My Kind of Country

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Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

Back in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Alison Krauss – ‘Near The Cross’

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘New Favorite’

akusBy 2001 Alison Krauss had become well known outside the world of bluegrass and had begun incorporating elements from other genres into both her solo albums and her collaborations with Union Station. As a result, New Favorite is a more eclectic collection than the band’s earlier work. It attempts to blend traditional bluegrass with pop and mainstream country. At times the experimentation works and at other times it does not, and while it may have earned the band some new fans, its a-little-bit-of-something-for-everybody approach must have left bluegrass purists slightly disappointed.

The album produced three singles, two of which were written by Robert Lee Castleman, who had provided the band material in the past. Both “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You For A While” are more contemporary country than bluegrass. The latter reminds me a lot of Lee Ann Womack’s later recording “Last Call.” The title track, a dreamy number written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, was the final single. Of the three singles, only “The Lucky One” charted, landing at #46. Alison sings the lead on all three. The two Castleman numbers are quite enjoyable, but I found “New Favorite” to be rather dull and dreary, in spite of Alison’s lovely singing. The band’s cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Stars” is likewise a misstep.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is much better. Dan Tyminski provides a soulful lead vocal to the traditonal “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” about a lazy young farmer who seems to be incapable of harvesting a crop before it is destroyed by frost. This song would not be out of place on a SteelDrivers album. Tyminski gives the Bob Lucas composition “Momma Cried” a similar treatment and it is equally effective. “Bright Sunny South”, another Tyminski-led number, is more traditional bluegrass, as is the album’s best track “Take Me For Longing”, which features Alison on lead vocals. Banjo player Ron Block provides a Ricky Skaggs-like lead vocal on “It All Comes Down To You.”

New Favorite is a less cohesive effort than previous AKUS albums, partly because of the different musical styles it incorporates, but also because Alison, for the most part, sings the more crossover-minded songs, while the rest of the band handles the more traditional material. As such it comes across as a slightly disjointed album that is part Alison Krauss and part Union Station, as opposed to a collaborative Alison Krauss and Union Station album from start to finish. Its moments of brilliance largely outweigh the missteps, but overall it doesn’t hold its own against the group’s earlier albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Alison Krauss – ‘Forget About It’

Forget+About+It++1After reuniting with Union Station for the back-to-basics So Long, So Wrong Alison Krauss went solo for her 1999 effort, choosing to record an eclectic pop flavored album blending choice covers with newer material. As a result, Forget About It is one of Krauss’ most vibrant albums containing some of the most exquisite vocal performances of her career.

The album’s lead single marked her first time Krauss recorded a Robert Lee Castleman song, a songwriter who would become a go-to with at least one cut on each album she (and Union Station) would cut from this point onward. This first instance was the title track, an excellent mandolin drenched number displaying an upbeat disposition rare for the usually downbeat Krauss. She proves a revelation digging her teeth into a number that has more substance then first meets the eye. It’s one of my favorite moments Krauss has ever put on record. Country radio took notice as well, helping the song peak at 67 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Larry Byrom and Allyson Taylor co-wrote album opener “Stay,” a gorgeous mandolin and dobro soaked ballad detailing two reunited lovers. “Love’s taken you far, away from my heart, and I’ve been here all alone” Krauss sings with pent up pain, while also observing “Have your eyes failed to find, what took you from mine, a vision that’s faded through time?” The pair is worlds apart, but through it all she knows there’s a way to keep him around, if only he would meet her demands (“Darlin don’t turn away, don’t doubt your heart and keep us apart, I’m right where you are”).

“Stay” is a fantastic song if not for the conviction Krauss brings to her vocal, then for Byrom and Taylor’s perfectly nuanced story. Third and final single “Maybe” serves as a sequel of sorts, with the woman finally realizing the relationship is over. This revelation has her psyche in a better place, confidently declaring, “Maybe it’s for the best, I can live alone, I guess. Maybe I can stand alone, Maybe I’m strong as stone.” Another winner, “Maybe” succeeds on Krauss’ soaring vocal, a brilliant homage to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” that has her delivering the verses in near whisper while displaying the fullness of her pitch-perfect range during the chorus. “Maybe” is one of Krauss’ greatest achievements as a contemporary vocalist.

As if Krauss had anything left to prove after “Maybe,” she also recorded Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House,” a #5 peaking single for Shenandoah in 1990. Krauss’ version is divine with minimal production giving her impeccably controlled vocal the space to shine. In lesser hands this could’ve been a slow sleep-inducing effort, but Krauss draws the listener in with her choice to open the track a cappella and keeps the listener hooked throughout.

Forget About It closes with another country cover; Allen Reynolds oft-recorded standard “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” The quiet nature of the song is perfect for Krauss’ voice, and the beautifully understated production helps the listener appreciate Krauss’ reading of the timeless story about a person mourning the loss of their true love, vowing never to forget what they had together.

Another of my favorite numbers is a cover of rock singer Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” which maintains the song’s steady beat but is given a somewhat classier feel that allowed me to get into the story contained in the lyrics. Like the rest of the project the track is striking, with well-placed dobro accents assisting the melody by keeping the track from coming off as sleepy.

The most overtly bluegrass leaning track is a cover of Union Station bandmate Ron Block’s “Could You Lie,” which stands in contrast from the rest of Forget About It in that it features the heaviest dose of dobro. Jerry Douglas is given a bigger showcase here, acting as a main player instead of an accent flowing through the melody. Like the singles, “Could You Lie” also features a very pronounced chorus with her Union Station bandmates turning in harmony vocals. The more polished nature of the song also helps it stand out as one of the sets most memorable. It’s another personal favorite of mine.

Aside from soul superstar Michael McDonald and Michael Johnson’s “Empty Hearts,” one of the slower ballads, I haven’t spent any time with the remaining tracks on Forget About It opting to single out my favorite numbers on repeated listenings. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, however. Danny O’Keefe’s “Never Got Off The Ground” is a wonderful mandolin and dobro ballad, just like McDonald’s “It Doesn’t Matter Now.” “That Kind of Love,” a third song co-written by McDonald is a slower ballad about the importance of love and it’s good. It was featured in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

Forget About It may not be a landmark album in Krauss’ discography but it’s easily one of her strongest overall recordings thanks to an expertly chosen collection of songs impeccably produced and sung by the singer herself. Krauss is smart enough to mostly stay within her comfort zone, keep the songs from sounding alike, and avoid sleep-inducing production choices. If you’ve never listened to this set, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘So Long So Wrong’

Alison Krauss - So Long So Wrong - FrontAlison’s first album after her big breakthrough was a collaboration with her band Union Station, but marks something of a change in style, with the incorporation of more adult contemporary influences alongside some very traditional bluegrass fare. it goes almost without saying that the musicianship is superb.

As always with Alison’s records where Union Station shares lead billing, her bandmates get a number of chances to sing lead vocals, and they generally keep to traditional bluegrass stylings.

Ron Block sings his own excellent ‘Pain Of A Troubled Life’, which has an upbeat melody belying a world-wearied lyric, very much in classic bluegrass style. Alison’s robust fiddle leads the instrumental arrangement. Dan Tyminski (the best vocalist among the guys) takes the lead on the traditional ‘I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers’, the high lonesome ‘Blue Trail Of Sorrow’(written by Jeff White) and the airy up-tempo ‘The Road Is A Lover’ with Alison adding subtle harmonies.

Mandolinist Adam Steffey sings a gruff lead on the traditional bluegrass ‘No Place To Hide’, with its plangent strings. These tracks, together with the lively instrumental ‘Little Liza Jane’ (a traditional tune) keep the band grounded in bluegrass by breaking up the more adventurous experiments with Alison’s lead vocals, in which her silvery voice is let loose on a selection of songs drawing together a variety of musical influences.

Two of the ballads, ‘Find My Way Back To My Heart’ and ‘Looking In The Eyes of Love’, were released as singles to country radio. Both are lovely songs and performances but failed to recapture the commercial magic of her hits. ‘Looking In The Eyes Of Love’, written by Kostas and Tricia Walker, had been recorded a few years earlier by Patty Loveless; Alison’s version is a little more delicate and understated.

Alison’s voice positively shimmers over the gorgeous melodies of ‘Deeper Than Crying’ and the religious Ron Block-penned ‘There Is A Reason’, both of which are exquisite. My favourite of the ballads , however, is the beautiful Harley Allen song ‘It Doesn’t Matter’. Alison’s hushed vocal is particularly effective on this very slow song. The gentle ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is also very pretty.

Blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald’s ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is an ethereal ballad, which is pretty sounding but a little on the dull side. McDonald also wrote ‘Happiness with Alison’s brother Victor, which is similarly unexciting. I don’t find the title track very interesting either, but Alison’s voice cuts through it like a bell.

The album won three Grammies in country and bluegrass categories, and was her first studio set to win gold certification. It neatly balances her traditional bluegrass background with her newer taste for beautiful melodic ballads, and is exemplary.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss and the Cox Family – ‘I Know Who Holds Tomorrow’

i know who holds tomorrowThe Cox Family from Louisiana comprises father Willard, son Sidney, and daughters Evelyn, Lynn and Suzanne. Alison Krauss was a fan of Sidney Cox’s songwriting, and had recorded several of his songs on her first few Rounder albums. She also admired the beautiful voices and harmonies of his sisters, and the family band’s debut album on Rounder Records in 1993 (Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone) was Alison’s first venture into producing other artists. It was an excellent record and is well worth tracking down in its own right.

The following year Alison collaborated with the family for a gospel album (perhaps surprisingly, it remain Alison’s only full album of religious material, although she has recorded many individual songs. Stylistically it is acoustic country with bluegrass instruments subtly augmented by drums, piano and steel guitar, all tastefully played and arranged.

The vocals are mainly split between the high soprano voices of Alison and Suzanne Cox; the latter’s exquisite voice is a delight (and very similar tonally to Alison’s), and the example seems to have brought out the best in Alison too.

Suzanne sings lead on my two favourite tracks – the enchantingly beautiful title track, a simple declaration of faith; and the equally beautiful ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’. The hymn ‘Will There Be Any Stars’ is also lovely, and she takes another lead on the rhythmic ‘Walk Over God’s Heaven’, strongly backed by the other girls’ harmonies.

Evelyn’s fine voice is lower than the high sopranos of Suzanne and Alison, and is featured on two songs. Her solo on ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ has a slow, stately pace, while she swaps lead vocals with Alison on ‘Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven’, a sprightly old Loretta Lynn song with lovely harmonies from the other girls and a sarcastic tag line (“nobody wants to die”).

My favourite of Alison’s lead vocals is the angelically lovely ‘In The Palm Of Your Hand’, written by Union Station’s Ron Block, which is perfect for her and the most archetypal Krauss recording. The ethereal ‘Jewels’ is pretty, but the determined ‘Never Will Give Up’ is less interesting.

The mellow, sweet voice of Lynn Cox takes the lead on Dottie Rambo’s understated and soothing ‘Remind Me, Dear Lord’. Sidney takes over for the album’s most surprising song choice, a cover of pop star Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ which fits in surprisingly well. Dad Willard’s gravelly baritone takes over on ‘Far Side Bank Of Jordan’, a wearied song about anticipating death and ultimate reunion with a loved one.

The album won a well-deserved Grammy. It is one of my favourite religious albums, and I would recommend it to any fan of Alison Krauss- she is part of an ensemble here, but the Cox women have heavenly voices to match hers, and the album as a whole is as close to perfect as I can imagine.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye’

everytimeAlthough Alison Krauss had received her fair share of critical acclaim almost from the very beginning of her career, it wasn’t until the release of 1991’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling that she began to slowly build some commercial steam as well. That album peaked at #61 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The following year’s Every Time You Say Goodbye was her first collaboration with Union Station to chart. It only reached a modest #75, but it was still a notable achievement for a bluegrass act at that time. It won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1993, becoming the group’s first, and Alison’s second overall.

At this particular point in time Union Station consisted of Ron Block (banjo), Barry Bales (bass), Tim Stafford (guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin), and of course, Alison on fiddle. She shares lead vocal duties with the other band members, as she had done on the group’s previous effort Two Highways. Alison has always been at her best when singing ballads, so she allows the other band members to take the lead with some of the more uptempo numbers such as “Another Night”, “It Won’t Work This Time”, and “Another Day, Another Dollar”, one of the alubm’s highlights which was written by future Union Station member Dan Tyminiski.

Although Every Time You Say Goodbye finds Alison assuming production duties for the very first time, the album’s content doesn’t differ much from her earlier works. The pop flourishes which characterize her later work are largely absent here. The album’s best tracks are the ballad “Heartsrings”, “New Fool” and the title track, which is the sole contribution by John Pennell, who had provided much of the material for the group’s previous album as well as Alison’s solo efforts. All three of these tracks were released as singles, though none of them charted. Rounder had begun releasing singles to country radio beginning with 1991’s “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” but only “Steel Rails” had charted and it peaked at an underwhelming #73. It would be another three years before Alison enjoyed her mainstream breakthrough with her cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All”, after which she became a much sought-after guest vocalist in Nashville. At this stage, however, her success and that of Union Station, were still confined to the bluegrass world. Every Time You Say Goodbye is a solid effort that will appeal to Alison’s fans, but will probably do little to win over bluegrass skeptics.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Alison Krauss

alison kraussFor many years bluegrass was seen as country music’s less commercial cousin, far less likely to cross over to a wider audience. Alison Krauss shattered many of these preconceptions in the course of her career. She has been met with acclaim from both critics and her peers. She has won 27 Grammy awards – more than any other female artist, across all genres; and sold millions of records, to both bluegrass fans and the general public. She was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the year in 1995 and has been nominated on a number of occasions despite relatively little exposure on mainstream radio.

Born in Decatur, Illinois, on 23 July 1971, Alison’s musical gifts were apparent from an early age. A child prodigy bluegrass fiddler who was active in the fiddle contest world by the time she was seven, it was to be her beautiful singing voice which led her to fame as an adult. At 12 she and her bass-playing brother Viktor joined a bluegrass band then called Silver Rail, which was eventually to become Union Station. The group was then led by singer-songwriter/musician John Pennell, who became Alison’s early mentor and tutor in bluegrass history, and Alison began to sing as well as well as play fiddle.

She signed her first record deal with the well-respected acoustic label Rounder in 1984, when she was only 13, and released her first album in 1987. Her early work was rooted in traditional bluegrass, but from the first her records were notable for their inclusion of high-quality new songs – many of them written by Pennell. Throughout her career she has interspersed solo albums with band records featuring Union Station. Over the years Union Station has featured a shifting lineup of some of the finest living bluegrass musicians, including, at various times, banjo players Alison Brown and Ron Block, guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, and celebrated dobro player Jerry Douglas (the only one to get his own featured billing). The records Alison has made with her band are very much band records, with the guys taking their share of lead vocals.

In 1993 she became the first pure bluegrass performer in almost 30 years to be invited to join the Opry. Her undoubted abilities a fiddle player were soon to become almost secondary to her exquisite voice, and she became a frequent guest on country records when a particularly notable harmony was required. Her contribution to Shenandoah’s ‘Somewhere in The Vicinity Of The Heart’ in 1994 made it a top 10 hit. In the same year, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist tribute to Keith Whitley, and Alison’s enchantingly beautiful cover of his hit ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ began to receive unsolicited radio airplay, both alone and mixed in with Whitley’s original to create a duet. This unexpected success led to the single being officially released in 1995, and it reached the #3 spot on the country chart.

This breakthrough to the commercial mainstream was cemented by the repackaging of samples of her early work with some new tracks further removed from straight bluegrass, as Now That I Found You, also released in 1995. It sold two million copies – unprecedented for a bluegrass album, and Alison found herself welcomed within country music, winning four CMA awards that year: the Horizon Award for rising stars, Single of the Year for ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘Vocal Event’ for the duet with Shenandoah, and, most surprisingly for an artist new to country radio, Female Vocalist of the Year.

Her music began to branch away from the more traditional styles she had recorded earlier. Her marriage to jazz guitarist Pat Bergeron (1997-2001) may also have encouraged her to widen her musical horizons. A further appeal to a broader public came when she was involved in the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, the 2000 George Clooney movie which is credited with sparking new interest in bluegrass and acoustic music. Union Station’s Dan Tyminski sang Clooney’s part on the project’s ‘Man Of Lonesome Sorrow’. Alison’s music has been included on many other films and television programs, making her the most visible of today’s bluegrass artists to the wider public.

Her collaboration with Brad Paisley on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ was another remarkable duet which gave Alison exposure on country radio in 2004. In 2007 her career took another surprising turn with her award-winning duet album and tour with rock musician Robert Plant. She has also produced albums for several artists, including Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose.

We will be taking a look back at her career this month.

25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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Randy finds religion: the Christian albums of Randy Travis

Randy’s second and last effort for DreamWorks, the uninspired and over-produced A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, fell pretty flat both artistically and commercially. Perhaps in response to that, the new millennium saw a major change. He returned to the Warner group for his first religious album (released on Word/Warner Brothers/Curb), Inspirational Journey, in 2000. Surprisingly what appeared at the time to be a one-off detour turned into a whole new career for him.

Kyle Lehning returned to the producer’s chair, and this is basically Christian country music of a very high quality. Randy sounds very sincere and is in great voice throughout, and this is a fine collection which most country fans would enjoy if they can live with the subject matter.

‘Baptism’ (written by Mickey Cates is an atmospheric and affectionate picture of an east Texas river baptism, and is a highlight. Randy had previously guested on a duet version with Kenny Chesney on the latter’s Everywhere We Go; that version served principally to show how infinitely superior Randy’s voice was to Kenny’s. The solo version is better, with a gospel choir some way down in the mix. It was released as the album’s sole single, but barely charted.

My favorite is the traditional country plea to ‘Doctor Jesus’, laced with fiddle and steel, and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. Randy’s emotional vocal convincingly portrays a man at the bottom and in need of help from “the best healer around”.

Randy’s personal commitment to the project is reflected in the fact that he wrote three of the songs. The best of these is ‘The Carpenter’ (about Jesus) which he wrote with Chip Taylor and Ron Avis; the song features guest vocals from Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and is very likeable. His other two compositions (the slow, churchy ‘I Am Going’ and ‘Walk With Me’ work less well for me. But even the lesser material like these songs, the opening ‘Shallow Water’ and the subdued ‘See Myself In You’ sound good. ‘Feet On The Rock’ is up-tempo churchy gospel which is quite enjoyable.

The insistent Ron Block song ‘Which Way Will You Choose’ is very catchy with dancing fiddle and a very strong vocal. ‘Drive Another Nail’ is an effective story song about a retired carpenter who sees the light. ‘Don’t Ever Sell Your Saddle’ (from the pens of Kim Tribble and Brian Whiteside) has a warm, nuanced vocal, and could easily have fitted on one of Randy’s secular albums, with its comforting collection of life advice from a father – advice the man didn’t always take himself. The album closes with a very slow take on the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, recorded in memory of Randy’s late mother and his father in law, but I feel the arrangement drags a bit.

While not a best-seller, the album did sufficiently well for Randy to decide to follow it up with another, which was to do rather better. 2002’s gold-certified Rise And Shine is notable for the inclusion of Randy’s last solo hit, the outstanding story song ‘Three Wooden Crosses’. Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams and masterfully interpreted, it was Randy’s first #1 in nine years, and was named CMA Song of the Year. It was not the start of a career resurgence, though, as the follow-up single, ‘Pray For the Fish’, a lively but rather slight tale of a river baptism, failed to crack the top 40.

Also excellent is the tender ‘Raise Her Up’, written by Robb Royer and Rivers Rutherford, which might perhaps have built on the success of ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ if it had been sent to radio. This is the voice of a fatherless boy who grows up to become loving stepfather to a similar child, comparing their story to that of Joseph and Jesus.

The Rory Lee/Paul Overstreet song ‘When Mama Prayed’ is a tenderly sung tribute to the power of prayer; the heroine’s prayers bring her irreligious husband and drunk son to see the light. It’s a nice take on an oft-told tale, and one which resonated with Randy given his past. Similarly, the deathbed-set ‘If You Only Knew’ is an unexceptional lyric lifted to a new level by Randy’s vocal although the string arrangement and choir-like backing vocals are a bit stifling. ‘Valley Of Pain’, written by Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin, is a good depiction of someone holding on to their faith through a bad patch. ‘The Gift’, written by Phillip Moore and Ray Scott, is rather a nice Christmas song:

“On our Savior’s birthday
We got the gift”

Randy co-wrote six of the 13 songs. They are all perfectly listenable and clearly heartfelt, but not that memorable out of context. The best is the dark envisioning of the Second Coming in ‘Jerusalem’s Cry’, with Randy’s vocals at their most gravelly, although it is probably the least “country” track on the album.

There was also an accompanying DVD with a short (20 minute) documentary about Randy, who talks about horses, his wild youth and his religion, with Kyle Lehning also contributing. There are clips of Randy performing, in the studio, and a lot of him riding horses.

Worship & Faith in 2003 was a reverently sung collection of hymns, traditional spiritual songs and one or two modern worship songs, given an all-acoustic country production. I enjoy listening to it a great deal, but there isn’t anything here for the non-religious listener. One song which particularly stands out is ‘I’ll Fly Away’ thanks to Joy Lynn White’s distinctive harmonies, while John Anderson duets on a serious version of ‘Just A Closer Walk with Thee’. It did well, selling gold again.

Passing Through, released a year later, is actually not a religious record, and was billed as a return to secular music. However, it was still on Christian label Word in association with Curb and Warners, and had nothing on it likely to offend Christian music fans, and in fact won a Dove Award. Lead single ‘Four Walls’ is, unfortunately, not the country classic but an affectionate story of a rural family united in love. It is pleasant and well sung, but rather dull, and I can see why it didn’t spark at radio. It had been recorded back in 2001, together with several other songs included on the new album. ‘That Was Us’ (also recorded by Tracy Lawrence) fondly recalls a bunch of rural teenage delinquents who grow up to prove their hearts are in the right place, and might have gone down better at radio. ‘Pick Up The Oars And Row’, written by Jamie O’Hara, is a sympathetic song addressed to a woman let down by a lying man, which is very good. The subdued ‘My Daddy Never Was’ is an excellent slice of life written by Tony Lane, about a divorced man working hard to be “the daddy my daddy never was” and reflecting on his own failings; Randy’s voice cracks in places but this only suits the defeated mood of the song. Dennis Linde’s ‘Train Long Gone’ stands out with wailing harmonica and train sounds, but doesn’t quite work for me.

Of the newly recorded material, the overly sentimental and part-spoken ‘Angels’ (a tribute to mothers) was the second attempt at a single, and another mis-step. I much prefer ‘Running Blind’, written by Roger Ferris. At a truck stop in New Mexico, a cashier gives the narrator some salutary advice about heading back home to the girl left crying at home, set to a punchy rhythm and Charlie McCoy’s harmonica. The swingy ‘My Poor Old Heart’ (written by Shawn Camp and Gary Harrison) and the gently philosophical ‘Right On Time (from Al Anderson and Sharon Vaughn) are also pretty good. The album title comes from the fiddle-led ‘A Place To Hang My Hat’, written by Shawn Camp, Byron Hill and Brice Long, the only religious song. Randy wrote a couple of tender love ballads, ‘I’m Your Man’ with piano and steel in the foreground, and ‘I Can See It In Your Eyes’(a co-write with Matthew Hague), with heavenly harmony on the chorus from Liana Manis.

Sales of Passing Through were disappointing, and Randy turned to hardcore religious music with Glory Train. This is mainly religious numbers from a variety of American musical traditions, with a handful of contemporary church worship songs, and has the least country feel of any of Randy’s albums, although the fiddle is prominent on a number of tracks. His vocals still compel attention on the mainly up-tempo material (apart from a pointless version of ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ which has nothing to interest the listener). Highlights include the title track, a black gospel classic from the 1930s given a country makeover with swirling fiddle and harmonica; a warm version of ‘Precious Memories’, a slowed-down take on ‘Were You There’, the insistent gospel of ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Oh Death’, and ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’. The Blind Boys of Alabama guest on two gospel tracks, and contemporary Christian group the Crabb Family on another. The least effective track is a pointless sing along of ‘He’s Go the Whole World In His Hands’.

Randy’s religious detour produced some fine music, even if it was a little frustrating for fans of his secular music. All these albums are easy to get hold of.

Grades:

Inspirational Journey: A
Rise And Shine: B+
Worship And Faith: A-
Passing Through: B+
Glory Train: B

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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