My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Trace Adkins

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins and Travis Tritt cover ‘Jailhouse Rock’

Single Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Outskirts of Heaven’

craig_campbell_performance_2013Spiritual songs have been a staple of country music from the genre’s very beginnings, although one would hardly know it from listening to the radio over the past decade or so. In his latest effort “Outskirts of Heaven”, which he co-wrote with Dave Turnbull, Craig Campbell dusts off the tried and true theme of life in the hereafter, with one small twist: Heaven is a shining city where the streets are paved with gold. So where would any self-respecting country boy prefer to be? On the outskirts, of course, in the wide open, rural spaces where the pace is just a little more laid back. It’s not exactly how I’ve ever thought about Paradise, but somehow it seems to make perfect sense.

In addition to the spiritual theme, Campbell and Turnbull have also managed to create a well-crafted song that extolls the virtues of rural life without getting in the listener’s face. There are references to buck knives, rifles and fishing but thankfully there are no beer, trucks or tailgating in cornfields. By declaring his preference for an afterlife on a farm instead of right smack in the middle of God’s Eternal City, Campbell manages to pay homage to the country lifestyle in a substantive manner, unlike the countless superficial redneck pride anthems that have polluted the radio airwaves in recent years.

The lyrics are simple yet meaningful, the production is restrained and tasteful, with plenty of harmony and steel guitar. The electric guitar near the end is a little at odds with the otherwise traditional arrangement, but it’s nothing I can’t live with. Campbell’s vocal reminds of me of the early Trace Adkins back when Trace still knew how to pick decent songs. This song would have been a surefire hit in the 90s, and maybe now that the bro-country movement is showing signs of waning, radio will be receptive to something a little more traditional.

Despite getting off to a promising start, Craig Campbell’s career has not caught on the way it should — partly because the current climate is a tough one for traditional artists and partly because he lacked the promotional backing of a strong record label. His former label Bigger Picture Music Group folded in 2014. “Outskirts of Heaven” is Campbell’s second release under a new deal with Red Bow Records. Now that Chris Stapleton has opened the door for traditionalists just a crack, it remains to be seen if Craig Campbell (or anyone else) can finally knock it off its hinges.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins – ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

A classic cover:

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins covers ‘Same Ole Me’

Trace Adkins pays tribute to George Jones:

Christmas Rewind: Trace Adkins – ‘The Christmas Song’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:


In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘The King’s Gift’

the king's giftI am very much a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas music, so my staples for Christmas listening include the likes of pop artists such as Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Burl Ives and Perry Como with orchestral music by Mannheim Steamroller (my wife’s favorite) thrown in for good measure. When I do listen to Christmas albums by country artists, it tends to be music not overburdened with rock guitars and twanging steel guitars. Lorrie Morgan’s Merry Christmas From London (with the New World Philharmonic) is my favorite Christmas album by a country artist (aside, of course, from the Gene Autry album with “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Rain Deer”).

To my list of favorite Christmas albums, I’ve added The King’s Gift by country star Trace Adkins. Please note that this is NOT a country or bluegrass album, although you will hear instruments often found in those genres such as mandolins and fiddles (a/k/a violins). Steel guitars, dobros and rock guitars are nowhere to be found in this mix. What you will find here is a collection of traditional collection of Celtic and other folk carols, all performed with traditional Celtic accompaniments or gentle folk arrangements.

The only possible downside to the album for some listeners will be that Trace’s Louisiana accent isn’t quite a perfect match for the material, although his deep rich resonant baritone voice more than compensates. After about 30 seconds into the first song, I no longer noticed the accent, but noticed the beauty and vitality of the material and the accompanying orchestration of, mandolin, uilleann bagpipes, penny whistle, violin, viola, cello, harp, organ and Weissenborn (a brand of German non-resonator slide guitars).
Trace has several distinguished guests assisting him on the album on the album. The world-famous Irish troubadours the Chieftains and Scottish singer Alyth lend a lovely Celtic lilt to “I Saw Three Ships”. I didn’t know that actor Kevin Costner could sing, but he and his daughter Lily acquit themselves admirably on “Silent Night”.
Modern bluegrass star Sonya Isaacs joins Trace for “We Three Kings” and powerhouse rock drummer Kenny Aronoff makes an appearance on “Little Drummer Boy”.

Trace is currently touring in support of this album, performing only Christmas music. According to Trace, he’s very proud of this album, and I certainly think he should be. If you love Christmas music with a strong folk or Celtic feel, you’ll love this album.

Track List:

1. Wexford Carol
2. O Tannenbaum
3. O’ Come Emmanuel
4. Away in a Manger
5. I Saw Three Ships (with the Chieftains & Alyth MacCormack)
6. Silent Night (with Kevin Costner & Lily Costner)
7. We Three Kings (with Sonya Isaacs)
8. Carol of the Drums (with drummer Kenny Aronoff)
9. Oh Holy Night (with the Isaacs)
10. What Child is This ?

Grade: A

Christmas Rewind: Trace Adkins – ‘We Three Kings’

Week ending 7/27/13: #1 albums this week in country music history

trace adkins - greatest hits1968: Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Columbia)

1973: Jeanne Pruett – Satin Sheets (MCA)

1978: Willie Nelson – Stardust (Columbia)

1983: Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson – Pancho & Lefty (Epic)

1988: Reba McEntire – Reba (MCA)

1993: Billy Ray Cyrus – It Won’t Be the Last (Mercury)

1998: Various Artists – Hope Floats: Music from the Motion Picture (Capitol)

2003: Trace Adkins – Greatest Hits Collect, Vol. 1 (Capitol)

2008: Taylor Swift – Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2013: Florida Georgia Line – Here’s To the Good Times (Republic Nashville)

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Love Will’

lovewillI never know what to expect from Trace Adkins these days. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of such a talented vocalist whose musical output is so wildly inconsistent. Love Will, his latest effort, while not quite a return to his traditional roots, at least avoids obnoxious songs in the vein of “Chrome”, “Hillbilly Bone” and the infamous “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

He teams up with a variety of producers this time around: Frank Rogers, Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Mickey Jack Cones and Kenny Beard, most of whom he has worked with in the past, and for the most part the results are quite good. The opening track “When I Stop Loving You”, is a catchy number that would be a good choice for a late summer single. It was written by Even Stevens and Marty Brown, who had a brief recording stint with MCA in the early 90s.

Things move in a decidedly more pop direction beginning with the second track “So What If I Do”, which may very well be the first Trace Adkins recording to ever feature a saxophone. “Come See Me”, written by Kenny Beard and Exile members J.P. Pennington and Sonny LaMaire. This song sets the stage for a cover of an Exile song, on which some of the band members appear as guest artists (more on this a little later). I actually didn’t mind the pop leaning songs up to this point, but by the time we get to the overproduced “Altar of Your Love”, the only Adkins co-write on the album, it begins to wear a little thin. And then there’s the cover of “Kiss You All Over”, which was a #1 pop hit for Exile in 1978, which sounds very much like a product of the era in which it originated. Its inclusion on the album seems pointless: Exile spends as much (or perhaps more) time singing as Adkins, and if he had to cover an Exile song, there are much better ones to choose from than this.

Fortunately, things improve dramatically after this. “If The Sun Comes Up” is an excellent number that sounds like vintage Adkins. “Say No To A Woman” is a more respectful look at the fairer sex than some other songs in Trace’s catalog. The current single “Watch The World End”, a duet with pop-singer Colbie Caillat is enjoyable, although the string section is somewhat intrusive. Likewise, I could have done without the strings and choir on the Chris Stapleton and Tim James-penned title track, which closes out the album.

Love Will is more pop-leaning than most of Trace’s other albums, which may be an attempt to remain relevant at country radio. It is however, a more mature sound for him, and the absence of tasteless and sexist redneck anthems is a most welcome change.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind – Travis Tritt and Patty Loveless – ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man’

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins pays tribute to George Jones – ‘Still The Same Ole Me’

Classic Rewind – Dierks Bentley – ‘Trying To Stop Your Leaving’

The fourth single from Long Trip Alone, it peaked at #5 in early 2008:

You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Storm Still Rages’

A year and a half after her triumphant return to bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent did the unthinkable and released an album that was actually better than 2000’s excellent Back Home Again. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs, along with a handful of covers of country classics with acoustic arrangements. Slightly more traditional than Back Home Again, The Storm Still Rages was self-produced. Ronnie Light, who shared production duties on Back Home Again, acts as engineer this time around. Rhonda’s brother Darrin is once again in tow, playing bass and singing harmony. Also present are some of Nashville’s most prestigious musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Sonya Issacs and Alison Krauss whose harmonies are what really give this album an edge over Back Home Again.

By 2001, bluegrass was on a hot streak and the rising tide that lifted albums by Alison Krauss and the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to the top of the charts also benefited Rhonda, who had an album on the charts herself for the very first time. The Storm Still Rages reached #59 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and #9 on their Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

In addition to her roles as lead singer, mandolin player and producer, Rhonda is also credited as a songwriter, having had a hand in creating three of the album’s songs — the opening track “Cry of the Whippoorwill” and “On Solid Ground”, which she co-wrote with Terry Herd, and “When The Angels Sing” which she co-wrote with Herd and her brother Darrin.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, which is a tribute to the late Bill Monroe. Addressing the father of bluegrass directly, Vincent asks:

Is the grass any bluer on the other side?
Did it look like old Kentucky when the gates swung open wide?
Bet the good Lord’s got you playin’ somewhere up there every night.
Is the grass any bluer on the other side?

Rhonda also pays tribute to Lester Flatt with the album’s closing track “The Martha White Theme”.

My favorite song on the album is “Don’t Lie”, which had been a single for Trace Adkins two years earlier and ranks among his most underrated recordings. Rhonda’s version was also released as a single but it did not chart. The album produced two more non-charting singles, “I’m Not Over You” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. Also among the country classics Rhonda covers is a version of the Jack Clement tune “Just Someone I Used To Know”, which was originally recorded by George Jones and is best remembered as a hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Rhonda’s version reminds me of the version Lee Ann Womack would record a few years later for her There’s More Where That Came From album.

Two gospel tunes are included in the set, the aforementioned “When Angels Sing” and “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor You Don’t Love God”, a rousing toe-tapper that is probably the best known of Rhonda’s religious tunes.

The Storm Still Rages is one of those rare albums without a single misstep; the singing, playing, production and the songs themselves are all top-notch. Even if you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen and you may find that you’ve changed your mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘Hand To The Plow’

Marty Raybon, best known as the lead singer of 90s hitmakers Shenandoah, has most recently been quietly releasing bluegrass and bluegrass gospel records, the best of which is 2006’s When The Sand Runs Out. Now he has signed to the excellent Rural Rhythm Records’s Christian music subsidiary, and his debut for the label has a Christian country sound.

The outstanding track is a fabulously soulful and passionate gospel quartet on the traditional ‘Workin’ On A Building’ which may be my favorite version of the song. Marty is joined by Trace Adkins, Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers and T Graham Brown on vocals, all sounding fantastic, and the instrumental arrangement is superb too. I understand a video has been filmed for this.

‘When He Rains, It Pours’ and ‘You’ve Got To Move’ are entertaining uptempo gospel numbers co-written by Marty, the Bible-based former with Mike Curtis and Mark Narmore with handclaps and Hammond organ strains providing a churchy sound, the latter with Barry Hutchens. Marty wrote the emotional ‘Walking With God At A Guilty Distance’ with Gerald Crabb, leader of Southern Gospel family band the Crabbs. It’s a rather good song with an attractive melody, about a man sitting in a church pew conscious of his sins and recognising his need to surrender to God. The mid-tempo ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’, a solo Marty Raybon composition with another pretty tune, is a pensive reflection on salvation, which is also pretty good.

‘He’s Still My Little Man (Matty’s Song)’ is a very personal and rather touching ode to Marty’s soldier son, which is repeated from his last secular album 2010’s At His Best:

I guess I’m not too old to have a hero of my own
And I’m proud to say that tall was not the only way he’d grown

The other songs are a bit lackluster in comparison, but Marty’s passionate soulful vocals and velvety tone make them sound better than they otherwise would. In fact, the whole record sounds good, with generally tasteful arrangements and production from Mark L Carman. Marty’s brother Tim, who was a bandmate in Shenandoah and his partner in the short-lived duo the Raybon Brothers, sings backing vocals.

Opener ‘I’ve Seen What He Can Do’ pays tribute to the testimony of the natural world to the glory of God, set around a bedtime conversation with a child, and sung with palpable conviction. Natural beauty is also referred to in ‘He’s Still Doing Miracles Today’, although it tries to cover too much ground by also focussing on how sinners’ lives are turned around, and (less successfully) illnesses healed. ‘You Get Me’ is written by Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley (embarrassingly, both have their names misspelt in the liner notes) and is a beautifully sung love letter to God with a CCR feel. ‘Bright New Morning’ is a ballad with a pretty melody, written by Barry Hutchens.

Religious records aren’t for everyone, but this is a pretty good one with a pleasingly melodic sound. Fans of Marty’s voice might like to check it out.

Grade: B+

2012 Grammy predictions

The Grammy awards are probably the world’s most prestigious cross-genre awards in the word of music, although within country music the CMA and ACM awards hold greater weight. The significance of the Grammies has been further affected this year with the contraction in the number of categories of interest to country fans. But awards shows offer a way of taking stock once every few months regarding the genre as a whole, particularly the more mainstream end. In a few days, we’ll learn who has won this year’s awards. In the meantime, here are our predictions:

Best Country Solo Performance

This new category combines the former nods to performances by male and female vocalists.

‘Dirt Road Anthem’ – Jason Aldean
‘I’m Gonna Love You Through It’ – Martina McBride
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘Mean’ – Taylor Swift
‘Mama’s Song’ – Carrie Underwood

Razor X: I can’t remember the last time I came across a more underwhelming list of nominees. “Honey Bee” is the only one on the list that I can tolerate, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of song that usually wins Grammys. I think Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are the two real contenders here; I’ll predict that Underwood will win.

Occasional Hope: A remarkably uninspiring lineup in this category. I suppose by default my vote (if I had one) would have gone to Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood’s song is well-meaning but bland; Martina McBride’s is the epitome of emotional manipulation; Jason Aldean’s record is horrible; and Taylor Swift’s song has nice production for once, but the lyric collapses into juvenile namecalling (and I’m afraid I’m still unimpressed by her vocal ability). That leaves Blake Shelton with a slight but not unlistenable song, making it my lukewarm favorite by default. Who will actually win it? The Grammy voting pool is a bit different from the specialist country awards shows, so I’m going to predict Taylor Swift as although Aldean has had a big breakthrough over the past couple of years, I think his lack of cross-genre name recognition will limit his appeal to voters. He, Swift and Blake Shelton all have performance slots on the show (Blake as part of a Glen Campbell tribute and Jason Aldean revisitng his duet with Kelly Clarkson), which could be an indication that the battle is between these three.

Jonathan Pappalardo: It seems as though the Grammy organization can’t win. If they go by artistic merits they’re deemed out of touch with reality. If they go with what’s popular, they’re deemed too mainstream. For my tastes these nominees are awful. There isn’t a song here I can get excited about, apart from Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” If she has to win an award this year, let it be this one.

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Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

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