashville in the 1990s, getting a lot of high-profile cuts (and hits), particularly among female artists. More of a genreless singer-songwriter than a purely country one, she enjoyed several hits herself on Adult Contemporary radio in the 90s. Her writing style nonetheless fitted in well with the diversity of 1990s country radio, with her songs running the gamut from sensitive ballads to commercial pop-country. Here she revisits a number of her songs recorded by country artists, focussing on those she never recorded herself.

My favourite song here is the excellent ‘Five Minutes’, a one-last-chance ultimatum delivered by a wife about to leave. Back in the late 80s this was recorded separately by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, becoming a big hit for the latter, and in a nice touch, both women help out on backing vocals on Beth’s version. Her lead vocals are great and the intimate arrangement works perfectly.

I also really enjoyed her version of ‘Nothin’’ I Can Do About It Now’ (Willie Nelson’s last chart-topper). Beth’s version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Strong Enough To Bend’ is also attractively done, mixing vulnerability and strength.

She recruits occasional tour partners Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg to provide call-and-response backing vocals on ‘Almost Home’ , which she wrote with and for Mary Chapin Carpenter. The sunnily positive mid-tempo ‘Here We Are’ was a #2 country hit for Alabama in 1991. I hadn’t realised Beth wrote this one with Vince Gill, but so it appears. Vince makes an appearance to sing the high harmony on this version. Beth wrote the moody ‘Sweet Love Shine’ with the late Waylon Jennings, and it was originally recorded as a duet between Jennings and Andy Griggs. Jessi Colter and Duane Eddy guest on Beth’s cover.

The pretty good piano led mid-tempo ‘Simple Things’ was an AC hit for pianist Jim Brickman with country artist Rebecca Lynn Howard on vocals, and it could have easily been covered in a mainstream country version. The sensitive Maybe That’s All It Takes’ (a late minor hit for Don Williams) is tastefully performed in an AC style with Darrell Scott on harmony. ‘Pray’ is a beautifully sung contemporary Christian song with an ethereal Celtic arrangement and backing vocals from co-writer Muriel Anderson and Amy Grant.

But while Chapman is a fine songwriter, she has some less stellar copyrights to her credit. I always hated Faith Hill’s monster hit version of ‘This Kiss’, and I don’t care for this one much more. The bluesy ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (written for Bonnie Raitt) is a bit bland. She wrote ‘One In A Million’ for the ill-fated Mindy McCready, and it too is poppy and lacking in depth.

I always enjoy hearing songwriters reveal their own take on songs they have written for other artists, and while this is not particularly country, the arrangements are generally tasteful while Chapman’s rich, warm vocals work well on most of the songs included.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Charlie Worsham – ‘Rubberband’

rubberbandI was thoroughly charmed by Charlie Worsham’s debut single. And keen to see what the young Mississippian  would come up with on his first album.  the result is interesting.  While it’s not a traditional country record, it is a breath of fresh air in the rock and pop environs of modern country radio.  Charlie wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, many of them with his co-producer Ryan Tyndell.  He is a capable rather than outstanding vocalist, with a pleasant, rather light voice, but his songwriting and musicianship are both strong.

I still love the single, which makes a delightful opening to the album and remains my favourite track.  The following ‘Want Me Too’ is stylistically very similar with a bright youthful feel, prominent banjo, and strong harmonies on the chorus.   The lyric (once more about the early stages of falling in love) has an arresting opening,

You’ve got a lock on your heart
It’s chained in the dark
And somehow you lost the key

But the darkness doesn’t last long, as a sunny attitude imbues the song; one feels quite confident that she will succumb to the protagonist’s charms.

There is a very youthful feel to the whole record.  I very much liked the folky and probably autobiographical ‘Young To See’, about seizing opportunities to experience life.  ‘How I Learned To Pray’ is a gentle ballad about finding God through first love which is rather sweet.  The more wistful ‘Mississippi In July’ also looks back to his teens and is quite atmospheric in an understated way.

‘Tools Of The Trade’ is a paean to making music, with some star guests: Marty Stuart and Vince Gill, on both vocals and mandolin/guitar respectively, and (billed only in the small print) Rebecca Lynn Howard on backing vocals.  It’s a bit heavier sounding than the remainder of the record, but still fairly rootsy.

I also liked ‘Love Don’t Die Easy’ and ‘Break What’s Broken’, a pair of low-key ballads, the former with Sheryl Crow on backing vocals.

‘Trouble Is’ is pleasant but unexciting, while ‘Someone Like Me’ is like early Keith Urban, with quite  a nicely written wistful lyric.  The one track I didn’t enjoy at all was the self-indulgent title track, which is repetitive and nonsensical lyrically, and really just an excuse for some experimental musicianship.

While not an essential purchase, this is a very pleasant sounding record with some decent songs.  it is very tastefully produced and mixed so that electric guitars and drums do not overwhelm everything else as they do on so many commercial successes.  I hope that this more understated and organic sound can find a space on country radio.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘Only One George Jones’

only one george jonesSinger-songwriter Billy Yates kickstarted his career by writing ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’ for his hero George Jones, and Jones later cover of Yates’ ‘Choices’ provided the great man’s last solo top 30 hit. Understandably, then, the shadow of the late George Jones looms large over Billy’s latest album, from the titular tribute to the “king of country soul” (which is heartfelt but not particularly insightful), to a closing version of ‘Choices’ featuring a cameo from Jones. Incidentally, the album was recorded, and dedicated to George, before his death.

The playfully vivacious semi-novelty story song ‘The House That Jack Built’ (written with Jerry Salley) is the kind of thing Jones would have cut in the 60s. It’s highly entertaining and a genuinely feelgood number, with Salley and Rebecca Lynn Howard adding harmony vocals. Another Salley co-write, the midtempo love song ‘Till The Old Wears Off’ features a Jones-style growl on the low notes, although the song itself is less memorable.

Elsewhere, the album is packed with classic sounding sad country songs, loaded with steel guitar. In ‘I Learned A Lot’, a chastened Billy claims that neglecting and losing his first love taught him how to treat a future love interest. Billy laments that his loved one still loves ‘The Man I Used To Be’, before he started cheating on her.

The appropriately titled ‘Sad Songs’ (written with Jamie Teachenor) is one of my favorites. Billy recalls listening to great country songs about broken hearts (another chance to namecheck Jones, along with Lefty Frizzell), before he understood heartbreak from personal experience. Now, though, his lover has left and:

I understand how it kills a man
When his world just walked out the door
Those lonesome refrains just add to the pain
No, I don’t buy the sad songs no more

I’m still not entirely sure (even after multiple listens) whether ‘As I Kiss My World Goodbye’ is positively suicidal about a breakup, or about actually dying. The least traditional country song on the record ‘That’s Your Memory On My Mind’ is a soulful acoustic ballad set to a piano backing; it is well done although less to my taste stylistically than the rest of the album.

The gentle retrospective ‘It Wasn’t That Funny’ looks back at the ups and downs of a relationship, as he and his spouse can laugh now at past arguments and near-breakups.

Another fine song is the piano-led ‘The Father And The Son’, written with Tom Douglas. The gripping story song shows us a young mother (revealed in the last verse to be the narrator’s mother), daughter of a preacher, struggling with her mental demons and the loss of faith for the survival of her teenage marriage:

The devil on one shoulder says “go back to your youth”
While the angel on the other is whispering the truth

There are four good reasons not to run
The father and a son
And the Father and the Son

The gently philosophical ‘The Shoulder’ written with Casey Beathard recounts a tale of a young man who inevitably falls by the wayside after growing up in a narrow small-town atmosphere, but eventually finds salvation:

I guess it goes to show God blesses even those
On the shoulder of the straight and narrow road

When enough is enough and you turn yourself around
And you pick yourself up just to fall back down
Can’t stay on top
Won’t stay in the ditch
And the best you can do is pray you’ll hitch
A ride on someone’s prayers to where you want to go

The cheerful ‘I’m A One Man Band’ picks up the tempo and sings the praises of monogamy. The driving ‘Chill My Beer’, written with Byron Hill, offers an ironic dig at a cold-hearted woman; the lyric isn’t bad, but the melody is confined to about four notes, which make it one of the record’s less successful moments.

A generous 16-strong tracklisting allows for some filler, which appears in the shape of ‘A Country Boy Just Don’t Care’, which is an okay song about being true to oneself, and ‘She Ain’t Got Nobody’ is a cliche’d song about an attractive single woman in a bar.

This is Billy’s strongest set of material for some time. production values are excellent, and this is a solidly country record worthy of being inspired by Jones.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Like A Rose’

like a roseAlthough shes’s still in her 20s, it’s been a long haul for Ashley Monroe, who has been one of the best kept secrets in country music for far too long. Signed to Sony while still in her teens, her singles failed to make much headway, even when she duetted with Ronnie Dunn. Her album for Sony was critically acclaimed but only released digitally in 2009 in a half-hearted kissoff by the label a couple of years after they had dropped her. Teaming up with superstar Miranda Lambert and songwriter Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies has definitely raised her profile among country fans.

Her return to a major label, Warner Brothers, was one of the most exciting pieces of news last year, and I have been eagerly anticipating this album. Vince Gill produces with Justin Niebank, and they do a great job showcasing Ashley’s pretty voice. She co-wrote every song here.

The autobiographical title track and current single, which Ashley wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, has an inspirational sweetness about overcoming the pain instilled in her family by the death of her father when she was 13. It is a charming track, but sadly does not appear to have made much headway with radio. The melancholic ‘She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind’, also written with Jon Randall, is another highlight, sounding like a lost-love country classic.

The ironic ‘A Dollar Short And Two Weeks Late’, a co-write with Shane McAnally, sounds sweet (especially with Rebecca Lynn Howard’s harmonies) but has a lyrical edge which would have made it a good fit for Ashley’s work with the Pistol Annies. Here Ashley portrays a young woman living in a conservative town who finds herself pregnant by her now-absent lover:

When you’re living in sin I guess
Sometimes that’s just what you get

So the man is gone
What a damn cliche
And my mama says
Looks like I gained some weight
Landlord’s at the door
And says the rent can’t wait
But I’m a dollar short
And two weeks late

The delicately folksy ‘Used’ (written with Sally Barris and previously included on Ashley’s digital release Satisfied) sings the praises of experience, comparing it to cherished old possessions.

The catchy but lyrically controversial ‘Weed Instead Of Roses’ is an enthusiastic endorsement of walking on the wild side of life with the protagonist’s love interest (and the drugs are the least of it, with Ashley calling for her lover to get out the “whips and chains”). Musically, this is great, but I can’t imagine it on the radio. The overt S&M references here are repeated more circumspectly with a reference to Fifty Shades Of Grey in the fabulous ‘You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)’, a wittily tongue-in-cheek duet with Blake Shelton with an ultra-traditional feel musically. It’s the best thing Blake has done in years, and was clearly written especially for him with its allusions to The Voice TV show. It is one of two songs Ashley wrote with Vince Gill; the other is the lively tale of teenage criminal on the run, ‘Monroe Suede’, which is unexpectedly upbeat and highly enjoyable.

I was a little bored by ‘You Got Me’, an AC-sounding co-write with Karen Fairchild with a rather dreary minor-keyed melody, organ replacing steel guitar, a heavy-handed string arrangement and Little Big Town on surprisingly muddy backing vocals. Also on the more contemporary side, but making more impact, is the introspective ‘The Morning After’, written with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose about the depressing aftermath of a drunken teenage night when the protagonist “lost everything that mattered”. Jon Randall and Andrea Zonn harmonize.

The most disappointing thing about Ashley Monroe’s new album is that there are only nine tracks, which seems unnecessarily mean. This is a fine record, but I’m not sure how commercially viable it is. I really hope it does well, because Ashley is one of the most interesting young artists around, and I want to hear more from her.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent and Rebecca Lynn Howard – ‘The Angels Rejoiced’

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Eleven’

In recent years Martina McBride has struggled to remain commercially relevant. Having landed only one Top 10 hit in the past seven years, she left her longtime label RCA last year in the hopes of reviving her flagging career. Unfortunately, the move to Republic Nashville has done little to change her commercial fortunes, as it has become apparent that her chart decline is due not to any neglectfulness on the part of RCA, but to her seeming inability to select decent material. She shares co-writing credits on six of Eleven’s tracks, the most she’s ever contributed to a single album, but for the most part this doesn’t result any measurable improvement over her other recent efforts.

When an artist ends a long term relationship with the label where she scored her greatest achievements, it can signal a bold new change in direction or a continued long period of stagnation. In Martina’s case, it’s definitely a case of the latter, as Eleven is more or less in the same vein as her last few, very lackluster albums for RCA. Her debut single for Republic Nashville, “Teenage Daughters”, offered a brief glimmer of hope that she might be getting her mojo back, but those hopes were quickly dashed as rest of the album is mostly a relapse back into the bubblegum pop she’s been peddling since 2006.

Though not a great song by any means, “Teenage Daughters” showed a spunkier side of Martina, which we’ve not seen in quite some time. Written by McBride and the Warren Brothers, the song deals with the challenges of raising adolescent daughters and was in no doubt inspired by Martina’s real-life experiences. The record peaked at #17. It was followed by what appears to be the intended centerpiece of the album, the God-awful “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”, the most shameless attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions to hit the airwaves since “God’s Will”. McBride and producer Byron Gallimore were likely hoping for a big power ballad hit that explores serious issues, in the vein of “Concrete Angel” or “A Broken Wing”. The problem is that the lyrics lack any subtlety whatsoever. It’s currently at #19 on the charts, but since most radio listeners really don’t want to hear songs about people suffering from cancer, I’ll wager that this one isn’t going to go much higher.

Most of the other tracks on the album, from the opening track “One Night” to the annoyingly sing-songy “Always Be This Way” and “Broken Umbrella” sound like throwbacks to 1970s-era Top 40 AM radio, reminiscent of the poorer efforts of artists like Helen Reddy, The Carpenters or The Captain and Tennille.

Despite these considerable drawbacks, Eleven does have its brighter moments. Though not very country, “Marry Me”, a cover of last year’s minor adult-contemporary hit by the pop/rock group Train, is quite pleasant. It is performed with the song’s writer and Train’s lead singer Pat Monahan. The bluesy “Whatcha Gonna Do”, written by Rachel Thibodeau, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jason Sever also works quite well and I’m guessing that it will eventually be released as a single. And things improve considerably with the album’s last three tracks, “Summer of Love”, “When You Love a Sinner” and the stunningly beautiful closing track “Long Distance Lullaby”, which Martina co-wrote with Mark Irwin and Josh Kear. These three numbers are the album’s best tracks, and serve as a reward of sorts for having persevered through the earlier tracks.

Having been disappointed by Martina’s previous three albums, I wasn’t expecting Eleven to be an outstanding effort, and it definitely isn’t, but it’s worth the $4.99 that Amazon MP3 is currently asking for it (the version with digital liner notes is $9.49). A deluxe version with four bonus tracks and three music videos is available exlusively from Target stores.

Grade: C

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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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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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul II’

mountainsoul2Country radio’s love affair with Patty Loveless began winding down around 1997, with the release of the single “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”. The record met with resistance by some radio program directors, who requested the release of an alternate version, without the harmony vocals provided by George Jones. Loveless refused to remix the record; it stalled at #14 and she never again had another Top 10 hit. Her commercial appeal may have waned, but freed from the constraints and pressures imposed by radio, Loveless has blossomed as an artist and released some of the best music of her career. In 2001, she released a critically acclaimed bluegrass album, and this week, Mountain Soul II, the long awaited sequel, finally hits store shelves.

Though mostly acoustic, the subtle use of some non-bluegrass instrumentation — electric guitar, pump organ, and pedal steel guitar — prevent Mountain Soul II from qualifying as a true bluegrass album, and Loveless and her label, Saguaro Road Records, have been careful not to refer to it as such. In press releases, they describe it as Appalachian, bluegrass, and country combined. Regardless of the label, it is a worthy successor to Mountain Soul, and unlike many sequels, it holds its own against the original.

Many of the players from the original Mountain Soul — Jon Randall, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and of course, Loveless’ producer and husband Emory Gordy, Jr. — are back on board this time around. Loveless is also joined by special guests Del and Ronnie McCoury, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris.

The opening track and lead single for the album is a cover of the Harlan Howard classic “Busted”. Recorded many times in the past by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and John Conlee, Loveless’ version restores Howard’s original lyrics, which contain references to coal mining, rather than cotton farming, referred to in the other recorded versions. The lyrics were originally changed at the request of Johnny Cash, but coal mining is a better fit with the acoustic arrangement and bluegrass harmonies provided by the McCourys. Even better are the vocal performances that the McCourys contribute to the old standby “Working On A Building”, which is the most purely bluegrass song on the album.

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Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Taste Of The Truth’

Taste Of The TruthGene Watson is one of my all-time favorite singers, and it is good to report that he is still sounding great at the age of 65. Listening to his new album, his second for independent label Shanachie, is like listening to a masterclass in singing country music, a subtle rendering of understated emotion. Gene is not a songwriter, so the ultimate artistic success of his records always depend on finding great outside material, and fortunately he has found some fine songs here from some of the best writers currently in Nashville, which are ideally suited to his voice. The overall theme is one of lost love and regret.

It opens with ‘Speakin’ Of The Angel’, a great traditional sounding mid-tempo number written by Shawn Camp and Jim Rushing, which is a joy to listen to even though the protagonist is heartbroken dwelling on his beloved ex planning to marry another:

“If I swear that I don’t love her, God knows it’s a lie,
Speakin’ of the angel is enough to make me cry.”

The title track comes from the pen of Rebecca Lynn Howard, and is a fine ballad with a beautifully realized metaphor, delicately delivered in Gene’s best style, as he addresses another ex, this time one he now regrets having left, finding the freedo he had hungered for has a “lonely flavor”:

“I’d eat my words to have you back
If I thought I could
‘Cause the truth don’t satisfy me
Like I thought it would

In fact it leaves me hollow
With a bad taste in my mouth
It’s hard for me to swallow
Tears won’t wash it down
Knowing you don’t want me back
It’s all that I can do
To keep from chokin’ on
The taste of the truth”

Another gorgeous sad ballad perfect for Gene’s voice is ‘Til A Better Memory Come Along’, previously recorded by both Mark Chesnutt and Shelby Lynne. I like both previous versions, but this is quite lovely as Gene can’t get over the woman who has left and tells her memory so with perhaps the best vocal performance on the album:

“How long will it take before I leave you
In the past where you belong?
One day I might forget
But right now I’m not that strong
So I’ll hold on
Til a better memory comes along”

Just as good is another sad song about failing to get over someone (and obviously not trying very hard), Tim Mensy and Keith Stegall’s ‘Three Minutes At A Time’, as the narrator forgets his troubles for a while by listening to country songs on the jukebox: “it’s heartache in rhyme, but it helps me hang on”, he testifies.

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The bottle that pours the wine: Songs about songwriting

Stephanie DavisIt’s always about the song in country music. Whether the writer sings the song or not, a topic Razor X raised last week, the song itself is what everything else ultimately depends on. One of the things I love about country music is the range of subjects it tackles, but the thing most songwriters know the most about is, of course, writing songs.  So it should come as no surprise that some writers have chosen to reflect on that process within their work: the nature of inspiration; the way lives and pain are transmuted into art; and complaining about or celebrating the state of the music industry. Self-referential, perhaps – but also a fascinating insight into songwriters’ thoughts about the songs they write. So here are some of my favorite songs on the theme.

‘Sixteenth Avenue’, the ultimate tribute to the professional songwriters of Music Row, written by one of their own, Thom Schuyler, and made famous by Lacy J Dalton, speaks briefly of the magical moment of inspiration when some struggling writer finds the perfect words:
One night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words rolled off someone’s tongue

Another nod to the idea that the music comes from some place beyond is expressed in David Ball’s lovely ‘The Bottle That Pours The Wine’, which he wrote with Allen Shamblin for his 1996 album Starlite Lounge, as he answers a young fan asking where the songs come from:
“I’m just a bottle that pours the wine
A fragile vessel for melody and rhyme

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Something with a twist to it

Billy Yates

Billy Yates

Some of the most memorable country songs are the ones which surprise you, the story song with a twist in the tale, or the song which suddenly goes in a direction you really weren’t expecting. Sometimes the effect is desigend to make you laugh; sometimes it may bring you to tears; there are some songs which simply stop you in your tracks in shock the first time you hear them.

That happened to me the first time I heard the Billy Yates/Monty Criswell song ‘Flowers’, on Yates’ self-titled first album in 1997 (also notable for the first version of the song ‘Choices’, subsequently recorded by George Jones). ‘Flowers’ has also been covered by former Nashville Star winner Chris Young and (with a few lyrical changes) by Australian Adam Harvey, yet even knowing the twist to come, it has never lost its force for me. One of the reasons this song is so effective is that it breaks a lot of the conventions of country songwriting. Instead of the usual verse-chorus pattern, we have a series of hookless verses with the chorus sung through twice at the very end. The title does not appear until the very last word of the song.

Rather than spell out the story here, I suggest you listen to the song yourself if you haven’t heard it before (and try to avoid looking at the tags).

A surefire way to make the listener cry is to not reveal until late in the song that the subject has died. For instance, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Trisha Yearwood both recorded ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Harlan Howard and Tom Douglas; in this song the protagonist is wandering restlessly unable to get over someone, but it is presumed that he has just left her until the last verse, when she visits his grave. The vocal is imbued with sadness before that, but the impact on the listener is doubled by being delayed.

Even in a song whose subject is as well known as ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman) it is only halfway through that it is truly obvious that the reason the protagonist has stopped loving the woman who has left is that he has finally proved himself right when “he said ‘I’ll love you til I die'”. Similarly, although there must always be a sense of looming doom in a Vietnam-era story featuring a soldier, it is only at the end of Bruce Robison’s ‘Traveling Soldier’ (most famously recorded by the Dixie Chicks) that the young man’s death is announced. It is perhaps almost as much of a shock to the listener as to his unfortunate sweetheart.

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Album Review: Alecia Nugent – ‘Hillbilly Goddess’

HillbillyGoddessI first heard Alecia Nugent back in 2004, when she released her eponymous debut album. It had some great songs on it, but I must confess that I didn’t really enjoy her singing, which I felt lacked subtlety and verged on the strident. Because of that, I passed on her follow-up in 2006, A Little Girl … A Big Four Lane, and it is only now, with the release of her third album Hillbilly Goddess, that I have rediscovered Alecia.

Her singing has improved immeasurably. Her tone has become warmer and fuller, the stridency I disliked has disappeared, and she has developed the ability to sing with subtlety as well as emotion. Carl Jackson’s production is faultless, and the pair of them have picked some very good songs well-suited to Alecia’s voice and style, which is very much in the country-meets-bluegrass vein.

The change is evident from the first track, the edgy ‘Wreckin’ The Train’, where Alecia gives it some rambling-girl attitude as she refuses to settle down: “I just had to walk away, he would have made a good husband, I guess that’s why I couldn’t stay.”

There is a gorgeous version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s modern classic ‘Don’t Tell Me’, which is imbued with delicately understated emotion, which is perhaps the best exemplification of how far Alecia has progressed as a vocalist. She gives a beautifully understated reading of Tim O’Brien’s regretfully poetic ‘Wishing Hard’: “Sugar just can’t hide the taste of bitterness that you get from wasting a heart that’s full of love but just can’t show it”.

Several of the songs are told in the third person, although they tend more towards snapshots of lives rather than true story songs. Some of them work rather nicely together. The downbeat ‘Just Another Alice’ takes a sympathetic look at aspiring singers “believing they’re a song away from being stars” but really “just another Alice here in Wonderland”. In ‘The Last Greyhound’ an 18 year old girl who might be one of those Alices leaves home to follow her dreams, only to find home is what she really dreams of. A male protagonist learns the same lesson later in life in the mellow-sounding closing track, ‘Already Home’:

“He knew the road like the back of his own hand,
He’d been on it a lifetime, still he wouldn’t call it a friend,
He said, he guessed some people search forever for something they already own,
And he could have saved himself a lot of miles if he had only known”

The joyful title track, co-written by Alecia herself with Jackson and Sonya Kelly, is a light-hearted but at heart, deeply romantic, tale of true love, set to a lively up-tempo tune featuring banjo from J D Crowe. The downhome heroine “may not be a glamor queen”, but to her man, she is the eponymous “hillbilly goddess”. The label should try this irresistible song as a single.

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Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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