My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Grascals

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Runaway Train’

runaway-trainThis is Flatt Lonesome’s third album and each has been a slight improvement on the album before, a difficult task since the debut and second albums were indeed excellent. On my list of favorite albums of 2016, I had Runaway Train at number two on my list and I gave serious thought to placing it at #1.

Flatt Lonesome hails from Callahan Florida, a town just big enough to avoid jokes about the entering and leaving signs being on the same signpost. They have become huge favorites at the bluegrass festivals for the simplest of reasons – they sing well, are very proficient on their instruments, and select great songs to record. The group is essentially a family band with sisters Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson joining brother Buddy Robertson in handling most of the vocals. Kelli plays mandolin, Charli plays fiddle and Buddy plays guitar. Paul Harrigill, who entered the family by marrying Kelsi, plays banjo and other instruments as needed. Non-family members Michael Stockton (dobro & lap steel) and Dominick Illingworth (bass) round out the team.

The album opens with a tune written by Danny Roberts (of the Grascals) and Paul Harrigill titled “You’ll Pay”. Buddy takes the lead vocals with his sisters adding harmony vocals on this song about retribution.

Next up is “Still Feeling Blue”, a song by Gram Parsons, a would-be country artist of the 1960s. Kelli takes the lead vocals with her siblings providing the harmony vocals. Parsons was greatly influenced by the Louvin Brothers and it definitely shows on this composition. This really is a good song and the trio vocal work just shines on this song.

Time can pass and time can heal
But it don’t ever pass the way I feel
You went away a long time ago
And why you left I never knew
The lonely days and lonely nights
Guess the world knows I ain’t feelin’ right
And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow
And now I’m still feeling blue

Dwight Yoakam would seem to be an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover, but “You’re The One” really is a great vehicle for Charli’s lead vocals and the harmony trios. This song, a slow ballad, was a huge hit on bluegrass radio.

Kelsi penned “In The Heat of The Fire” and takes the lead vocals on a fine religiously themed mid-temp ballad. Michael Stockton takes a nice dobro break and Charli does likewise on a fiddle break.

If you’re like Jonah
In the belly of the whale
Running so far
And headed for hell
Cry out to him
He’ll hear your voice
And answer your prayer

He’s in the valley
He’s in the storm
He’ll be your shelter
He’ll keep you warm
He is your solid rock
In the midst of the mire
You can still hear his voice
In the heat of the fire

The Bluegrass Cardinals wrote and recorded many fine songs during their two plus decade run. “Don’t Come Running” by the father and son team of Don and Dave Parmley is just one of the many fine songs, Buddy takes the lead on this song.

Well you tell me today you were going far away
You tell me you wanna be free
But if your new friend breaks your heart in the end
Don’t you come running back to me

Oh my darling go and stay if you want it that way
You don’t love me and that is plain to see
If your new love turns you down, I won’t be hangin’ round
So don’t you come running back to me

Kelsi penned “In The Morning”, a nice religious ballad. This time sister Charli takes the lead vocals.

“Road To Nottingham” is an instrumental written by Paul Harrigill and Brayden McMahon. The song gives the entire band an opportunity to shine.

Dolton Robertson II is the father of Charli, Kelsi and Buddy but it turns out that he is a pretty good songwriter as “New Lease On Life” attests. Charli sings the lead vocal and Kelsi takes the harmony vocals.

“Casting All Your Care On Him” was a husband and wife collaboration between Paul and Kelsi, with Kelsi taking the lead vocals and her siblings taking the harmony on this up-tempo religious song.

When I first heard “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” on XM Radio I was floored that a group this young could unearth an old Tommy Collins-Merle Haggard classic from the mid 60s. The song first saw the light of day in 1966 on Collins’ first Columbia album The Dynamic Tommy Collins. Haggard recorded the song in 1967 on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album. It probably isn’t fair to compare Buddy Robertson to either Collins or Haggard, I would say that he acquits himself well, and manages to imbue the spirit of Tommy Collins into his vocals. It should be noted that both Collins and Haggard used the title “Poor Broke Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

Paul & Kelsi collaborated on “Letting Go”, a downer of a song that asks if love ever really existed.

The album closes with “Runaway Train”, written by Australian artist Kasey Chambers . This song isn’t even remotely a bluegrass song, but is the mark of a group’s excellence that they can take left field material such as this and make it fit in the context of a bluegrass album.

I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take ya where your heart won’t break ya
And the water tastes like wine
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line

We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we’ll live off honey
When the train goes underground
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round

Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, the first of many such awards that will be forthcoming for this talented group. In terms of trio harmony, they have few peers. This is a group will continue to grow in stature. I can hardly wait for their next album.

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Album Review – Doug Stone – ‘My Turn’

StonemyturnDoug Stone’s most recent album, My Turn, was issued on Lofton Creek Records in 2007. Produced by the singer himself, the album is comprised solely of original material (none of which he wrote), without any re-recordings of past singles.

With Stone no longer in the good graces of country radio, and My Turn receiving little publicity from the label, it’s unsurprising none of its three single charted. Lead single “Nice Problem” boasts a wonderfully traditional arrangement, and a strong vocal from Stone, but is too sentimental lyrically. The idea of “what a nice problem to have” is just too predicable to work on a truly emotional level. “She Always Gets What She Wants” is a fine uptempo number and good choice for the second single. The title pretty much gives away the song, but it works because Stone doesn’t come off corny. I really like the light production, too.

My favorite of the three singles is “Don’t Tell Mama” a tune I first came to know through The Grascals’ version, which features a duet vocal by George Jones. The song first appeared on Ty Herndon’s Living In The Moment from 1996 and then from Gary Allan’s 1999 Smoke Rings In The Dark. It’s a perfectly cut slice of pure country about a man pleading with a first responder in the wake of his car crash, just before he dies:

Don’t tell Mama I was drinkin’

Lord knows her soul would never rest

I can’t leave this world with Mama thinkin’

I met the Lord with whiskey on my breath

“We’re All About That” is a fairly cliché uptempo rocker laundry-list type song that showed the beginning of this now insufferable trend. Stone keeps up with the high-octane rock of “The Hard Way” but the whole thing fails him by being far too progressive for his far more traditional voice. with a reference to Hank Williams Jr within the first seconds, “That’s How We Roll” plays like a Gretchen Wilson cast-off, a song too demographically specific even for her.

“Dancin’ On Glass” is a smooth-pop love song that fails to be anything great thanks to rudimentary lyrics and bland production. “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” is another laundry-list song, this time in ballad form about rudely stereotypical characteristics of being female. The song is demeaning in nature, which doesn’t help its cause, although it boasts a somewhat listenable production.

Stone is at his best when steel guitar penetrates the production track, thus giving his natural twang some context on a song. “The Right Side of Lonesome” is just one such example of this, a moment where he’s allowed to shine. It’s not a revelatory song by any stretch, but it works because all the necessary pieces come together nicely. “To A Better Place” also fits the traditional criteria, although it just isn’t that great a song, and there’s an odd vocal mix on the chorus that doesn’t do Stone’s voice any justice. He’s far better on “You Were Never Mine To Loose,” a straightforward country song with ample fiddle. It could’ve been written a little stronger, but it works fine just like it is.

When I was listening to the three singles for this review, I was excited to be able to praise Stone for making a record that showcased what he does best instead of an uncharacteristic effort that bowed to mainstream pressure. My Turn is actually neither of those things. It falls somewhere in the middle, settling as a mixed bag of tricks, some that work, and a lot that don’t. But he’s in fine voice throughout, which is nice to see from a country singer past his commercial prime. I just wish he’d been gifted with better songs.

Grade: B

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: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: The Grascals & Friends – ‘Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin’

The Grascals are one of the most talented current bluegrass lineups, and their four albums to date have been gaining them increasing amounts of attention. The band’s singers are not among my favorite bluegrass vocalists, but their instrumental prowess is exceptional. They have already worked extensively with discerning country artists like Dierks Bentley and Dolly Parton. This side project, recorded exclusively for Cracker Barrel, consists, as the title promises, of the Grascals’ selection of classic mainstream country songs given a light bluegrass flavor, with a number of guest stars helping out on vocals. Fiddler Jeremy Abshire and banjoist Kristin Scott Benson stand out most for me, but all the musicianship is flawless, with not a note sounding out of place or misjudged – the perfect combination of virtuosity and taste.

Most of the songs are duets with the guest vocalist generally opening and one of the Grascals’ lead singers taking over halfway through. Guests range from some of the more traditionally rooted of today’s stars to veteran acts on their own classics.

Brad Paisley is entertaining on a committed version of the Buck Owens classic ‘Tiger By The Tail’ which opens the set brightly and is one of my favorite tracks. I also really enjoyed Dierks Bentley guesting on ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, although I would have preferred him to sing lead throughout rather than sharing the role, which seems to make the lyric less convincing by not being a single man’s story. The least successful cameo comes from Joe Nichols, whose music I usually like, but who sounds rather limp on ‘Mr Bojangles’ (not one of my personal favorite songs anyway, which may color my appreciation of this version).

Darryl Worley appears on the second verse of a fast-paced and playful ‘White Lightning’ which sounds as though the band had great fun recording it, and it is equally enjoyable to listen to. Country and bluegrass get some added Cajun spice with a lively take on ‘Louisiana Saturday Night’ (a Bob McDill song about down-home partying on the bayou and was a hit for Mel McDaniel in 1981), which is perfectly fine without any star guest. However, a Hank Jr medley of ‘Born To Boogie’ and All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight’ could have done with a guest to add some passion, as the treatment is just far too mild – neither boogieing nor rowdy in even the slightest degree. The instrumental backing is as attention-grabbing as ever, though.

Singer-songwriter Tom T Hall has been working in bluegrass for some years, and here he sings his ‘The Year That Clayton Delaney Died’. His voice has audibly aged, but it works well in the context of this warmly reminiscent tribute to a childhood influence, and the cut is absolutely charming. Charlie Daniels sounds even more grizzled on ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, but the band sound a little too polite vocally backing him up, although the playing definitely has the requisite fire. The Oak Ridge Boys contribute vocals on their Rodney Crowell-penned hit ‘Leavin’ Louisiana In the Broad Daylight’ (one of the more unexpected song choices), and while this works well in its new incarnation, it isn’t one of my favorite tracks.

Dolly Parton harmonizes beautifully on her own (and Porter Wagoner’s) ‘Pain Of Lovin’ You’, which works perfectly as a bluegrass song. Dolly also guests on the single which has been released to publicize the project, ‘I Am Strong’, the only original song included (apart from a nice rhythmic instrumental, ‘Cracker Barrel Swing’). Written by the Grascals’ Jamie Johnson with his wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (currently Terri Clark’s fiddle player), it has a very pretty melody, and heartfelt lyric, sung with great soulfulness and emotion. I have to admit that if I were diagnosed with a serious or fatal illness, my own first impulse would not be to talk about how strong I felt, and I don’t think I would even want to be, so the song’s message doesn’t quite speak to me personally. Having said that, it is an attitude which does help many people, and it appealed to the Grascals enough that they recorded the song twice here, once with Dolly, then reprised at the end of the album with an all-star cast including most of their other guests, Terri Clark, Randy Owen and (bizarrely) action star Steven Seagal. (It would, incidentally, have been nice to have had a full duet with Terri on the record, as the choice of guests is rather male-dominated.) I actually found this version with everyone swapping lines more effective and moving than the earlier version, with more of a sense of universality.

Both versions are emotive in the right way, with a real sense of hope. Both end with a few lines delivered by a three-year-old patient at St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, which inspired the song’s composition. Fittingly, a share of the profits of the album go to the hospital.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Homecoming’

It isn’t widely known that prior to his stint as a mainstream country hitmaker in the 1990s, Joe Diffie was an accomplished bluegrass musician, having been a member of the bluegrass band Special Edition. He returns to those roots for his first album in six years. Co-produced by Diffie with Luke Wooten, Homecoming is a comprised of some bluegrass classics along with some newer songs and original compositions, and features an impressive roster of guest artists including The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Alecia Nugent, and Bradley Walker.

The album opens with a traditional bluegrass number, the Earl Scruggs-written “Somehow Tonight” and continues in a similar vein with “Lonesome and Dry as a Bone”, which was written by Shawn Camp, Matt Lindsey, and Mel Tillis. “Tall Cornstalk” reflects Diffie’s well-known penchant for novelty songs, though this number, told from the point of view of the cornstalk, never approaches the level of hokeyness that characterized many of Joe’s 90s novelty ditties.

The high lonesome sound is evident on numbers such as “Fit For A King” and “I Know How It Feels”, which feature exquisite harmony vocals from Sonya Isaacs and Michael L. Rogers respectively. “Raining On Her Rubber Dolly” is an original composition which Diffie co-wrote with Shawn Camp. One of those uptempo songs with mournful lyrics that is unique to bluegrass, it uses the imagery of a child’s doll, left out in the rain in the yard, to symbolize a father’s heartbreak in the aftermath of a marital breakdown and separation from his family.

It’s quite evident that Diffie is well within his comfort zone and more than competent at singing bluegrass credibly. That being said, there are a few tracks that are more acoustic country than traditional bluegrass, which, with different arrangements would have been quite at home on any of his mainstream country albums. “Route 5 Box 109”, on which Joe is joined by Rhonda Vincent, is reminiscent of his 1990 breakthrough hit “Home”. Along with “Free and Easy” and “Stormy Weather Once Again”, it is one of the best tracks on the album. I’m not sure how bluegrass purists feel about these songs; to my admittedly non-expert ears, they sound more like acoustic country than bluegrass, but that in no way suggests that they are not excellent, regardless of how one categorizes them.

The album closes with “Hard To Handle”, a remake of a 1968 Otis Redding record, which is impressive if only for the speed at which it is sung. I’ll confess to complete ignorance of the original version, but I’m betting it bears little resemblance to Diffie’s rendition. While not my favorite track on the album, it is nonetheless enjoyable.

Joe Diffie was one of the most talented male vocalists of the 1990s, who didn’t always get the attention and acclaim that he deserved. Unfortunately he is most remembered today for his novelty tunes and not for some of the stronger entries in his catalog. Homecoming should go a long way to restoring his gravitas as an artist, and will easily appeal to both bluegrass aficionados and fans of Joe’s more mainstream work.

Grade: A

Homecoming is available from major retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes. A bonus track “Ocean of Diamonds” is available for download but is not included on the CD version. Those who download the album from Amazon are advised to select the version that includes “[+ digital booklet]” in the title. This is the version that contains the bonus track; inexplicably, it is the same price as the 12-track version with no liner notes or bonus track, which Amazon also sells.

Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘My Turn’

tanya_tucker_my_turn-200After seven long years, Tanya Tucker is finally back with My Turn , a collection of covers of classic country songs, recorded as a tribute to her late father and mentor, Beau Tucker. This album is different from anything Tanya has done in the past. We’ve never heard her sound so “retro” before, and it struck me that aside from the common knowledge that Tucker is a huge Elvis, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn fan, we haven’t heard a lot about her musical influences, up to now. Unlike her contemporaries Lorrie Morgan and Patty Loveless, she’s never made a habit of including a classic cover or two on her albums. My Turn , therefore, gives us a rare insight into the music that influenced this country legend who has been a presence on the country charts for nearly 40 years.

Teaming up with producer Pete Anderson, Tucker chose mostly songs that were favorites of her late father, and wisely avoided songs that have been covered countless times by others, the exception being “Crazy Arms”. I was surprised to see this song included in the track listing, since it was recently covered by Tucker’s Saguaro Road labelmate Patty Loveless. But while Loveless’ version is drenched with a wailing steel guitar and her trademark “mountain siren” vocals, Tucker takes a much more understated approach that is closer to the Ray Price original.

I was already very familiar with all of the songs, except for the opening track “Wine Me Up.” Originally a hit for Faron Young in 1969, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s followed by a version of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” that is very faithful to the original, and Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” featuring guest vocals from Jim Lauderdale. “Love’s Gonna Live Here” is the lead single from the album, and was previously reviewed here at My Kind of Country.

“After The Fire Is Gone” was the Grammy Award-winning first duet by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn back in 1970. Tucker and Pete Anderson wanted Billy Ray Cyrus to be Tanya’s duet partner, but mercifully he was unavailable and Tucker is joined instead by The Grascals, who provide the harmony vocals.

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