My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rob Ickes

Album Review: Jason Eady – ‘I Travel On’

Jason Eady, for some time one of my favorite singer-songwriters, has collaborated with dobroist Rob Ickes and his musical partner Trey Hensley for his latest album, recorded live and acoustic in studio with Jason’s road band providing the rest of the backings. Ickes’ and Hensley’s contributions to the lively, fresh arrangements were completely spontaneously produced in the studio. This music is acoustic, but definitely not stripped down.

The up tempo opener sets the scene, with a lively old time feel as the narrator reflects on what has made him the man he is. There is a similar vibe on the upbeat ‘Now Or Never’. The catchy ‘That’s Alright’ is a relaxed tune about stress-free living, with some very nice fiddle.

The warm, mellow ‘Happy Man’ and the up-tempo ‘Pretty When I Die’ is are about making a good life one can be satisfied with.

‘Calaveras County’, inspired by an incident in Eady’s childhood, is a tribute to the goodhearted people of which is reminiscent to me of Tom T Hall.

‘Always A Woman’ is a slow solemn blues influenced number about the power of a good woman to help a man in trouble.

‘Below The Waterline’ is a fine story song co-written with Jason’s wife Courtney Patton about a flood when a river bursts its banks, with more lovely fiddle.

‘She Had To Run’ is a beautiful sounding bluegrass waltz about a woman fleeing domestic violence who manages to get out just in time:

Nothing could be worse than what she was leaving …
She knew the next time he’d do what he always said he would.

This understated but powerful song is the best on the album.

The vocals are a bit muddy on ‘The Climb’, and I couldn’t decipher it all, but it is a portrait of a man unsure of his future

He’s too low to reach the top
He’s come too far to go back down
He’s not lost, he just don’t know what to do

Finally the title track offers a gentle narrative about being trapped in a travelling life:

I’m out here searching for something I can’t hold

This is a thoughtful and rewarding album which is worth hearing, and might be summarised as in the troubadour tradition with a bluegrass twist, rather than the more traditional country of Jason’s recent work.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

Album Review: Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy – ‘The Nashville Acoustic Sessions’

nashville acoustic sessionsOne of Raul Malo lesser known recordings, yet perhaps my personal favourite, is the acoustic album he released in collaboration with three virtuoso musicians: Pat Flynn of New Grass Revival (on acoustic guitar and mandolin), dobro genius Rob Ickes and bassist Dave Pomeroy. Malo takes care of all the lead vocals, and despite the democratic equal billing, to all intents and purposes this works as a solo Raul Malo album – and the best he has made. It was released in 2004, just after the breakup of the Mavericks.

The record opens with a beautiful version of ‘Blue Bayou’, with Raul Malo’s vocal measured yet soaring to challenge the Orbison original.

Raul’s vocal on the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is exquisite, and for once one doesn’t miss the harmonies. He is joined by the harmonies of Flynn and Ickes in a committed take on the Louvins’ Cold War-inspired gospel song ‘The Great Atomic Power’.

An ethereally mournful wail is used for a haunting version of Hank Williams’s ‘Weary Blues From Waiting’. Jimmie Rodgers ‘Waiting For A Train’ is, a little disappointingly, relegated to an instrumental – perhaps to make the point that it isn’t technically a Malo album, but I would have liked to hear him sing this, although it goes without saying that it is beautifully played.

‘Hot Burrito #1’ (the Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers’ song in which the protagonist bemoans “I’m your toy”) has another stellar vocal and stripped down arrangement.

Gordon Lightfoot’s gentle folk-country ‘Early Morning Rain’ is delivered smoothly, while Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ is perky. Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ is strongly performed, with additional harmonies from R&B singer Siedah Garrett, but is one of the less memorable tracks.

Pop/Great American Songbook standards ‘Moon River’ and ‘I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)’ are beautifully sung, particularly the former.

This may not appeal to those Mavericks fans most drawn to the Latin party side of the band – but Raul Malo’s magnificent voice is showcased at its very best. I rather wish he had continued in this vein, but he had more eclectic paths in mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘Darin & Brooke Aldridge’

Husband and wife Darin and Brooke Aldridge style themselves the Sweethearts of Bluegrass and have recently released their second record together on the independent label Mountain Home. Recorded in North Carolina and produced by songwriter Jerry Salley (who contributes backing vocals on a number of tracks), there is a careful mixture of sacred and secular (but predominantly positive) material. The musicianship is exemplary, largely coming from the couple’s regular band (with Rob Ickes guesting on dobro on a few tracks). Multi-instrumentalist Darin plays guitar and mandolin, but the focus of the album is on wife Brooke.

She has a sweet, pure voice not dissimilar tonally to Rhonda Vincent, and a subtle interpretative ability. She takes the lead on the majority of the songs, including the charming mid-tempo opener ‘I Thought I’d Seen It All’, a positive travelog-cum-love song about the surprise love brings, written by Burton Collins and Lisa Shaffer.

Her voice has a more piercing quality on the pastoral ‘Corn’, also written by Shaffer, this time with Bill Whyte, about the joys of rural living and true love. Producer Salley and Donna Ulisse wrote ‘It Moves Me’, a thoughtful take on appreciating the beauties of nature, this time on the Gulf Coast “where I swear I can see God’s hand”. This is that rare thing, a beach song I can truthfully say I like.

The outstanding track is the religious ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’, a beautiful and moving reflection on Calvary, written by Dennis K Duff. The optimistic ‘The Light From Heaven’ (about hope), which precedes it, pales in comparison but Brooke sounds good. I really liked the pure bluegrass lament for a failing relationship, where she can’t make ‘Something Out Of Nothing’. This is the only sad-tinged song here, no doubt a reflection of their real-life relationship.

The pair both sing in close harmony with alternating solo lines on a delightful version of Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s ‘Sweetest Waste Of Time’. This couple’s version is sweeter sounding than the rawer original, although the arrangement is broadly similar (check this), and is one of my favorite tracks.

Their gorgeous close harmonies are also showcased on ‘Let’s Not Go There’, a pretty song written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie about not dwelling on past relationships or mistakes:

The past is all behind us now
The future’s ours to share
There’s nothing back there for us
Let’s not go there

Let’s not go there there’s nothing we can change
Let’s not go there
Let’s not relive the pain
Wondering who was to blame
Won’t get us anywhere
Everybody has a past
Let’s not go there

Listen to this live here.

‘Remind Me Again’ is another nice romantic duet, this time rekindling the flame of love in an established relationship, written by Jerry Salley (who sings harmony vocals on a number of tracks) and Tammi Kidd.

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Album Review: Kim Williams – ‘The Reason That I Sing’

williamskimI’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy hearing songwriters’ own interpretations of songs which they have written for other artists. The latest example comes from Kim Williams, a name you should recognize if you pay attention to the songwriting credits. Kim has been responsible for no fewer than 16 number 1 hits, and many more hit singles and album tracks over the past 20 years. Now he has released an album containing his versions of many of his big hits, together with some less familiar material.

The album is sub-titled Country Hits Bluegrass Style, although the overall feel of the record is more acoustic country with bluegrass instrumentation provided by some of the best bluegrass musicians around: Tim Stafford (who produces the set) on guitar, Ron Stewart on fiddle and banjo, Adam Steffey on mndolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass, with Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford providing harmony vocals. Kim’s voice is gruff but tuneful, and while he cannot compare vocally to most of those who have taken his songs to chart success, he does have a warmth and sincerity which really does add something to the songs he has picked on this album.

Kim includes three of the songs he has written for and with Garth Brooks, all from the first few years of the latter’s career. ‘Ain’t Going Down (Til The Sun Comes Up’), a #1 for Garth in 1993, provides a lively opening to the album, although it is one of the less successful tracks, lacking the original’s hyperactivity while not being a compelling or very melodic song in its own right. ‘Papa Loved Mama’ is taken at a slightly brisker pace than the hit version, and is less melodramatic as a result – neither better nor worse, but refreshingly different. ‘New Way To Fly’, which was recorded by Garth on No Fences, also feels more down to earth and less intense than the original, again with a very pleasing effect.

The other artist whose repertoire is represented more than once here is Joe Diffie. The lively western swing of ‘If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets’ (written with Ken Spooner) with its newly topical theme of being well and truly broke is fun. Although ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (from the 1992 album Regular Joe) was never released as a single, this tender ballad about separation from a loved one has always been one of my favorite Joe Diffie recordings. Kim’s low-key, intimate version wisely avoids competing vocally, but succeeds in its own way.

One of my favorite hit singles this decade was ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 2002, which Kim wrote with Doug Johnson. A movie based on the story is apparently in development. I still love Randy’s version, but while Kim is far from the vocalist Randy is, this recording stands up on its own terms, with an emotional honesty in Kim’s delivery which brings new life to the story.

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