My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Hot Band

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Diamonds & Dirt’

A full decade into his career as a recording artist, Rodney Crowell finally achieved some long overdue recognition with his fifth studio release, Diamonds & Dirt, which was the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album of his career. Now signed to Columbia Records, Crowell enlisted the aid of fellow Hot Band alumnus Tony Brown to share production duties. In addition, Rodney wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s ten songs. In lieu of the country rock sound that had dominated his previous albums, Diamonds & Dirt sought to capitalize on the popularity of the New Traditionalist movement. Marketing the album to a more mainstream country audience paid off in spades.

Released in March 1988, the album was preceded two months earlier by the single “It’s Such A Small World”, a duet with Rosanne Cash, who was on a hot streak at the time. It quickly rose to #1, becoming the highest charting single of Crowell’s career at that point, but in many people’s minds, it was Cash’s star power that propelled the record to the top of the chart. However, Crowell quickly dispelled the misconception that he couldn’t deliver the commercial goods on his own when the album’s subsequent four singles also reached the #1 spot, making Diamonds & Dirt the first album in country music history to produce five #1 hits. Following “It’s Such A Small World” to the top of the chart was the uptempo “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”, the whimsical “She’s Crazy For Leaving” (a co-write with Guy Clark), the beautiful ballad “After All This Time”, and “Above and Beyond”, which was the one song in which Crowell did not have a hand in writing. Written by the great Harlan Howard and originally released by Buck Owens in 1960, the uptempo steel-drenched toe-tapper is my favorite song on the album — but just barely. The quality of the album’s songs is consistently excellent from start to finish, making it difficult to choose favorites, and all of them had hit single potential.

More often than not, it is the ballads that stand the test of time, and thus, “After All This Time” is the cut that received the most recurrent airplay. It was my least favorite of the album’s singles at the time of its release, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate its simple, stripped down beauty.

In many respects, Diamonds & Dirt is a one-man show, with Crowell singing lead vocals, co-producing and writing the majority of the album’s songs. However, he received a good deal of help from some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians — Glen Duncan (fiddle), Mark O’Connor (fiddle and mandolin), Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash, who both provided background vocals. The album was nominated for a Grammy. Rodney Crowell was on a very hot streak, which unfortunately ended almost as quickly as it began when he was unable to match Diamonds & Dirt’s success with subsequent releases.

Diamonds & Dirt reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified gold. It was reissued by Columbia Legacy in 2008 with three bonus tracks. The album is easy to find and is most deserving of a spot in every country fan’s music library. If you are only going to own one Rodney Crowell album, this is the one to own.

Grade: A+

Album Review: ‘The Rodney Crowell Collection’

Warner Bros. was Rodney Crowell’s label home between 1978 and 1981. During that time he released three albums, none of which was commercially successful and they are all long out of print. Released in 1989 as a means of capitalizing the success that Crowell was enjoying at Columbia Records at that time, The Rodney Crowell Collection is the best available sampler of his Warner Bros. years.

During this time, Crowell was best known as a songwriter and as a key member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He was also steadily gaining respect for his talent as a producer, having produced the records of his then-wife Rosanne Cash. As a recording artist, Rodney only cracked the Top 40 twice during his tenure with Warner Bros., but a quick glance at this album’s tracklist will quickly reveal that the songs themselves were not at fault for his lack of commercial success. Most of the titles were significant hits for other artists, and anyone who was listening to country radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s will be familiar with them. “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” was the title track of his first Warner Bros. album. That same year, Emmylou Harris recorded the song for her Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town album, and the following year, Waylon Jennings scored a #1 hit with the song. Emmylou had also recorded “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” and sings harmony on Rodney’s version. The Oak Ridge Boys would take this song to #1 in 1979. Emmylou also lends her vocals to a gorgeous rendition of “Voila, An American Dream”, which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also recorded. The Dirt Band’s version petered out at #58 on the country chart but reached #13 on the pop chart and was a #3 hit in Canada. The beautiful “Till I Gain Control Again” was a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle in 1982, and “Shame On The Moon”, the song for which Crowell was probably best known during this era, was recorded by numerous Nashville who released albums in 1982 and 1983. It was a huge pop hit for Bob Seger, who took it to the top of the adult contemporary chart, to #2 on the pop chart, and #15 on the country chart.

None of the previously mentioned songs was released as a single by Crowell, but there is a pair of songs on the album that were released as singles, and despite their limited chart success, went on to become hits for other artists: “Ashes By Now” (Lee Ann Womack) and “Stars On The Water” (George Strait). Rodney’s version of the latter did reach #30 on the country singles chart, making it his best chart performance up to that time. There are only three songs on the album that weren’t written or co-written by Crowell, and two of them were also hits for others; Juice Newton took Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts” to #14 on the country chart and #2 on the Hot 100, while Ricky Skaggs scored a #1 country hit with Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke”.

For the most part, Crowell’s recordings are not as good as the better known hit versions by other artists. He is a good, though not truly great, vocalist, but the production on these recordings may be partly to blame for their commercial failure. Most of them have too much reverb and the arrangements are a little too rock-leaning for what country radio favored at the time. One song on which Crowell’s vocals truly shine, however, is “Victim or A Fool”, one of the few songs on the album that did not become a hit for someone else. It’s my favorite track here, possibly because there isn’t another more familiar version with which to compare it.

Though not essential listening, The Rodney Crowell Collection allows the listener an opportunity to hear a number of widely recorded songs in the songwriter’s voice and also helps to explain why he was such a respected producer and songwriter during the era before he achieved his commercial breakthrough. Inexpensive new and used copies are easy to find and are worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Roses In The Snow’

Releasing a bluegrass album is a near-certain way to ensure diminished album sales and radio airplay; just ask Dierks Bentley. It was considered even riskier move in 1980, when Nashville was still deeply entrenched in the Urban Cowboy sound. So Warner Bros. executives were understandably unenthusiastic when Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern submitted the bluegrass-oriented Roses In The Snow as Emmylou’s sixth album for the company. The label ultimately relented, primarily because of Emmylou’s stellar sales record: every album she’d released, with the exception of the Christmas album Light of the Stable, had been certified gold. The album was released in May 1980, and everyone braced themselves for a commercial disaster. But to everyone’s great surprise, Roses In The Snow was anything but a disaster. Although the two singles released to radio did not chart quite as high as some of her earlier records, the album peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top Country LPs chart, and like its five predecessors, was certified gold.

Emmylou’s previous album, 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl, had marked a change in direction, concentrating primarily on traditional country, as opposed to the more eclectic approach of her earlier releases. The success of Blue Kentucky Girl, as well as the influence of Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs, encouraged Harris to delve even deeper into traditional music. Skaggs’ fingerprints are all over Roses In The Snow; he played several instruments on the album as well as contributing duet and background vocals. But what really makes Roses In The Snow sound unique is autoharpist Bryan Bowers, who plays throughout the album. While perhaps not strictly bluegrass, the autoharp recreated the sound of the Carter Family, contributing to the old-timey sound that Harris and Ahern were aiming for.

Like Emmylou’s previous albums, Roses In The Snow was recorded in Los Angeles in the Enactron Truck and made use of both The Hot Band and an impressive guest line-up. The Whites, who had been featured prominently on Blue Kentucky Girl once again contributed harmony vocals, as did Harris’ good friends Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash provided backing vocals on one track (“Jordan”), Jerry Douglas played dobro and Wilie Nelson played gut-string guitar.

The traditional number “Wayfaring Stranger” was released as the album’s first single. Perhaps the closest in style to Harris’ earlier work — reminiscent of past hits such as “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and “One Of These Days” — “Wayfaring Stranger” climbed to #7, bucking the then-current trend towards slickly-produced, more pop sounding music. “The Boxer”, a remake of the 1968 Paul Simon hit, fared less well, stalling at #13. It is the most unusual song on the album, not something I — or probably most people — would have thought of while working on a bluegrass project, but it works surprisingly well. Sung from the male point of view, it benefits greatly from the acoustic arrangement, Bryan Bowers’ autoharp, and superb harmonies from The Whites.

The best music is often made when commercial considerations are cast aside, allowing the artist to engage in a labor of love. This is decidedly the case with Roses In The Snow. It’s hard to pinpoint the album’s highlights because it is excellent from beginning to end, but if pressed, I would have to go with “Green Pastures”, a Harris-Skaggs duet with harmonies provided by Dolly Parton, “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn”, another Harris-Skaggs collaboration written by Ralph Stanley, and “Gold Watch and Chain”, an A.P Carter-penned song which features Skaggs and Linda Ronstadt. Emmylou’s cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Learning” is also quite good, and is one of the few instances in which she breaks with tradition and uses some electric instruments, namely the electric guitar, courtesy of Hot Band member Albert Lee.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Roses Of The Snow in 2002, along with two bonus tracks: a cover of Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change” and the Celtic-flavored “Root Like A Rose”, written by Nancy Ahern (Bryan’s sister). Neither song is bluegrass, so they sound slightly out of place here, but both are excellent.

Roses In The Snow is available from Amazon and iTunes, and is highly recommended. Please note that the digital version of the album does not include the two bonus tracks.

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.