My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sharon White

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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Classic Rewind: Sharon White covers ‘Mansion On The Hill’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘A Tribute To John D Loudermilk’

John D Loudermilk, a cousin of the legendary Louvin Brothers was a remarkable songwriter and artist in his own right, whose music crossed musical boundaries with eleements of country, rock and pop.
In March 2016 he was honoured by a star-studded tribute concert in Nashville, and selected performances from that occasion have now been released on CD/digital download and DVD. The concert is also set to be broadcast on PBS.

Opener ‘Everybody Knows’, performed by musician/singer/songwriter Harry Stinson, has a hypnotic 1950s pop-meets-Louvin Brothers feel. Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman delivers the teenage romance ‘Language Of Love’ in a sprightly 50s doowop pop style, also adopted by Lee Roy Parnell in a slightly bluesier fashion on ‘Mr Jones’. Another songwriter paying tribute is Bobby Braddock, who takes on ‘Break My Mind’ quite effectively, accompanied by his own piano. Norro Wilson is also pretty good on the novelty ‘The Great Snowman’.

Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver race through ‘Blue Train’, which works perfectly with a bluegrass arrangement. Southern rocker Jimmy Hall takes on ‘Bad News’ which again works well in this setting. Buddy Greene, mainly a Christian artist, sings the tongue in cheek story song ‘Big Daddy’s Alabama Bound’; his vocals are limited, but the arrangement is great. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers is passionate on the politically fuelled anthem to the Cherokee nation now restricted to the ‘Indian Reservation’.

Rodney Crowell also rocks it up on ‘Tobacco Road, possibly Loudermilk’s best known song; this is highly enjoyable and one of my favorite tracks. I was less impressed by his wife Claudia Church on the syncopated pop of ‘Sunglasses’.

John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band. Jorgenson (who helmed the whole affair) is known for his guitar playing rather than his singing, but his vocals are perfectly adequate on the rocker ‘Midnight Bus’. I very much enjoyed his Desert Rose Bandmate Herb Pederson on ‘It’s My Time’, very much in classic Desert Rose Band style. John Cowan soars on the life-affirming ‘I Wanna Live’.

Rosanne Cash is tender on the lovely ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, another highlight. Ricky Skaggs and the Whites team up on two songs. ‘Heaven Fell last Night’ is a lovely romantic ballad sung together by Ricky and wife Sharon, while Ricky takes the lead on the fun Stonewall Jackson hit ‘Waterloo’. I also enjoyed Becky Hobbs on the country hit ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’.

Emmylou Harris’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age, but she is well supported by the harmony vocals of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy on ‘Where Are They Gone’. 80s star Deborah Allen also sounds a little worse for wear on her song, the wistful ballad ‘Sad Movies’. Loudermilk’s son Mike doesn’t have much of a voice, but he does his best on a pleasant version of the catchy ‘Abilene’, and is backed by (his own?) delightful guitar work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae, an Americana/folk duo and rela-life married couple. Their version of the part spoken airline tragedy story song ‘Ebony Eyes’ is prettily harmonised although the individual voices are not that strong. Also new to me was Beth Hooker, who delivers a sultry blues version of Turn Me On’. Guests from further afield include Australian fingerpicking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel on an instrumental track.

This is a worthy tribute which reminds the listener of both the musical breadth and quality of Loudermilk’s oeuvre.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Sharon White – ‘It Should Have Been Easy’

Album Review: The Whites – ‘A Lifetime in the Making’

mi0001612026In 2000 the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? came from nowhere to sell eight million copies, on the strength of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The record went on to claim the Album of the Year Grammy and kick off a mini-revival of acoustic based sounds within country music. This was the period of time in which Nickel Creek first came to prominence and Alison Krauss saw renewed acclaim for her music. The Whites weren’t necessarily a part of this although they did contribute an excellent rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” to the soundtrack.

They released A Lifetime in the Making, their twelfth album, in August, just before the craze hit. The record, their only for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records, was lovingly produced by Jerry Douglas. The album, which retains the acoustic feel for which they’re best known, is an impeccable collection of songs from beginning to end.

The disc kicks off with “Always Comin’ Home,” a dobro and mandolin drenched uptempo Gospel number, written by Don Gillion. They continue in this vein on “Jesus is the Missing Piece,” a mid-tempo ballad in which Buck takes over the lead vocals. “Key To The Kingdom” is stunning, with Sharon’s soaring and throaty lead vocal commanding attention.

Billy Joe Foster, a Bluegrass musician who died in 2013 aged 51, is represented with two tracks. “Texas To A T” is acoustic Western Swing while “Before The Prairie Met The Plow” is a gorgeous bluegrass ballad nodding to Midwestern sensibilities. “How Many Moons,” which was co-written by Claire Lynch, wonderfully showcases their family harmonies.

Patty Loveless originally recorded “I Miss Who I Was (With You)” on The Trouble With The Truth. Both versions are excellent and I was glad to see that Loveless’ recording retained the organic elements of the song. The Whites had the first version of “Old Hands,” another tune about farming life. I’ve never heard of Adam Brand, but he nicely covered the song two years later. Emmylou Harris joins the band for a stunning rendition of Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Buck White solely wrote “Old Man Baker,” a strikingly good uptempo instrumental. “Apron Strings” is an appealing ballad about the stronghold our mother will always have on our lives. The album’s final track, “The Cowboy Lives Forever,” is a breakneck uptempo number about an everyman who found his home on the Western Plains.

There truly aren’t words to describe the high quality of A Lifetime in the Making. The album is superb through and through even though it hardly breaks new ground within this style. I’ve never spent any time with The Whites, despite always knowing who they were so reviewing this album was a treat. I highly recommend it for those who may have missed it the first go-around or just want to listen to it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Old Familiar Feeling’

old-familiar-feelingSadly, far too little of the Whites’ music is available digitally, including most of their most commercially successful work. This album, originally released in 1983, has somehow found its way onto iTunes – it would be good if its successors were to follow it. In many respects it was their debut as The Whites, since previous music had been billed as Buck White, mostly with The Down Home Folks. Following Buck’s daughter Sharon’s 1981 marriage to rising superstar Ricky Skaggs, the band (now consisting of Buck with daughters Sharon and Cheryl) was signed to Curb/Warner Brothers, and the album (which Skaggs produced) was released in June 1983.

Half of the album’s ten tracks ended up as singles, as the label was trying to break a group whose old-time traditional roots flew in the face of the then popular Urban Cowboy sound. An initial single, a cover of the classic ‘Send Me The Pillow You Dream On’ did not do well, and was never included on an album, but the next attempt, the lovely ‘You Put The Blue In Me’ was a top 10 country hit in 1982. Sharon White’s honeyed voice is backed up by the group’s gentle harmonies on this pretty but sad song.

The more upbeat ‘Hangin’ Around’ and ‘I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight’ (a beautiful ballad) both reached #9, also featuring Sharon’s lead vocals. Like many groups who have multiple lead singers, one of them is clearly superior to the others, and in the case of the Whites, it was Sharon, who sang lead on all the singles from this album. ‘When The New Wears Off Of Our Love’, written by Paul Craft, was less successful, peaking at only #25, but it is a pretty tune. The final single, and almost-title track, the slow and wistful ‘Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling’ took them back to the top 10.

Sister Cheryl took the lead on the upbeat gospel ‘Follow The Leader’ and the gentle romantic ballad ‘I’ll be Loving You’. While she lacks Sharon’s lovely natural tone, she is nonetheless a fine singer.

Buck takes over on the retro ‘Blue Letters’, with the trio harmonising together on the chorus. Son law Ricky Skaggs can also be heard in the harmonies on ‘Old River’. Buck also sings the blues authentically, on the old Moon Mullican tune ‘Pipe Liner Blues’.

Ricky Skaggs produced the set beautifully with clean, sparkling arrangements allowing the vocals to shine. The musicians include the great Jerry Douglas.

This is a charming album which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A

After this album, Curb moved the Whites to an affiliation with MCA, and regrettably none of the albums they made for that label is commercially available today apart from their Greatest Hits, which I would also recommend.

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White – ‘I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could’

Album Review: Jim Ed Brown – ‘In Style Again’

in style againI can’t tell you when Jim Ed Brown last issued a solo album of new material. The last one I recall was It’s That Time Of The Night on RCA in 1974, After that there were some duet albums with Helen Cornelius, but even the last of those albums came in 1980. There may have been something after that but I don’t recall anything.

Anyway, it truly is a pleasure to have some new material from Jim Ed. The voice isn’t quite as smooth as it was in 1954 or 1974, but it is still a good voice with warmth, depth and character.

While not specifically designated as a ‘concept album’ , the general theme of the album is that of an older person looking back at life.

The album opens up with “When The Sun Says Hello To The Mountain” a wistful older song I’ve heard before. Famous French-Canadian singer Lucille Starr had a huge hit with this record singing the original French lyrics. Marion Worth had a country hit with it in 1964, and Mona McCall (Darrell Mc Call’s wife) does a fine version of the song (using mixed French and English lyrics under the title “The French Song”), but Jim Ed nails the song and makes it his own. It’s a lovely ballad with a beautiful melody. Jim Ed is joined by his sister Bonnie Brown and the song sounds like a song the Browns could have recorded in their heyday. Chris Scruggs plays Hawaiian-style steel guitar on the track.

When the sun says hello to the mountains
When the night says hello to the dawn
I’m alone with my dreams on the hilltop
I can still hear your voice although you’re gone

I hear at my door
The love song in the wind
It brings back sweet memories of you.
I’m alone dreaming only of you.

“Tried and True” was written by the album’s producer Don Cusic, one of six songs Cusic wrote for this album. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, a love song about the kind of love the singer bears for his true love.

“In Style Again” was produced by Bobby Bare and issued as a single a year or two again. It wasn’t really part of this album project, (there is no overlap among the musicians used on this track and the rest of the album tracks) but it was added to the album and fits in nicely with the general theme of the album. It should have been a hit, but of course, radio won’t play songs by octogenarians, no matter how high the quality.

I’d like to be in style again someday
No one wants to feel like they’ve been thrown away
Yes, nothing lasts forever but it hurts to be replaced
By a younger fresher pretty face
So if only for a while
I’d like to be in style again

Don Cusic penned “Watching The World Walking By” a mid-tempo ballad of the life as seen through older eyes.

“You Again” was a #1 hit for The Forester Sisters in 1987. Jim Ed is joined by Cheryl & Sharon White on this slow ballad, another retrospective love song. Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote this song.

Looking at my life
Through the eyes of a young man growing older all the time,
Maybe just a little wiser
I can clearly see
All my mistakes keep coming back to visit me
Pointing out the roads not taken
So much I’d like to change but one thing I’d do the same

I’d choose you again, I’d choose you again
If God gave me the chance to do it all again
Oh, I’d carefully consider every choice and then
Out of all the girls in the world
I’d choose you again

Jim Ed digs into the song bag of Hall of Famer Cindy Walker for “I Like It”. It’s another mid-tempo ballad as is the next track, probably the most famous song on the album, “Don’t Let Me Cross Over”, a song which spent eleven weeks at #1 in 1962 for Carl & Pearl Butler. Jim Ed is joined here by his former duet partner Helen Cornelius. They still sound great together although Jim Ed and Helen don’t sing with the exuberance of the original. This song does not quite fit the general theme of the album since it’s an old-fashioned (almost) cheating song.

“Older Guy” is another song from the pen of Don Cusic, this one another mid-tempo ballad comparing the energy of younger guys to the wisdom of older men. This song straddles the line between jazz and country. “It’s A Good Life”, also written by Don Cusic continues the narrative of the album, which is the view of life through the eyes of an older man.

Bill Anderson chips in with “Lucky Enough” , probably the most up-tempo song on the album. In this song the singer recounts the thing in life that really represents good luck. If you’re lucky enough to be in love, you’ve already won – you’re lucky enough! Sometimes we forget that.

“Laura (Do You Love Me?” is yet another slow ballad from Cusic, this one the tale of a person left Ireland long ago separating himself from his one true love , thinking of her often and wondering if she still thinks of him.
“The Last One” is another slow ballad, this one ruminating about the emotions of end of life situations. It’s rather a sad song and one that could never sound sincere in the hands of a younger artist.

“Am I Still Country” is another Don Cusic song, a wry tongue-in cheek ballad that pokes fun of bro-country and poses the essential question ‘Am I Still Country Or I Have I Gone Too Far?’ I love the song and think that in different circumstances the song could have been a hit.

Meatloaf and cornbread are both mighty fine
But I like Chinese with a glass of French wine
I watch NASCAR and football but never shot a deer
Sometimes I kick back and watch Masterpiece Theater
I love to hear Chet play jazz guitar
Am I still country or have I gone too far

I like to go to parties and have a good time
But I’m usually home and in bed by nine
Me and my lady find sweet romance
With champagne, Sinatra and a real slow dance
I like a martini with real cigar
Am I still country or have I gone too far

The production on this album features a good dose of fiddle (Glen Duncan) and steel guitar (Chris Scruggs). The album clearly is aimed at older listeners as the younger listeners mostly won’t relate to these songs, although these songs chronicle what eventually will happen to most of us. Younger listeners may not relate to these songs but they certainly could learn a lot from this album.

The producer of this album, Don Cusic, has had an interesting and distinguished career covering most aspects of country music. His story can be found at www.doncusic.com.

Although it is early in the year, this may be the best album of 2015. Certainly it will be in the running – a solid A +

Classic Rewind: Linda Davis with Sharon and Cheryl White – ‘Do You Know My Jesus’

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White – ‘Hearts Like Ours’

skaggs whiteThe Skaggs and White families have been performing and recording together for decades, so it’s a little surprising that up to now there was never an full-length collaborative album featuring just Ricky and Sharon. They seek to rectify that oversight with the release of Hearts Like Ours, which became available on September 30th. There aren’t any real surprises in this release which fails to break any new ground, despite being a solid effort with many enjoyable efforts.

Produced by Ricky and released on the Skaggs Family Records imprint, the album consists of mostly duets, with a few Sharon solo numbers and plenty of fiddle and steel. The overall message is positive; there are no drinking, cheating or three-hanky songs to be found, although the album might have benefited from one or two of those. It opens with an excellent cover version of “I Run To You”, which doesn’t stray far from the original Marty Stuart and Connie Smith version. Almost as good is their rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, which was a Top 5 hit for Emmylou Harris and Don Williams in 1981. The couple also covers their own 1986 hit “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which is well done, but as is usually the case with re-recordings, it does not compare to the original version.

Neither “When I’m Good And Gone” nor “I Was Meant To Love You” is a duet; Sharon takes the lead and Ricky sings harmony on both songs which were written by Leslie Satcher; the former being co-written with Buddy Jewell who had brief shot at country stardom in the early 2000s. Another former country star, Barbara Fairchild wrote “It Takes Three”, which is a little too saccharine for my taste. Although I enjoyed the title track, another Marty Stuart/Connie Smith composition that features lead vocals from Sharon and harmony from Ricky, it was not quite as good as I thought it would be. I’d like to hear the songrwiters perfrom this one.

The songwriting team of Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote some of my favorite songs back in the 80s, so it is no surprise that their “Hold On Tight (Let It Go)” is the best song on the album (with “I Run To You” running a close second). “No Doubt About It”, the album’s sole bluegrass track, is also quite good. The two Christian-themed songs, “Reasons To Hang On” and “Be Kind”, have to be classified as missteps, albeit slight ones. I enjoy religious music, but the Skaggses have an unfortunate tendency to venture into contemporary Christian territory when more traditonal gospel would play more to their strengths.

Though I wanted to like this album a little more than I did, overall its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and fans of Ricky Skaggs and The Whites will find much to enjoy.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Across The Rio Grande’

HollyDunnAcrosstheRioGrandeFor her third MTM release Across The Rio Grande, Holly Dunn took a co-producing credit for the first time, working with Tommy West (who produced her previous two releases) and Warren Peterson. Her career was also gaining traction by the time this was released in 1988 and she was now in the good graces of country radio.

Chick Rains and Bill Caswell penned the first single, “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” The track is an excellent dobro infused uptempo number oozing with charm and personality from Dunn who’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the song. Radio and the fans agreed and the song made it to #5. Michael Johnson and the Forester Sisters also recorded versions of the song around the same time.

Slightly less successful was the second and final single, the #11 peaking “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday.” With country music in the thick of the new traditionalist movement by 1988, I would’ve thought this would’ve done much better, maybe even peaking higher than “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” Could it have been the backup singers or Dunn retro style that was the issue? The song is surely excellent on its own merits even if it may’ve been a little too retro even for 1988.

Dunn and her “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday” co-writers Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters teamed up to write three other songs for the project. “City Limit” is a wonderful uptempo number dosed in fiddle with a rather engaging drumbeat. Dunn does a wonderful job vocally too, bringing out the song’s infectious charm. “Have A Heart” is the same sort of dobro infused track and Dunn does a wonderful job here as well. The best of the four is “If Nobody Knew My Name,” an album highlight thanks to gorgeous high lonesome harmonies from Cheryl and Sharon White. The production on the ballad, light guitars and fiddle, is impeccable, too.

“Lonesome Highway” found Dunn teaming up with Budd Lee to write a mid-tempo dobro centric number that was another of the stronger songs on the project and possibly my favorite thing on the whole album thanks in part to the production and Dunn’s vocal delivery. Dunn’s final co-write came courtesy of “On The Wings of an Angel,” which she wrote with Don Schlitz. Her crystal-clear voice is the perfect counterpart to the striking fiddle-laced production.

Billy Joel, three years before he gave Garth Brooks the okay to record “Shameless,” had a country connection with Dunn, who included his “Travelin’ Prayer” on this album. Originally released on Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man, “Travlin’ Prayer” has a chugging beat similar to Gram Parson’s “Luxury Liner.” Dunn veers little from Joel’s recording although she does convert it into a bluegrass song, which works well. Dunn’s vocal is incredible, too, as she’s able to keep up with the rapid fire pace of the song with ease.

Mandolin riffs are front and center on Shapiro and Waters’ “The Stronger The Tie.” The spiritual number is reminiscent of something Kathy Mattea would record and quite good even if it leans in a more contemporary vein. Spanish infused “Just Across The Rio Grande,” the album’s title track, is excellent although somewhat thematically out of place.

Across The Rio Grande is a wonderful album complete with many stellar moments from Dunn. The album isn’t as commercial as the albums her contemporaries were releasing at the time, but its still full of excellent songs with nice production and Dunn’s beautiful voice. Across The Rio Grande definitely has a late 80s sheen to it and thus it hasn’t aged as gracefully as it could’ve, but that doesn’t hinder the listener’s enjoyment at all. It’s also a shame the album is out of print as it’s a worthwhile addition to any record collection.

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: Martina McBride – ‘Martina’

martinaThe four new tracks on Martina McBride’s Greatest Hits album were largely seen as a return to form following 1999’s disappointing Emotion, but unfortunately the regained momentum was quickly lost again with the release of Martina, an album that is consistently mentioned by fans as one of their least favorites in the McBride discography. However, while I wouldn’t rank Martina among McBride’s best work, it does have its bright spots and is a much better album than Emotion or most of the albums that came after it.

Martina once again shared production duties with Paul Worley. The album was released in September 2003, and McBride definitely had one eye on the pop charts this time around. The first single, the somewhat bland female empowerment anthem “This One’s For The Girls”, which featured backing vocals from Faith Hill and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, was not only a #3 country hit, it also reached #1 on the adult contemporary charts. I always thought this song was screaming out to become a Cledus T. Judd parody called “This One’s For The Squirrels.”

Encouraged by the crossover success of “This One’s For The Girls”, RCA selected the very middle-of-the-road piano and string quartet ballad “In My Daughter’s Eyes”, with lyrics by Hallmark, as the album’s next single. A pretty but somewhat saccharine number, it charted at #4 country and #3 adult contemporary. The next single didn’t fare as well, peaking just outside the Top 10 on the country chart, and missing the AC chart altogether, but “How Far”, a Jamie O’Neal co-write with Shaye Smith and Ed Hill, is a much better song than either of its predecessors, despite some oversinging at times. In the vein of “Whatever You Say”, it would have been right at home on the Evolution album.

The album’s biggest misstep is the fourth and final single, “God’s Will”, which tries too hard to tug at the heartstrings and comes off as a crass attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions. The lyrics seem forced, the melody is plodding and at almost six minutes in length, it is way too long (I assume the radio edit was shorter). Peaking at #16, it marks the beginning of Martina’s chart decline; most of her singles from this point forward would chart outside the Top 10.

Overall, Martina is very mixed bag, but there are some worthwhile tracks among the album cuts, the best of which is the bluegrass-flavored “Reluctant Daughter”, which features backing vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, and features Skaggs on mandolin. It’s a nice reprieve from the rest of the tracks, which are mostly pop-leaning. Also quite good is “Wearing White”, a song about a bride who opts for a traditional wedding with all the trimmings, despite an apparently checkered past. Vince Gill contributes harmony vocals to this track, which also features some very nice fiddle playing by Jonathan Yudkin. Not quite as good but still enjoyable was the Celtic-flavored but lyrically fluffy “So Magical”. The Big & Rich written “She’s A Butterfly” has a pretty melody, but there is too much reverb on the vocal track, a problem which also plagues the track “Learning To Fall.”

The album closes with a live in concert rendition of “Over The Rainbow”, which while well done, seems a bit out of place with the rest of the songs on the disc.

Though rarely counted as a favorite by McBride’s country fans, Martina is the artist’s second-best selling album, after Evolution, selling more than two million copies and reaching #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, a feat no doubt achieved by the crossover success of the album’s first two singles. Though not essential listening, it’s worth picking up a cheap copy on Amazon.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘My Father’s Son’

A Concept album concerning the relationships between fathers and sons, Ricky Skaggs’ My Father’s Son, released in 1991, is one of the only albums in his catalog not to showcase a heavy bluegrass influence. A minor hit, the album peaked at #68 and was his eighth and final release for Epic Records.

The album may not have sold well at retail, but it performed well on country radio, continuing the momentum he gained with Kentucky Thunder. Rollicking lead single “Life’s Too Long (To Live Like This)” peaked at #37 and featured a nice neo-traditional arrangement. “Same ‘Ol Love” peaked next, topping out at #12. A mid-tempo rocker, it made good use of electric guitars and featured a nice undercutting of pedal steel. “From The Word Love” was the least successful, only reaching #43. Showcasing a more progressive sound, the track retained some popper elements with backup singers on the chorus that were in stark contrast to Skaggs’ signature sound.

None of the singles from My Father’s Son were particularly memorable and they faded away shortly after finishing their runs on the charts, taking the album along with them. It’s a shame because the record has some very strong album tracks, some even better than what was released to radio.

Of the album tracks, my favorites include the multi- vignette story song “You Don’t Count the Cost” which Skaggs delicate delivers with rousing subtlety, the bluegrass-tinged “Simple Life,” which has wonderful fiddle work by Stuart Duncan and Bobby Hicks, and the gorgeous “Father Knows Best,” a play on words ballad about both our biological and heavenly fathers. Elsewhere Skaggs turns in a beautiful mandolin centric gospel number in the title track, one of the only nods to bluegrass on the whole project.

But two tracks stand above the rest. The first is a fabulous mainstream country duet Skaggs did with wife Sharon White, “Hold On Tight (Let It Go).” I love how well the two work together on the track and White adds a little something extra to the album I find very appealing. The other track is Skaggs’ cover of the Waylon Jennings classic “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Vocally, Skaggs does a fabulous job of bringing a nice down home twang to the track and I love the neo-traditional arrangement. Jennings’ version of the song, and his deep growl, are legendary but Skaggs more than holds his own with his lighter and somewhat more boyish tone.

Overall, My Father’s Son is another solid album from Skaggs. There’s nothing wrong with the album at all, but the proceedings feel a bit too clean and tidy. I’d still recommend though, and used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Comin’ Home To Stay’

By 1988 the influx of new, traditionally rooted talent which had come with the rise of the New Traditionalists in the late 80s had squeezed room on radio playlists for more established artists, and for the first time since he burst into the mainstream, a Ricky Skaggs album did not score any top 10 hits.

Lead single ‘I’m Tired’ was a remake of an old Webb Pierce hit penned by Mel Tillis and Ray Price. It hit #3 for Pierce in 1957, but Ricky’s excellent cover disappointingly only made it to #18. It deserved to do better, as did the next single. Another classic cover, a steel-led version of Stonewall Jackson’s ‘Angel On My Mind) That’s Why I’m Walking’ failed to scrape into the top 30. That was a real shame, because it is an excellent, somber interpretation of an excellent song, which is my favorite track on this album.

Top 20 hit ‘Thanks Again’ is a warm-hearted message to loving parents written by Jim Rushing, with a stripped down backing with Ricky’s own acoustic guitar the sole instrument. Perhaps surprisingly, a peak of #17 made this appealing but not obviously commercial number the album’s biggest chart success.

Paul Overstreet’s ‘Old Kind Of Love’, the final single, celebrated a perceived revival of old fashioned family values and squeaked into the top 30. It is quite charming with an attractive melody, but feels rather naive lyrically.

The overall mood of this record is one celebrating family and married life. ‘Lord She Sure Is Good At Lovin’ Me’ was written by the period’s superstar, Randy Travis, with Paul Overstreet, and is rather good at portraying domestic bliss, with added conviction lent by using wife Sharon White’s honeyed voice on harmony.

As with his previous album, Ricky included a romantic duet with Sharon. The pretty tune and heartfelt delivery of ‘Home Is Wherever You Are’ is, a sweet ballad written by Wayland Patton, make this one another winner. Her family band The Whites also sing on a traditionally styled gospel quartet. Catchy but lyrically uncompromising, ‘If You Don’t Believe The Bible’ was written by Carl Jackson and Glenn Sutton, and has only acoustic guitars backing the singers.

There is a bit less bluegrass influence than usual, but the album takes its title from the sole (electric) bluegrass number, Jimmy Martin’s bouncily playful ‘Hold Whatcha Got’. A cover of western swing classic ‘San Antonio Rose’ is competent and entertaining but unambitious and ultimately forgettable.

‘Woman, You Won’t Break Mine’ is an offbeat love song giving an ultimatum to a tough female rodeo rider who defied her mother’s dreams of pretty dresses and is trying to slow down her romance:

You went and broke your mama’s heart
But woman, you won’t break mine

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this solidly enjoyable album, which I prefer to its immediate predecessor, but there isn’t anything really standing out either, and the satisfied mood feels a little too comfortable to have an emotional impact. Combined with the lack of big hits, it is no real surprise that it did not sell quite as well as Ricky’s previous work. It is still worth getting if you can find a cheap copy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Love’s Gonna Get Ya!’

Ricky Skaggs’ career can be said to have reached its peak in 1985, when he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Randy Travis scored his big breakthrough and the New Traditionalist movement exploded. Ironically, that same year, Ricky Skaggs’ career began to show the first signs of decline. Although it reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country chart, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! failed to produce any #1 hits and became his first release for Epic not to earn gold certification.

Like its predecessors, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! was produced by Ricky himself, but it doesn’t contain the bluegrass flourishes that hallmarked most of his earlier work, with the exception of the spiritual tune “Walking In Jerusalem”. “Love’s Gonna Get You Someday”, written by Carl Chambers, was the album’s first single. The Western-swing flavored tune was a bit of a departure for Ricky, but it was well received by radio and made it to #4 on the Billboard country singles chart. The Don Everly-penned “I Wonder If Care As Much”, which had been a #2 pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958, didn’t fare as well. Reaching #30, it was the lowest-charting single of Skaggs’ major label career up to that point. With its double-track harmony, it’s instantly recognizable as an Everly Brothers tune, and though it may have been an artistic stretch for Ricky, it was a decent effort. He rebounded with the next single, a Cajun-flavored duet with his wife Sharon White called “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which reached the Top 10, albeit barely. It’s my favorite track on the album.

There are some fine cuts among the album tracks, many of them written by some of Nashville’s finest songwriters, such as Larry Cordle, Jim Rushing, and Gary Burr. The production is occasionally dated, particularly the use of the synthesizer on “I Won’t Let You Down” and the James Taylor duet “New Star Shining” — not atypical of the era but unusual on a Ricky Skaggs album — but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the album. Rushing’s “Hard Row To Hoe”, one of many country songs dealing with the plight of the American farmer, was perhaps inspired by the first Farm Aid concert which had been held a few months before this album’s release. “Artificial Heart”, written by Johanna Hall and John Hall, suffers from some contrived lyrics but its excellent steel guitar solo more than compensates.

It’s a bit ironic that having been a key player in bringing country music back to its roots, Skagg became a victim of the success of the New Traditionalist movement. Having to compete with a new crop of talent for sales and airplay may partially account for this album’s relative lack of success compared to his earlier work. However, it’s a fine album that deserves a second listen — or a first one if you missed it the first time around. The original Epic version is out of print but it was re-released on a 2-for-1 CD along with Comin’ Home To Stay. This is probably the most economical way to acquire both albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Connie Smith, Sharon White and Barbara Fairchild pay tribute to the Louvin Brothers – ‘My Baby’s Gone’