My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ronnie Bowman

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Blessed’

Bradley Walker’s second religious album, and third overall, leans towards traditional hymns and other well known material. A beautiful, measured reading of ‘Amazing Grace’ opens the album. Carl Jackson and Val Storey add harmony vocals, and a little steel guitar ornaments the track. A thoughtful, sincere version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, also introduced with some gorgeous steel, is even better. Jimmy Fortune and Ben Isaacs help out here.

From the southern gospel tradition, Alison Krauss adds an angelic harmony to ‘Angel Band’. Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs help on ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, another lovely track. ‘I’ll Fly Away’ has energy and commitment, as does ‘Victory In Jesus’. The Gaithers’ more recent ‘Because He Lives’ is a melodic ballad.

A few classic country and bluegrass gospel tunes are included. The Oak Ridge Boys lead into ‘Family Bible’ with a line from ‘Rock Of Ages’. Some may not know that ‘One Day At A Time’ was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin). Bradley’s version is earnest and tasteful, with a lovely harmony from Rhonda Vincent. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White provide harmonies on the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Who Will Sing For Me’.

There is some newer material as well. ‘I Will Someday’, written by two sets of spouses (Morgane Hayes and Chris Stapleton, and Ronnie and Garnet Bowman), is a nice upbeat song about absolute faith. The Isaacs contribute backing vocals, and there is a sprightly acoustic guitar and piano backing. ‘Cast the First Stone’ is an Isaacs song from a couple of decades ago with a Bible based lyric and strong bluegrass feel. Another Isaacs tune is the beautiful ballad ‘Say Something’.

This is a perfect example of a country religious album. The vocals are exceptional and the instrumental backings and arrangements delightful.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers’ Choice – ‘Trouble Follows Me’

trouble follows meOver the past few years Virginia’s Junior Sisk and Ramblers’ Choice have been making quite a name for themselves in bluegrass. Sisk was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year last year. His latest album is an excellent example of his work, and has great appeal for bluegrass fans who like songs with substance alongside sparkling musicianship.

The vibrant opener ‘Honky Tonked To Death’ is a great mixture of uptempo bluegrass vocals and arrangement and a honky tonk country song, written by Bill Castle. The unrepentant protagonist blames the break up of his marriage on his drinking habits:

I guess our love began to die when I found swinging doors
And every night I stayed out late it died a little more

The rhythmic ‘Don’t Think About it Too Long’ celebrates making music. It is co-written by Ronnie Bowman, who also wrote the high lonesome ballad ‘A Cold Empty Bottle, a story song about a man whose broken heart (and love of sad country songs) only feed his alcoholism.

‘I’d Rather Be Lonesome’ is a plaintive up-tempo disclaimer of love for an unfaithful woman. ‘Gonna Make Her Mine’ is perkier, about a shy man’s determination to declare his unrequited love for a neighbour’s daughter.

The title track, written by Sisk, is a fast-paced story song about a hard-pressed farmer who turns to crime after losing his farm. He ends up in a new prison built on his former home.

The slower ‘Walk Slow’, written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie, takes a more contemplative, philosophical approach, advising living like a small child to appreciate life fully.

‘Frost On The Bluegrass’ is about the enduring pull of home. ‘Jesus Walked Upon The Water’ is a briskly delivered acappella gospel quartet.

An eclectic selection of covers wounds out the set. The perfectly-constructed country classic ‘All I Have To Offer You Is Me’ works well, while the band also takes on a Carter Stanley tune, the mournful yet up-tempo ‘Our Darling’s Gone’. Most unexpected is a version of Michael Martin Murphey’s ‘What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round’, which also suits a bluegrass interpretation. The band’s Jason Tomlin takes lead vocals on this one.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice – ‘The Story Of The Day That I Died’

the story of the day that i diedOne of my favorite current bluegrass acts is Virginia-based Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice. Excellent musicianship sparkles throughout the set, and they have a knack for picking interesting material. On their fourth album, everything comes together perfectly.

The outstanding title track is a witty story song written by Ashby Frank about a man who fakes his own suicide in order to make a new life in Mexico (paid for with his cheating wife’s IRA investments and credit cards):

I guess that sorry girl will never cheat again
After the way I did me in

I hope that you never learn the truth
You’re dead to me and now I’m dead to you

This is a sheer delight.

There is more misery on offer in the classically high lonesome ‘A House Where A Home Used To Be’, another fine song, written by Daniel Salyer. ‘Another Lonely Day’ is another Salyer-penned hurting song, with the band’s bass player Jason Tomlin given the chance to sing lead. While his vocals are a little uncertain, the song itself is pretty good. Another faithless wife leaving her man for a lover causes the moonshining protagonist to flee ‘High In The Mountains’, a fast paced number allowing the band to show off their instrumental chops.

‘Lover’s Quarrel’ is a sad traditional third-person story song once recorded by the Stanley Brothers, and with that pure mountain music style, about a couple who argue and separate for petty reasons. The young man begs his sweetheart to make things up, but she refuses, and after a while he dies.

The protagonist of the presumably tongue-in-cheek ‘Old Bicycle Chain’ complains about his wife’s (mostly rather minor) bad behaviour and threatens her with violence:

You trashed my trailer last Sunday
While I was at church singing hymns
I’ve had enough of your bad ways
So hold this anchor and take a swim

It’s never too late to change your ways, dear
Face your mistakes and take the blame
And don’t come back messing round here
Or I’ll whoop you with an old bicycle chain

On a more serious note, the excellent ‘If The Bottle Was A Bible’ takes a thoughtful look at a man taking refuge from the misery of bereavement in “the haze of neon lights and tortured souls” rather than God. The song was written by Ronnie Bowman, Clint Daniels and Billy Ryan. Sisk, whose vocals are at their best here, plays the part of a sympathetic bartender watching the man staring at the labels from his bottle of gin:

Imagine what he’d know
If the bottle was a Bible

I bet he’s drank the River Jordan
The flesh is weaker than what they’re pourin’
And right there in that bar we’d have revival
If that bottle was a bible

‘Walking In Good Company’, written by Sisk with his father, offers up some traditional bluegrass gospel. ‘Prayers Go Up’ is sung by mandolin player Chris Davis, and he has a warm voice well-showcased on a pleasant song celebrating homespun philosophy, written by three country songwriters, Ben Hayslip, Patrick Matthews and Bryan Simpson. The lyric is a little cliche’d, but the sincere spirit of the vocal sells the song. The title of the cheerfully pacy ‘Good To See The Home Place Once Again’ tells you all you need know about the song.

The record closes out with a cheerful Larry Sparks song praising the comradeship found at a local bar, ‘Drinking At the Water Hole’.

This album is an example of bluegrass at its best.

Grade: A

Buy the album at amazon.

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Larry Cordle – ‘Pud Marcum’s Hanging’

Larry Cordle’s new album was supposedly released a few months back, but, perhaps because it is on the artist’s own label, distribution had been limited, and it has taken some time for me to track down. I’m glad I took the trouble to do so, because this is an excellent album full of memorable songs.

A brilliant songwriter and an emotive singer, Cordle wrote all the songs with a small band of collaborators, most frequently Larry Shell (with whom he wrote ‘Murder On Music Row’) and Connie Leigh. This record contains elements of bluegrass, country and acoustic Americana, in roughly that order. Cordle also produced the record, in dobro player Randy Kohrs’ studio.

Almost all the material consist of absorbing story songs rooted in Kentucky, three of them dealing with murders. The pure bluegrass title song tells us of a young man hanged for murdering a hated relative despite having found God in jail, bolstered by strong harmonies from bluegrass legend Del McCoury. It is based on a true story, which took place in Kentucky in 1886-1887; the unfortunate Pud was the last man ever hanged in eastern Kentucky and the very public occasion seems to have made a lasting impression on locals.

‘Justice For Willy’ tells the very modern story of a man murdered by his wife, planning to spend the insurance payout on Botox and lipo and a trip to Europe with the grocery boy – but satisfyingly, she is arrested at the funeral. As she poisoned him I’m not quite sure how she was trapped by DNA evidence as the song states, but I’m prepared to accept the resolution.

A third murder tale comes with ‘The Death Of Bad Burch Wilson’, in which the killer (most likely the narrator, whose wife was having an affair with the deceased) gets away with it:

I don’t believe he slipped and fell
I don’t believe he drowned
Nobody mourned his passing when they laid him in the ground
Things happen in the mountains that the mountains only know
Some secrets are as dark and deep as any seam of coal

The delightfully effervescent ‘Uncle Bob Got Religion’ has an appropriate old-time gospel feel with a wailing Pentecostal chorus. Fat, lazy uncle Bob is a counterfeiter and general bad lot but eventually comes to regret his sins and gets baptised in the river. The Oak Ridge Boys Richard Sterban sings bass, while Carl Jackson adds tenor and Jerry Salley baritone harmonies.

The religious ‘Gone On Before’ is pretty and soulful, and features harrnonies from its co-writer Ronnie Bowman and his wife Garnet. Ronnie and Garnet also contribute suitably angelic harmonies to ‘Angel On His Shoulder’, which portrays the internal battle faced by one man with a restrained passion:

There’s an angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side
One’s trying hard to save him
One wants to take his life
And there’s a war that’s raging down in his soul tonight
Between the angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side

Steel guitar adds a touch of melancholy.

On a similar note, Larry also gives us his own version of his song ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, with Randy Kohrs on harmony. This was an instant classic when it was recorded a couple of years ago by Trace Adkins. I think Trace’s version is just a little better, but this is still very well done, and the song packs a massive emotional punch as it unsparingly shows up the power alcohol can gain over its victims.

The sole love song included has a dark undercurrent as the protagonist makes advances to ‘Molly’, whose husband is off somewhere cheating on her.

On a more light-hearted note, ‘Shade Tree Mechanic’ paints a fond portrait of the kind of guy who is a natural with machinery and whose home looks like his own junkyard. The sardonic ‘Brown Check’ is the story of “sorry sot” Delbert Meeks/Biggs, “too dang lazy to hold down a job”, who decide to become a welfare fraudster claiming to be too sick to work (unless he gets paid cash under the table, of course).

Coal has been a mixed blessing for the people of Kentucky and West Virginia, providing work for generations but also bringing death. The atmospheric ‘Hello My Name Is Coal’, sung as a duet with co-writer Jenee Fleenor (who has a strong voice and also plays fiddle on the track) anthropomorphises the substance and illustrates some of the things it means to the people of the Appalachians.

The only mis-step (and one which will still appeal to many listeners) is the clumsy closing track, which has Larry plaintively wondering ‘America Where Have You Gone’. It sounds good aurally, but the (conservative) sentiments are expressed surprisingly unimaginatively – not a criticism I would give to anything else on offer here.

Overall, this is an excellent record which I highly recommend.

Grade: A

You can listen on Larry Cordle’s website. The CD can be purchased there or from CDBaby, while Amazon has it as a digital download only.

Album Review: Curly Putman – ‘Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome’

Curly Putman, now 80 years old, is one of the great country songwriters. This record (apparently released via Curly’s publishing company Sony/ATV), allows him to offer his own interpretations of some of his classic songs. While his aging voice is not up to much technically, I always enjoy hearing songwriters deliver their own material, and he can still hold a tune better than some of today’s big names. His phrasing is perfect (as one might expect given that these are his own songs), and he is able to convey the emotions effectively. The album is well produced by Curly himself with percussionist Adam Engelhardt in traditional country style, with some fine musicians backing him and plenty of fiddle and steel. And the quality of the material is absolutely exceptional, with a focus, as the album title suggests, on the sad songs that form the heartblood of country music.

There are three duets with female vocalists, which are among the highlights. 80s star turned successful Music Row songwriter Deborah Allen joins Curly on a downbeat and tuneful version of ‘Only Oklahoma Away’, where the male protagonist’s longing is palpable. Dolly Parton sounds lovely on the tender love song ‘Made For Loving You’, one of the few positive-themed numbers. Sarah Johns is a revelation as the duet partner on ‘My Elusive Dreams’, a semi-autobiographical song which Curly released as a single back in 1967, just before Tammy Wynette and David Houston’s classic version. This is one of my favourite tracks, with Curly’s abraded voice (redolent of failed ambition) contrasting with Sarah’s pure, sweet voice (much better here than on her 2008 solo album Big Love In A Small Town, where she sometimes sounded shrill). It makes me hopeful for new music from Sarah in the future.

The tragic drama of ‘Radio Lover’ with its spoken verses and sung chorus, and the heartbreaking ‘Wino The Clown’ (also partly-spoken) were both written with Bucky Jones and Ron Hellard and recorded by George Jones in the mid-80s. Curly’s versions work well and are extremely convincing (although I think he was probably wise to avoid tackling his very best known George Jones cut, ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’).

My favorite track is the tragic prisoner’s dream ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’, one of Curly’s most recorded, and greatest, compositions. There is a long and delicate instrumental intro leading into a low-key mournful vocal which sounds doomed right from the start, with every word sounding as though it comes straight from the heart. Technically speaking, I have heard better versions of the gorgeous sad ballad ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’, but once more, Curly’s version does effectively convey the intensity of the protagonist’s despair.

Opening track ‘Older The Violin’ (a late hit for Hank Thompson in 1974) is a sprightly lightly swinging defiance of middle age (the protagonist is 45) along the lyrical lines of the Johnny Paycheck 80s classic ‘Old Violin’, with the protagonist telling the woman who seems to be putting him out to grass in favour of a younger rival:

The older the violin, the sweeter the music
These specks of gray that’s in my hair
Just make me look distinguished
That don’t mean I’m over the hill
Baby I’m not extinguished

There are a few songs I hadn’t heard before, including the last-mentioned. Of the others, ‘That Runaway Woman’ is a Caribbean-flavored tale of a man chasing through various beach destinations after the woman who has left him, and fetching up in a bar somewhere to drink away the pain, which Curly wrote with Don Cook. ‘Magnolia In The Snow’ is a slow and rather depressing song about leaving Colorado for the sun, and regretting what has been left behind, which seems to include a dead child.

Ending the album on a more positive note, there is a moving expression of absolute faith in the face of a troubled life, in the emotionally sung religious closing track ‘Foot Prints’, a co-write with Don Cook and bluegrass singer Ronnie Bowman (who, with his wife Garnet, sings harmonies throughout):

I sail my ship in deep and troubled waters
I drift so far I cannot see the shore
Sometimes my soul feels lost at sea
And all my hope is gone
He left His footprints on the water
So I can find my way home

Before I knew, my heart believed
He loved the broken heart of me
He sacrificed His precious life
So He could give me mine

The proceeds of the sales of the album are partly devoted to the Sean Putman Memorial Fund at Cumberland University, Lebanon, TN, in memory of Curly’s grandson who died of cancer as a child, and to whom the record is dedicated.

This is a fascinating example of one of the greatest living country songwriters singing some of his best songs, and given his age, perhaps the last opportunity to do so.

Grade: A-

It is available on iTunes, or as a hard copy CD from CDBaby or Amazon.

You can sample some of the songs via Curly’s Facebook page.

Album Review: The SteelDrivers – ‘Reckless’

A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to a group like The SteelDrivers. Though I’ve always liked bluegrass, it was always a change-of-pace type of music for me, and I was more inclined to listen to more traditional acts like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, or Ricky Skaggs. Gravelly, bluesy vocalists like Chris Stapleton have never really been my cup of tea; yet to my great surprise, I was blown away the first time I heard The SteelDrivers, whose 2008 debut album was among that year’s best offerings. At times, lead vocalist Stapleton sounds more like a Delta blues singer than the lead vocalist for a bluegrass band. Yet somehow at works. It may be partially a reflection of my own evolving musical tastes, but mostly it is a testament to the fine musicianship of the other band members. This group is no Lonestar, consisting of a powerhouse lead vocalist backed with anonymous, interchangeable musicians, and for that reason I have every confidence that The SteelDrivers will continue to flourish after the departure of Chris Stapleton, who recently quit the group to focus on his family and songwriting.

Reckless
, the group’s sophomore offering, picks up where their eponymous debut album left off. There are no radical departures from the first album, though the group continues to push the boundaries by melding aspects from other musical genres with bluegrass. Though it may raise some eyebrows among bluegrass purists, the result is a refreshing change from the usual pop/soft rock that Nashville has been pedaling in recent years. The album was produced by Luke Wooten, and eleven of the album’s twelve tracks were written by either Chris Stapleton or mandolinist Michael Henderson.

The album opens with the energetic, fiddle-driven “The Reckless Side of Me”, which includes Tammy Rogers’ beautiful harmony vocals. Next is “Good Corn Liquor”, the only song on the album provided by an outside songwriter (Ronnie Bowman), which is slightly reminiscent of “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” from the band’s first disc. “Good Corn Liquor” is followed by some non-traditional tracks like “Where Rainbows Never Die”, “The Price” and the Civil War-themed “Can You Run” which sound a bit like attempts to “grass up” songs that might not have necessarily been conceived as bluegrass songs.

Things take a more traditional turn beginning with “You Put The Hurt On Me”, the album’s best track and the one that comes the closest to mainstream country. If promoting The SteelDrivers to mainstream country radio weren’t an exercise in complete futility, this is the track I would select to become a single. The high lonesome sound returns with the excellent “Midnight On The Mountain” and “Guitars, Whiskey, Guns and Knives” before detouring back into contemporary territory with “Angel Of The Night”.

Patty Loveless fans will be familiar with “Higher Than The Wall,” which appeared on her 2003 disc On Your Way Home. A live version was also included on The SteelDrivers’ previous album as an iTunes bonus track. For that reason alone, I was slightly disappointed to see it reprised here. It’s an excellent song, brilliantly performed, but it’s taking up a slot that could have gone to a different song that most of us hadn’t heard before.

Overall, Reckless isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but I’ve grown to like it more each time I listen to it. Fans of the first SteelDrivers album won’t be disappointed, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to even those who don’t normally listen to bluegrass. It bends the rules just enough that it should appeal to the non-bluegrass listener, who might be pleasantly surprised after giving the album a try.

Grade: A

Reckless
is available from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Randy Kohrs – ‘Quicksand’

Talented musician Randy Kohrs is best known for his dobro (resonator guitar) playing on other artists’ records, but he also has a fine voice and has released a number of his own albums. His latest, on Rural Rhythm Records, was originally due to be released last year, but was delayed until this month. He produced it himself in his own studio (as he has done before). There is a mixture of blues, country, and bluegrass, all acoustic. The backings, from a variety of mainly bluegrass musicians, are fabulous throughout, and always appropriate for the song. The whole album is a pleasure to listen to.

Randy wrote or co-wrote five of the 13 tracks, including the outstanding song on the album, ‘Die On The Vine’, written with Dennis Goodwin and set to a very pretty tune. This opens with the auction of a farm’s contents, and builds with the farmer’s being saved from relapsing into alcoholic despair, by remembering his father’s advice 20 years earlier:

“Son don’t let your life die on the vine
Don’t plant your roots in whiskey and red wine
Grow up straight and tall like an old Georgia pine
Son don’t let your life die on the vine”

Then I pushed away my glass
And pulled myself up straight
I knew that I could stand up
To the bitter winds of fate
Cause suddenly I’d realized
That one thing hadn’t sold
The best thing daddy ever planted
Was his strength in my soul

Harmony vocals on this track (and several others) come from Garnet and Ronnie Bowman.

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Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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