My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ricky Skaggs

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

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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

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Old Familiar Feeling’

old-familiar-feelingSadly, far too little of the Whites’ music is available digitally, including most of their most commercially successful work. This album, originally released in 1983, has somehow found its way onto iTunes – it would be good if its successors were to follow it. In many respects it was their debut as The Whites, since previous music had been billed as Buck White, mostly with The Down Home Folks. Following Buck’s daughter Sharon’s 1981 marriage to rising superstar Ricky Skaggs, the band (now consisting of Buck with daughters Sharon and Cheryl) was signed to Curb/Warner Brothers, and the album (which Skaggs produced) was released in June 1983.

Half of the album’s ten tracks ended up as singles, as the label was trying to break a group whose old-time traditional roots flew in the face of the then popular Urban Cowboy sound. An initial single, a cover of the classic ‘Send Me The Pillow You Dream On’ did not do well, and was never included on an album, but the next attempt, the lovely ‘You Put The Blue In Me’ was a top 10 country hit in 1982. Sharon White’s honeyed voice is backed up by the group’s gentle harmonies on this pretty but sad song.

The more upbeat ‘Hangin’ Around’ and ‘I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight’ (a beautiful ballad) both reached #9, also featuring Sharon’s lead vocals. Like many groups who have multiple lead singers, one of them is clearly superior to the others, and in the case of the Whites, it was Sharon, who sang lead on all the singles from this album. ‘When The New Wears Off Of Our Love’, written by Paul Craft, was less successful, peaking at only #25, but it is a pretty tune. The final single, and almost-title track, the slow and wistful ‘Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling’ took them back to the top 10.

Sister Cheryl took the lead on the upbeat gospel ‘Follow The Leader’ and the gentle romantic ballad ‘I’ll be Loving You’. While she lacks Sharon’s lovely natural tone, she is nonetheless a fine singer.

Buck takes over on the retro ‘Blue Letters’, with the trio harmonising together on the chorus. Son law Ricky Skaggs can also be heard in the harmonies on ‘Old River’. Buck also sings the blues authentically, on the old Moon Mullican tune ‘Pipe Liner Blues’.

Ricky Skaggs produced the set beautifully with clean, sparkling arrangements allowing the vocals to shine. The musicians include the great Jerry Douglas.

This is a charming album which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A

After this album, Curb moved the Whites to an affiliation with MCA, and regrettably none of the albums they made for that label is commercially available today apart from their Greatest Hits, which I would also recommend.

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Album Review: Heidi & Ryan – ‘Heidi & Ryan’

Hedid & RyanThis is a new duo whose sound is based around Heidi’s voice, which has a really beautiful tone. Heidi and Ryan Greer met at a bluegrass festival in 2010, and their music is bluegrass with a strong gospel focus. She plays some lovely fiddle too, throughout the album.

They open with the charmingly nostalgic ‘Grandma’s Knee’, which reflects on childhood listening to stories and songs. ‘Pictures’ draws on the same theme.

The emotional ‘Come To Jesus’ is not the Mindy Smith song, but a beautiful account of finding God. The serious ‘Money Won’t’ is a beautifully sung ballad about the limitations of material desires. The pacy ‘Fire Down Yonder’ warns against damnation.

‘The Darkest Day’ is a somber first person account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection from the viewpoint of one of the men crucified with Jesus. The emotive and demanding ‘Will You Be Ready’ moves from Easter to the Second Coming.

The delicate ‘Sometimes Love Hurts’ is a moving story song about the limits of love. First we meet a dedicated overseas (probably missionary) doctor who gets no thanks for his untiring labours, then a woman who selflessly supports the husband who has let her down, and finally Jesus:

Mocked and laughed
Bout the one he loves the most
Love isn’t always a two way deal
You can’t judge it by the way you feel
Sometimes love hurts

They use the Alison Krauss arrangement for a cover of ‘Oh Atlanta’, which is nicely done but my least favorite track.

While Heidi sings most of the lead vocals, Ryan takes over on the earnest ‘Sowing Seeds’. While he is not as exceptional a vocalist as she is, his warm voice is more than listenable and the song is nice.

The set closes with a really beautiful version of ‘Somebody’s Praying’ which Ricky Skaggs recorded on his My Father’s Son album in 1991. This is another highlight.

This is an excellent debut album from a very promising new act.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘First Time for Everything’

177460_1_fLittle Texas released their debut album, First Time for Everything, in March 1992. The record, co-produced by James Stroud, came a little more than three years into their contract with the Nashville division of Warner Bros.

The band’s debut single was recorded in December 1990, but released in September 1991. “Some Guys Have All The Love” is an excellent piano and percussion laced mid-tempo ballad with ear-catching harmonies from the group. The song’s official title is ‘love’ but I have heard it called “Some Guys Have All The Luck,” as well. The track peaked at #8.

The B-side of their debut, the album’s title track, was issued as the second single. The track is a countrified power ballad I never really hated, but finally analyzing the lyrics for this review proves otherwise. “First Time For Everything” is weak, and justifiably peaked at #13.

“You and Forever and Me” was the album’s most successful single, and remains one of my favorite songs Little Texas released during their heyday. The track retains their formula, yet succeeds on the winning melody, Tim Rushlow’s wonderful lead vocal, and the band’s harmonies. The song peaked at #5.

The final two singles were ones I never even knew about until digging into Little Texas for this review. Both charted in the low teens, so their exclusion from the band’s Greatest Hits album is justifiable. “What Were You Thinkin,’” a bland mid-tempo in similar vein, peaked at #17. The final single, the warmed over pop ballad “I’d Rather Miss You” didn’t do much better, reaching #16.

The five remaining numbers showed Little Texas playing with a wider array of sonic textures. The best of the bunch is “Down In The Valley,” a barnburner solely written by Brady Seals that gives Ricky Skaggs a run for his money. The worst is “Better Way,” a gravely mess.

I’ve always really enjoyed the first three singles from this album and never bothered to check out the rest until now. It’s hard to see where Little Texas fits into the greater conversation of the early-90s, especially with this album, which makes few concessions to stake a claim as anything resembling country music. I wasn’t aware, or at least I’d forgotten about the hair and fashion, which is enough to make Billy Ray Cyrus want to puke. The look and sound aren’t gelling with me.

But I’ve always really enjoyed Little Texas and some of my favorites from them come from this album. First Time for Everything is far from a fine album but it isn’t atrocious, either. I don’t think the melodies have aged too much and I still find the whole proceedings listenable. Those high marks say a lot about an album released almost twenty-five years ago.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Higher Ground’

tammywynette_highergroundTammy Wynette spent the better part of the late 1970s and 1980s seeing her commercial fortunes begin to wane. Actress Annette O’Toole portrayed Wynette in a television movie, Stand By Your Man, in May 1981. Her singles were routinely charting top twenty during this time and she returned to the top ten when her cover of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” a duet with Mark Grey, peaked at #6 in 1985.

Our coverage resumes in 1987, which found mainstream country deep in the throngs of a traditional renaissance. Wynette followed suit accordingly with Higher Ground, her twenty-eighth album, produced by Steve Buckingham. While any momentum she may’ve gained from her previous album had cooled, it didn’t stop Epic from pushing ahead with three singles from the set.

The dobro drenched “Your Love,” a mid-tempo ballad featuring Ricky Skaggs hit #12. The neo-traditional “Talkin’ To Myself Again,” with an assist from The O’Kanes, peaked at #16. Both are very good although not memorable enough to stand out amongst iconic hits from the era.

They hit the artistic jackpot with final single “Beneath A Painted Sky,” which found Wynette in perfect harmony with Emmylou Harris. The somewhat kooky lyric details the true love of a daddy to his little girl:

There never was a little girl more wanted than me

I had all the love a child could ever want or need

Daddy gave me everything he could afford to buy

An’ on the ceilin’ in my room, he painted me a sky

 

Beneath the painted sky, that’s where I want to be

A place to go when this old world gets the best of me

A place where dreams come true

And no one ever says ‘goodbye’

Oh, I wish that I could live again, beneath the painted sky

The remainder of the album finds Wynette assisted by a plethora of country’s finest. Gene Watson provides harmony on “Tempted” while Vince Gill, in one of his earliest solo performances, lends his signature falsetto to “I Wasn’t Meant to live my Life Alone.” Ricky Van Shelton, among others, helps liven up the proceedings with the jovial “A Slow Burning Fire.” The Gatlin Brothers are the perfect accompaniment to the title track, a song that feels tailored to their trademark style.

Higher Ground, as a whole, is a gorgeous album. Wynette is still at her peak and the arrangements haven’t aged in the least. I would’ve liked songs that were more memorable, though, or even packed more of a punch. Despite her status as an icon, it’s easy to see how this album fell under the radar – her contemporaries were releasing stronger music that was easier to get noticed. But this is an album that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s well worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kevin Denney – ‘Something In Between’

something-in-betweenYou may remember Kevin Denney, a neotraditional country artist who had a handful of modestly performing singles on the Lyric Street label in the early years of the new millennium. Since then he has worked as a songwriter, and at last has produced new music of his own. His voicve has echoes of fellow Kentuckian Keith Whitley.

The likeable mid-paced opener ‘I Want The Real Thing’ sets out Kevin’s stall, accepting no substitutes for tasty but unhealthy food, and also rejecting internet romance and video games in favour of real love and playing music.

Tracy Byrd previously recorded ‘Cowboy And A Dancer’ ten years ago, an excellent story song about a pair of life-weary Texans in search of new lives in California, and finding one together. Kevin’s own version is very nice indeed, with a sympathetically delivered vocal.

‘Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody But Me’ is a neatly observed song about a man in a bar, knocking back the drinks and struggling in the aftermath of a breakup.

The philosophical ‘Everybody Just Calm Down’ recommends a slower and more peaceful way of life. The same theme emerges in the relaxed Kenny Chesney style beach song ‘Get A Lotta Living Done’, in which a city guy turned beach bum.

The lilting ‘Even The River’ is a look at a dying small town, where everyone with any ambition wants to leave :

I feel just like that water
Even the river runs away from this town

The sun don’t ever shine around here
It’s always empty lonesome and grey
One old blinking caution light
About the only thing working all day
There’s for sale signs in the windows
And they’re shutting down the mill

The title track is about finding a balance between extremes in life, with a religious twist. ‘Everybody Grew Up But Me’ looks back on childhood and the different paths taken by a group of friends, with the protagonist leading the life of a struggling musician. The gritty ‘Honky Tonk Highway’ also lauds the life of a country musician.

‘I’m That Country’ is a good natured paean to the joys of rural life, which unlike too many songs of this nature does actually sound very traditional country. The musical namedrops, too, are bluegrass and traditional country: Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and J D Crowe. ‘What Does God Look Like’ is rather a sweet song about children’s understanding of God, although it doesn’t really go anywhere.

The album closes with an acoustic cover of Denney’s biggest hit, ‘That’s Just Jessie’.

This is a very nice, fairly low key album from an artists who deserved to be a much bigger success.

Grade: B+

Clasic Rewind: Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Ricky Skaggs – ‘Gold Watch And Chain’