My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: The Civil Wars

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

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Christmas Rewind: Emmylou Harris and the Civil Wars – ‘The First Noel’

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

the highwayBeing the grand-daughter of Hank Williams (and to a rather lesser extent the daughter of Hank Jr) is a lot for a young singer-songwriter to live up to. Holly’s first two major label albums had some fine songs, but I was not quite convinced she was a fully formed artist. Now in her 30s, she has made the leap and produced a truly excellent collection of songs, released on her own label. Holly’s sultry alto voice is compelling as she portrays a variety of characters or bares her own soul. In a vague modern Americana singer-songwriter style with frequent use of a cello giving a richer, less sweet sound than the more familiar fiddle, it is tastefully produced by the artist with Charlie Peacock, best known for his work with critical favourites The Civil Wars.

Among the best songs is the bleak ‘Giving Up’, which she announces as “the saddest damn story you’ve ever seen”. It is a weary plea addressed to an alcoholic friend who keeps on claiming to be tackling her problem, a wife and mother so far gone, “the doctor said you’d die if you had another drink”. But that doesn’t seem to get her beyond platitudes, and Holly notes, incisively:

Well, I wonder if it scares you
I wonder if you think about
The daughter that you’re leaving
The man you used to love
And the son that cries for you
..
Well I guess this is it
Oh yeah, you must be giving up

You put us all through a living hell
A thousand excuses for your liquor trail
But my compassion is fading fast
Another rehab, and you break another glass

Bottles in driers
Bottles in shoes
There are even bottles in the baby’s room
You’re losing everything that you ever had
Your life is one thing all that money can’t buy back

This hits very hard, and sounds as if it was inspired by a specific person.

The powerful, pained ‘Drinkin’ tackles a drinking, cheating, abusive husband to ask him why, and is another of the strongest songs, with Holly’s compelling vocal grabbing attention.

Another highlight is ‘Waiting On June’ a tender reimagining of Holly’s maternal grandparents’ love story, which is very touching, with added poignancy from the death of the grandfather’s WWII comrade. The acoustic arrangement and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s backing vocals give it a homespun feel.

Also based on her family, the quietly mournful ‘Gone Away From Me’ is a beautifully observed recollection of a small town childhood blighted by the loss of family members, and is another highlight. Jackson Browne sings backing vocals, but it is Holly’s emotional vocal which really bring this alive.

‘Railroads’ picks up the tempo with a disconcertingly upbeat tone musically belying the dark first-person story of a sinful preacher’s wild son.

‘Happy’ is a mournful reverie about a past relationship the protagonist now regrets throwing away, with the cello sounding almost menacing as Holly bemoans:

The truth is I loved you all the same
That night I broke your heart
And the day you cursed my name
And the truth is I never really knew
You were everything to me
Until it was much too late
Cause you’re the only one who makes me
The only one who makes me happy

Like the stripped-down acoustic bluesy folk ‘Let You Go’, it is written by Holly with Chris Coleman, her rock drummer husband. With Cary Barlowe, the pair also wrote ‘Til It Runs Dry’, a cheerful-sounding mid-tempo number featuring Dierks Bentley’s backing vocals.

‘Without You’, written with Lori McKenna, looks back to past searching for love and life, from a position of fulfilment. Jakob Dylan sings backing vocals, and a stately cello gives a mature feel befitting the literary allusions in the lyric. Sarah Buxton co-wrote ‘A Good Man’, a sweet love song with a striking acappella first verse and stately melody.

The title track was the least compelling song, but the weakest song on an album this strong is still pretty good. here Holly fondly recalls the period she was on the road with her music.

This is an excellent set which should appeal to fans of literate female singer-songwriters with country and Americana connections, like Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but for my money this is the most appealing record of its kind I’ve heard in a long time.

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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2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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2012 Grammy predictions

The Grammy awards are probably the world’s most prestigious cross-genre awards in the word of music, although within country music the CMA and ACM awards hold greater weight. The significance of the Grammies has been further affected this year with the contraction in the number of categories of interest to country fans. But awards shows offer a way of taking stock once every few months regarding the genre as a whole, particularly the more mainstream end. In a few days, we’ll learn who has won this year’s awards. In the meantime, here are our predictions:

Best Country Solo Performance

This new category combines the former nods to performances by male and female vocalists.

‘Dirt Road Anthem’ – Jason Aldean
‘I’m Gonna Love You Through It’ – Martina McBride
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘Mean’ – Taylor Swift
‘Mama’s Song’ – Carrie Underwood

Razor X: I can’t remember the last time I came across a more underwhelming list of nominees. “Honey Bee” is the only one on the list that I can tolerate, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of song that usually wins Grammys. I think Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are the two real contenders here; I’ll predict that Underwood will win.

Occasional Hope: A remarkably uninspiring lineup in this category. I suppose by default my vote (if I had one) would have gone to Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood’s song is well-meaning but bland; Martina McBride’s is the epitome of emotional manipulation; Jason Aldean’s record is horrible; and Taylor Swift’s song has nice production for once, but the lyric collapses into juvenile namecalling (and I’m afraid I’m still unimpressed by her vocal ability). That leaves Blake Shelton with a slight but not unlistenable song, making it my lukewarm favorite by default. Who will actually win it? The Grammy voting pool is a bit different from the specialist country awards shows, so I’m going to predict Taylor Swift as although Aldean has had a big breakthrough over the past couple of years, I think his lack of cross-genre name recognition will limit his appeal to voters. He, Swift and Blake Shelton all have performance slots on the show (Blake as part of a Glen Campbell tribute and Jason Aldean revisitng his duet with Kelly Clarkson), which could be an indication that the battle is between these three.

Jonathan Pappalardo: It seems as though the Grammy organization can’t win. If they go by artistic merits they’re deemed out of touch with reality. If they go with what’s popular, they’re deemed too mainstream. For my tastes these nominees are awful. There isn’t a song here I can get excited about, apart from Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” If she has to win an award this year, let it be this one.

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2011 CMA award predictions

The Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 9th, 2011, presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who have become something of a fixture in that role in the past few years. Last year Brad also triumphed by winning the Entertainer of the Year title for the first time. The show will feature performances from many of the nominees, plus American Idol Scotty McCreery and pop star Lionel Richie, who has been recording duets with country stars for release next spring.

Here are our thoughts about who will walk away smiling next Wednesday night, category by category:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton: Jonathan Pappalardo, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Taylor Swift
Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: I feel this is a genuinely open category this year. Brad Paisley is the reigning Entertainer, having finally won the long overdue title last year, and is clearly popular with voters. However, I think he has passed his peak both commercially and (more importantly) artistically, with relatively disappointing sales figures for recent albums, although he continues to do well at radio with a #2 and two #1 hits over the period. He is also one of the top earners in country music, alongside Taylor Swift. Teen favorite Swift won the title controversially in 2009, then was largely ignored last year, and is back again with a brace of nominations. She undoubtedly has the biggest international and pop profile of all the nominees, as well as the biggest sales, with over three million copies sold so far of Speak Now in the U.S. and platinum or multi-platinum status in a number of other countries, some (like the Philippines) with little exposure to country music. She has also toured successfully overseas this year. Of course, that makes her an international pop star as much or more than a country star who has gotten lucky with pop airplay; how far should that sway the CMA?

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Aldean could be a big winner this year overall. He’s had a good year, with one of the best-selling albums (over 1.5 million sales), and his brand of country-rock, while far heavier on the rock than the country, has carved out a niche in the market for himself. I’m not a fan myself, but he is undeniably one of the big names in country music at the moment, with two #1 and a #2 hit single from this album, and a crossover AC hit thanks to his duet with Kelly Clarkson. But my gut feeling is that it’s a bit soon to win the top award this year. Blake Shelton, despite his title as reigning Male Vocalist, is the other surprise nominee, and he could just swing it based on the impact he has had as an ambassador for the genre, with his TV role on The Voice. He has also had two #1 singles with ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ and ‘Honey Bee’, and the frankly baffling inclusion of his poorly selling EP among the Album nominees signals that the Association voters are keen to reward him.

Razor X: It’s hard for me to get very excited about any of these nominees, but Shelton seems to be on a hot streak so I think he will win. And if I have to root for one of these nominees, I’d probably go with him.

Jonathan: This is a case of the veterans versus the newcomers. Urban hasn’t won since 2005 and I don’t expect that drought to end this year. Paisley (who should win) and Swift are strong contenders, but their steady success isn’t enough to help them prevail. It comes down to Shelton versus Aldean, and in a battle between the country rocker and the TV star, Shelton walks away with his first Entertainer trophy.

J.R. Journey: I think Paisley and Urban are just slot-fillers at this point in their careers, so they’re out. Jason Aldean had a strong year and so did Taylor Swift, but neither exploded into the mainstream – Taylor’s been there for several years now – like Blake Shelton, with a major television and soundtrack push. He’s on a major upswing, and that ought to sway voters enough to give him the edge.

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Year In Review: Chris Dean’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

These albums are an interesting mix: a few indie albums, a comeback album, a mainstream major release (or 3) and a live album that shouldn’t go together. However, from the albums I heard this year, these were my favorites, the ones I kept listening to. Hopefully you agree, but maybe not and that’s what makes the end of the year so interesting! Maybe you’ll find something new on my list that you didn’t think to listen to.

10. Southern VoiceTim McGraw (Curb)

A last minute entry on my list, this album was not what I expected. I hadn’t even listened to his new singles, and I wish I’d paid more attention. This album is a mature bunch of story songs such as the morbid “Good Girls”. The most touching is ‘You Had To Be There,’ a scene in a prison where a father talks to his son through a glass window and a phone. Even lead single ‘It’s A Business Doing Pleasure With You’ is a fun pop-country song that manages to be fresh.

9. Destination Life – Rhonda Vincent (Rounder)

A finely crafted bluegrass album that’s entertaining from start to finish. An infectious version of ‘Stop the World (And Let Me Off)’ is by far my favorite track here.

8.Middle Cyclone – Neko Case (Anti)

I had the chance to see Neko in concert right before this CD came out, and I wish I had; this is a unique collection of natural disaster-inspired love songs. ‘This Tornado Loves You’ is awesome, and the album artwork is one of my favorites ever. I mean come on, holding a sword on a car hood? Yeah!

7. Live At Eddie’s Attic – The Civil Wars (Sensibility)

A free, digital, live album- this duo is a hidden gem. ‘Poison & Wine’is raw and heartbreaking- not to mention they can really sing live. Hopefully a studio album will be in the works…

6. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Bare Track)

A little more slick than I expected, nevertheless this album has very fine tunes, especially the AA-themed’A Million Ways To Run’ and the clever “If You Want Fire”.

5. Song Up In Her Head – Sarah Jarosz (Sugarhill)

In the vein of Nickel Creek, Sarah Jarosz’s album is progressive bluegrass with plenty of banjo. A cover of the Decemberist’s ‘Shankill Butchers’ is the highlight.

4. American Saturday Night – Brad Paisley (Arista)

I didn’t expect to like this album, but I did and I have been playing it for the past 6 months. ‘Everybody’s Here’ is a gorgeous ode to not having a good time at a party. Anyone else surprised that a solo, mainstream male artist made it on my list? I kind of am.

3. Sara Watkins – Sara Watkins (Nonesuch)

Her solo debut is surprisingly not a continuation of Nickel Creek (Although that would still be awesome!), Sara brings more country tunes. The mournful ‘All This Time’ and swingy ‘Any Old Time’ show her real talent.

2. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless (Saguaro Road)

Do I need to say anything? Probably not, but I will. I actually like this album more than the first Mountain Soul, but it doesn’t quite have a knockout track like ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’. ‘Diamond And The Crown’ with Emmylou Harris comes really close though, with it’s hymn-like organ and wonderful performance.

1.Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sony)

I meant to write a review here for this album, but life got in the way. This album manages to be diverse and cohesive at the same time; a feat last accomplished so deftly by a mainstream artist when Trisha Yearwood released Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love. ‘The House That Built Me’ made me miss home so much I shed a tear, something that very few songs have the power to do.

Recommendation: Live songs & albums

So being the Sugarland freak I am, I went to Wal-Mart to get Live On The Inside the morning it came out- before they had even put it on the shelves. I had to find a worker to get the box of new CDs open to get me one so I could have it. Not being a fan of live CDs, I was worried, but Live exceeded all my expectations. With superb singing of both Sugarland’s hits and mostly great covers, I was very happy. So for my recommendation this week, I’m going to recommend 3 tracks from 3 live albums that I’ve enjoyed:

live on inside“Better Man” by Sugarland (Originally by Pearl Jam)
Playing this for friend, he remarked the bridge wasn’t energetic enough and listening to the original, he was right, but Sugarland does a good job here. This song has themes that belong in country music, and the mostly acoustic arrangement works out to make a cool cover. This is one of my favorites from Live On The Inside, as well as “The One I Love” and “Circle”. Watch a preview of it on Youtube.

cwlive“Poison & Wine” by The Civil Wars (Original song)
Thanks to this article from Country Universe, I discovered their free live album, Live at Eddie’s Attic (You can still download it for free here). I was pleasantly surprised to find two very talented singer/songwriters making very good music, “Poison & Wine” being my favorite. It’s a gorgeous song with driving piano that underlies it’s sadness. Watch it live on YouTube.

album_tigers“Rated X” by Neko Case (Originally by Loretta Lynn)
A #1 hit for Loretta Lynn, this controversial song does well in the hands of Neko Case, still sounding country, but all Neko. I almost got to see Neko Case live in New York City this year, but unfortunately I didn’t get to go. Sadly you can’t hear this song anywhere, but iTunes has Neko’s excellent live CD, The Tigers Have Spoken here.

These three albums have made me like live albums more, now I want yours.

What live albums or tracks would you recommend?