My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rosanne Cash

Classic Rewind: Rosanne Cash – ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’

Rosanne Cash, winner of three Americana Grammies on Sunday, from her days as a country star:

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Predictions for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards

It’s early February, which means it’s time for the annual Grammy Awards telecast, airing this Sunday at 8pm on CBS. Look for performances from Eric Church and Miranda Lambert, plus winners in the Country and American Roots categories.

GiveMeBackMyHometownBest Country Solo Performance

Consisting of four former winners, who have proven perennial Grammy favorites, this couldn’t be a more predicable group of nominees. Miranda Lambert won the CMA Award so she has less of a chance of winning here, but really everyone has a very good chance of walking away with the trophy.

Should Win: “Give Me Back My Hometown” – The buzz surrounding The Outsiders coupled with the fact he’s never won a Grammy, should be enough to push him over the top.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” – With a win for “Last Name,” the Grammy voters proved they would award Carrie Underwood for just opening her mouth. She made quite a splash this year, so look for her winning streak to continue.

Little-Big-Town-Day-DrinkingBest Country duo/group performance

A banal group of mainstream fare, these nominees are far more flash than artistry. The Band Perry has the best song, but Kimberly’s feathery vocal, likely from screaming too much during the Pioneer era, hinders their Glen Campbell cover.

Should Win: “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” – Although it wasn’t much of a duet, Tim & Faith should be rewarded solely for McGraw’s artistic comeback.

 Will Win: “Day Drinking” – Miranda and Carrie won the CMA, which dramatically hurts their chances here. That’ll leave room for Little Big Town to swoop in and claim victory with their anathematic earworm.

10523141_295010450688997_7271262647762240217_nBest Country Song

A sentimental nod for Glen Campbell gives these nominees, which are otherwise tethered to mainstream fare, a bit more variety. He could very easily win on principal, which would be a wonderful thing to see.

Should Win: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” – a win now for Campbell would indeed be wonderful, especially after all he’s been through.

Will Win: “American Kids” – Grammy song categories are always surprising, as the substantive ballad doesn’t always emerge victorious. Kenny Chesney’s hit is an offbeat choice, but crazier things have happened. If Chesney doesn’t win, I could see Eric Church easily taking this home.

12 storiesBest Country Album

The strongest of the country categories, with five worthy nominees, including two that should be duking it out to the finish.

Should Win: It’s a statistical dead heat between 12 Stories and The Way I’m Livin.’ Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack turned in stellar recordings that, in their own right, each deserve this award.

Will Win: The Outsiders – Eric Church’s wildly uneven fourth album has a buzz that cannot be ignored. It’s a good project, but nowhere near the artistic caliber of Clark and Womack’s sets.

UnknownBest American Roots Performance

I’m not as well versed here, but Rosanne Cash and Nickel Creek turned in valiant efforts and Alison Krauss is featured on a track.

Should Win: “Destination” – Nickel Creek came back together after nine years, bringing with them their artistic gains from solo and side projects. Their astounding growth shouldn’t be ignored. 

Will Win: “And When I Die” – I never bet against the obvious, Alison Krauss is featured here, but I could easily see Rosanne Cash taking this home as well. 

rosannecashBest American Roots Song

I’ve only heard Rosanne Cash’s track, and while good, it isn’t “When The Master Calls The Roll.”

Should Win: “A Feather’s Not A Bird” – I’d still give this one to Cash

Will Win: “Pretty Little One” – Steve Martin wins without even trying, so he has the edge here. Jesse Winchester, who passed away last year, could also claim the sentimental vote.

Rosanne CashBest Americana Album

All hail the might God that is Sturgill Simpson. Most were furious he wasn’t in the Best Country Album category, since his album has Country Music in its title, but its experimental nature makes it a perfect fit here. I haven’t been able to get into him (sacrilege of the highest order) but I can appreciate his artistry.

Should Win: The River & The Thread – Rosanne Cash’s impeccable ode to her family legacy is one of the year’s true masterworks 

Will Win: The River & The Thread – Cash has the name recognition to pull this off and it couldn’t be more deserved. But she isn’t Simpson, and that could hurt her, and everyone else in this category.

81Yyaq+5nDL._SL1500_Best Bluegrass Album

This is quite the substantive category, with at least three nominees that could emerge victorious.

Should Win: I honestly don’t have any idea

 Will Win: Only Me – Rhonda Vincent is the biggest name here, a fact that usually secures a win

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Albums of 2014

For whatever reason, I always find it easier to tackle a singles list than one dedicated to albums. It’s easier to dive into the creative merits of a song for me than to look at a whole album, at least where a ranked list is concerned. As country music has veered off course in recent years, I’ve noticed my tastes have shifted away from the mainstream as I’ve filled my ears with the sounds of independent or Americana leaning artists, who still make music for themselves, and not for the corporate machine.

My top ten includes an artist who staged a wonderful comeback, another who treated us to his second album this decade, a group who reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and a duet pairing who’ve spoiled us with riches two years in a row. All are strong artistic triumphs and prove, once again, that incredible country music continues to see the light of day.

71Pl0cfcAZL._SL1500_10. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

Nine years after breaking off in different directions, Sara, Sean, and Chris reunite showing astonishing artistic growth. A Dotted Line doesn’t eclipse their breathtaking 2000 debut, but it’s just so great to have them back.

Key Tracks: “Destination,” “Hayloft,” “Love Like Mine”

9. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year11183_JKT

The married couple follow-up 2013’s stellar Cheater’s Game with a traditional delight that packs on the steel and Willis’ once in a lifetime voice with Robison’s brilliant songwriting. It doesn’t get much better.

Key Tracks: “Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here,” “This Will Be Our Year”

MirandaLambertPlatinum8. Miranda Lambert – Platinum

The de facto mainstream entry goes to Lambert’s latest set, which balances progressive sensibilities while remaining nostalgic for times gone by.

Key Tracks: “Automatic,” “Pricilla,” “All That’s Left (with Time Jumpers)”  

RF.EISHS-117. Radney Foster – Everything I Wish I’d Said

Foster’s latest covers wide ground – the grip of creativity, love for the Golden State, and racism, et al – but it all works, thanks to his sharp songwriting and blistering production.

Key Tracks: “Whose Heart You Wreck,” “California,” “Not In My House”

lm_album6. Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors 

The first of three stellar collections from female singer-songwriters to land on the list comes from McKenna, singing exquisitely about small-town life. It’s always a treat when she releases a new set, and Numbered Doors is no exception.

Key Tracks: “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Stranger In His Kiss,” “What A Woman Wants”

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px5. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class 

Holler Annie’s voice is an acquired taste and her production choices aren’t entirely conventional, but her songwriting is vividly clear and features the focused prospective of a woman breathing every last word.

Key Tracks: “Grocery Store,” “Life of the Party,” “Better Off Red”

don-williams-album-reflections-2014-400px4. Don Williams – Reflections

And So It Goes was a wonderful reintroduction to Don Williams for a new generation, as a man in his 70s. Fully reacquainted, Williams has released the collection of his life – ten reflections on life from a man who’s lived and breathed every word.

Key Tracks: “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Working Man’s Son,” “Talk Is Cheap”

81jry8GphML._SL1425_3. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell is irrefutably one of the greatest songwriter/artists of the past forty years. He’s done it all in his astonishing career, yet he continues to surprise at a point in his profession where artists either hang it up or coast on their success. He’s at the peak of his ability with no signs of slowing down. All the better for us, and the greater good of the country genre.

Key Tracks: “The Long Journey Home,” “God I’m Missing You,” “The Flyboy & The Kid”

the way im livin2. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’ 

A new Lee Ann Womack album is a cause for celebration, and while I wasn’t blown away by her latest set, there were some incredible moments throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s championing pure country music, especially at a time when the genre is poppier than it’s ever been.

Key Tracks: “Fly,” “Same Kind of Different,” “Sleeping With the Devil”

Rosanen-Cash-The-River-The-Thread-300x3001. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

The third consecutive release in which she mines her family legacy is Cash’s masterpiece, the brilliant singer-songwriter project that comes wholly from the soul of its creator. Through twelve immaculate southern-themed songs, Cash vividly paints her landscapes and introduces us to those who call this region of the country home.

Key Tracks: “When The Master Calls The Roll,” “Night School,” “The Sunken Lands”

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Easy’

KellyWillisEasyMy first exposure to Kelly Willis came around 2002 when the video for “I Left You” was featured on CMT’s fantastic TRL inspired Most Wanted Live video countdown program. The single led Easy, Willis’ second album for Rykodisc Records and first batch of new material in three years. Gary Paczosa, who’s gone on to produce Joey + Rory and Kathy Mattea among others, co-produced with Willis.

The two singles from the album, neither of which charted, remain a couple of my favorite songs from the 2000s still today. Willis wrote “If I Left You,” an acoustic guitar soaked masterpiece about a woman running through how she’d act if she left her man, in the wake of him actually leaving her. Her gorgeous cover of UK singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sunny Jim!” is even better; a stunning waltz about a woman’s stern warning to a man that she’s done being taken advantage of by players. Her vocal on the Spanish-flavored tune is perfection, a great example of Willis’ ability to wrap her distinct twang around a song.

Beyond “If I Left You,” Willis had a hand in writing three more tracks solo. “Not What I Had In Mind” is a mournful ballad about a woman “loving you now, though you’re no longer mine.” It’s a great lyric, but the production is lacking in steel guitar, an oversight leaving the track feeling unfinished. “Reason To Believe” is lush lullaby equating a woman’s ability to let go and live with the start of a romantic relationship. Willis’ vocal is the star here, a master class of control. The track forces her to whisper more than belt and she mostly pulls off the restraint with little difficulty. The title track, the final number Willis penned solo, is excellent, even though the melody could’ve stood for a bit more distinction.

Willis co-wrote two more tracks on Easy. “Getting to Know Me” “Getting to Me” is a mid-tempo mandolin drenched number penned alongside Gary Louris, a founding member of The Jayhawks, and a prominent co-writer on Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way album. It’s a good song, but feels like a second-rate “If I Left You” sonically. “Wait Until Dark” found Willis collaborating with Rosanne Cash’s husband John Leventhal. The ballad is excellent, with Willis and Paczosa dressing it in a fabulous mandolin and acoustic guitar driven arraignment reminiscent of the work Cash would come to produce later in the decade.

Willis turned to her husband Bruce Robison for “What Did You Think,” an excellent ballad, and one of the strongest tracks on Easy thanks to its full melody and strong lyric. Paul Kelly wrote “You Can’t Take It With You,” Willis’ sole detour into bluegrass, a shift that would’ve benefited from a more energized vocal, but is great nonetheless. Blues Pianist and singer Marcia Ball wrote “Find Another Fool,” a steel and fiddle centric ballad about a woman done with a no good man that allows Willis to soar vocally.

I actually downloaded the two singles from Easy long before I went back and purchased the whole album. They remain my favorite of the tracks, likely due to their more commercial bent. The remainder of Easy is a mixed bag, more ballad driven than I was expecting with far less interesting arrangements than I thought would be here given how great the singles sounded. But Easy isn’t a bad album by any means and well worth revisiting if you’ve never heard it or haven’t given it a listen in a while.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Rodney Crowell ft Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris – ‘Shame On The Moon’

Classic Rewind: Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash – ‘That’s How I Got To Memphis’

Album Review – Radney Foster – ‘Everything I Should’ve Said’

RF.EISHS-11To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs’

ballad of forty dollarsTom T Hall had been knocking around Nashville for a few years working with Jimmy Keys, Jimmy C. Newman and Dave Dudley, when Mercury finally signed him to a recording contract in 1967. Although he had been supplying songs to artists such as Jimmy C. Newman, Dave Dudley and Johnny Wright, Tom was such a prolific songwriter that he still had a large song bag of previously unheard material from which to choose for his first album. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Mercury had a clear idea as to how they wanted to market him at the time.

The Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs would not be released until May 1969; however, Mercury would start issuing singles off the album almost immediately. “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” made its Billboard chart debut on August 5, 1967. Tom said that he wrote the song for Flatt and Scruggs but they passed on it, so he recorded it himself. While not a giant hit (it spent ten weeks on the charts peaking at #30), it encouraged Mercury to keep moving forward. Moreover, the song was recorded as an album cut by numerous other artists, most notably Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton on their Just The Two of Us album. Porter loved the song and sang it on the Opry and kept it in his live act for the next thirty-nine years.

The first strange town I was ever in, the county was hangin’ a man
Nobody cared if he lived or died, and I just didn’t understand

(Chorus)
So I washed my face in the morning dew, bathed my soul in the sun
Washed my face in the morning dew, and kept on movin’ along

The next single “The World The Way I Want It” was probably a poor choice for the follow up as thematically, it was too similar to the first single without having the compelling storyline. That, plus the market for songs of social or spiritual conscience was limited:

I’d pay the debts of all the poor and let them start anew
I’d find each man who wants to work a decent job to do
I’d give hope to the hopeless and I’d give the sick their health
I’d give the high and mighty heart to share the nation’s wealth

The song topped out at #66 and charted for only three weeks. The production is marred by unnecessary background singers.

The next single, “Ain’t Got The Time”, fared similarly charting for only four weeks, reaching #68. I think that if it had been the immediate follow up to ‘Morning Dew’ it would have been a bigger success, as it has a very nice melody, in fact it’s one of my favorite Tom T Hall songs. At first listen one may think the song about being selfish but the larger theme is of being true to oneself.

I can tell your heart’s been broken in two you are looking for a shoulder
I’ve found out that other people’s tears just seem to make me older
I’d like to help with your broken heart really I think it’s a crime
But I ain’t got the time ain’t got the time

All that I can give you is a well wish
I hate to be that way I know that it’s selfish
But baby I’ve got a destiny to meet and I know it’s on down the line
Ain’t got the time ain’t got the time

Plantation Records released Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” just before “Ain’t Got The Time” was released. By the time the Hall’s next single was due, “Harper Valley PTA” had become a massive international hit and radio programmers were really interested in finding out what else Hall had up his sleeve. The answer was “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”, the first of the great story songs to become radio singles.

While the song nearly has been forgotten, at the time it was released, the song was a sensation and many prominent country artists recorded it as an album track – I have at least thirty such covers in my record collection. Told from the perspective of a day laborer, it makes a very mundane (but very important) event come to life

The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die
He laid down to rest one afternoon and never opened up his eyes
They hired me and Fred and Joe to dig the grave and carry up some chairs
It took us seven hours and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer

And the surprise twist

Well, listen ain’t that pretty when the bugler plays the military taps
I think that when you’s in the war they always had to play a song like that
Well here I am and there they go and I guess you’d just call it my bad luck
I hope he rests in peace, the trouble is the fellow owes me forty bucks

“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” reached #4 and stayed on the charts for eighteen weeks.

At the time this album was released, rarely were more than two singles issued from an album, and many albums of the day would have but one single released. Consequently, possibly the strongest song on the album, “That’s How I Got To Memphis” was not released as a Tom T Hall single. That doesn’t mean that the song got lost. Far from it as label mate Bobby Bare would take it to #3 in the summer of 1970 and Deryl Dodd would get the song on the charts again in 1996. Significant album cuts on the song include Solomon Burke on his 2006 album Nashville and Rosanne Cash on her 1982 album Somewhere In The Stars:

If you love somebody enough
You’ll go where your heart wants to go
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis
I know if you’d seen her you’d tell me ’cause you are my friend
I’ve got to find her and find out the trouble she’s in

If you tell me that she’s not here
I’ll follow the trail of her tears
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis

“Cloudy Day” is a tale about an apartment Hall had in Nashville, although the song is more about how it feels when you’re having a really bad day:

It doesn’t matter who you are , we all must have a cloudy day sometimes
Days we can’t seem to win, days when we ain’t got a friend,
We all have days and I guess this is mine

“Shame On The Rain” is a jog-along ballad with too much “Nashville Sound” production. As Hall said ‘the thing about rain is,like tap water, you’d like to turn it on and off but you can’t do it’

After I’ve Lost such a heartbreaking game
You’d think the sub would shine, shame on the rain

“Highways” is a rather poetic traveling song:

Highways never reach above the ground and cannot know the things a cloud knows
In a million volumes they have never written to express my love

“Forbidden Flowers” is another jog-along ballad that uses the metaphor of flowers as lovers

You can pick forbidden flowers
The are ways and there are means
If you pick forbidden flowers
You may shatter someone’s dreams

“A Picture of Your Mother” is the story of a father trying to tell his little daughter about her mother, who passed away three years earlier. Although very sentimental, the song contains a universal beauty that only a true poet can capture

My little girl and I lost Mama just three years ago
And now that she is older there are things she wants to know
She said, “Please Daddy tell me ’bout my mother ’cause I miss her.”
I said, “Get pen and paper and I’ll help your draw her picture.”

I said, “First draw a heart so big there’s room for little else
Then write a million for the things that she denied herself
Draw a rose the kind of which there’ll never be another
And when you finish you will have a picture of your mother

There was never the slightest chance at the time of the song being released as a single and I don’t know of any cover versions, but this song is worthy of being revived.

“Over And Over Again” is a simple admission of wrongdoing and the promise to be faithful in the future. For some reason, this song sounds like something Roger Miller might have written.

“Beauty Is A Fading Flower” sounds like a song a bluegrass band should record. Physical beauty, of course is a temporary thing, subject to the ravages of the aging process (or worse yet, the plastic surgeon’s scalpel) but inner beauty lasts more enduringly. As Tom T Hall puts it,

Beauty is a fading flower
Love goes on and on

Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs is not a great album, although it is a good one. All of the songs are at least good and several of them are classics. Producer Jerry Kennedy tried a number of settings and arrangements for Hall’s distinctive vocals. By the next album, he would be 90% there and after that he had it completely zeroed in. This album would not chart but the next eighteen albums (including two hit collection) would find their way onto the charts.

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Automatic’

Miranda-Lambert-GotCountryOnlineIn the monologue preceding “Young Love” on Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, Wynonna articulated that Judd music “Reflected a much sweeter and simpler time” where the pace was slower and face-to-face human connection was the lay of the land. Twenty-five years after that seminal classic, Miranda Lambert is yearning to return there, pondering a life “before everything became automatic.”

Unlike Paul Kennerley and Kent Robbins sweeping epic, Lambert relies on a laundry list of nostalgic signifiers (The United States Postal Service, Rand McNally Atlases, pay phones, pocket watches, etc) to tell her story. Instead of helping make her case, though, they weigh down the track with sentiment and lack her distinctive personality.

Thankfully the chorus is fantastic, with a message that proves all too true:

Hey whatever happened to, waitin’ your turn

Doing it all by hand, cause when everything is handed to you

It’s only worth as much as the time you put in

It all just seems so good the way we had it

Back before everything became, automatic

Lambert’s vocal is also sincere so the listener does invest in what she’s signing, which is kind of rare these days. The production is a bit muffled and should’ve been littered in steel and fiddle, which would’ve helped the track immensely. But from the end result, it’s clear “Automatic” has good bones.

The track could’ve been shockingly great, if Lambert stripped away the generalities and wrote solely from personal experience, like Rosanne Cash did on The River & The Thread. But it’s a step above most of mainstream country and that counts for a lot in the current climate.

Grade: B 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon 

Listen

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

river-thread-cd-coverIn the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

Grade A+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Spotlight Artist: Pam Tillis

pamtillisBeing related to a famous country entertainer can be a mixed blessing. Although the family ties can open doors for the aspiring singer, they can also serve to set unrealistic expectations. Just ask Roy Acuff Jr., Ronnie Robbins (billed as Marty Robbins, Jr.), The Lynns (daughters of Loretta Lynn), Riley Coyle (daughter of Jeannie C. Riley), Pake McEntire (Reba’s brother), Jay Lee Webb (Loretta Lynn’s brother), Peggy Sue (Loretta Lynn’s sister), and Hillman Hall (Tom T. Hall’s brother), each of whom issued an album or two and then disappeared. John Carter Cash has avoided the problem entirely by working behind the scenes.

Then there are those who achieve modest success and carve out respectable careers but never achieve top-drawer status, such as Shelly West (daughter of Dottie West), David Frizzell (brother of Lefty Frizzell), Tommy Cash (brother of Johnny Cash), Carlene Carter (daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter) and Thom Bresh (son of Merle Travis). Jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, son of country stars Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, might have fit into this category had he not died young.

True superstar success for those with famous kinfolk is indeed rare. The three biggest that come to mind are Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister), Lynn Anderson (the daughter of songwriter Casey & singer-songwriter Liz Anderson) and Hank Williams Jr. Pulling up behind these three are George Morgan’s daughter Lorrie, Rosanne Cash and this month’s spotlight artist, Pam Tillis.

Pamela Yvonne Tillis was born on July 24, 1957 in Plant City, Florida, the daughter of singer-songwriter-actor-comedian Mel Tillis.

As the daughter of one of the best-known songwriters around, and living in Nashville, Tillis was exposed to the elite of the country music industry even before her father had achieved recording star status. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of eight in an appearance with her father singing “Tom Dooley.” She grew up wanting to be a performer and tried her hand at songwriting at an early age and also found some work as a background singer. The results of an automobile accident at age 16 derailed her career for a while as several years of reconstructive facial surgery were needed to restore her appearance. Following her surgeries, Tillis enrolled at the University of Tennessee; then later at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, forming her first band. Since her only real interest was music, she eventually dropped out of college to pursue her own musical career.

Wanting to make it “on her own,” Tillis went to San Francisco where she joined a jazz-rock band Freelight.

After tiring of the San Francisco scene, she returned to Nashville and found work as a demo singer. She signed with Warner Brothers. in 1982, where she took a shot at pop success. Her sole album for Warner Brothers was Above and Beyond The Doll of Cutey. During the period between 1983 and ’87, Warner Brothers would issue at least eight singles on Tillis, five of which charted on Billboard’s Country chart, although none made the Top 50–not surprising since they were not being marketed as country singles. Unreleased were early versions of several of her later hits, which were released after she achieved success.

During this period, Tillis signed on as a staff songwriter with Tree Publishing in Nashville, where she shifted her focus to contemporary country music and achieved much success as a songwriter, with artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor, Conway Twitty, Holly Dunn, Juice Newton, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Dan Seals, and Highway 101 recording her songs.

Her visibility was greatly improved when she started making regular appearances on shows aired on the late lamented Nashville Network, especially on Nashville Now, a nightly variety show hosted by Ralph Emery. By 1991 she had signed with Arista Records, where her career took off. For part of this period (until 1998) she was married to fellow songwriter Bob DiPiero.

The Arista years saw Tillis emerge as a steady and reliable hit-maker as the following list demonstrates:

•“Don’t Tell Me What To Do” / “Melancholy Child” – #5 (1990)

•“One Of Those Things” / “Already Fallen – #6 (1991)

•“Put Yourself In My Place” / “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” – #11 (1991)

•“Maybe It Was Memphis” / “Draggin’ My Chains” – #3 (1991)

•“Blue Rose Is” / “Ancient History” – #21 (1992)

•“Shake The Sugar Tree” / “Maybe It Was Memphis” #3 (1992)

•“Let That Pony Run” / “Fine Fine Very Fine Love” – #4 (1992)

•“Cleopatra Queen Of Denial” / “Homeward Looking Angel” – #11 (1993)

•“Do You Know Where Your Man Is” / “We’ve Tried Everything Else” – #16 (1993)

•“Spilled Perfume” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #5 (1994)

•“When You Walk In The Room” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #2 (1994)

•“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)” / “Ancient History” – #1 (1994)

•“I Was Blown Away” / “Calico Plains” – #16 (1995)

•“In Between Dances” / “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” – #3 (1995)

•“Deep Down” / “Tequila Mockingbird” – #6 (1995)

•“River And The Highway” / “All Of This Love” – #8 (1996)

•“It’s Lonely Out There” / “You Can’t Have A Good Time Without Me” – #14 (1996)

•“All The Good Ones Are Gone” / “Land Of The Living” – #4 (1997)

•“I Said A Prayer” / “Lay The Heartache Down” – #12 (1998)

•“Every Time” / “You Put The Lonely On Me” – #38 (1998)

After 1998, the hits started drying up as the next wave of young performers arrived.

Tillis’ Arista albums were generally quite successful, starting with 1991’s Put Yourself In My Place which had three Top 10 hits in lead single, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “One of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis.” The album ultimately reached gold status.

Her 1992 follow-up Homeward Looking Angel was equally successful, with “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Let That Pony Run” reaching the Top 5. Homeward Looking Angel reached platinum status. In 1993, she won her first major award: the CMA Awards’ Vocal Event of the Year with George Jones and Friends for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”

In 1994, her third Arista album, Sweetheart’s Dance, was released, reaching #6 on the Billboard’s Country Album chart (her highest placement). Singles “Spilled Perfume” and “When You Walk in the Room” both became Top 5 hits and she had her only #1, “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” helping push the album to platinum status.

Issued in late 1996, All of This Love, became Tillis’ last gold non-compilation album. The only single to reach Top 10 status was “The River and The Highway.” It was the first album she produced on her own.

In 1997, Arista released her first (actually only) Greatest Hits album. The compilation featured two new tracks, both released as singles: “All the Good Ones Are Gone” and “The Land of the Living,” both of which reached the Top 5 in 1997. This collection also went platinum.

After 1997, the country music market shifted, becoming more youth-oriented and less country, with a resultant drop in both chart and sales success for Tillis. Her 1998 album Every Time featured “I Said A Prayer”, which just missed the Top 10 and was her last Top 20 single. Her last Arista album, issued in 2001, Thunder & Roses performed reasonably well on the album chart (both it and Every Time reached #24) but generated no real hit singles.

Since 1998 Pam Tillis has remained active, both in live appearances, occasionally performing with her father Mel, and occasionally recording. She became a Grand Ole Opry member in 2000, which was several years before her father, and had the honor of inducting him into Opry membership. She has tried her hand at acting, both on stage and on television, with considerable success.

She still records occasionally. In 2002 she fulfilled a lifetime dream of recording an album of songs written by or associated with her father. Titled It’s All Relative, the album found Pam ignoring the Mel Tillis template and giving her own interpretation of her father’s material, most notably on “Heart Over Mind”.

She started her own record label, Stellar Cat, and issued her album Rhinestoned under that imprint in 2007. One of the singles from the album, “Band In The Window,” earned considerable acclaim, although the album ultimately yielded no hits.

All told, Pam Tillis had over 30 chart records including 13 Top 10s. In 1994 she was named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year. In 1999, she earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. When CMT did their countdown of the 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002, Tillis ranked at #30. Kevin Coyne of Country Universe ranked her at #35 in his 100 Greatest Women of Country Music countdown in 2008.

Discography

With the exception of the Warner Brothers album, which originally was issued on vinyl and audio cassette, all of Tillis’ subsequent recordings have been released on CD. Most of the titles remain in print, others can be located used with a little bit of effort. Unlike country singers from generations before, the Pam Tillis catalog is fairly shallow with a total of a dozen original studio albums, plus some anthologies (Greatest Hits, Super Hits, Best Of, etc.) and whatever unreleased tracks may be lying around in somebody’s vault. Accordingly, collecting a fairly complete Pam Tillis collection isn’t that difficult, especially since her Warner Brothers debut recently was reissued on CD by Wounded Bird. All of her post-Warner Brothers albums are worthwhile and even her debut album (which I originally purchased on vinyl) has its moments.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has seven of her albums available as well as several anthologies.

There is a need for a decent two-disc set containing about 40 of her songs. Lately, the German label Bear Family has been issuing some less-than-exhaustive sets. Maybe they will step up to the plate –she’s worth a decent anthology.

Pam Tillis is still actively performing – you can catch  up with her at her website http://www.pamtillis.com/ . She does have some product for sale there as digital downloads including a Christmas album and a duet single (with Kris Thomas)  titled “Two Kings” which is about Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her long-awaited duet album with Lorrie Morgan comes out later this month.

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘I Don’t Have to Crawl’

This is an early concept video – a precursor to music videos – from 1981 to promote Emmylou’s album Evangeline. The song was written by Rodney Crowell and later recorded in by Crowell’s then-wife Rosanne Cash for her 1987 album King’s Record Shop.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Classic’

The past few years has seen many a covers album by the female country stars of the 1980’s and ’90s. One by one, Lorrie Morgan, Wynonna Judd, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless and others have delivered varying sets of their takes on yesterday’s hits. On her latest album for her own Baretrack Records, Terri Clark is singing classic country made famous by greats like Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, and throwing in more contemporary material from Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell and Reba McEntire.

With the same five-piece country band, she gives fairly routine renditions on several songs. For the most part Clark swaggers and swings, cries and carries on at just the right moments like the seasoned performer and lifetime country music fan she is. The biggest flaw to be found on this album is the production on some tracks. “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin'” is given the boot-scootin’ treatment, amped up to a breakneck shuffle which saps the spunky, soap-in-your-mouth ultimatum out of Loretta Lynn’s lyrics. While “Delta Dawn” benefits from a breezier production that allows the original Southern gospel sound to remain intact and Tanya Tucker proves to still be at the top of her game and Reba’s bent-note delivery of “How Blue” proves to be as good as ever too, there’s a redundancy to these recordings. Fans of either song will likely stick with the originals.

At her commercial peak, Clark shone brightest because of her confident country-is-cool charisma, and the best tracks here benefit from that. Fiddles cry as she tears into Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” with her best back of the throat ache and she likewise summons just the right amount of young naiveté in her voice to sell Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” convincingly. Again, Clark’s vocal chops prove to be her greatest strength on “Gentle On My Mind”, which is given a simple acoustic and three-part harmony reading. On it, the singer reveals a storytelling ability yet to be heard on her original material.

The lesser half of Classic comes off as above average karaoke and works more as an homage to their original interpreters. The better half comes when Terri Clark is interpreting the songs herself instead of paying tribute to the her favorite singers. She’s got the goods to sell.  I only wish she had brought the other half.

Grade: B-

Listen on Spotify.

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review – Dan Seals – ‘Won’t Be Blue Anymore’

For 1985’s Won’t Be Blue Anymore, Dan Seals moved from Liberty to Capitol where he would record his next four albums. He retained producer Kyle Lehning, but brought in Paul Worley to assist this time around.  The results were spectacular, as Won’t Be Blue Anymore became Seals’ first #1 album, as well as his initial release to turn out three consecutive #1 singles, the beginning in a string of nine straight chart toppers.

Lead single “Meet Me In Montana” found Seals teaming up with Marie Osmond, who was enjoying a string of moderate success herself on Capitol/Curb at the time. Written by Paul Davis following a visit to Kalispell, Montana, his idea of the perfect place for a romantic rendezvous, the song was Seals’ first chart topper and Osmond’s second, after “Paper Roses” in 1973. It also won the pair CMA Duo of the Year honors in 1986. I love the simple elegance of the song, and Osmond’s gorgeous vocal. They play their individual parts perfectly.

Even more successful was the project’s sophomore single, Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball’s “Bop,” a horn drenched number that also peaked at #42 on the U.S. Hot 100 and #10 on the Adult Contemporary charts. A testament to the song’s popularity, it won CMA Single of the Year honors despite some very formidable competition.  I’ve always enjoyed “Bop,” probably the campiest record not recorded by Dolly Parton at the time. The story of wanting to go dancing with your lady is timeless, as is Seals’ vocal, and they help offset the cheesy horns just enough to keep the track from feeling grating.

“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” the third single, is by far the strongest of the three and perfectly showcases Seals in his signature acoustic style. Co-written by Seals and Bob McDill, “Glitters” wins because of its touching story, about the relationship between a father and daughter who are dealing with her absentee mother:

Little Casey she’s still growing and she’s started asking questions
And there’s certain things a man just doesn’t know
Her birthday came and you never even called
I guess we never cross your mind at all

Written by Seals, “Headin’ West” is an excellent dobro-accentuated bluegrass thumper that wouldn’t be out-of-place on Zac Brown Band’s Uncaged. It’s rare to hear such an upbeat track from Seals, and he pulls this style off with ease.  The title track, another Seals original, finds him channeling of the era Ricky Skaggs, with spectacular results. I love the inviting nature of the naked dobro opening, the way it exquisitely frames his straightforward vocal.  I also love John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”, if only for the sinister sounding opening. The intriguing mystery of the shadowy opening music bed lends itself perfectly to the overall track and invites the listener in to hear the whole song.

Won’t Be Blue Anymore missteps in the middle, turning in mediocre variations on well-worn themes. “Your Love,” composed by Beckie Foster and Tommy Rocco, is a typical your-love-saved-me type ballad, while Wendy Waldman and Donny Lowery’s “You Plant Your Fields” is a boring ode to farm life.  “Still A Little Bit of Love,” from the pens of Jim Scott and Walker Inglehart, is the most pop-leaning track in both production and vocal performance, and while good, its only noteworthy for extrapolating a slick performance from the dobro. “So Easy To Need” is much the same, another good track, but nothing truly outstanding.

“City Kind of Girl” closes the album on a strong note, and uses the same guitar lick Rosanne Cash would employ on “If You Change Your Mind” from Kings Record Shop two years later. Written by Robert Gundry, “City Kind of Girl” is another age-old theme, country boy dating city girl, but Seals infuses it with sincerity, and his twangy vocal helps set it apart from the rest in this sub-genre.

Overall, Won’t Be Blue Anymore is a wonderful collection of songs and the first true showcase of Seals’ artistic excellence. A testament to Seals’ vision as an artist, most of these songs still hold up well today and unlike some of his previous solo efforts, this remains essential listening. The physical album is out of print, but easily available digitally.

Grade: A 

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘The Houston Kid’

Starting in 2001, Rodney Crowell began taking a different approach to his music by recording a series of albums designed to build his legacy as a recording artist. These projects, starting with The Houston Kid on Sugar Hill Records, are among the most acclaimed of his career. Produced by Peter Coleman The Houston Kid proved a moderate success, peaking at #32 on the country albums chart and #19 on Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart.

The album was preceded by a collaboration with Johnny Cash entitled “Walk The Line (Revisited),” which peaked at #61. A brilliantly executed fusion (Brad Paisley take note), it pairs Crowell’s distinct memories of first hearing the Cash classic with snippets of the original tune itself.

Crowell’s exceptional Steinbeck-like lyric places the listener as an unforeseen passenger listening to the radio along with him. In turn, a personal memory becomes universal:

I got my thrill behind the wheel upon my daddy’s lap

Grandpa rode co-pilot with a flashlight and a map

Cane pole out the window it was in the summertime

First time I heard Johnny Cash, Sing I Walk The Line

“Walk The Line” is a testament to Crowell’s otherworldly talents as a lyricist, the driving force behind the material on The Houston Kid. Clever turns of phrase and striking imagery abound throughout the eleven-song album and place the listener on a very enjoyable and autobiographical musical journey.

The self-penned “Topsy Turvy,” the story of his parent’s abusive relationship, told through the eyes of his childhood memories, exemplifies this perfectly:

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Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Let The Picture Paint Itself’

Not long after his exit from Columbia, Rodney found a new major label home in MCA, where his old friend and longterm producer Tony Brown was now in charge. Rodney’s debut album for the label was released in 1994. The songs were all self-written, although they vary in quality. It seems that Rodney’s music was out of step with the prevailing mood on country radio with the rise of the hat acts, but he was still trying to maintain the mainstream stardom he had achieved a few years earlier. The result was an album which often falls between two stools.

The jangling Beatles-styled sound of the cheerfully philosophical title track was the lead single, but it did not do well. The astonishingly bland ‘Big Heart’ is too obviously tailored for radio and fails to convince on any level.

Rodney’s fine and subtle song ‘I Don’t Fall In Love So Easy’ had been recorded by Trisha Yearwood on the previous year’s The Song Remembers When, with Rodney singing harmony. Yearwood returned the favor by harmonising when Rodney recorded his own version of the song, and the result is very good (if not as beautiful as Yearwood’s version), with a contemporary sound and emotionally convincing vocal. But it was too little too late, and radio ignored it completely when the track became the album’s third and last single, even though it was far superior to its two predecessors.

‘That Ol’ Door’ is a fine song looking back affectionately to a happy home “in a world we understood”, back in the early days of his marriage to Rosanne Cash before it all fell apart. ‘Once In A While’ has a pretty melody, pensive lyric about the surviving spark of love. Curiously, Rodney wrote the song with John Leventhal, who was to marry Rosanne, presumably the song’s inspiration, the following year.

Rodney wrote two songs this time with Guy Clark. The relaxed ‘Stuff That Works’ about what matters most in life is very appealing both in its down to earth lyric and the pretty arrangement. ‘The Rose Of Memphis’ is an appropriately bluesy story song, but not all that interesting.

‘Loving You Makes Me Strong’ is quite a nice, straightforward love song with an attractive melody and arrangement. ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ is pleasant rather than outstanding, but benefits from a beautiful harmony from Patty Loveless. ‘Give My Heart A Rest’ has a bright poppy feel and preaches the benefits of positive thinking.

Sales were disappointing, with the album failing to chart. Used copies are now available very cheaply, and it was also reissued last year as a 2on1 CD with its successor, Jewel Of The South.

Grade: B

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Life Is Messy’

Life Is Messy arrived in May 1992 and served as a correction of course following the disappointing commercial success of Keys of the Highway. It marked his first recording for Columbia without Tony Brown at the helm and came as his marriage to Rosanne Cash was ending in divorce.

With his personal life in turmoil, Crowell crafted a brooding album of heartbreak ballads that found him coming to terms with the end of his marriage all the while looking into the better future that lie ahead. While not his most energetic work, the album rose to #30 and spun two top-ten singles.

One of the project’s rare up-tempo numbers, the solo penned “Lovin’ All Night” proceeded the project and peaked at #10. Led by distinctive guitar and drum work, it marked one of Crowell’s more memorable singles of the 1990s (Patty Loveless covered it on 2003’s On Your Way Home). The airy and somewhat pop flavored “What Kind of Love,” co-written by Crowell with Will Jennings and Roy Orbison (who wrote the melody shortly before he died), peaked art #11 that summer. A third single, “Let’s Make Trouble” failed to chart.

The rest of Life is Messy feels more like a personal art project than a commercial country album and showed the quickly growing divide between Crowell and mainstream country radio. But as a singer/songwriter, Crowell proves worth by creating some of his deepest and most heartfelt compositions to date.

The best of the most personal songs, “Alone but not Alone” opens with a beautiful reflection on a life peppered with confusion:

I’m stretched out like a canvas ‘neath a blue and endless sky

Staring up through cattle bones as cotton balls roll by

I swear I see a rose up there so beautiful and white

If I so much as blink an eye I could lose her in this light

Out here in this deserted land the future looks so vast

Like every little grain of sand and every blade of grass

Other memorable heartbreak tunes include the beat driven “I Hardly Know Myself,” which Crowell co-wrote with Cash, the beautifully meditative  (and my personal favorite) “Life Is Messy,” which builds with his stunning vocal, and the Orbison-like “Maybe Next Time.” Even the rockers – “It’s Not for Me To Judge,” “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This” (which Crowell co-write with John Leventhal, the man Cash would marry in 1995), and “The Answer is Yes” all come with their own brooding bitterness.

As far as heartbreak albums go, Life is Messy is one of the best and lyrically close to brilliant. The main problem lies within the production – producers Bobby Colomby, Larry Klein, and Jeffrey Vanston (along with Leventhal and Crowell) seem confused as to the album’s classification – is it country? Adult Contemporary? Or singer/songwriter? Without a focus, Life Is Messy comes off as a hodgepodge of styles without a chance of maximum success in any one genre. But as a collection of songs, it’s stellar.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Keys To The Highway’

Diamonds & Dirt was always going to be a hard act to follow. The resulting album, released in 1989, is certainly more uneven than its predecessor, but there are some very fine songs here. All the material was written by Rodney, and much of it feels very personal. Rodney produced once more with boss and friend Tony Brown, and his own road band, the Dixie Pearls, provided the nucleus of the backings with guests including another old friend, Vince Gill, on backing vocals.

The first single, the folky ‘Many A Long And Lonesome Highway’ broke his streak of #1s, peaking at a still-respectable #3. It has a gentle melody and introspective lyric about a troubadour-type songwriter’s rambling life, written with Will Jennings, and is an excellent song:

I heard a wild world calling,
I saw a lone star falling
I caught a song and set it free
And many a long and lonesome highway
Lies before us as we go
And in the end I’ll do it my way
Look for me where the four winds blow

The album’s second top 10 hit came with a more contemporary sound. ‘If Looks Could Kill’ incisively depicts a troubled relationship which it is all too tempting to read as a portrait of Rodney’s crumbling marriage to Rosanne Cash, which was to culminate in divorce a couple of years later. It is notable that this record, unlike its predecessor, did not see a duet between the pair.

The insistent ‘My Past Is Present’ (written with Steuart Smith) is a bit lacking in melody but has a bluesy groove that won’t let you go as Rodney is afflicted by the presence of an ex in an “hourglass dress” with her new man. However, it was not received particularly well at radio and missed the top 20.

‘Now That We’re Alone’ did a little better, peaking at #17. The song is melodic and introspective and is another that sounds as though it could have been written about Rosanne with its offer of a sympathetic hearing when:

Too many smiling faces
Try to turn your head around
Too many times and places
When those uptown dreams
Just drag you down

Final single ‘Things I Wish I’d Said was barely played on radio, but is an outstanding song. A delicately tender reflection inspired by his father’s deathbed and their reconciliation, it is the most nakedly honest and personal song on the record, and has a beautiful melody.

The album bogs down a bit in the middle, with a trio of songs which while not bad fail to match the standard of the remainder. The funky bluesy rock of ‘We Gotta Go On Meeting Like This’ written with Larry Willoughby is quite sexy with its story of repeat encounters with a woman “they call … trash”, but there is not much of a tune. ‘The Faith Is Mine’ is an interestingly written song, but repetitive, while the insistently bluesy rock’n roll of ‘Tell Me The Truth’ is definitely too repetitive and feels self-indulgent musically.

In general, the slower songs are the most effective. The song which provides the album title ‘Don’t Let Your Feet Slow You Down’ is truly excellent, a downbeat ballad about a relationship about to come to an end, with a lovely melody as a resigned Rodney generously offers his loved one a graceful exit:

Now you feel like going and you know I’m knowing
The keys to the highway hang right on the wall
If you’ve gotta go, hell, you oughta know
Your blue eyes said goodbye a long time ago

I know you’re hearing sounds of those bright lights downtown
I know how you sparkle when I ain’t around
Your heart is young and my time has come
So don’t let your feet slow you down

‘I Guess We’ve Been Together For Too Long’ is another breakup song, but one with a relatively cheerful mood. Once more, Rodney accepts “something’s wrong” in a relationship which has simply run its course, but here he sounds more than ready to move on himself. Written with Guy Clark, it is quite catchy and might have made a successful single.

Also potentially radio friendly is the wistful and melodic mid-tempo ‘Soul Searchin’, which tells of a past lover, Jessie, and the effect on the protagonist of her enduring memory. The reflective ‘You Been On My Mind’ ends the album on a pensive note as the protagonist thinks once more about an ex he can’t forget. A pretty melody and sensitive vocal make this one another winner.

The singles’ uneven performance was matched by sales which failed to meet those of Diamonds & Dirt (the only gold album of Rodney’s career). It has been overshadowed both because it came in the wake of Diamonds & Dirt, and because his mainstream career slowed down after this, but while it may be a mixed bag, the best songs are great and worth catching up with. Used copies are available cheaply.

Grade: A-