My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sonya Isaacs

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘I Serve A Savior’

Josh Turner’s deep religious faith has underpinned his career, from his astonishing debut single ‘Long Black Train’. It comes as no surprise that he has now recorded a gospel album – or indeed that ‘Long Black Train’ makes another appearance.

Josh wrote the title track with Mark Narmore. It is quite a nice song set to a gentle melody in which he sets out the story of salvation and affirms his own commitment. It is one of only two new songs on the album, although some choices are less familiar than others. The other is actually the album’s one misstep. ‘The River (Of Happiness)’ was written by Josh’s wife Jennifer and son Hampton, and the whole family sings along live (apart from Josh himself). The song itself is not bad. Unfortunately the children can’t all sing In tune.

My favorite track is a measured, deeply sincere, reading of the Hank Williams classic ‘I Saw The Light’, backed by the sweet harmonies of Sonya Isaacs. I also loved the less well known ‘I Pray My Way Out Of Trouble’, a charming song written by Loretta Lynn and Teddy Wilburn. It was recorded by the Osborne Brothers in the 1960s, and Bobby Osborne contributes harmonies to this version.

There is a solid version of spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ which allows Josh to showcase the furthest reaches of his deep voice. ‘Without Him’ Is from the Southern Gospel tradition and has an emotional soulful vocal.

Classic hymns ‘Great Is Your Faithfulness’, ‘How Great Thou Art’ and (the best of the three) ‘Amazing Grace’ are all performed with reverence to tasteful arrangements. A more unusual inclusion is the short (very short if you’re thinking of it as a song, at only 42 seconds) ‘Doxology’ composed In the 17th century by Bishop Ken. Josh sings this quite simply and completely acappella. Really, this ought to close the set, but a retread of the sunny ‘Me And God’ (from Your Man) follows it.

Impeccably sung, arranged and produced, if not very original, this is a fine record with appeal for fans of Josh Turner or Christian country music.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Blessed’

Bradley Walker’s second religious album, and third overall, leans towards traditional hymns and other well known material. A beautiful, measured reading of ‘Amazing Grace’ opens the album. Carl Jackson and Val Storey add harmony vocals, and a little steel guitar ornaments the track. A thoughtful, sincere version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, also introduced with some gorgeous steel, is even better. Jimmy Fortune and Ben Isaacs help out here.

From the southern gospel tradition, Alison Krauss adds an angelic harmony to ‘Angel Band’. Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs help on ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, another lovely track. ‘I’ll Fly Away’ has energy and commitment, as does ‘Victory In Jesus’. The Gaithers’ more recent ‘Because He Lives’ is a melodic ballad.

A few classic country and bluegrass gospel tunes are included. The Oak Ridge Boys lead into ‘Family Bible’ with a line from ‘Rock Of Ages’. Some may not know that ‘One Day At A Time’ was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin). Bradley’s version is earnest and tasteful, with a lovely harmony from Rhonda Vincent. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White provide harmonies on the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Who Will Sing For Me’.

There is some newer material as well. ‘I Will Someday’, written by two sets of spouses (Morgane Hayes and Chris Stapleton, and Ronnie and Garnet Bowman), is a nice upbeat song about absolute faith. The Isaacs contribute backing vocals, and there is a sprightly acoustic guitar and piano backing. ‘Cast the First Stone’ is an Isaacs song from a couple of decades ago with a Bible based lyric and strong bluegrass feel. Another Isaacs tune is the beautiful ballad ‘Say Something’.

This is a perfect example of a country religious album. The vocals are exceptional and the instrumental backings and arrangements delightful.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Constant Sorrow: Tribute To Ralph Stanley’

constant sorrowAn interesting selection of mainly country artists pay tribute to the legendary Ralph Stanley, in a project helmed by his grandson Nathan.

Stanley’s son Ralph II opens with the Celtic-sounding ‘Katy Daly’, II’s naturally melancholy tones counterpointing the upbeat tune about a 19th century moonshiner to enjoyable effect. Nathan takes on ‘A Robin Built A Nest On Daddy’s Garden’, which is also very good. Stanley’s old bandmate Ricky Skaggs sings the traditional ‘Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet’.

Jeff Bates sounds like a real bluegrass singer on ‘I Think I’ll Just Go Away’, a lovely old Stanley Brothers lost love tune. Lovely – I’d like to hear a full bluegrass album from Jeff. Rhonda Vincent is beautiful on ‘The Darkest Hour’, another highlight. My favourite track, though, is Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard duetting on an authentic and compelling murder ballad, ‘Pretty Polly’.

Insofar as Ralph Stanley has a signature song, I’d say it would be ‘O Death’, which he sang on the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. The great Gene Watson offers a powerfully intense reading here. Marty Raybon gets the now-iconic ‘I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow’, and does a nice job, partnered by Sonya Isaacs.

Southern gospel duo (and real life husband and wife) Jeff & Sheri Easter perform ‘Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures’, and The Lewis Tradition (a spinoff from/second generation successor to Sheri’s mother’s family band the Lewis Family) offer a pleasant traditional four part harmony on ‘Dad’s Ole Rocky Field’.

Harmonica whiz Charlie McCoy gives a70s outlaw country-meets-bluegrass twist to ‘Little Maggie’, which works surprisingly well.

‘Room At The Top Of The Stairs’ is a haunting Randall Hylton song about a lonely woman who refuses to believe the protagonist can offer the love she longs for. I remember it fondly from Kieran Kane’s 1993 solo album Find My Way Home. I hadn’t been aware of Ralph Stanley’s version, and Jimmy Fortune’s take made a nice surprise.

This is a lovely tribute album: some great singers on excellent songs, with a tasteful bluegrass production backing them. I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Forever Changed’

foreverchangedThe newly released Forever Changed, is T. Graham Brown’s first full-length studio album in nearly nine years. Produced by Mark Carman, it is a collection of inspirational songs. Although it is being labeled a gospel album in press releases, most of the songs are not overtly religious, but all of them deliver a positive message. Presumably the project was inspired by his own battles with alcoholism.

As one might expect with a T. Graham Brown album, Forever Changed is heavily influenced by soul and R&B, along with a healthy dose of mainstream pop. It isn’t terribly country, although a number of Nashville’s finest, including Vince Gill, Sonya Isaacs, former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys, appear as guest artists.

The album’s lead single “He’ll Take Care of You”, a duet with Vince Gill, was released last August, but failed to make any impact on the charts. It is one of he album’s best tracks, along with the title track (a beautiful ballad), the funky “Soul Talk” and a very nice remake of Charley Pride’s “Power of Love”. The Oak Ridge Boys revisit their own gospel roots on “How Do You Know:”. My least favorite track is “Shadow of Doubt”, which is not a bad song at all, but it is ruined by guest vocalist Leon Russell’s caterwauling.

In addition to the new material, Forever Changed contains two newly recorded versions of songs from Brown’s back catalog. Sonya Isaacs joins Brown on “Which Way To Pray”, about a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and Jimmy Fortune accompanies him on one of his very best songs “Wine Into Water”. Although recycling of material usually annoys me, I didn’t find it objectionable in this case since the album consists of a generous 13 tracks.

Forever Changed has been nominated for a Grammy and I would very much like to see it win. It can be purchased through regular music outlets, Cracker Barrel or downloaded.

Grade: A

Return to bluegrass: Tom T Hall today

tom t hall todayAfter 1985’s Song In A Seashell, Tom T Hall would take the next decade off from recording, with only 1989’s Country Songs For Kids (essentially a reissue of the 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow with some new songs added) making an appearance.

In 1996 album, Mercury would release Songs from Sopchoppy. Although released by Mercury, it was actually an independent album featuring some of Tom’s Florida friends (and none of Mercury’s session musicians), recorded at a barn in Sopchoppy, Florida. Frankly, I did not like this album as the production sounds like a cross between 1980s pop-country and so-called smooth jazz, with electric keyboard and Kenny G-style saxophone competing the debacle. The songs are good, if often downbeat, but the backing does not suit Hall’s voice. Alan Jackson rescued “Little Bitty” from this album and turned it into a number one single.

Finally, in 1997, Mercury released the final (thus far) major label album of new Tom T Hall material with Home Grown. While albums such as Magnificent Music Machine and other scattered album tracks had hinted at a turn to bluegrass, this album made it clear that TTH had returned to his roots. All of the songs were written by Hall, sometimes with an assist from his wife Dixie and are in acoustic settings.

The first track on the album, “Bill Monroe For Breakfast”, basically says it all:

When I was just a little boy we lived down on a farm
Seven miles from nowhere and a hundred miles from harm
We made our livin’ from the dirt if anything would grow
And we got our country music from a big old radio
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
Then we’d head out to the fields a hoein’ corn and mowin’ hay
Aw, mama loved his singin’, daddy loved to hear him play
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
We had a big old battery that ran the radio
Sometimes we run it down a listenin’ to the Opry Show
But we all had our instruments and most of us could play
So we had Bill Monroe for breakfast anyway

I’ve heard many bluegrass bands cover this song, as well as other songs from this album.

Since 1997, Tom T Hall has continued to write songs, usually in conjuction with his wife Dixie, and always in the bluegrass genre. He makes the occasional live appearance at a bluegrass performance, and his songs are eagerly snapped up by bluegrass performers. In 2002 Charlie Sizemore issued The Story Is … Songs of Tom T Hall, a collection of TTH’s country songs cast as bluegrass. In 2007 Blue Circle Records released Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T, a bluegrass album featuring some of Tom’ friends such as Josh Williams, Sonya Isaacs and Don Rigsby with guest appearences by Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Tom T Hall considers himself retired (although a peek at the Bluegrass Unlimited charts suggests no such thing) and at 78 years of age (as of May 25, 2014) he’s surely earned the right to retire, as no singer-songwriter today, other than perhaps Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, has produced as large a catalog of interesting and memorable songs.

Album Review: Nathan Stanley – ‘Every Mile’

every mileRalph Stanley’s 21 year old grandson is the third generation of his family to have a music career. His grandfather is of course a legend, while father Ralph II is affine singer in his own right. Nathan has an attractive although not very distinctive voice, and his song choices and arrangements here are very tasteful, mostly in the hinterland of country and bluegrass. This album is a religious one, so it is appropriate that it comes to our attention in Easter week. the general mood is a warm, positive one well suited to Stanley’s vocal style.

Nathan Stanley’s voice is smoother sounding than his father or grandfather, and it works particularly well on ballads. He also has a great ear for a melody, as evidenced by the songs chosen here. There are a number of beautiful ballads included. The metaphorical ‘Piece Of Clay’ about the way God remakes people is perhaps my favourite. Almost as lovely are ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ and ‘Where Will You Go’. ‘I Know Jesus Will See Me Through’ features pretty harmonies from Sonya and Becky Isaacs. The title track is a gently melodic expression of gratitude to God with lovely harmonies from Southern Gospel singer Wes Hampton, who makes another appearance on ‘Lord You’re The Best Thing’, another pretty tune.

‘Let Me In Your Heart’ picks up the pace. The harmonica led ‘Would You Be Ready’ (a duet with gospel singer Adam Crabb) is quite cheerful sounding despite its pointed lyrical criticism of those who do not live what they preach. The pensive ‘Heart That Will Never Break Again’ remembers a dying father with faith he is going to “a better place”.

There are a number of special guests familiar to country fans. 80s star T Graham Brown joins Nathan for an unexpectedly bluesy and very enjoyable version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Baptism Of Jesse Taylor’. Jeff Bates adds a gritty harmony/duet to the traditional ‘Green Pastures’, which is one of my favourite tracks. Vince Gill provides a sweet counterpoint on ‘Hand In Hand With Jesus’ backed by a string arrangement. Grandpa Ralph shows up on ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’; Ralph is sounding very old, but there is a palpable warmth and familial affection in their duet which really works. I might even prefer it to the recent cut by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers just for that eomotional connection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album, but have been impressed by Nathan Stanley. I look forward to hearing more from him.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘The King’s Gift’

the king's giftI am very much a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas music, so my staples for Christmas listening include the likes of pop artists such as Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Burl Ives and Perry Como with orchestral music by Mannheim Steamroller (my wife’s favorite) thrown in for good measure. When I do listen to Christmas albums by country artists, it tends to be music not overburdened with rock guitars and twanging steel guitars. Lorrie Morgan’s Merry Christmas From London (with the New World Philharmonic) is my favorite Christmas album by a country artist (aside, of course, from the Gene Autry album with “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Rain Deer”).

To my list of favorite Christmas albums, I’ve added The King’s Gift by country star Trace Adkins. Please note that this is NOT a country or bluegrass album, although you will hear instruments often found in those genres such as mandolins and fiddles (a/k/a violins). Steel guitars, dobros and rock guitars are nowhere to be found in this mix. What you will find here is a collection of traditional collection of Celtic and other folk carols, all performed with traditional Celtic accompaniments or gentle folk arrangements.

The only possible downside to the album for some listeners will be that Trace’s Louisiana accent isn’t quite a perfect match for the material, although his deep rich resonant baritone voice more than compensates. After about 30 seconds into the first song, I no longer noticed the accent, but noticed the beauty and vitality of the material and the accompanying orchestration of, mandolin, uilleann bagpipes, penny whistle, violin, viola, cello, harp, organ and Weissenborn (a brand of German non-resonator slide guitars).
Trace has several distinguished guests assisting him on the album on the album. The world-famous Irish troubadours the Chieftains and Scottish singer Alyth lend a lovely Celtic lilt to “I Saw Three Ships”. I didn’t know that actor Kevin Costner could sing, but he and his daughter Lily acquit themselves admirably on “Silent Night”.
Modern bluegrass star Sonya Isaacs joins Trace for “We Three Kings” and powerhouse rock drummer Kenny Aronoff makes an appearance on “Little Drummer Boy”.

Trace is currently touring in support of this album, performing only Christmas music. According to Trace, he’s very proud of this album, and I certainly think he should be. If you love Christmas music with a strong folk or Celtic feel, you’ll love this album.

Track List:

1. Wexford Carol
2. O Tannenbaum
3. O’ Come Emmanuel
4. Away in a Manger
5. I Saw Three Ships (with the Chieftains & Alyth MacCormack)
6. Silent Night (with Kevin Costner & Lily Costner)
7. We Three Kings (with Sonya Isaacs)
8. Carol of the Drums (with drummer Kenny Aronoff)
9. Oh Holy Night (with the Isaacs)
10. What Child is This ?

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Homecoming’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

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

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

I’ll confess that I’ve had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year — a bluegrass album and a “regular” country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly “pure” bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today’s market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I’m not a bluegrass purist; I’m not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss’ usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I’d had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as “Fiddlin’ Around” and “You’re Dead To Me” and more progressive fare such as “Fallin’ For You” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional “Rovin’ Gambler” as well as the aforementioned “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on “Pride”. The Punch Brothers are a band that I’m going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album’s twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote “Bad Angel” along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition “Bottle To The Bottom”. Closing out the album is “Down In The Mine”, one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It’s reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon.” Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up On The Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan.

Up On The Ridge is available at retail stores, as well as at Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A