My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The SteelDrivers

Classic Rewind: The SteelDrivers, John Prine and Bill Murray – ‘Paradise’

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Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From A Room Vol 2’

Chris Stapleton’s second blues-influenced album of the year is broadly similar in mood to the first, but feels a little more consistent and cohesive. Wife Morgane Hayes Stapleton’s delicate harmonies augment Chris’s rougher yet soulful voice, and they could easily be billed as a duo rather than Chris as the solo star.

There are a couple of outside covers bookending the set. Kevin Welch wrote the opening ‘Millionaire’ around the turn of the millennium, and it is a laid back slightly loungy tune about true wealth coming from love. ‘Friendship’ is an old jazzy soul song which works well for Chris.

He wrote the remainder of the material with various partners. A couple of songs were written with Kendell Marvel. ‘Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind’ was slightly more country as done by Marvel on his own excellent album this year, with Chris’s version leaning more bluesy and feeling sleazier. The rock-edged honky tonker ‘Hard Livin’’ is on a similar theme of looking back at a life of hard drinking and wild living with some regret as he grows older.

‘Scarecrow In The Garden’, co-written with Brice Long and Matt Fleener, is a family story song about immigrants coming from Northern Ireland to farm on bad ground in West Virginia, ending with a doomladen picture in the third generation:

There’s a scarecrow in the garden
That looks like Lucifer
I’ve been readin’ Revelation
With my bare feet in the river

I know every single fencepost
Every rock that goes around
I’ve been starin’ at the red oak
Where I know they’ll lay me down

The fields ain’t what they once were
The rains just seem to flood
And I’ve been thinkin’ about that river
Wonderin’ how it turns to blood

I’ve been sittin’ here all morning
I was sittin’ here all night
There’s a Bible in my left hand
And a pistol in my right

A gentle acoustic arrangement allows the song to breathe.

Another highlight is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, written with Jameson Clark, an honest confessional with a stripped down acoustic arrangement:

I wish that I could go to church but I’m too ashamed of me
I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees
And I hope He’ll forgive
The things you ain’t forgot
When I get drunk and talk to God

Mike Henderson, once a band mate in the SteelDrivers, co-wrote two songs. The subdued, sad ‘Nobody’s Lonely Tonight’ is extremely good, but ‘Midnight Train To Memphis’ is raucous Southern rock which is not to my taste at all.

Morgane’s father Darrell Hayes helped Chris write ‘A Simple Song’, a weary, gentle song about a working class man’s life, suffering in hard times but satisfied by family and home.

As with the previous release, there are only 9 tracks, which is disappointing.

However, while Stapleton is certainly not traditional country, his music is head and shoulders above most of the current ‘mainstream’ crop, and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

Ever since he swept the 2015 CMA Award and his career-defining performance with Justin Timberlake at that show, Chris Stapleton has been regarded by many as the savior of country music, who will lift the genre out of its creative doldrums and set it back on a path towards traditionalism. The great irony is that Stapleton’s music is really not that traditional for the most part. Roots-oriented, organic, and substantive yes, but he’s hardly the modern day equivalent of Randy Travis in 1986. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the genre has benefited from his success. He has a powerful voice but his style owes more to blue-eyed sound southern rock than traditional country. His style is not usually my cup of tea, but I actually like Chris Stapleton quite a lot and have ever since he was the lead singer for The SteelDrivers. And regardless of whether or not one likes his vocal style, one can’t help but root for someone who can have commercial success while bypassing the cesspool that is country radio.

The follow-up to his immensely successful debut album Traveller was originally envisioned as a two-disc set, but Mercury apparently had some reservations about a double album and opted to release From a Room in two volumes, with the second set tentatively slated for an autumn release. One of the unfortunate consequences of his is that the first volume consists of a mere nine tracks. No album should consist of less then ten songs, in my opinion. I was annoyed when RCA trimmed back its albums to nine tracks in the 1980s and the practice, though rare nowadays, still does not sit well with me. Surely there were more songs recorded that could have been used to flesh out the album a bit. That criticism aside, From a Room is, for the most part, an outstanding collection.

Like Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 was co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb and recorded in RCA Studio A. Eight of its nine tracks were co-written by Stapleton (many apparently from his extensive back catalog), the sole exception being a stunning version of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which was a #2 hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. It tells the story of a morning in which everything goes wrong: the delivery of a past-due bill notice, an alarm clock that fails to go off on time, a spilled pot of coffee, among other things, culminating in the narrator’s wife or girlfriend calling an end to their relationship. Stapleton’s wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton provides the harmony vocals.

Another tune that will be familiar to many listeners is “Either Way”, which was originally included on Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album in 2008. A ballad about a relationship taking its last dying breaths, it is the perfect vehicle for Stapleton’s powerhouse voice. Wikipedia lists it as the current single. Don’t expect to hear it the radio.

“Up to No Good Livin'”, the sole traditional track on the album, is my favorite. Again featuring Morgane signing harmony, it is a pedal-steel drenched up-tempo number about a reformed hell raiser whose wife refuses to believe that he’s mended his ways:

Wish I could come home from workin’
And not have her checking my breath
I’m tired of her turning her questions
Into the Gettysburg Address
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t trust me
The fact that she don’t makes me mad
Can’t count all the times that I’ve begged her
Honey, just let my past be the past

I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog
Without a whole lotta sh*t not committed by law
People called me the Picasso of painting the town
I’ve finally grown up
I’ve finally changed from that someone I was
To somebody I am
But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around
So I’ll probably die before I live all my
Up to no good livin’ down

It’s no surprise, given Stapleton’s reputation as one of Nashville’s best songwriters, that From a Room: Volume 1 consists of very well-crafted and well executed songs. The sole dud is “Them Stems”, a tongue-in-cheek number about a marijuana user who has come to the end of his stash and desperate for a fresh supply. It’s catchy, but songs about drug use make me uncomfortable and as a result, I really can’t get into this one. One throwaway track on an album is no big deal but it’s a little harder to overlook when there are only nine songs in total.

From a Room: Volume 1 is sure to be one of 2017’s best sellers, and deservedly so. I’ve already played it several times and actually prefer it to Traveller. I’m looking forward to hearing the second volume in a few months.

Grade: A

Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let us know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

As I’ve mentioned before, I generally find it easier to compile a list of any given year’s top albums, as opposed to a list of top singles, since I don’t listen to country radio. This year I had a more difficult time than I expected putting together my albums list; surprisingly, I didn’t listen to a whole lot of new music this year. So, here is my list, along with a resolution to do a better job keeping up with current music in 2016:

81qQyIJ7gjL._SX522_10. Sammy Kershaw — I Won’t Back Down

I was somewhat underwhelmed with this album when it was first release, and my initial feelings haven’t changed. It’s included simply because I was having trouble finding a tenth album that I didn’t intensely dislike to put on my list.

814d6MygkiL._SX522_9. Daryle Singletary — There’s a Little Country Left

Released this past summer, this independent release is a good example of what I wish contemporary mainstream country music sounded like — the type of music we’d likely be getting if hick-hop, R&B and the bros hadn’t completely hijacked the genre. The track “Too Late to Save the World” says it all: “It might be too late to save the world, but can’t we still save country music?” I sure hope so.

61TTBEi0Q3L8. Dwight Yoakam — Second Hand Heart

This collection is infinitely better than 2012’s disappointing 3 Pears. It’s a throwback to Dwight’s polished 90s country-rock-pop hybrid music. It was very enjoyable but I’d have preferred something more traditional, in the vein of Guitars, Cadillacs, Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room, and his other great 80s music.

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_7. Clint Black — On Purpose

Clint Black’s first full-length album in seven years was a solid, but play-it-safe collection. There are no surprises or artistic stretches, but it sure was good to hear from him again.

the blade6. Ashley Monroe — The Blade

Country radio in recent years has not been welcoming to female artists, particularly traditional-leaning ones. Ashley Monroe is one of the best of today’s crop of artists, though she has yet to garner much attention for her solo work. I keep hoping that her big breakthrough is right around the corner.

81BsXZt8UsL._SX522_5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — The Traveling Kind

The second collaboration between Harris and Crowell is not quite as good as its predecessor, but topping 2013’s Old Yellow Moon would be no mean feat. The fact that it doesn’t in no way diminishes its enjoyment. This is one of the few albums released in 2015 that I kept coming back to.

images4. Chris Stapleton — Traveller

The former SteelDrivers’ lead singer’s solo debut album turned out to be the year’s biggest commercial surprise. Although his soulful, rough-edged voice isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Traveller is just what is needed in a genre that has become stale. Whether or not its success is a one-off or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen.

cold beer conversation3. George Strait — Cold Beer Conversation

George Strait’s retirement from the road seems to have had a positive effect on his recording career, at least from an artistic standpoint. Cold Beer Conversation, his first collection produced by Chuck Ainlay is his best effort in quite some time, even if radio is no longer paying attention.

angels and alcohol2. Alan Jackson — Angels and Alcohol

Like Clint Black’s latest offering, Angels and Alcohol doesn’t offer much in the way of anything new or different, but it’s vintage Alan Jackson and that is more than good enough.

cass county1. Don Henley — Cass County

If Chris Stapleton’s Traveller was the year’s biggest commercial surprise, then Cass County is the year’s biggest artistic surprise. Country music is notoriously suspicious of artists who “visit” from other genres, with some justification. But Henley got his tribute to country music right — putting together a collection of solid songs and guest artists. Those who call the genre home would be well advised to follow his example. I hope a second volume is in the works.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesIt’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since Chris Stapleton gave up his gig as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. Since then, in addition to writing hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Josh Turner, George Strait Darius Rucker and Miranda Lambert (among others), he briefly fronted the rock band The Jompson Brothers before being signed as a solo act to Mercury Nashville in 2013. “Traveller”, which was sent to radio yesterday is his second single for Mercury and the title track of his upcoming solo debut album which will become available one week from today.

The mid-tempo “Traveller” is decidedly more mainstream than the music Stapleton made with The SteelDrivers, yet it still has an Americana feel to it that makes it different from anything else that is played on country radio stations these days. Part of that is due to Stapleton’s soulful and somewhat gravelly voice, which at times is reminiscent of Travis Tritt. However, that voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar, plenty of pedal steel and a beautiful harmony vocal from an unidentified female singer, all of which should appeal to fans who are tired of arena rock masquerading as country, even if this is a little more left-of-center than what those fans usually listen to. Thematically (though not sonically) it is similar to Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever.”

Unfortunately for Stapleton — and for country music in general — neither he nor his music is what radio is generally looking for today. With his Jamey Johnson-style long hair and beard, he is no pretty boy, and while that shouldn’t matter, in this day and age good looks trump talent almost every time. Additionally, his voice is probably a bit too rough for many fans who are used to more cookie-cutter singers. I don’t expect it to be a huge commercial success, but it will likely get some attention in the Americana world as well as from followers of The SteelDrivers as well as fans who have learned to look beyond the mainstream for decent entertainment.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Single Review: Gary Allan – ‘Hangover Tonight’

Hangover-TonightI’ve come to think of Gary Allan as the male Martina McBride — an artist that I really like, who has shown in recent years, a seeming inability to select quality material. I hold out hope, with each new release, that things are getting back on track, and each time I am disappointed. It is particularly disheartening since Allan’s latest single “Hangover Tonight” is a co-write with Chris Stapleton, formerly of The SteelDrivers.

I suppose it is unrealistic for me to have any expectation that a mainstream artist struggling to get airplay in this day and age will release anything that sounds even remotely country, but the title did suggest that this might actually be a honky-tonk song. Any hopes of that were cruelly dashed by the first notes of the funky, bluesy electric guitar that dominates the track. Not only isn’t this honky-tonk, it isn’t even a drinking song. Alcohol is mentioned, of course, but the term “hangover” is used more in the sense of hanging out all night long, rather than the consequences of the morning after.

Little effort seems to have been put into the writing of this song — the lyrics are superficial, repetitious and don’t really say anything. That in itself is not a huge problem; not every song has to be deep and meaningful. But it would be nice if it actually sounded as though it belonged in the genre under which it is being marketed. I realize that this is not a new complaint, but it is frustrating in the extreme when an artist who is nearly 20 years into his recording career – who has demonstrated in the past that he can do better – phones it in instead of trying to elevate the genre above the usual dreck we’ve come to expect. The newer generation might not know any better but Gary Allan does. Too bad he has chosen the path of least resistance once again.

Listen to it here.

Grade: C

Occasional Hope’s favorite singles of 2013

i let her talkCountry radio may have gone from bad to worse this year, but as ever there were a few bright spots – and some great singles away from the mainstream offerings. Here are my favorite singles of 2013:

10. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker
A vibrant, charming cover with rootsy production. What a pity the rest of the album was so deadly dull.

9. It Ain’t The Whiskey – Gary Allan
A bit loud, and perhaps rather similar to past songs, but a great vocal makes this worthwhile.

8. Songs About Trucks – Wade Bowen
An emotion I think we can all get behind – no more songs about trucks, please. But this isn’t just a complaint, this song also has a genuine emotional storyline which lets it stand on its own merits.

overnight success7. Overnight Success – Zane Williams
The independent artist explains how to become a country star, overnight (well, after nine or ten years hard work, of course). A fine song, by turns ironic, self-deprecating and good humoured.

6. Stripes – Brandy Clark
The witty song isn’t the best on the singer-songwriter’s excellent album 12 Stories, but it’s highly entertaining nonetheless. It’s a pity it hasn’t got more mainstream attention.

what are you listening to5. What Are You Listening To – Chris Stapleton
A very tastefully arranged recording, a well written song, and intensely emotional vocal. It wasn’t as successful as I had hoped it would be, and the singer-songwriter and former SteelDriver still awaits release of his solo album for Mercury, but it’s a fine and memorable record.

4. I Got A Car – George Strait
The story song about a couple’s journey from first meeting to starting a family, written by Keith Gattis and Tom Douglas, was an obvious single choice from George’s current album. It is packed full of charm, and shows the veteran (unexpectedly named the CMA Entertainer of the year) still has commercial potential.

3. Could It Be – Charlie Worsham
A debut single from a young artist with a fresh, youthful sound. Utterly charming. I wasn’t as taken by the album, but the single (which reached #13 on the country airplay chart) stands up as one of the more refreshing moments on country radio this year.

borrowed2. Borrowed – LeAnn Rimes
A cheating song from LeAnn’s somewhat controversial Spitfire album. Her mature vocals are beautiful, and the self-penned song draws with an unsparing honesty on LeAnn’s own experiences with her early relationship with her current husband, when both were married to others. The song’s complicated emotions didn’t help LeAnn’s increasingly chequered image, but it’s a fine and deeply truthful song – what country music is all about. The production is delicately sensitive and allows the vocals to shine.

1. I Let Her Talk – Erin Enderlin
A fantastic story song from the singer-songwriter, this beautifully realised tale narrates a bar room encounter between two women drowing their troubles. In an unexpected twist the meeting turns out to be between a man’s wife (the narrator) and his clueless “careless drunk” lover. Erin wrote the song with the great Leslie Satcher, and it is perfectly constructed. This was the promotional single for Erin’s independent album of the same name, and although it received limited mainstream attention it was absolutely the best single of the year for me.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year where we publish our picks for the best singles and albums that country music had to offer during the previous twelve months. Usually I begin by lamenting the meager selections from which we had to choose. But not this time; for the first time in a long time, it’s been a very good year for country music. One wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio or watching the major awards shows, but a lot of my old favorites reemerged in 2013 with new offerings. Here are my picks:

10. The Woman I Am — Kellie Pickler

Pickler has made tremendous strides as an artist with her last two releases. Last year’s 100 Proof paid homage to the artists and sounds of yesterday, while the more contemporary and surprisingly good The Woman I Am shows the way forward for the next phase of her career. I hope she can overcome the disadvantage she faces in not having major label promotion. This album deserves to be heard.

9. Like A Rose — Ashley Monroelike a rose

The long-awaited return of Ashley Monroe did not make many commercial waves, but this Vince Gill-produced project is an artistic triumph. A guest appearance by Blake Shelton reassures those of us who had begun to fear that he was no longer capable of making good music.

8. Hammer Down — The SteelDrivers

Another personnel change didn’t prevent my favorite bluegrass band from releasing another stellar collection of new tunes. Hammer Down is a step up from 2010’s slightly disappointing Reckless, and is neck-and-neck with the group’s debut album for the best album of their career so far.

7. To All The Girls — Willie Nelsonto all the girls

At age 80, Willie’s voice not is not what it once was, but he sounds better than he has in years on this collection which boasts an impressive roster of female guest artists from both within and outside the country music community.

6. Love Is Everything — George Strait

Although he plans to continue recording, King George is in the process of wrapping up his touring career. Coinciding with his farewell tour is his best collection of songs in quite some time.

5. The Bluegrass Album — Alan Jacksonthe bluegrass album

Alan Jackson chose mostly new material for this project, unlike most artists who have mined the back catalogs for their bluegrass collections. The result is one of the best hour’s worth of music that 2013 had to offer. Jackson’s hitmaking days appear to be over, but from a creative standpoint he is as strong as ever.

4. Cheater’s Game — Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison

I’ll always regret that Kelly Willis was so under-appreciated during her major label days. Her albums these days are few and far between so it is a real treat when she releases something new. I prefer this effort with her songwriter husband Bruce Robison to 2007’s less rootsy Translated From Love.

3. Influence Vol 1: The Man I Am — Randy Travisrandy
Randy Travis’ voice has been deteriorating for years and it was especially noticeable on “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the George Jones tribute that served as the lead single for this project. I wasn’t expecting much from the rest of the album, but like Willie Nelson, Randy sounds better on his current project than he has in a long time. He’s suffered from serious medical problems this year; we wish him the best and hope that 2014 holds better things in store for him.

2. Old Yellow Moon — Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

This duet project was a return to form for Harris and Crowell, both of whom who were cast aside by Nashville and who have been making their mark in the Americana world for the past several years. I’d like to hear more music in this vein from them, both separately and together, should they be inclined to team up in the studio again for a follow-up project.

1. Bakersfield — Vince Gill & Paul Franklinbakersfield

Vince Gill doesn’t ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of artists who are associated with the Bakerfield sound, but he shows he is more than capable of handling these classic Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs and the participation of of steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin was the icing on the cake. This is by far the new album in my collection that got played the most this year. May we have some more, please?

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘New Favorite’

akusBy 2001 Alison Krauss had become well known outside the world of bluegrass and had begun incorporating elements from other genres into both her solo albums and her collaborations with Union Station. As a result, New Favorite is a more eclectic collection than the band’s earlier work. It attempts to blend traditional bluegrass with pop and mainstream country. At times the experimentation works and at other times it does not, and while it may have earned the band some new fans, its a-little-bit-of-something-for-everybody approach must have left bluegrass purists slightly disappointed.

The album produced three singles, two of which were written by Robert Lee Castleman, who had provided the band material in the past. Both “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You For A While” are more contemporary country than bluegrass. The latter reminds me a lot of Lee Ann Womack’s later recording “Last Call.” The title track, a dreamy number written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, was the final single. Of the three singles, only “The Lucky One” charted, landing at #46. Alison sings the lead on all three. The two Castleman numbers are quite enjoyable, but I found “New Favorite” to be rather dull and dreary, in spite of Alison’s lovely singing. The band’s cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Stars” is likewise a misstep.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is much better. Dan Tyminski provides a soulful lead vocal to the traditonal “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” about a lazy young farmer who seems to be incapable of harvesting a crop before it is destroyed by frost. This song would not be out of place on a SteelDrivers album. Tyminski gives the Bob Lucas composition “Momma Cried” a similar treatment and it is equally effective. “Bright Sunny South”, another Tyminski-led number, is more traditional bluegrass, as is the album’s best track “Take Me For Longing”, which features Alison on lead vocals. Banjo player Ron Block provides a Ricky Skaggs-like lead vocal on “It All Comes Down To You.”

New Favorite is a less cohesive effort than previous AKUS albums, partly because of the different musical styles it incorporates, but also because Alison, for the most part, sings the more crossover-minded songs, while the rest of the band handles the more traditional material. As such it comes across as a slightly disjointed album that is part Alison Krauss and part Union Station, as opposed to a collaborative Alison Krauss and Union Station album from start to finish. Its moments of brilliance largely outweigh the missteps, but overall it doesn’t hold its own against the group’s earlier albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘My Honky Tonk History’

honkytonkhistoryThe creative renaissance that Travis Tritt enjoyed with the release of Down The Road I Go was unfortunately short-lived; 2002’s Strong Enough was a commercial and critical disappointment and 2004’s My Honky Tonk History, while slightly better than its predecessor, was likewise a mixed bag.

Based on the album’s title, some fans might have been expecting a back-to-basics collection of traditional weepers; if so, those fans were likely quite disappointed, since the album often is anything but traditional. Ironically, the Luke Bryan and Patrick Jason Matthews title track is one of the most rock-leaning tracks Tritt ever released. The track’s production is rather heavy-handed, and this is also the case with the second track “Too Far To Turn Around”. Two tracks into the album I was bracing myself for a tedious listening experience; “The Girl’s Gone Wild” is more mainstream contemporary country but the lyrics are cliched and the whole song sounds like a retread of the Garth Brooks Hit “Ain’t Comin’ Home Til The Sun Comes Up”; a song of which I was never overly fond. The tune seems to have been carefully tailored to the prevailing tastes at country radio, but radio’s response was lukewarm and the tune topped out at #28.

Fortunately things take a turn for the better starting with the fourth track “What Say You”, a duet with John Mellencamp. It’s not a traditional number by any means; it is more in the vein of something that Bob Dylan or The Byrds might have recorded. I’ve never been a fan of Mellencamp’s music but somehow the tune manages to work. It marks Mellencamp’s first –and to my knowledge, only — entry into the country Top 40. The record just missed the Top 20, peaking at #21.

Following “What Say You” is the excellent “Circus Leaving Town”, a traditional steel-guitar drenched number which is by far the album’s best track. “Monkey Around”, a bluesy number written by Delbert McClinton, Benmont Tench, and Gary Nicholson provides a nice change of pace, and Tritt sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself with this tune. “I See Me” is a more mainstream effort, a ballad about a father observing his young son. Earlier in Tritt’s career, this would likely have been a big hit but by this time radio had cooled toward him considerably and the record stalled at #32.

By the last third of the album, the quality begins to taper off again, as the songs become more rock-oriented with offerings like “When Good Ol’ Boys Go Bad”, the anti-commercialism anthem “It’s All About The Money” and the don’t-get-above-your-raisin’ themed “When In Rome”, which closes the album. The two exceptions are the beautiful ballad “We’ve Had It All”, a Tritt co-write with Marty Stuart and “Small Doses” written by Jerry Salley and Chris Stapleton who would later enjoy a stint as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. “Small Doses” is the one tune here that sounds as though it belongs on an album titled My Honky Tonk History.

Though it failed to spawn any major hits or earn gold or platinum certification, My Honky Tonk History did reach #7 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His declining popularity with radio and creative differences with Columbia led to Travis’ departure from the label in 2005. With the major label phase of his career now over, he went on to experience even greater difficulties with the independent Category 5, with whom he signed in 2006. Uneven in quality though it is, My Honky Tonk History does contain a few very good tracks and for those alone it is worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: The SteelDrivers – ‘Hammer Down’

steeldriversThe SteelDrivers are back with a new collection of acoustic tunes, as well as another personnel change, as Brent Truitt takes over as mandolinist from departing founding member Mike Henderson. Hammer Down, which was produced by The SteelDrivers themselves along with Luke Wooten, follows the same basic template as the band’s previous two efforts. But while I felt that Reckless was a slightly weaker collection than their 2008 eponymous debut, Hammer Down more than holds its own when compared with that first album.

Every song on the album was co-written by either a present or former SteelDriver, and lead vocalist Gary Nichols’ gruff but soulful voice is nicely complemented by the harmonies of fiddle player Tammy Rogers and bassist Mike Fleming. Many of the songs have a Celtic flavor to them, sounding a lot like some of the recordings that The Chieftains made with a variety of Nashville artists. This is most apparent on the songs with dark subject matter, like the opening track “Shallow Grave”:

I buried my love with a silver spade
Hid her down in a shallow grave
Can’t keep love in the cold, cold ground
Nothin’ in the earth can hold her down

Though the mournful lyrics suggest that “Shallow Grave” is a murder ballad, the tune is suprisingly upbeat. It is never revealed why the victim was killed.

My two favorite songs are “How Long Have I Been Your Fool”, which was written by Tammy Rogers and Al Anderson along with former SteelDrivers lead vocalist Chris Stapleton and the closing track “When I’m Gone”, another Stapleton co-write, this time with former band member Mike Henderson. With a different arrangement, “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” might have been a mainstream hit ten years ago; it would have sounded right at home on a Patty Loveless album.

“When You Don’t Come Home” is about a confrontation at gunpoint between an errant husband and a fed-up wife, the type of song that would make Loretta Lynn proud. As good as it is, the Tammy Rogers and Gary Nichols penned tune is the only song on the album that doesn’t quite work. Rogers’ voice is prominent in the mix as Nichols’ throughout the track, but this song, written from the female point of view, would have worked much better as a Rogers solo. The lyrics just don’t make sense coming from a male vocalist. That, however, is a minor complaint. The only other fault I can find with the collection is its brevity. I’ve become accustomed to albums that are 12, 13 or more tracks long, and anything less, such as as this lean 10-track collection that clocks in at just under 35 minutes, leaves me feeling a little cheated. It does, however, leave me wanting more and perhaps that was the intent. Whereas I played Reckless a few times and then forgot about it, I’ve been playing this album almost non-stop for the past week and I haven’t grown tired of it yet. I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

P.S. I’d also like to give a shout-out to our fellow blogger Juli Thanki of Engine 145, who did a superb job writing the album’s liner notes.

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: Nanci Griffith – ‘Intersection’

Much of Nanci Griffith’s work has tended to fall closer to the contemporary folk side of the border with country music, but regardless of genre, her music has been of consistently high quality.  Her 20th album is out now in the UK and Ireland where she is currently touring, and is set for release next month in the US on her own Hell No Records, distributed by Sony.  She has had a tough time in her personal life in the past few years, and the album is reportedly very personal.  Production was a joint effort by Nanci, Pete and Maura Kennedy, and Pat McInerney, with very few outside musicians being involved.

The catchy but abrasive ‘Hell No (I’m Not Alright)’ is angry handclapping protest-folk, and is the first single. Supposedly it is inspired by the Occupy protest movement, but while the official video portrays the latter, I cant detect any overt polical aspects at all in the lyrics. When the song stands on its own merits, it appears to be about a thoughtless man who has let the protagonist down in a personal relationship. Nanci’s personal views about the socio-political situation may have informed her sense of malaise, but standing on its own merits I don’t hear this as a political song at all. The seething anger she expresses at the man’s patronising response to her is universally relateable on a personal level:

Hell no, I’m not alright
You can talk all day and ask all night
Nothing’s gonna change, no end in sight
Hell no, I’m not alright

Did you really think it would be okay
To leave me stranded alone that day?
Did you really think you could wait so long
To call me up to see if you’re alright?

You’re on the bow and I’m alone
And when you’re alone you’re all alone
I’m still gone, it’s all the same
But I’m takin’ notes and I’m namin’ names

Am I the one to get you to forget
That the one is gone, is gone, is gone?
Am I supposed to say you’re okay?
Cause you’re not okay and you’re not okay

The insistently bluesy ‘Come On Up Mississippi’ is more political in the widest sense. It is very short, closking in just under twwo minutes and uses a small children’s choir with unusual restraint. Perhaps the most political song here, it’s an angry response to the poverty of the state of that name and a stirring call for solidarity from other Americans:

Come on up Mississippi
Come on up
I’m coming on up to you
And if only America knew
Of your poverty, your dirty streets, your children with their barefoot feet
They’d all be coming on up to you Missisippi…

Come on up Mississippi
America’s for you

The opening ‘Bethlehem Steel’ laments the closing of a Pennsylvania steelworks in the 1990s and its effect on the town that relied on the jobs it had provided.  She paints a detailed and atmospheric picture of “an American icon”, and a sympathetic portrait of a woman remembering childhood memories of the area’s past prosperity gives it a human face.  Ethereal backing vocals add to the elegaic mood.

The catchy but repetitive ‘Stranded In The High Ground’ was co-written by all four producers, and has a bright feel but doesn’t really go anywhere lyrically. Nanci also revives her own 20-year-old ‘Just Another Morning here’, with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper on harmony; it is on the folkier side of her repertoire and not one of her more interesting songs.

I enjoyed the surprisingly upbeat defiance of ‘Bad Seed’, written by Nanci and Maura about a deeply troubled father-daughter relationship. This is one of the overtly personal songs, with a scorching indictment of the man who has rejected her, with a twist of humor to leaven the soul searing honesty:

I look like him without the mustache
I’ll have that too if I live that long…

When I’m winning he knows me
When I lose I’m his bad seed
After all he told me
Nothing good would become of me
Now that I’ve gone crazy
With no love from my father
Am I the bad seed he always said I would be?

The title track’s mellow laidback sound underpins the resigned lyric about facing failure and having to move on:

It’s time to walk away though I’ll live to curse this day
Sometimes making the best is doing the worst to yourself
And I will not complain
It’s all still the same
I’ve had a hard life and I write it down
I’m at this intersection here between my hopes and dreams and fears
Traveling love boulevard on a green light

Hitting similar notes thematically, the pensive mid-tempo ‘Never Going Back’, written by Mark Seliger, reminisces gently about moving on from a restrictive neighbourhood. Nanci has always been willing to include other writers’ material alongside her own, and the songs selected from outside writers fit in well with her own material here. Blaze Foley’s mournfully beautiful ‘If I Could Only Fly’ is impeccably done. The gentle ‘Davey’s Last Picture’ (written by Robbin Bach and Betty Reeves) is a sensitive and touching tribute to a young firefighter killed on 9/11. Bach sings harmony on this track.

I particularly enjoyed an unexpected and very charming version of ‘Waiting On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail) and recorded some years ago by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Nanci’s wistful version changes the song to make it a third person narration, and gives it an attractive acoustic arrangement. There is also a delightful hillbilly cover of a lesser known Loretta Lynn song, the joyful ‘High On A Mountain Top’, with the Steel Drivers’ Richard Bailey contributing rhythmic jangling banjo. This ends the album on a high note.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Let It Go’

Like most of Tim McGraw’s albums, 2007’s Let It Go is a combination of the good, the bad, and the mediocre on which Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith returned to share co-production duties. The lead single was the annoyingly fluffy “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” which was written by Big & Rich’s Big Kenny. It’s a mediocre song with a sing-songy chorus that grows tiresome with repeated listenings. The final chorus on which McGraw is joined by his three young daughters only adds to the irritation factor. Nevertheless, it reached the top spot on the charts, becoming McGraw’s first #1 hit since 2004’s “Back When”.

Much more to my liking is the album’s second cut, “I’m Workin'”, written by Darrell Scott and Lori McKenna. It’s a gritty number that in years past would have been a big hit on country radio. From the opening line, “Damn, I hope no one dies on this night shift tonight”, the listener is immediately pulled into the story. The narrator’s profession is never revealed. My first thought was that he was a policeman, but he could just as easily be a paramedic or even an ER doctor. Another song that should have been a single is the album’s best track “Whiskey and You”, a pure country number written by Lee Thomas Miller and then-Steeldrivers member Chris Stapleton. Likely deemed too traditional for country radio, “Whiskey and You” was left to languish in obscurity as an album cut, passed over in favor of schlock like the title track, a boring AC-leaning duet with Faith Hill, and a cover of an Eddie Rabbitt song — one of the songs in the late singer/songwriter’s catalog least worthy of a remake.

Faith Hill makes one of her two guest appearances on “I Need You”, a rather lackluster number written by David Lee and Tony Lane, that reached #8. It’s not nearly as good as “Shotgun Rider”, which is not a true duet but features a prominent harmony vocal from Hill. Written by Anthony Smith, Jeffrey Steele and Sherrie Austin, it’s the best McGraw/Hill song I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad Tim and Faith haven’t done more songs in this vein.

“Suspicions” was a #1 hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1979, an era when a lot of barely-country sounding songs were big hits. It’s one of my least favorite Rabbitt songs. Tim’s version is very faithful to the original, but it only reached #12, making it one of the very few McGraw singles not to make the Top 10, in spite of Tim’s popularity and country radio’s increasing willingness to play non-country material. The follow-up single was the much more traditional “Kristofferson”, a tribute to one of country music’s greatest songwriters, written by Anthony Smith and Reed Nielsen. It fared even worse on the charts than “Suspicions”, stalling at #16. Tim bounced back, however, with the generic and overproduced title track, which climbed to #2.

The very best of the album’s seven singles was not included on the album when it was initially released. “If You’re Reading This”, on which Tim shares a rare songwriting credit with Brad and Brett Warren, was performed on the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. It tells the heartbreaking story of a fallen soldier, in his own words, in a letter to his wife, to be sent to her in the event of his death. It was one of the best performances of Tim’s career and was so well received that the song entered the Billboard charts from unsolicited airplay of the audio from the telecast. This prompted Curb to release the live recording as a single, between “I Need You” and “Suspicions” and to include it on subsequent pressings of the album. “If You’re Reading This” peaked at #3; I was surprised that it didn’t go all the way to #1.

Mid-2008 was about the time when Curb Records began playing games to prolong Tim’s contract. Instead of releasing a new album, they opted to release a seventh single, “Nothin’ To Die For”, a preachy and overproduced “don’t drink and drive” number that reads like a public service announcement that somehow climbed to #5 on the charts.

The rest of the album is mostly generic filler, with the exception of “Between The River and Me”, which tells the story of a son’s revenge against an abusive father. It’s a southern Gothic number in the traditon of “Ode To Billy Joe”, “Fancy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, but unlike those classics, “Between The River and Me” is ruined by over-the-top production that renders it almost unlistenable. To call it bombastic would be an understatement.

Though it has its share of duds, Let It Go is one of the stronger album’s in Tim’s discography and has enough good songs on it to make it worth recommending. It is easy to find at reasonable prices.

Grade: B

My Kind Of Country’s 2011 Grammy predictions

Sunday evening sees the premier all-genre music awards ceremony at the Staple Center in LA, and broadcast on CBS. These awards relate to music released in the eligibility period from September 1, 2009 to September 31, 2010. A lot of the country music awards will be awarded in the non-televised portion of the show, but news of the winners will be keenly awaited nonetheless. Last year saw Taylor Swift winning three country categories and the all-genre Album of the Year; she is not nominated this time. Who will dominate the country honorees this time around? And will Lady Antebellum who, like Taylor last year, are nominated in several all-genre categories, match or outdo her? One general point I’ve noticed is how many bluegrass based recordings have been nominated across the country categories this year, and I wonder if this will be reflected in the results.

Country Album

Dierks Bentley, Up On The Ridge
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song : Razor X
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now : Occasional Hope

Miranda Lambert, Revolution : J.R. Journey

Razor X: This is an unusually strong list of contenders. Bentley is the outlier in this group since his album had the least commercial success. I’m a bit torn as to whether I’d like to see him or Jamey Johnson take home this trophy. But if I’m forced to choose, I like the Johnson album a little better so that’s my pick for who should win. Since the Grammys have a tendency to recognize artistic merit a little more than either the CMAs or ACMs, I think Johnson will probably emerge as the winner.

J.R.: In a category full of top-of-their-game albums, Johnson and Lambert go into the Grammy show this year as the decided critics’ favorites, which usually spells win with NARAS voters. Both had broken through with their preceding albums, and with all eyes upon them, the leading man and woman of traditional country music turned in sets that not only built on their previous work, they both turned a couple more switches on in the process. With The Guitar Song Johnson embraced his southern rock and storytelling side, while still exploring even more and darker themes than we heard on That Lonesome Song. Revolution finds Lambert channeling the serious and introverted songwriter inside herself more than anything she’s done before, but she still retains the amped-up simplicity and accessibility we’ve come to love her for.

OH: Jamey Johnson’s double album is both the best and the most ambitious of these albums, but this is a more than respectable lineup . Dierks’s genre-blending mix of bluegrass, country and rock, the Zac Brown Band’s organic rootsy rock-country, and Miranda’s strong vocals and songs (notwithstanding the overbearing production/mixing), this is a group of albums all (with one jarring exception ) displaying real artistic ambition. I’d be happy with any of those four winning, but I’m going to be pessimistic here, and assume the Academy will be dazzled by commercial and crossover success, and pick Lady A’s high-selling but extremely bland Need You Now, which has also been nominated for the main Album of the Year category. I don’t think they’ll follow in Taylor Swift’s footsteps there, just because she is the only country winner of that category ever, but I think they should walk away with this one.

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Razor X’s Top 10 albums of 2010

The past few years have not seen the release of a lot of great country music, but 2010 provided some pleasant surprises, including the return of some veteran artists we haven’t heard from in a while, which may be a sign that the genre is finally getting back on the right track. I was able to compile my Top 10 choices with a lot less difficulty than last year, which surely is a sign that things are starting to improve. Here’s my list:

10. Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be. I’m not sure that Sammy is better than he used to be, as the title of his current album says, but he’s definitely as good as he once was, as Toby Keith might say. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the song selection on this album.

9. SteelDrivers – Reckless. For their sophomore release, this progressive bluegrass band doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made their debut album a winner. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Reckless offers a refreshing alternative to the often lackluster fare offered up by the mainstream.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music. His voice is not what it once was, but Willie is still able to use it to great effect. For his Rounder Records debut, he chose a solid set of traditional old-time bluegrass and folk songs, that didn’t require him to stretch beyond his age-imposed vocal restrictions. Commercial concerns don’t seem to have been given much consideration in this project, and the result is an album that truly shines.

7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am. Like Willie, Haggard’s voice is showing signs of wear and tear, but it worked well with the album’s material, in one of his strongest efforts in recent memory.

6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge. That this bluegrass-inspired project was released on a major label by an artist who is still consistently charting in the Top 10 is nothing short of miraculous. Bentley and Capitol had originally planned to release a pure bluegrass album, but appear to have gotten cold feet and issued a set that is heavily bluegrass-influenced, but with some concessions to more mainstream tastes. Nevertheless, they deserve great credit for daring to buck commercial trends in an era in which “play it safe” is the norm.

5. Joe Diffie – Homecoming. Diffie’s bluegrass album is more traditional than Bentley’s, a luxury afforded to artists who are no longer competing for radio airplay. After a six-year hiatus from recording, it was great to hear from Joe again.

4. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give. I didn’t really give this band a fair chance when they first showed up at country radio,being a bit put off by the “genre-defying” moniker that many critics were using to describe them. Like their previous album, not everything on You Get What You Give is traditional or even country, but all of it is quite different from what anyone else is doing at the moment, and I ended up liking this album a lot more than I ever expected to.

3. Alan Jackson – Freight Train. This solid follow-up to 2007’s disappointing Good Time suffered commercially from Arista’s decision to release two of its weakest tracks as singles, while passing over much stronger alternatives. It was also the last studio album Jackson owed them under his contract, and that may have resulted in less promotional support than usual. Nevertheless, there are some very fine moments on this album, not the least of which is his duet with Lee Ann Womack, a cover of Vern Gosdin’s “‘Til The End”, which was nominated for Musical Event of the Year by the CMA.

2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song. This double album, the long-awaited follow-up to That Lonesome Song, has been in heavy rotation in my CD player and iPod since it was released in September. It was recently awarded gold certification, despite a lack of support from radio.

1. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one album from 2010 to listen to, this would be the one I’d choose hands down. This labor of love shows us what country music once was, and what it could and hopefully will be once again. I cannot praise this near-flawless masterpiece enough.

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: The SteelDrivers – ‘Reckless’

A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to a group like The SteelDrivers. Though I’ve always liked bluegrass, it was always a change-of-pace type of music for me, and I was more inclined to listen to more traditional acts like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, or Ricky Skaggs. Gravelly, bluesy vocalists like Chris Stapleton have never really been my cup of tea; yet to my great surprise, I was blown away the first time I heard The SteelDrivers, whose 2008 debut album was among that year’s best offerings. At times, lead vocalist Stapleton sounds more like a Delta blues singer than the lead vocalist for a bluegrass band. Yet somehow at works. It may be partially a reflection of my own evolving musical tastes, but mostly it is a testament to the fine musicianship of the other band members. This group is no Lonestar, consisting of a powerhouse lead vocalist backed with anonymous, interchangeable musicians, and for that reason I have every confidence that The SteelDrivers will continue to flourish after the departure of Chris Stapleton, who recently quit the group to focus on his family and songwriting.

Reckless
, the group’s sophomore offering, picks up where their eponymous debut album left off. There are no radical departures from the first album, though the group continues to push the boundaries by melding aspects from other musical genres with bluegrass. Though it may raise some eyebrows among bluegrass purists, the result is a refreshing change from the usual pop/soft rock that Nashville has been pedaling in recent years. The album was produced by Luke Wooten, and eleven of the album’s twelve tracks were written by either Chris Stapleton or mandolinist Michael Henderson.

The album opens with the energetic, fiddle-driven “The Reckless Side of Me”, which includes Tammy Rogers’ beautiful harmony vocals. Next is “Good Corn Liquor”, the only song on the album provided by an outside songwriter (Ronnie Bowman), which is slightly reminiscent of “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” from the band’s first disc. “Good Corn Liquor” is followed by some non-traditional tracks like “Where Rainbows Never Die”, “The Price” and the Civil War-themed “Can You Run” which sound a bit like attempts to “grass up” songs that might not have necessarily been conceived as bluegrass songs.

Things take a more traditional turn beginning with “You Put The Hurt On Me”, the album’s best track and the one that comes the closest to mainstream country. If promoting The SteelDrivers to mainstream country radio weren’t an exercise in complete futility, this is the track I would select to become a single. The high lonesome sound returns with the excellent “Midnight On The Mountain” and “Guitars, Whiskey, Guns and Knives” before detouring back into contemporary territory with “Angel Of The Night”.

Patty Loveless fans will be familiar with “Higher Than The Wall,” which appeared on her 2003 disc On Your Way Home. A live version was also included on The SteelDrivers’ previous album as an iTunes bonus track. For that reason alone, I was slightly disappointed to see it reprised here. It’s an excellent song, brilliantly performed, but it’s taking up a slot that could have gone to a different song that most of us hadn’t heard before.

Overall, Reckless isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but I’ve grown to like it more each time I listen to it. Fans of the first SteelDrivers album won’t be disappointed, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to even those who don’t normally listen to bluegrass. It bends the rules just enough that it should appeal to the non-bluegrass listener, who might be pleasantly surprised after giving the album a try.

Grade: A

Reckless
is available from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.