My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Stuart Duncan

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Kickin’ It Up’

Released in January 1994, Kickin’ It Up was JMM’s second album release for Atlantic, and would prove to be John Michael Montgomery’s [“JMM”] most successful album release reaching #1 on Billboard’s country and all-genres charts. The album’s success was fueled by the first single was the romantic ballad “I Swear” which reached #1 country/#42 pop and it was the number one country song of the year per Billboard. This single was followed by “Rope the Moon” (#4), “Be My Baby Tonight” (#1) and “If You’ve Got Love” (#1).

The album opens with “Be My Baby Tonight” a spritely up-tempo number that was the third single on the album.

Could ya would ya ain’t ya gonna if I asked you

Would ya wanna be my baby tonight

Yeah I’d take a chance slow dance make a little romance

Honey it’ll be alright

Girl you got me wishin’ we were huggin’

and a kissin’ and a holdin’ each other tight

So could ya would ya ain’t ya gonna if I asked you

Would ya wanna be my baby tonight

This is followed by “Full-Time Love”, a mid-tempo ballad.

Gary Baker & Frank Myers, a pair of singer/songwriters who were put together as a duo by MCG/Curb Records. The pair released an album the following year as Baker & Myers with limited success; however, both continued to have success as songwriters, together and apart, but nothing else ever reached the success of “I Swear”. In addition to JMM’s huge hit, the song would be covered later by an R&B group All-4-One and also would be covered by other artists in languages other than English. The various versions of the song would sell in excess of 20 million copies.

‘ll give you everything I can

I’ll build your dreams with these two hands

We’ll hang some memories on the wall

And when there’s silver in your hair

You won’t have to ask if I still care

‘Cause as time turns the page

My love won’t age at all

 

I swear

By the moon and stars in the sky

I’ll be there

I swear

Like the shadow that’s by your side

I’ll be there

Next up is “She Don’t Need a Band To Dance,” a rather generic mid-tempo ballad that JMM performs well. This is followed by “All In My Heart,” a nice ballad of longing in which the protagonist imagines a love as he wishes it to be. I think that “All In My Heart” would have made a nice single for someone:

 I sit here tonight

And look in your eyes

For that old familiar flame

That love that burns

Makes my wolrd turn

Two hearts beating the same

Is it all in my mind

Or is it harder to find

I feel like I’m in the dark

I thought it was real

But I’m starting to feel

Like it must be all in my heart

 

I’m a fool for believing

But I just keep dreaming

While we just keep drifting apart

Trying to make something

Where there’s really nothing

I guess it’s all in my heart

“Friday at Noon” is up-tempo filler probably designed for line dancing – it’s pleasant but nothing exceptional.

“Rope The Moon” was the second single off the album and a really outstanding ballad. This is followed by another outstanding ballad “If You’ve Got Love”, the final single released from the album.

The album closes with a nice ballad “Oh How She Shines” and “Kick It Up” which was likely a dance floor favorite.

JMM’s sound would become more solidly country over time but this album features pretty solid country production with the likes of Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glen Worf on bass and John Wesley Ryles on harmony vocals (except on “I Swear” and “Rope The Moon where ‘Handsome Harry’ Stinson provides the harmony vocals).

While this album is only slightly better than its predecessor, the presence of four big hits, including the mega-hit “I Swear”, propelled this album to quadruple platinum status and greatly increased his sales profile in Canada. I would give this album an A-

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Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

Music In My Heart is Charley’s first new album since Choices, which was issued in 2011. Charley is now 79 years old; however, his voice seems to have hardly aged at all. I suspect that he may have lost a little off the top of his range but the quality of what remains is outstanding.

Noted songwriter Billy Yates served as the producer of this album, as well as providing several of the songs and singing background on a few of the songs. Yates provides Charley with an updated version of the Nashville Sound minus the strings and soulless vocal choruses. Such stalwarts as Mike Johnson, Robby Turner and Scotty Sanders handle the steel guitar, while Stuart Duncan handles fiddle and mandolin.

The album opens up with the Tommy Collins classic “New Patches” that served up the last top ten single for Mel Tillis back in 1984.

Now and then an old friend tries to help me
By telling me there’s someone I should meet
But I don’t have the heart to start all over
‘Cause my heart is laying at another’s feet

[Chorus:]
You just don’t put new patches on old garments
I don’t want no one else on my mind
I just don’t need nobody new to cling to
I still love someone I’ve known a long long time

“Country” Johnny Mathis (1930-2011), so named so as to not be mistaken for the pop singer of the same name, is nearly forgotten today, but he was a fine songwriter and “Make Me One More Memory” is a fine mid-tempo song, handled with aplomb by Pride.

Take my heart, my soul, my heaven
Take my world away from me
All I ask is one last favor
Make me one more memory

Ben Peters provided Charley with many big hits so it is natural for Pride to raid the Ben Peters songbag for material. Co-written with son Justin Peters, “Natural Feeling For You” is the kind of ballad that could have been a hit during the 1970s or 1980s.

“All By My Lonesome” reminds me of the 1992 Radney Foster song “Just Call Me Lonesome”, although this song comes from Billy Yates and Terry Clayton. This is a mid-tempo ballad with a solid vocal by Pride.

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

Drinkin’ and cryin’
So close to dyin’
I’m next to no one
All by my lonesome

Thanks for sendin’ someone by to see if I’m alright
I appreciate your concern tonight
But I don’t need no company
To offer up their sympathy
If it ain’t you then I would rather be

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

“It Wasn’t That Funny” was written by Yates and Dobby Lowery. The song is a lovely ballad about an almost breakup, that a couple experienced and can laugh about now, but brought moments of anguish along the way.

Lee Bach penned “The Same Eyes That Always Drove Crazy”, a mid-tempo ballad of a chance meeting after years of separation. This song would have made a good single at any point before about 2005. The song features some really nice steel guitar by Mike Johnson and piano by Steve Nathan.

Billy Yates and Billy Lawson chipped in the introspective ballad “I Learned A Lot”, in which the narrator relives the lessons he’s learned from losing his previous love. The song first appeared on Billy’s album Only One George Jones.

“You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine” was written by Lee Bach, Larry Mercey and Dave Lindsey. The title references what was on the jukebox the first time the narrator met his love. The song has a nice Texas shuffle arrangement (the song references the Ray Price classic “Crazy Arms” and mentions taking out Ray’s old records). Again, this is another song that would have made a good single in bygone years.

“The Way It Was in ‘51” was written by Merle Haggard and was the title track for one of the Hag’s great albums and was the B-side of Hag’s “The Roots of My Raising”.

Sixty-Six was still a narrow two-lane highway
Harry Truman was the man who ran the show
The bad Korean War was just beginning
And I was just three years too young to go

Country music hadn’t gone to New York City yet
And a service man was proud of what he’d done
Hank and Lefty crowded every jukebox
That’s the way it was in fifty one

“Lee Bach” wrote “I Just Can’t Stop Missing You”, a nice ballad that makes for a good album track but wouldn’t ever have been considered for a single. This song apparently has keyboards mimicking the sound of strings giving it more of a Nashville Sound production than the other tracks on the album.

“Whispering Bill” Anderson wrote “You Lied To Me” a song that I don’t think he ever recorded, but Tracy Byrd recorded it on his 1995 album Love Lessons. Charley does a bang up job with the song

You looked at me as only you can look at me
You touched my cheek and told me not to cry
But you said you’d found somebody you loved more than me
And you told me I’d forget you by and by

But you lied to me, yes you lied to me
You said time would close the wound that bled inside of me
But every breath I take brings back your memory
You said I’d forget you, but you lied to me

“Standing In My Way” comes from Billy Yates and Jim McCormick, an interesting ballad of self-recriminations.

The album closes with a spritely up-tempo number from “Country” Johnny Mathis, “Music In My Heart”.

I really liked this album. In fact I would regard this as Charley’s best album in over twenty years. I like the song selections, I like the arrangements and I like Charley’s vocals. Radio won’t play these songs but they should – it’s their loss! Maybe Willie’s Roadhouse will play it – after all octogenarian Willie believes in giving the youngsters a chance. This album doesn’t have a dud among its tracks – solid A.

Album Review: Sylvia – ‘It’s All in the Family’

sylviaSylvia Hutton (aka Sylvia) was a hot newcomer when I first became seriously interested in country music in the early 1980s.  She enjoyed a string of hits from 1979 through 1987 and then largely disappeared from public view when she was dropped from the RCA roster.  During her hit-making days she was often criticized – with some justification – for being too slickly produced, but I always felt that there was more to her and her music than her detractors gave her credit for.   She re-emerged in 1996 when she released an album on her own independent label.  She has recorded only occasionally over the past 20 years, but the music she has released during that period has had the substance that many felt was lacking in her major label days.

It’s All in the Family is her first full-length album in 14 years and the fourth for her Red Pony Records imprint.  About halfway through 2016 I had heard that she had a new album on the way and checked her website from time to time for updates.  Somehow I managed to miss its release and hence, the delay in reviewing it.  But better late than never.

Like its predecessors, It’s All in the Family is a highly introspective collection of serious songs.  There are no catchy numbers like “Nobody”, “Drifter” or “Snapshot” to be found, although it does occasionally have a less artsy and more commercial feel than her earlier independent work.  Her longtime collaborator John Mock is back on board as her co-producer. He also plays a majority of the instruments on the album, from guitar, banjo and mandolin to the bodhran, tin whistle and concertina.  On the instrumental number “Grandpa Kirby Runnin’ the Hounds”, he and Stuart Duncan play the fiddle and banjo that belonged to Sylvia’s grandfather Connie D. Kirby, who had played at local barn dancers in the early part of the 20th century.  There is also a little pedal steel here and there, and quite a few of the tracks feature an orchestral arrangement consisting of cello, violin, viola, clarinet and French horn.  The orchestra, although tastefully restrained, provides a little more oomph than the more stripped-down sound of Sylvia’s other Red Pony albums.

As the title suggests, It’s All in the Family is mostly a look back at Sylvia’s childhood and family history.  Sylvia had a hand in writing nine of the album’s twelve tracks. She recounts her memories of passing trains in “Every Time a Train Goes By” to a mother’s reminiscences and advice to a daughter on her wedding day in the title track, and the final moments of an elderly woman on her deathbed in the closing track, “Do Not Cry For Me”.  The Celtic-flavored “Immigrant Shoes” recalls the arrival of Sylvia’s ancestors at Ellis Island.  The inside album cover is decorated with photographs from Sylvia’s family album, dating as far back as 1911, through a 1984 photo of her with her musician grandfather.

Although there are no direct references to specific events, many of the songs deal with overcoming adversity, failed relationships and difficult circumstances, and one gets the distinct impression that Sylvia has faced her fair share of challenges.  She remains optimistic through it all, however, stating in “A Right Turn” that it was “worth every long hard mile”.  Although she occasionally feels discouraged as in “Hope’s Too Hard”, written by Kate Campbell, she ultimately concedes in “Here Lately” that given the chance to do things over, she wouldn’t change a thing.  One of the album’s more mainstream-sounding songs, featuring some nice pedal steel, advises to “Leave the Past in the Past”.  “Cumberland Rose”, a 2011 single written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig, also appears on the album even though it doesn’t qite fit in with the theme.

It’s All in the Family is a collection of well-crafted songs, beautifully sung and tastefully produced, that lays to rest for once and for all the myth that Sylvia was just another pretty face.   It’s more thoughtful and cerebral than anything that gets played on the radio these days, and with its folk and Celtic influences may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who remember and enjoyed Sylvia’s 80s music will like this collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Fall’

fallI have always liked Clay Walker as a performer and admired his courage in pursuing his career in the face of adversity, in the form of multiple sclerosis which was diagnosed in 1996 when Clay was twenty-seven years old.

A similar fate befell country superstar Donna Fargo in 1978, definitely affecting her career; however, by 1996 significant progress had been made in the treatment of the illness, so that Clay was not forced to restrict his live appearances to the same extent that Fargo had been forced to do. Accordingly his career surged on, seemingly without missing a beat (although there were lifestyle and dietary changes that Walker made in combating his illness).

Fall was released in April 2007, on Asylum/Curb records, nearly four years after his previous album, A Few Questions, was released on RCA. Clay had signed with Asylum/Curb in July 2005 but, following its usual pattern, it took until February 2007, before the label got round to issuing any new music on Clay.

That brings us to the current album with the first single release being the humorous “‘Fore She Was Mama”. The song tells the story of a ten year old boy who discovers a “box of forget-me-nots” (or old memorabilia) in his parents’ closet.

There was one of her, flippin’ the bird
Sittin’ on a Harley
And a few with some hairy hippie dude
Turns out his name was Charlie
Her hair, her clothes, her drinkin’, smokin’
Had us boys confused
I’ll never forget the day us nosy kids got introduced…

To mama ‘fore she was mama
In a string bikini, in Tijuana
Won’t admit she smoked marijuana
But I saw mama ‘fore she was mama

I was stunned to find that this song only made #21 on Billboard’s country charts, since the song received very heavy airplay throughout most of the southeastern USA. In fact I know of four radio stations where the song soared to #1 on the local survey. The song was Clay’s first chart record since 2004.

Track two is the title track, which was the second single released. “Fall” would return Clay to the top ten reaching #5. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad which the narrator offers moral support to a partner who has had a bad day. The song might have had crossover potential, but Curb released a pop version of the song by Kimberly Locke, another artist signed to Curb, thus killing Clay’s shot at a crossover hit.

Hold up, there you go again
Puttin’ on that smile again
Even though I know you’ve had a bad day
Doin’ this and doin’ that
Always puttin’ yourself last
A whole lotta give and not enough take

But you can only be strong so long before you break

So fall, go on and fall apart
Fall into these arms of mine
I’ll catch you every time you fall
Go on and lose it all
Every doubt, every fear, every worry, every tear
I’m right here
Baby, fall

Released ten years earlier, the third track “Workin’ Man” would have made a good single. Unfortunately by 2007, country radio was looking for music more in line with the schlock being produced by Rascal Flatts or Jason Aldean.

He slips on his warn out jeans
She buttons up his shirt
A sleepy smile and a goodbye kiss
And he’s up and off to work

He puts in a forty hour week
But she’s on his mind full-time
And he’ll give it everything he’s got
And he’s all her’s at five

‘Cause he’s a workin’ man
He don’t mind workin’ overtime
For the trust and the touch of a woman
Come rain or shine

“Miami and Me“ is a mid-tempo song about a love that couldn’t be

Meet her in Miami
Conversation turned to wine
We talked and we talked
Yeah we hit it off, just fine
Stayed down by the water
Slept beneath the stars
We laughed and we danced
Made love in the sand
I held her in my arms

But I couldn’t make her stay
California called her away
And tonight the moon turned as blue as the sea
And she left Miami and me

Track five, “She Likes It In The Morning” is a lovely slow ballad that proved to be the third and final single released from the album. For reasons I will never understand, the song died at #43.

And she likes it in the morning
And I run my fingers through her hair
And she smiles when I call her darling
She looks like a angel laying there

And she wants me in the evening
To listen close to how she feels
She needs to know I need her
And Heaven knows I always will

‘Cause she loves me every single day and night
And she says we are everything that’s good in her life
She says she loves me more than anything on earth
And that’s almost as much as I love her

Track six “Mexico” is an up-tempo island-vibe track that makes for a good album track. Ditto for track seven “You’re My Witness”, a gentle ballad.

Track eight “Average Joe” is a mid-tempo ballad about the average Joes in any town. The lyrics are a bit of a laundry list, but the song has a nice melody and the song hangs together well

I don’t mind working
I don’t mind drinking
When I need to unwind
And I like listening to a
Country song on a Friday night

I’m a welder in the shop downtown
The drywaller in your brand new house
Yeah I’m your Average Joe
I’m the guy that fixed your van
I’m the painter
I’m your concrete man
Yeah I’m your Average Joe

Track nine, “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)”, is a tender ballad about, well, various things including appreciating the good things in our lives

Got home and told my wife bout what I’d seen
She grabbed her purse, took me by the hand and said come with me
We drove around until we found the three of them
I wondered who was blessing who when they got in
We bought them food and clothes and drove to a toy store
And the little girl said I don’t need a brand new doll
As she hugged the broken armless one they found before
She said this one needs me more

She ain’t pretty, but she’s beautiful
She ain’t perfect, but she’s wonderful
She might be broken, but she’s lovable
She ain’t pretty, but she’s beautiful

Track ten, “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” features the late great Freddy Fender in a duet with Clay. The song was a country and pop #1 in 1974. This would prove to be Freddy’s last recording before his death on October 14, 2006. The duet comes off very well and it is nice to know that Freddy’s last recording was a really good one.

The album closes with a pair of nice ballads in “I’d Love To Be Your Last” and “I Hate Nights Like This”.

My friend Brady Vercher of the 9513 blog gave this album three stars and most reviewers at the time of the release had this at 3 to 3.5 stars. My review on Amazon (4/19/2007) was as follows:

“Clay’s first album of new material in several years delivers the solid country sound that one has come to expect from Clay. The first single “‘Fore She Was Mama” received considerable airplay, and seems to hold up well upon repeated listening. I am surprised that “Mama” topped out on Billboard at around 21, because its appeal in the Sunshine State was considerably stronger than that. If radio stations still maintained their own charts, I would expect that this would have been a top five song on stations throughout the Southeastern and Southwestern parts of the USA, perhaps tanking north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The album features a nice mix of slow and up-tempo songs. One of the slower songs “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” is a bit maudlin, but for me it’s the best song on the album. Another highlight is Clay’s recording of “Before The Last Teardrop Falls”, a duet with the late Freddy Fender. Freddy’s death isn’t acknowledged anywhere in the CD booklet, but I’m pretty sure it was his last recording.

The current single “Fall” is receiving substantial airplay. I would not have picked it as a single, but I can see where its lyrics would have a strong appeal to female listeners with its strongly supportive message to the wife (or girlfriend).

“Average Joe” is a song that should resonate with many, and it features legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Paul Franklin plays steel on all tracks, but several fiddlers share the spotlight on the various tracks (Rob Hajacos, Stuart Duncan, Larry Franklin).

Welcome back Clay – four stars”

My opinion of the album has not changed since then, although I do not regard “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” as the best song on the album anymore.

Track Listing
1. “‘Fore She Was Mama”
Casey Beathard, Phil O’Donnell
3:43
2. “Fall”
Sonny LeMaire, Shane Minor, Clay Mills
3:37
3. “Workin’ Man” M. Jason Greene, Clay Walker 3:55
4. “Miami and Me” Greene, Walker 4:02
5. “She Likes It in the Morning”
Greene, Walker 3:50
6. “Mexico” Greene, Walker 2:41
7. “You’re My Witness” Greene, Walker 3:38
8. “Average Joe” Ed Hill, Don Poythress, David Frasier 3:09
9. “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” Doug Johnson, Nicole Witt, Kim Williams 4:00
10. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” (duet with Freddy Fender)
Ben Peters, Vivian Keith
2:39
11. “I’d Love to Be Your Last” Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate, Sam Tate 3:24
12. “I Hate Nights Like This” Walker 4:20

Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

Back in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Christmas Time’

rhonda vincent christmas timeRhonda Vincent’s music is always worth hearing, so I was keen to hear her new Christmas album. The tasteful acoustic arrangements are bluegrass at its most mellow, with nothing really up-tempo or challenging. The musicians all play impeccably, with Stuart Duncan’s fiddle in particular shining, supplemented on a few tracks by additional strings. Rhonda’s lovely voice is crystal clear and expressive throughout.

Rhonda wrote four brand new songs. The opening ‘Dreaming Of Christmas’ sets the mood nicely with an upbeat depiction of a family celebration. The pleasant ‘Christmas Time At Home’ is on a similar theme. The melancholy title track is a melodic ballad about missing a loved one no longer there to share the joys of Christmas. The ultra-perky ‘Milk And Cookies’ is as up-tempo as the album gets, and rests right on that fine line between fun and annoying, falling over the latter edge at the end when she pops in a product placement for her long time sponsor Martha White.

The most memorable track is a bright and irresistible version of ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’, featuring a starry lineup comprising the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, an instantly recognisable Bill Anderson whispering the “nine ladies dancing” line, an equally recognisable Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap (not recognisable), Gene Watson, Larry Gatlin, a sweet trio of Jeannie Seely, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis (on “three French hens”), and child singer Emi Sunshine. This is not usually one of my favorite Christmas songs, but the effervescent mood is absolutely charming.

The other well known secular tune included is ‘Jingle Bells’, which rattles along genially with some super fiddle.

A number of well worn carols fill out the remainder of the tracklist, starting with a reflective reading of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’. A straightforward reading of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is also nice, with a string quartet accompaniment. ‘Away In A Manger’, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ are all beautifully done, but do we really need another version of any of them? Rhonda obviously had difficulty narrowing down her selection of material, because she closes up with a medley of a further seven carols apparently strung together at random, accompanied by solo piano. Standing out among these is an intense vocal on ‘O Holy Night’ and the choice of ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’. Maybe she should have hived this medley off into a completely separate EP.

So this is a lovely sounding bluegrass/acoustic country album, but not necessarily an essential purchase if you’ve already got a lot of Christmas music in your collection.

Grade: B

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Blue Smoke’

blue smoke albumI raved about the title track of Dolly Parton’s new album when I first heard it a couple of months ago, and in the time since it has not lost its charms for me. The album is a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of the range of musical styles, but Dolly is still a great singer and songwriter. She sounds enthusiastic and invested throughout, and has written some very good new songs for the project.

‘Miss You – Miss Me’ is an excellent song from the point of view of a child begging her warring and separated parents to reconcile for her sake. A delicately understated arrangement of mandolin, guitar and piano supports Dolly’s vulnerable vocal.

‘Unlikely Angel’ is a sweet love song addressed to someone who has rescued the protagonist from a bad situation. It is very charming, set to a pretty melody with an attractive acoustic arrangement and delicately delivered vocal. The impeccably played and sung ‘If I Had Wings’ has a high lonesome bluegrass feel and a gospel message.

The upbeat and nostalgic ‘Home’, which Dolly wrote with her producer Kent Wells, has a little busier production, as Dolly cosily remembers (a sanitized version of) her childhood, without any mention of the poverty she has written about in earlier (and better) songs. ‘Try’ is an inspirational number which comes across a little too much like a self-help book about overcoming adversity, with intrusive backing vocals, but the intense sincerity of Dolly’s vocals helps to sell it.

Dolly exercises her playful pop-country side with a rebuttal to a potential lover who isn’t in it for the long run, only wanting a temporary ‘Lover Du Jour’. It is wittily written and charmingly performed with Dolly showing off a pretty good French accent, but the poppy production and backing vocals verge on the irritating with repeated listens.

Two duets see Dolly teaming up with fellow veterans. ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ is a warm hearted tribute to friendship written by Don Schlitz, Caitlyn Smith and Ryan Hanna King, perfectly sung by both Dolly and Kenny Rogers. The production is fuller than it is on the acoustic numbers, with a string arrangement as well as electric instruments but still tasteful and understated. Another old friend, Willie Nelson helps out on Dolly’s own song ‘From Here To The Moon And Back’, a melodic and tender crooned ballad.

An eclectic selection of covers round out the songlist, with variable results. She has written additional lyrics to the traditional ‘Banks Of the Ohio’ to create a framing narrative with herself as a journalist interviewing the incarcerated killer– an inspired addition to the song. She sings it beautifully, supported by the harmonies of Val Storey and Carl Jackson, the latter also taking the odd solo line. An arrangement featuring acappella sections, Stuart Duncan’s fiddle and John Mock’s harmonica at various points combines with the vocals to make this the highlight of the album and one of my favourite versions of this much-recorded tune.

She makes Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t think Twice, It’s Alright’ sound like one of her own songs, and it gets a pretty acoustic arrangement. Rather less successful is Dolly’s attempt at rock-gospel with a cover of Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, where the accompaniment is just too loud and drowns Dolly out, although she makes a decent stab at attacking the song vocally until she gets over-excited and starts shouting at the end.

If you get your copy at Walmart, you get four extra tracks, which are generally weaker than those that made the cut for the main release. There is a remake of her ‘Early Morning Breeze’, plus three new songs: the idealistic and inclusive ‘Olive Branch’, the poppy upbeat ‘Get Up, Get Out, Get On’ which I didn’t like, and the Celtic-tinged ‘Angels In The Midst’.

Grade: A

Album Review: Irene Kelley – ‘Pennsylvania Coal’

pennsylvania coalPennsylvania-born Irene Kelley is one of the finest songwriters around. A decade on from her excellent Thunderbird album she is back on record in her own right. She wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, and all have pretty melodies which showcase her pure, beautiful voice. Produced by Mark Fain, the music is in that overlap between acoustic country and bluegrass, and is beautifully played.

The opening ‘You Don’t Run Across My Mind’ is a thoughtful song about someone who the protagonist can never forget despite the passage of time. Darrin Vincent sings harmony on this attractive tune. It is co-written with Peter Cooper, as is the even prettier ‘Feels Like Home’. The latter has bluegrass’s Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals and some lovely fiddle lines from Stuart Duncan (who plays throughout). A cold rainy day in Nashville brings reminders of Irene’s Pennsylvania birthplace, whose weather is remembered with less fond nostalgia than many songs about childhood:

You can take a trip but you can’t go back
Too many times I’ve heard that
It’s prettier in clouded memory
Just today a north wind came
Tapped my shoulder
Brought the grey
And a chill I know by heart came over me

Feels like home
Though I never felt at home there
And I know that the winters were too long
Like the wind against the shutters
In a town I used to know
Any time it looks like rain
Feels like home

‘Pennsylvania Coal’ (written with Thomm Jutz) is an atmospheric story of the Pennsylvania coal country where Kelley’s immigrant grandfather was a miner, and later a farmer. Its honesty and emotional insight rivals some of the great coalmining songs from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Family is an important theme running through the album, with Irene’s daughters Justyna and Sara Jean contributing both with harmonies and songwriting. The record even closes with a bonus track, ‘You Are Mine, on which Kelley’s daughter Sara Jean sings the lead over her mother and sister’s trio harmony. Written by the three of them, it has a charming old fashioned feel.

The delightful ‘My Flower’ uses the traditional ‘You Are My Flower’ (which Irene sang as a lullaby for her children as babies) as its theme. It was written with Irene’s daughter Justyna, who also sings harmonies alongside Claire Lynch. Irene then segues into a few lines of the original song, accompanied by herself on autoharp, which is charming.

Lynch also sings background on ‘Angels Around Her’, about Irene’s relationship with her late mother, using her collection of angel-themed ornaments as the focus of the song. Dale Ann Bradley sings harmony on the brooding ‘Sister’s Heart’, a heartfelt tribute to Irene’s beloved sister, which she wrote with Jon Weisberger. Bradley is also present on the idealistic ‘Garden Of Dreams’, inspired by Kelley’s daughters, which is a beautiful and poetic ballad.

Trisha Yearwood sings harmony on the graceful waltz ‘Better With Time’, a mature love song (written with Peter Cooper and Justyna) about the way love matures and grows, with a delicate stripped down arrangement.

Another outstanding song, ‘Breakin’ Even’ (written with Mark Irwin) takes a bleakly moving look at the pain of a breakup. ‘Things We Never Did’ is full of tender regret at lost chances, with its wistful look at what was “nearly a dream come true”. Carl Jackson’s harmony and Jeff Taylor’s tasteful accordion add the perfect finishing touches to the arrangement.

Rhonda Vincent sings a close harmony on the quirky upbeat ‘Rattlesnake Rattler’, in which part of a dead snake is incorporated into a guitar.

This is a lovely sounding record, and one filled with moving songs, beautifully sung.

Grade: A

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘My Father’s Son’

A Concept album concerning the relationships between fathers and sons, Ricky Skaggs’ My Father’s Son, released in 1991, is one of the only albums in his catalog not to showcase a heavy bluegrass influence. A minor hit, the album peaked at #68 and was his eighth and final release for Epic Records.

The album may not have sold well at retail, but it performed well on country radio, continuing the momentum he gained with Kentucky Thunder. Rollicking lead single “Life’s Too Long (To Live Like This)” peaked at #37 and featured a nice neo-traditional arrangement. “Same ‘Ol Love” peaked next, topping out at #12. A mid-tempo rocker, it made good use of electric guitars and featured a nice undercutting of pedal steel. “From The Word Love” was the least successful, only reaching #43. Showcasing a more progressive sound, the track retained some popper elements with backup singers on the chorus that were in stark contrast to Skaggs’ signature sound.

None of the singles from My Father’s Son were particularly memorable and they faded away shortly after finishing their runs on the charts, taking the album along with them. It’s a shame because the record has some very strong album tracks, some even better than what was released to radio.

Of the album tracks, my favorites include the multi- vignette story song “You Don’t Count the Cost” which Skaggs delicate delivers with rousing subtlety, the bluegrass-tinged “Simple Life,” which has wonderful fiddle work by Stuart Duncan and Bobby Hicks, and the gorgeous “Father Knows Best,” a play on words ballad about both our biological and heavenly fathers. Elsewhere Skaggs turns in a beautiful mandolin centric gospel number in the title track, one of the only nods to bluegrass on the whole project.

But two tracks stand above the rest. The first is a fabulous mainstream country duet Skaggs did with wife Sharon White, “Hold On Tight (Let It Go).” I love how well the two work together on the track and White adds a little something extra to the album I find very appealing. The other track is Skaggs’ cover of the Waylon Jennings classic “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Vocally, Skaggs does a fabulous job of bringing a nice down home twang to the track and I love the neo-traditional arrangement. Jennings’ version of the song, and his deep growl, are legendary but Skaggs more than holds his own with his lighter and somewhat more boyish tone.

Overall, My Father’s Son is another solid album from Skaggs. There’s nothing wrong with the album at all, but the proceedings feel a bit too clean and tidy. I’d still recommend though, and used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

Kathleen Alice (Kathy) Mattea was born June 21, 1959, in South Charleston, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and steeped in the lore and culture of the coal mines. While some think of her as a country singer and others regard her as folk, bluegrass or neo-Celtic, I prefer to think of Kathy Mattea as a quintessentially American singer and just leave it at that.

While Kathy had an extended run of top-twenty chart success running from 1986 to early 1993, Kathy’s records became increasingly more interesting once the focus on chart success subsided and she focused more on music she found interesting. With Coal, Kathy reached her career apogee, at least as far as artistic success is concerned.

Coal has always been a subject of great interest, whether to folklorists, economists or politicians. Coal is one of America’s greatest natural resources and the source of heated debate on how to mine it, how to utilize it and indeed whether or not to mine and utilize it all. While I have always been either an urban or suburban dweller, my grandfather, Otto Jetzork, was a coal miner who died at the young age of forty-three from “black lung” disease, so at a young age I started reading about coal miners and coal miners.

Ms. Mattea selected an excellent group of songs for her album and an excellent group of pickers including Marty Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Byron House (acoustic bass).

The lead-off track is “The L&N Don’t Stop Here In Anymore”, a Jean Ritchie composition that some may remember as the title track of a New Coon Creek Girls album from 1994. Quite a few artists have recorded the song including Johnny Cash. Kathy does an excellent job with the song which, with slightly modified lyrics, could apply to the fate of many company towns, whatever the industry

I was born and raised at the mouth of Hazard Hollow
The coal cars rolled and rumbled past my door
But now they stand in a rusty row all empty
Because the L & N don’t stop here anymore

This is followed by another Jean Ritchie song, “Blue Diamond Mines”. I think I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do this song on the radio but I wasn’t very familiar with the song; since I find Jean Ritchie’s voice rather annoying I’ve tended to avoid her recordings. Given the quality of these two songs, I may reconsider and seek out some of her recordings. Kathy, as always, is excellent. This track features vocal harmony by another Kentucky girl, Patty Loveless:

You old black gold you’ve taken my lung
Your dust has darkened my home
And now I am old and you’ve turned your back
Where else can an old miner go

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Good Thing Going’

While 2006’s All American Bluegrass Girl wasn’t quite up to par with her previous work, Rhonda Vincent recovered nicely with her next project. Released in January 2008, Good Thing Going is a more eclectic set of songs than we’d heard to date from Rhonda, with elements of traditional folk, Western swing and contemporary country offered up alongside the standard bluegrass. The project was co-produced by Rhonda along with her brother Darrin. Her road band The Rage is also featured on the album, which reached #1 on the Top Bluegrass Albums chart and produced two non-charting singles.

The opening track “I’m Leavin'” is one of five tracks on the album written by Rhonda and is reminiscent of some of the lesser known songs in Dolly Parton’s catalog, such as “If You Need Me” and “I’m Gone”. It was released as a single but did not chart despite the excellent vocal performance by Rhonda and fiddle-playing by Stuart Duncan. The next track, the Western swing flavored “The World’s Biggest Fool”, is a far cry from bluegrass but Rhonda pulls it off with gusto. The wedding ballad “I Give All My Love To You” is exquisitely performed and produced but it is one of the least “grassy” songs here, despite the duet vocal from fellow bluegrass star Russell Moore of the band IIIrd Tyme Out. No complaints here, but hardcore bluegrass fans may have been expecting something different. Those traditionalists should be pleased, however, with the title track, which features more traditional instrumentation and high-lonesome vocals.

The most traditional bluegrass song in the collection is a spirited cover version of Jimmy Martin’s fast paced “Hit Parade of Love”, which is possibly my favorite song on the album, though “Scorn of a Lover” is also in contention for best track. The latter features a bluegrass arrangement but the lyrics owe more to traditional country and it sounds like something that Patty Loveless would have nailed on one of her nineties albums. Dottie Rambo’s “Just One of a Kind” is also a nicely done number that should please bluegrass traditionalists.

Rhonda’s albums usually contain at least one religious song. “I Will See You Again” fills that slot this time around. It’s definitely not bluegrass, but it’s a very touching story about an elderly woman who is about to bury her husband but who has faith that she will see him again soon.

Given its close relationship to bluegrass and country, it’s perhaps logical that Rhonda would choose to include some music of Celtic origin on her albums. Ironically, however, the traditional Irish air “The Water Is Wide” is stripped of most of its Celtic elements, and thus, the tune is this album’s biggest stretch. Featuring a guest vocal from Keith Urban, the song is very pretty but is also somewhat bland. I’ve always liked this song and was looking forward to hearing Rhonda’s take on it, but disappointingly, it comes across as an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, a la Alison Krauss. I highly doubt that was the intent, but the track is one of Rhonda’s rare missteps. The album closes with the self-penned “Bluegrass Saturday Night”, which describes the hectic lifestyle of a road musician.

Though not quite as strong as Back Home Again and the excellent The Storm Still Rages, Good Thing Going is nonetheless an enjoyable collection and that is worthy of inclusion in any country or bluegrass fan’s collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Storm Still Rages’

A year and a half after her triumphant return to bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent did the unthinkable and released an album that was actually better than 2000’s excellent Back Home Again. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs, along with a handful of covers of country classics with acoustic arrangements. Slightly more traditional than Back Home Again, The Storm Still Rages was self-produced. Ronnie Light, who shared production duties on Back Home Again, acts as engineer this time around. Rhonda’s brother Darrin is once again in tow, playing bass and singing harmony. Also present are some of Nashville’s most prestigious musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Sonya Issacs and Alison Krauss whose harmonies are what really give this album an edge over Back Home Again.

By 2001, bluegrass was on a hot streak and the rising tide that lifted albums by Alison Krauss and the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to the top of the charts also benefited Rhonda, who had an album on the charts herself for the very first time. The Storm Still Rages reached #59 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and #9 on their Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

In addition to her roles as lead singer, mandolin player and producer, Rhonda is also credited as a songwriter, having had a hand in creating three of the album’s songs — the opening track “Cry of the Whippoorwill” and “On Solid Ground”, which she co-wrote with Terry Herd, and “When The Angels Sing” which she co-wrote with Herd and her brother Darrin.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, which is a tribute to the late Bill Monroe. Addressing the father of bluegrass directly, Vincent asks:

Is the grass any bluer on the other side?
Did it look like old Kentucky when the gates swung open wide?
Bet the good Lord’s got you playin’ somewhere up there every night.
Is the grass any bluer on the other side?

Rhonda also pays tribute to Lester Flatt with the album’s closing track “The Martha White Theme”.

My favorite song on the album is “Don’t Lie”, which had been a single for Trace Adkins two years earlier and ranks among his most underrated recordings. Rhonda’s version was also released as a single but it did not chart. The album produced two more non-charting singles, “I’m Not Over You” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. Also among the country classics Rhonda covers is a version of the Jack Clement tune “Just Someone I Used To Know”, which was originally recorded by George Jones and is best remembered as a hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Rhonda’s version reminds me of the version Lee Ann Womack would record a few years later for her There’s More Where That Came From album.

Two gospel tunes are included in the set, the aforementioned “When Angels Sing” and “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor You Don’t Love God”, a rousing toe-tapper that is probably the best known of Rhonda’s religious tunes.

The Storm Still Rages is one of those rare albums without a single misstep; the singing, playing, production and the songs themselves are all top-notch. Even if you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen and you may find that you’ve changed your mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Written In The Stars’

It is unfortunate that the fledgling Giant label was the label chosen to break Rhonda Vincent into mainstream country music. Giant was one of Nashville’s many “flatfish” labels (it starts up, flounders around for a while and then disappears) and didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote Rhonda’s music properly. That notwithstanding, Written In The Stars is a very good album, well recorded with Ms. Vincent’s vocals front and center in the mix and a cast of supporting musicians comprised from Nashville’s A-List.  Rhonda is in excellent voice and the album is well laid out in terms of tempo and style variations. The album was released in October 1993.

The album opens up with an up-tempo number, “What Else Could I Do”, which was released as the second single from the album. I am not sure why this song failed to chart as it has engaging lyrics and a memorable melody (supplied by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall) and Rhonda nails the lyrics:

I wasn’t looking to jump into love

But I had no choice when your push came to shove

I guess I should not be surprised that I fell for you

Tell me, what clse could I do?

“Written In The Stars” follows. This song is a slow ballad, also from the pen of Robert Ellis Orrall. The lyric takes us to a place many of us have been:

I guess the love written ever so deep in my heart

Was not written in the stars

Another up-tempo romp, “Ain’t That Love” follows, this time from the pen of noted songwriter Kostas. This is one of my two favorite songs from this album. This song has more of a bluegrass sound and feel to it than most of the songs on this album.

Harley Allen penned “In Your Loneliness”,  treated here as a slow ballad. Harley was a gifted songwriter, but this is just another song.

“Mama Knows the Highway” was a #8 single released in June 1993 by Hal Ketchum. Written by Pete Wasner and Charles John Quarto, the song fits Rhonda’s style well. This might have made a good single for Rhonda if Hal hadn’t gotten to it first.  “When Love Arrives” is another slow ballad from the pen of Harley Allen. Again, in my opinion it’s just another song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Roots & Wings’

I was disappointed by Terri’s first EMI Canada release a couple of years ago, which I felt was over-produced with largely mediocre material, but she appears to have rediscovered her musical voice with her latest release. She produced the album herself, and the sound is mellow but not over-produced, although she does seem to be moving away from conventional country music. Her distinctive voice is at its best throughout.

She also co-wrote all but one of the songs. Four are co-writes with Kristen Hall (who also sings backing vocals), including lead single ‘Northern Girl’, which celebrates Terri’s Canadian background but is disappointingly bland. When Hall left Sugarland under rather murky circumstances, she stated she was intending to concentrate on her songwriting. ‘Beautiful And Broken’ is not very country sounding, but an interestingly written and beautifully sung song with slightly obscure lyrics full of imagery; it seems to be about a failed relationship with the broken individual, but the protagonist retains feelings of friendship and perhaps love. Also very metaphor-heavy, ‘Flowers In Snow’ explores an unproductive relationship. These songs are perhaps more modern folk/singer-songwriter than country, but they are very well done. The best of the four, ‘Breakin’ Up Thing’ has an enjoyable mid-tempo groove and wry lyric commenting on the protagonist’s about-to-be-ex-partner’s ease at leaving.

‘The Good Was Great’ is an affectionate look back at a past relationship which Terri wrote with Tia Sillers and Deric Ruttan. This is rather good, but I was less impressed by the rather dull and overly loud ‘Wrecking Ball’ which Terri and Tia wrote with fellow-Canadian Victoria Banks and which opens the album.

The best song on the album by far is ‘Lonesome’s Last Call’, a traditional slow lonesome country song about a couple of desperate individuals who come together to find love in a bar, written by Terri with the great Jim Rushing. Andrea Zonn and Stuart Duncan’s twin fiddles add to the effect, and I would have loved to hear more like this.  The very personal and beautifully sung ‘Smile’ (written with Karyn Rochelle and featuring Alison Krauss on not-very-audible harmony) is a loving tribute to Terri’s mother who died of cancer last year. This is very moving, and another highlight.

‘The One’ (written with Tom Shapiro and Jim Collins) has a mellow vibe and attractive tune about waiting for the right man, but the hook is the unoriginal:

I don’t need a love that I can live with
I want the one I can’t live without

I like the end result a lot, but it is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Back’s ‘The One She Can’t Live Without’, which has an almost identical chorus.  The only track I really don’t like is ‘We’re Here For A Good Time’, an over-produced and very poppy sounding cover of what I think must be a rock song from the 70s. It is Terri’s new single.

Where Terri’s first album for EMI Canada still seemed to be the product of hankering after mainstream success, this one shows her finding her own voice. It isn’t all moving in a direction I personally care for, but it effectively showcases Terri as an independent singer-songwriter.

Grade B+

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘The Grass Is Blue’

Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.

The Grass Is Blue
is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent – ‘Your Money And My Good Looks’

What happens when you pair the best male country vocalist of the last 35 years with the reigning Queen of bluegrass music ? You get the best album that will be released in 2011. I can think of no recent duet album that I’ve enjoyed as much as this album. Released on the Upper Management Music label, this album contains the warning ‘Contains REAL Country Music’, and truer words never were spoken.

Although Rhonda is a bluegrass artist, and there are touches of bluegrass on a few of the tracks, this basically is a modern traditional country album, with fiddles, steel guitar and truly outstanding vocals, both individually and in harmony with each other.

The title cut is probably the weakest cut on the album. This isn’t to say that Gene and Rhonda don’t sing it well, because they do, but the song itself is nothing special. The next two tracks “Gone For Good”, a slow ballad about breaking up, and “It Ain’t Nothing New” a mid-tempo ballad co-written by bluegrass legend Larry Cordle, are both really good songs, and on many albums they would be the standout tracks but on this album they are merely the hors d’oeuvres.

With the fourth track the album shifts into overdrive with a cover of Gene Watson’s 1976 hit “You Could Know As Much About A Stranger”. I had never thought about this song as a duet, but it works really well, as Gene and Rhonda trade verses and duet on the choruses, accompanied by a lightly updated version of Gene’s original backing.

From here the album covers a 1977 hit written by Cathy Gosdin for her brother Vern Gosdin, “Til The End”. Covering Vern Gosdin is a treacherous task at best, and while I regard Gene Watson as being the superior overall vocalist, Vern Gosdin had no peers at singing melancholy slow ballads. Still Gene and Rhonda do an admirable job on the song.

The Billy Yates-penned “Alone Together Tonight” is a clever twist on the theme of a lonely boy and lonely girl in a honky-tonk. The melody reminds me of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Would You Catch A Falling Star”.

Next up is a cover of Gary Stewart’s 1974 hit “Out Of Hand”. The arrangement and instrumentation are very similar to Stewart’s recording, but with very slight alterations to the lyrics, it makes a very successful male-female duet.

“This Wanting You” was co-written by Bruce Boulton, T. Graham Brown and Bruce Burch. I don’t recall the song being issued as a single but it was one of the standout tracks on TGB’s 1988 album Come As You Were and also appeared on a Bruce Burch collection.

“Making Everything Perfect Tonight” was penned by Rhonda Vincent, a spirited mid-tempo romp about life and one of the joys of domestic life.

“Sweet Thang” was a top five for its author Nat Stuckey in 1966; however, no one remembers Nat’s version anymore because of the spirited version done by the dynamic duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn the following year. While the ET-LL version wasn’t a big radio hit, it was a popular concert favorite for years to follow. Gene doesn’t have quite the same degree of ‘rascal’ in his voice that Ernest did, but his vocals are better.

Saving the best for last, Gene and Rhonda demonstrate their blues chops on the old Hank Williams classic, “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. The track runs over five minutes so even in the good old days, it wouldn’t have received much airplay. I referred to Gene Watson as the best male vocalist currently performing in country music today but Rhonda Vincent may be the best female vocalist in country music, although most of her efforts have been focused on bluegrass. Rhonda had a crack at becoming a mainstream country star on Giant Records back in the 1990s but was let down by the material the label foisted off on her. Carrie Underwood should listen to this track, as she could learn a lot about singing from Rhonda’s vocals on this track. Carrie has a vocal range very similar to Rhonda’s but with much less command and control of her vocal abilities.

There actually is a ‘bonus track’ on the album, a bluegrass instrumental “Ashes of Mount Augustine, featuring Michael Rojas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Johnson, Michael Rhodes and James Mitchell.

This album won’t be released until June 6, 2011. By then I will have listened to the album a couple dozen times !

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘All I Intended To Be’

Emmylou Harris’ third album for the Nonesuch label found her reunited with producer and former husband Brian Ahern. All I Intended To Be would feature Harris’ most country arrangements in over a decade, and would be hailed by most as the singer’s triumphant return to a traditional country sound, which it certainly is. More than a return to form, this is also an album that finds Harris bringing the broader songwriting selection that characterized her Americana work, and striking the perfect balance between the two in sound and song. Peaking at #4 on the Country Albums chart and #22 on the Billboard 200, Harris earned her highest showing on either since her hit-making days.

The slow-burning opener ‘Shores of White Sand’, is a tale of a woman not sure where to go in life and features steel guitar flourishes to help illustrate the lonely feel of it all.

The album’s centerpiece is Jude Johnstone’s exquisite ‘Hold On’,a tender tune addressed to a man who behaves as if life has lost all spark. As the singer attempts to assuage his uncertainty and remind him of better times,

I know you didn’t plan for this
But that’s the way it always starts
Just lookin’ for a little kick
Instead you bought a broken heart

the tempo progressively builds, aided mostly by dualing acoustic and electric guitars, and Harris’ delivery becomes more forceful.

Emmylou co-wrote ‘How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower’ which tells the story of A.P. and Sara Carter, with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, after the three saw a documentary about the legendary country music family. The recently deceased Kate McGarrigle appears on this sweetly acoustic track singing harmonies, and plays a banjo solo as well.

Aside from those co-writes, Emmylou’s songwriting is represented here with ‘Take That Ride’, a melody-driven mid-tempo tale of a flame burned out, with the narrator staying more out of lack of interest in leaving than love. Harris also wrote the sparse ‘Not Enough’, which recounts the story of the death of a dear friend, and the emotional steps that surround it. As Harris’ plaintive vocal bends the hard-hitting lines – “Oh my dear friend, what could I do, I just came home to bury you” – it’s clear she’s mastered the art of melancholy story-telling.

Emmylou’s songs stand up with the other Americana mainstays like Patty Griffin and Tracy Chapman she’s included here. That’s best evidenced by the must-hear ‘Gold’, with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill contributing harmonies. In it, the singer admits defeat in a relationship where she simply couldn’t meet her lover’s ridiculous expectations. ‘Gold’ also features the album’s most traditional arrangement, complete with a rolling steel guitar solo.

A nod to two of country music’s greatest songwriters come from Emmylou’s take on Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’, where exquisite harmonies from Stuart Duncan, Mike Auldridge, and John Starling play perfectly with the mournful fiddle backdrop. She includes a mostly acoustic, and somewhat plodding, take on Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’, sang as a duet with John Starling.

While re-exploring the more acoustic sound of her best-known work, Harris delivered an album of solid songs, made all the better by the greatest instrument in the credits: her own seasoned voice.

Grade: A-

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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