My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Home’

It is difficult to assess the merits of this album, partially because of the changes in the reference points by which albums are evaluated and partially because of the firestorm that the Dixie Chicks generated by their future comments while playing a small venue in England.

Many commentators regard this album as the Dixie Chicks masterpiece, and while I am not among them, I do regard this as an excellent album that draws the group closer to a roots sound than their previous major label recordings.

At the time of the album’s release in 2002, the world of country music was in turmoil. Slick pop acts like Shania Twain, Martine Mc Bride and Faith Hill were still near their commercial peak, while the neo-traditionalist had lost steam, slowly being replaced by the vapid bro-country that plagued the genre until recently. Conversely, there was a brief resurgence in bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic string band music fuels by the runaway success of the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Symptomatic of the cross purposes to which the fan base and the radio stations worked, radio barely played anything from the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Dixie Chicks chose to ignore this divide, releasing an album that in places would have fit into a roots classification, but in other places was something else entirely.

Five songs received airplay from Home:

“Long Time Gone”                                     #2 country / #7 pop

“Landslide”                                                       #2 country / #7 pop / #1 adult contemporary

“Travelin’ Soldier”                                     #1 country / #26 pop

“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”     #48 country

“Top of The World”                                     did not chart

“Top of The World” was too long for radio to play it, moreover, it was released after the unfortunate comments about President Bush turned many thoughtful Americans, whether or not supporters of Bush.

This album is mostly covers of material written by others. In that vein, the album opens up with “Long Time Gone”. The song, written by Darrell Scott, was originally recorded by Scott on his 2000 album Real Time and tells the story about a young man who left his family and went to Nashville to become a musician. Eventually, he treks back home and settles down to raise a family. The song’s last verse criticizes contemporary country music as being shallow, and despite the upbeat melody, the song’s lyrics are very pessimistic indeed.

Next up is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”. There is something terribly appropriate about this cover because the Fleetwood Mac story closely parallels that of the Dixie Chicks in that Fleetwood Mac started out as one thing (a brilliant blues-rock group), changed members and form into a basic pop-rock group, and pretended that the prior version of the group never existed. The song was written by Stevie Nicks, who was not a member of the group’s original lineup,

Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” is probably the best song on the album, a sad song about the correspondence between a soldier and his girlfriend, and his eventual death in combat. The song was first recorded by the writer and later, in altered form by Ty England, but the Dixie Chicks rendition is by far the best version of the song. At the time the group recorded the song Bruce Robinson was the brother-in-law of Emily Robison.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag of covers and originals a bunch of good songs well performed and thoroughly country in sound and instrumentation. Both Martie and Emily are excellent musicians and the supporting cast includes Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and bluegrass wizards Brian Sutton (guitar) Adam Steffey (mandolin), Chris Thile (mandolin solos) plus Emmylou Harris on vocal harmonies. You couldn’t ask for better.

Of the remaining tracks, my favorite is the humorous “White Trash Wedding”. Written by the three members of the group, the song depicts a scenario that has played itself out many times over the years, but does so with humor:

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

You finally took my hand

You finally took my hand

It took a nip of gin

But you finally took my hand

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Mama don’t approve

Mama don’t approve

Daddy says he’s the best in town

And mama don’t approve

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Baby’s on its way

Baby’s on its way

Say I do and kiss me quick

‘Cause baby’s on its way

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

There are a few misfires on the album (“Godspeed and “I Believe in Love” are pretty pedestrian and rather uninteresting) but even the misfires are not terrible and the net impression is of an album that contains both serious and amusing material performed with great flair.

A-

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EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell – ‘Letter To Home’

letter to homeFor his second Atlantic album, 1984’s Letter To Home, Glen turned to a new producer, Harold Shedd, and something of a new approach, deliberately aiming the album at mainstream country radio.

The concerted effort to appeal to country radio paid off. The first single, a nicely performed and tastefully arranged cover of J. D. Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’, was a top 10 country hit – Glen’s first since the theme song from movie ‘Any Which Way You Can’ in 1980. it was also the first time the song had been a hit single for anyone, although it was a decade old, having been cut by Linda Ronstadt on her classic Heart Like A Wheel album.

It was followed by Glen’s biggest country hit since 1977 – the #4 peak of ‘A Lady Like You’. This song, written by Jim Weatherly and Keith Stegall, is a solemn AC leaning ballad with a pretty tune. The somewhat tinny keyboard backing has dated a bit, but the vocal is impeccable. Disappointingly ‘(Love Always) Letter To Home’, a charming Carl Jackson song which lent its title to the album and which was released as the album’s last single, only made it to #14.

The beautiful Paul Kennerley ballad ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ has been recorded by others, including Don Williams and Marie Osmond, and even making an appearance on the third volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (featuring Kennerley’s former wife Emmylou Harris), but I don’t believe anyone ever released it as a single, which definitely seems like a missed opportunity, because it’s a lovely song. Glen’s version may just be the best of all of them, sincerely sweet and tender, and deeply romantic.

He reflects on the vicissitudes of stardom in a brace of tunes. The wistful lullaby ‘Goodnight Lady’ (written by Buddy Cannon and Steve Nobels) is pretty, as it voices a touring musician’s wistful longing for the loved one back home. ‘After The Glitter Fades’, about the loneliness lying behind stardom, is a cover of a minor pop hit for Stevie Nicks, one of the members of rock band Fleetwood Mac. It suits Glen pretty well. ‘Tennessee’, a Micheal Smotherman-penned tribute to the state, is a bit repetitive melodically but has an attractive feel to it

The mid-tempo ‘Leavin’ Eyes’ is very dated mid-80s country pop, although Glen does invest it with some energy. It was the first cut for its writer, Ted Hewitt. The beaty ‘Scene Of The Crime’, written by Carl Jackson and T Kuenster, also has a dated arrangement, but is quite catchy.

The set ends with an ethereal version of ‘An American Trilogy’, Mickey Newbury’s medley of three historic tunes reflecting American history and the long shadow cast by the Civil War: the now controversial ‘Dixie’, the spiritual-turned 1960s Civil Rights anthem, ‘All My Trials’, and the Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

This is a pretty good album, but one which does not stand with the very best of Glen’s work – apart from the gorgeous ‘I’ll be Faithful To You’, which I would recommend to anyone.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Real Good Time’

I am a big fan of Texas country singer Aaron Watson, and a new record from him is always worth hearing. The recording and completion of this latest release was understandably delayed by the personal tragedy Aaron and his wife suffered with the loss of their baby daughter a year ago, but sad songs are at a minimum here. The experience was clearly too painful to replay in music at this time, although he has written movingly about the loss in prose.

There are 18 tracks and an hour’s playing time, but sometimes less is more. In this case at least on first listen the setlist felt a bit too long with too many forgettable songs at a similar medium tempo, particularly at the start of the record. However, they almost all grew on me after a while. The rapid-fire title track is not that memorable but has an attractive instrumental lead-in, nice fiddle, and enjoyable groove which make it worthwhile. ‘Lips’ is a pleasant love song’, but ‘Summertime Girl’ (about memories of a past fling) is quite forgettable.

Among the other slow-growers, ‘Turn Around’ is a comforting religious number, offering hope to the troubled:

Some turn to a bottle
Some turn to a drug
Some turn to another’s arms
But it seems like it’s never enough
Well I wanna say
That you will never fail again
That there is grace to wash away your every sin
If you’re scared that you don’t matter
If you’re lost and need to be found
If you’re looking for a saviour
All you gotta do is turn around

You don’t have to take the broken road
You can turn around and come back home

It took a few listens to get into but I did warm to its positive message.

The mournful, fiddle-dominated ‘July In Cheyenne’ is a suitably downbeat response to the story of a rodeo rider who is killed in competition.

Six songs in, a cheerful cover of ‘Cadillac Cowboy’ (written by Chuck Pyle, and previously recorded by Chris Ledoux but first recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as ‘Other Side of The Hill’) is the first song to really pick up the tempo. It is a duet with Justin McBride (one of many guests on the record.)

Aaron duets with Elizabeth Cook on the ballad ‘Leather And Lace’, which was written by pop star Stevie Nicks for Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter’s album of that title (but ultimately dropped from the set list). It doesn’t sound very country but is quite pretty and mellow. Fellow Texans Pat Green and Josh Abbot join in on the Outlaw styled ‘Texas Boys’, celebrating and lamenting the life of travelling musicians and their long suffering wives, citing Waylon and Willie and set to a typically Waylon beat. Kevin Fowler and veteran country star John Anderson are featured on the novelty ‘Deer Blind’. It is always great to hear the distinctive Anderson, one of the few non-Texans to appear, but he seems wasted on this.

Another duet, ‘Off The Record’, sung with Texas country singer Charla Corn, is the best new song on the album . This excellent downbeat song is set in the aftermath of a failed marriage with the protagonist sharing his feelings about what has gone wrong and what feelings still remain despite it all.

Lead single ‘Raise Your Bottle’ pays tribute to old soldiers and the prices they have paid. Continuing the theme, Aaron throws in yet another version of his masterpiece, ‘Barbed Wire Halo’. While this is a genuinely great and moving song which deserves to be widely recognised as a modern country classic, this is at least the fifth time he has recorded it and this version feels a little perfunctory compared to earlier ones. If you haven’t heard the song, listen to it  and then download it.

Country-rock ‘Reckless’ (which Watson has also recorded before) sounds rather like a filler album track on a Kenny Chesney album, and is one of the more disposable moments. Another repeat offering is ‘Honky Tonk Kid’ but at least this rings the changes by bringing in guest Willie Nelson, who suits the elegy for a country singer perfectly.

The catchy ‘Fish’ is quite entertaining with sprightly fiddle, while ‘Nowhere Fast’ has a pleasantly jazzy, loungy feel.

I liked the wry kissoff song, ‘I Don’t Want You To Go’ as Aaron addresses the kind of woman who is serious bad news when it comes to a long term relationship:

You may be fun for Saturday night but the rest of the week is the pits …
I don’t want you to go – but I need you to leave

‘Hey Y’all’ is mischievously subtitled “my contribution to ruining country music country song! Ha!’ It is a parody of all those “I’m country” songs set to non-country rhythms, with every rural Southern cliché imaginable packed in. It is very cleverly done, but hard to listen to as the sound is so horrible. It is so sharp and accurate, I can imagine some people taking it as a serious attempt at meeting today’s market.

Another disappointment comes with the packaging. Liner notes are minimal, and there are no songwriter credits included.  Overall, though this is definitely a worthwhile purchase.

Grade: B+

Random playlist 4

In the months that I’ve been compiling these lists of my current listening habits, I’ve noticed that a core group of acts have remained in my ears, though the material I’ve chosen from them has been different.  I’ve been neglectful to the new music in my collection this summer so you won’t find any reflections on new releases this time. Still, yet another season goes by and I’m left with another set of recent heavy-rotation tracks in my music library, and I’d like to share them with you.

Alan Jackson – “There Goes” … This comes from one of Jackson’s best albums yet, 1997’s Everything I Love. Hard as it may be for another artist to top the title track from that set, Jackson did it just two releases later with “There Goes” – and has since hit a new high-water mark countless times.  The barroom-inspired easy sway of the melody here draws the listener in much the same way the narrator sings about the woman who’s hooked him.  A rolling steel guitar accompaniment and crying fiddles keep with the melancholy nature of the song, even when the lyrics – “I’m still pretendin’ I don’t need you/I won’t let you know you’re killin’ me” – make you smile.  This is genuine country music pathos at its finest.

Reba McEntire – “Please Come To Boston” … Like her earlier hit with the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown”, Reba does a gender-reversal, and of course a narrative reversal in the process, when she tackles Dave Loggins’ 1974 #1 pop hit.  Singing from the other side of the wanderlust, the singer here plays the role of the sensible hometown girl with invitations aplenty from a rambling man, who summons her from Boston, Denver, and finally L.A. Each time she says no. But it’s in flipping pronouns on the song’s powerhouse bridge that McEntire changes things around, and becomes a pining-for-him protagonist when she reveals “Of all the dreams he’s lost or found and all that I ain’t got/He still needs to lean to, somebody he can sing to“.  She continues to turn down his calls to join him, but the tenderness of her tough love opens up the possibility for a happy ending – something the Loggins version never had.  Joan Baez and other females had done all this before, but none came close to Reba’s believability.

Rosanne and Johnny Cash – “That’s How I Got To Memphis” … Maybe it was the allure of Memphis over Boston or L.A. that changes the story, as the singer here elects to follow her love interest to destinations far away.  But she didn’t come here by his side. In this oft-recorded Tom T. Hall narrative, she’s followed the only trail she knows. Returning to the life her love interest knew before her knew her, she’s sure she’ll find him and be able to tell him all the things she wanted to say all along, and of course rescue him from his troubles.  Not just the engaging story told, it’s the elder Cash’s commanding vocal on the final verse and a walking bass line melody that keep this track repeating on my players.

Wynonna Judd- “No On Else On Earth” … Even the most brazen of us have a weakness. After all, the Texas Ranger himself finally succumbed to Alex Cahill. Rocks, fences, and keeping your senses are futile defenses sometimes. Wynonna Judd’s third single as a solo artist quickly introduced her with a signature sound that was all her own and an attitude never heard on those old Judds records.  Even 19 years later, no other tune in the singer’s catalog recalls what her fans would come to know Wynonna for in later years: rocking guitars, cool-as-ice lyrics, and her falsetto-into-growling vocals.

Jo Dee Messina – “Heads Carolina, Tails California” … Like Wynonna, Jo Dee Messina captured her musical essence with an early single. This – Messina’s first out of the chute and a #2 hit in 1996 – caught the lightning of the singer’s effervescent and spunky personality in a bottle, and combined it with an irresistibly reckless spirit.  The in-your-face mix of instruments that makes up the production here went out with the new millennium, which is a shame since this sounds as fresh today as 15 years ago. As was intended, it still leaves me feeling ready to pack a bag and hit the road.

Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” … “Thunder only happens when it’s raining …”  Saying that line out loud 34 years after the rock supergroup hit the top of the Hot 100 with this Stevie Nicks-penned track, the words fall flat on the tongue in the most sanctimonious way. And certainly the production, heavy with synthetic bass lines and distorting harmonies, has lost a lot of its original sheen, leaving the song a dusty chestnut in the annals of classic rock.  But it’s in Nicks’ bemused performance and the all-inclusive theme that makes it worth repeating. No matter if you’re the one who says “you want your freedom” or the one giving it, after listening, you’ll never again call it quits without listening carefully “to the sound of your loneliness“.