My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Leona Williams – ‘Grass Roots’

Leona Williams was never a star, despite a five-year marriage to Merle Haggard, but I’ve always liked her honeyed voice, and she is still sounding good despite advancing years. After a few years associated with the estimable Heart Of Texas Records, Leona is now going it alone and has released this album on her own Loveshine Records. It was recorded mainly in her home state of Missouri with, I believe, local musicians, who do a fine job, led by producer and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hoffman, with post-production and the addition of some of the star guests’ contributions in Nashville. It bears what is not the most imaginative title for a bluegrass-influenced album by a country artist, but the music inside is well worth it.

Leona, a talented songwriter perhaps best known for writing ‘You Take Me For Granted’ for Haggard, wrote almost all the material (much of it solo), and it is all pretty good, although not all of it is new. She wrote the mid-tempo lost-love plaint ‘Midnight Blue’ with Terry Gibbs, which opens the set to promising effect.

Three songs (all excellent) are co-writes with Leona’s late husband Dave Kirby. The pensive ‘My Heart Has Finally Said Goodbye’ is an excellent traditional country song, as the protagonist finds equilibrium after losing in love. The optimistic ‘The Good Times Are Ready To Come’, sung as a duet with bluegrass veteran Mac Wiseman, is also great, with a very Depression era feel, about a Kentucky couple looking forward to spending the proceeds of mining wages, with a new road and coal prices up:

We’ll buy some new shoes for the babies
We’ll catch us some new fish to fry
It’s been a long time since us ladies have had enough money to cry
It’ll be hallelujah in Wallins, Kentucky
After the work is all done
It won’t be long till we’re rollin’ in groceries
And the good times are ready to come

The pretty-sounding ‘When I Dream’ was written by the couple with daughter Cathy Lee Coyne (who provides close sweet harmonies throughout). It is another fine song about a woman clinging to a long-past relationship, if only in her dreams.

The affecting ‘Come To See Me Sometimes’ is addressed to a loved one who has died – perhaps Kirby, who died a year or two ago. With its intensely emotional, almost-breaking vocal, this is the highlight of the record. Another favourite of mine is ‘Mama, I’ve Got To Go To Memphis’, which Haggard recorded in 1978 with altered lyrics to suit the gender switch. This version, surely the original intention, is a lovely old-fashioned story of a young woman desperate to track down her ex and “drown some memories”, and leaving her baby, “little Brady” behind with her own mother. It works beautifully as a bluegrass number, and is beautifully constructed and sung, with the narrator’s desperation palpable.

One of Leona’s older songs, the melodic ‘Taste Of Life’, which she previously recorded back in the 80s, feels like the theme tune for the project, said to be inspired by Leona’s childhood memories and her earliest musical roots. Here, she fondly recalls childhood memories of growing up poor but loved, including a reference to listening to Bill Monroe’s music on the radio. It closes with a segue into ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’. Cheryl and Sharon White add beautiful harmonies.

Vince Gill duets delightfully with Leona on the up-tempo ‘The Legend’, a cheerful tribute to Monroe (“the greatest name of all” in bluegrass). Monroe’s classic ‘Molly And Tenbrooks’ (actually an adaptation of a 19th century folk song about the fatal showdown between two racehorses, based on a real race) gets a lively workout with cameos from 70s country star Barbara Fairchild, Pam Tillis, and Rhonda Vincent, and the less-well known Melody Hart, a Branson-based singer and fiddle player.

The surprisingly catchy ‘Do Wah Ditty’ has a silly title but is rather engaging, with a midtempo sing along tune featuring Rodney and Beverly Dillard with a husband and wife casting aspersions at one another entertainingly in the verses – she spends too much money on credit, with bright fiddle and Beverly’s claw hammer banjo contributing to the good humor of it all.

‘The Lights Of Aberdeen’ is a song of thanks to Leona’s fans in Scotland, and appreciation for the countryside there, which is clearly heartfelt but is the least effective track overall.  The record closes with the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’, an insistent gospel number.

This is a lovely record. It seems to be available only from Leona’s official website, but is worth finding.

Grade: A