My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Shenandoah

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

The title and cover artwork of Dailey & Vincent’s new album are somewhat misleading as they create the false impression that this is a collection of patriotic-themed tunes. What it actually is is a collection of well-crafted bluegrass songs, including a healthy dose of spiritual numbers, all written or co-written by Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent themselves.

Patriots and Poets is the duo’s first project under a new deal with Dreamlined Entertainment. In addition to showcasing the Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, the spotlight is shared with their backing band, which includes bass vocalist Aaron McCune, which gives them a somewhat fuller sound than their earliest work. They also team up with an impressive line-up of guest artists including bluegrass greats Bela Fleck, Doyle Lawson, and David Rawlings. Comedian and banjo virtuoso Steve Martin also makes an appearance, as does Christian Singer TaRanda Greene.

Consisting of a generous sixteen tracks, the album opens with the energetic but lyrically light “Gimme All The Love You Got” and then veers off into more substantive territory with the religious number “Beautiful Scars”. “Baton Rouge”, which references “leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight” and walking from Baton Rouge to Birmingham is reminsicent of Shenandoah’s “Next to Me, Next to You” with acoustic instrumentation.

Surprisingly, “Until We’re Gone”, the collaboration with TaRanda Greene is a secular love song, rather than a religious one. I’m not familiar with her work but she is a pleasant but not great vocalist. Based on its title, I expected “Bill and Ole Elijah” to be a religious number, and it does have a revival meeting vibe to it and a soaring high lonesome sound that would make Bill Monroe proud, but it is actually a song about a prison break, with an interesting twist at the the end.

My favorite track is “California”, which is almost like a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the old George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic “Southern California”, in which a wife tells her good ole boy husband that she’s leaving to find her fortune in Hollywood. In this telling, however, her husband goes with her, expecting her to get discouraged and eventually want to return home. When she doesn’t, he eventually returns home without her, but he bailed out a little too soon as he learns a few months later when he discovers his Mrs. on reality television show. Steve Martin plays banjo and recites the song’s spoken verse that reveals the wife’s eventual success.

“America, We Love You” seems like it is the patriotic component referenced in the album’s title but it is actually more of an expression of appreciation for the fans who have come out to support the duo on their nationwide tours.

This is an impressive collection with no throwaway tracks, which is no mean feat considering that there are sixteen of them and it plays for about an hour. It might be a little long for those who are ambivalent about bluegrass but I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Grade: A

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Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Album Review: Lorraine Jordan and Caroline Road – ‘Country Grass’

country-grass-2016If you like real country music, the kind that was played before 2005, with meaningful lyrics written by master craftsmen like Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard and Tom T Hall, where do you go to hear it live?

Unless you live in Texas, your best choice is to visit a bluegrass festival. Today’s bluegrass acts are vitally concerned about finding good songs, regardless of the copyright dates. They are not concerned about the feeding and watering of mediocre songwriters simply because they are part of the pool of co-writers. A typical bluegrass group will include anywhere from 20% upwards of classic country songs in their repertoire.

Exhibit number one is the most recent album, Country Grass, by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. This album is a bit of an outlier, because all of the songs are classic country, but one listen to this album and you will plainly hear that the legacy of 60s-90s country music is in good hands.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road are a veteran act, having performed at the bluegrass festivals for over fifteen years. Lorraine plays mandolin and handles most of the lead vocals. She is joined by Ben Greene (banjo), Josh Goforth (fiddle), Brad Hudson (dobro) and Jason Moore (upright bass).

In putting this album together of classic country songs, Lorraine assembled a fine cast of guest stars, obtaining the services of the original artist where possible.

The album opens up with the Kentucky Headhunters’ song “Runnin’ Water”, a track from the Kentucky Headhunters’ fourth album. Doug Phelps of the Kentucky Headhunters sings lead on this entertaining track with bandmate Richard Young contributing harmony vocals. This track is straight ahead bluegrass.

Eddy Raven had a #1 record in 1984 with “I Got Mexico” and he chips in with the lead vocals on a track that is more bluegrass flavored than actual bluegrass.

“Darned If I Don’t, Danged If I Do” was a Shenandoah song. Shenandoah’s lead sing Marty Raybon has spent much of the last decade on the bluegrass circuit performing bluegrass versions of Shenandoah hits with his band Full Circle. The song is done in overdrive, but Marty remains one of the premier vocalists.

John Conlee is a long-time Opry veteran who had a decade (1978-1987) long run of top ten hits, including his 1983 #1 hit “Common Man”, taken at about the same tempo as his 1983 hit. Brad Hudson takes a verse of the lead vocal.

country-grass-2015Crystal Gayle had a #1 Country / #18 Pop hit in 1978 with “Waiting For The Times To Get Better”. Crystal and Lorraine trade verses on this one, an elegant sounding song and arrangement.

Lee Greenwood had a #1 record with “Dixie Road” in 1985. Unfortunately, Lee’s voice has eroded over the years so having Troy Pope sing a verse is welcome.

Jim Ed Brown has a top twenty recording of “You Can Have Her” back in 1967. This was probably one of Jim Ed’s last recording before his recent death, but he was in very fine voice indeed. Tommy Long takes part of a verse and harmonizes on this jazzy ballad.

“Boogie Grass Band” was a big hit for Conway Twitty in 1978, the title explaining the feel of the song completely. Unfortunately, Conway has been gone for over twenty years so Lorraine simply got everyone involved in this project to take short vocal turns, preserving the original tempo.

Randy Travis was in no shape to perform so Tommy Long handles the vocals on “Digging Up Bones”. Meanwhile T. G. Sheppard is still with us, so he and Tommy Long handle the vocals on “Do You Want To Go To Heaven”. The instrumentation here is bluegrass, but the tempo remains that of the country ballad that T.G. took to #1 in 1980.

Jesse Keith Whitley is the son of Lorrie Morgan and the late great Keith Whitley. Jesse sounds quite similar to his father and acquits himself well on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Jeannette Williams contributes gorgeous harmony vocals to this track which is taken at the same tempo as Keith’s original.

It would be hard to conceive of a bigger country/pop hit than Joe South’s “Rose Garden”, taken to the top of the charts in 1970-1971 by Lynn Anderson. Not only did the song top the country and pop charts in the USA, it went top four or better in nine foreign countries. Lynn Anderson and Lorraine Jordan share the lead vocals on this song, which probably sounds the least similar to the original of all the tracks on this album. Lynn passed away last summer, so this is one of the last tracks (perhaps the last track) she ever recorded.

Lorraine’s band shines on the last track of the album “Last Date”. Although there were several sets of lyrics appended to Floyd Cramer’s piano classic, I don’t really like any of the lyrics I’ve heard, so I appreciate that this was left as an instrumental.

I picked up this disc about a month ago and it has been in heavy rotation in my CD player since them. I was inspired to write this when Jonathan Pappalardo posted a video of John Anderson singing with Lorraine and Carolina Road. John is not on the original (2015) version of the album, but his performance can be purchased on Lorraine’s website http://www.carolinaroadband.com/, and is on the new re-released version.

Even if you do not particularly care for bluegrass you might really like this album, chock full of solid country gold songs, fine vocals and exquisite musicianship. I give it an A-, docking it very slightly for the eroded voices of a few of the guests.

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonestar’

lonestarLonestar kicked off their recording career with the eponymous album Lonestar. Released in October 1995, the album hit the streets on the strength of the successful single “Tequila Talkin’” which was released in August 1995 and reached #8. There would be four more singles issued after the album was released. The album received mixed reviews upon its release, more than a few critics viewing the band as a lightweight version of Shenandoah, a comparison I did not feel to be very valid.

The album was definitely decent honky-tonk country music, with the band augmented by a solid corps of Nashville session men such as Bruce Bouton (pedal steel ), Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar), Brent Mason (electric guitar) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) and such distinguished vocal harmonists as Curtis Young and John Wesley Ryles. Unless otherwise stated, Richie McDonald handles the vocals on the singles.

The album opens up with the up-tempo ballad “Heartbroke Every Day” from the pens of Bill LaBounty, Cam King and Rick Vincent. This album track featured John Rich on lead vocals, and would be the fifth single released, reaching #18. I like Rich’s vocal, which has a bit of a bluegrass feel to it.

Why do I do this to myself
Why do I want the one that wants somebody else
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Why do I always take the fall
I’d rather have you hurtin’ me than not have you at all
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could
If I could
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Track two was the first single released, “Tequila Talkin’” penned by Bill LaBounty and Chris Waters (the brother of Holly Dunn). This single reached #8, the first top ten recording for the group:

I don’t know what they put in Cuervo that got me to say those things
Usually I wouldn’t care so much or make such a scene
But seeing you there in that dress you were wearing just drove me right out of my head
So don’t hold me responsible for anything I might’ve said

It was just the tequila talkin’
When I told you I’m still not over you
I get a little sentimental when I’ve had one or two
And that tear in my eye was the salt and the lime
Not the memory of you walkin’
If I said I’m still in love with you
It was just the tequila talkin’

John Rich, Don Cook and Wally Wilson wrote “I Love The Way You Do That’ – a good song but the intro sounds too much like the intro to track two.

“Running Away With My Heart” was penned by Michael Britt, Sam Hogin and Mark D Sanders. This would be the third single released from the album and would reach #8. This song is a mid-tempo ballad, which features some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Hey Buddy can you get me some faster wheels
I got a heartache nippin’ at my heels
I’ll be hurtin’ if she gets a big head start
First that girl stole my attention
Not to mention all my affection
Now she’s running away with my heart

“What Would It Take” was written by Billy Lawson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson, and is a slow ballad with heavy Nashville Sound string accompaniment of the kind that Billy Sherrill used with George Jones and David Houston. I think that this song, issued 15-20 years earlier, could have been a big single, but by 1995 it was very much an anachronism.

I held the world in my arms
I threw away the moon for the stars
Couldn’t see the forest for the trees
Couldn’t see the love in front of me

What would it take to take me back
Rebuild that bridge, retrace my tracks
I would give all I own
For one little stepping stone
What would it take to take me back

The redoubtable trio of John Rich, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson contributed “Does Your Daddy Know About Me”, an up-tempo honky-tonk song with solid steel and fiddle accompaniment that would have made a good single:

Well you say your daddy is a real cool dude and you keep no secrets from him
Well he knows you got a wild hair, knows your kinda out there and knows about your crazy friends
And he done found out about the night you snuck out with the Cadillac keys
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Well he knows you been skippin’ them Sunday School meetings
He’s heard how fast you drive
Knows you got an attitude, seen your little tattoo, but he lets all that slide
And I bet my boots that he think he knows you from A to Z
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Billy Lawson’s “Ragtop Cadillac” probably was very popular with line dancers. The lyrics are nothing special but it has a rhythm and feel very similar to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”.

“No News” was the second single and the first #1 record for the group reaching #1 in both the US and Canada. The song was written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders, and tells the story about a man whose woman has left him without telling him.

She said “It’s just a woman thing” and pulled out of the drive
I said not to worry I’m an understanding guy
I’ve heard that when you love someone you gotta let ’em go
She hollered “When I find myself you’ll be the first to know”
Ooh no news

I learned to do the laundry, feed the cat, and clean the house
I promised to be patient while she worked her problems out
When she packed her bags, her destination wasn’t clear
But I sensed that her intentions were honest and sincere
Ooh no news

Chick Rains has written a number of fine songs, but “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” is nothing special, a dance number that makes for a decent album track.

Richie McDonald and Kyle Green co-wrote “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance”, the only song McDonald had a part in writing. The song was the fourth single from the album reaching only #45 (but #18 in Canada). I don’t think I would have released this song as a single, although it makes a decent enough album track.

This would be one of two albums issued by the original lineup of Richie McDonald (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Rich (bass, vocals), Michael Britt (lead guitar, background vocals), Keech Rainwater (drums), and Dean Sams (keyboards). Other than John Rich’s contributions, the band relied on outside writers for material. Richie McDonald would emerge as a co-writer on subsequent albums, but I have doubts as to how essential were his contributions to the process.

I would give this album a B+. Of five Lonestar studio albums in my collection, this one is the one I listen to with the greatest frequency as it is the most consistently good album of the bunch.

Spotlight Artist: Lonestar

lonestarFor many years, the prototypical country group took the form of a gospel quartet or quintet, modeled after such gospel favorites as the Jordanaires, The Old Hickory Singers, The Oak Ridge Quartet or the Blackwood Brothers. These groups were strictly vocal groups, with some sort of instrumental accompaniment, often nothing more than someone playing the piano. It was rare that the group handled its own instrumentals, other than perhaps the original version of the Sons of The Pioneers; and aside from western groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, the repertoire was almost entirely gospel.

The first group to venture off into mostly secular music was the Statler Brothers in 1965, with the electrifying hit “Flowers On The Wall”. The Statler Brothers were strictly a vocal group, although the great Lew DeWitt played some acoustic guitar. In 1976, the Statlers were followed by the Oak Ridge Boys (formerly the Oak Ridge Quartet). Like the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys were a gospel quartet that went secular. Both groups tended to strongly resemble the gospel groups from which they had arisen, and both groups had all four members vocals featured prominently.

It was not until Alabama came to prominence in 1980 that the modern day concept of a country group entered the public conscience. Alabama was comprised of three cousins (Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook) plus a very talented outsider in drummer Mark Herndon. Unlike other country groups, Alabama had a designated lead vocalist in Randy Owen, with the other members providing instrumental support and taking an occasional lead vocal, mostly on album cuts.

Alabama proved to be hugely successful with dozens of #1 singles and millions of albums sold. Soon additional similarly structure groups would arise such as Atlanta (1983), Exile (1983), Restless Heart (1985), Shenandoah (1987), Diamond Rio (1991), and Little Texas (1991).

Of course, every trend and/or fad runs its course and Lonestar (1992) would prove to be the last really successful band of the wave that started with Alabama.

Lonestar was unusual in that as they originally were constructed, Lonestar had two singers who perceived of themselves as the lead vocalist of the group. Richie McDonald was the lead vocalist but bass player John Rich also sang some leads (mostly on album tracks) and would be booted out of the group after the second album.

Lonestar would prove to have staying power, releasing eleven studio albums (five reached gold or platinum status) and enjoying a large number of hit singles including nine that reached #1 and another nine that landed in the country top ten. One of their #1 singles, “Amazed” also reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for two weeks sandwiched between singles by Savage Garden and Destiny’s Child, and it charted in the United Kingdom.

Although the top ten singles ceased in 2006, Lonestar is still around having just issued a new album. Richie McDonald left the group for a while, but has since returned and the band once again consists of Richie McDonald on lead vocals and piano, Michael Britt on lead guitar, backing vocals, Keech Rainwater banging on the drums and Dean Sams on keyboards, acoustic guitar and backing vocal. This is essentially the original group minus John Rich.

Lonestar has a website and is playing a full schedule of road appearances. They still sound good, and if you liked them during their 1990s heydays, you’ll like them now.

So sit back as enjoy our Spotlight review of the one of the leading country groups of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Good News Travels Fast’

61ZTbWBogJL._SS280Good News Travels Fast is the first new Shenandoah album in a decade and the first since Marty Raybon rejoined the band as lead singer. Billed as a Gospel album, it is more accurately described as a religious or Christian album. There are no traditional hymns or old Gospel favorites; the album is collection of eleven new, mostly solid tunes, a few of which have a traditional Gospel sound, a few more are more pop and rock flavored, but most are country-sounding (or what country used to sound like) songs with religious or inspirational themes, in the vein of “Sunday in the South” and “Mama Knows”.

The excellent bluegrass-tinged title track is the album’s first single. I’m not sure if it’s being marketed to country radio, where it is unlikely to garner much attention, but it may bet some airplay on Christian radio stations. The first verse, about a former hellraiser who finds salvation is reminiscent of Dallas Frazier’s classic “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor”, while the second and third verses deal with the birth and resurrection of Christ. “Didn’t It Rain” and “Sunday Morning Sermon” are in a traditional Gospel style. Both sound like something that might be sung at an old-style revival meeting and both are excellent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the album’s two weakest tracks – “Hallelujah for the Cross” which is a little more contemporary Christian in style, and “If I’m Right”, which takes issue with those who look down on believers, is a little too rock-leaning for my tastes.

The remaining tracks sound like what we’ve come to expect from Shenandoah. “I Know He Knows” is a nice acoustic number about a father and son relationship, which also serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and man. “Just Wait, Be Still” is another excellent acoustic tune. Marty Raybon wrote this one with Jerry Smalley and bandmate Mike McGuire. Raybon and McGuire also wrote, along with Mark Narmore, “A Cross Between a Sinner and a Saint”, the album’s opening track. The first verse deals with the protagonist’s struggles to walk the straight and narrow. Midway through the song, however it switches course and talks about the two criminals who were crucified alongside Christ. In this verse the “saint” is the criminal who repents and the “sinner” is the one who still does not believe, and Jesus is on the cross between a sinner and a saint. The analogy doesn’t quite work, however, because clearly among that trio, it is Jesus, not the repentant criminal, who is the saint. But that is probably nitpicking at what is an otherwise good song.

There aren’t any huge surprises here; Shenandoah fans are bound to enjoy this album unless they dislike religious themed music. I wasn’t in the best of moods when I started listening to it but found I was feeling better by the time it finished playing. In that respect, at least, the album accomplishes its goal.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback’

throwbackWhen reviewing the year’s releases for my end of year lists, I realised that I never reviewed this album properly. As the album’s title hints, Alabaman Kevin Moon is a thorough going traditionalist who could have been a big star if he had been around in the late 80s or early 90s – the era of most of the songs on this album. He has a fabulous country voice with rich tones and characterful inflections, and he stands up well against the stars who guest on this album.

He teamed up with Ken Mellons (who he sounds very like) to rework the latter’s ‘Honky Tonk Teachers’. It’s an appropriate choice with its loving tribute to the great country singers of the past, and this version is great.

Kevin pays tribute to the late Keith Whitley a number of times, starting with a nice version of ‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose’, with Rhonda Vincent taking Lorrie Morgan’s duet part. This is one track where the original is better, but it is a beautiful song with a lovely melody. Whitley wrote ‘Hopelessly Yours’, recorded by John Conlee, George Jones, and Lee Greenwood/Suzy Bogguss. Moon’s cover is an emotional duet with young singer Mary Sarah. The heartbreaking ‘Tennessee Courage’ serves as tribute to both Whitley and to Vern Gosdin, and is performed with two artists who should have been stars, Wesley Dennis and Kevin Denney, and a younger singer I hadn’t previously come across but who bears further investigation, Billy Droze.

Another star not currently available to help out is Randy Travis, so Travis’s one-time protégé Daryle Singletary helps out on an excellent version of ‘The Storms Of Life’. Conway Twitty’s son Michael assists on the sentimental ‘That’s My Job’.

John Anderson guests on his early 90s comeback hit. ‘Straight Tequila Night’ – again, I prefer the original, but this is still good. Marty Raybon’s voice blends beautifully with Moon’s on a lovely version of Shenandoah’s ‘Moon Over Georgia’. Doug Stone still sounds good on a version of his ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’. ‘You’ve Got To Stand For Something’ features Aaron Tippin, but is less forceful than the original.

A couple of new songs are included. ‘Low Key’ dreams about a much-needed beach vacation, mixing a steel guitar dominated arrangement with Spanish-influenced guitar, and is nicely done. The title track strings together quotes from a selection of great country classics and calls for some throwback country, “with some drinkin’, cheatin’ lyin’, leavin’”, and is quite clever.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from a young man with a lot of talent. The lack of originality in making most of the material cover songs is ameliorated by making them duets with, in most cases the original stars.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Alabama

alabamaA long time ago, back in 1969, there were three cousins in Fort Payne, Alabama, who decided to form a band. The band kept practicing and perfecting their craft, eventually becoming a proficient bar band, traveling the southeastern US and landing an extended gig at the Bowery in Myrtle Beach, SC. For part of this period they used the name Wildcounty but eventually the band became known simply as ‘Alabama’. They not only wrote some of their own material, but came up with a unique sound that eventually attracted the interest of the Dallas-based MDJ label. The release in 1979 on MDJ of “My Home’s In Alabama” reached #17 and got the folks at RCA Records interested in them, so much so that they signed to RCA in March 1980, beginning an extended period of huge success.

At the time they arrived on the national scene in 1980, I was not a big fan of the band, but as time went by, I developed a strong respect for the band and a deeper appreciation of their music and their status as trailblazers in vocal group country music.

This is not to say that there had not been vocal groups in country music before. Far from it, as groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, The Willis Brothers, The Four Guys, The Oak Ridge Boys and, most notably, the Statler Brothers had been having considerable success for years before Alabama arrived.

The Willis Brothers and Sons of the Pioneers came out of the western (or western movies) tradition and really are separate and distinct from mainstream country music. The Four Guys, The Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers came out of the gospel music traditions, and even when performing mainstream country music they frequently still sounded like gospel groups. In the case of the Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers, when commercial country success abandoned them, they turned back to recording more gospel music.

Alabama was unique. They did not arise out of the western or gospel traditions but were a bar band that played in front of noisy barroom audiences, wrote their own material, covered the likes of Merle Haggard, and developed a synthesis of soft rock and country music that brought a new audience to country music. That new audience was a younger audience that had grown up on rock music but perhaps felt that rock had become too weird or perhaps simply had grown up with both rock music and country music and appreciated the synthesis that Alabama had developed.

Unlike most rock music of the time, Alabama’s music was both melodious and harmonious. Unlike most country music of the 1960s and 1970s, Alabama’s music was good dance music in a way that the music of Jimmy Dickens, Roy Drusky and Jim Reeves never could be. Plus Alabama had three really good vocalists, even if RCA insisted that Randy Owen be the lead vocalist on most tracks.

In addition to bringing a younger audience to country music, they were a huge influence on the genre as over the next decade, more and more vocal bands entered the scene, cautiously at first with Atlanta coming on the scene in early 1983, followed by more significant bands such as Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Diamond Rio, Sawyer Brown and many others.

Alabama would have an uninterrupted run of success from 1980 thru 1999, after which time the top ten hits ceased. Along the way they would enjoy thirty-three #1 singles with six other singles reaching #2, six more reaching #3 and two more getting stranded at #4. Many of their singles reached #1 in Canada including a few late 1990s singles that did not reach #1 in the US (eh?).

Alabama was lead singer Randy Owen (b. 1949) and his cousins, Teddy Gentry (b. 1952) and Jeff Cook (b. 1949). For many years it was thought by most fans that drummer Mark Herndon was a member of the group, but years after the group retired, it was revealed that he was but a paid employee of the group.

Some of my older comrades may disagree, but when I listened to Alabama’s music, I always felt that I was listening to country music, if a somewhat different form of the genre. There are many album tracks which have a far more traditional sound than some of the singles. There are fiddles and steel guitars on many tracks and while the three members of Alabama were good songwriters, they did not hesitate to record good outside material.

Join us as we look back at the career of Alabama.

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Christmas Comes Alive’

christmascomesaliveThe new six-track EP Christmas Comes Alive marks the first time in 18 years that Marty Raybon and Shenandoah have recorded together. Coincidentally, their last album together was also a Christmas collection. Christmas Comes Alive consists of mostly new material — some of which they wanted to include on their 1996 album, but Capitol insisted on an album of Christmas classics. After a lengthy delay, the original material has finally seen the light of day.

The EP’s opening track is “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which was written by drummer Mike McGuire, who produced the EP with Marty Raybon. It starts out as the familiar children’s nursery rhyme, but it quickly establishes that the little lamb’s name was Jesus. It’s followed by the title track, written by Marty Raybon, Bud McGuire, and Kim Williams. An upbeat number about Santa’s elves preparing for the big day, it is one of the songs that the group had wanted to include on their Christmas album for Capitol.

“Good Ole Fashioned Christmas” and “Family Tree” both revisit familiar themes of family, tradition and traveling home for Christmas. Both are good, if not particularly memorable. The album’s standout track is the closing number “Lullabies In Bethelehem”, a Mike McGuire co-write with Mark Narmore that tells the story of Nativity from the point of view of another traveler to Bethlehem, who took the last room at the inn and would have gladly given it up had he known how desperately it was needed by Mary and Joseph.

The collections sole traditional tune is a very nice rendition of “The First Noel” which fits in very nicely with the newer tunes. There are no Johnny Mathis or Nat King Cole style songs here. No strings or orchestras, just plenty of fiddle, dobro and banjo, the kind of country sound one expects from Shenandoah.

In addition to Christmas Comes Alive, Marty Raybon and Shenandoah are reportedly working on more new music, which is expected to be released next year. If it is as good as this collection, then 2015 is already starting to look like a good year for country music.

Grade: A

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Week ending 5/17/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

EddyA1954 (Sales): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): I Really Don’t Want To Know — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Is It Wrong (For Loving You) — Sonny James (Capitol)

1984: To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before — Willie Nelson with Julio Iglesias (Columbia)

1994: If Bubba Can Dance (I can Too) — Shenandoah (RCA)

2004: You’ll Think of Me — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2014: Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Give Me Back My Hometown — Eric Church (EMI Nashville)

Classic Rewind: Marty Raybon – ‘The Moon Over Georgia’

Another Shenandoah hit:

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Marty Raybon – ‘Ghost In This House’

Marty sings another Shenandoah hit:

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘When The Sand Runs Out’

sandrunsoutRarely is a stint as the lead singer of a successful band a good launching pad for a solo career; just ask Larry Stewart, Paulette Carlson, or any of the countless others who tried and failed. Marty Raybon is no exception. Although the Raybon Brothers enjoyed some modest success with the sales of “Butterfly Kisses”, Marty’s hitmaking days ended shortly before he left Shenandoah. He resumed his solo career when the Raybon Brothers disbanded. None of his solo efforts was released by a major label. One of his better efforts is 2006’s When The Sand Runs Out, a mostly acoustic effort that is part country and part bluegrass with the occasional bit of gospel thrown in.

The listener is immediately reeled in with the opening track “Looking For Suzanne”, the story of an absentee father seeking to be reunited with his now adult daughter. The parent-child relationship is examined again from a different angle later in the album with Michael A. Curtis’ “Who Are You”, which examines the lifelong relationship between a father and son, from the son’s birth, through the rebellious adolescent and teenage years, to the role reversals when the son becomes the caretaker for the now-ailing father who can no longer recognize him. Both are excellent songs that were way too serious for 21st century country radio to even consider touching with a ten-foot pole.

The upbeat “Shenandoah Saturday Night”, another Curtis composition co-written with Marty and Mike Pyle, is the closest this album gets to a commercial song. It pays homage to Marty’s days with Shenandoah and name checks many of the hits he scored during his dozen years as the band’s lead singer. The non-charting “Shenandoah Saturday Night” was the album’s only single. It leads into a highly enjoyable cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, that might have been my favorite track on the album had I never heard the Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman version that appeared on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2. The McGuinn/Hillman recording was the first version I ever heard and it remains my favorite.

The highlights of the album are the beautiful ballad “I Know Love”, which Marty wrote with his brother Tim, and “Come Early Morning”, which was written by the great Bob McDill. I also particularly enjoyed the album’s bluegrass numbers “Throw Dirt” and “Wish I’d Never”. These came as a bit of a surprise, since I’d never thought of Marty as a bluegrass artist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his non-Shenandoah work, so I don’t know if he dabbled in bluegrass prior to this, but he proves that he is more than capable of pulling it off credibly.

When The Sand Runs Out is an album clearly not made with an eye on the charts. It is sparsely produced and sounds as though it may have been a live-in-the-studio recording as opposed to the usual practice of recording different tracks separately and assembling them later — just a guess on my part. This gives it a decidedly non-commercial feel, which coupled with first-rate material, only adds to the album’s appeal.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Shenandoah – ‘Next To You, Next To Me’

Album Review: The Raybon Brothers – ‘The Raybon Brothers’

raybon brosAfter leaving Shenandoah, Marty decided to team up in a duo with his brother Tim. MCA released their one and only album together, a self-titled effort, in 1997.

Even Marty Raybon’s committed soulful vocal can’t save the gooey sentiment of ‘Butterfly Kisses’, the duo’s first single. The song had been a big AC hit for its writer, Bob Carlisle, but the Raybon Brothers’ country cover was less successful with radio, just creeping into the top 40. It may not have helped that another rival country cut was around at the same time (by Jeff Carson), although that one performed even more poorly; and the original itself also got some country airplay. However the exposure did propel the single to high sales figures, and it achieved gold certification.

‘The Way She’s Lookin’’ is a bouncy up-tempo number which while fairly generic is much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a flop when it was released as the second single; a shame, as it deserved to do better than ‘Butterfly Kisses’.

The final attempt at a single was a real misstep. ‘Falling’ is a very boring and not terribly good AC-styled duet with Olivia Newton-John – a curious choice whose shortlived country career was long since over. It didn’t chart at all, and didn’t deserve to.

The best track on the album is ‘Every Fire’, a ruefully tender ballad written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski in which the protagonist regrets that the pain of losing his ex has stopped him from moving on:

It’s still raining in my heart
And that’s been putting out every fire I’ve tried to start

Also great is the Don Cook/Al Anderson penned ‘Trying To Keep The Woman I’ve Got’, a charming, up-tempo polite rejection of a woman coming on to him in a bar. This is like vintage Shenadoah.

‘Baby Blue’ is an average song, but has a pleasant melody and some lovely close sibling harmonies. The brothers wrote ‘Your Love’ with Mike Curtis, and this is quite a good sunny up-tempo number reminiscent of Shenandoah.

Tim was allowed to sing lead on a few tracks. He shows himself a competent vocalist with a big meaty voice, but not in his brother’s class. His vocal on ‘Gettin’ Ready For The World To End’ is loud and unsubtle, while he gives a solid but somewhat anonymous performance on his own ‘Hello Love’, which is quite a nice song. ‘Tangled Up In Love’ is a limp pop number co-written by Keith Urban.

The brothers’ musical partnership having failed to set the charts on fire, the duo disbanded, and Marty turned to a solo career. there are enough bright spots to make this worth picking up if you can find it cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Now and Then’

MI0000088499Change was in the air for Shenandoah as the 90s rolled to their mid-point. Liberty, the label upon which they released In The Vicinity of the Heart, had a name change back to Capitol Records Nashville. Marty Raybon released a solo gospel project in November 1995, and the band contributed “Can’t Buy Me Love” to Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles that same year. Stan Thorn and Ralph Ezell, two of Shenandoah’s founding members, exited the group around this same time as well.

Amidst the upheaval they were able to deliver a new album, with the band now a trio. Now and Then, a record consisting of five new songs and eight re-recordings of their biggest hits for Columbia, dropped in 1996 with Don Cook producing once again.

Album opener “All Over But The Shoutin,’” a rockilin’ honky-tonker was the first and only single, peaking at #46. The production on the track is listenable, but Raybon’s rapid-fire lyrical delivery is awful and leaves the track without room to breathe. “Lonely Too Long” isn’t much better with a dated line dance-esque sound and cliché ‘country boy meets city girl’ lyrics. “Nowhere To Go But Back” hardly reverses the trend, serving up more nondistinctive dreck.

“I Got You,” with it’s fiddle heavy production sounds like it came from a completely different album. Raybon sings with his trademark-relaxed twang here, and it’s a nice change of pace. The only ballad among the new tracks, “Deeper Than That” is okay, but suffers from a rudimentary lyric and bland production.

The rest of Then and Now, except for inclusion of “Somewhere In The Vicinity of the Heart,” which closes the album, consists of the aforementioned re-recordings. I’m not a fan of this practice at all, especially in the age of digital downloads where the re-recording is often the only available version of a song. I understand why artists do it, so their songs are available again, but it’s still an annoyingly cheap ploy to scam the fans that don’t know any better.

I don’t think I’d mind this practice as much if the songs were nicely updated, but they’re just cheap carbon copies of the originals. Only “Mama Knows” actually sounds good. The others, particularly “Two Dozen Roses” and “Sunday In The South” lack the magic of the originals.

As a whole, Now and Then is a weak, weak album deficient in quality songs with tasteful arrangements. As the final album for the band in its semi-original form (they formally disbanded in 1997) it’s a shame their ten-year career closed on such a sour note. With all the hits they gave us in their prime, they and their fans deserved so much better than weak re-recordings and mailed in original tunes. Download “I Got You” and leave the rest in the dust. You’ll be better for it.

Grade: D 

Classic Rewind: Marty Raybon – ‘Two Dozen Roses’

Marty sings Shenandoah’s third #1:

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘In the Vicinity of the Heart’

sheanndoahBy 1994 Shenandoah was once again looking for a new label. This time they landed at Liberty. At the time they were nearing completion on a new album which RCA allowedthe band to take with them. At Liberty they recorded one new track with guest vocalist Alison Krauss. “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” was a much bigger hit than its peak chart position (#7) suggested. It won the CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year in 1995 and also won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. In addition, it provided Krauss with her first Top 40 hit and her first major exposure outside of the bluegrass world.

Like its predecessor Under the Kudzu, In the Vicinity of the Heart was produced by Don Cook. On the strength of its title track, it became Shenandoah’s fastest-selling album, though it ultimately failed to earn any certifications. The second single “Darned If I Don’t (Danged If I Do)” is an upbeat, radio friendly tune that was penned by Ronnie Dunn and Dean Dillon. Peaking at #4, it gave Shenandoah their last Top 10 hit.

A few of the album’s tracks have been recorded by other artists. Dennis Linde’s “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)” had previously been recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, and “I Wouldn’t Know”, which was co-written by Shenandoah member Mike McGuire was later covered by Reba McEntire. Though not a religious song, “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready) has got a gospel flavor that is well suited to the Oaks’ four part harmonies, and ultimately the Shenandoah version, which reached #24, cannot compete. I prefer Shenandoah’s version of “I Wouldn’t Know” to Reba’s more crossover-oriented take. “She Could Care Less” was also later covered by Joe Nichols on his debut album, but neither version of this somewhat pedestrian number is particularly memorable. Ditto for “Every Fire” which was later covered by Jason Sellers and Restless Heart.

“Always Have, Always Will” was the album’s fourth and final single. By this time Shendanoah’s chart decline was apparent; the song stalled at #40 and all of their subsequent releases charted even lower. I would have liked for “Cabin Fever”, a Marty Raybon co-write with Bud McGuire and Lonnie Wilson, to have been released as a single. The upbeat number allows the band to showcase their harmonies and it is reminiscent of their earlier work on Columbia.

In the Vicinity of the Heart was Shenandoah’s only album for Liberty Records. By the time of the band’s next release Now and Then, the label had reverted back to its former name Capitol Nashville. Now and Then contained some new songs and some re-recordings of some of their Columbia hits. A Christmas album was released by Capitol in 1996, shortly before Marty Raybon’s departure from the band.

At the time of its release, In the Vicinity of the Heart was criticized in some quarters for playing it too safe, and while it’s true that it doesn’t contain any artistic stretches or surprises, it is a solid piece of work and a grim reminder how even an album that was only considered average 20 years ago knocks the socks off most the today’s top sellers. It isn’t available for download, but cheap used copies are easy to find. Fans of 90s country may want to pick up a copy.

Grade: A-