My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: The Time Jumpers

EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘Nothin’ But Good’

Mark Wright produced Dawn Sears’ second album, Nothin’ But Good, which arrived on Decca Records in August 1994. She was the first artist signed to the label’s newly revived country music branch.

The investment proved moderately successful from the onset. The rockin’ “Runaway Train,” which was co-written by fellow spotlight artist Kim Richey, peaked at #52. Sears’ fortunes would, unfortunately, reverse, as the mid-tempo title track, co-written by songwriter-of-the-moment Kostas, failed to chart.

“Close Up The Honky Tonks” is a clean and precise cover of the Buck Owens classic. “That’s Where I Wanna Take Our Love” is a classically styled torch song, written by Dean Dean Dillon and Harlan Howard and flawlessly executed by Sears.

“No Relief In Sight” is a contemporary ballad about the inability to move on from a past relationship. “Uh Oh (Here Comes Love)” is an excellent ditty, with an infectious melody, co-written by Carlene Carter.

“Planet of Love,” easily a standout track, is a spellbinding torch song co-written by Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal. “It was Too Late” returned Sears to the up-tempo stylings that comprise the majority of the album.

Around this time, Sears also became known for her collaborative work with her fellow contemporaries. She teamed with Tracy Byrd for the duet “Out of Control Raging Fire” (later covered by Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt) from his debut album and provided backing vocals for Vince Gill on I Still Believe in You.

The association with Gill would prove most fruitful as she would continue to guest on many of his albums, accompany him on tour, and join his Western Swing band The Time Jumpers along which her husband Kenny. Their friendship impacted this album with the brilliant traditional ballad “If I Didn’t Have You In My World,” which Gill co-wrote with Jim Weatherly.

The album’s centerpiece closed out the album. Sears would have just one writing credit on this album, “Little Orphan Annie,” which she wrote solo. She wrote the tune in tribute to her parents, who died far too soon. It’s as perfect and effective a country song as I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear:

I saw the love

In mama’s eyes

I saw the fear she tried to hide

She knew she’d never see the morning sun

She left this world so young

 

On a windy day

In my Sunday best

I watched them lay my dad to rest

After months of pain, I tried to help him through

But there was nothing I could do

 

I feel like

Little Orphan Annie

Left here all alone

Little Orphan Annie

Trying to be strong

Every night I kneel and pray

Lord help me through another day

Help me fill this empty heart

Please don’t let me fall apart

Give me the strength to be

Little Orphan Annie

 

I miss them more

Then I can say

It’s not supposed to be this way

All grown up I should understand

But the child in me

Can’t comprehend

There are moments of sheer brilliance on Nothin’ But Good that show why Sears was one of the best and most criminally underrated female artists to fly under the radar in the 1990s. Some of the uptempo material is aimed at commercial viability and is, therefore, filler, but the vast majority of the album is beyond excellent.

Sears would sadly exit Decca shortly after the release of this album.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears and the Time Jumpers – ‘Someone Had To Teach You’

Spotlight Artists : Overlooked Women of the 90s

After our look back at three male artists who emerged in 1996 (Daryle Singletary and Wade Hayes) we’re widening the net a little with our current spotlight. As we all now, it’s often harder for women to make it in country music, and that was the case even in the 1990s which might be regarded as the high point for female artists’ commercial success. For the next two months we will be talking about several female singers who tried to make an impact in the 1990s, and didn’t receive as much attention as they deserved. We hope you enjoy our selection.

Jann Browne was born in Indiana in 1954. She began performing in California in the 1970s, before joining stellar Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel in 1981. Her heart was in more traditional styles of country music, and in 1989, with the neotraditional movement in full swing, she signed a solo deal with Curb Records. Perhaps she was just a little too late to the party, perhaps she was curbed by her label, or the fact that she continued to base herself on the West Coast, but a pair of top 20 country hits and two underrated albums were all she had to celebrate. A couple of independent albums followed later. She continues to tour locally in California, and her most recent recorded work was a Buck Owens tribute album in 2007. She is planning a new record for release this year.

Linda Davis was born in Texas in 1962. She moved to Nashville in the early 1980, and formed a duo called Skip & Linda with Skip Eaton, which released a few independent singles. Regular work singing advertising jingles and song demos got her noticed, and she secured a deal with Epic Records in 1988. After failing to make a breakthrough, she temporarily gave up her solo aspirations and joined Reba McEntire’s road outfit as a backing vocalist. That put her in the right place at the right time when Reba needed a strong female duet partner for the song ‘Does He Need You’. The song was a #1 hit and won a Grammy for the pair, and it allowed Linda another shot at solo success when she signed to Arista. While she never matched the success of the Reba duet, she has continued to tour and record, releasing several albums on different labels. She returned to prominence recently when she teamed up with her husband Lang Scott and daughter Hillary (known for her band Lady Antebellum) for a very successful country gospel project, billed as the Scott Family.

Dawn Sears was born in Minnesota in 1961. In her late 20s she was signed to Warner Brothers, releasing her critically acclaimed debut album in 1991. When this failed to launch her to superstardom, she became a backing singer for Vince Gill. Decca then picked her up in 1994, again with no lasting success, and she returned to working for Gill. She achieved non-mainstream success late in her career thanks to her role as one of the lead singers of The Time Jumpers. Tragically, she died of cancer in 2014.

Ronna Reeves was born in Texas in 1968. She was on Mercury in the early 1990s, but enjoyed limited radio success despite regular appearance on the Statler Brothers’ TNN TV show which helped her to sell enough records to stay on the label for several releases. Virginia’s Donna Ulisse released a single, excellent album on Atlantic Records in 1991. When her singles failed to gain traction despite her beautiful voice, she gave up on performing and began to concentrate on songwriting. She re-emerged 10 years ago as a bluegrass singer-songwriter, and has been forging a successful career in that vein ever since. Singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner was born in California in 1961. She released two albums for Epic, and despite stellar vocals and material she too failed to appeal to country radio. She continued writing songs for other artists for a while but has not been active lately.

Ohio-born Kim Richey is an acclaimed singer songwriter who spent the second half of the 1990s as a semi-mainstream country artist on Mercury. She is still actively wriing and recording, and has just released a new album.
Mandy Barnett
, born in 1975 in Tennessee, was a throwback to the era and style of Patsy Cline. She made an impact as a teenager lying Patsy on stage, which enabled her to get a record deal of her own. Perhaps she was too retro for mainstream success in the second half of the 1990s despite massive critical plaudits, but she returned to her stage role with more success.

Julie Reeves, born in Kentucky in 1974, was more on the pop-country side. She had a deal with the short lived country imprint of Virgin Records. Her singles gained some airplay, and perhaps another label would have capitalised on that. As it was, marriage to comedy act Cledus T Judd sidelined Julie’s music career. The marriage ended in divorce and Julie is now a radio DJ. Finally, Chalee Tennison was born in Texas in 1969. A deal with Asylum Records in 1999 saw her touring with Alan Jackson, but her singles were only modestly successful despite strong vocals and material drawing on her varied life experience (teenage motherhood, failed marriages, and work as a prison guard).

These women offered a variety of styles of country music, but they share one thing: none really achieved the level of success they deserved. We hope you enjoy exploring their music.

Classic Rewind: The Time Jumpers – ‘Leaving and Saying Goodbye’

Country music has been my lifelong passion. I’ve been drawn to country songs for as long as I can remember and before I even knew what name to put to it. That passion kicked into high gear when I was around 12 years old and has never wavered. From the Nashville Sound and the Urban Cowboy era to the New Traditionalist movement, I loved it all.

My Kind of Country turns nine years old this month, debuting at a time when mainstream country music was starting to head off in what many of us felt was the wrong direction. Founded by J.R. Journey, Eric Petterson and Chris Dean, it was meant not to be a forum to rant about what was wrong about country music, but to talk about the music that we did like – to introduce (or reintroduce in some cases) the songs and artists that had made country music great, and to highlight worthwhile new music. I was invited to join in February 2009 and jumped at the chance to have an opportunity to talk about my passion.

Anyone who has ever written for a blog will tell you that it is a labor of love. Although it can be deeply satisfying, the most difficult aspect is the demand that it puts on one’s time. Giving a blog the amount of time that is needed to do it properly, while still trying to juggle life’s other demands becomes increasingly difficult and eventually something must give. I’ve been feeling that pressure for quite some time and finally decided a few months ago that I would retire from blogging at the end of the year — which is now just a few days away.

Over the past nine years I’ve continued to hope that commercial country music would improve, while year after year things only seemed to get worse. There have been some glimmers of hope, lately, though with artists like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell connecting with audiences with little or no support from radio. I shall continue to hope for the emergence of the next Randy Travis to finally turn things around. In the meantime, I leave you in the very capable hands of my colleagues Occasional Hope, Jon Pappalardo and Paul Dennis. It’s been an honor working with them, and it’s been an honor writing for you, the readers. May 2018 be a happy and healthy year for all.

Classic Rewind: Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers – ‘Six Pack To Go’

Album Review: Jeannie Seely – ‘Written In Song’

61wcxdrzxl-_ss500Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, best known for her 1966 hit “Don’t Touch Me”, enjoyed only moderate success as a recording artist, but many do not realize that she is also an accomplished songwriter. Written In Song, her latest collection, was released last month. It consists of 14 tracks, all of which were written or co-written by Seely. Twelve of the songs were previously recorded by other artists, while two were newly written for this project. None of them, however, had ever been recorded by Jeannie herself, until now.

In the 1960s, Monument Records had marketed Seely as “Miss Country Soul”, which was likely in part an acknowledgement that her initial success had occurred outside the realm of country music. “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”, the oldest song on this album had been a 1964 R&B hit for Irma Thomas. The other 13 selections are strictly country. At age 76, Seely’s voice is a little rough around the ages at times, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the album.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously familiar with any of the songs on this album. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” was a Top 10 hit for Faron Young in 1971 and had also been recorded by The Time Jumpers. Kenny and Tessa Sears, widower and daughter of the late Dawn Sears, join Jeannie on this track, which is one of the album’s standouts. Aside from that, none of the others seem to have been major hits that are well remembered today. I suspect that most of them were album cuts that were never released as singles. Nevertheless, they are all worthy of another listen. My favorite tracks are “Senses”, a co-write with Glen Campbell that features local harmonies by Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, “Sometimes I Do”, which had been recorded by Ernest Tubb, and “Enough to Lie”, which had been recorded by Ray Price. On a number that had been recorded by her old duet partner Jack Greene, Seely promises “You don’t need me, but you will.”

The album’s two new numbers allow Jeannie’s sense of humor to shine through. “Who Needs You” casts her in the role of a jilted lover, who is comforting herself with alcohol and shopping — standard operating procedure for a country song. Then comes the song’s final verse which discloses that she’s been enjoying a little marijuana as well. It’s hardly a shocking revelation in this day in age — and as Seely points out in her spoken disclaimer before starting the final verse, it’s legal now in many states — but it sure wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this album. The closing number is “We’re Still Hanging In There, Ain’t We Jessi”, which name drops the names of many famous women of country music — from Audrey Williams and Jan Howard to Tammy Wynette and Jessi Colter — who survived difficult relationships with some of country music’s famous men. Her own failed marriage to Hank Cochran is also referenced, all in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek manner. Jan Howard and Jessi Colter both lend their voices to the track.

Written In Song is a surprisingly fresh-sounding album. It’s mostly traditional country, with plenty of fiddle and some fine steel guitar work, but it manages to avoid sounding retro despite the fact that many of the songs are fifty or more years old. I’m sure that many listeners, like me, will be hearing these songs for the first time. If it is something you don’t want to spend money on, it is available on streaming services such as Amazon Unlimited and is worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

RazorX’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

91pRGFM-iWL._SX522_All in all, 2016 was a good year for country album releases. Last year when compiling my top picks, I had trouble coming up with ten albums that I liked. This year, I had to actually pare the list down a little bit. As usual, there are some familiar names on my list as well as a few more obscure ones. None of them, however, will be heard on mainstream country radio.

10. Tracy Byrd — All American Texan. Tracy Byrd’s first collection of all-new material in nearly a decade is a solid collection that is reminiscent of his better major label work, but without the plethora of novelty tunes that chipped away at his credibility in his hit making days.

travis-tritt-a-man-and-his-guitar-album-cover9. Travis Tritt — A Man and His Guitar. A live “unplugged” concert recording, this collection proves that minimalist arrangements do nothing to detract from the enjoyment derived from listening to a talented vocalist singing well-written songs.

8. Randy Rogers Band — Nothing Shines Like Neon. The Randy Rogers Band returned to its indie roots this year, after a decade of chasing the big time with the major labels. This is a highly enjoyable collection that features guest stars such as Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jamey Johnson, and Jerry Jeff Walker, that is only slightly marred by a couple of MOR song selections.

7. The Cactus Blossoms — You’re Dreaming. This sibling act from Minnesota is reminiscent of The Everly Brothers with a dash of The Louvin Brothers thrown into the mix. The production is stripped down, which really allows their harmonies to shine.

willie-nelson-for-the-good-times-a-tribute-to-ray-price-album-cover6. Willie Nelson — For The Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. 83-year-old Willie Nelson is way past his vocal peak and nowhere near the league of the man to whom he is paying tribute, but his sincerity in paying homage to his fallen friend — as well as some support from The Time Jumpers — helps this collection overcome Willie’s vocal shortcomings.

5. Mark Chesnutt — Tradition Lives. Like Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt returned this year following a lengthy gap since his last album. Tradition Lives was well worth the wait, since it is arguably his best album since he left the major labels. “Is It Still Cheating” and “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” are particularly good.

61UuqSUlcHL._SS5004. Dolly Parton — Pure & Simple. Dolly isn’t exactly breaking new ground with her latest effort, which consists of some new material, some re-recordings of some old material, and a rewritten version of a 1984 hit (“God Won’t Get You” now known as “Can’t Be That Wrong”), but everything is well performed, and the brand new title track, inspired by her recent 50th wedding anniversary, is excellent.

3. The Time Jumpers — Kid Sister. The Nashville-based Western Swing band’s latest effort is in large part a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, and is a delight to listen to from start to finish.

hymns2. Joey + Rory — Hymns That Are Important to Us. 2016 will go down in the history books as one that saw the deaths of an unusually high number of music legends. None were as heartbreaking as the passing of Joey Martin Feek, who lost her hard-fought battle with cancer in March. This collection of religious tunes was recorded while she was undergoing treatments for her disease. The songs all succeed on their own merit, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate one’s feelings about the album from the circumstances under which it was made. It will simultaneously inspire and sadden you.

1. Loretta Lynn — Full Circle. Loretta Lynn’s first new album since 2004’s Van Lear Rose was without a doubt country music’s highlight of the year. Produced by her daughter Patsy Russell and John Carter Cash, it is the first of a series of new albums planned under a new deal with Sony Legacy. She sounds terrific on the new material, as well as the re-recordings of some old hits and covers of some pop and country standards. Highly recommended.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price’

51vwrr-zq3l-_ss500Having outlived many of his contemporaries, Willie Nelson is well on his way to being the last man standing among his generation of country performers. His latest effort is a tribute to the late Ray Price. It is the latest in a long line of tribute albums from Willie, but an especially poignant one given his own advancing age and his lifelong friendship with Price, which began with Willie’s stint as one of Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band members in the 1960s.

The legendary Fred Foster came out of retirement to produce the collection, and Bergen White was responsible for all of the string and orchestral arrangements. Country music fans of a certain age will no doubt recall seeing White’s name on virtually every country album in the 70s and 80s that featured strings, as most of them did in those days.

Even at his peak, Willie was never in Price’s league as a vocalist and at 83 his vocal abilities are greatly diminished, and it is most likely for this reason that The Time Jumpers were brought in to join Willie on half of the album’s tracks, providing fiddle steel and background vocals, which in some cases are badly needed. Ray Price started his career as a hardcore honky-tonker, and in later years he was a crooner of middle-of-the-road ballads which often featured lush orchestral arrangements — despite having once been a harsh critic of countrypolitan and the Nashville Sound. The Time Jumpers are featured primarily on the more hardcore country numbers such as “Heartaches by the Number”, “I’ll Be There”, “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”, “Crazy Arms”, Bill Anderson’s “City Lights” and Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”.

All of the songs are beautifully produced and lovingly performed, never straying far from Price’s original renditions. Willie sounds better on some tracks than others; he is at his best on “Heartaches by the Numbers”, “Night Life” (his own composition) and “City Lights”. His age-imposed limitations are most apparent on some of the more vocally challenging numbers. “Faded Love” isn’t the easiest song to sing and also not one I immediately associate with Ray Price, although his 1980 duet version with Willie enjoyed greater success on the singles chart than any other. Presumably that is why it was included. Similarly, “Make the World Go Away” is a song more closely associated with Eddy Arnold, although Price did enjoy a #2 hit with it in 1963, two full years ahead of Arnold’s chart-topping version. It’s given (appropriately) the full orchestra treatment here with the backing chorus doing so much of the vocal heavy lifting it could almost be billed as a duet.

The album contains two songs with which I was not previously familiar: “It Will Always Be” and “I’m Still Not Over You”. Both were written by Willie and the latter was a top 10 hit for Price in 1967. Both are decent but not as memorable as the others on the album.

For the Good Times is a bittersweet affair. It’s forty minutes of some of the best music to ever come out of Nashville, but it is of course very sad that Ray Price is no longer with us, and to hear Willie in decline. But aside from Willie’s vocal limitations (which can mostly be overlooked considering his age), I can’t find fault with anything on this album.

Grade: A

Single Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Undone’

JoeNicholsUndoneJoe Nichols is one of the few mainstream artists to speak out against his own material, freely admitting he cut recent hits “Sunny and 75” and “Yeah” solely because they would guarantee him airplay. He’s even gone so far as to say if it were up to him, he’d cut the most traditional album he could and use members of The Time Jumpers on the project.

He’s playing the game because he came of age in an era where his traditional style didn’t help him rack up the residuals necessary for him to afford making the albums he wants to make. He’s released some fantastic singles, especially early on, but they weren’t enough to push him to the top of the genre.

Nichols certainly isn’t there now, either. His need for airplay almost guarantees his singles will be too generic to make a genuine impact. That certainly isn’t going to change now.

His new single “Undone” is little more than a trend follower, a three and a half minute argument that Nichols can hang with the cool guys. You know the story by now – there’s a guy and he’s entranced with his girl. She captivates him by stripping down and letting her long flowing hair fall past her shoulders. Just because he can hold his own, doesn’t mean he can rise above the pack and own it.

“Undone” is different from the rest of ‘em in that it retains a somewhat modern country feel and stays away from the hip-hop beats that have taken over the genre in recent years. The track actually feels behind the times, like it could’ve been released four years ago and made an impact then. The country instrumentation throughout is a nice change of pace, although the wall of noise production keeps the song squarely in a modern vein.

This is the second single from his yet-to-be-titled ninth album, which is still in limbo without a release date. “Undone” may get him back on the radio, but I doubt it’s going to help Nichols generate noteworthy album sales. How could it, when the song is barely memorable and sounds like every other song on country radio? Without any distinctive qualities, “Undone” just falls flat.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears and the Time Jumpers – ‘Someone Had To Teach You’

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris & The Time Jumpers – ‘Making Believe’

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Albums of 2012

Adventurism. Turning convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. To get an even fuller picture of my picks, check out the albums I ranked 19-11 here.

gretchenpeters10. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

9. Various Artists – Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

living for a song8. Jamey Johnson and Friends – Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fiercest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

7. The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

100 Proof6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am/take-no-prisoners/unapologetic classic country tour de force that finally matches the music to the talent, For the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, she makes a statement. And it’s a giant leap forward.

5. Jana Kramer – Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vain to pull off a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revolution, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

marty-stuart-nashville-cover4. Marty Stuart – Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by pairing originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

3. Punch Brothers – Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

2. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home1. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘The Time Jumpers’

Nashville’s very own 11-person supergroup, the Time Jumpers may have started as a side project allowing its members a regular live outlet, but they have now come into their own on record. Their mixture of country, jazz and western swing has been showcased before on two live albums, and the members’ brilliant musicianship and sheer love of music shines through at every turn on this, their first studio album, out now on Rounder Records.

Instrumental tracks often tend to be tacked on at the end of an album, seeming almost like an apologetic afterthought. It is rare for one to open proceedings, and the Time Jumpers’ decision to place ‘Texoma Bound’, composed by Larry Franklin, one of the group’s three fiddle players, allows them to show off their chops in dazzling style. Members include regular CMA instrumentalist of the year nominee Paul Franklin, perhaps Nashville’s most in-demand steel guitarist, as well as superstar Vince Gill.

Fiddler Kenny Sears sings lead on his own song ‘Nothing But The Blues’. It’s a pleasant western swing song with a relaxed feel and a great instrumental section, but Kenny is an average vocalist. The same goes for Ranger Doug, better known as lead singer of the retro-western group Riders in the Sky. His western ballad ‘Ridin’ On the Rio’ suffers from his limited vocals, but is quite a nice song, and an interesting reminder of a marginalized sub-genre.

Kenny’s wife Dawn on the other hand, has a fabulous voice and knows how to use it with subtlety. Her bid for a solo career never really got off the ground, but she is an aoutstanding vocalist, and shows that here. My favourite of her cuts here is on her own song ‘So Far Apart’, a regretful look at a once happy marriage which has grown cold. Dawn’s vocal interprets the emotion beautifully, supported by Paul Franklin’s equally perfect steel guitar , and this sounds like a lost classic from the 1960s. I also love her version of the Harlan Howard-penned Someone Had To Teach You, which George Strait recorded 20-odd years ago on Livin’ It Up. Dawn then comes across as sultry jazz chanteuse on ‘Faint Of Heart’, written by Vince Gill and Al Anderson.

Dawn and Kenny duet on the western swing ‘Texas On A Saturday Night’, written by minor 70s act Mundo Earwood. It is entertaining, but more about the overall groove and musicianship than the vocals. This is definitely music to dance to. Dawn sings with Ranger Doug on ‘Yodel Blues’, the title of which is explanatory.

Vince Gill, long a member of the group when other commitments permitted him, makes his first appearance with them in record now that he is free of his major label deal. ‘New Star Over Texas’, which he wrote with Leslie Satcher is a rather charming western swing ballad with prominent steel, while ‘On The Outskirts Of Town’ (which he wrote with Reed Nielsen) is lyrically slight but the swingy feel and sparkling playing carry it off.

‘Three Sides To Every Story’ is a classic styled country ballad about the end of a relationship following cheating and lies. This excellent song is quintessential Vince Gill and my favourite track. ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’ is another really fine traditional country song loaded with Paul Franklin’s steel, which has Vince lamenting the fact that the love of his love has moved on to somebody new. He really shines vocally on these songs, and they show his songwriting is on a roll as well. Hopefully another solo album is not too far away.

While this is clearly a democratic group with every member allowed to shine, Dawn Sears and Vince Gill are the clear vocal stars of the group, and the songs on which they take the lead are the highlights.

Grade: A

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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Album Review – Vince Gill – ‘The Key’

By 1998, the landscape of country music had changed significantly. The traditionalist sound ushered in by Randy Travis in 1985 had given way to a slicker pop sound led by Shania Twain and her The Woman in Me and Come on Over albums. The likes of Vince Gill didn’t gel with the new mainstream and for the first time in nine years he found himself struggling to have major hits at radio. And to make matters worse, his “Kindly Keep It Country,” one of the best singles of the year, was deemed too country for country radio.

But the lack of airplay wasn’t due to a diminished quality. At the time of its release, The Key garnered rave reviews and was widely considered the best album of Gill’s career. It also turned around the downward spiral in quality that was High Lonesome Sound. For the first time in years, Gill released a fully cohesive album without a bad track in the bunch. I also fully enjoy the western swingy vibe that foreshowed his work with The Time Jumpers.

Lead single, “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind” was Gill’s last top 5 hit to date in early 1998. A slow jazz-inspired ballad, it seemed rather endless to my 11 year-old ears at the time. But I’ve since grown to really enjoy the track, one of Gill’s best in many years, that won him the 1999 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. I love everything about this song from the strings to the very effective use of piano behind Gill’s stunning vocal.

Second single, “Kindly Keep It Country,” about a man’s request to hear only country songs coming from the jukebox, is traditionalism done right. The mournful steel guitar underscores the pain in Gill’s vocal. It’s a shame country radio ignored the song, which criminally peaked at #33, but it began that larger debate about a country song being “too country.” Nonetheless, the chart performance doesn’t diminish the fact it’s one of the best songs Gill has ever recorded.

Third single “Don’t Come Cryin’ to Me” didn’t fare much better, peaking at #27, but reversed the ballad trend set by the first two singles. A mid-tempo shuffle complete with fiddle and steel guitar, “Cryin’” chronicled the tale of a man clearly moved on from a past love who may wish to rekindle their romance if her current relationship doesn’t pan out. The tune is an uncreated duet with Gill’s longtime harmony vocalist Dawn Sears, who released a couple major-label country albums in the 90s. Their voices blend perfectly together and bring this song to life. Even though it’s about love lost, it’s nice to see Gill enjoying himself and letting lose.

Fourth single, “My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man,” the 1999 CMA Vocal Event of the Year, is Gill’s first (and only to date) proper duet with Patty Loveless. While she provided the haunting harmony vocals on “When I Call Your Name” and “Pocket Full of Gold,” this was the first time the pair had teamed up for a duet released to country radio. In keeping with the trend of the second and third singles, it was largely ignored but did manage to peak at #27 in the summer of 1999. I’ve always liked when these two sing together as their voices work to create magic. I’ll always wish they’d work together more.

The rest of the album sets the standard for excellence in terms of mainstream music from that era. Gill knows how to write and record outstanding album tracks which is why High Lonesome Sound was such a let down. The Key, though, has highlight upon highlight from the Honky-Tonk shuffle “I Never Really Knew You” to the gorgeous weeper “There’s Not Much Love Here Anymore.”

I love the western swing vibe of “I’ll Take Texas.” With its retro sounding fiddle it’s the best song George Strait never recorded. I’m not used to this kind of song from Gill but it really works. Same goes for “Hills of Caroline,” which allows Gill to exercise his Bluegrass muscle in a way he wouldn’t do again until the acoustic disc from These Days.

But my favorite track on the whole record closes the album. “The Key of Life,” which inspired the album’s title, is a tribute to his father who first introduced him to music, teaching him that a “few chords on the banjo is the key to life.” I was first drawn to the gently rolling banjo-led melody before being pulled into the story. But I love the simplicity of this track the best, how it says so much with so little. If every country song were created with such little fuss, our beloved genre would be in a much better place right now.

As a whole The Key is a very enjoyable and cohesive album where every song compliments each other perfectly. It was almost too traditional to work in the mainstream market at the time, but it helped Gill transition from commercial superstar to artistic genius. Like any great singer he knows an excellent song when he hears (or, in his case, writes) one. The Key is 13 shinning examples of that principal and available both in hard copy and digitally.

Grade: A+ 

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears covers Vern Gosdin’s ‘If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)’

Enjoy this fantastic cover of a great song by an artist who surprisingly failed to break through when she was on Decca in the 90s. Dawn is also Vince Gill’s former backing singer, and perfomrs with him in the Time Jumpers.