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Album Review: Del McCoury — ‘Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass’

Like bourbon aging in oak barrels, the voice of Del McCoury seems to take on more depth and character with each album. Del McCoury stands as one of the last of bluegrass’s second generation in still keeping the music alive both as a recording artist and as an active touring performer. Whether performing before small audiences or large crowds, Del is a consistent force in performing the true-grass so adored by traditionalists, while leaving the door open for innovation.

Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass is comprised of 14 songs that range from murder ballads and train songs to songs about love last and found. The sources of the songs range from old country classics to tunes by modern bluegrass songsmiths. Whatever you like, you will find it here.

The opening track is “Hot Wired,” the opening song, is a cover of what I’ve heard described as a country-rock song. Written by Shawn Camp, the song is a car song that compares a woman to a car – the song features a bunch of hot solos by the various musicians. I guess you could call this newgrass.

“That Ol’ Train” sounds more folk-country than bluegrass, although it would work in either genre as it tells an effective story.

“Letters Have No Arms” was written by the Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb and were a big hit for ET back in 1950. Del effective conveys the angst of the lyrics, a soldier reacting to his sweetheart’s letter.

“The First One Back in Town” is a song currently in hot rotation on bluegrass radio and is a classic murder ballad, in which his the narrator sees his sweetheart murdered from a distance and needs to get back to town before the killer, who might otherwise convince the authorities that he is the killer.

The next song “Build It Up” is a gospel tune written by Rob Clark. It is straightforward bluegrass gospel that Del’s band provides very effective harmonies.

“Bottom Dollar”, written by Fred John Elgersina feels like a folk ballad, a tale of woe and despair. Jason Carter plays some mighty lonesome fiddle on this piece.

Glen Duncan penned “Deep Dark Hollow Road” a song in which the singer calls on Loretta, his love, to abandon Kentucky in search of a better life.

I really liked the up-tempo “Ace of Hearts”, easily the most upbeat song in the set, about a fellow who got lucky in love and realizes just how lucky he was. The song was an album track on Alan Jackson’s debut album in 1990. The song was written by Lonnie Wilson, Ron Moore, and Carson Chamberlain and deserves to be better known

Love’s a gamble every heart will take

You roll the dice in hopes that it won’t break

One night I bet on your blue eyes and took a chance

And I won a whole lot more than one night of romance

 

I held the ace of hearts that night in the dark

How lucky can one man be

I hold the winning hand anyway life deals the cards

No way to lose ‘cause I’ve got you, my ace of hearts

Jerry Lee Lewis had a number one country single in early 1969 with the Jerry Kennedy – Glenn Sutton collaboration “To Make Love Sweeter For You”. Most of Jerry Lee’s country hits generated few covers because of how personal Jerry Lee made the songs seem. I thought that this was one of those songs that Jerry Lee had rendered incapable of being covered, but Del McCoury is fearless and was able to fashion a unique arrangement (reminiscent of 1890s honky-tonk) that carries the idiosyncratic feel of Jerry Lee’s recording, while still sounding dramatically different.

Well, I’d like to send an orchid at the start of every day

For flowers show more beauty than words could ever say

You’ve done so much for my world till all I want to do

Is try my best in every way to make love sweeter for you

 

A thousand special compliments I’d pay to you each day

Your ears would never tire of all the sweet things I would say

You never would be lonely, honey, you never would be blue

‘Cause my one aim in life would be to make love sweeter for you

Del himself wrote the next two songs, “Joe” and “Love Love Love”. The former is an up-tempo number about a performer who doesn’t mind bringing his fists into the equation, whereas the latter is a ballad that mixed tempos in telling its story.

“I’ll Be On My Way” is a dramatic ballad about the life of a wanderer. Written performed as a mid-tempo, the song features some nice fiddling by Jason Carter.

“You Could Be Me” is a ballad in which the narrator warns the listener that however bad the listener’s tale of woe, that the narrators are even worse. This song has received considerable airplay. Del has been singing bluesy and woeful ballads for decades and may be the ultimate master of the subgenre. This song was written by Tim Crouch, Edgar Sanders, Kenneth Mcafee, and Dennis Crouch.

The album closes with “I Fell In Love”. Those who listened to country radio will remember the song from the 1990 recording by Carlene Carter, a song that reached #3 on Billboard’s country chart. Needless to say, Del’s take does not remind you of Carlene Carter, but Del and his band infuse the song with a considerable dose of Del’s personality

Hey, I hit town without a clue

Minding my business like I always do

Just my luck I ran smack into you

And I never could’ve known it would be like this

You got the kind of charm that I can’t resist

I figure what’s the harm in a little bitty kiss or two

 

But I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

Oh I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

I fell in love

With the exception of guest pianist Josh Shilling on the Jerry Lee Lewis cover, this album is a self-contained album by Del and his band with Del playing the guitar and singing lead vocals, sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (Banjo) adding harmony vocals and Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (upright bass) also adding harmony vocals. If you want to know how modern bluegrass should sound, this is a good place to start – a solid A

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