My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sheryl Crow

Christmas Rewind: Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley – ‘Run Run Rudolph’

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EP Review: Jenny Gill – ‘The House Sessions’

the-house-sessionsThe House Sessions, Jenny Gill’s debut EP, finds her drawing on personal experience as she strives to establish her own voice separate from her esteemed pedigree. Her father, who most everyone knows is Vince Gill, produced the album at the home studio for which the six-song set finds its name.

The material that comprises The House Sessions finds Gill transported to the past while specific memories tied to the lyrics. The gorgeous “Whisky Words,” a ballad concerning an ex who’s all talk, was birthed from her time working at a publishing company tasked with pitching songs to others. It comes across as a record that would’ve been popular in the early-2000s when it likely would’ve done quite well.

“Lean On Love” finds Gill exercising her bluesy side in homage to Bonnie Raitt whom she cites as a primary influence. The tune is excellent, tastefully produced and subtly evocative. “Lonely Lost Me,” the lead single, which features harmonies by Sheryl Crow, is a jazzy ballad that settles into an intoxicating and memorable groove.

Gill’s husband, Sony/ATV executive Josh Van Valkenberg, inspired the title of “Look Where Loving You Landed Me” when he sang the line on their honeymoon. The track is a terrific ballad melding her blues and jazz influences with the personal touches (references to the beach) that keep the song from feeling generic.

The most adventurous track on The House Sessions is Motown classic “The Letter,” which was originally recorded by The Box Tops fifty years ago. I do find it strange that Gill would choose to add a cover song to an EP when she could’ve added another original instead, but she handles the track with ease while showcasing additional aspects of her voice.

Gill freely admits that the gospel-tinged “Your Shadow” is the album’s most personal number. The song tackles the heavy emotions surrounding her good fortune at being Vince’s daughter. The track also contains the most memorable line on the whole project:

And someone will say, I’ll never compare

And I’ll pour my heart out and no one will care

And I’ve got to find a dream that will shine on its own

In the light of your shadow

While it is easy to compare an offspring to their famous parents, Gill doesn’t have that problem on The House Sessions. She makes the album her own with an authentic sound true to her voice and influences. She recorded the album in a week; utilizing studio time her father gave her as a Christmas present. I’m glad he was involved in shaping the sound of the record because the final mixing is clear and clean, devoid of excess. He let each song breathe and find itself musically, which rewards the listener with a rich experience that puts the song, and not ego, front and center.

The House Sessions, which has been available digitally since September, is getting another push this month with renewed publicity and a video for “Lonely Lost Me.” I wouldn’t categorize the project as country per se, as it melds those sensibilities with jazz and blues to find its own place within the musical space. Ultimately genre classification doesn’t matter since The House Sessions wonderfully succeeds in showcasing Gill as a fully formed artist and writer. I look forward any new music she chooses to release in the years to come.

Grade: A

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Tell Me Why’

tell me whyWynonna’s second solo album was released in May 1993,produced as before by Tony Brown. It did not sell as well as its predecessor, but was still certified platinum, and produced five top 10 hits.

The first single, the title track, was a mid-tempo Karla Bonoff song with a glossy contemporary country-rock feel, and reached #3 on Billboard. This performance was matched by its successor, the more delicate and sophisticated ‘Only Love. Written by Roger Murrah and Marcus Hummon, it doesn’t sound particularly country now, but it featured a strong vocal performance.

My favorite track by far, ‘Is It Over Yet’, is a solemn piano-led ballad with a sensitive string arrangement which allows Wynonna’s emotion-filled voice to shine on a song about the pain of a breakup. It peaked at #7.

The most successful single, ‘Rock Bottom’, only just missed the top of the charts. It was written by the songwriters behind Southern Rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and has a bluesy rock groove which suits Wynonna’s confident growl, although it’s not really my favorite style. The final single, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Girls With Guitars’, is a strong country rock number celebrating female musicians by telling the story of one young woman’s progress from high school to adult success, defeating the expectations of sexist listeners along the way. Naomi Judd and Lyle Lovett contribute backing vocals on the song.

Jesse Winchester’s ‘Let’s Make A Baby King’ is a Christmas song which New Grass Revival had recorded a few years earlier in more bluegrassy style, and which Wynonna gave a black gospel makeover. While Wynonna’s version was not formally released as a single, it gained some airplay at Christmas. ‘Just Like New’ is another memorable Winchester song, a bluesy story about a car once owned by Elvis. Naomi Judd’s ‘That Was Yesterday’ is performed as a slowed down blues number.

‘Father Sun’ was written by Sheryl Crow, about to make her own breakthrough as a rock singer-songwriter, and has a rather elusive lyric. The production funnels Wynonna’s vocal through an echoey effect which wastes her greatest asset, her powerful voice, and more gospel style backing vocals swamp her at the end.

She does show her more subtle interpretative side with a cover of ‘I Just Drove By’, written and originally recorded by Kimmie Rhodes. This charming song is about sweet memories of childhood innocence, and Wynonna sings it beautifully.

While it is a long way from traditional, and a purist might challenge its country credentials on any level, Wynonna was able to take her place in the diverse sounds of 1990s country music. It’s an accomplished record in its own right, genre considerations aside, but that does make it tough to assign a grade to on a country blog.

Grade: B

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’

220px-I_Am_Shelby_LynneIn 1998, Shelby Lynne moved to Palm Spring, California to work with producer Bill Bottrell on her seventh studio album. A year later the results of those sessions emerged as I Am Shelby Lynne. The project remains her magnum opus, a singular work that cathartically unleashed her wild abandon and announced her arrival as a fully-formed artist who finally found her own identity.

Lynne unleashed the heavily produced 60s throwback “Your Lies” as the project’s lead single, with crashing drums and drenching strings startling the listener awake. The slow-burning “Leavin,” in which she recites the verses in a sexy whisper, came next. The final single found her embracing radio-friendly pop, with hints of Bonnie Raitt in her vocal performance. “Gotta Get Back” was justly rewarded and became the project’s only sizeable hit, peaking at #26 on the Hot AC chart.

The three singles, all of which are uniquely excellent, couldn’t be more different yet sonically cohesive enough to work as small pieces of the larger puzzle that is I Am Shelby Lynne. Of even greater significance, “Your Lies” and “Leavin,” open the album hitting the listener with an adventurous sonic sucker punch that takes us on a unique and joyous journey to parts unknown.

That unfamiliar territory led south to Hollywood, where the producers of Bridget Jones’ Diary plucked the ethereal ballad “Dreamsome” for use in the film. It’s an ambiguous selection for an otherwise upbeat romantic comedy, but it works splendidly as a stand-alone recording.

Lynne had a hand in co-writing each of the tracks on I Am Shelby Lynne, including eight with Bottrell. The pair cover vast lyrical acreage, from the esoteric stream-of-consciousness of “Life Is Bad” to the emotional confrontation of “Thought It Would Be Easier.” She subtly addresses her new direction on “Where I’m From,” declaring “never far away from Alabama frame of mind.”

“Why Can’t You Be” is a contextually vague thumper that works from the prospective of Lynne lamenting the end of a romantic relationship, but evolves into brilliance if she’s actually singing about herself, painting the picture that it’s her who’s “the only enemy.” “Lookin’ Up” foreshadows the journey to come, offering sonic glimpses into such projects as Just A Little Lovin’ and I Can’t Imagine. The lyric itself seeps with delicious venom and finds Lynne on the warpath for “the next thing that brings me down.” The original edition of I Am Shelby Lynne closes with “Black Light Blue,” a too-slow string drenched ballad that continues Lynne’s penchant for esoteric stream-of-consciousness songwriting.

To commemorate the album’s fifteenth anniversary, Rounder Records released a deluxe edition complete with six previously unreleased songs and a concert DVD. The six unearthed tunes including a seven minute acoustic ballad entitled “The Sky Is Purple,” in which Lynne addresses her teenage years through a revelatory vocal performance. “Should’ve Been Better” is a pep infused slice of funk, “Wind” is gorgeous pop ballad, and “She Knows Where She Goes” is melodically country. “Miss You Sissy” and “Bless The Fool” lean smooth jazz.

The relationship between Lynne and Bottrell, who also helmed Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club, recalls Emmylou Harris’ reinvention with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball. Like Harris’ seminal classic, I Am Shelby Lynne is a masterpiece that showcases Lynne in her most unbridled form. She richly deserved the Best New Artist Grammy Award she won courtesy of this project, even though, after six previous albums, she logically shouldn’t have been eligible at all.

Lynne hasn’t reached these heights since, but she also hasn’t tried, which is the mark of an astute artist. I Am Shelby Lynne is the rare album that stands in a class by itself where no other project by its maker can even come close to surpassing its brilliance. I Am Shelby Lynne is an ageless beauty.

Grade: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Charlie Worsham – ‘Rubberband’

rubberbandI was thoroughly charmed by Charlie Worsham’s debut single. And keen to see what the young Mississippian  would come up with on his first album.  the result is interesting.  While it’s not a traditional country record, it is a breath of fresh air in the rock and pop environs of modern country radio.  Charlie wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, many of them with his co-producer Ryan Tyndell.  He is a capable rather than outstanding vocalist, with a pleasant, rather light voice, but his songwriting and musicianship are both strong.

I still love the single, which makes a delightful opening to the album and remains my favourite track.  The following ‘Want Me Too’ is stylistically very similar with a bright youthful feel, prominent banjo, and strong harmonies on the chorus.   The lyric (once more about the early stages of falling in love) has an arresting opening,

You’ve got a lock on your heart
It’s chained in the dark
And somehow you lost the key

But the darkness doesn’t last long, as a sunny attitude imbues the song; one feels quite confident that she will succumb to the protagonist’s charms.

There is a very youthful feel to the whole record.  I very much liked the folky and probably autobiographical ‘Young To See’, about seizing opportunities to experience life.  ‘How I Learned To Pray’ is a gentle ballad about finding God through first love which is rather sweet.  The more wistful ‘Mississippi In July’ also looks back to his teens and is quite atmospheric in an understated way.

‘Tools Of The Trade’ is a paean to making music, with some star guests: Marty Stuart and Vince Gill, on both vocals and mandolin/guitar respectively, and (billed only in the small print) Rebecca Lynn Howard on backing vocals.  It’s a bit heavier sounding than the remainder of the record, but still fairly rootsy.

I also liked ‘Love Don’t Die Easy’ and ‘Break What’s Broken’, a pair of low-key ballads, the former with Sheryl Crow on backing vocals.

‘Trouble Is’ is pleasant but unexciting, while ‘Someone Like Me’ is like early Keith Urban, with quite  a nicely written wistful lyric.  The one track I didn’t enjoy at all was the self-indulgent title track, which is repetitive and nonsensical lyrically, and really just an excuse for some experimental musicianship.

While not an essential purchase, this is a very pleasant sounding record with some decent songs.  it is very tastefully produced and mixed so that electric guitars and drums do not overwhelm everything else as they do on so many commercial successes.  I hope that this more understated and organic sound can find a space on country radio.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Heroes’

Nearly two decades after he departed Columbia Records, Willie Nelson has rejoined the Sony Music family with Heroes, which was produced by Buddy Cannon and released last week on the Legacy Recordings imprint. He is joined by a number of guest artists, including Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joe Shaver, and Snoop Dogg. Also participating are Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas. Sounding very much like a younger version of his 79-year-old father, Lukas performs on most of the album’s tracks and does the heavy lifting much of the time.

As is usually the case with a Willie Nelson album, the selection of songs is eclectic. A cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” was released as a single late last year. Three more singles were released almost simultaneously last month. “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”, a lighthearted number that makes pokes fun at Willie’s well-known marijuana habit, was released on April 20th, or “420 Day”, which apparently is significant in the cannabis subculture. “Just Breathe”, a Pearl Jam cover and “Come On Back Jesus” were released the following day in celebration of Record Store Day. I particularly like the latter, which calls for the second coming of Christ and asks him to “pick up John Wayne on the way.” I’m cool with that. Rounding out the track list are some covers of some western swing classics: Bob Wills’ “My Window Faces The South” and Fred Rose’s “Home In San Antone”, as well as the Ray Price classic “This Cold War With You”, on which Price makes a guest appearance. Also included are some original tunes written by Willie, Lukas, and Buddy Cannon.

Some of the guest appearances are my favorite moments on the album. While I wasn’t too excited to see Snoop Dogg’s name on the guest roster, his contribution to “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me While I Die” wasn’t bad. Sheryl Crow, the lone female guest artist, chimes in on “Come On Up To The House”. But the album’s true highlights are “A Horse Called Music”, which reunites Willie with Merle Haggard and “Cold War With You” featuring Ray Price. Although the presence of Lukas Nelson on most the album’s tracks is clearly to compensate for the elder Nelson’s fading vocal prowess, both Willie and Merle Haggard are in surprisingly good vocal form. Ray Price’s voice, on the other hand, is showing signs of wear and tear, and Kris Kristofferson was never much of a vocalist anyway.

Although I’m biased towards some of the album’s older songs, the contemporary fare is almost as good. I quite enjoyed “That’s All There Is To This Song” and “The Sound Of Your Memory”, which was written by Lukas Nelson with Elizabeth Rainey. Despite the inclusion of the Coldplay and Pearl Jam numbers, this is very much a country album, and one that does not pander to current commercial trends. There is much here for the country fan to enjoy, and Heroes is almost certain to end up on many this year’s best albums lists.

Grade: A

Album Review – Marty Stuart – ‘Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best’

Released in June 1996, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best marks the final album of the hit-making portion of Stuart’s career. His sixth release for MCA Records, and produced as usual by Tony Brown, the album had four singles and peaked at #27 on the charts.

The lead single and title track reunited Stuart with Travis Tritt for their first duet in four years. Released in April of 1996, “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best” wouldn’t be nearly as successful as their previous collaborations, missing the top twenty completely, and peaking at #23. It didn’t help that the song rocked harder than their previous work and Stuart’s growly vocal may’ve been a slight turn-off for radio programmers. To make matters worse, the mix of loud guitars and screaming steel hasn’t aged well. But the lyric, about a misunderstood boy who’s born to honky tonk, is still relevant today.

Second single “Thanks To You” wouldn’t faire much better on the charts, peaking at #50 that same year. But Stuart and Gary Nicholson wrote an outstanding lyric that holds up extremely well today. A love song, it’s a thank you note to the woman who saved the man’s life:

I searched for love my whole life through

Then it came like a blinding flash from the blue

Thanks to you

Empty nights and long lost days

Roving eyes and rambling ways are through

Thanks to you

“You Can’t Stop Love,” a guitar-heavy mid-tempo number co-written by Stuart and Kostas, peaked at #26 in 1997. Not as commercial as the previous two singles, it amazes me this garnered more airplay than “Thanks To You,” a much better single choice for the late 90s. But it’s still a good song, although the moody and somewhat dark arrangement is a better fit for Gary Allan than for Stuart.

A final single, “Sweet Love” came in the spring of 1997 but failed to chart. Written by rock and roll singer Del Shannon, “Sweet Love” was far too out of step with the times upon its release. Stuart, meanwhile, seems overproduced a bit and the loud guitar-heavy accompaniment drowns out his vocal.

As “Sweet Love” aptly illustrates, at his core Stuart is an individualist. By not bucking to trends or trying to sound like his contemporaries, his albums come off unique to the man creating them. That downside is that uniqueness doesn’t have a home on country radio. But commercial aspirations aside, it makes for a very interesting listening experience.

The most unique of all the songs on the album is “The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow,” which features Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin along with his country music coon dog and beagle hounds. The track opens with Martin giving a recitation as though he and Stuart are relaxing on a porch in the country. The barking dogs give way to bluesy number heavy on guitar and originality but low on appeal. This is an acquired taste kind of song, and out of place on a commercial country record.

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Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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2011 CMA award predictions

The Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 9th, 2011, presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who have become something of a fixture in that role in the past few years. Last year Brad also triumphed by winning the Entertainer of the Year title for the first time. The show will feature performances from many of the nominees, plus American Idol Scotty McCreery and pop star Lionel Richie, who has been recording duets with country stars for release next spring.

Here are our thoughts about who will walk away smiling next Wednesday night, category by category:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton: Jonathan Pappalardo, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Taylor Swift
Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: I feel this is a genuinely open category this year. Brad Paisley is the reigning Entertainer, having finally won the long overdue title last year, and is clearly popular with voters. However, I think he has passed his peak both commercially and (more importantly) artistically, with relatively disappointing sales figures for recent albums, although he continues to do well at radio with a #2 and two #1 hits over the period. He is also one of the top earners in country music, alongside Taylor Swift. Teen favorite Swift won the title controversially in 2009, then was largely ignored last year, and is back again with a brace of nominations. She undoubtedly has the biggest international and pop profile of all the nominees, as well as the biggest sales, with over three million copies sold so far of Speak Now in the U.S. and platinum or multi-platinum status in a number of other countries, some (like the Philippines) with little exposure to country music. She has also toured successfully overseas this year. Of course, that makes her an international pop star as much or more than a country star who has gotten lucky with pop airplay; how far should that sway the CMA?

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Aldean could be a big winner this year overall. He’s had a good year, with one of the best-selling albums (over 1.5 million sales), and his brand of country-rock, while far heavier on the rock than the country, has carved out a niche in the market for himself. I’m not a fan myself, but he is undeniably one of the big names in country music at the moment, with two #1 and a #2 hit single from this album, and a crossover AC hit thanks to his duet with Kelly Clarkson. But my gut feeling is that it’s a bit soon to win the top award this year. Blake Shelton, despite his title as reigning Male Vocalist, is the other surprise nominee, and he could just swing it based on the impact he has had as an ambassador for the genre, with his TV role on The Voice. He has also had two #1 singles with ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ and ‘Honey Bee’, and the frankly baffling inclusion of his poorly selling EP among the Album nominees signals that the Association voters are keen to reward him.

Razor X: It’s hard for me to get very excited about any of these nominees, but Shelton seems to be on a hot streak so I think he will win. And if I have to root for one of these nominees, I’d probably go with him.

Jonathan: This is a case of the veterans versus the newcomers. Urban hasn’t won since 2005 and I don’t expect that drought to end this year. Paisley (who should win) and Swift are strong contenders, but their steady success isn’t enough to help them prevail. It comes down to Shelton versus Aldean, and in a battle between the country rocker and the TV star, Shelton walks away with his first Entertainer trophy.

J.R. Journey: I think Paisley and Urban are just slot-fillers at this point in their careers, so they’re out. Jason Aldean had a strong year and so did Taylor Swift, but neither exploded into the mainstream – Taylor’s been there for several years now – like Blake Shelton, with a major television and soundtrack push. He’s on a major upswing, and that ought to sway voters enough to give him the edge.

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams’

In his lifetime Hank Williams was keen to be recognised as a songwriter and grateful for pop covers f his work. in the years since his tragic and self-induced death, his songs have been covered from artists across the This album presents a dozen songs based on lyrics or scraps of lyrics left by Hank Williams, which have been completed by contemporary artists. It is an interesting project if a controversial one, and I would have liked it to be clearer what each participant contributed to the creative process. The tunes are all newly composed; the lyrics apparently range from completed lyrics which need only the music to be added (‘The Love That Faded’, the original manuscript lyric for which is the only one to be reproduced in the liner notes) to just a couple of lines serving as springboard for a modern songwriter’s inspiration. Each artist also uses his or her usual producer and their own selection of studio musicians.

The results range from the excellent to the dire, with some in between. The artists include both country singers-songwriters and those from other genres with a longstanding appreciation for country music and Hank Williams in particular, with Bob Dylan the first to be approached. Perhaps unsurprisingly those artists with a deeper grounding in country music have produced results more in keeping with the original, and more to my personal taste.

The best track is Alan Jackson’s ‘You’ve Been Lonesome Too’, which opens the set and manages to sound genuinely inspired by Hank, helped along by Keith Stegall’s sensitively authentic production, the excellent recreation of the Drifting Cowboys by the likes of Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin and Alan’s straightforward reading. It really doesn’t feel like pastiche, but a genuine unknown Hank Williams song, and one which stands up in its own right as an excellent song.

Vice Gill and Rodney Crowell collaborated on ‘I Hope You Shed A Million Tears’, and perform the song together. The Drifting Cowboys’ Don Helms provides added authenticity by guesting on steel on what must have been one of his last recording sessions (he died in 2008). Gill’s sweet vocal is interspersed with Crowell’s narration – the latter sounds more authentically Hank, but Gill sounds lovely and the final result is a fine song in its own right. I loved Crowell’s line, “I loved you like there’s no tomorrow, then found out that there’s not“. Merle Haggard tackles Hank’s religious side, giving a simple retelling of ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ an attractive melody.

Patty Loveless and husband Emory Gordy Jr carried out the writing duties on, and Patty sings the up-tempo ‘You’re Through Fooling Me’, which is highly enjoyable and sounds convincingly like a hillbilly song from the late 1940s if not necessarily a Hank Williams song. It would have fitted in well on either of her last two albums.

These four songs are the ones for country fans to download if going the digital route, and are all well worth adding to your digital library.

Hank’s grand daughter Holly Williams gives the family’s seal of approval to the project, and is repsosible for another highlight, although like a number of the artists included, her melody, while perfectly attractive, does not sound quite like a Hank Williams song. She delivers a smoothly sultry vocal on ‘Blue Is My Heart’, which is a very strong song in its own right, supported by her father on (uncredited) harmony. Norah Jones’s song, ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’ has a jazz-based tune and a stripped down production set to the acoustic guitars of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who also add tasteful harmonies. It is pleasant listening but ultimately lightweight, without the emotional intensity the lyrics demand. Lucinda Williams’s effort, ‘I’m So Happy I Found You’, has the opposite problem – a positive love song which sounds more like a dirge.

I was bored by Sheryl Crow’s ‘Angel Mine’ on first listen, but the multi-tracked vocals give it a folky feel which works quite well. Levon Helm’s distinctive vocal on ‘You’ll Never Again Be Mine’ (co-written with Helm’s producer Larry Campbell) has a nice old-time feel, backed up nicely by the backing vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, but is not the most interesting song.

The songs completed and sung by Bob Dylan (‘The Love That Faded’) and Jack White (‘You Know That I Know’) suffer from both gentlemen’s limited (to put it kindly) vocal ability, although they are both good songs. I would have really enjoyed ‘You Know That I Know’, an accusatory cheating song, if only a more competent singer had been allowed to front the performance, as White is awful. Dylan is not much better, but the sensitive production of his track is some recompense. His son Jakob is an unimpressive and bland vocalist and the melody of his song, ‘Oh Mama, Come Home’, lacks the urgency of the lyric.

Multi-artist tributes or concept albums always tend to be hit and miss, and this is no exception. There are enough tracks which work for this to be worth hearing.

Grade: B

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘Rules of Travel’

The years following Ten Song Demo were the most trying of Cash’s career. She began work on Rules of Travel in 1998, but the recording was delayed due to her pregnancy and a polyp forming on her vocal chords rendering her unable to sing for 2 and a half years. In March 2003, Travel, her first full studio album for Capitol Records, finally saw the light of day.

Travel not only marked Cash’s return to recording but it also ushered in a new period of her career, one where she would blend the sensibilities of both country and folk while embracing her ancestry in full-force.  While not quite a return to the sound that garnered her fame, Travel is firmly within the Americana genre, a place where artistry shines over commercialism.

All and all Rules of Travel is a solid if somewhat unspectacular effort. While the songs are easy on the ears and feature varying tempo, there aren’t many that stick out as truly outstanding. The only genuine masterpiece is the much-heralded “September When It Comes,” a duet with her father Johnny, made all the more eerie by his death in September of that year. Written by Cash and her husband John Leventhal,  “September” is arguably the most important track she’s recorded in recent years.

The rest of the album may not eclipse that level of importance, but it still manages to shine, despite the occasional missteps. Opening track “Beautiful Pain” benefits greatly from Sheryl Crow’s harmony vocal while any magic in “I’ll Change For You” is lost in the marriage of Steve Earle’s mumble and the repetitious lyrics. When I first bought the album eight years ago, I remember questioning the overuse of the line “I’ll Change For You” in the song. The imagination Cash may have been going for was lost for me.

The sentiment in “Rules of Travel,” however, never was, which is why it’s my favorite song on the album. A beautifully sung ballad, Cash’s vocal on the chorus always reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter. I love the effortless elegance of the production, how it keeps the song from being too soft yet too loud, and the guitars and drums infuse some much-needed life into the track.

Like “September,” “Travel” stands out by being different, a fact lost by the majority of tracks on the album. “Western Wall,” doesn’t sound much different here than on Ten Song Demo and the quiet slowness hinders my enjoyment, while “Three Steps Dow,” “Closer Than I Appear,” and “Last Stop Before Home” are so similar in sound and tempo, I find it hard to tell them apart.

While those tracks bleed together, adding up to less than the sum of their parts, there are those that rise above mediocrity. “44 Stories” is elevated by the haunting production track while “Will You Remember Me” is the rare gem that conveys the pain of two lovers split apart. She wants nothing more than to be remembered no matter where on earth he may be. And “Hope Against Hope” wins due to the driving drumbeat, which accomplishes bringing life to the track like it did for “Travel.”

All and all Rules of Travel is a very good Rosanne Cash album and a worthy addition to any fan’s collection, for “September When It Comes” alone, the shining moment for country music and Cash’s status as a legend in her own right. But the quiet production becomes a bit weighty leaving the listener in need of something rocking in the vein of “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” or “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” But that being said, she proves why she was greatly missed as both a songwriter and performer.

Rules of Travel is available in both hard and digital copy from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B

Single Review: Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow – ‘Collide’

Part-time country hit makers Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow are again aiming for the country charts with what could be the direct sequel to their previous cross-genre megahit – or prequel, depending on your interpretation of the lyrics.  All the parts are here to recreate the magic of their first hit. Well, almost. Bob Seger’s piano playing’s helps moves along the lyrics of angst, loneliness, and the inevitable hook-up that comes from so much alone time, with the help of a steady back beat.

Released to radio this week, the pair’s duet was introduced to the mainstream country audience via a performance at the 2011 CMA Musis Fest. Despite its immediate fast-track, “Collide” lacks the kind of instantly endearing melody that turns your garden variety power ballad duet into something epic like “Picture” or “Don’t You Wanna Stay”. Without the agile punch of like-minded hits, this nomadic rhythm won’t be replacing any of its competing country power ballad duets as a perennial karaoke favorite, much less gain status as a radio hit.

Grade: C+

Listen here.

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Baggage Claim”

Admittedly, I was a bit nervous listening to Miranda Lambert’s new single. I didn’t want to be disappointed or feel like she was squandering her talents. Revolution remains my current favorite mainstream country album and it was released almost two years ago. The quality of the material was top-notch and the album took Lambert to the heights I knew she was destined for after her third place finish on Nashville Star eight years ago.

But after hearing “Baggage Claim” I have to say I’m quite pleased. The track retains all the elements of a classic Lambert song – attitude, loudness, and the use of backing vocalists (which in this case happen to be Josh Kelley) on the chorus. The production has this gypsy like quality to it with the guitar work throughout that I’m really digging. It’s new and different and sounds like nothing else going for ads on country radio, which in a sea of “I’m Country” anthems is more than a good thing.

Lyrically, it’s a novel idea because it presents a tired theme in a fresh light. The metaphor of luggage in a baggage claim to the baggage of a failed relationship seems obvious at first, but if it were, it would be a cliché by now. But the cleverness of the metaphor can’t disguise the lightness of the lyrics that keep the song a hair below Lambert’s best work. But it’s very catchy and cannot help but grab your attention.

Unfortunately though, her trademark loudness gets in the way here. While it doesn’t hinder appreciation of the lyrics, the overall track is congested. A thinner arrangement (without the hard-hitting drums on the bridge, for example) would’ve struck a better tone and given Lambert room to inject even more anger into her vocal performance.

Despite the shortcomings, “Baggage Claim” displays how much Lambert has grown over the last two years by bringing new elements to her sound. Sonically, this sounds something Sheryl Crow would record and when I first heard it and the track brought to mind “Every Day Is A Winding Road.”

By varying the production just slightly, Lambert ensures the track doesn’t sound like a second-rate knockoff from Revolution but an introduction to a new project. It’s a solid addition to her discography and succeeds in wetting our appetites for the November 1 release of Four The Record.

Grade: B

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘This Is Country Music’

Brad Paisley was our Spotlight Artist last November, and he has produced some outstanding material in the past. His last few releases, however, have been on a downward spiral, and sadly his latest release accelerates the trend. He cowrote almost all the material with a variety of partners, most often including Kelley Lovelace and/or Chris Dubois. To be frank, he would have been well advised to look elsewhere, because so much of this is just plain uninspired.

Thhe three outside songs provide the most worthwhile tracks. The spiritual ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ former is the record’s sole nod to the traditionalism which marked Brad’s early career, and features guest vocals from Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. ‘A Man Don’t Have To Die’, written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson, is the album’s highlight for me, although the story’s set-up is not as well set up as it might be. The song is largely addressed to a preacher, “new around here”, but it isn’t clear what he’s been saying to his flock to prompt this response:

It don’t really scare us when you yell and shake your fist
You see we already know that Hell exists

The body of the song is much more effective, with its depiction of the hell on earth of being laid off by a ungrateful employer, “six months short of 30 years“, struggling to repay a mortgage, or a broken marriage. The chorus has effective harmonies, but the track is marred by out of place and very irritating wordless backing vocals in the second half possibly intended to be the voices of angels.

The charmingly playful ‘Toothbrush’ (written by Joel Shewmake, Jon Henderson and Danny Simpson) details the growth of romance, and this track boasts an imaginative arrangement which makes it the best sounding track on the record. Brad’s composition ‘Eastwood’ is a rather good atmospheric Western style instrumental with Clint Eastwood adding a few words at the beginning and end. Brad’s little boys gurgle a few words as well, and are less irritating than most intrusions of child voices.

None of Brad’s songs here is up to the standard of his earlier work, but I still quite like the title track’s tribute to the inclusiveness of country music, which I reviewed last autumn – at least until it collapses into an uninspired litany of (much better) song titles. The current hit, ‘Old Alabama’ is a fair tribute to the band of that name, but far less effective as a song in its own right, even when Randy Owen joins in, and it is over-produced to boot.

Also acceptable is the rueful ‘I Do Now’ which has the protagonist looking back at his wedding and regretting breaking the promises he made then. It starts out very well indeed, with an understated regret imbuing the first verse, but the chorus is predictable and the later verses don’t take us anywhere unexpected. ‘New Favorite Memory’ is a pleasant but slightly dull evocation of domestic bliss. The affectionate wedding-set ‘Love Her Like She’s Leavin’’, complete with advice (from the bride’s Uncle Bill) of how to keep the relationship going, has a very pop-influenced melody and a pleasant but cliche’d lyric. The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony.

On a similar theme, the new single ‘Remind Me’, the duet with Carrie Underwood (reviewed recently by J.R. Journey) is actually a pretty good song about a couple longing for the sweetness of the early days of a love affair which has become a stale marriage, but Carrie oversings her parts, sounding too intense where the lyric seems to call for wistfulness, and overwhelms Brad when they are singing together, while the track is too heavily produced. It will probably be a monster hit.

‘One Of Those Lives’ is a well-meaning and earnestly sung pieces comparing the protagonist’s petty problems with more serious ones faced by others, but it is awkwardly phrased and generally feels a bit forced, and I don’t care for Brad’s ventures into a falsetto.

Brad includes his usual brace of songs intended to be funny but which don’t raise a smile. Of these, the silly novelty ‘Camouflage’ with yelled call-and response backing vocals reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s worst moments at least makes an impact, if not a positive one. The Mexican vacation-set ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, a duet with Blake Shelton, falls completely flat and is a waste of both men’s talent. ‘Working On A Tan’ is a boring beach song which sounds very poppy with Beach Boys style harmonies. ‘Be The Lake’ is equally dull, as Brad leches over his love interest.

This is a disappointing offering from an artist who seems to have run out of steam creatively. Unless he manages to recharge his batteries, I suspect this will be the last Brad Paisley album I’ll buy.

Grade: C-

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

2011 ACM award predictions

The major country music awards are scattered through the year, so a new one seems to come along every few months. The Academy of Country Music is presenting its awards for achievement in 2010 in Las Vegas on April 3 on a televized show hosted by Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton. The West Coast based ACMs don’t have quite the prestige of the CMAs, awarded in November, but they have one advantage, in that their eligibility period is the previous calendar year, where the CMA and Grammy organizations have a strange mid-year cutoff which can make it hard to work out exactly what is eligible. On the downside, a few years ago in a misguided attempt at currying popularity with the public, the ACM decided to allow an online fan vote to determine the Entertainer of the Year and New Artist titles. This has been partially modified this year.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Toby Keith
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Taylor Swift

Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: There were loud squawkings from the fans of Carrie Underwood when she was omitted from the nominations this time, having won the title for the past two years. This is a partially fan-voted category this year, and with Carrie’s absence factored in, I think Taylor Swift is a slam-dunk for the victory, with her enormous and youthful fanbase. Surprise nominee Jason Aldean has earned platinum status for his last two albums and a string of top hits, so although I am underwhelmed by his heavy rocking brand of country, he might just have enough of a fanbase, and have the commercial impetus to impress the industry enough to achieve a surprise win. But the talented Miranda Lambert had a great year last year, and she would be my personal choice.

Razor X: This seems like it will be Miranda‘s year. If the award were entirely based on fan votes, Taylor Swift would be a very strong contender, but I think that because industry votes will be counted as well, they’ll offset the fan voting.

J.R. Journey: I’m assuming the members will win the battle in the combination membership/fan voting for the Entertainer race this year. Paisley may well hold his own in the online voting pools too, but I think he’ll outdistance the others as the overall vote-getter.

Top Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton

George Strait
Keith Urban

O.H.: Brad Paisley has won this title for the last four years. I can’t see anyone pushing him out this time either. I can’t say I feel very enthusiastic about this category despite the underlying talent of those nominated. None of the nominees produced particularly memorable music in 2010 – Blake Shelton may be the reigning CMA Male Vocalist and half of country music’s favorite courrent love story, but I think the ACM likes to differentiate itself from the CMAs occasionally. I liked ‘Twang’, but it under-performed at radio.

J.R.: In addition to his co-hosting duties, Blake Shelton seems poised to finally unseat Brad Paisley as the reigning Male Vocalist this year.

R.X.: Blake Shelton . Again, I think the ACMs will follow the CMA’s lead. It’s time for some new blood in this category and I just can’t see the award going to Aldean. At least I hope not.

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Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Under The Covers’

Under The Covers is the first of Dwight Yoakam’s three covers albums; four if you count the compilation In Others’ Words, which consisted of previously released material, all cover songs. This set is a collection of songs originally made famous by mostly rockers, but with a sprinkling of rockabilly and countrypolitan sounds. Prior to writing this review, repeated listenings had familiarized me with all of Yoakam’s retreads, but I had yet to hear many of these in their original form until recently. What I found was that while Dwight stays fairly close to the original recordings for the most part here, he effortlessly infuses them with the signature sounds of his own hits: which means he’s amped them up, added some killer guitar licks and his trademark breathy twang to these rock and roll perennials.

Kicking things off with a paint-by-numbers take on Roy Orbison’s ‘Claudette’, the mood for this album is immediately established with this energetic tune.  Though the Everly Brothers recorded the first version as a B-side to their 1958 mega-hit ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, Yoakam’s recording comes complete with the call-and-answer guitar work that instantly define an Orbison hit, and is more closely tied to Roy’s recording of the tune penned for his then-wife.  ‘Claudette’ was released as the album’s first single, but failed to make it farther than #47 on the Country Singles chart.  Even with the absence of a radio hit, Under The Covers still debuted at #8 on the Country Albums chart, and has to date sold over 350,000 copies.

From there, Yoakam jumps into punk-rock territory with his take on ‘Train In Vain’, the third single from The Clash’s 1980 London Calling album. Here, Yoakam puts a decided country spin on the song, with its plucky banjo lead and the smothering of the lyrics with his Kentucky drawl.  Banjo-picking and added vocals by Dr. Ralph Stanley also elevate this track far beyond normal standards.

‘Baby Don’t Go’ features Sheryl Crow and as the second single, failed to chart.  The first hit by Sonny & Cher – before ‘I Got You Babe’ – it stands as one of those songs that didn’t really need a remake, even though the pair of singers give it the old-school try and the production recalls the doo-wop sound of the original, it lacks that 60s originality to my ears.  Also, Dwight singing the Cher lines and Sheryl singing Sonny’s lines in the verses certainly take away from the lyric’s punch. I’d much rather have heard their take on ‘A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done’.

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