My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Trishas

Album Review – Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – ‘Cheater’s Game’

MI0003484229If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Jason Eady – ‘AM Country Heaven’

Mississippi-born and Texas-based Jason Eady moves from the Americana hybrid of his excellent last album When The Money’s All Gone to something more deeply rooted in country. Tastefully produced by Kevin Welch, with backings from Austin-based band Heybale and special Lloyd Maines on steel, it is a low key delight with some excellent songs, almost all written by the extremely talented Eady, occasionally with a co-writer. His pleasing, plaintive voice is ideally suited to his material.

The brilliant title track excoriates the state of country radio, when,

They sing about Jesus and they sing about Jones
And they sing of American pride
But they’re all too damn clean
They’re polished like stones and they won’t sing about cheating or lies…

I knew it was over the day that I overheard a record executive cry
“Keep it all simple, don’t get offensive and don’t play songs in three quarter time”

Well Mr Record Man I hope you don’t take offence
But you’re a hell of a joke I can tell
You’re the reason we’re in AM country heaven
And FM country hell

This sets the tone for an album full of real country music, with songs rooted in real lives.

The excellent ‘Old Guitar And Me’ is a possibly autobiographical tale about growing a little older as a struggling musician, and not quite getting anywhere. Fellow singer-songwriter Walt Wilkins sings backing vocals.

Dealing with the consequences of past choices is a common theme for many of the songs here, with a general mood of acceptance. The subdued and somewhat obscure ‘Tomorrow Morning’ compels attention with its quiet determination,

Cannot live in the light alone
There’s no redemption without the sin
And I must go through darkness knowing
Tomorrow morning I’ll begin again

It ain’t an easy road that I have taken
But I will take it til the end
Every day is joy and sorrow
Tomorrow morning I’ll begin again

The downbeat ‘Wishful Drinking’ has Lloyd Maines’s steel supporting the troubled protagonist’s wistful thoughts about a former lover he desperately hopes (and clearly doesn’t really believe) might still be thinking of him. Eady is very good at bring to life this kind of complex emotion, and he does so on the slow and regretful ‘Longer Walk In The Rain’ considers past choices and a former loved one, and their ongoing emotional impact.

‘I’ll Sure Be Glad When I’m Gone’ (written by Jason with Kevin Welch and Roger Ray) tackles the complex emotions combining relief and regret around an impending breakup. The protagonist of the gentle sounding ‘Lying To Myself’ sounds defeated from the start, as he struggles with life and loss and his own responsibility for the failure of the relationship:

I might need forgiving one of these days
But for now I’ll go on living this way
Running and fighting to survive
Lying to myself to stay alive

The unexpectedly sprightly ‘Paid My Dues’ features bright harmonies from Cary Ann Hearst, and is about a man trying to get over various drug habits, and feeling frustrated by the time it is taking to get better.

On a more positive note, Patty Loveless duets on the delightful bluegrass of ‘Man On A Mountain’, a love song between a wild mountain man (and “a mountain of a man” to boot) and the valley town girl he calls his lily of the valley, but he doesn’t want to get married and she won’t “live in sin” with him. They have allowed their differences to come between them but long for one another. Patty is at her mountain best on this charming song, and her presence on this track is likely to bring the album as a whole some much-deserved attention. The song was written by Eady with Matt Powell, Drew Kennedy, and Josh Grider.

The sardonic up-tempo ‘Forget About The Truth’ offers another change of mood as the protagonist is disillusioned about his girlfriend but is prepared to overlook the lies at least for another night together.

‘Sober On The Weekends’ (0ne of two songs not written by Eady, but by Scott Copeland) is a drinking song with a blues groove about a girlfriend who spend her weeks drinking and her weekends with her man getting high on love instead. The other Copeland song, Water Into Wine has tastefully subtle gospel backing vocals from the Trishas’ Jamie Wilson. In this interesting song, a backslider and onetime choir singer takes refuge in the bottle and “earthly desires that consume what’s left of my life”.

This is one of those rare albums where there really are no weaker tracks. If you like this, I’d also recommend downloading the excellent ‘Promises In Pieces’ and ‘Cry Pretty’ from When The Money’s All Gone, which are on similar stylistic lines and great songs.

Grade: A

There’s a short interview with Jason Eady over at Country California.