My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Del McCoury — ‘Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass’

Like bourbon aging in oak barrels, the voice of Del McCoury seems to take on more depth and character with each album. Del McCoury stands as one of the last of bluegrass’s second generation in still keeping the music alive both as a recording artist and as an active touring performer. Whether performing before small audiences or large crowds, Del is a consistent force in performing the true-grass so adored by traditionalists, while leaving the door open for innovation.

Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass is comprised of 14 songs that range from murder ballads and train songs to songs about love last and found. The sources of the songs range from old country classics to tunes by modern bluegrass songsmiths. Whatever you like, you will find it here.

The opening track is “Hot Wired,” the opening song, is a cover of what I’ve heard described as a country-rock song. Written by Shawn Camp, the song is a car song that compares a woman to a car – the song features a bunch of hot solos by the various musicians. I guess you could call this newgrass.

“That Ol’ Train” sounds more folk-country than bluegrass, although it would work in either genre as it tells an effective story.

“Letters Have No Arms” was written by the Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb and were a big hit for ET back in 1950. Del effective conveys the angst of the lyrics, a soldier reacting to his sweetheart’s letter.

“The First One Back in Town” is a song currently in hot rotation on bluegrass radio and is a classic murder ballad, in which his the narrator sees his sweetheart murdered from a distance and needs to get back to town before the killer, who might otherwise convince the authorities that he is the killer.

The next song “Build It Up” is a gospel tune written by Rob Clark. It is straightforward bluegrass gospel that Del’s band provides very effective harmonies.

“Bottom Dollar”, written by Fred John Elgersina feels like a folk ballad, a tale of woe and despair. Jason Carter plays some mighty lonesome fiddle on this piece.

Glen Duncan penned “Deep Dark Hollow Road” a song in which the singer calls on Loretta, his love, to abandon Kentucky in search of a better life.

I really liked the up-tempo “Ace of Hearts”, easily the most upbeat song in the set, about a fellow who got lucky in love and realizes just how lucky he was. The song was an album track on Alan Jackson’s debut album in 1990. The song was written by Lonnie Wilson, Ron Moore, and Carson Chamberlain and deserves to be better known

Love’s a gamble every heart will take

You roll the dice in hopes that it won’t break

One night I bet on your blue eyes and took a chance

And I won a whole lot more than one night of romance

 

I held the ace of hearts that night in the dark

How lucky can one man be

I hold the winning hand anyway life deals the cards

No way to lose ‘cause I’ve got you, my ace of hearts

Jerry Lee Lewis had a number one country single in early 1969 with the Jerry Kennedy – Glenn Sutton collaboration “To Make Love Sweeter For You”. Most of Jerry Lee’s country hits generated few covers because of how personal Jerry Lee made the songs seem. I thought that this was one of those songs that Jerry Lee had rendered incapable of being covered, but Del McCoury is fearless and was able to fashion a unique arrangement (reminiscent of 1890s honky-tonk) that carries the idiosyncratic feel of Jerry Lee’s recording, while still sounding dramatically different.

Well, I’d like to send an orchid at the start of every day

For flowers show more beauty than words could ever say

You’ve done so much for my world till all I want to do

Is try my best in every way to make love sweeter for you

 

A thousand special compliments I’d pay to you each day

Your ears would never tire of all the sweet things I would say

You never would be lonely, honey, you never would be blue

‘Cause my one aim in life would be to make love sweeter for you

Del himself wrote the next two songs, “Joe” and “Love Love Love”. The former is an up-tempo number about a performer who doesn’t mind bringing his fists into the equation, whereas the latter is a ballad that mixed tempos in telling its story.

“I’ll Be On My Way” is a dramatic ballad about the life of a wanderer. Written performed as a mid-tempo, the song features some nice fiddling by Jason Carter.

“You Could Be Me” is a ballad in which the narrator warns the listener that however bad the listener’s tale of woe, that the narrators are even worse. This song has received considerable airplay. Del has been singing bluesy and woeful ballads for decades and may be the ultimate master of the subgenre. This song was written by Tim Crouch, Edgar Sanders, Kenneth Mcafee, and Dennis Crouch.

The album closes with “I Fell In Love”. Those who listened to country radio will remember the song from the 1990 recording by Carlene Carter, a song that reached #3 on Billboard’s country chart. Needless to say, Del’s take does not remind you of Carlene Carter, but Del and his band infuse the song with a considerable dose of Del’s personality

Hey, I hit town without a clue

Minding my business like I always do

Just my luck I ran smack into you

And I never could’ve known it would be like this

You got the kind of charm that I can’t resist

I figure what’s the harm in a little bitty kiss or two

 

But I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

Oh I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

I fell in love

With the exception of guest pianist Josh Shilling on the Jerry Lee Lewis cover, this album is a self-contained album by Del and his band with Del playing the guitar and singing lead vocals, sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (Banjo) adding harmony vocals and Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (upright bass) also adding harmony vocals. If you want to know how modern bluegrass should sound, this is a good place to start – a solid A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A++

Album Review: Lonesome River Band – ‘Mayhayley’s House’

The Lonesome River Band are a veteran band on paper, but have seen many changes of personnel over the years. As one expects from this band, the instrumental playing is brilliant but tasteful, with banjo star Sammy Shelor anchoring the sound. Both the current lead singers are outstanding too – the smoky characterful baritone of Brandon Rickman (one of my favorite singers across country and bluegrass) almost matched by the strong, if less distincive, tenor of Jesse Smathers.

A number of well known country songs get a bluegrass treatment . Crystal Gayle’s early hit ‘Wrong Road Again’ is delightful. The Don Williams hit ‘Old Coyote Town’ is given an absolutely beautiful reading by Brandon Rickman. Western Swing classic ‘Ida Red’ becomes a pacy bluegrass romp. A less well known cover, ‘Hickory Hollow Times & County News’ was on Charley Pride’s 2011 album Choices. Rickman’s warm vocals suit the song’s sweet nostalgia.

‘As The Crow Flies’, a plaintive Billy Yates/Melba Montgomery love song which Yates has recorded, has another lovely vocal from Rickman. The lyric refers to both the title bird and to blackbirds, both of which make a more ominous appearance in ‘Blackbirds And Crows’, an excellent murder ballad about a possesive husband and restless wife he just can’t bear to let go:

Blackbird sat on a fence line
Crow flew through the sky
I whispered low into Eva’s ear
Eva you’re gonna die

She’s a half a mile out, a quarter across
Beneath those wheatfield rows
And no one knows who put her there
But the blackbirds and the crows

Folks come by and we sit around
And I tell them how she’s gone
I tell them how she packed her bags
And wrecked our happy home
Lord I tell them she’s down in Atlanta
Doin’ cocaine and God only knows
But Eva’s not gone
She’s here with me
Right here where she’ll always be
With the blackbirds and the crows

It was written by Don Humphries.

The atmospheric title track, an Adam Wright song based on a true story, is about a rural Georgia psychic from the mid 20th century, to whom the album as a whole is dedicated.

‘Diggin’’ is a pretty good mid-tempo song about struggling to make ends meet that manages to sound bright despite the despairing lyric. The similarly upbeat ‘As Lonesome As I Am’, written by Matt Lindsey and Shawn Camp, is a more overtly optimistic song about expecting things can only get better. ‘I Think I’m Gonna Be Alright’ sees the protagonist coping well enough with a breakup.

Some fantastic fiddle (from Mike Hartgrove) leads the fast paced ‘Lonesome Bone’. ‘It Feels Real Good Goin’ Down’, written by Gary Nicholson and Shawn Camp, is a vibrant drinking-away-the-pain song. Thw album closes with a frenetic arrangement of the bluegrass standard ‘Fly Around y Pretty Little Miss’.

This is an excellent album which should appeal to country fans with an interest in bluegrass.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Call Me Old Fashioned’

call-me-old-fashionedTen years ago I was blown away by the debut album by Bradley Walker, a country traditionalist/bluegrass singer with a great baritone voice. Sadly, it didn’t lead to the success it deserved, and it has taken a decade for him to release a follow-up. He has appeared on the Joey + Rory TV show and was a favorite of the late Joey Feek, who asked for him to sing at her funeral. His honoring of that request led to his signing a new record deal with gospel label Gaither Music Group. This album (produced by Rory Feek) is mainly religious in nature, but it is also very definitely traditional country.

The Feek connection is underlined with the recording of ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’, which is a moving duet with Joey about making the most of life, written by Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan. Heartfelt vocals from both Joey and Bradley make this very powerful. ‘Sing Me To Heaven’ (by Camp and Buddy Cannon) anticipates the eternal life to come.

A stunning version of the Kristofferson-penned classic ‘Why Me’ opens the album. Walker’s voice has the gravitas to carry it off. Equally good a song is Erin Enderlin and Irene Kelley’s ‘His Memory Walks On Water’, an uncompromisingly honest story song about a man whose drunken abuse of his family means that when he finally crashes his car, his neighbours all judge he “died ten years too late”.

But his absence means that his daughter can reimagine him as a lost hero:

She’ll only see the best in him now looking back
So she can finally have a father who’s gentle, kind and good
She’ll let his memory walk on water since he never could

This is an extraordinary song which Bradley does full justice to.

‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ is a confessional Rory Feek ballad about an imperfect man dealing with hard times and feeling he has let down his wife. Musically it has more of Christian Contemporary feel than the pure country of the remainder of the album, but the sensitive lyric, fine vocal and tasteful arrangement all sell it.

‘Sinners Only’ points out that salvation is not just for the righteous, as a priest with a past is torn between the bottle and his calling:

He knows God’s gonna love him whatever he decides
Sinners only
Bring your drunkards and your fighters and no-one-seems-to-like-hers
Bring your drifters and your liars and your thieves
In other words, anyone who breathes

A form of muscular dystrophy means that Bradley uses a wheelchair, and he refers to this with a complete lack of self-pity in ‘I Feel Sorry For Them’, which he wrote with Rory Feek and Tim Johnson about what he has to be grateful for. The lilting ‘I Count My Blessings’ is less personally specific, but also about being happy with what one has. ‘The Toolbox’ offers some homespun philosophy from a note left by the protagonist’s dad in the toolbox he leaves behind. Very nice harmonies augment a soothing melody and comforting lyric.

The title track, written by Jerry Salley and Dave Turnbull, lauds traditional values of honesty, hard work, and patriotism. ‘Pray For God’ is on the verge of being too sweet, with its small child’s innocent suggestion at a church prayer meeting. ‘The Right Hand Of Fellowship’, written by Larry Cordle and Leslie Satcher, is a bright and catchy description of a church with bluegrass/southern gospel harmonies. The stripped down ‘With His Arms Wide Open’ is a beautiful meditation on Jesus.

The one track that doesn’t quite work for me is the closing ‘Beulah Land’, a slightly shaky live recording with the Isaacs on backing vocals.

Everything else, though, is stellar. Excellent songs, a great singer, and tasteful production make this a must-have as long as you don’t dislike religious material.

Grade: A

A DVD featuring these songs in concert, filmed at Joey + Rory’s barn, is also being made available.
call-me-old-fashioned-dvd

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – ‘Django & Jimmie’

django and jimmieDjango & Jimmie is the latest endeavor by the ageless comrades Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. While the title suggests an album of songs made famous by Django Reinhart and Jimmie Rodgers, the Django part of the equation would be impossible to pull off since Django was a Gypsy guitarist whose musical compositions were instrumentals, “Nuages” being the most famous.

Instead what we have is an album of interesting songs, mostly new but some old, and taken from a variety of sources.

The Django connection for Willie Nelson is quite strong; you can hear it every time Willie plays his guitar. While Willie is an excellent guitar player, he is not in Django’s class (almost no one is) but listen to some Django recordings and you will know why Willie’s guitar playing sounds like it does.

As for Merle’s connection to Jimmie Rodgers, Merle and those such as Lefty Frizzell who influenced Merle, grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the height of his commercial prowess in 1969 (he released six albums in 1969), Merle felt strongly enough about the music of Jimmie Rodgers that he recorded a two album set that he got Capitol Records to release. Ken Nelson, Merle’s producer must have cringed at the idea of releasing a two album set of blues, yodels, thirties pop music, Hawaiian music and parlor songs but release it he did. Nelson also put Rodgers’ “California Blues” as the B side to “Hungry Eyes”.

Surprisingly, the title song “Django and Jimmie” was not written by either Willie or Merle, coming instead from the pens of Jimmy Melton & Jeff Prince. In this jog-along ballad, Willie and Merle discuss where their styles came from

W

illie I’m a kid with a guitar
Trying to play “Nuages”, when they ask
Where does your style come from?

Merle I know what you mean
‘Cause I learned to sing
Listening to blue, yodel number one

Willie We love Hank and Lefty
Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash
But if we had to pinpoint
The start of who we are
Or who we go by

Both The Django and Jimmie
Paris, Mississippi
A young singing brakeman
A jazz playing gypsy
Might not have been
A Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie

The rest of the album really has nothing to do with Django or Jimmie, except to the extent that Django and Jimmie flavor all of their music.

“It’s All Going To Pot” has nothing to do with marijuana but instead comments on the general state of the world and the state of their own lives. The song was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell with Jamey joining Merle and Willie in vocalizing. The song is very upbeat in tempo with some Mariachi horns (played by Jamey Johnson):

Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
All of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
It just couldn’t hit the spot
I gotta hundred dollar bill, friend
You can keep your pills
‘Cause it’s all going to pot

“Unfair Weather Friend” is a gentle ballad about friendship. Penned by Marla Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, the song is the flip of the concept of fair weather friends.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a recent Merle Haggard composition on which Merle and Willie and Bobby Bare swap lyrics and stories about Johnny Cash. The song is an affectionate look back at their departed friend. This is another jog-along ballad that probably cannot be covered in a believable manner by anyone else. Here’s one of Willie’s verses:

Well now Johnny Cash wore black attire
And he fell into that Ring of Fire
He came up swinging like a Boy Named Sue
And he married June Carter and he [?] too
He wrote his songs from deep within
And he hit the stage with a crooked grin
He and I were both Highwaymen
And that record became a smash
Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash

Here’s Bobby Bare’s verse:

Johnny Cash never walked no line
Johnny Cash never did no time, but
When he sang a Folsom Prison Blues
You knew good and well he’d paid his dues
True, he always dressed in black
But he loved folks and they loved him back
Carried his pills in a brown paper sack
Well I don’t care if they found his stash
I’m missin’ old Johnny Cash

Shawn Camp and Marv Green wrote “Live This Long” and I suspect that they wrote it specifically for this album. Another slow ballad, this song look backward at life and what might have done differently if the narrators had known that they would live this long.

“Alice In Hula Land” is a Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon co-write. As performed here, the song is yet another slow ballad, but with a very Hawaiian sound. As best as I can tell, this song is about a groupie, although I may be very mistaken in my interpretation.

Alice in Hulaland
Come sit here on the front row
And get close to the sound
As close as you can
Are you there for the melody?
There for the lyrics?
Or just for the boys in the band?

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is the Bob Dylan classic from treated as a straight-ahead country ballad with steel guitar featured prominently (Mike Johnson &/or Dan Dugmore) and harmonica by Mickey Raphael featured at points in the song also.

“Family Bible” was one of Willie’s first successful songs. Willie sold the rights to the song so the songwriter credits read Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk and Walt Breeland. Merle sings the verses on this song while Willie limits himself to playing the guitar and singing harmony on the choruses. THis is a very nice recording, perhaps my favorite recording of the song.

WIllie Nelson and Buddy Cannon collaborated on “It’s Only Money”. I don’t know who Renato Caranto is, but his saxophone work. Mike Johnson’s dobro and Jim “Moose” Brown’s keyboards really shine on this up-tempo song.

“Swinging Doors” was a huge Merle Haggard hit in 1966. If you ever wondered how Willie Nelson would tackle the song, here’s your chance to find out. Willie and Merle swap verses on this one.

“This Is Where Dreams Come To Die” is yet another Willie Nelson – Buddy Cannon composition. This slow ballad would make a lovely single in a less brain-dead musical environment.

This is where dreams come to die
This is where dreams come to die
Then they fly back to heaven
But this is where dreams come to die

They’re fun when you dream them
Everyone is laughing at you
And it’s fun, watching them wonder
And all of the dreams are coming true

“Somewhere Between” is a old Merle Haggard song from 1967, an album track from his 1967 album Branded Man. Suzy Bogguss had a nice recording of the song about twenty years ago, but the song never has been a big hit for anyone, being mostly relegated to being an album track on countless albums. Willie sings the vocals on this one.

Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high that it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go
And sometimes, I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key

Yet another Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon song is next, a cowboy western ballad titled “Driving The Herd”. The subject matter seems self-explanatory, but the song can be interpreted either as a song about a cattle drive, or a song about a singer gauging his audience.

The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”, another recent Merle Haggard composition that could be about either Merle or Willie in their younger days. The tempo is that of a slow ballad.

This album is fine – although older, Willie’s voice is in better shape than Haggard’s, but the band is tight, the songs are very good and the songs are treated with proper respect. It’s pretty clear that neither artist has an ego problem because the ebb and flow between Willie and Merle couldn’t be better

Grade: A-

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.

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mark Collie – ‘Alive At Brushy Mountain Penitentiary’

Back in 2001 90s star Mark Collie recorded a live album at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Tennessee for MCA.  But Mark hadn’t managed a top 20 hit since 1994, and the departure from the label of its boss Tony Brown (who co-produced) meant this record was shelved for more than a decade.  The artist has now regained control of the masters, and the album has been released – some years after the prison itself closed its doors.  Production and sound engineering values are more or less studio-quality, and the band play well and enthusiastically.

There is a deliberate attempt to emulate Cash’s seminal prison albums, starting with the opening statement “Hello, I’m Mark Collie”, before the singer launches into rocking opener ‘One More Second Chance’ (co-written with 80s star T Graham Brown).  Later on he throws in a cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, talking about a then-ailing Cash.  Collie is not as distinctive or compelling a vocalist as Cash, but his rough-edged voice works well on the material he chooses here, most of it calculated to appeal to the audience in terms of the overarching theme of prison and criminality, and the devil-may-care but occasionally God-fearing attitude.  Most of the songs were written by Mark especially for the project.

I liked the unrepentant prisoner’s confession ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’.  The very good and rather amusing ‘Maybe Mexico’, written by the late Harley Allen with Deborah Nims, has the protagonist a fugitive from Memphis calling his lover while on the run and on his way south of the border.

‘Dead Man Runs Before He Walks’, written by Mark with the always interesting Shawn Camp (who also plays fiddle in the band), is a cheery piece about escaping from a not very secure sounding Death Row.  The pretty sounding bluegrass ballad ‘Rose Covered Garden’, written by Mark with Roger Cook, is the story of a prisoner in Mexico who romances the gaoler’s daughter to get away, but ends up recaptured and alone.  Collie revived this song for an obscure independent release in 2006, which is now hard to find.

The chugging ‘Do As I Say’ is a father’s wry advice not to copy his bad example in life.

Kelly Willis sings lead on the okay ‘Heaven Bound’ and the loungy ‘Got A Feelin’ For Ya’.  I like her quirky voice (and she was clearly well received by the audience), but these songs are not particularly memorable.  She also sings an effective harmony on a cover of Krisofferson’s ‘Why Me, Lord?’, which is very good.

‘On The Day I Die’ is a killer’s frank confession of his multitudinous past sins and his present faith, acknowledging before his execution,

I ran from the light like I ran from the law

But you know the wages of sin catches up with us all

This is a real highlight.

Not everything here is country.  Blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown guests on his own ‘Someday My Luck Will Change’, while ‘Reckless Companions’ marries a folk feel to the lyrics with a rock sound, a combination which doesn’t quite work for me.  They end with ‘Gospel Train’, a bluesy gospel number backed by the prison choir.

The thematic unity of this record is part of what makes it work but at times it all feels a little like pandering to the audience and trying too hard to copy Cash.  Overall, though, the interesting songs and effective performances make it a worthwhile experience, and I am pleased it has made its belated way out of the vaults.

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Randy finds religion: the Christian albums of Randy Travis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grades:

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

Album Review: Rick Trevino – ‘Whole Town Blue’

Back in 2003 the Texas-born Hispanic country artist Rick Trevino (a talented but inconsistent hit maker in the ’90s) released In My Dreams on Warner Brothers, produced by Raul Malo of the Mavericks. It didn’t sell very well, and the follow-up, also produced by Malo, was shelved. Now, following their resurrection of Shawn Camp’s 1994 last year, Warner Brothers have plucked this out of their vaults to finally see the light of day. And (like Camp’s record) it was well worth reviving, proving to be substantially better than its immediate predecessor.

Like its predecessor, with which the CD release pairs it a two-on-one basis, this album has a strong stylistic feeling of the Mavericks, although Trevino’s voice is very different from Malo’s Orbisonesque tenor. The arrangements are basically country-rooted, with Mexican flourishes (lots of mariachi horns) and some strings, making a very consistent musical palette. Trevino wrote most of the generally high quality material with one or both of Malo or Alan Miller, but one of the exceptions is the standout track.

‘Separate Ways’ is a downbeat piano-led ballad with a big soaring chorus and delicate string arrangement, written by Bill Anderson, Jimmy Yeary and Wally Wilson. Starting as a closely observed third person look at a couple, once so close, and their breakup, we see how:

The road that they were ridin’ split in two

Separate ways, his and hers
A love that went from great to good to bad to worse
Separate lives, what a waste
The last thing they ever did together was go their separate ways

The narrator is scared by this example (eventually revealed in the last line of the second verse to be his parents) and promises to work at his own relationship “every day”. The song is perfectly constructed and impressively sung, and it should have been a big hit in 2007, when it was released as a single but didn’t reach the top 40.

The only other outside song comes from the hands of Rodney Crowell. His ballad ‘Loving You Makes Me A Better Man’ is pleasant enough, with very Malo-ish vocal inflections, but the production doesn’t quite work for me, with its multi-tracked vocals.

Rick’s current single is the cheerful Tex-Mex ‘Better In Texas’, in which the protagonist abandons his Mexican sweetheart for a new love in Texas, deciding:

I know everything is better here in Texas

Now Mexico aint nothing but a memory
Pleasant as it might have been, it’s gone
I’d rather be here north of the border
The place where I belong

The exuberant mariachi horns work well on this track.

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Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Homecoming’

It isn’t widely known that prior to his stint as a mainstream country hitmaker in the 1990s, Joe Diffie was an accomplished bluegrass musician, having been a member of the bluegrass band Special Edition. He returns to those roots for his first album in six years. Co-produced by Diffie with Luke Wooten, Homecoming is a comprised of some bluegrass classics along with some newer songs and original compositions, and features an impressive roster of guest artists including The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Alecia Nugent, and Bradley Walker.

The album opens with a traditional bluegrass number, the Earl Scruggs-written “Somehow Tonight” and continues in a similar vein with “Lonesome and Dry as a Bone”, which was written by Shawn Camp, Matt Lindsey, and Mel Tillis. “Tall Cornstalk” reflects Diffie’s well-known penchant for novelty songs, though this number, told from the point of view of the cornstalk, never approaches the level of hokeyness that characterized many of Joe’s 90s novelty ditties.

The high lonesome sound is evident on numbers such as “Fit For A King” and “I Know How It Feels”, which feature exquisite harmony vocals from Sonya Isaacs and Michael L. Rogers respectively. “Raining On Her Rubber Dolly” is an original composition which Diffie co-wrote with Shawn Camp. One of those uptempo songs with mournful lyrics that is unique to bluegrass, it uses the imagery of a child’s doll, left out in the rain in the yard, to symbolize a father’s heartbreak in the aftermath of a marital breakdown and separation from his family.

It’s quite evident that Diffie is well within his comfort zone and more than competent at singing bluegrass credibly. That being said, there are a few tracks that are more acoustic country than traditional bluegrass, which, with different arrangements would have been quite at home on any of his mainstream country albums. “Route 5 Box 109”, on which Joe is joined by Rhonda Vincent, is reminiscent of his 1990 breakthrough hit “Home”. Along with “Free and Easy” and “Stormy Weather Once Again”, it is one of the best tracks on the album. I’m not sure how bluegrass purists feel about these songs; to my admittedly non-expert ears, they sound more like acoustic country than bluegrass, but that in no way suggests that they are not excellent, regardless of how one categorizes them.

The album closes with “Hard To Handle”, a remake of a 1968 Otis Redding record, which is impressive if only for the speed at which it is sung. I’ll confess to complete ignorance of the original version, but I’m betting it bears little resemblance to Diffie’s rendition. While not my favorite track on the album, it is nonetheless enjoyable.

Joe Diffie was one of the most talented male vocalists of the 1990s, who didn’t always get the attention and acclaim that he deserved. Unfortunately he is most remembered today for his novelty tunes and not for some of the stronger entries in his catalog. Homecoming should go a long way to restoring his gravitas as an artist, and will easily appeal to both bluegrass aficionados and fans of Joe’s more mainstream work.

Grade: A

Homecoming is available from major retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes. A bonus track “Ocean of Diamonds” is available for download but is not included on the CD version. Those who download the album from Amazon are advised to select the version that includes “[+ digital booklet]” in the title. This is the version that contains the bonus track; inexplicably, it is the same price as the 12-track version with no liner notes or bonus track, which Amazon also sells.

Album Review: Shawn Camp – ‘1994’

Singer-songwriter Shawn Camp originally recorded this album back in the year of its title as the follow-up to his self-titled debut for Reprise Records (which I must confess I never heard, although I enjoyed his independent 2001 release Lucky Silver Dollar). Produced impeccably by Emory Gordy Jr and loaded with fiddle and steel, it proved too traditional in its stylings for the label, who reportedly dropped Shawn after he declined to remake it with more pop-country trappings. It has re-emerged after the boss of parent label Warner Bros Nashville ran into Shawn, now a successful songwriter, at an industry event, discovered he had this unreleased record sitting in the company vaults, and decided to give it a rather belated release. The original debut, Shawn Camp, is also getting a re-release.

To be brutally frank, enjoyable though I’m finding this record, I can see why Shawn’s career didn’t take off. His songs are good, and the production pleasing, but his voice, while pleasantly quirky and distinctive, does not compare well with some of the fine male vocalists signed to Nashville labels in the early 90s, particularly on ballads.

Shawn co-wrote almost all the material, with the exceptions all well-chosen. The sparkling opening track ‘Near Mrs’, for instance, penned by Steve Hood and Karl Hasten (both unfamiliar names to me) is a charmingly playful set of romantic misadventures explaining why the protagonist never quite got to the altar with any of the ladies in his life, which is highly entertaining and one can imagine this as a lost hit single. Even better is ‘In Harm’s Way’ which is one of the highlights here, a plaintive fiddle-and-steel-laced lament with Patty Loveless on harmonies, about being blindsided by heartbreak. This song was recorded by Jim Lauderdale (who wrote it with Frank Dycus) on his excellent 1998 release Whisper (possibly my favorite of his very varied catalog), and I do prefer the vocals on that version.

Also lovely, and perhaps better suited to Shawn’s voice, is the rueful admission of ‘Clear as A Bell’ (written by Shawn with Will Smith), as the protagonist gets a reminder that his childhood sweetheart’s wedding to another is underway:

In that far off chapel, church bells ring for someone else
And though I hate to say it I can only blame myself

Sometimes things happen way too fast
When you try to reach for love
It’s out of your grasp
Oh, sometimes it’s over and you can’t even tell
But sometimes it’s clear as a bell

This has a very pretty melody and is my favorite track.

The dejected ‘My Frame Of Mind’, written with John Scott Sherrill, also has a pretty tune and some haunting fiddle which underlines the melancholy feel, with the protagonist in even more despairing mood:

And I don’t know or care
Just what tomorrow brings
Cause if she’s not here
Tell me what good is anything?

John Scott Sherrill also cowrote the plaintive and catchy mid-tempo ‘Worn Through Stone’, another of the highlights, as Shawn broods over what went wrong in his relationship with his ex, with none other than Bill Monroe (in what may have been his last ever recording session) among the call-and-response backing vocals, although his contribution is not very prominent.

The quirky ‘Stop, Look And Listen (Cow Catcher Blues)’ is co-written with Guy Clark, and features train rhythms and Shawn on both fiddle and mandolin, as he plays the drifter who can’t outrun heartache. This is uncommercial but highly entertaining, and would be great live.

‘Since You Ain’t Home’ is a lovely traditional George Jones-styled heartbreak ballad about living in a house without the loved one who made it home, which Shawn wrote with Dale Dodson and Ken Mellons, and which would have been ideal for Mellons himself who was just embarking on his own major label career at the time. Patty Loveless guests on harmony.

The joyfully ironic uptempo ‘Movin’ On Up To A Double Wide’ is written with Gary Harrison. The protagonist has apparently been fired but is making his own silver lining:

Honey all our dreams are finally coming true
We’re gonna start living like the rich folks do
We’re movin’ on up to a double wide
Parkin our pickup every day with pride
Think we’ve got it made for the rest of our lives

Some of Shawn’s compositions included here did eventually find an audience. The best of these, ‘The Grandpa That I Know’, written with Tim Mensy (who had already recorded it himself), was subsequently recorded by both Joe Diffie and Patty Loveless. Shawn’s version has a hushed personal quality to it which lends an authenticity which makes up for the more limited vocal prowess compared to the rival versions. There is one interesting lyrical variation, with Shawn singing “my fiddle” rather than “a fiddle” as the music his grandfather would have liked, although he does not in fact play on this track. Shawn does play fiddle on ‘Little Bitty Crack In Her Heart’, which he wrote with Jim Rushing. This song suffers more from its delayed emergence, as it has been cut by both Sammy Kershaw and Randy Travis, both of whom are better singers than Shawn, but this version is still fun.

I strongly commend Warner Brothers for finally getting round to releasing this – and not only digitally. I hope it sells well enough for the experiment to be repeated and encourages other good music to be made available.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Your Man’

The title track and lead single to Josh Turner’s sophomore effort Your Man was released in August 2005 and saw him reaching the Top 10, as well as the #1 spot on the charts, which was no mean feat for a traditionally-based artist in the early part of the 21st century. The album that followed shortly thereafter in January 2006, was also a commercial success. Frank Rogers was once again on board as producer, without Mark Wright this time. Turner had a hand in writing five of the album’s eleven tracks.

The album opens with “Would You Go With Me”, which was the second single released from the set. Like its predecessor, the Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill composition reached #1. it is followed by another Camp song, with Herb McCollough as co-writer, the surprisingly upbeat-sounding “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama.” The lyrics read like a three-hanky tale about a broken marriage, but this is no crying in your beer song. Turner sounds anything but devastated and even winds up the song by commenting that he is glad that his ex took her Chihuahua with her. Both “Would You Go With Me” and “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama” prominently feature the dobro, by Mike Johnson on the former and Steve Hinson on the latter track.

“No Rush” is a more lushly-arranged, bluesy style song that initially seems like an odd choice for Turner, but it works surprisingly well. Stylistically, it reminds me of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and sounds like something that Ray Price would have sunk his teeth into in the early 70s.

Some marquee guest artists are on hand for a couple of tracks: members of Diamond Rio supply the background vocals to “Me and God” a religious number written by Turner, in the same vein as his earlier hit “Long Black Train.” The legendary Ralph Stanley also makes a cameo duet appearance, sounding a lot like Roy Acuff in his later years. The track became the album’s third and final single. Peaking at #16, it did not fare as well as the album’s previous two singles, but it performed respectably for a religious-themed record. More star power is on display with “White Noise”, written and performed with John Anderson. Surprisingly it is one of the weaker tracks on the album, and as its title implies, it is merely filler that name-checks Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and the Grand Ole Opry.

The most fun track on the album, and one on which Josh sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself is Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders’ “Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln”, which finds Turner fantasizing about buying a car once owned by the Coal Miner’s Daughter and cruising around Nashville in it with her and Dolly Parton. It’s just not possible to dislike this song.

My favorite track on the album is Josh’s cover version of the Don Williams classic “Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy”. It easily rivals the original version and deserved to be released as a single. You just can’t go wrong with a Bob McDill song.

The album closes with Turner’s “Way Down South”, a satisfying if slightly self-indulgent tribute to home. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, it turns into a jam session towards the end. While not one of the stronger songs on the album, it is an enjoyable listen that would have been better had it been pared down by a minute or so.

Overall, Your Man is a very satisfying collection of songs from one of today’s better artists, albeit one that is still struggling to break away from the rest of Nashville’s current pack of male singers. It is Turner’s most successful album to date, earning double-platinum certification for sales in excess of two million units. Two of the album’s singles, “Your Man” and “Would You Go With Me” were certified gold for sales exceeding 500,000 units each.

Grade: A-

Your Man is readily available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.