My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Todd Snider

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Full Circle’

91pRGFM-iWL._SX522_Twelve years after winning a Best Country Album Grammy, Loretta Lynn has finally gotten around to releasing a follow-up album. Not only is Full Circle well worth the wait, it is bound to be warmly received by fans who were disappointed in the genre-bending Van Lear Rose. Produced by Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, Full Circle finds Lynn singing traditional folk songs she grew up with, remakes of her own hits and some new songs, with the occasional traditional pop standard thrown in. She moves through the somewhat eclectic track list effortlessly and seamlessly, sounding equally at home with each musical style represented.

I was blown away by Lynn’s vocals, which are showing no sign of diminishing with age. Her voice is stronger now than it was on Van Lear Rose and she could easily hold her own vocalists less than half her age. After some introductory studio banter the album gets underway with a remake of “Whispering Sea”, which is the first song that Loretta ever wrote, and was included as the B-side of her first single “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”. It’s the first of three remakes of old Lynn hits; the other two are 1965’s “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven” and 1968’s “Fist City”, which even at age 83, Loretta pulls off with gusto and credibility.

A pair of traditional pop standards are a little unexpected on a Loretta Lynn album, but they fit in surprisingly well with the rest of the album. “Secret Love”, first introduced by Doris Day in 1953, gives Loretta a chance to demonstrate that she hasn’t lost any vocal range. It has a simple yet sophisticated twin-fiddle arrangement, and is reminiscent of the Nashville Sound records that her old producer Owen Bradley used to make with Patsy Cline. Ditto for “Band of Gold”, a pop hit from 1955. Don Cherry’s doo-wap style is replaced with Bob Wills-type of arrangement with some excellent steel guitar.

She also covers some more contemporary numbers, including Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” and T. Graham Brown’s “Wine into Water.” Elvis Costello provides some subtle harmony vocals on the toe-tapper “Everything It Takes” a new track that Lynn wrote with Todd Snider. It’s reminiscent of the type of record Loretta made in her heyday, although the message is delivered in a less fiery and more world-weary manner. It’s my favorite song on the album. She also duets with Willie Nelson on “Lay Me Down”, a quiet acoustic number that finds the two legends looking with resignation and acceptance toward an uncertain future.

Loretta looks back at songs from her childhood: the traditional “In The Pines” and The Carter Family’s “Black Jack David” and “I Never Will Marry”. I wouldn’t have minded an entire album of tunes like this. Her own composition, a new song called “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?” has a similar old-timey sound. It finds her looking back on her accomplishments, reflecting on her legacy and asking, “Who’s gonna miss me when I’m gone?” The answer to that, of course, is everybody. It is hard to imagine country music without Loretta Lynn but fortunately there are no any indications that she will be saying her farewells anytime soon. It’s a bit early in the year to start making predictions about the best album of the year, but it’s hard to imagine how anything will top this one. I cannot recommend it enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Hayes Carll – ‘KMAG YOYO (& other American stories)’

Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll made a big impact with 2008’s critically acclaimed Trouble In Mind and the unforgettable single ‘She Left Me For Jesus’. His latest album bears the fruits of the last couple of years touring and writing. His voice has a limited range, but it has a character which fits well with his often quirky songwriting. Hayes wrote all the material, almost entirely solo, and he has developed impressively as a writer since his last record, good though that was.

He opens with the rockabillyish ‘Stomp And Holler’ of a potential teenage delinquent (“like James Brown but white and taller”) frustrated with a life on minimum wage when he sees others raking it in from crime. Hayes has a gift for portraying marginalized individuals, but I was disappointed with the title track (co-written with John Evans and with band member Scott Davis). Although it has an interesting (if bizarre) storyline, about a teenage soldier with a drug dealing sideline turned experimental drugs subject for the US government, the complete lack of melody (it is sung almost all on one note) makes it virtually unlistenable, and the pace it is rattled out makes it hard to understand without the lyric sheet or until you’ve heard it a few times. Fortunately, everything else here is worthwhile.

A couple of the songs draw on the life of a travelling musician. In the cleverly written ‘Hard Out Here’ he self-deprecatingly plays a washed up musician bemoaning his lot in a bar somewhere, with honky tonk pianoand a room choir of similarly gravelly voices backing him up. Even better is the folky banjo-led ‘Bottle In My Hand’, which features guest vocals from fellow singer-songwriters Corb Lund and Todd Snider on a rambler’s testimony. The lyrics reference country songs ranging from ‘Howling At The Moon’ to ‘Rainbow Stew’. ‘The Letter’ is a love song from the road; the writer is something of a lost soul, but his longing for the one at home seems genuine.

The closely observed and mostly spoken ‘Grateful For Christmas’ is the most obviously autobiographical song here. With an affectionate honesty reminiscent of Tom T Hall at his best, it shows us a family at three Christmases: with the protagonist as a child, as a disgruntled youth, and finally as head of the household. Grandpa dies between the first and second verses, and the protagonist’s father between the second and third. This is outstanding, and feels like a modern standard in the making.

My favorite track is the low-key ballad ‘Chances Are’, which sees a man looking back on a life filled with bad choices but still hopeful that he and the woman he has just met (and to whom the song is addressed) may find some healing together. This is beautifully put together and heartbreakingly interpreted, with sympathetic steel guitar underpinning the mood:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to make
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every time I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star

The hushed ‘Hide Me’ (also very effective with its quietly gospelly backing vocals making it into a kind of secular hymn) draws from a similar emotional place, with a man tired of

All those years running round
Of flying high and fallin’ down
Well, the time has come at last
To rest my heart and ease my past

The downbeat mandolin-led ‘Bye Bye Baby’ is a quietly crestfallen response to the end of a relationship, when “the drunks have turned to strangers and the stars are out of tune”; this is a another very fine song. More complicated is the relationship depicted in the mid-tempo ‘The Lovin’ Cup’ where a couple break up after “a couple bad years” and then get back together.

‘Another Like You’ is an ironic duet with Cary Ann Hearst which shows a drunken pair of opposites getting together, at least for the night, and unable to keep apart despite constant (often funny) sniping at each other about their political differences. The drawled feel-good ‘Grand Parade’, which sets falling in life against an everyday life backdrop is as engaging, but a little less memorable; co-writer John Evans sings harmony here.

This is an excellent set of songs in the Texas troubadour tradition, and while Hayes does not have the best voice in the world. he is effective at conveying his material.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Wings’

Around the middle of the 1990s Mark Chesnutt’s career began to wind down commercially. Wings, released in 1995, was his first album not to be certified at least gold, but it marks a return to form after the disappointing What A Way To Live, his first for MCA’s sister label Decca. There was a new producer at the helm, Mark Wright being replaced by label boss Tony Brown, and he did a good job with a sympathetic production.

Sadly, however, Mark was beginning to outwear his welcome at radio. It probably didn’t help that some of the less memorable tracks on this album were selected as singles. ‘Trouble’, with its bluesy and apparently radio-friendly groove, performed extremely disappointingly (especially as the lead single for a new release), barely cracking the top 20. The song lacks much melody, and it’s not one of my favourite Chesnutt recordings; but it is mildly notable as an early country cut for its writer, Americana singer-songwriter Todd Snider.

There must have been a sigh of relief all around when ‘It Wouldn’t Hurt To Have Wings’, a sprightly take on the difficulty of getting over someone, which lends the album its title, reached #7 on Billboard. I like this song although it is relatively lightweight. The third and last single, though, the semi-comic tale of an ill-fated night out in the ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, penned by Jimmy Alan Stewart and Scott Miller, was Mark’s biggest flop to date, only just squeezing into the top 40. It changes the pace both in terms of tempo and mood, and is enjoyable enough, but is not really funny enough to work as a comic song.

It was lucky for Mark that ‘It’s a Little Too Late’ (from a hasty Greatest Hits release) brought him back to the top of the charts in 1997 – but he would never again enjoy the consistent streak he had had at the beginning of the 90s. No career lasts forever, but I think the label may have made the wrong choices for singles to promote this album, as there are far stronger songs on the set.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Alright Guy’

Alright Guy, Gary Allan’s second album at MCA, is more than alright in many ways. It debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on its release in October 2001, and brought Gary his first No. 1 with the album opener ‘Man to Man’. Produced by Tony Brown & Mark Wright, it’s one of several of Allan’s albums to be certified platinum as well. I think the success of the album is reflected in the quality of the album’s unreleased tracks rather than the singles that charted.

The driving beat and rhythmic lyrics of the lead-off single ‘Man of Me’ (a George Teren and Rivers Rutherford song) weren’t enough to drive it beyond #18 on the charts. That seems fair given that though the lyrics describe how ‘lovin’ you made a man of me’, the music doesn’t get beyond a teen rock number, complete with a screaming ‘wow’ on the very paragraph proclaiming ‘goodbye to my blind immature days’.

‘The One’ came close to being the one that hit the top of the charts first for Allan. Coming in at #3, it’s a kind and loving gentleman’s ballad written by Karen Manno and Billy Lee. Allan isn’t going to rush his girl who has been hurt before, but instead promises,

I’ll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I’ll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you’re sure that I’m the one

It is a beautiful song, but the production is too heavy on the dreamy echo effects and background vocals for my taste. The interplay between Gary’s vocals and the melodic acoustic guitar line would have been enough.

Third time’s the charm, apparently. ‘Man to Man’, the third single off the album, was Allan’s first #1 on Billboard. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it’s sung by “the guy who got the girl” to “the guy who lost her”. It makes me think of a pool hall kind of scene in which the “loser” confronts the singer who turns and points out who’s really at fault and who’s really the better man. With lines like Were you ever there when she needed you, and Who cheated who/You’re the one to blame, he takes on the bully point for point.

The line that has always stood out to me, partly because of Allan’s great vocal on it, is She’s a real woman, not a doormat for you.

Again, the production is what gets in the way for me – the pop drums and background vocals don’t add to the character’s strength at all. And Allan’s cry-ee-eye-ee sends me back to 50s pop. However, it’s very sing-able and relatable with a catchy chorus and a recognizable intro – the stuff that often does well at radio.

The best songs on the album weren’t released to radio though. ‘Devil’s Candy’, one of 5 Harley Allen songs Gary has recorded, has a great hook and some great fiddle: I’ve always had a sweet tooth for the devil’s candy. Fiddles seem to exemplify that fiery battle with temptation, and this song’s no exception.

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