My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sharon White

Album Review: ‘A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume Two’

Ricky Skaggs and his gang are back with a follow-up disc to 2005’s A Skaggs Family Christmas. Like the first volume, this one finds Ricky sharing the spotlight with his wife Sharon and her family The Whites, and their children. Rather than focusing just on bluegrass, as one might expect, it features a variety of musical styles, recorded both in the studio and live in concert, which provide for a an enjoyable, if at times somewhat disjointed, listening experience.

Released on the independent Skaggs Family Records label, the album avoids sounding like a typical, slickly produced Nashville product. During its best moments, one can easily envision the family sitting around the living room singing these songs on Christmas Eve. Songs such as the opening “Christmas Time’s A-Comin'” on which Ricky sings lead, and “Light of the Stable” on which his wife Sharon White takes the lead, sound like live performances that were captured on tape, which only adds to their charm. Sharon’s voice sounds a little strained on “Light of the Stable”, but it’s still an enjoyable performance, though it can’t compare with Emmylou Harris’ definitive 1975 version. An a cappella version of “The First Noel” is a live in concert recording, featuring Ricky on lead vocals with harmonies provided by Sharon and Cheryl White. My two favorite tracks, however, are “Reunion Song”, a mainstream country effort complete with pedal steel guitar, which is reminiscent of Ricky’s 1980s heyday, and “Children Go”, a collaboration with The Whites, which has more of a bluegrass sound.

The Skaggs children also make contributions to this collection. Son Luke composed the instrumental “Flight To Egypt”, on which he also plays lead guitar, joined by sister Molly on piano. It’s an impressive performance that gives credence to the old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” This is another live in concert performance, with accompaniment by The Nashville Strings, which gives the tune a more polished feel. Molly’s version of “What Songs Were Sung”, on which she sings and plays piano, may be one of the album’s few missteps. Though beautifully arranged and sung, it is too different in style from the rest of the album and doesn’t seem like it belongs her. The same can be said for the closing track, an instrumental version of “Joy To The World” on which the Skaggs Family does not perform at all. It is instead, a solo performance by The Nashville Strings. It is well done, but again, it seems out of place here. A more stripped-down song with different members of the family taking turns singing the lead, would have been a more appropriate album closer. I did, however, very much enjoy Molly’s take on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, which is beautiful from start to finish.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable album, though it does suffer at times from a lack of cohesion, due to the different musical styles showcased and the use of both studio and concert performances. There’s nothing new or revolutionary here, just some good old fashioned singing and picking, with some added strings here and there for some added holiday polish. Fans of Ricky Skaggs and The Whites will not be disappointed. It is currently available for download for the bargain price of $3.99 at Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Lee Ann Womack’

For a brief time in 1997 it appeared that country music was finally about to re-embrace its roots. Two female artists made their major label debuts that year and appeared to be leading the trend back towards traditionalism: Lee Ann Womack with her self-titled debut in May, and Sara Evans with Three Chords and the Truth in July. As we now know, these albums were something of an anomaly; country music continued its drift popward and both both Evans and Womack would go on to experiment with more polished, pop-oriented sounds. Nevertheless, Lee Ann has earned a reputation as a primarily traditional artist, thanks in no small part to her platinum-selling debut.

Lee Ann’s vocal style has been compared to that of a young Dolly Parton, and late 60s-style sound of the album highlights the similarities. The fiddle and steel guitar are featured prominently throughout the album, and most of the ballads also feature tasteful and restrained string arrangements performed by The Nashville String Machine. The first single, “Never Again, Again” was released two months in advance of the album itself. Lee Ann had great hopes for the record and was reportedly disappointed when it peaked at #23, even though this is a perfectly respectable showing for a debut record. Another ballad, “The Fool”, was selected as the album’s next single. Lee Ann had been reluctant to record it, saying that it was “a good song, but it’s not ‘Never Again, Again'”. But ironically, “The Fool” surpassed “Never Again, Again” on the charts, just missing the top spot and earning Lee Ann her first bonafide hit. The uptempo “You’ve Got To Talk To Me”, written by Jamie O’Hara, was released as the third single, and like “The Fool”, it peaked at #2. Another uptempo number, “Buckaroo” peaked at #27.

Overall, the album highlights Lee Ann’s strength as a ballad singer. There are some truly beautiful moments on the album with songs such as “Am I The Only Thing You’ve Done Wrong”, which Lee Ann wrote with her ex-husband Jason Sellers and Billy Joe Foster, “Do You Feel For Me”, and “Make Memories With Me”, a gorgeous number performed as a duet with her Decca labelmate and fellow Mark Wright-produced act Mark Chesnutt. “Make Memories With Me” should have been released as a single, but Decca was most likely reluctant to send too many ballads to radio. It’s a shame that there haven’t been any subsequent Womack-Chesnutt duets because their voices work very well together.

The album’s weak spots tend to be the uptempo numbers. Though well performed, “Buckaroo” borders on hokey and it’s not difficult to see why it only reached #27 on the charts. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the album cut “A Man With 18 Wheels”, although “Trouble’s Here” stands in stark contrast with these two numbers. It actually works quite well, as does the Gospel number “Get Up In Jesus’ Name”, the album’s closing track which features background vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.

In retrospect, it’s a pity that Lee Ann didn’t debut four or five years earlier; if she had, she’d have likely enjoyed more consistent success at radio. By the late 90s, listeners appeared to be tiring of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, and Lee Ann seemed to be the perfect antidote, but her success was short-circuited by both her own pop ambitions and the emergence of other, younger country-pop divas such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Nevertheless, Lee Ann Womack remains my favorite album in the singer’s discography. Cheap copies are readily available from Amazon. Buy one if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Leona Williams – ‘Grass Roots’

Leona Williams was never a star, despite a five-year marriage to Merle Haggard, but I’ve always liked her honeyed voice, and she is still sounding good despite advancing years. After a few years associated with the estimable Heart Of Texas Records, Leona is now going it alone and has released this album on her own Loveshine Records. It was recorded mainly in her home state of Missouri with, I believe, local musicians, who do a fine job, led by producer and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hoffman, with post-production and the addition of some of the star guests’ contributions in Nashville. It bears what is not the most imaginative title for a bluegrass-influenced album by a country artist, but the music inside is well worth it.

Leona, a talented songwriter perhaps best known for writing ‘You Take Me For Granted’ for Haggard, wrote almost all the material (much of it solo), and it is all pretty good, although not all of it is new. She wrote the mid-tempo lost-love plaint ‘Midnight Blue’ with Terry Gibbs, which opens the set to promising effect.

Three songs (all excellent) are co-writes with Leona’s late husband Dave Kirby. The pensive ‘My Heart Has Finally Said Goodbye’ is an excellent traditional country song, as the protagonist finds equilibrium after losing in love. The optimistic ‘The Good Times Are Ready To Come’, sung as a duet with bluegrass veteran Mac Wiseman, is also great, with a very Depression era feel, about a Kentucky couple looking forward to spending the proceeds of mining wages, with a new road and coal prices up:

We’ll buy some new shoes for the babies
We’ll catch us some new fish to fry
It’s been a long time since us ladies have had enough money to cry
It’ll be hallelujah in Wallins, Kentucky
After the work is all done
It won’t be long till we’re rollin’ in groceries
And the good times are ready to come

The pretty-sounding ‘When I Dream’ was written by the couple with daughter Cathy Lee Coyne (who provides close sweet harmonies throughout). It is another fine song about a woman clinging to a long-past relationship, if only in her dreams.

The affecting ‘Come To See Me Sometimes’ is addressed to a loved one who has died – perhaps Kirby, who died a year or two ago. With its intensely emotional, almost-breaking vocal, this is the highlight of the record. Another favourite of mine is ‘Mama, I’ve Got To Go To Memphis’, which Haggard recorded in 1978 with altered lyrics to suit the gender switch. This version, surely the original intention, is a lovely old-fashioned story of a young woman desperate to track down her ex and “drown some memories”, and leaving her baby, “little Brady” behind with her own mother. It works beautifully as a bluegrass number, and is beautifully constructed and sung, with the narrator’s desperation palpable.

One of Leona’s older songs, the melodic ‘Taste Of Life’, which she previously recorded back in the 80s, feels like the theme tune for the project, said to be inspired by Leona’s childhood memories and her earliest musical roots. Here, she fondly recalls childhood memories of growing up poor but loved, including a reference to listening to Bill Monroe’s music on the radio. It closes with a segue into ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’. Cheryl and Sharon White add beautiful harmonies.

Vince Gill duets delightfully with Leona on the up-tempo ‘The Legend’, a cheerful tribute to Monroe (“the greatest name of all” in bluegrass). Monroe’s classic ‘Molly And Tenbrooks’ (actually an adaptation of a 19th century folk song about the fatal showdown between two racehorses, based on a real race) gets a lively workout with cameos from 70s country star Barbara Fairchild, Pam Tillis, and Rhonda Vincent, and the less-well known Melody Hart, a Branson-based singer and fiddle player.

The surprisingly catchy ‘Do Wah Ditty’ has a silly title but is rather engaging, with a midtempo sing along tune featuring Rodney and Beverly Dillard with a husband and wife casting aspersions at one another entertainingly in the verses – she spends too much money on credit, with bright fiddle and Beverly’s claw hammer banjo contributing to the good humor of it all.

‘The Lights Of Aberdeen’ is a song of thanks to Leona’s fans in Scotland, and appreciation for the countryside there, which is clearly heartfelt but is the least effective track overall.  The record closes with the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’, an insistent gospel number.

This is a lovely record. It seems to be available only from Leona’s official website, but is worth finding.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

Emmylou Harris’ fourth album for Warner Brothers contains more traditional and straightforward country fare than before.  This is partially because, after being involved in the mixing of Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town, she felt it was too slick-sounding.  But the more traditional arrangements were mostly created as a response to the outcry that the healthy mixing of pop and rock hits on past albums were the primary reason for their success. Shucking Tin Pan Alley for more Printer’s Alley, the set includes songs by country stalwarts Dallas Frazier, The Louvin Brothers, Willie Nelson, and others.  It’s biggest flaw – and only downfall – is in the lack of tempo, as too many of the tracks begin to bleed together with their like-minded and plodding melodies. Blue Kentucky Girl also features an all-star line-up of guest vocalists, including Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Everly, and like its predecessors would earn a gold certification, though it was her first since her Reprise debut not to hit the top 40 of the pop albums chart.

Things are kicked off with the bouncy, if unremarkable, ‘Sister’s Coming Home’ with Tanya Tucker duetting.  Willie Nelson wrote the repetitive tale of a honky tonking sibling returning home, which is smothered in the pedal steel playing of Hank DeVito and Ricky Skaggs’ fiddling.  As the album’s only up-tempo, it’s a forgettable tune with no real storyline and the annoying repeats of lines several times.  The Skaggs family is also represented on ‘Sorrow In The Wind’. Sharon and Cheryl White contribute angelic harmonies to this sparse take on the old British folk song. Known professionally as The Whites, the sister duo scored several country top 10s in the early to mid-1980s. Sharon White also married Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs in 1982.

The uncertainty of the road ahead following the exit of a relationship filled with hard times is contemplated in ‘Rough and Rocky’.  A kind-to-the-ears melody and a driving accordion lead the track, and it’s a personal favorite.  Another standout is ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’ with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.  It was recorded during the first ill-fated Trio sessions. It would take another 10 years before the three women’s careers and schedules would permit the album to be produced.  Roadhouse country is the main influence on the Rodney Crowell-tune.(Crowell also plays lead acoustic guitar here.)

‘Everytime You Leave’, with Don Everly was written and originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers.  The narrator’s heartbreak is the result of a revolving-door relationship to which she can never say no, and even with its stellar arrangement, Harris doesn’t sound terribly invested in the song’s ultimate melancholy.  Likewise flat, to me, is ‘Never Take His Love From Me’, the Leon Payne-written tune, most famously recorded by Hank Williams.  Here, Emmylou flips the pronoun and offers her weakest performance on the album.

Harris has never been more than a competent vocalist; never a powerhouse belter nor a burning balladeer. That’s most evident on Blue Kentucky Girl when she wraps her raspy vocal around Gram Parsons’ signature tune ‘Hickory Wind’. The deep, desolate lyric calls for more range than Harris can muster at the climax of the song, yet the simple vocal of Harris, even when it reaches for a note it simply cannot find, still conveys all the pathos and longing of a first-class vocalist. That’s because, wide range or no, Harris’ emotive skills place her among the best of the belting divas.

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Retro Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Highways & Heartaches’

highways-heartaches1Skaggs Family Records recently reissued Ricky Skaggs’ classic Highways & Heartaches album, with plans to reissue three more of his early ‘80s releases. As such, this seems like a good opportunity to revisit Highways & Heartaches:

Released in 1982, Highways & Heartaches was Ricky Skaggs’ second album for Epic Records. The previous year, his Epic debut, the gold-selling Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine, had produced three Top 10 hits, including two #1’s. In 1981, Nashville was still at the height of the Urban Cowboy craze, and there was considerable concern then (as now) that country music was rapidly drifting on an irreversible course towards pop. Therefore, it was nothing short of remarkable that a 27-year-old tradition-based singer, from a bluegrass background, was signed to a major label and given free rein to produce his own album, with little interference from label executives. And that it went on to achieve great commercial success and critical acclaim, was even more astounding.

Whatever fears there may have been about a sophomore slump were quickly alleviated, when Highways & Heartaches quickly outsold its predecessor, becoming Skaggs’ only platinum album, and producing three #1 singles and one more that just missed the top spot.

The album opens with the Guy Clark composition “Heartbroke”, which was the album’s lead single and first #1. It’s interesting to note that this song was also included on the sophomore release of another newcomer who had also made his major label debut in 1981. And like Skaggs, George Strait was also one of the first of a group of artists that would eventually be known as the “neotraditionalists”, who, in a few years’ time would knock virtually all of the pop-country artists of the day off the charts and return country music to its roots.

The next single was the heartfelt “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could”, which also peaked #1 on the Billboard Country Singles chart, as did the toe-tapping up-tempo number “Highway 40 Blues”. “You’ve Got a Lover” just missed the top spot, peaking at #2 in early 1983. Unlike many albums of the day, there is no “filler” on Highways & Heartaches. Any one of the ten tracks could have been released to radio as singles, and all of them would have performed well. My particular favorites among the non-singles are Wayland Patton’s “Don’t Think I’ll Cry” and “Let’s Love the Bad Times Away”, Rodney Crowell’s “One Way Rider”, and the Bill Monroe classic “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’”, with which Skaggs pays homage to his bluegrass roots and That High Lonesome Sound.

Nowadays many albums coming out of Nashville sound like the vocalist is singing along with a karaoke machine. This is decidedly not the case with Highways & Heartaches – or any Skaggs record, for that matter. A roster of top-notch musicians was assembled for this project, from pianist Buck White (Skagg’s father-in-law) to steel-guitarist Weldon Myrick, who had played in Connie Smith’s band and on many of her recordings, to Dobro player Jerry Douglas, and Sharon White (Skaggs’ wife) who provided the background vocals on several tracks. And then there is Skaggs himself, providing the lead vocals and playing several instruments including guitar, mandolin and fiddle.

I’ll admit that as a teenager who had been weaned on Urban Cowboy country-pop, Ricky Skaggs was somewhat of an acquired taste for me, but once acquired, that taste was never lost. Listening to his early ‘80s work makes me hope that the current generation’s answer to Ricky Skaggs will emerge soon.

Grade: A+

Purchase Highways & Heartaches from Amazon.

Listen to Ricky Skaggs at Last FM:

Heartbroke
I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could
Highway 40 Blues
You’ve Got a Lover