My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Court Yard Hounds

Album Review: The Court Yard Hounds – ‘Amelita’

The Court Yard Hounds’ second album, released in 2013, was folky pop rather than country. The material is all self-penned by Emily and Martie, often with the help of Emily’s new partner Martin Strayer.

‘Sunshine’ is quite a pleasant folky pop number which opens proceedings.

The title track is more interesting; the girls’ vocal limitations end up making this sound like a pastiche, but a more compelling vocalist could have brought it alive. The same goes for ‘Phoebe’, which has potential and some nice instrumentation but is dragged down by the vocals.

‘The World Smiles’ is a bit twee. ‘Aimless Upward’ sounds like a 15 year old’s idea of deep and meaningful poetry set to a lifeless tune.

‘Guy Like You’ and ‘The Road You Take’ are very boring indeed. ‘Rock All Night’ has a bit more energy but not as much as the song needs.

One song I did like a lot was ‘Divided’, a gentle song about a couple spending too much time apart. ‘Gets You Down’ is also quite nice. ‘Are You Man Enough’ is not bad in an understated way.
‘Watch Your Step’ is a mess.

This album (like its predecessor) would have attracted little attention had it not been for the Dixie Chicks’ connection.

Grade: C

Album Review: Court Yard Hounds – ‘Court Yard Hounds’

During the interval during which the Dixie Chicks were not recording together, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire issued an album of largely acoustic tunes titled Court Yard Hounds. Recorded in 2009, the album was released in May 2010.

Although the album was awaited with great interest, the album received little attention from country radio and in fact the album did not chart country at all, reaching #7 on Billboard’s all genres chart. Although several singles were released to radio, only “The Coast” charted at all, reaching #26 on the AAA charts. The other two singles, “It Didn’t Make a Sound” and “See You In The Spring” did not chart anywhere.

The album seems much more folk than country, although there are tracks that have a strong country feel, particularly on those tracks where Lloyd Maines’ steel guitar is prominently featured. Emily Robison takes the lead vocals, except as noted below. Emily is also the primary songwriter on the album, with Martin Strayer as co-writer on most of the songs and sister Martie Maguire as the songwriter and lead vocalist on “Gracefully”. Both Emily (banjo) and Martie (fiddle, viola) are fine instrumentalists and are featured prominently.

The album opens up with “Skyline”, a folk number that sounds like something Simon & Garfunkel might have recorded as an album track. The song is a laid back with lyrics that tell of the area between hope and desolation.

I just look at the skyline
A million lights are lookin’ back at me
And when they shine
I see a place I know I’ll find some peace
I just look at the skyline

I look at the skyline
A million lights are lookin’ back at me
And when they shine
I see a place I know I’ll find some peace
I just look at the skyline

What am I doin’ here
In such a lonely place?

Next up is “The Coast” is an upbeat tale of the calming effects of the coast in relieving the stresses of daily life. This is followed by “Delight (Something New Under The Sun)” about a pending relationship. There is use of rock-style guitars in this song, although it also has a bit of island vibe to the melody.

I’m gonna head down to the coast
Where nothin’ ever seems to matter
You know I love it there the most
When every piece of my world gets scattered

Blue skies, green water
White birds in the air
Brown skin, blue collar
And the wind blowin’ in my hair

Jakob Dylan joins Emily on “See You In The Spring”, another folk-style ballad. This song bespeaks of an up and down relationship.

‘Cause baby, your Summer is nothing but prison
It drives me away
And maybe, come Winter, we can’t be together
But love will come again
‘Til then I’ll see you in the Spring
Ah, so don’t throw it all away
Throw it all away

“Ain’t No Son” is a rock number and a fairly mediocre one at that. On the other hand “Fairy Tales” is an interesting song about the contradictions between what one wants and what ultimately needs to do.

Every girl wants the fairytale
I guess I do too
We’re restless, we’re young
With so much to prove

You ask me to wait
But wait I won’t do
‘Cause the time I’ve been wasting
I could be spending with you

Take me… we’ll run away
Out of this town ’til it fades
And they’ll say we’re wrong
But with you I’m alright either way

“I Miss You” sounds country (or perhaps country rock) with prominent steel by Lloyd Maines. This is a fairly typical song about longing, nicely sung with effective fiddle and steel accompaniment.

“Gracefully” is a slow downer of a song about a relationship that she wishes would end, but her lover would like to continue onward.

“April’s Love” also sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel album track, again about a relationship that is fading away. Since Emily had divorced husband Charlie Robison during the year before this album was recorded, I wonder about how much the end of that relationship colored this album

“Then Again” has a fuller sound than most of the songs on the album with a blues/rock feel to it, this time about introspection and coming to grips with one’s self-awareness (or lack thereof).

“It Didn’t Make A Sound” features the banjo prominently in a rock arrangement, but the lyric doesn’t really go anywhere although the piano of Mike Finnegan has a bit of a Professor Longhair feel to it, making the song greater than the sum of its parts.

The album closes up with “Fear of Wasted Time”, a quiet ballad of desperation.

I hold my babies tight
Sneak into their beds at night
I’ll just stay and watch them breathing
Next thing I know the alarm clock’s ringing

I watch every frame
Of this life I’ve made
Take a picture but I miss the moment now
Looking in their eyes

And you ask why I do it that way

It’s just the fear of wasted time
The fear of wasted time
That’s why

The feeling’s very strange
I’m waiting for the pain
And happiness can terrify me now
It could be goodbye

The album is a pleasant enough to listen to, but the songs are not especially strong and, unlike the Dixie Chicks albums, with minimal storytelling involved. Listening to this album reminded me of why the sisters needed Robin Lynn Macy, Laura Lynch and later Natalie Maines. Emily Robison is an acceptable vocalist, but nothing more and this album lacks the spark of any of the Dixie Chicks albums, whether the early independent label albums or the later major label successes.

I would give this album a “B”.

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame’

Sunny Sweeney began her performing career as a student of improv comedy in New York City.  Fortunately for country music fans, her fellow classmates encouraged her to first pursue a career in music.  After that, Sunny retreated to her Texas hometown, before she made the move to Austin and began playing the local honky tonk circuit.  She was soon writing her own songs and landed a spot on an international tour with Dwight Yoakam.  In 2007, Big Machine Records signed Sweeney to the label and issued her first album, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame.  Three singles were released, all of which failed to chart.

Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame was recorded at Cherry Ridge Studio in Floresville, Texas, far from Music Row.  It’s no wonder the set failed to generate any radio hits given the album’s overall sound and running themes.  That she really honed her chops playing the honky tonks is evident in both the aesthetic and the themes present in the lyrics here as Texas roadhouse country seems to the most common recurring musical theme among a littering of influences of honky-tonk, traditional country, and embracing Nashville renegades.

‘Refresh My Memory’ is a straight-up country, drown-in-your-sorrows number where the narrator is returning to one of her ex-boyfriends because she knows he’ll at least light a spark in her, even if she knows he’s wrong for her.  It’s been an awful long time since she felt the spark this guy brings to her, or perhaps since she’s felt any sparks at all, and here she implores him to jog her memory a bit

There are plenty of two-steps and genuine barroom honky-tonk with tracks like ‘East Texas Pines’, a rocking lament to days gone by and your current location.  The album’s title track was perhaps its best shot at a mainstream country radio hit, but even it was a long shot. Sunny’s charming drawl, coupled with layers of steel guitar, walking bass lines, and some saucy harmonica playing, keep it firmly rooted in traditional country; radical, you know.  ‘If I Could’ moves at breakneck speed – and shows Sunny to be capable as an auctioneer if nothing else – in a knee-slapping good time of a song.

Proving Sweeney to be a singer’s singer – a characteristic that almost always means quality but also means no commercial appeal for some reason – this album has more than its share of insider songs about the music industry, and even more that just plain espouse the virtues and importance of music to the mind and soul.  ‘Next Big Nothing’ tells of a singer’s struggles and frustrations with the slow pace of success while ‘Slow Swinging Western Tunes’ sings both the praises and the curses of sweet dance hall numbers – ‘play them in reverse and you get yourself a broken heart’.

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Changing the face but not the name

Gary Nichols

This week’s news that the great bluegrass-based group the SteelDrivers have changed lead singers after one acclaimed album from the distinctive sound of songwriter Chris Stapleton (who wants to return to a life concentrating on writing) to former Mercury artist Gary Nichols was a little disappointing. Musicians would probably disagree with this, but to me the lead singer is the most distinguishing feature of any band’s identity – and changing the face at the front seems to change the dynamic for better or worse.

One-time hitmakers Lonestar have a new album out soon with a new lead singer, but do not seem to be attracting much attention with it. They in fact started out with two lead singers (John Rich and Richie MacDonald), and when John Rich left to try a solo career (which flopped, leading to his finding success as half of Big & Rich) that did not cause any problems for the band, who went on to release their biggest hit, ‘Amazed’. But when Richie left the band a couple of years ago, the group had already passed its commercial peak. Richie’s solo career has not been particularly successful, and although I haven’t heard Lonestar’s material with their new lead singer yet, I would be surprised if it brought them back to the top.

One band to have gone through various changes of personnel, but for whom real success was associated with the original lead singer was Highway 101, a favorite of mine from the late 80s. Fronted by Paulette Carlson, the group released three fine albums and a string of top 10 hits including several #1s between 1987 and 1990. Paulette then decided she wanted to go it alone, and released a solo album. This proved to be a bad move for her as her new record was a complete flop. The band meanwhile recruited a new lead singer, Nikki Nelson who had a strong, commercial voice, but one with less personality than Paulette’s. The new line-up had a few hits in the arly 90s, but ones which peaked lower on the charts than their earlier material. In 1996 Paulette rejoined the group and they released the appropriately entitled Reunited, but their time had passed and they could not reignite the flame of their glory days. They split again, and the band tried with a third lead singer, with even less success. I understand they are currently performing with Nikki Nelson again. This was a case study where the original combination of lead singer and band was the magical one, and subsequent reinventions just didn’t work.

Chris Stapleton

Sometimes switching the lead singer works out. The Dixie Chicks’ early records featured two lead singers (Laura Lynch and Robin Lee Macy) who were both eventually discarded. It was only when Natalie Maines joined that the band got their major label deal, and proceeded to mass success in the late 90s. Even today, after they have fallen from grace with country radio, the Court Yard Hounds side venture of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the founder members of the Chicks, without Natalie, seems unlikely to attract the same level of support of their most recent album with her. Since the other two own the rights to the name, it is interesting that they decided to drop it for this project.

These last two cases do involve someone with a particularly distinctive voice which served to mark the band out. A similar case involving a less successful group is Trick Pony and its lead singer Heidi Newfield. When Heidi left to go solo, the band initially tried to find a new lead singer, but Heidi’s replacement Aubrey Collins left before any new music could be released, and the surviving band members eventually called it a day. In this case some lead vocals had been taken by one of the guys in the band, but Heidi was the dominating presence at the center of the group.

In previous generations, however, changes of personnel were less disruptive. The Statler Brothers replaced Lew De Witt with Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys have been going since 1945 with many changes. However, these cases did not involve changing a sole lead singer. The pioneering Carter Family consisted of A P Carter, wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle in the 1930s; later on Maybelle continued the group with her daughters. Bluegrass groups seem generally to be formed around an inspirational instrumentalist rather than the singer, and have frequently featured changes in lead vocalist. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have changed personnel over the years, but retained a strong musical identity regardless.

Which of today’s groups could survive a new face at the front?