My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Susanna Clark

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Close Ties’

The past continues to cast a looming shadow over Rodney Crowell on his latest album, produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie. He has written about his difficult East Houston childhood before, and he revisits it more graphically than ever on ‘East Houston Blues’, a reflective and gripping contemplation of a very tough past which might have ended very badly. The song seems to be set in an alternative world in which he never got out of it:

I grew up hungry
And I grew up hard
Took the streets and alleys
For my own backyard
I got a breakin’-and-enter
On my list of crimes
Been before the judge
One too many times…

I’m a third-born child
My mother’s only son
Which means exactly nothing
Without a loaded gun
I don’t believe in love
This I guarantee
If there’s a God above
He’s got it in for me

This song opens the album, which is bookended with his recollections of his arrival in ‘Nashville ‘72’ and early friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark. He drops lots of names of his musician friends from that era, some of whom will be more familiar than others to the average listener. Susanna Clark’s recent death may perhaps have sparked off this nostalgic mood, and ‘Life Without Susanna’ addresses this sense of loss. While it is well written and clearly heartfelt, the rather histrionic vocals make it hard to listen to.

In another echo of times past, ex-wife Rosanne Cash joins Rodney on ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’, together with John Paul White, formerly half of Americana duo The Civil Wars. A rueful yet optimistic look at growing older partly inspired by Guy and Susanna, this is an excellent song which is being promoted as a single:

It’s like I’m sittin’ at a bus stop waitin’ for a train
Exactly how I got here is hard to explain
My heart’s in the right place,
what’s left of it I guess
My heart ain’t the problem,
It’s my mind that’s a total mess
With these rickety old legs and these watery eyes
It’s hard to believe that I could pass for anybody’s prize
And here’s what I know about
The gifts that God gave
You can’t take ’em with ya
When you go to the grave

The funky ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ is also about growing older, and no longer bothering about appearances or what others think.

An unexpected guest is Sheryl Crow, who duets with Rodney on ‘Tied To Ya’ which he wrote with Irish musician Michael McGlynn. This is a kind of love song with a pretty melody and rather vague spiritual but not religious lyrics. I much preferred the delicately understated pensive ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’, about a former love and his own past failings, set to a beautiful string arrangement. ‘Reckless’ is a song about dreaming about cheating on a true love, with another classical style arrangement.

‘Storm Warning’, a co-write with poet Mary Karr, with whom Crowell collaborated on his album Kin a few years ago, is an intense description of a tornado, but (while entirely appropriate for the song) it is a bit loud and cluttered for me to actually enjoy. In contrast, the mellow, poetic ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is lovely.

I don’t think I would call this album country, and maybe not even Americana. But it is an excellent, mature piece of work.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Retro Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’ (2007)

crazy ex girlfriendBack 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.

Miranda Lambert is a brave singer, exploring the dark crevices of life and romance. This is territory that other female singers may explore for an occasional song, but not for an entire album. Needless to say, most of the album is about romance gone wrong.

My two favorite cuts, however, are not about romance at all. “Dry Town”, written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, is the most traditional country sounding track, a humorous song about wanting a cool one and finding that liquor sales are banned where you are. “Famous In A Small Town” is one of those neat little ‘slices of life’ songs dealing with the realities of life in a very small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and ‘everyone dies famous in a small town’.

The rest of the CD is about the down side of romance (I certainly hope Ms Lambert’s real life isn’t as bleak as depicted here – she penned or helped pen eight of the songs on the album). The opening cut “Gunpowder & Lead” is unfortunate choice to open the album as it (a) isn’t country” and (b) isn’t very good, the one misfire on the album. Hopefully listeners will work through this track to get to the good stuff. If they do, they are immediately rewarded with the lighter fare of “Dry Town” and the lighter “Famous In A Small Town”.

After that it’s back to the main theme. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” didn’t get much airplay in my area but it’s an interesting number with some nice banjo work by Mike Wrucke. The self-penned “Love Letters” about letters written (I presume) on tear-drenched paper is a song with the depths of despair and desolation Hank Williams found in “Alone and Forsaken”.

“More Like Her” is a wistful song about her beau returning to his former girlfriend whom he realized was really what he wanted anyway. The remaining songs deal with loss of self-respect, recriminations and regrets.

The album closes with the classic “Easy From Now On” penned by Carlene Carter & Susanna Clark that was a hit for Emmylou Harris back in 1978 – a classic about getting oneself readjusted after the end of a romance. I hoped they would issue this track as a single.

In the hands of a less capable singer, this almost unremitting collection of “emotional downers” would be hard to stomach. Since the songs are well written and the singer so expressive, it is well worth the time spend listening to it. I originally rated the CD on amazon as 5 stars since it is a hair better than 4.5 stars, but if allowed fractional ratings I’d have given it 4.75 stars with the major deduction for the opening track. Today (2016):

Grade: B

“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walking Away a Winner’

Kathy Mattea’s early-90s experimentation with Celtic and folk sounds resulted in a predictable decline in her chart performance. By 1994 she hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in three years, so she switched producers and made a conscious effort to release an album with a decidedly more commercial sound. Her only album produced by Josh Leo, Walking Away a Winner includes more upbeat, mainstream-sounding songs than Time Passes By and Lonesome Standard Time, and the strategy to reverse her commercial fortunes was at least initially effective. The title track and lead single, written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Shapiro, peaked at #3, becoming the final Top 10 hit of Kathy’s career. It reminds me of some of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s upbeat material, as does the follow-up single “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade”. It’s interesting that two such similar singles were released back-to-back; after the success of “Walking Away a Winner”, Mercury likely thought that “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade” would easily sail into the Top 10, but the strategy misfired; the record stalled at #13, though it did fare slightly better in Canada, topping out at #8 there.

In the ballad “Maybe She’s Human”, Kathy takes up the cause of a put-upon wife and mother who is struggling — not always successfully — to juggle career and family responsibilities. It is rather similar in theme to Reba McEntire’s “Is There Life Out There” from a few years earlier, but it was met by a big yawn from radio and it only reached #34. The final single “Clown In Your Rodeo” is a feistier take on the same theme. I like this one a lot. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but it does bear the distinction of being Mattea’s final Top 20 hit.

There are some excellent tracks among the album cuts; my favorite is the light-hearted “The Cape”, written by Jim Janosky, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark. It is not, as the title might suggest, a song about Cape Cod, but rather a tune about a child who is pretending to be a superhero and believes he can fly. The more serious “Another Man” finds Mattea confronting her husband and telling him that she’s in love with someone else. The twist here is that he is not the same man she married and she still loves the man he used to be. This type of song used to be a staple at country radio and in another era it might have been a big hit. The album closes with the poignant “Who’s Gonna Know”, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. In this one, she’s looking at an old childhood photograph of herself and her now-aging parents, and contemplating the day when they are no longer with her. It’s a bit unsettling, perhaps because it’s something to which most of us can relate.

Despite a tepid reception at radio, Walking Away a Winner sold respectably; it was Kathy’s last album to earn gold certification. Its lack of radio hits may mean that some fans may have overlooked the album when it was initially released. Those fans would be well advised to give the album a listen now, because there is much here to like. Inexpensive copies are easy to find at retailers such as Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter – ‘Easy From Now On’

In memory of Susanna Clark who wrote this great song with Carlene, and who died yesterday:

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 2

The 1970s were not my favorite decade for country music but it was the decade in which I did my largest amount of listening to country radio, having the good fortune to have such country giants as WSUN AM- 620 in St. Petersburg, FL, WHOO AM-1090 in Orlando and WCMS AM-1050 in Norfolk, VA for my listening pleasure, plus I could tune in WSM AM – 650 in Nashville at night. I did a lot of shift-work during this decade so my radio was on constantly.

    

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1970s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone” – Pat Daisy (1972)

Beautiful and blessed with a great voice, she never did break through as a major star since she was buried at RCA behind Connie Smith, Dolly Parton, Dottie West and Skeeter Davis for promotional attention. This song reached #20 on the country chart and #112 on the pop chart and was covered on albums by many country artists. Pat pulled the plug on her own career to raise a family. Read more of this post

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Somewhere In The Stars’

Rosanne’s follow-up to her breakthrough with Seven Year Ache was released in 1982, when she was expecting her second child. Produced as before by Rodney Crowell, she continued her incorporation of elements from other genres, although less successfully than before.

The first and most successful single, Crowell’s ‘Ain’t No Money’, peaked at #4 on Billboard. It is a midpaced song which doesn’t sound very country but is one of the better songs on the record, sung confidently. The loungy, jazzy ‘I Wonder’, written by Asleep At the Wheel’s Leroy Preston, was another top 10 hit (#8), and is well done if, once more, with little country influence.

The last single, 1983’s ‘It Hasn’t Happened Yet’, reached only #14, and is a bit dull despite a committed vocal. It is one of two John Hiatt songs, the second being ‘I Look For Love’. The latter is not very good, very repetitive with an unattractive and now very dated 80s synth-pop production. ‘Down On Love’ is a surprising AC-style, although very good, ballad written by Gordon Payne (a former sideman for Waylon Jennings) and Don White, which is very sweetly sung belying the disdain of the lyric. The mid-tempo ‘Oh Yes I Can’ written by Susanna Clark and John Reid is even closer to 80s pop, and I don’t like it much.

The highlight of the album is the gentle ‘Lookin’ For A Corner’, which Rosanne and Rodney wrote together, a resigned-sounding ballad with quite pretty instrumentation. I also quite like the dreamy title track, Rosanne’s only solo composition this time around.

A cover of Tom T Hall’s classic ‘That’s How I Got To Memphis’ is also good, with Johnny Cash making a gravelly cameo appearance. The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ cynical ‘Third Rate Romance’ is also pretty well done with a slightly Caribbean feel to the production and an understated, sultry vocal. Country fans may know the song better from Sammy Kershaw’s hit 90s version.

Sandwiched in between two of Rosanne’s most commercially successful records, this saw a slowdown in her career, but it was to prove only a temporary blip. It is readily available in CD format, both on its own and as a 2 for 1 with the follow-up, Rhythm And Romance. It is not her best work on Columbia (and certainly not to my personal taste), but if you want to track it down, it’s fairly easy to find.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’

Emmylou’s fourth album was released in January 1978 on Warner Brothers, which had taken over her contract from the subsidiary Reprise. A personal favorite of mine, it contains a number of her classic recordings. The lineup marks the replacement of Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs, with both men playing on the record. The arrangements and musicians are, as usual, impeccable. There was a change of emphasis with the selection of material, with no classic revivals this time (although a number of the tracks have become classics in their own right since), but a concentration on new songs.  The quality of material is as high as Emmylou’s fans had come to expect. Emmylou was now married to producer Brian Ahern, and their personal and professional partnership showed them in perfect tune. Ironically, given her newlywed status, the overarching theme is one of leaving, whether that means a lover or spouse, a parent, or life itself.

One of the classics born on this record was the first single. ‘To Daddy’ was written by Dolly Parton, who generously relinquished the opportunity to sing the song to her friend, not recording it herself for many years. Emmylou’s subtle version was a big hit, reaching #3. The devastating lyric tells the story of a downtrodden wife and mother who suffers silently for years with her neglectful and uncaring husband, and then leaves with as little fuss as she made during the marriage:

She never meant to come back home
If she did, she never did say so to Daddy

Told from the viewpoint of one of the children, Emmylou delivers one of her purest vocals, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. This is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris recordings. It was followed on the charts by the #1 hit ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, an up-tempo rocking-blues Delbert McClinton song which offers a defiant response to loneliness and a lover’s departure:

It’s alright cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine

Another song now widely (and rightly) regarded as a classic, the poetic ‘Easy From Now On’, written by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna and a young Carlene Carter (billed by her first married name of Routh), peaked at #12. Emmylou sounds a little sad as she plans to drink the night away following the end of a relationship. The lyrics provide the album’s title, and Susanna Clark also painted the picture used for the cover art.

Rodney Crowell, about to leave the Hot Band to launch his own solo career, contributed a couple of songs as a parting gift. There are Cajun touches to the story song ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight , which was later a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Rick Danko of The Band sings harmony and his bandmate Garth Hudson plays sax and accordion. The driving ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ is a hard-boiled country rocker addressed to a low-life individual headed for life in jail, and Rodney’s own version was to be the title track of his debut album later the same year, also on Warner Brothers.

Willie Nelson sings a prominent harmony on the folky ‘One Paper Kid’, a downbeat story about another of life’s failures, set to an attractive tune and a very simple acoustic backing consisting of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Emmylou herself on guitar. The pair had toured together, and their voices blend beautifully on another highlight.

The tribute to the ‘Green Rolling Hills’ of West Virginia, written by folk singer Utah Phillips, is sung as a duet with Emmylou’s longtime harmony singer Fayssoux Starling, which sounds just lovely. Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell’s replacement in the Hot Band, plays fiddle and viola on this track, foreshadowing the changes his influence was to bring in Emmylou’s music.

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester contributed two songs, the beautiful and perhaps metaphorical ballad ‘My Songbird’ and the swooping and allusive ‘Defying Gravity’, with Nicolette Larson on harmony. The album closes with the slowed down bluesy rockabilly of ‘Burn That Candle’, which is the only track I don’t much like, with some very odd emphases in the pronunciation.

The 2004 CD reissue included two previously unreleased live cuts from the early 80s with a Cajun flavor – Guy Clark’s ‘New Cut Road’ and ‘Lacassine Special’ (sung in French). They are well performed, but feel a little out of place here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Luxury Liner’

1977’s Luxury Liner is the third offering in Emmylou Harris’ discography, excluding 1970’s Gliding Bird. Like its two predecessors, it is an eclectic mix of country and rock-and-roll, relying a little more heavily on cover material than her earlier albums had done. Produced by Brian Ahern and backed by her superb Hot Band, Emmylou pays tribute to everyone from Chuck Berry and her late mentor Gram Parsons to The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and Kitty Wells. Though it failed to produce any Top 5 hits, Luxury Liner reached #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is Emmylou’s best-selling solo effort.

Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin, Emory Gordy Jr. and Ricky Skaggs all make appearances as members of The Hot Band, while Herb Pedersen, Nicolette Larson, Fayssoux Starling, and Dolly Parton lend their voices to the project. The first single was a cover of Chuck Berry’s 1964 hit “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie”), which is given a Cajun flavor by Ricky Skaggs on fiddle. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart. For the second single, Emmylou did an about-face and released the very traditional “Making Believe”, a remake of Kitty Wells’ 1955 hit. Emmylou’s version reached #8.

Although only two singles were released, Luxury Liner contains some very well known album cuts. “Hello Stranger”, on which Nicolette Larson chimes in, had been a hit for The Carter Family in the 1930s. Though clearly not in the vein of what country radio was playing in the 1970s, I was surprised to learn that the track had never been released as a single, primarily because of its inclusion on Emmylou’s 1978 compilation album Profile. Also in the traditional vein are Susanna Clark’s “I’ll Be Your Rose of San Antone” and a remake of the Louvin Brothers’ 1955 recording “When I Stop Dreaming,” on which Dolly Parton provides a beautiful harmony vocal. My personal favorite among this set, “When I Stop Dreaming” sowed the seeds for the Trio project which would appear a decade later.

On the more contemporary side are the title track and “She”, both written by Harris’ mentor Gram Parsons (the latter co-written with Chris Etheridge), a pair of Rodney Crowell tunes (“You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good” and “Tulsa Queen”, which he co-wrote with Emmylou), and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, a tale of two aging Mexican bandits, which would go on to become a #1 smash for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Luxury Liner in 2004, along with two bonus tracks: “Me and Willie” and the excellent “Night Flyer” which was written by Johhny Mullins. Mullins is best known as the writer of “Blue Kentucky Girl” which had been a hit for both Emmylou and Loretta Lynn.

Eclectic albums are hard to pull off; it’s difficult to perform a wide variety of musical styles well. It’s even more difficult to put together such a collection without losing cohesion or alienating fans who prefer one style over another. But Emmylou and the Hot Band move seamlessly from rock to old-time country and everything in between, and even though I consider the two Crowell-penned tunes to be the weakest on the album, there really isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade: A

Luxury Liner is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth seeking out.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Fearless’

Perhaps feeling pigeon-holed by country radio, Terri Clark sought a change in direction for her fourth studio release. She hired a new producer, Steuart Smith and turned to fellow singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter to supply her with some new material. The result is a more introspective set of songs, with less twang and more contemporary and middle-of-the-road production. Heralded by many critics as an artistic triumph, country radio was singularly unimpressed and shunned Fearless after the first single peaked at #13. In recent years, radio has become an increasingly unreliable judge of music quality, but this is one time I am firmly in radio’s corner; with one or two exceptions, Fearless is a dull and lifeless collection with little of the charm found in Clark’s previous work. It is my least favorite album in her catalog.

Fearless could just have easily been titled Terri Clark Sings Mary Chapin Carpenter, for Carpenter’s influence can be heard throughout the album, including and beyond the three tracks that she co-wrote. I find Carpenter’s music to be very hit or miss; when she’s great, she’s really great, but many of her albums are tedious to get through. Some of the songs on Fearless might have worked better if Carpenter were singing them, but the style just doesn’t work for Terri Clark. When I listen to a Terri Clark album, I want to hear Terri Clark, not a Mary Chapin Carpenter wannabe.

The lead single, “A Little Gasoline” is one of two tracks on which Terri’s previous producer Keith Stegall acts as a co-producer. It is closer in style to Terri’s earlier work and is the only truly radio-friendly track on the album. There must have been some concern — justified, as it turned out –that radio would not be receptive to Clark’s new sound, and “A Little Gasoline” seems to have been selected as an insurance policy against that. The strategy was somewhat successful; “A Little Gasoline” received enough airplay to reach #13 and become the album’s most successful single. The remaining singles did not fare as well: “No Fear” stalled at #27, “Gettin’ There” reached #41 and the mind-numbingly dull “Empty” did not chart at all.

The one truly enjoyable track on the album is Terri’s exquisite remake of the Carlene Carter-Susanna Clark song “Easy From Now On”. Emmylou Harris, whose definitive version reached #12 in 1978, sings harmony. The stripped-down acoustic guitar and fiddle arrangement gives the track a Celtic feel. It’s a beautiful, well performed and tastefully produced recording. It’s a shame that none of the album’s other tracks come even close to matching it.

Though the album is not to my personal taste, Terri deserves great credit for trying something different, instead of resting on her creative laurels. In theory, collaborating with acclaimed songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kim Richey and Beth Nielsen Chapman sounds like a good idea, but the results just don’t seem to be a good fit for Clark. Like her two previous albums, it reached #4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart; however, it was her first album that failed to earn gold or platinum certification in the United States. It did earn gold certification in Canada, representing sales of 50,000 units or approximately half the Canadian sales of her previous album.

Grade: C

Fearless is not essential listening, but diehard fans can purchase it inexpensively from Amazon.

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul II’

mountainsoul2Country radio’s love affair with Patty Loveless began winding down around 1997, with the release of the single “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”. The record met with resistance by some radio program directors, who requested the release of an alternate version, without the harmony vocals provided by George Jones. Loveless refused to remix the record; it stalled at #14 and she never again had another Top 10 hit. Her commercial appeal may have waned, but freed from the constraints and pressures imposed by radio, Loveless has blossomed as an artist and released some of the best music of her career. In 2001, she released a critically acclaimed bluegrass album, and this week, Mountain Soul II, the long awaited sequel, finally hits store shelves.

Though mostly acoustic, the subtle use of some non-bluegrass instrumentation — electric guitar, pump organ, and pedal steel guitar — prevent Mountain Soul II from qualifying as a true bluegrass album, and Loveless and her label, Saguaro Road Records, have been careful not to refer to it as such. In press releases, they describe it as Appalachian, bluegrass, and country combined. Regardless of the label, it is a worthy successor to Mountain Soul, and unlike many sequels, it holds its own against the original.

Many of the players from the original Mountain Soul — Jon Randall, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and of course, Loveless’ producer and husband Emory Gordy, Jr. — are back on board this time around. Loveless is also joined by special guests Del and Ronnie McCoury, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris.

The opening track and lead single for the album is a cover of the Harlan Howard classic “Busted”. Recorded many times in the past by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and John Conlee, Loveless’ version restores Howard’s original lyrics, which contain references to coal mining, rather than cotton farming, referred to in the other recorded versions. The lyrics were originally changed at the request of Johnny Cash, but coal mining is a better fit with the acoustic arrangement and bluegrass harmonies provided by the McCourys. Even better are the vocal performances that the McCourys contribute to the old standby “Working On A Building”, which is the most purely bluegrass song on the album.

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Class of ’89 Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Somewhere Between’

somewherebetweenSuzy Bogguss is not one of the names usually associated with the “Class of ’89”, as it was another couple of years before she really broke through commercially, but her debut album Somewhere Between was one of my personal favorite releases of 1989.

The best adjective I can find to describe Suzy’s voice is pure – it is sweet without ever sounding saccharine. Further, she knows how to convey convincing emotion without overacting. In the liner notes to that debut, the legendary Chet Atkins is quoted raving about Suzy, and he says “her voice sparkles like crystal water”. They were later to collaborate on an album together.

One of the things that really distinguishes this album is Suzy’s penchant for western songs and yodeling. Her delightful cover of Patsy Montana’s ‘I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ (which sold a million records in the 1930s) must be the most unlikely revival of the period, and was actually the first single released from the album. Unfortunately, even though the neotraditional movement was in full swing in 1989, this was just a little too retro for radio. Suzy also yodels tastefully on the final track, the wistful cowboy song ‘Night Rider’s Lament’, a song with a theme similar to ‘Someday Soon’, which was a hit for Suzy a few years later, once radio had accepted her. ‘Night Rider’s Lament’ itself was later recorded by Garth Brooks. Suzy and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote the charmingly old-fashioned mid-tempo ‘I’m At Home On The Range’ with Verlon Thompson, as Suzy extols the life of an itinerant singer traveling among the cowboys, roughnecks and loggers, singing at small bars, ‘from Billings down to Laramie the cowboys take good care of me‘. This is autobiographical, as before she got her record deal, Suzy had traveled all over the country performing, accompanied only by her dog and cat.

Surprisingly, three of the four singles released from Somewhere Between were covers, even though there were some good new songs on the album. This may say something about the direction the label was trying. The title track is a beautiful interpretation of one of Merle Haggard’s lesser-known songs, a sad waltz about a troubled relationship, which is possibly the best track on this very fine album, and really should be better known. The other choice was Hank Williams’ ‘My Sweet Love Ain’t Around’, which has a high lonesome feel. Sadly, neither of these superb traditional-sounding recordings made the least chart impact, although they were marginally more successful than ‘I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart’. Read more of this post