My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rhonda Vincent

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

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

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

What to do ?

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

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

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

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

So where should you start?

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

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

Classic Era/First Generation artists

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

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

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

Modern Era

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

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

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

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

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Away In A Manger’

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & The Rage – ‘All The Rage Volume 1’

all-the-rageMost bluegrass bands are at their best live, and great though she is as a recording artist, Rhonda Vincent and her road band The Rage are no exception. Her latest album, the result of a concert at Bethel University in Tennessee in May 2015, really allows her band the chance to shine on a selection of mainly lesser known tunes from Rhonda’s back catalog.

They open with a coruscating version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic ‘Muleskinner Blues’ with Rhonda wailing and yodelling impressively. This is a complete tour de force. In similar vein is ‘Kentucky Borderline’, written by Rhonda herself, while the closing ‘Mississippi River’ comes from the Mark Twain tribute album a few years back.

Slowing down the tempo, ‘Is The Grass Any Bluer (On The Other Side)’ is an affectionate tribute to Father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. There is an excellent version of the Barbara Mandrell hit ‘Midnight Angel’ (originally a bluegrass song, and also recorded by Highway 101). ‘Missouri Moon’ is a beautiful, melancholy ballad. The delicately understated ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is one of those songs which means the absolute opposite of its title.

Rhonda takes the lead on a traditional bluegrass gospel quartet for the cheerfully judgmental ‘You Don’t Love God (If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour)’. She also sings a devout ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.

The guys are allowed to sing lead on several of the songs. The bands newest member Josh Williams, is an excellent singer in his own right, and he takes on the much-recorded rambler’s song ‘Freeborn Man’. Dobro player Brent Burke (one of Rhonda’s sons in law) shows off an attractive tenor voice on ‘The Girl From West Virginia’. Bassist Mickey Harris sings his own ‘If We Would Just Pray’.

A couple of fast paced instrumentals round out the set, a fiddle tune composed by Hunter Berry (Rhonda’s other son in law) and a banjo one by Aaron McDaris respectively.

The concert is also available as a DVD. It is an outstanding set of performances which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A+

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+

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘I Do My Crying At Night’

Album Review: Kristy Cox – ‘Part Of Me’

part of meI loved Australian bluegrass singer Kristy Cox’s previous album, so I was keen to hear her latest work, produced, like its predecessor, by songwriter Jerry Salley. She is in great form vocally; last time around I felt she was better on the ballads than the up-tempo material, but now she sparkles on the faster songs too, and is reminiscent at times of Rhonda Vincent.

‘Another Weary Mile’ opens the album briskly in typical bluegrass style. Written by Michael Rogers, Joshua D Trivett, and Jason Barie, it is one of only two completely outside song, with the remainder coming from the pens of Salley and/or Cox. A vibrant vocal brings the tale of life on the road and the lure of home alive.

Kristy co-wrote four songs. Allen Caswell helped her with ‘William Henry Johnson’, a mournful murder ballad about ‘a hero and a villain’ who breaks the protagonist’s heart and ends up dead as a result. Caswell collaborated with Kristy and Jerry Salley on ‘You Walked In’, an upbeat song about the joy of new-found love. Equally sweet is ‘Young Love Never Gets Old’, a romantic tale of a lifelong love story against all the odds, written by Kristy and Jerry. Kristy and Jerry wrote one more song, the pacy but regretful ‘I’m No Stranger To This Lonesome Road’.

‘The Part Of Me (That’s Still In Love With You)’ is a wistful ballad about the emotional power of a memory overshadowing a current relationship, which Salley wrote with Pam Tillis, with a lovely melody.

‘Little White Whiskey Lies’, written by Salley with Tammy Rogers, picks up the tempo with a bluesy edge. ‘Baby, You Ain’t Baby Anymore’ is a bluegrass burner, written by Salley with Jenee Fleenor, which has Kristy bemoaning a faltering relationship. The brisk ‘Your Train Don’t Stop Here anymore’, written with Dani Flowers, is also solid, while the set closes with an optimistic gospel tune penned by Salley with Sally Barris, ‘That’s Where The Faith Comes In’.

Finally, there is a lovely cover of Chris Stapleton’s moving ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’. Kristy’s vocal style is about as different from Stapleton’s rough hewn soul as one can imagine, and her version adds sweetness and a gentle regret. Beautiful.

The sparkling playing and immaculate arrangements make the perfect backdrop for Kristy’s clear, pure voice. This is an excellent album which I recommend strongly.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Christmas Time’

rhonda vincent christmas timeRhonda Vincent’s music is always worth hearing, so I was keen to hear her new Christmas album. The tasteful acoustic arrangements are bluegrass at its most mellow, with nothing really up-tempo or challenging. The musicians all play impeccably, with Stuart Duncan’s fiddle in particular shining, supplemented on a few tracks by additional strings. Rhonda’s lovely voice is crystal clear and expressive throughout.

Rhonda wrote four brand new songs. The opening ‘Dreaming Of Christmas’ sets the mood nicely with an upbeat depiction of a family celebration. The pleasant ‘Christmas Time At Home’ is on a similar theme. The melancholy title track is a melodic ballad about missing a loved one no longer there to share the joys of Christmas. The ultra-perky ‘Milk And Cookies’ is as up-tempo as the album gets, and rests right on that fine line between fun and annoying, falling over the latter edge at the end when she pops in a product placement for her long time sponsor Martha White.

The most memorable track is a bright and irresistible version of ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’, featuring a starry lineup comprising the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, an instantly recognisable Bill Anderson whispering the “nine ladies dancing” line, an equally recognisable Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap (not recognisable), Gene Watson, Larry Gatlin, a sweet trio of Jeannie Seely, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis (on “three French hens”), and child singer Emi Sunshine. This is not usually one of my favorite Christmas songs, but the effervescent mood is absolutely charming.

The other well known secular tune included is ‘Jingle Bells’, which rattles along genially with some super fiddle.

A number of well worn carols fill out the remainder of the tracklist, starting with a reflective reading of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’. A straightforward reading of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is also nice, with a string quartet accompaniment. ‘Away In A Manger’, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ are all beautifully done, but do we really need another version of any of them? Rhonda obviously had difficulty narrowing down her selection of material, because she closes up with a medley of a further seven carols apparently strung together at random, accompanied by solo piano. Standing out among these is an intense vocal on ‘O Holy Night’ and the choice of ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’. Maybe she should have hived this medley off into a completely separate EP.

So this is a lovely sounding bluegrass/acoustic country album, but not necessarily an essential purchase if you’ve already got a lot of Christmas music in your collection.

Grade: B

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Album Review: Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback’

throwbackWhen reviewing the year’s releases for my end of year lists, I realised that I never reviewed this album properly. As the album’s title hints, Alabaman Kevin Moon is a thorough going traditionalist who could have been a big star if he had been around in the late 80s or early 90s – the era of most of the songs on this album. He has a fabulous country voice with rich tones and characterful inflections, and he stands up well against the stars who guest on this album.

He teamed up with Ken Mellons (who he sounds very like) to rework the latter’s ‘Honky Tonk Teachers’. It’s an appropriate choice with its loving tribute to the great country singers of the past, and this version is great.

Kevin pays tribute to the late Keith Whitley a number of times, starting with a nice version of ‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose’, with Rhonda Vincent taking Lorrie Morgan’s duet part. This is one track where the original is better, but it is a beautiful song with a lovely melody. Whitley wrote ‘Hopelessly Yours’, recorded by John Conlee, George Jones, and Lee Greenwood/Suzy Bogguss. Moon’s cover is an emotional duet with young singer Mary Sarah. The heartbreaking ‘Tennessee Courage’ serves as tribute to both Whitley and to Vern Gosdin, and is performed with two artists who should have been stars, Wesley Dennis and Kevin Denney, and a younger singer I hadn’t previously come across but who bears further investigation, Billy Droze.

Another star not currently available to help out is Randy Travis, so Travis’s one-time protégé Daryle Singletary helps out on an excellent version of ‘The Storms Of Life’. Conway Twitty’s son Michael assists on the sentimental ‘That’s My Job’.

John Anderson guests on his early 90s comeback hit. ‘Straight Tequila Night’ – again, I prefer the original, but this is still good. Marty Raybon’s voice blends beautifully with Moon’s on a lovely version of Shenandoah’s ‘Moon Over Georgia’. Doug Stone still sounds good on a version of his ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’. ‘You’ve Got To Stand For Something’ features Aaron Tippin, but is less forceful than the original.

A couple of new songs are included. ‘Low Key’ dreams about a much-needed beach vacation, mixing a steel guitar dominated arrangement with Spanish-influenced guitar, and is nicely done. The title track strings together quotes from a selection of great country classics and calls for some throwback country, “with some drinkin’, cheatin’ lyin’, leavin’”, and is quite clever.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from a young man with a lot of talent. The lack of originality in making most of the material cover songs is ameliorated by making them duets with, in most cases the original stars.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Have I Loved You Too Late’

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘At The Corner Of Walk And Don’t Walk’

Album Review: Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’

pocket full of keysDale Ann Bradley’s exquisite, crystalline voice has led to her winning the IBMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year title no less than five times. She may not be as well known among country fans as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent, but she certainly deserves to be. For the first time she has produced her own album, and the result is the best record she has ever made. She draws largely on her deprived childhood in a rural part of Kentucky lacking safe electricity and running water

Although it sounds as if it might be an ancient Appalachian folk tune, ‘The Stranger’ is a song Dolly Parton wrote for Kenny Rogers. It tells the tragic tale of an abandoned pregnant woman whose lover returns far too late, only to be rejected by the grown child. Dale Ann sings it beautifully.

The delicate and metaphorical title track (a self-penned number) is about discovering one’s true self and strength in adversity. Jim Lauderdale comes on board as duet partner on ‘Hard Lesson Road’, which looks back at the experiences one learns painfully from, with some lovely fiddle

‘Rachel, Pack Your Sunday Clothes’ is a somber message urging an absent child to be reconciled while her father is still alive. The emotive story song ‘Soldiers, Lovers And Dreamers’ is about idealistic young love derailed by harsh reality.

‘Sweet Hour Of Prayer’ is a heavenly ballad, while ‘I’ll Live On Somewhere’ is a bluegrass gospel quartetled by Dale Ann.

The traditional ‘Sweetheart Of The Pines’ is classic high lonesome at its best, while there is a lovely version of the country classic ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, which is a highlight. ‘Til I Hear it From You’ is a cover of a 90s rock song; Dale Ann’s exquisite voice remakes the song in her own image, but it is still one of my less favourite tracks.

The pacier material is a bit less memorable and showcases Dale Ann’s extraordinarily beautiful voice less well, but songs like ‘Ain’t It Funny’, a philosophical acceptance of the end of a love affair, and ‘Talking To The Moon’ are still solid fare.

This is an outstanding bluegrass album which should have equal appeal to fans of acoustic country.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent sings Hank Williams – ‘Your Cheating Heart’

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+

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Old Rugged Cross’

Predictions for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards

It’s early February, which means it’s time for the annual Grammy Awards telecast, airing this Sunday at 8pm on CBS. Look for performances from Eric Church and Miranda Lambert, plus winners in the Country and American Roots categories.

GiveMeBackMyHometownBest Country Solo Performance

Consisting of four former winners, who have proven perennial Grammy favorites, this couldn’t be a more predicable group of nominees. Miranda Lambert won the CMA Award so she has less of a chance of winning here, but really everyone has a very good chance of walking away with the trophy.

Should Win: “Give Me Back My Hometown” – The buzz surrounding The Outsiders coupled with the fact he’s never won a Grammy, should be enough to push him over the top.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” – With a win for “Last Name,” the Grammy voters proved they would award Carrie Underwood for just opening her mouth. She made quite a splash this year, so look for her winning streak to continue.

Little-Big-Town-Day-DrinkingBest Country duo/group performance

A banal group of mainstream fare, these nominees are far more flash than artistry. The Band Perry has the best song, but Kimberly’s feathery vocal, likely from screaming too much during the Pioneer era, hinders their Glen Campbell cover.

Should Win: “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” – Although it wasn’t much of a duet, Tim & Faith should be rewarded solely for McGraw’s artistic comeback.

 Will Win: “Day Drinking” – Miranda and Carrie won the CMA, which dramatically hurts their chances here. That’ll leave room for Little Big Town to swoop in and claim victory with their anathematic earworm.

10523141_295010450688997_7271262647762240217_nBest Country Song

A sentimental nod for Glen Campbell gives these nominees, which are otherwise tethered to mainstream fare, a bit more variety. He could very easily win on principal, which would be a wonderful thing to see.

Should Win: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” – a win now for Campbell would indeed be wonderful, especially after all he’s been through.

Will Win: “American Kids” – Grammy song categories are always surprising, as the substantive ballad doesn’t always emerge victorious. Kenny Chesney’s hit is an offbeat choice, but crazier things have happened. If Chesney doesn’t win, I could see Eric Church easily taking this home.

12 storiesBest Country Album

The strongest of the country categories, with five worthy nominees, including two that should be duking it out to the finish.

Should Win: It’s a statistical dead heat between 12 Stories and The Way I’m Livin.’ Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack turned in stellar recordings that, in their own right, each deserve this award.

Will Win: The Outsiders – Eric Church’s wildly uneven fourth album has a buzz that cannot be ignored. It’s a good project, but nowhere near the artistic caliber of Clark and Womack’s sets.

UnknownBest American Roots Performance

I’m not as well versed here, but Rosanne Cash and Nickel Creek turned in valiant efforts and Alison Krauss is featured on a track.

Should Win: “Destination” – Nickel Creek came back together after nine years, bringing with them their artistic gains from solo and side projects. Their astounding growth shouldn’t be ignored. 

Will Win: “And When I Die” – I never bet against the obvious, Alison Krauss is featured here, but I could easily see Rosanne Cash taking this home as well. 

rosannecashBest American Roots Song

I’ve only heard Rosanne Cash’s track, and while good, it isn’t “When The Master Calls The Roll.”

Should Win: “A Feather’s Not A Bird” – I’d still give this one to Cash

Will Win: “Pretty Little One” – Steve Martin wins without even trying, so he has the edge here. Jesse Winchester, who passed away last year, could also claim the sentimental vote.

Rosanne CashBest Americana Album

All hail the might God that is Sturgill Simpson. Most were furious he wasn’t in the Best Country Album category, since his album has Country Music in its title, but its experimental nature makes it a perfect fit here. I haven’t been able to get into him (sacrilege of the highest order) but I can appreciate his artistry.

Should Win: The River & The Thread – Rosanne Cash’s impeccable ode to her family legacy is one of the year’s true masterworks 

Will Win: The River & The Thread – Cash has the name recognition to pull this off and it couldn’t be more deserved. But she isn’t Simpson, and that could hurt her, and everyone else in this category.

81Yyaq+5nDL._SL1500_Best Bluegrass Album

This is quite the substantive category, with at least three nominees that could emerge victorious.

Should Win: I honestly don’t have any idea

 Will Win: Only Me – Rhonda Vincent is the biggest name here, a fact that usually secures a win

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2014

the way im livinIt’s not been the best of years for mainstream country music, but great music is still out there to be found if you’re willing to hunt it down. There was a plethora of great covers projects, including excellent offerings from Joey + Rory and Gene Watson, and a number of other fine records which just missed the cut in my top 10 selection.

10. Dave Adkins ‘Nothing To Lose
Classic high lonesome bluegrass from a singer with a big, emotional voice.
Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Even Walk’, ‘Don’t Pray That Way’, ‘Mistaken Heart

9. J P Harris & The Tough Choices – ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is
Authentic retro honky tonk with some great songs.

Best tracks: ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, ‘Truck Stop Amphetamines’, ‘Every Little Piece’

provoked8. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked
Back on an independent label, Sunny Sweeney’s unbridled honky tonk with a modern twist is irresistible.

Best tracks: ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’, ‘Sunday Dress

7. Fayssoux, ‘I Can’t Wait
A lovely mellow folk-country record.

Best tracks: ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’, ‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’, ‘Golightly Creek’

6. Randy Travis – Influence Vol 2
The second instalment of Randy’s covers project, fortunately recorded before his recent health crisis was, unexpectedly, even better than the first one.

Best tracks: ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’, ‘For The Good Times’

daylight and dark5. Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark
Solid country music from a talented singer-songwriter I like more every tie I hear him. This was one of the year’s first releases, and it hasn’t lost its appeal for me.

Best tracks: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Liars And Fools’, ‘Late Night Diner

4. Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me
The bluegrass star offers a stellar selection of material. The packaging is a touch gimmicky, with two CDs in one packages, each containing just six tracks. One is billed as straight bluegrass, the other traditional country, but both are wonderful. My only criticism is that it would be nice to hear some new songs of this quality.

Best tracks: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All)’, ‘Teardrops Over You’, ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’ (ft Daryle Singletary), ‘Beneath Still Waters

3. Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record
I was very impressed by fiddler/traditional country singer Jade’s debut album. Very much in the style of Amber Digby, this is packed full of heartbreak numbers, backed with fiddle and steel. It just squeezes in ahead of Rhonda thanks to the inclusion of original material.

Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’, ‘I Had A Husband’, ‘I Can Bring Him Back’, ‘I’m Dynamite’

lucky2. Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky
In a year which saw a lot of fine tribute and cover albums, this was the best of the lot. Suzy’s beautiful readings of Haggard songs are exquisite. This record is just lovely. The sensitive vocal interpretations are backed by delicately stripped down arrangements which shows that less is more.

Best tracks: ‘If We Make It Through December’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’

1. Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin
I was disappointed by Trisha Yearwood’s return, when she only recorded six new songs. But Lee Ann Womack did not disappoint, with that exquisite voice wrapped around 13 excellent songs. ‘Chances Are’, my favorite, is sublime. She sounds thoroughly revitalised by her move from the major labels and hankering after radio play to Sugar Hill’s focus on artistry. The result is magical.

Best tracks: ‘Chances Are’, ‘Nightwind’, ‘Sleeping With The Devil