My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sidney Cox

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

Back in the 1980s Reba McEntire was the leading female neo-traditionalists as well as the best selling female artist of her generation. Then around the time of her second marriage, to music industry executive Narvel Blackstock, her music began to take a more contemporary turn, one which became more pronounced as the 90s wore on. It brought her a new fanbase and enormous sales, but many of her older or more traditional-leaning fans regretted her choices.

Then a couple of years ago, after Reba’s marriage came to an end she chose to make a wonderful album of religious material, much of which harked back to older times. Now her first studio album is=n several years shows a definite return to traditional country sounds. It has been vaunted her her most country album ever, which I would disagree with – 1984’s My Kind Of Country, whose name inspired this very blog, and 1987’s The Last One To Know, would both fit that description better. But it is undoubtedly a country album, and a very good one, produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon.

For a start, Reba calls on her Oklahoma roots with two fabulous Western Swing number. Opening track ‘Swing All Night With You’ was written by Jon Randall and Sidney Cox, and is a true dancefloor delight. She wrote the equally charming ‘No U In Oklahoma’ herself with Ronnie Dunn and Donna McSpadden.

Many of the songs are slow sad ones. Jonathan has already reviewed the lead single and title track, a subtle song about heartbreak written by Reba’s nice Autumn McEntire and Hannah Blaylock. ‘Tammy Wynette Kind Of Pain’ was written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore and Shelley Skidmore, and is another devastating depiction of a broken heart set to a traditional country soundtrack:

‘Standing by your man’
That’s a broken plan
When he breaks your heart and all your trust
With his two cheatin’ hands
So it’s ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’
And you don’t want him to see you cryin’
So you’re ‘crying in the rain’
And this is Tammy Wynette
We’re talkin’ Tammy Wynette kind of pain

There’s a sky full of tears in every single note
And every single word is wine and whiskey soaked
So I guess it’s me and her together in this alone
‘Til I can make it on my own’

Also reflecting on a failed marriage, but from the point of view of the husband, is ‘In His Mind’, which was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James based on Reba’s idea.

In ‘The Bar’s Getting Lower’, written by Kellys Collins, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Alex Kline, the unhappy protagonist settles for a one night stand when old dreams of marriage and family haven’t been realised:

Her dreams are disappearin’ like smoke from his cigarette
She hasn’t said yes but she’s thinkin’ she might
The closer it gets to closing time
A lonely heart will take a pick-up line
Anything to get her through the night

‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’ is a heartwrenching story song written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, and previously recorded by Jerry Kilgore and Melonie Cannon. Reba’s version is superb, and the arrangement has a mournful feel as we hear the story of a young woman who has been reunited with the drug addict and prostitute mother who gave her up at birth, just before the latter’s death. This might be the highlight of an excellent group of songs.

Another ballad, but a little more sophisticated AC in its feel, ‘The Clown’ is a beautifully detailed story about the horrifying moment of finding out her marriage is over in public, and having to keep a brave face on it. It was written by Dallas Davidson, Hillary Lindsey and James Slater.

The minor-keyed ‘Your Heart’, written by Kellys Collins, has a classical Spanish guitar accompaniment and is atmospheric and moody. Reba sings it beautifully, but it isn’t really a country song.

A couple of more commercial contemporary up-tempo songs are well performed if less to my personal taste, and may be included to appeal to Reba’s younger fans and possibly with an eye on radio play. ‘Storm In A Shot Glass’ is quite catchy in a 90s pop country way. ‘Freedom’ is more of a rock ballad rejoicing over finding love.

The album closes with the gentle piano-led ‘You Never Gave Up On Me’, dedicated to Reba’s late mother.

While not quite as traditional as one might have been led to believe from the publicity, this is definitely the best thing Reba has released in decades. It is highly recommended, and a strong contender already for album of the year.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss and the Cox Family – ‘I Know Who Holds Tomorrow’

i know who holds tomorrowThe Cox Family from Louisiana comprises father Willard, son Sidney, and daughters Evelyn, Lynn and Suzanne. Alison Krauss was a fan of Sidney Cox’s songwriting, and had recorded several of his songs on her first few Rounder albums. She also admired the beautiful voices and harmonies of his sisters, and the family band’s debut album on Rounder Records in 1993 (Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone) was Alison’s first venture into producing other artists. It was an excellent record and is well worth tracking down in its own right.

The following year Alison collaborated with the family for a gospel album (perhaps surprisingly, it remain Alison’s only full album of religious material, although she has recorded many individual songs. Stylistically it is acoustic country with bluegrass instruments subtly augmented by drums, piano and steel guitar, all tastefully played and arranged.

The vocals are mainly split between the high soprano voices of Alison and Suzanne Cox; the latter’s exquisite voice is a delight (and very similar tonally to Alison’s), and the example seems to have brought out the best in Alison too.

Suzanne sings lead on my two favourite tracks – the enchantingly beautiful title track, a simple declaration of faith; and the equally beautiful ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’. The hymn ‘Will There Be Any Stars’ is also lovely, and she takes another lead on the rhythmic ‘Walk Over God’s Heaven’, strongly backed by the other girls’ harmonies.

Evelyn’s fine voice is lower than the high sopranos of Suzanne and Alison, and is featured on two songs. Her solo on ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ has a slow, stately pace, while she swaps lead vocals with Alison on ‘Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven’, a sprightly old Loretta Lynn song with lovely harmonies from the other girls and a sarcastic tag line (“nobody wants to die”).

My favourite of Alison’s lead vocals is the angelically lovely ‘In The Palm Of Your Hand’, written by Union Station’s Ron Block, which is perfect for her and the most archetypal Krauss recording. The ethereal ‘Jewels’ is pretty, but the determined ‘Never Will Give Up’ is less interesting.

The mellow, sweet voice of Lynn Cox takes the lead on Dottie Rambo’s understated and soothing ‘Remind Me, Dear Lord’. Sidney takes over for the album’s most surprising song choice, a cover of pop star Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ which fits in surprisingly well. Dad Willard’s gravelly baritone takes over on ‘Far Side Bank Of Jordan’, a wearied song about anticipating death and ultimate reunion with a loved one.

The album won a well-deserved Grammy. It is one of my favourite religious albums, and I would recommend it to any fan of Alison Krauss- she is part of an ensemble here, but the Cox women have heavenly voices to match hers, and the album as a whole is as close to perfect as I can imagine.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘I’ve Got That Old Feeling’

i've got that old feelingAlthough she was still in her teens, by the time of her third album for Rounder (and second solo-billed effort) in 1990, Alison had matured as an artist, and does justice to the excellent songs. produced by Bil VornDick and Jerry Douglas, the album ventures a little away from straight bluegrass incorporating country and other influences, while remaining predominantly bluegrass. Alison’s crystal-clear vocals interpret the material well, with almost every song sad in tone and most on the slower side. The quality is very high, with an emphasis on both melody and well-constructed lyrics.

Alison’s first single to country radio was the title track, a gently wistful tune about anticipating a lover’s departure. It is one of four on the album written by Sidney Cox. My favourite of these is the enchanting ‘Wish I Still Had You’, which takes up a similar story further down the line. Also very good are the closing ‘Longest Highway’ and the beautiful ‘Tonight I’ll Be Lonely Too’.

Old mentor John Pennell contributed a further trio. ‘Dark Skies’ is a confidently delivered love song. Alison shows some attitude with the fast-paced demand of ‘Will You Be Leaving’, backed by some virtuoso musicianship. In ‘One Good Reason’ she gives an ultimatum to her lover to save their relationship.

Nelson Mandrell wrote two fine songs for the record, the melancholic ‘Winter Of A Broken Heart’ and the sweet sorrow of ‘It’s Over’, which has a beautiful melody and angelic vocal.

The bright-toned ‘Endless Highway’, written by Roger Rasnake, has a more optimistic mood than much of the album, with the protagonist returning home to her loved one after a period away.

Louisa Branscomb’s train song ‘Steel Rails’ picks up the tempo and allows Alison’s fiddle and the other musician the chance to stretch out. It was the album’s second single, and managed to garner some modest airplay on country radio.

My favorite track, though, is ‘That Makes One Of Us’, a lovely sad country song about a breakup, written by Rick Bowles and Barbara Wyrick.

The album won Alison the first of her 27 Grammy Awards. It is an excellent record with no weak spots, and well worth adding to your collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Like Red On A Rose’

Reliable, consistent, neo-traditionalist, new traditionalist, self-penned tunes – that’s so often how Alan Jackson’s music is described. Like Red On A Rose stands out from the pack of Jackson albums then as a unique and beautiful album of ballads and love songs with a wonderful mix of thoughtful, tender and reflective interpretations of songs by several  writers.

After working with Keith Stegall as the producer on all of his previous albums, Jackson opted to try something different.  He approached Alison Krauss about possibly making a bluegrass album. Instead, Krauss’s song selection and production resulted in an album that lets Jackson’s vocal talent and skill come to the fore in a more acoustic style. This album truly features Alan’s warm, intimate, subtle and honest voice – arguably one of the best in country music. One phrase from ‘The Firefly’s Song’ sums up the overall production well: Sometimes less is more.

Like Red On A Rose was released in September of 2006, following Jackson’s Gospel album, Precious Memories.  Both albums were a departure from his reliable and a bit predictable style, though not a departure from Jackson’s personal history.  He grew up singing Gospel in church, and Jackson’s interpretation of the introspective songs on Rose give you the sense that he’s lived their stories in one way or another personally.

The overall mood of the album calls for a glass of your favorite full-bodied beverage and a quiet evening of reflecting on the richness of deep love, both kept and lost, and the blessings of life in general from the maturity of having lived a good portion of it already — thus, the album cover. But though the mood is fairly consistent throughout the album, the musical styles are somewhat varied.

‘Anywhere On Earth You Are’ sets the tone with a smokey road-weary ballad followed by the aptly titled and bluesy ‘Good Imitation Of The Blues’. Jimmy Holiday’s ‘Don’t Change On Me’ is a gospel-flavored number complete with choir-sounding back-up and gospel organ in the mix. John Pennell’s country waltz ballad ‘As Lovely As You’ has some lovely acoustic guitar.

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