My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ricky Skaggs

BREAKING NEWS: Johnny Gimble, Dottie West and Ricky Skaggs headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame

The press conference, which just concluded in the Rotunda, was hosted by Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks:

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Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Old Enough To Know Better’

A performance of “Restless” by The New Nashville Cats featuring Mark O’Connor, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner at the 1991 CMA Awards proved pivotal in shifting Wade Hayes’ life focus towards a career in country music. He had been signed to an independent label by his father when he was eleven, but the deal fell through when the label filed for bankruptcy.

He dropped out of college and returned to Nashville after seeing that performance and became buddies with songwriter Chick Rains, who introduced Hayes to Don Cook, primarily known at the time for producing the catalog of Brooks & Dunn. With Cook working his connections, Hayes was able to score a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1994.

With Cook in the production chair, Hayes wasted no time and had his debut album Old Enough To Know Better in stores by January 1995. The record was preceded by the title track, which Hayes co-wrote with Rains. The uptempo honky-tonk rocker is 1990s country at its finest, still relevant today and boasts a killer hook “I’m old enough to know better, but I’m still too young to care” that made me take notice instantly as a nine-year-old kid when this song came out.

Hayes hit #1 with that song, a feat he wouldn’t repeat again in his career although he would come close. The fiddle and steel drenched contemporary ballad “I’m Still Dancing With You” followed, peaking at #4. The heartbreaking tale of lost love was an excellent showcase for Hayes’ ability to show palpable emotion with his voice, a talent lost on many of his contemporaries. He would have far stronger showcases for this gift, especially as he grew into himself as an artist, but he was doing very well right out of the gate.

A second uptempo honky-tonk rocker was sent to radio in an effort to repeat the success of the title track. “Don’t Stop,” which would stall at #10, isn’t as strong or relatable as the title track and peaked about where it deserved. It’s still enjoyable to listen to today although the music video seems to have been buried in the archives somewhere out of view.

When thinking about ballads from Old Enough To Know Better, “What I Meant to Say” comes to mind a heck of a lot sooner than “I’m Still Dancing With You” and for good reason. The contemporary ballad is the better song, and while both have emotive vocal performances from Hayes, this is the more believable song. Hayes makes you feel his regret deep inside of you. The song would only peak at #5, which is a shame, as it deserved to at least reach as high as #2.

Cook, as I said, was Brooks & Dunn’s producer, the architect of their now classic sound. So I know how Hayes came to record “Steady As She Goes” although I was unaware the duo released any of their songs for other artists to record. It’s a great uptempo song with an engaging melody brimming with steel guitar. Brooks & Dunn would release their version, on a limited edition, promotional bonus disc as part of the joint marketing of their If You See Her and Reba’s If You See Him albums.

Cook co-wrote “Steady As She Goes” with Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, which is another likely reason it fell into Hayes’ hands. He also co-wrote “Kentucky Bluebird,” which became the title track of the first posthumous collection of songs by Keith Whitley in 1991. It takes a lot of courage to sing a song previously recorded by Whitley, and I do think Hayes was up to the task. It also didn’t hurt he got Patty Loveless to provide pretty audible background vocals on the song.

Another song with pedigree was “Someone Had To Teach You,” a Harlan Howard co-write that found its way to George Strait on his Livin’ It Up album in 1990. It’s another phenomenal song and while both versions are excellent, I’m giving Hayes the edge. He brought an authority to it I feel Strait missed.

Howard co-wrote “Family Reunion” with Rains. The traditional ballad is a killer, with a spellbinding twist. The family reunion is reuniting a dead mother with the father of her child, who the kid tracked down at a cemetery in Denver. There’s speculation this could’ve been a true story for Rains, but I couldn’t corroborate it.

Cook was the sole writer on “Don’t Make Me Come To Tulsa.” The track fit right into the line dance craze sweeping Nashville at the time and was even given a dance remix. The song kind of reminds me of Holly Dunn’s “You Really Had Me Going.” I enjoyed it, and the lyric is good, but the whole aesthetic has lost its appeal 23 years later.

The album ends as its singles cycle began, with a collaboration between Hayes and Rains. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” was the third of their songs together on the record, besides the title track and “I’m Still Dancing With You.” The mid-tempo ballad follows in the high quality of the rest of the record.

I can count on one hand, with a leftover finger or two, the number of debut albums I would regard as perfect. Old Enough To Know Better is far and away one of those albums. Hayes didn’t waste any time in showcasing the wide breadth of his talents as both a vocalist and a songwriter.

So many artists, I’m specifically thinking of Clay Walker among others, have let me down with debut albums that deliver in terms of singles but fail on every other level with subpar song selections beneath the artist the singles prove them to be. Hayes far exceeded my expectations and makes me regret having purchased On A Good Night when it came out but not going back and adding Old Enough To Know Better to my collection, too.

If you’ve never heard this album or need to hear it again after all these years, I highly recommend putting aside the time to do so. You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs and The Whites – ‘The Solid Rock’

Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘Lucky Me’

Moe’s most recent album was released in 2016, and shares a title with his new autobiography. Produced by Jimmy Capps, the record is as solid traditional country as you would expect from Moe, although his voice is showing signs of age. In fact, many of the musicians played on Moe’s classic hits, like Hargus “Pig” Robbins.

‘I’ve Done Everything Hank Williams Did But Die’ is not the similarly titled song recorded but not released by Keith Whitley, but it is an excellent Bill Anderson song which evokes the spirit of Hank and his music both in the lyrics with their borrowings of Hank song titles, and the authentic arrangement with its Drifting Cowboys style steel.

I’ve done everything Hank Williams did but die
I’ve stumbled down that lost highway
And I’ve seen the light
I’ve done everything Hank Williams did but die

I’ve loved a woman with a cold cold heart
Who left me for another and his mansion on the hill
I passed her on the street and my heart fell at her feet
And I cried the night they rang those wedding bells
I’ve heard that lonesome whistle blow
And I’ve seen my share of pictures from life’s other side

‘Hell Stays Open All Night Long’ is a cover of a song cut by George Jones in the 90s. Moe is not up to the same standard as a vocalist, so his version definitely falls short in comparison, but it is a great song nonetheless, and Moe sings it with emotion. The Oak Ridge Boys provide (fairly subdued) backing vocals on this track, as they do on the closing ‘A Place To Hang My Hat’. This is a fine religious song about anticipating death, which Porter Wagoner included on his final album. A really lovely fiddle and steel arrangement adds the final touch.

Riders in the Sky help out on a couple of cowboy themed tunes. The tribute ‘Long Live The Cowboy’ is a nice song although Moe’s voice sounds a bit weathered – perhaps not inappropriately for the subject. ‘That Horse That You Can’t Ride’ was previously recorded on Moe’s 1984 album Motel Matches, and is about responding to romantic heartbreak, using the cowboy as a metaphor.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the pretty mandolin-ornamented ‘The Rarest Flowers’, a remake of a song Bandy recorded on 1989’s Many Mansions, about a mountain girl who fades in the city.

‘It’s Written All Over Your Face’ is a rare Moe Bandy co-write, a sad song with a pretty melody. ‘Old Frame Of mind’ is a shuffle about failing to shake off an old memory.

The title track is a sunny Western Swing love song. ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’ is a another love song, a not particularly memorable mid-tempo number. ‘It Was Me’ is a mellow romantic ballad.

While Moe’s age is showing, this is a strong collection of songs, which is worth checking out. Some versions of the album (i.e. the CD sold on Amazon) have three added bonus tracks, but these were not on the version I downloaded.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs – ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Man’

Classic Rewind: The World’s Most Famous Unknown Band

Album Review: The Bellamy Brothers – ‘Restless’

Although the New Traditionalist movement would not get fully underway until 1986, there were some signs of the changes that to come as early as 1984. That was the year that The Judds enjoyed their first #1 hit with “Mama He’s Crazy” and Reba McEntire received both critical accolades and commercial success with My Kind of Country, while George Strait and Ricky Skaggs continued to keep traditional country on the radio.

1984 also saw some changes for The Bellamy Brothers, although they moved in the opposite direction, with more layered production and pop elements than had previously been the case with their music. The change was likely precipitated by a change of co-producers, with Steve Klein taking over for Jimmy Bowen, a switch that was probably brought about by a change in label affiliations. In the 1970s and 1980s Curb Records was not a standalone label; they typically partnered up with a larger label to distribute and promote their artists. Up to now, the Bellamys’ albums were released jointly by Curb and either Warner Bros. or Elektra, but beginning in 1984, their music was released by MCA/Curb.

Restless, their first release under this new arrangement, was warmly received by radio, with all three of its singles reaching the Top 10 or better. “Forget About Me” (which I actually had forgotten about) reached #5. The very mellow “The World’s Greatest Lover”, complete with its Kenny G-esque saxophone, reached #6 and “I Need More of You” — the best of the three — climbed all the way to #1, becoming the duo’s seventh country chart-topper. “Forget About Me” was written by Frankie Miller, Troy Seals and Eddie Setser, while the other two singles came from the pen of David Bellamy.

Overall this is a very mellow album with mostly mid-tempo numbers, with “Rock-A-Billy” — which is exactly the kind of song its title suggests — and the title track being notable exceptions. The poppy and lyrically-light “I Love It” is a very catchy toe-tapper. “Diesel Cafe”, about a run-down greasy spoon truck stop has a melody that reminds me of Alabama’s “Christmas In Dixie.” I did not care for the reggae-flavored “We’re Having Some Fun Now.”

While there is nothing truly objectionable on Restless, it seems to be somewhat of an opportunity for the duo to explore other musical styles, which unfortunately results in them straying a bit too far at times from their country roots. I wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy this one, but it is worth streaming.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Ralph Stanley – ‘Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine’

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Blessed’

Bradley Walker’s second religious album, and third overall, leans towards traditional hymns and other well known material. A beautiful, measured reading of ‘Amazing Grace’ opens the album. Carl Jackson and Val Storey add harmony vocals, and a little steel guitar ornaments the track. A thoughtful, sincere version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, also introduced with some gorgeous steel, is even better. Jimmy Fortune and Ben Isaacs help out here.

From the southern gospel tradition, Alison Krauss adds an angelic harmony to ‘Angel Band’. Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs help on ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, another lovely track. ‘I’ll Fly Away’ has energy and commitment, as does ‘Victory In Jesus’. The Gaithers’ more recent ‘Because He Lives’ is a melodic ballad.

A few classic country and bluegrass gospel tunes are included. The Oak Ridge Boys lead into ‘Family Bible’ with a line from ‘Rock Of Ages’. Some may not know that ‘One Day At A Time’ was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin). Bradley’s version is earnest and tasteful, with a lovely harmony from Rhonda Vincent. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White provide harmonies on the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Who Will Sing For Me’.

There is some newer material as well. ‘I Will Someday’, written by two sets of spouses (Morgane Hayes and Chris Stapleton, and Ronnie and Garnet Bowman), is a nice upbeat song about absolute faith. The Isaacs contribute backing vocals, and there is a sprightly acoustic guitar and piano backing. ‘Cast the First Stone’ is an Isaacs song from a couple of decades ago with a Bible based lyric and strong bluegrass feel. Another Isaacs tune is the beautiful ballad ‘Say Something’.

This is a perfect example of a country religious album. The vocals are exceptional and the instrumental backings and arrangements delightful.

Grade: A

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Country’

1967 saw the release of the unimaginitvely titled Country. There were two singles from this album, both credited to Conway’s wife Mickey Jaco. ‘Don’t Put Your Hurt In My Heart’ is a measured ballad turning down an ex’s advances. It is quite a nice song, beautifully song by Conway, but performed indifferently on the charts, peaking outside the top 30. Even less successful was ‘Funny (But I’m Not Laughing)’, which I like, although it comes across as a pale copy of ‘The Window Up Above’. It is a sad ballad in which Conway’s vocal exudes the sense of betrayal. Another Jaco song, ‘Go Woman Go’ has more of a 60s country-meets-rock and roll feel. (I have read that these songs were actually written or co-written by Conway but credited to Mickey for tax reasons – not sure if this is true, though,). Conway himself wrote one song, the midpaced ‘Walk Me To The Door’, which is okay.

‘But I Dropped It’ is an excellent song written by the great Harlan Howard, a regretful ballad about past choices derailing a relationship, which might have been a better choice for a single. The backing vocals are a bit dated, but not too intrusive. I didn’t much like another original, the rock leaning ‘Working Girl’ (written by Wes Buchanan). ‘Two Of The Usual’ had been recorded by several other artists, but was never a single. It is another strong song about betrayal.

The remainder of the set consists of the usual 60s country album practice of covers of current or recent hits for other artists. Conway showed great taste in music in his selections of some genuinely great songs. ‘Things Have Gone To Pieces’ is one of George ones’ greatest recordings; Conway’s version is a good copy but definitely a copy. Another Jones classic, ‘Walk Through This World With Me’ allows Conway more of a chance to put his own stamp on the song (although I still prefer the Jones cut). Conway’s cover of Merle Haggard song ‘I Threw Away The Rose’ is quite good, but again pales compared to the original.

Conway does, however, turn in a superlative version of Harlan Howard’s ‘Life Turned Her That Way’, which was a current hit Mel Tillis, but will be most familiar to younger fans from Ricky Van Shelton’s chart topping 90s version. This is by far my favorite track on this album. I also quite liked ‘A Wound Time Can’t Erase’, a Stonewall Jackson hit later covered by Ricky Skaggs.

This is not a bad album, but there is not enough uniqueness in Conway’s imterpretations to really recommend it over the classic versions of the cover songs, and the originals are less distinguished. It is available as a 2-4-1 deal, so may be worth checking out if you can find it cheaply.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Sharon White covers ‘Mansion On The Hill’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘A Tribute To John D Loudermilk’

John D Loudermilk, a cousin of the legendary Louvin Brothers was a remarkable songwriter and artist in his own right, whose music crossed musical boundaries with eleements of country, rock and pop.
In March 2016 he was honoured by a star-studded tribute concert in Nashville, and selected performances from that occasion have now been released on CD/digital download and DVD. The concert is also set to be broadcast on PBS.

Opener ‘Everybody Knows’, performed by musician/singer/songwriter Harry Stinson, has a hypnotic 1950s pop-meets-Louvin Brothers feel. Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman delivers the teenage romance ‘Language Of Love’ in a sprightly 50s doowop pop style, also adopted by Lee Roy Parnell in a slightly bluesier fashion on ‘Mr Jones’. Another songwriter paying tribute is Bobby Braddock, who takes on ‘Break My Mind’ quite effectively, accompanied by his own piano. Norro Wilson is also pretty good on the novelty ‘The Great Snowman’.

Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver race through ‘Blue Train’, which works perfectly with a bluegrass arrangement. Southern rocker Jimmy Hall takes on ‘Bad News’ which again works well in this setting. Buddy Greene, mainly a Christian artist, sings the tongue in cheek story song ‘Big Daddy’s Alabama Bound’; his vocals are limited, but the arrangement is great. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers is passionate on the politically fuelled anthem to the Cherokee nation now restricted to the ‘Indian Reservation’.

Rodney Crowell also rocks it up on ‘Tobacco Road, possibly Loudermilk’s best known song; this is highly enjoyable and one of my favorite tracks. I was less impressed by his wife Claudia Church on the syncopated pop of ‘Sunglasses’.

John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band. Jorgenson (who helmed the whole affair) is known for his guitar playing rather than his singing, but his vocals are perfectly adequate on the rocker ‘Midnight Bus’. I very much enjoyed his Desert Rose Bandmate Herb Pederson on ‘It’s My Time’, very much in classic Desert Rose Band style. John Cowan soars on the life-affirming ‘I Wanna Live’.

Rosanne Cash is tender on the lovely ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, another highlight. Ricky Skaggs and the Whites team up on two songs. ‘Heaven Fell last Night’ is a lovely romantic ballad sung together by Ricky and wife Sharon, while Ricky takes the lead on the fun Stonewall Jackson hit ‘Waterloo’. I also enjoyed Becky Hobbs on the country hit ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’.

Emmylou Harris’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age, but she is well supported by the harmony vocals of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy on ‘Where Are They Gone’. 80s star Deborah Allen also sounds a little worse for wear on her song, the wistful ballad ‘Sad Movies’. Loudermilk’s son Mike doesn’t have much of a voice, but he does his best on a pleasant version of the catchy ‘Abilene’, and is backed by (his own?) delightful guitar work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae, an Americana/folk duo and rela-life married couple. Their version of the part spoken airline tragedy story song ‘Ebony Eyes’ is prettily harmonised although the individual voices are not that strong. Also new to me was Beth Hooker, who delivers a sultry blues version of Turn Me On’. Guests from further afield include Australian fingerpicking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel on an instrumental track.

This is a worthy tribute which reminds the listener of both the musical breadth and quality of Loudermilk’s oeuvre.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Highway 40 Blues’

Album Revew: Janie Fricke – ‘Sleeping With Your Memory’

1981 saw a change of producer for Janie, with Jim Ed Norman taking up the reins from Billy Sherrill for Sleeping With Your Memory. The result was incrased success for her on radio and with the industry – Janie would be named the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1982.

The lead single was ‘Do Me With Love’, written by John Schweers. A bright perky slice of pop-country, this rather charming song (featuring Ricky Skaggs on backing vocals although he is not very audible) was a well-deserved hit, peaking at #4. Its successor, ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby’, was Janie’s first chart topper. It was written by fellow country starlet Deborah Allen with rocker Bruce Channel and Kieran Kane (later half of the O’Kanes). It’s quite a well written song, but the pop-leaning production has dated quite badly, and Janie’s vocals sound like something from musical theater.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’ is given a folk-pop-country arrangement which is quite engaging (Ricky Skaggs multi-tasks on this song, contributing fiddle, mandolin and banjo as well as backing vocals), but I’m not quite sure I entirely buy Janie as the folk troubadour of the narrative. The Gibb brothers (the Bee Gees) had some impact on country music by dint of writing songs like ‘Islands In The Stream’ for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and their ‘Love Me’ is a very nice mid-paced ballad.

Janie sings Larry Gatlin’s sensitive ballad ‘The Heart’ beautifully; Larry and one of his brothers add backing vocals. The arrangement is swathed with strings, and the overall effect is fairly Adult Contemporary in style, but the track is a fine showcase for Janie’s lovely voice. The wistful ballads ‘Always’ and ‘If You Could See Me Now’ are also impeccably sung. The title track is a downbeat ballad about coping with a breakup, and is quite good, though not very country.

‘There’s No Future In The Past’, written by Chick Rains, is a very strong ballad about starting to move on, which I liked a lot despite the early 80s string arrangement. The closing ‘Midnight Words’ is fairly forgettable.

While this is not the more traditional side of country with heavy use of strings and electronic keyboards, it is a good example of its kind with some decent song choices, and Janie was starting to find her own voice.

Grade: B

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry’

Janie Fricke’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of her fourth LP in 1980. I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry found her working with a new producer, Jim Ed Norman, and recording stronger material. Although the Urban Cowboy pop-country trend was en vogue in Nashville at the time, Janie actually bucked the commercial trend and went in a more traditional direction. Although not eschewing string arrangements entirely, the songs on this album are much less slickly produced than her earlier work. There is audible steel and fiddle throughout — the latter instrument being played by up-and-comer Ricky Skaggs who also provided background vocals on the album’s first single and Janie’s breakthrough hit “Down To My Last Broken Heart”, which eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s second single, a remake of Ray Price’s 1962 hit “Pride”, didn’t fare quite as well, landing at #12. Although it missed the Top 10, it performed as respectably as a remake of an old traditional county dog could be expected to in the early 80s. Janie rebounded nicely when the album’s title track became the third single, which made it to #4 in the US and was a #1 hit in Canada. Written by Bob McDill and Wayland Holyfield, “I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me (When I Cry)”, with its simple lyric and stripped down-production was the song that caused me to take notice of Janie Fricke and it remains one of my favorites today.

The rest of the album is a little more pop-oriented. The best of the album cuts is Janie’s take on Churchill Kohlman’s “Cry”, which had been recorded numerous times by a variety of pop and country artists. Johnnie Ray had scored a #1 pop hit with it in 1951, it had been a #3 country hit for Lynn Anderson in 1972, and Crystal Gayle would take it to the top of the country charts in 1987. Janie’s version could have been a hit but it was rare in those days to release a fourth single from an album, and the fact that it would have been the second remake (after “Pride”) to become a single may be one of the reasons it was overlooked.

“Enough of Each Other”, about a couple falling in and out of love is also quite good. “Every Time a Teardrop Falls” is a piano and orchestra ballad that is a little bland and probably the album’s weakest track, although I can’t honestly say that any of the songs are bad. “Blue Sky Shining”, the closing track is quite pretty but also a bit on the bland side.

I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry was Janie’s first charting album and a huge step in the right direction. She was still yet to peak commercially, but this is the album that set her on the right path. With the exception of “Pride”, everything she released from this point forward reached the Top 10, until the New Traditionalist Movement finally stopped her momentum in 1986. The album is available on a double disc along with its three predecessors. While I wouldn’t necessarily run out and buy the other three, I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry makes the collection worth purchasing.

Grade: A –

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs – ‘A Hard Row To Hoe’

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Walkin’ In Jerusalem’

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.

Album Review: The Whites – ‘A Lifetime in the Making’

mi0001612026In 2000 the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? came from nowhere to sell eight million copies, on the strength of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The record went on to claim the Album of the Year Grammy and kick off a mini-revival of acoustic based sounds within country music. This was the period of time in which Nickel Creek first came to prominence and Alison Krauss saw renewed acclaim for her music. The Whites weren’t necessarily a part of this although they did contribute an excellent rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” to the soundtrack.

They released A Lifetime in the Making, their twelfth album, in August, just before the craze hit. The record, their only for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records, was lovingly produced by Jerry Douglas. The album, which retains the acoustic feel for which they’re best known, is an impeccable collection of songs from beginning to end.

The disc kicks off with “Always Comin’ Home,” a dobro and mandolin drenched uptempo Gospel number, written by Don Gillion. They continue in this vein on “Jesus is the Missing Piece,” a mid-tempo ballad in which Buck takes over the lead vocals. “Key To The Kingdom” is stunning, with Sharon’s soaring and throaty lead vocal commanding attention.

Billy Joe Foster, a Bluegrass musician who died in 2013 aged 51, is represented with two tracks. “Texas To A T” is acoustic Western Swing while “Before The Prairie Met The Plow” is a gorgeous bluegrass ballad nodding to Midwestern sensibilities. “How Many Moons,” which was co-written by Claire Lynch, wonderfully showcases their family harmonies.

Patty Loveless originally recorded “I Miss Who I Was (With You)” on The Trouble With The Truth. Both versions are excellent and I was glad to see that Loveless’ recording retained the organic elements of the song. The Whites had the first version of “Old Hands,” another tune about farming life. I’ve never heard of Adam Brand, but he nicely covered the song two years later. Emmylou Harris joins the band for a stunning rendition of Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Buck White solely wrote “Old Man Baker,” a strikingly good uptempo instrumental. “Apron Strings” is an appealing ballad about the stronghold our mother will always have on our lives. The album’s final track, “The Cowboy Lives Forever,” is a breakneck uptempo number about an everyman who found his home on the Western Plains.

There truly aren’t words to describe the high quality of A Lifetime in the Making. The album is superb through and through even though it hardly breaks new ground within this style. I’ve never spent any time with The Whites, despite always knowing who they were so reviewing this album was a treat. I highly recommend it for those who may have missed it the first go-around or just want to listen to it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A