My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Roger McGuinn

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Bidin’ My Time’

Veteran folk-country-rocker Chris Hillman is always eclectic, but his latest album (produced by the late Tom Petty and longterm confrere Herb Pedersen) leans a little more in the folk-rock direction than the acoustic country work he had been making in recent years.

The opening ‘Bells Of Rhymney’ is a rather depressing song about struggling Welsh miners, written by Pete Seeger based on a 1930s poem by Idris Davies. Hillman previously recorded the song with The Byrds in 1965, in their jangly folk-rock period. The new version is rather better sung (with ex-Byrd David Crosby on harmonies), but it makes for a rather depressing opening.

There are a couple of co-writes with Hillman’s old Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn, including a revival of ‘Here She Comes Again’, an older song but one they had not previously recorded. This is OK but a bit too Byrdsy for me, with McGuinn’s guitar prominent in the mix. ‘Old John Robertson’ has been revised (and retitled ‘New Old John Robertson’), and is very charming if very short, with a bluegrass arrangement. Another jangly Byrds cover comes with the Gene Clark-penned ‘She Don’t Care About Time’, which is quite pleasant.

Most of the new material comes from the longstanding songwriting partnership of Hillman and Steve Hill. The title track is a lovely waltztime reflection on the longing to return home to the countryside, prettily ornamented by Hillman’s mandolin. ‘Restless’ is a short and quite nice midpaced song about passage through life.

‘Different Rivers’ is a gentle, poetic ballad painting the portrait of a couple navigating a difficult world. ‘Given All I Can See’ is a vaguely spiritual plea for God’s “mercy and grace” on himself and the world in dark times. ‘Such Is The World That We Live In’ is a charming bluegrass influenced mid-tempo tune with an engaging melody, airy vocals and lyrics addressing the state of the USA from the point of view of a pair of fictional characters:

I never thought the day would come
When I’d see America on the run
And not sure what they’re running from
When all that’s lost in our schools
When the godless ones attempt to rule
We can only wonder who’s the fool

The pretty, lilting ‘Wildflowers’ is a cover of a Tom Petty song, and has a charming acoustic arrangement. ‘Walk Right Back’ was a pop hit for the Everly Brothers, and a country one for Anne Murray. Herb Pedersen’s close Everlys style harmony makes this track another joy. A more obscure cover is of ‘When I Get A Little Money’, a charming folk-style song written and previously recorded by Nathan G Barrow.

Overall I enjoyed this album, but it is not as commercially appealing as, say, Hillman’s work with the Desert Rose Band.

Grade: B

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Classic Rewind: Crosby, McGuinn & Hillman – ‘Turn Turn Turn’

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Album Review – The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

For more background on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, including insights into the recording sessions, click here

Just as Chris Hillman was enrolling at UCLA, he got a call from his old manager Jim Dickson to join a new band as their Bass Guitar player. The Byrds as they came to be known consisted of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. He’d never picked up a bass guitar before, but his bluegrass background led him to quickly master it while developing his own style with the instrument.

Although he remained quiet on the bands first two releases, he quickly rose to the forefront, and he blossomed as a singer and vocalist after Clark left the band. By 1968, the band was down to just Hillman and McGuinn after Crosby bid his farewell. To replace him they hired Gram Parsons, who along with Hillman changed the sound of the band to reflect a country rock style, which was unheard of in the music industry at the time. This revolution was captured on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which was released on August 30, 1968.

The album found Hillman playing a supporting role yet again, as Parsons and McGuinn shared the brunt of the vocal duties. Parsons, who was little known at the time, was brought to the forefront of mainstream rock because of this album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally supposed to be a reflection of American popular music incorporating elements of Jazz and R&B but Parsons steered the project into a pure country album instead. This move was highly controversial, as Nashville had little interest in embracing a band they thought of as longhaired hippies attempting to sabotage country music. In the mists of all the hoopla, Parsons left the band, and wasn’t even a member when the August release date came around.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was released in April as the project’s lead single. The band heard the tune on a collection of Dylan’s Woodstock demos and thought it appropriate for them to cover. The mid-tempo ballad features an assist from Lloyd Green on Pedal Steel and came more than three years before Dylan would commercially release the track himself. It peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Hillman and McGuinn arranged the second and finale single “I Am A Pilgrim,” which failed to chart. The folk song is a bit more country sounding than the Dylan cover thanks to McGuinn’s banjo and some lovely fiddle playing by John Hartford.

Even more famous than the two singles is Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” a fiddle and steel ballad he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan on a train ride from Florida to Los Angeles. The song is marred in controversy, from claims it wasn’t Parsons but a blind folksinger named Sylvia Sammons who wrote it, to being the tune that got them banned from The Grand Ole Opry. As the story goes, Parsons sang it instead of their planned Merle Haggard cover of “Life In Prison” and thus ticked off the country music establishment and sent shockwaves through the audience. Nonetheless “Hickory Wind” is an excellent song that still endures today.

Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years from Now,” a tune in which McGuinn and Hillman shared lead vocals and Green once again contributed pedal steel. It’s another excellent song and I love the production on it, too, thanks in a large part to Green’s beautiful flourishes of steel.

The remainder of Sweetheart of the Rodeo consisted of cover songs. The band revived soul singer William Bell’s debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which had only been released five years earlier. The band’s version is similar to Bell’s although they take out the horns in favor of steel guitar performed by JayDee Maness.

Songs by The Louvin Brothers and Cindy Walker also appear. Charlie and Ira’s “The Christian Life” doesn’t differ much in The Byrds’ hands, but they manage to turn it into a honky-tonk stunner (with a wonderful lead vocal by McGuinn) and one of the album’s more twang-centric songs. Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” is in similar vain and one of my favorite of this albums’ numbers thanks to the twangy guitar and Hillman’s wonderful lead vocal.

The aforementioned Haggard (and Jelly Sanders) song “Life In Prison” appears here, too. It’s stunning through and through from Manass’ steel guitar to Parsons’ lead vocal. He finds a way to channel Haggard while still making the song his own.

I also adore their version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a folk song about the titular bank robber. The band dresses it up with Hartford’s otherwordly banjo riffs and Hillman’s gorgeous mandolin picking. McGuinn also has a natural knack for storytelling that serves him well as he shoulders the lead vocal duties.

Luke Daniels’ “You’re Still On My Mind” is another Parsons fronted number featuring Maness on steel guitar. The results are glorious as the sunny steel is ear candy for the listener. The album closes with a final Dylan cover, “Nothing Was Delivered.” McGuinn takes the lead and with Green on pedal steel, the results are wonderful.

Full disclosure – before writing this review I’d never listened to an album by The Byrds, Chris Hillman, or Gram Parsons (although I do own Grievous Angel on vinyl). And as a formal introduction it doesn’t get much better than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album is a classic in every sense of the word and a pure delight to listen to forty-six years later. I had an idea what to expect when I went in to listen, but I had no idea what a fabulous steel guitar record this would turn out to be. Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness are masters of their craft and just a pure joy to listen to. If you don’t own your own copy of this album I suggest you run out and buy one as Sweetheart of The Rodeo is a must own for any fan of country or roots music.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.

The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.

Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).

The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.

The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.

Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.

After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.

In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.

Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘When The Sand Runs Out’

sandrunsoutRarely is a stint as the lead singer of a successful band a good launching pad for a solo career; just ask Larry Stewart, Paulette Carlson, or any of the countless others who tried and failed. Marty Raybon is no exception. Although the Raybon Brothers enjoyed some modest success with the sales of “Butterfly Kisses”, Marty’s hitmaking days ended shortly before he left Shenandoah. He resumed his solo career when the Raybon Brothers disbanded. None of his solo efforts was released by a major label. One of his better efforts is 2006’s When The Sand Runs Out, a mostly acoustic effort that is part country and part bluegrass with the occasional bit of gospel thrown in.

The listener is immediately reeled in with the opening track “Looking For Suzanne”, the story of an absentee father seeking to be reunited with his now adult daughter. The parent-child relationship is examined again from a different angle later in the album with Michael A. Curtis’ “Who Are You”, which examines the lifelong relationship between a father and son, from the son’s birth, through the rebellious adolescent and teenage years, to the role reversals when the son becomes the caretaker for the now-ailing father who can no longer recognize him. Both are excellent songs that were way too serious for 21st century country radio to even consider touching with a ten-foot pole.

The upbeat “Shenandoah Saturday Night”, another Curtis composition co-written with Marty and Mike Pyle, is the closest this album gets to a commercial song. It pays homage to Marty’s days with Shenandoah and name checks many of the hits he scored during his dozen years as the band’s lead singer. The non-charting “Shenandoah Saturday Night” was the album’s only single. It leads into a highly enjoyable cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, that might have been my favorite track on the album had I never heard the Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman version that appeared on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2. The McGuinn/Hillman recording was the first version I ever heard and it remains my favorite.

The highlights of the album are the beautiful ballad “I Know Love”, which Marty wrote with his brother Tim, and “Come Early Morning”, which was written by the great Bob McDill. I also particularly enjoyed the album’s bluegrass numbers “Throw Dirt” and “Wish I’d Never”. These came as a bit of a surprise, since I’d never thought of Marty as a bluegrass artist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his non-Shenandoah work, so I don’t know if he dabbled in bluegrass prior to this, but he proves that he is more than capable of pulling it off credibly.

When The Sand Runs Out is an album clearly not made with an eye on the charts. It is sparsely produced and sounds as though it may have been a live-in-the-studio recording as opposed to the usual practice of recording different tracks separately and assembling them later — just a guess on my part. This gives it a decidedly non-commercial feel, which coupled with first-rate material, only adds to the album’s appeal.

Grade: A

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘There Is A Season’

Following the collapse of AMI Records in late 1982, Vern found himself recording for Compleat, another minor label. His first album for Compleat was If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong, released in April 1983. This album contained a re-recording of Vern’s last hit for AMI, “Today My World Slipped Away”, plus the title track, Vern’s first hit for Compleat. The next album was There Is A Season released in April 1984. This is an odd album, with wide and varied production and a somewhat rushed feel to it.

The quasi-title track “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)” was a song from the folk era. Created by Pete Seeger, the song is taken entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the notable exception of the last line) and set to music by Seeger around 1959. The song has been recorded many times, probably by every Hootenanny-era folk act and by many rock acts as well, most notably the Byrds who took it to #1 on the pop chart in 1965. Gosdin was friends with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and McGuinn appears on Vern’s recording of the song. This song was not released as a single, although it received some airplay on country radio. I think it unlikely that it would have made a successful single as it was somewhere between the Byrd’s version and what I think a real country recording of the song would sound like. As much as I love the music of Vern Gosdin, this is among my least favorite recordings of the song (my favorite version was by the Australian group the Seekers). That said, it is not a bad recording.

“Love Me Right To The End” is another of those medium slow ballads that Vern sings so well. I don’t think the song itself is anything special but Vern’s vocal, along with the sympathetic backing and fine fiddle playing by Rob Hajacos makes this a fine track.

“How Can I Believe In You (When You’re Leaving Me)” is another medium slow ballad. Here the Nashville String Machine is a little more in evidence than on the prior track, but Vern’s vocals dominate, which is as it should be.

Jim Rushing was a tunesmith whose songs were recorded by a lot of artists during the 1980s. “Slow Healing Heart” is given an effective treatment by Vern. This song features straight-forward county production, with minimal Nashville Sound trappings.

“I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” would become Vern’s first #1 record in the spring of 1984. The version on this album is NOT the version released as the single. It’s taken at a slightly slower tempo than the hit single, and Vern’s vocal lacks the pizzazz of the single (I wonder if this was recorded at the end of a long session, because “The Voice” sounds tired on this recording). This track is pleasant enough, but if released as a single, I doubt it would have been a top ten record. Fortunately someone saw the potential in the song and had Vern give it another shot.

“What Would Your Memories Do” is a Hank Cochran-Dean Dillon collaboration which fits exactly into Vern’s preferred medium slow groove. This song would reach the top ten during the summer of 1984.

“Slow Burning Memory” is one of my favorite Vern Gosdin songs; however, the version on this album is NOT the version that reached the top ten in early 1985, but a slightly slower and more straight-forward country recording. Vern’s vocal on the single has a bit brighter vocal; moreover, the use of strings on the single greatly enhanced the dramatic effect of the lyrics. Vern and Max D. Barnes penned this number.

“Dead From The Heart On Down” compares death with a man who has lost love. Another Vern Gosdin-Max D Barnes collaboration, the song fits well within the context of this album. Vern and Max also penned “Stone Cold Heart” another medium-slow ballad.

“I’ve Got My Heart Full of You” is little more up-tempo than most of this album, and “You Never Cross My Mind” has a more prominent string arrangement to it than some of the tracks. I don’t think either of these tracks is anything special, but they are well sung and make for enjoyable listening.

I regard this as one of Vern’s weaker albums but I would rate it in the B to B+ range. If the album had contained single versions of “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and “Slow Burning Memory”, I would have nudged up to an A-. Of course when you’re rating an artist and saying one of his weaker albums is worth a B+ you are saying a lot about the artist.

1989 Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two’

200px-circle_ii_album_coverAlongside our reviews of albums produced by the ‘Class of ’89’, we’ve been taking the opportunity to look in depth at some of the other great albums released that year. Perhaps the most ambitious of those was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, which harks back to the early days of country music and shows how that heritage was still influential.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in the California folk-rock movement of the 1960s. They revealed their country leanings in 1972 when they produced a legendary triple LP entitled Will The Circle Be Unbroken in collaboration with some of the seminal figures of bluegrass and old-time country music, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, bluegrass great Earl Scruggs and many others — mostly artists who were past their commercial peaks. If the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never again ventured into country music, this album alone would have sealed their place in the music’s history.

In the 1980s, however, after a period using the name the Dirt Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rebranded themselves and forged a very successful career in contemporary country music. In 1988, they decided the time had come to produce a follow-up to their classic. Many of the original collaborators had died, and this time the guests included some contemporary acts and some artists from outside country music altogether, or who were from related genres. The album liner notes say, “This time they drew the circle bigger”, and talk about “the many hyphenated hybrid styles writers have used to describe all sorts of American music that comes from the heart. Big enough to embrace gospel, blues, honky tonk, Cajun and traditional folksong”. In other words, the term might not have been invented yet — but in many ways this was perhaps one of the the first self-consciously Americana albums. The result was a little more commercial-sounding than the original, but it strikes a fine balance between showcasing musical history and showing that that heritage was a living thing. Read more of this post