My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Stephen Foster

Album Review: Nathan Carter: ‘Celtic Roots (Live)’

For whatever reason, I was unable to obtain a digital copy of the album Where I Wanna Be. Instead, Amazon continuously linked me to the above-referenced album, which contains the song “Where I Wanna Be”, so I went ahead and purchased the digital download.

I will say that this 2017 release is not exactly a country album, but it is a good value for money with 18 tracks of mostly Celtic music, well performed. I happen to be a huge fan of traditional Irish folk music with a large collection of the stuff. This album apparently is of a performance for public television.

Recorded in Ireland, this album presents an interesting mix of classic of Irish folk songs, Celtic ballads, some country-flavored ballads and some of his hits. Nathan is joined by his stage band, a string quartette, a choral group and also by a former member of the group Celtic Woman, Chloe Agnew.

The album opens up with “Loch Lomond”, a very familiar Scottish tune given the full Scottish treatment with bagpipes and some sort of orchestral backing and a modern rhythm track. Nathan slows the song down considerably at the start of the vocal but picks up the tempo on the second verse. Nathan presents a very interesting treatment of a song that I’ve heard countless times before, including in many Hollywood movies.

Next up is “Where I Wanna Be”, a country single from 2013, written by Carter, that is simultaneously both country and Irish.

This hotel is just like yesterday’s,

And the city has no name.

It just stands there in the Grey haze,

And my room is the same.
 

Well I’m gonna call that number,

So far across the sea.

I wish I was in Ireland,

That’s where I wanna be,

That’s where I wanna be.

This is followed by “Caledonia” an Irish folk song (not the 1940s jump hit by Louis Jordan and/or Woody Herman. This lovely ballad was released as a single in 2013.

“Banks of Roses” is a very Celtic ballad with bodhrán, fiddle, accordion, penny whistle – the sort of thing the Chieftains would play.

The medley of “Spanish Lady”, “As I Roved Out” and “The Real Auld Mountain Dew” is a reflection of the great Irish folk groups of the past two generations such as The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maken, The Dubliners and The Dublin City Ramblers with perhaps a little more rhythm thrown in. This is a fabulous medley – even someone with two left feet such as I, feels the urge to get up and dance.

Next up is Chloe Agnew with the quiet ballad “Grace” basically accompanied by acoustic guitar and little else. This is probably the slowest song on the album.

An Irish tin whistle (or pennywhistle) opens up “Hard Times”, served up as a duet between Choe and Nathan. Most will probably be familiar with the song through Bob Dylan’s recording, but the song dates back to 19th century American writer Stephen Foster:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,

While we all sup sorrow with the poor;

There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;

Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Chorus:
 ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,

Hard Times, hard times, come again no more.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;

Oh! Hard times come again no more

“Temple Bar” was a 2016 single for Nathan:

There’s a busker playin’ on the street
Watching all the people meet
The boys and girls are back in Dublin town
There’s young ones there from everywhere
From America to God knows where

It’s just another night in Temple Bar
So come on down, out on the town
Cause’ this is where a good time can be found
So bring along the old squeeze box, the fiddle and guitar
Let’s have a good old night in Temple Bar

For me, the only misstep on the album comes with the next song “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, a Paul Simon song that I’ve heard far too many times. Nathan sings it well but the chorus and strings are overkill – he should have given it the two minute Buck Owens treatment.

“Wagon Wheel” was a Bob Dylan song fragment that Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show completed. Nathan released it as a single in 2012. The song reached #12 on the Irish pop charts, his biggest hit. I really like this version, probably better than any other version I’ve heard aside from Jeremy McComb’s outstanding hard country version from decade ago.

This is followed by an up-tempo, virtually breathless, instrumental medley of reels.

“Jealous of The Angels” is a very slow sad ballad about the unexpected loss of a loved one. I don’t know who wrote the song, but it was originally recorded by Donna Taggart of Celtic Woman (she may have written it) and is a stunning song that Nathan Carter positively nails

I didn’t know today would be our last
Or that I’d have to say goodbye to you so fast
I’m so numb, I can’t feel anymore
Prayin’ you’d just walk back through that door
And tell me that I was only dreamin’
You’re not really gone as long as I believe

There will be another angel
Around the throne tonight
Your love lives on inside of me
And I will hold on tight
It’s not my place to question
Only God knows why
I’m just jealous of the angels
Around the throne tonight

The mood and tempo stay down with the old Irish folk song “Home to Donegal”

Fortunately the mood brightens and the tempo picks up with of the most famous of Irish folk songs, “The Irish Rover”. Usually when I hear this song the audience, the performer or both are well lubricated (and they would need to be for the lyrics to make much sense). Usually too, the audience is singing along. Many will remember the song from the Pogues, but the song is much older than that. Nathan gives it a very exuberant treatment

In the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and six,
We set sail from the Coal Quay of Cork
We were sailing away with a cargo of bricks
For the grand City Hall in New York
We’d an elegant craft, it was rigged ‘fore and aft
And how the trade winds drove her
She had twenty-three masts and she stood several blasts
And they called her the Irish Rover

There was Barney Magee from the banks of the Lee
There was Hogan from County Tyrone
There was Johnny McGurk who was scared stiff of work
And a chap from Westmeath named Malone
There was Slugger O’Toole who was drunk as a rule
And fighting Bill Tracy from Dover
And your man Mick McCann, from the banks of the Bann
Was the skipper on the Irish Rover

We had one million bags of the best Sligo rags
We had two million barrells of bone
We had three million bales of old nanny goats’ tails
We had four million barrells of stone
We had five million hogs and six million dogs
And seven million barrells of porter
We had eight million sides of old blind horses’ hides
In the hold of the Irish Rover

We had sailed seven years when the measles broke out
And our ship lost her way in a fog
And the whole of the crew was reduced down to two
‘Twas myself and the captain’s old dog
Then the ship struck a rock, oh, Lord what a shock
And nearly tumbled over
Turned nine times around then the poor old dog was drowned
I’m the last of the Irish Rover

“The Town I Loved So Well” is a slow sentimental ballad. At six plus minutes, it could drag a little but the Nathan Carter vocal carries you along.

It’s back to high gear with “South Australia”, a popular folk song found in the English, Irish and Australian musical canons. Nathan starts it slowly then kicks it up.

The album closes with “Liverpool” a 2016 single and “Good Time Girls”. The latter shares the melody and most of the lyrics of the American folk song “Buffalo Girls”

Having only heard the video clips on the MKOC blog and a few snippets on Amazon, I wasn’t what to expect. Now I know that Nathan Carter is an excellent vocalist who can put on an outstanding live show. To fans of modern country music (such as it is) the linear resemblance to American country music is remote. To those of us who grew up thinking that Haggard, Jones, Snow, Tubb, Cline and Arnold are representative of country music, the line back to the Irish folk music is short and direct. While there are only traces of classic country instrumentation, the songs and the vocals make clear that connection.

With few exceptions, I really love this album and I can live with the few tracks that I don’t love.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin'” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+