My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Rolling Stones

Spotlight Artist: Little Texas

dsc003271The founding members of Little Texas got their start in music 1983 when Porter Howell and Duane Propes joined forces while still in High School. Tim Rushlow and Dwayne O’Brian began playing together in Arlington, Texas the following year. They first came together, with additional members, as The Varsities, performing both on the road and at Opryland as a 1950s show band.

The band concept eventually dissolved and the guys invited old friends Brady Seals and Del Gray, who started as musicians in country singer Josh Logan’s backing band, to join them in their new venture as a country/southern rock band. They started playing 300 dates a year around the United States. The six of them officially became Little Texas, named for a place outside Nashville where they used to rehearse, in 1988.

They caught the ear of Warner Bros. and were signed to the label in 1989. The band released their debut album, First Time For Everything, in 1991. The album went gold and garnered the hits “Some Guys Have All The Love” (#8), “You and Forever and Me” (#5) and the title track, which peaked at #13.

Their biggest success came in 1993 with their 2x platinum, Big Time, which spawned “What Might’ve Been (#2), “God Bless Texas” (#4) and their sole chart topper “My Love.” The band’s rendition of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was included on Common Thread: Songs of the Eagles, which won them the CMA Award for Album of the Year.

The Academy of Country Music named Little Texas their Top Vocal Group in 1994. Kick A Little came in September, with both the title track and “Amy’s Back in Austin” charting in the Top 5. The band also went through a regime change when Seals, who had co-written all the band’s biggest hits, departed to embark on a solo career. Their Greatest Hits album would feature their final Top 5, “Life Goes On” the following year.

With the band now in transition, they contributed “Kiss A Girl,” from The Little Mermaid to the various artists collection The Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney. Another tribute track, “Beast of Burden” was featured on Stone Country: Country Artists Perform The Songs of the Rolling Stones. They also collaborated with Jeff Foxworthy on “Party All Night” from his Crank It Up: The Music Album.

Little Texas released their self-titled fourth album, the band’s final for Warner Bros., in 1997. Coming three years after Kick A Little, they had lost their momentum and thus weren’t able to regain traction with country radio. Shortly thereafter the band officially disbanded. Rushlow went on to a one-hit-wonder solo career when the excellent Alzheimer’s themed “She Misses Him” peaked at #8 in 2000.

Propes, Gray, Howell and O’Brian resurrected Little Texas in 2004, but faced pushback from Rushlow and Jeff Huskins, who sued in a failed attempt to block them from using the ‘Little Texas’ name. This second incarnation has produced two studio albums – Missing Years (2007) and Young For A Long Time (2015). A concert album, The Very Best of Little Texas: Live and Loud has also been released.

I hope you enjoy our look back at Little Texas throughout the month, sprinkled amongst our Best of 2016 coverage.

Album Review: Buddy Miller and Friends – ‘Cayamo Sessions At Sea’

cayamo sessions at seaBuddy Miller’s latest project comprises a series of collaborations with other artists recorded between 2012 and 2015 on the cruise ship Cayamo, as part of a music festival the ship puts on annually. The eclectic selection of artists tackle some classic country songs, with the odd outlier given a country arrangement, and the result is a joy to listen to from start to finish. Buddy does an excellent job producing, and sings either harmonies or duet vocals on each track.

The album opens with a tremendous version of the classic duet ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, performed with the always wonderful Lee Ann Womack. Kacey Musgraves is charming on Buck Owens’ upbeat ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’. I also enjoyed the duet with the underrated Elizabeth Cook on ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’.

Kris Kristofferson sings his own ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, and sounds more controlled vocally than he usually does live. Lucinda Williams, another singer who can be unpredictable, is intensely emotional on a slow, measured version of ‘Hickory Wind’. The legendary British folk singer, Richard Thompson, has a longstanding love of traditional country music, and he sings Hank Williams’ somber ‘Wedding Bells’. Doug Seegers, an equally towering figure of American folk, joins Buddy for the gospel number ‘Take The Hand Of Jesus’.

Nikki Lane, whose music I had not heard previously, is soulful on ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’. Another unfamiliar name, Jill Andrews sings ‘Come Early Morning’ charmingly, duetting with Buddy.

Singer songwriter Shawn Colvin tackles the Rolling Stones’ most country-sounding song, the wistful ballad ‘Wild Horses’, to beautiful effect. Brandi Carlile, who falls somewhere in between alt-country and folk-rock, is joined by the Americana band The Lone Bellow for ‘Angel From Montgomery’. If this is my least favourite track, this is only because it is merely very, very good, and everything else is even better.

This is a superb album, which is my favorite of everything Buddy Miller has recorded. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Poison Love’

51qFXeDUyiL._AA320_QL65_Buddy Miller and I are contemporaries, Buddy being five months younger than I am, meaning that we probably listened to a lot of the same music growing up. If this album is any indication, I am certain that we did.

Under slightly different circumstances he might have been a country star during the 1970s like Johnny Rodriguez (ten months older than Buddy) or during the 1980s like George Strait (four months older than Buddy). Instead Buddy took a while to reach solo artist status, working for years in various bands for various other stars, most notably Emmylou Harris.

Poison Love might be categorized as a country album or as an Americana album, although with steel guitar on nine of the thirteen tracks, I’m inclined to call it country. Miller actually covers three classic country tunes on the album, but I initially thought there were a couple of more since several of the songs Buddy composed used the titles of old country classics (song titles cannot be copyrighted), those being being “Draggin’ The River” and “I Can’t Help It”.

The album opens up with a song composed by Roger Miller and George Jones titled “Nothing Can Stop Me”. I don’t think George ever issued this as a single, so I think it possible that Buddy came to the song via an early 1970s recording by Patsy Sledd, who was an opening act for George and Tammy when they had their Plantation Music Park in Lakeland, Florida. Anyway, Buddy does a nice job with this up-tempo country number. Fiddle and steel guitar abound along with electric guitar the way it should be played. If you want to hear a quintessentially happy upbeat country romp, this song is it:

I gotta get up, I gotta get goin’, rain or shine, sleetin’ or snowin’
Nothing can stop me, stop me, stop my loving you
Wander through woods, climb a high mountain
Love’s in my heart like water’s in a fountain
Nothing can stop me, stop me, stop my loving you

Cross the fire, walk through the river, you’ll be the taker and I’ll be the giver
I’ll give you lovin’, lovin’, honey that’s what I’ll do
Climb a big wall, I’d tear into pieces, I gotta get to your loving kisses
Nothing can stop me, stop me, stop my loving you

 Next up is “100 Million Little Bombs”, definitely not a country song:

Three dollar bombs a 100 thousand more

Steps of a child and the ground explodes

You can’t clear one before another reloads

To ratchet up the ante again.
They’re cheap and they’re simple

They’re green and black

They’ll take you right down on a one way track

We’ve gone so far now that we can’t get back

And we still won’t stop this train


The sound of the song is pleasant enough, although the song is too political for country radio, even today. This is followed up by “Don’t Tell Me” a more conventional country song. Both of these songs were composed by Buddy and his wife Julie Miller and feature harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris.
    
 The title track is “Poison Love” a Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin classic (Johnnie was Kitty Wells’ husband for 60+ years). Johnnie & Jack did the song with a rumba beat whereas Buddy’s instrumentation is more that of Cajun music. It’s a great recording, possibly my favorite track on the album. Steve Earle sings with Buddy on this track.

Next up is a Buddy & Julie Miller collaboration, “Baby Don’t Let Me Down”. I like the song although I think the electric organ adds nothing to the song:

Start up the engine and get back home

Hurry go tell mother

Johnny got a gun to shoot a squirrel

He put down your brother

Daddy ain’t nowhere to be found
 It’s getting way past midnight

Momma she’s left here to cry alone

While I steal a kiss in the moonlight


”Love Grows Wild” is another Buddy and Julie co-write, this one with a more bluegrassy feel thank to Tammy Rogers on fiddle and mandolin.

Jim Lauderdale joined Buddy in writing “Love In The Ruins” a very country number with plenty of fiddle and steel:

Love in the ruins

After the fall

What were we doing not thinking at all

I’ll take the chair for there’s no one to blame

Someone just called me or was that just your name

But regret is a debt that I just can’t pay

Cause it would be more than I could ever make

Turn left when we get to that place in the road

Or we’ll be on the one we shouldn’t take

“Draggin’ The River” is a pretty good song, although not as good as the Warner Mack song of the same title. A bit morose, this song can be interpreted in several ways, so I’ll let you pik your own interpretation. This song strikes me as more Americana than county:

Go down to the water and listen for a sound

Something like the moaning of a dove

That’s where I do my crying while I’m searching for a sign

Draggin’ the river of our love
Did she bear some secret sorrow I could never know
 T
hat why my heart was not enough
 Now she’s left me looking for a trace of what we had

Draggin’ the river of our love

If you think the Roosevelt Jameson composition “That’s How Strong My Love Is” seems familiar, you are probably correct, as the song was a powerful song in the hands of both the original recording artist O.V. Wright (1964), and the soulful titan who covered it in 1965, Otis Redding. It would be nearly impossible to be as soulful as either Wright or Redding, and Buddy certainly isn’t, but he gives the song a very convincing interpretation. The song has been recorded numerous times and Buddy’s version stacks up well against any of the other covers I’ve heard (Rolling Stones, Hollies, Percy Sledge, Bryan Ferry, Taj Mahal):

I’ll be the weeping willow drowning in my tears
And you can go swimming when you’re here
I’ll be the rainbow when the tears have gone
Wrap you in my colors and keep you warm

‘Cause that’s how strong my love is
That’s how strong my love is
That’s how strong my love is
That’s how strong my love is

The album closes out with a pair of Buddy and Julie collaborations in “Lonesome For You” and “I Can’t Help It” and a Buddy Miller co-write with Jim Lauderdale on “Love Snuck Up”. All three songs hew country.

Everything considered Poison Love is a solid country album, for a person who would have few actual hits but would ultimate carve a wide path in country music. The of the thirteen songs are solidly country, and the other three are close enough to country that even a diehard traditionalist such as myself found the album entirely satisfying. Great songs, great musician and some pretty good vocalists.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

DM_cover_5x5_300RGB2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Grade: A

Fellow Travelers: Val Doonican

Val_Doonican_1971Unlike Engelbert Humperdinck, who achieved world-wide fame, our next fellow traveler’s popularity is largely confined to the United Kingdom and Ireland and parts of the British Commonwealth, with some popularity in the Netherlands. Like Humperdinck, Michael Valentine “Val” Doonican was born elsewhere (Ireland) but migrated to England where he achieved great success.

Val Doonican was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1927, where he started performing in his late teens as part of the Irish folk scene where he appeared on radio and on Waterford’s first television broadcast. Val moved to England in 1951 as part of a group called The Four Ramblers. Eventually Anthony Newley noticed Val’s singular vocal talents and pushed him into a solo direction. In 1963 Val appeared on Sunday Night At The London Palladium leading him to be offered his own television show on the BBC.

    Who Was He ?

The closest analogy to Val Doonican’s career is that of Perry Como, an American pop singer whose hits spanned decades and whose television shows spanned four decades. Like Como, Doonican had a very relaxed style (Val was known for sitting in a rocking chair while singing on his television shows), but unlike Como who came from the Italian belle canto tradition and mostly performed songs from the Italian and American pop standards catalog, Val emerged from the Irish folk tradition and sang a wider variety of music. Doonican’s career on British television lasted for over twenty years. Val Doonican had remarkable recording success given that his recording career launched during the “British Invasion” years of the Beatles, Kinks and Rolling Stones. While Val never had a number one record in England, he did have five top ten records with “What Would I Be” reaching #2 in 1966. “Walk Tall” reached #3 in 1964 and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” reached #3 in 1967. In all, Val charted 14 hits on the British charts.

    What Was His Connection to Country Music ?

Val Doonican emerged from the Irish folk tradition, one of the key elements of Appalachian and early country music. Doonican’s repertoire consisted of folk songs, pop songs and American country songs. Two of Val’s biggest hits were covers of American country hits in “Walk Tall” (Faron Young) and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” (Roy Drusky) and he issued several other country songs as singles (his cover of Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning” reached #12 in England and #5 in Ireland).
Val Doonican issued many albums during his career. Twelve of his albums reached the British charts with six of them reaching the top six, and one album Val Doonican Rocks But Gently going to #1 in 1967. Val’s albums featured many country songs, some of which featured arrangements that could have been played on American country radio. Val Doonican issued many albums during his career and gently introduced British audiences to American country songs. Moreover, several of his albums were released in the United States and Val would feature American country artists as guests on his television show.

I made the analogy of Doonican’s career to that of Perry Como, but as a vocalist a better comparison would be Jim Reeves or (to a lesser extent) Roy Drusky. It doesn’t appear that Val ever tried to conquer the US market although Americans who lived in England for a few years (such as myself) would have loved to have seen him do it. ABC TV ran The Val Doonican Show as a summer replacement from June 5, 1971 to August 14, 1971.

Val retired five ago from performing (he is now 87) but his much of his musical output is still in print and worth seeking.

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Covers The Hits’

Compilation albums have long been the ploy of record companies looking to squeeze that last dollar out of artists who’ve moved on to other pursuits. In 2000 Mercury Nashville wasn’t any different, releasing Covers The Hits a collection of cover tunes Sammy Kershaw recorded throughout his tenure on the label.

Not surprisingly, the album came and went with little notice and there weren’t any singles to push its existence at radio and retail. It also didn’t help matters much that most of these covers weren’t that inspired to begin with and often rank among the worst music in Kershaw’s catalog (namely “Chevy Van” and “Memphis, Tennessee” from Politics, Religion, and Her, although the latter is listenable).

Kershaw’s cover of the Leo Sayer pop hit “More Than I Can Say,” taken from his Maybe Not Tonight is adequate, but really nothing more than a note for note sound-alike performance to the original. He pulls off his Beatles cover (from the 1995 tribute album Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles) vocally, but the muffled arrangement dampens my overall enjoyment of the song.

There are tracks here I actually really like, however. Kershaw is surprisingly in top form on his cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (from Red Hot + Country) and he turns in a version as good as the original. I also adore his fabulously restrained version of The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” which comes from the equally magnificent Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones from 1998. Kershaw’s contribution is a standout cut from that project, one of my all-time favorite tribute albums. The other favorite cut of mine is the opener, and only radio hit amongst these tracks, his 1994 #2 “Third Rate Romance.”

Kershaw also pulls off a strong version of Dr. Hook’s “Little Bit More,” the only previously unreleased track on the project. I love the traditional production and his strong vocal on the track. Overall, Covers The Hits scores more than it fails, although its slightly below any of Kershaw’s strongest original work. Extremely cheap used copies are available online and individual tracks can be found on YouTube.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Right Out Of Nowhere’

By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear Kathy’s time in the limelight was over. One last album for MCA (The Innocent Years) failed to score any hit singles, and she moved to independent label Narada, where she was able to concentrate on artistry with little thought for commercial viability.  The second of her albums for this label came out in 2005.  This is not a very country sounding record, but it bears the hallmarks of evident thought and attention throughout, and is clearly a serious artistic endeavour.

‘Live It’, the solo single failed to chart.  Not one of Harley Allen’s better songs, it’s a cluttered and unoriginal exhortation to live life to the full and concentrate on love.  ‘Hurt Some’ is a jazzy AC ballad with a gospel feel (particularly in the vocals).  The rather obvious lyrics attempt to be insightful, advising a woman to expect a range of emotional ups and downs, written by Tia Sillers and Mark D Sanders.

‘Only Heaven Knows’ is quite a pretty ballad about acceptance of one’s lot, which is much better.  ‘Give It Away’ is an artfully constructed, melodic and beautifully sung song written by Kathy with husband Jon Vezner and Bob Halligan.  The three-story structure narrates encounters with individuals (a veteran star backstage, a woman in a doctor’s waiting room, and finally the protagonist saving herself from breaking off a love affair in a fit of pique following an argument), giving the sage advice that with music and love,

The only way to keep is to give it away

The best of the more philosophical songs here is Darrell Scott’s ‘Love’s Not Through With Me Yet’, given a plaintive Celtic sound and with Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

The title track is an okay but unexciting story song about a woman moving on, with an attractive melody.  The breakup song ‘Loving You, Letting You Go’ is lyrically forgettable but the wheezy harmonica gives it some sonic character.

The best song is ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, a subtly cutting piano ballad written by Skip Ewing and Angela Kaset, which sounds tailor-made for Trisha Yearwood, although Kathy does a fine job.  It narrates a meeting with the woman the protagonist’s ex left her for, finding he has moved on again:

I thought the only thing wrong with her was you

Cause you don’t find joy within
You’re always wanting out
That’s not what love is all about
You’ll never find happiness
Til you let your heart invest
Baby you don’t know how
I hope you’re happy now

This is an excellent song which is well worth downloading even if nothing else here appeals.

Kathy extended her artistic range with a couple of unexpected rock covers.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is performed confidently, and is the biggest departure from preconceived ideas of what a Kathy Mattea record sounds like.  It’s not to my taste, but is interestingly done with inventive acoustic production, and Kathy deserves credit for trying something so different.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down On The Corner’ is an enjoyable singalong.  ‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, is a traditional gospel song which is played around with a little too much.

This record was an interesting experiment.  Not everything works, but a period in the commercial doldrums is the obvious time to try branching out. Used copies can be found very cheaply

Grade: B-

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Love And Luck’

Marty co-produced his fourth MCA album (released in 1994) with label boss Tony Brown. It lacked the big hitters of its immediate predecessors, with no Tritt duets and no big hits, and the momentum he had developed began to wither away as a result. It’s a fairly solid album with a mixture of country rock and more traditional sounds, and while Marty’s voice was still not distinctive, he interprets the mostly self-penned material convincingly. Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs were recruited to sing harmonies, and Gill in particular is prominent on a number of tracks.

Lead single ‘Kiss Me, I’m Gone’, written by Marty with Bob DiPiero, peaked at a disappointing #26, and deserved to do a little better. The sultry bluesy groove is more memorable than the unremarkable lyric, but overall it is a decent track with an interesting arrangement. It was unwisely followed up by the mid-tempo title track, from the same writing partnership. The banal life advice from a father to a so leaving home is just not very interesting and barely charted. The tender ballad ‘That’s What Love’s About’ has Marty proffering romantic advice about treating a woman well, and is quite attractive with a lovely steel-laced arrangement, but although it was the best of the three singles, it was another flop.

The label may not have picked the right songs for radio, because there is some fine fare here.The pacy kissoff song ‘I Ain’t Giving Up On Love’ was written with the legendary Harlan Howard and feels a little too rushed, but is quite enjoyable, with tight harmonies, with the protagonist, battered by loving the girl who rejected his marriage proposal, stating bouncily,

I ain’t giving up on love, I’m just giving up on you

Harlan also co-wrote the high lonesome ‘Oh What A Silent Night’, with the protagonist facing an empty home after his woman has moved out:

The telephone’s been disconnected
But she wouldn’t call me anyway
But even if she did I wouldn’t answer
Cause there’s not one word left to say

This excellent song is a highlight of the record.

I also really enjoyed the shuffle ‘You Can Walk All Over Me’, written by Marty with Wayne Perry. This one offers unconditional surrender when falling in love

The best of the few outside songs is ‘That’s When You’ll Know It’s Over’, written by Butch Carr and Russ Zavitson, which is a gently sad declaration of undying love through the pain of a broken heart with a pretty melody.

The Byrds’ ‘Wheels’ is quite nicely if undadventurously done, with prominent harmonies from Vince Gill and Paul Franklin’s steel, but it could do with a little more urgency. Marty rattles his way through a speeded up emotionless version Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘If I Give My Heart’ which is oceans away from the intensity of the stunning original and is thoroughly disappointing. However, the worst inclusion on the album was the boringly repetitive and tuneless R&B/rock of ‘Shake Your Hips’, cover of an old R&B hit better known as a Rolling Stones cover. This was a waste of a track.

Halfway through he throws in the oddly titled (and Grammy-nominated) instrumental ‘Marty Stuart Visits The Moon’ which has a kind of bluegrass spaghetti western feel featuring Marty’s mandolin and Bela Fleck on banjo.

Overall, this is quite a good record despite its lower commercial success, which successfully balanced traditional and contemporary. If you can find it cheaply enough (and used copies seem to be fairly easy to find), it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Rosanne Cash’s first inroads on the country charts came from the minor hits on Right Or Wrong, but it would be Seven Year Ache, with its disparate themes of melancholy and female-empowerment, coupled with exceptionally cerebral material, that set the standard for Cash’s next decade of recording. The memes set here, of folk singer-songwriter sensibilities meets modern pop-country production, have since been repeated by the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and any number of other fringe-favorites.

I’ve already written about this album’s first single and its impact on me as a country fan.  Even today, with a seriously out-dated production – the kind of synthetic hand-clap percussion employed here went out with the Atari, and for many of the same reasons – the track still packs a mighty, meaty punch. The dark, contemplative mood of the song – the internal monologue of bewildered, yet determined individual – is offset by the breezy melody and the entire affair is framed by a looping and driving steel guitar track supplied by Hank DeVito. Cash reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband and producer Rodney Crowell.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  ”That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.  In 1981, “Seven Year Ache” hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, #6 on the Adult Contemporary list, and #22 on the Hot 100.  It’s been covered several times over the years, most notably by Trisha Yearwood (with Cash featured on vocals, providing the harmonies Emmylou Harris sang on the original recording) on 2001’s Inside Out.

The second single and second #1, Leroy Preston’s “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train”, more than any other track Rosanne Cash has recorded save for covers of the Man In Black’s songs, is a testament to Johnny Cash’s musical influence on his oldest daughter.  The steady and chugging back beat is accompanied by blistering guitar work, and progressive lyrics like:

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

“Blue Moon With Heartache” is the only song here besides the title track Cash herself put pen to paper to create. On this brooding number, the results were less satisfying. The story of a woman living in a troubled relationship, and daydreaming about leaving, is played out amid the intrusive electric piano and a swelling, but hushed, string arrangement.  This, too, topped the country singles chart, but a much better candidate for the final single would have been “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”, written by Merle Haggard and Red Simpson. “Go” is the most traditional country song on the album with steel guitar flourishes and no signs of pop or rock influences, and while simple in form is an effective heart’s-breaking lyric.

At times, Cash seems bent on pushing the boundaries of a female country album as far as she possibly can, in both form and function. Listening to the roadhouse rocker “What Kinda Girl”, clearly as influenced by Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones as by Loretta Lynn and The Tennessee Three, the cheeky lyrics – “I don’t wear pajamas and I don’t sniff glue” – and butchered-grammar rhyme scheme will turn your head on the first few listens, but the track loses much of its appeal soon after you’re over the cheap tricks.  “Only Human” may be the first time, and maybe still the only, instance of a woman using the word “stoned” on a mainstream country album. Keith Sykes’ honest lyric is marred somewhat by the straight ’80s pop production and the loud backing vocals, but is a marvelous song nonetheless that finds the narrator lamenting her own mortality for the anguish it indirectly causes. Another miss is  “I Can’t Resist” which ventures into easy-listening territory with Phil Kenzie’s saxophone playing and the singer’s detached vocal. “Where Will The Words Come From” with Crowell and Harris providing perfectly desolate harmonies, save for a minimal amount of the era’s background noise, follows the singer’s more recent sounds with its spare production.

Seven Year Ache was an album of firsts for Cash, not just in style and substance, but for being her first #1 charting album, housing her first #1 country singles, and her first pop hit.  It also marks the singer’s first instance of finding her artistry. Despite the missteps in production, which can easily be blamed on the release date as much as the artist and producer, this is a collection of great songs that set the stage for the first phase of a remarkable career.

Grade: A-

The album was released as a 2-for-1 with Rosanne’s U.S. debut album and has been re-released on CD and for digital download.

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Under The Covers’

Under The Covers is the first of Dwight Yoakam’s three covers albums; four if you count the compilation In Others’ Words, which consisted of previously released material, all cover songs. This set is a collection of songs originally made famous by mostly rockers, but with a sprinkling of rockabilly and countrypolitan sounds. Prior to writing this review, repeated listenings had familiarized me with all of Yoakam’s retreads, but I had yet to hear many of these in their original form until recently. What I found was that while Dwight stays fairly close to the original recordings for the most part here, he effortlessly infuses them with the signature sounds of his own hits: which means he’s amped them up, added some killer guitar licks and his trademark breathy twang to these rock and roll perennials.

Kicking things off with a paint-by-numbers take on Roy Orbison’s ‘Claudette’, the mood for this album is immediately established with this energetic tune.  Though the Everly Brothers recorded the first version as a B-side to their 1958 mega-hit ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, Yoakam’s recording comes complete with the call-and-answer guitar work that instantly define an Orbison hit, and is more closely tied to Roy’s recording of the tune penned for his then-wife.  ‘Claudette’ was released as the album’s first single, but failed to make it farther than #47 on the Country Singles chart.  Even with the absence of a radio hit, Under The Covers still debuted at #8 on the Country Albums chart, and has to date sold over 350,000 copies.

From there, Yoakam jumps into punk-rock territory with his take on ‘Train In Vain’, the third single from The Clash’s 1980 London Calling album. Here, Yoakam puts a decided country spin on the song, with its plucky banjo lead and the smothering of the lyrics with his Kentucky drawl.  Banjo-picking and added vocals by Dr. Ralph Stanley also elevate this track far beyond normal standards.

‘Baby Don’t Go’ features Sheryl Crow and as the second single, failed to chart.  The first hit by Sonny & Cher – before ‘I Got You Babe’ – it stands as one of those songs that didn’t really need a remake, even though the pair of singers give it the old-school try and the production recalls the doo-wop sound of the original, it lacks that 60s originality to my ears.  Also, Dwight singing the Cher lines and Sheryl singing Sonny’s lines in the verses certainly take away from the lyric’s punch. I’d much rather have heard their take on ‘A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done’.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Life’s So Funny’

The cracks in Joe Diffie’s creative armor began to show with 1994’s Third Rock From The Sun. Sadly, the downward spiral continued with the next year’s follow-up Life’s So Funny, which at best is a mediocre album of substandard material unworthy of Diffie’s considerable talent.

Though it contains no overtly silly novelty tunes like its predecessor, Life’s So Funny is a decided shift away from the traditional material Diffie had released on his first couple of albums. By 1995, the new traditionalist movement had run its course, and Diffie and co-producer Johnny Slate appear to have been trying to curry favor with country radio by modifying his sound. The fact that the album produced only one major hit stands as testament to the fact that despite moving in the wrong direction, country radio in the mid-90s was still considerably better than it is today.

The first single released from the album was “Bigger Than The Beatles”, a decent but not great tune which name-checks not only the Fab Four but also the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, in what appears to have been an attempt to reach out to the newer fans that were migrating towards country music at the time. The inclusion of a couple of annoying line-dance numbers likewise seems like an effort to those who came to country by way of the dance clubs. “Bigger Than The Beatles” became Diffie’s fifth and final #1 hit. The album’s subsequent singles didn’t fare as well. The beat-driven dance tune “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y” stalled at #23, as did “Whole Lotta Gone”. The other line dance number, “Down In A Ditch” mercifully failed to chart.

Among the album cuts there are some decent ballads that play to Diffie’s strengths, but none of them is of the same caliber as earlier hits like “Home”, “Is It Cold In Here” or “Ships That Don’t Come In”, nor is any of them enough to save this train wreck of an album. “Never Mine To Lose” is the best of the bunch and would have been a better choice for a single than any of the tunes that were actually sent to radio following “Bigger Than The Beatles”. “Tears In The Rain”, the only song in this collection on which Joe shares a songwriting credit, is also a worthy effort, as is the title track which closes the album. The pop-tinged and slightly overblown “Willing To Try”, on the other hand, misses the mark and “Back To The Cave”, another dance tune, demonstrates that even great songwriters like Skip Ewing occasionally produce a dud.

Though it did not sell as well as Third Rock From The Sun, Life’s So Funny managed to earn gold certification, the last Joe Diffie album to do so.

Grade: C-

It is still widely available from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes, but it is really not worth pursuing, except for die-hard fans.