My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Isaacs

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Gospel Roots’

Gene Watson has released a gospel album previously (Jesus Is All I Need, in 1997, repackaged under various titles since), but his new release in that vein is his best in a religious vein. Still a stunningly good singer belying his seven decades, he has selected some excellent songs, and avoided too much well worn material. The arrangements are as traditional country as one would expect from one of Gene’s secular records, and Dirk Johnson, who has been producing his music for some years, is in charge again this time.

The best song is the high lonesome ‘Fit For A King’, a story song about a homeless preacher, which was written by Jim Rushing and Carl Jackson, and previously recorded by a number of artists, most famously Garth Brooks. Gene’s version of this modern classic is tenderly observed and ornamented by beautiful harmonies from co-writer Jackson and the bluegrass singer Val Storey. Wonderful.

The promotional single, ‘Old Roman Soldier’ gives a voice to one of the soldiers present at the Crucifixion. A somber story with an inspirational twist, it is beautifully delivered by Gene, assisted again by Jackson and Storey. Another highlight is an exquisite reading of the emotional plea ‘Help Me’, which is repeated from Gene’s last album.

Some of the songs are old favorites which Gene remembers singing at church as a boy. The Southern Gospel hymn ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ is sung with careful sincerity. The beautiful ‘In The Garden’, another hymn from early 20th century America, gets a fuller more orchestrated arrangement.

The traditional ‘Swing Wide Them Golden Gates’ picks up the pace and is very catchy with some lively piano backing. Gospel standard ‘Satisfied’ is taken at a brisk pace. ‘Clinging To A Saving Hand’, another classic country gospel tune, is very nicely done.

‘Praying’ was originally written by Hazel Houser for the Louvin Brothers, and also recorded by Gene’s peer Vern Gosdin in the 80s. It is a sweet song about a sinner who is the subject of his poor mother’s prayers. ‘Til The Last leaf Shall Fall’ is an obscure Sonny James song which is pretty good.

‘Call Me Gone’ is a passionate ballad about longing for Heaven, which is a cover of a song by the Southern Gospel group The Hinsons. It features another outstanding vocal from Gene. The Isaacs provide harmonies on the Dottie Rambo-penned ballad ‘Build My Mansion (Next Door To Jesus)’, which is very pretty. ‘He Ain’t Gone For Good’, a new song co-written by producer Johnson, is a solid song about the Resurrection.

This album is thoroughly recommended to anyone who likes religious music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Blessed’

Bradley Walker’s second religious album, and third overall, leans towards traditional hymns and other well known material. A beautiful, measured reading of ‘Amazing Grace’ opens the album. Carl Jackson and Val Storey add harmony vocals, and a little steel guitar ornaments the track. A thoughtful, sincere version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, also introduced with some gorgeous steel, is even better. Jimmy Fortune and Ben Isaacs help out here.

From the southern gospel tradition, Alison Krauss adds an angelic harmony to ‘Angel Band’. Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs help on ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, another lovely track. ‘I’ll Fly Away’ has energy and commitment, as does ‘Victory In Jesus’. The Gaithers’ more recent ‘Because He Lives’ is a melodic ballad.

A few classic country and bluegrass gospel tunes are included. The Oak Ridge Boys lead into ‘Family Bible’ with a line from ‘Rock Of Ages’. Some may not know that ‘One Day At A Time’ was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin). Bradley’s version is earnest and tasteful, with a lovely harmony from Rhonda Vincent. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White provide harmonies on the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Who Will Sing For Me’.

There is some newer material as well. ‘I Will Someday’, written by two sets of spouses (Morgane Hayes and Chris Stapleton, and Ronnie and Garnet Bowman), is a nice upbeat song about absolute faith. The Isaacs contribute backing vocals, and there is a sprightly acoustic guitar and piano backing. ‘Cast the First Stone’ is an Isaacs song from a couple of decades ago with a Bible based lyric and strong bluegrass feel. Another Isaacs tune is the beautiful ballad ‘Say Something’.

This is a perfect example of a country religious album. The vocals are exceptional and the instrumental backings and arrangements delightful.

Grade: A

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Call Me Old Fashioned’

call-me-old-fashionedTen years ago I was blown away by the debut album by Bradley Walker, a country traditionalist/bluegrass singer with a great baritone voice. Sadly, it didn’t lead to the success it deserved, and it has taken a decade for him to release a follow-up. He has appeared on the Joey + Rory TV show and was a favorite of the late Joey Feek, who asked for him to sing at her funeral. His honoring of that request led to his signing a new record deal with gospel label Gaither Music Group. This album (produced by Rory Feek) is mainly religious in nature, but it is also very definitely traditional country.

The Feek connection is underlined with the recording of ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’, which is a moving duet with Joey about making the most of life, written by Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan. Heartfelt vocals from both Joey and Bradley make this very powerful. ‘Sing Me To Heaven’ (by Camp and Buddy Cannon) anticipates the eternal life to come.

A stunning version of the Kristofferson-penned classic ‘Why Me’ opens the album. Walker’s voice has the gravitas to carry it off. Equally good a song is Erin Enderlin and Irene Kelley’s ‘His Memory Walks On Water’, an uncompromisingly honest story song about a man whose drunken abuse of his family means that when he finally crashes his car, his neighbours all judge he “died ten years too late”.

But his absence means that his daughter can reimagine him as a lost hero:

She’ll only see the best in him now looking back
So she can finally have a father who’s gentle, kind and good
She’ll let his memory walk on water since he never could

This is an extraordinary song which Bradley does full justice to.

‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ is a confessional Rory Feek ballad about an imperfect man dealing with hard times and feeling he has let down his wife. Musically it has more of Christian Contemporary feel than the pure country of the remainder of the album, but the sensitive lyric, fine vocal and tasteful arrangement all sell it.

‘Sinners Only’ points out that salvation is not just for the righteous, as a priest with a past is torn between the bottle and his calling:

He knows God’s gonna love him whatever he decides
Sinners only
Bring your drunkards and your fighters and no-one-seems-to-like-hers
Bring your drifters and your liars and your thieves
In other words, anyone who breathes

A form of muscular dystrophy means that Bradley uses a wheelchair, and he refers to this with a complete lack of self-pity in ‘I Feel Sorry For Them’, which he wrote with Rory Feek and Tim Johnson about what he has to be grateful for. The lilting ‘I Count My Blessings’ is less personally specific, but also about being happy with what one has. ‘The Toolbox’ offers some homespun philosophy from a note left by the protagonist’s dad in the toolbox he leaves behind. Very nice harmonies augment a soothing melody and comforting lyric.

The title track, written by Jerry Salley and Dave Turnbull, lauds traditional values of honesty, hard work, and patriotism. ‘Pray For God’ is on the verge of being too sweet, with its small child’s innocent suggestion at a church prayer meeting. ‘The Right Hand Of Fellowship’, written by Larry Cordle and Leslie Satcher, is a bright and catchy description of a church with bluegrass/southern gospel harmonies. The stripped down ‘With His Arms Wide Open’ is a beautiful meditation on Jesus.

The one track that doesn’t quite work for me is the closing ‘Beulah Land’, a slightly shaky live recording with the Isaacs on backing vocals.

Everything else, though, is stellar. Excellent songs, a great singer, and tasteful production make this a must-have as long as you don’t dislike religious material.

Grade: A

A DVD featuring these songs in concert, filmed at Joey + Rory’s barn, is also being made available.
call-me-old-fashioned-dvd

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘Inspired: Songs Of Faith And Family’

inspiredHusband and wife Joey + Rory are open about their shared deep religious faith, with the couple reading the bible together daily, so it was no surprise when they announced they were planning their first religious record. Their first release for gospel label Gaither Music Group contains less familiar fare than one often encounters on religious albums, not all of it overtly spiritual, although they rely less on Rory as a songwriter than on their previous work. You can always rely on Joey + Rory for tasteful production, and this time Rory takes the chair, with the help of guitarist Joe West. The record was recorded in a friend’s home studio, with mainly unknown musicians plus a few starry guests, and there is a quiet homespun feel which works well.

Joey and Rory share the leads fairly evenly, as they did on their last album. Although this wastes the fact that the duo’s greatest asset is Joey Martin’s beautiful voice, this time around two of Rory’s leads are my favourite tracks.

One of these highlights is the thought-provoking and non-judgmental story song ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’, recorded live and acoustic. The title characters are a troubled preacher and a passing stranger taking refuge from a storm in the former’s church. As the pair talk

About how life’s unfair sometimes
Trying to make sense of how God works

the preacher shares his sorrow and bitterness at the death years earlier, confessing,

I prayed so hard to Jesus to save my only son
It seems all I do these days is question why
Now I stand here every Sunday and preach to everybody else
I talk a lot about forgiveness
But I can’t do it myself

In an ultimately moving if unlikely coincidence, the visitor turns out to be the repentant drunk driver who killed the preacher’s son so many years before.

There is no facile resolution, but the song’s non-judgmental approach implies forgiveness, though not asked for, will be proffered, and perhaps the preacher will gain peace himself. This remarkable song was written by Jerry Salley and Carl Cartee.

I also very much liked Rory’s warm-hearted cover of ‘Long Line Of Love’, a sweet Paul Overstreet/Thom Schuyler song about love passing down through the generations, which was a chart topping single for Michael Martin Murphey back in 1987. ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’, written by Jerry Salley with Kelley Lovelace, also uses the theme of a loving family, with a father giving his son an old car at 16 and a Bible when the boy leaves home a couple of years later. The attractive melody and Rory’s believable vocal gives charm to an unoriginal theme. Rory’s own song ‘Hammerin’ Nails’ seems to be an autobiographical tribute to his hard working father laying the foundation of a happy family life as he builds the family’s dream home.

The dragging melody makes Richard Leigh’s ‘My Life Is Based On A True Story’ rather boring as a listening experience, although its emotional response to the Gospel is clearly sincerely shared by Rory.

Joey sings the hymn ‘In the Garden’ with equal reverence and a careful attention to the lyrics which reflect her deep-rooted faith. She also sings ‘Amazing Grace’ to the faint strains of an organ backing. ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’ picks up the pace, with Rory and the Isaacs singing call-and-response backing vocals. A cheerful feel with handclapping makes this track enjoyable, but it perhaps lacks emotional depth. Gospel legend Bill Gaither helps out on harmonies on the equally cheery and handclapping ‘I’m Turning To The Light’, written by Stephanie Davis, which worked better. ‘Leave It There’ is another hymn, about casting burdens on the Lord, which I hadn’t heard before but liked.

The biggest star guest is Josh Turner, who duets with Joey on ‘Gotta Go Back’, which he wrote with Rory. Both singers sound gorgeous on a song with a gentle melody, with Turner’s resonant bass contrasting with Joey’s beautiful voice, and aurally this is wonderful, with a pensive fiddle line underpinning the vocals. The lyric expresses a wistful desire to regain the innocence of earlier times, before modern day cares (ranging from career pressure to fear of terrorism and school attacks) impinged, without offering any answer as to how this could be achieved.

Joey, Rory and Rory’s daughter Heidi wrote the idealistic ‘I See Him’ about finding God in the details of ordinary life, which is quite pleasant.

There is a gentle positive mood to this record. It should appeal to existing fans of Joey + Rory, and to those who like their religious music understatedly reverent but non-preachy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jerry Salley – ‘Showing My Age’

You may well recognise the name of Jerry Salley from his many credits as a songwriter. If you do, you will know what a fine writer he is, but may not be aware he is also an accomplished singer in a bluegrass vein with an attractive light tenor, who occasionally releases an excellent record. His latest album is largely acoustic country with a strong bluegrass influence. He produced it himself, and recruited some excellent musicians and harmony singers to help out.

The outstanding song is the tragic tale told in ‘Paper And Pen, which has been recorded by Alecia Nugent, who sings harmony here. It relates the story of two hearts broken when a man writes to his sweetheart, and she misunderstands his meaning when he writes at length about how hard it is for a man to commit – tearing it up before reading his proposal on the last page:

Her soul was bleeding
So she chose her weapon
And went for his heart
With paper and pen
She got her last words in
“I never loved you”
Was the lie she wrote him

He couldn’t believe
The reply he received
What a sad tragedy
For good love to end
Who needs a knife
When you can take someone’s life
With paper and pen

Another classic-sounding heartbreaker comes with the Jim McBride co-write ‘He Carried Her Mem’ry’, about a man who can’t get over a lost love. He gives up by degrees on everything else in life , falling into drunken despair before eventually killing himself “the night that he carried her memory too far”. Bradley Walker recorded it in 2006 on his outstanding country/bluegrass album Highway Of Dreams, which really needs a successor.

A couple of songs included here may be familiar from cuts by major country stars. ‘The Best Thing That I Had Goin’’ which Brad Paisley recorded some years ago, is the plaintive reflection on a lost relationship despite the protagonist’s success in other areas of life; the writer’s own version is very good, with delightful close harmonies from Brandon Rickman and a very bluegrassy feel. Reba McEntire has recorded the very fine ‘Close To Crazy’ written with Melba Montgomery, a regretful first person song about struggling to get over someone and finding,
This close to crazy is far from over you

‘The Broken Ones’ paints the portrait of Maggie, a compassionate young woman who works helping the hopeless:

If you call her an angel she’ll be quick to say to you
She’s just doing what the one who died for her would do

Love the broken ones
The ones that need a little patching up
Look for diamonds in the rough
And make them shine like new
It really doesn’t take that much
A willing heart and a tender touch
If everybody loved like He does
There’d a be a lot less broken ones

Opening track ‘Comin’ Home To You’, written with Chris Stapleton, is one of the less memorable songs, but sets a promising tone with its prominent banjo and relaxed happy mood as the protagonist changes his mind about leaving his loved one. ‘That’s Just Me Loving You’ is a pleasant love song performed as a duet with co-writer Lisa Shaffer.

The title track is a mature reflection on “staring 50 in the eye”. It was written with Brandon Rickman and feels like a 20-years-on sequel to the latter’s similarly themed ‘So Long 20s’, which was on his excellent 2009 release Young Man, Old Soul. I really like this with its comfortable acceptance of age – and the growing confidence maturity brings.

‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Back Then’ look back (mostly fondly) on the lessons learned from growing up in the south in a previous generation. The good-humored and perky ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’ also looks back to teenage years, and the gift of an old car at the age of 16. The fiddle-led ‘Five O’Shadow’ talks sweetly about fatherhood and a little boy who wants to be with daddy whenever he is home.

The first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’, performed with careful reverence by the Isaacs, leads into the equally sincere testimonial of ‘That’s All That Matters To Me’.

You can hear samples of several of the songs on Jerry’s website – which is also offering a deal to get both this album and its equally good predecessor, 2007’s New Songs, Old Friends, which features collaborations with Vince Gill, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rhonda Vincent, our current Spotlight Artist Ricky Skaggs and many others.

Grade: A