My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rick Rubin

Johnny Cash: A Look Back

We lost Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash within months of each other back in 2003, so 2018 marks a very sad 15th-anniversary farewell to the “Man In Black”.

The release last year of UNEARTHED, a nine album 180 gram vinyl box set (originally released on CD two months after his death) of unreleased tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, (it features some interesting pairings such as Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and the late Joe Strummer’s duets with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) provides us with a excuse to take another look back at his career.

While modern country radio has no use for the likes of Johnny Cash, preferring more commercial fodder, other sections of the music industry have kept his music alive, whether on Willie’s Roadhouse (Sirius XM Radio) or through the musical press. Cover bands continue to play his music and while younger so-called country singers play music that bears little connection to country music, his music remains a staple of Roots-Rock, Texas Red-Dirt and Bluegrass performers

Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.

Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.

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Album Review – Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

ThatGirlCDIn the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machine it’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Grade: B- 

Single Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

jennifer nettles - that girlOn her first chart outing as a soloist, Jennifer Nettles revisits the stuff of Sugarland’s awards show-sweeping “Stay”, which won Nettles half a dozen trophies as the song’s only writer.

In 2007’s “Stay”, Jennifer Nettles sang from the perspective of the longsuffering other woman.  In interviews, Nettles has said “Stay” was inspired by Reba McEntire’s 1986 hit “Whoever’s in New England”. She flipped the protagonist to the other woman, and the song was born. This time, Nettles has given “Jolene”, the redhead from Dolly Parton’s classic 1973 hit, her own voice.

“Stay” finds the other woman weeping and wailing and literally begging a man to stay with her.  “That Girl” finds the other woman reacting to her transgression with far more grace. The other woman in “Stay” pushes away a dead-end situation eventually, where “That Girl” finds her relatively unscathed and quick to retreat.

Producer Ruck Rubin has the whole affair played out in a winning minor key, with canned percussion and a gloomy-sounding bass.  As for Nettles, she’s singing with an appropriate loose efficiency – none of her trademark throaty twang –  for what she’s got to say, which goes something like: “I always kinda liked you. Sorry I slept with your man. He called me by your name (mine’s Jolene). Hope it’s all cool.”

Revisiting a classic country song is a different and unique idea for today’s mainstream country stars. Like the idea behind it, “That Girl” is a bit offbeat, but not without its charm and it’s well executed. It all works for me.

Grade: B+

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Album Review – The Band Perry – ‘Pioneer’

“Daddy rocked us to sleep with the Rolling Stones; Mama woke us up with Loretta Lynn. So we get it honest” – Kimberly Perry

300999_laIt’s no secret that “If I Die Young” is one of my favorite singles of this decade, no matter how much airplay it receives. Nathan Chapman’s simple production combined with Kimberly’s sweet vocal is an irresistible combination, difficult for me to resist.

So about a year ago now, I was thrilled when The Band Perry announced they’d be working with Rick Rubin on their sophomore album. The veteran producer who famously resurrected Johnny Cash’s career in the final two decades of life, he also produced the final Dixie Chick record Taking The Long Way, possibly my favorite album from them. In addition, they expressed their intent to work with songwriting genius (and Semisonic front man) Dan Wilson based on his involvement with “Someone Like You” and “Don’t You Remember” from Adele’s 21 (He also had a lot to do with the genius of the Chicks’ album). The Perry siblings even spoke openly of their love for those two songs, which made me very excited, as I love them, too.

So, what the heck went so horribly wrong? Well, it seems like the their label had other ideas. Kimberly has explained that Rubin “in his current incarnation” is a minimalist, but “we also knew that to accommodate all of the goals that we had, the best producer was Dann Huff.” One can assume, reading between the PR fog, that Republic Nashville didn’t approve of Rubin’s artistry, and wanted the band to go with a producer that would keep them firmly within the good graces of country radio. In other words, an intelligently articulate record wouldn’t be supported in today’s Nashville in the same ways an overproduced Huff-led record would.

And is Pioneer ever overproduced. Huff works his usual magic, suffocating the songs until they are one click away from needing life support. The rock production has even affected Kimberly’s voice, the band’s crowning instrument, which is now sadly showing the wear of extreme overuse. I wasn’t expecting to hear such breathy vocals from her, and like Carrie Underwood’s newly acquired rasp, it’s kind of sad. What ever happened to simply singing?

Pioneer is what happens when country music becomes too commercial. Every aspect of the product is grossly overdone in an attempt to appeal to the arena and stadium crowd, and while the songs may work well live; they fail as a listening experience on an album. Luckily, though, this isn’t the atrocious mess it could’ve been and they did find (and write) some decent songs, even if nothing here lives up to the singles from their debut.

I quite like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” despite the somewhat muffled production and “I Saw The Light” is possibly my favorite song on the whole project. The title track is as folksy as they seem to get, and “Back To Me Without You” is nicely restrained although it gets a bit power ballad-y by the end. I don’t have a huge issue with thick production at all when it’s done correctly (here’s looking at you, Eric Church). Huff’s style actually works well on “Forever Mine Nevermind,” which has noticeable country elements in the choral melody.

I’m also enjoying the tender “Mother Like Mine,” which the trio wrote as a declaration of what the world would look like if everyone had been raised by their mom:

So the wars would all be over

‘Cause she’d raise us all as friends

And no one would ever wonder if somebody wanted them

We’d walk on grass that’s greener

And our cares would all be freer

If the world had a mother like mine

The no wars line is a bit predictable, and Kimberly’s vocal shows the wear of shouting too much on stage, but overall it’s a very touching song that would work well as a single. Their southern gothic tribute “End of Time” isn’t as revelatory as I would’ve liked, but it’s probably closest to the sound on their debut. “Night Gone Wasted” is a mess in this form, but I can hear the honky-tonk elements beneath all the noise, especially on the chorus. If any song ever called for an acoustic makeover, this would be it.

The rest is just plain dreck. I do get why some would praise “Chainsaw” for being a country romp, but it sounds to me like something Huff would’ve done with Rascal Flatts circa 2004. There’s just nothing new in the production to peak my interest. The lyric is typical Band Perry but the melody sounds very dated. Even the Target exclusive tracks are marred by unintelligent choices in both vocals and production, and can hardly be appreciated for the quality songs they probably are.

To call me disappointed in Pioneer would be an understatement. I’m thankful this isn’t an obvious clichéd attempt at commercialism, but this record could’ve been and deserved to be so much more. The songs are there but you wouldn’t know it based on all the distracting elements hindering overall enjoyment. Pioneer will rightfully get The Band Perry to that next level they so deserve to ascend to, but it comes at far too big a price for the fans that loved the simplicity of their debut. Hopefully, they’ll be able to find a happy medium next time.

Grade: C+  

Growing older gracefully

Reba McEntire’s latest single, the loud and over-produced ‘Turn On The Radio’, has her firmly following the latest trends. We often bemoan the youth mania which has overtaken country radio in recent years and made it hard for an older artist to get radio play. Reba definitely defied the odds when she made her successful comeback last year well into her fifties, but it’s a shame that she felt she needed to follow the template cut out by today’s young pop-country stars in order to compete with them. Obviously it worked for Reba, who achieved her 24th #1 single with ‘Consider Me Gone’, but personally I preferred the lyrically mature follow-up single, ‘I Keep On Loving You’, where Reba played her age.

No career lasts forever, and only a handful of Reba’s contemporaries can still hope for radio play: George Strait, Alan Jackson, the about-to-retire Brooks & Dunn, are all seeing success in their 50s, but most of their contemporaries, however talented or however bright their star was in earlier years, now struggle to compete with attractive young faces in an increasingly image-conscious era. Female singers in particular struggle to get radio play once they hit their forties, even if, like Reba and Sara Evans, they try to record radio friendly material. Lee Ann Womack is trying to balance radio-friendly material with quality, with some success. Yet the perception than country music is more open to older artists is at the root of the influx of artists from other genres.

Some artists who are no longer selling as well as they did in their heyday have responded by embracing the greater artistic freedom which comes with an independent label and lower expectations, and taken unexpected new routes. Patty Loveless produced her masterpiece Sleepless Nights and last year’s bluegrass project Mountain Soul II, and Kathy Mattea released the acclaimed concept album Coal. Emmylou Harris ventured into Americana territory and gained much critical acclaim. Others turn to religious music. Many stars have done so at the height of their careers (most recently Alan Jackson with his labor of love Precious Memories), and it is even more common to include a religious track on a mainstream album. Others have waited until their star has begun to fade. Randy Travis, once the biggest star in country, released five religious records in six years in the 2000s, and gained a new following in Christian music, although he has since returned to secular music.

Taking the long view, though, country music has historically been kinder to older artists than the youth fixated pop world. Buck Owens’ first retirement, at around 50, was thought premature by fans, and he staged a successful minor comeback a decade later thanks in part to his admirer Dwight Yoakam. Vern Gosdin didn’t have his first solo hit until his 40s and had his greatest success in his 50s in the late 1980s, although his is an extreme example. Our current Spotlight Artist George Jones had his biggest hit, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, in his late 40s, and was still charting, at least occasionally, at 70. Other veterans like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, both now in their 70s, may be missing from radio playlists, but their new recordings are greeted with the respect they deserve. Gene Watson – never as big a star as he should have been – is still making great music and released my favourite album of 2009.

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