My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Trisha Yearwood

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Don’t Fence Me In’

dont-fence-me-inThe singles from Wishes would prove to be the peak of Lari White’s popularity. The followup album, Don’t Fence Me In, which saw her stretch her wings artistically, was less successful in the marketplace.

The first single, ‘Ready, Willing And Able’, is quite a good mid-tempo song about being open to falling in love, which Lari delivers with commitment. It was written by Jess Leary and Jody Alan Sweet, and reached the top 20.

The only other single, the vivacious up-tempo ‘Wild At Heart’, failed to make the top 40, and combined with unspectacular sales of the album led to RCA dropping Lari. Lari wrote it with Al Anderson, and it’s pretty good and well performed.

‘Ain’t Gonna Worry About Love No More’ (written by Michael Noble) is in a similar contemporary up-tempo vein.

Lari wrote three songs with her husband Chuck Cannon. The best of these, ‘Something Blue’, is a bluesy torch song about a marriage in the course of disintegrating:

Our love is something old
Her kiss is something new
And now we live on borrowed time
Cause all that’s left is something blue

The upbeat poppy ‘Do It Again’ affirms the narrator’s past choices and mistakes. ‘Next To Love’ is fairly forgettable filler.

‘Ghost Of A Chance’, written by Lari with Chuck Jones, is a low key soulful ballad about fighting the unseen rival of her partner’s ex, with some nice fiddle. This is excellent, and my favourite track.

I also like another ballad, ’The Test’ (written by Don Schlitz and Billy Livsey), although it feels a little bit contrived. A married woman reviews the strength of her relationship on paper, listing all the fights and bad times, which makes her think it must be over – but set against that she has just one positive: she loves him.

‘I’ve Been Waiting For Your Love’ is a pretty AC-leaning ballad written by Stephony Smith and Terry Burns, with some nice fiddle. ‘Woman Of The World’ is an upbeat song about women as survivors.

Rather pretentiously, two tracks have short teasers earlier in the set list. The title track is the Cole Porter-penned standard. Right at the start of the album Lari sings the first chorus fairly straight, with harmony singers Trisha Yearwood and SShelby Lynne, but with old dusty vinyl sound effects. Then almost at the end of the album she launches into a speeded up rockabilly take on the song. It doesn’t really work for me.

Similarly, ‘Soul Searchin’ Blues’ starts out randomly inserted three quarters of the way through with one verse, and then continues right at the end. This is a straight blues tune.

The record is not particularly country, and certainly not traditional, but Lari White was a very talented singer and songwriter, and if you like a slightly poppy/jazzy/AC edge to your country, this album is well worth while.

Although Lari would enjoy one more top 20 hit with ‘Stepping Stone’ on a new label, Lyric Street , and then a top 20 duet with Travis Tritt, that was the end of her mainsteam success.

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Somebody Loves You’

51jizvcqjml-_ss500After several years of struggling, Crystal Gayle finally enjoyed her breakthrough Top 10 hit with 1974’s “Wrong Road Again”. The two subsequent singles from her debut album both failed build on that success, however, which must have been cause for concern at the time. She rebounded nicely, however, with her sophomore album, which was released in 1975. “Somebody Loves You”, one of three tracks penned by producer Allen Reynolds, reached #8. The album’s second single, “I’ll Get Over You”, the first of several hits written for her by Richard Leigh, became her first chart-topper in early 1976. The simple melody and lyric, beautifully sung, has always been one of my favorites.

Somebody Loves You followed the same basic formula as Crystal’s prior album — more polished than the music that hardcore traditionalists like big sister Loretta were putting out — but still quite country in comparison to Crystal’s later work. Allen Reynolds’ songs are among the best in the collection: the traditional-leaning “Before I’m Over You” and the oft-recorded “Dreaming My Dreams With You” which was made famous by Waylon Jennings. Crystal branches out a bit with the bluesy “Sweet Baby On My Mind”, which sounds very similar to “Night Life”, a 1963 hit for Ray Price penned by Willie Nelson. “I Want To Lose Me In You” by Jim Rushing and Marshall Chapman is a pretty but lyrically light number. The same could be said about “High Time”, which is little more than catchy album filler, but Lloyd Green’s steel guitar gives it a little extra oomph. Crystal and her husband Bill Gatzimos wrote one track for the album, the pleasant but forgettable “Coming Closer”.

Somebody Loves You was an important album in Crystal Gayle’s discography. It finally set her on track for consistent commercial success; during the next decade only two of her singles missed the Top 10. The album is also notable for some of its session personnel: the aforementioned steel guitar great Lloyd Green and background vocalists Janie Fricke, who would go on to have a successful solo career of her own, and Garth Funds, who later became a famous producer for Keith Whitley and Trisha Yearwood, among others.

This is a good album for those who are interested in hearing Crystal’s music before she started enjoying crossover success.

Grade: A

Christmas Rewind: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy’

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘White Christmas Blue’

loretta-lynn-white-christmas-blue-1476726333The crop of Christmas albums has been hit or miss this year with big band affairs aptly showcasing Chris Young and Brett Eldridge’s vocal prowess and Kacey Musgraves’ continued decent into her own quirkiness. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood had the most disappointing record, a haphazard affair unbecoming from an artist (Yearwood) with impeccable song sense who knows better.

Loretta Lynn has released the years most intriguing holiday record, White Christmas Blue, which comes a full fifty years since her Owen Bradley produced Country Christmas. The album is a full-on traditional affair and a delight at every turn.

I usually find fiddle and steel out of place on a Christmas album, but White Christmas Blue is changing that perception for me. The album is mostly comprised of holiday standards, with jovial renditions of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Jingle Bells” sitting comfortably along side “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus,” one of the album’s strongest cuts and a personal favorite of mine. “Blue Christmas,” a full-on honky-tonker in Lynn’s hands, is also excellent.

The ballads don’t hit as hard. It may be the starkness she brings to “Away In A Manger,” “Silent Night” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” that didn’t do it for me or the fact I’ve heard them so often, in so may different versions, their simple beauty has begun to wear thin. “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” was a complete surprise, a perfect way to end the album.

White Christmas Blue also boasts two original numbers. “Country Christmas” is a rerecording of the title track from the last album and Lynn hasn’t lost any of the spunk she brought to the original. The other, the title track, is a rather somber affair, which finds Lynn with everything she wants – except her honey:

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m still all alone

It’ll be Christmas day when you come home

Icicles hanging from the eves, snow is glistenin’ from the trees

My Christmas time with you is over due

 

You turn into my white Christmas blue

You turn into my white Christmas blue

I should be saying ho ho ho instead of bu bu bu

Oh Santa Claus would no want you to break my heart in two

You turn into my white Christmas blue

I cannot recommend this album enough.

Grade: A-

Christmas Album Review: Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood – ‘Christmas Together’

christmas-togetherSuperstar Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood have been talking about recording a duet album together for years, especially since they came out of retirement. It was something of a surprise, though, to find they had chosen a Christmas album.

The opening ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ is a bit too jazzy and cutesy for me. It is a true duet. ‘Marshmallow World’ is too sweet. The pair work together best on the playful ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is my favorite track by far.

Garth takes the lead on the silly novelty ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’, and on a boring attempt at the Mexican ‘Feliz Navidad’. ‘Merry Christmas Means I Love You’ is bland and tries too hard to be inclusive. Almost the entire record is purely focussed on the secular side of Christmas, the one exception coming with the thoughtful and rather lovely ‘What I’m Thankful For’, which is a duet between Garth and singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Trisha is, quite literally, unrecognisable on the vampish ‘Santa Baby’. Infinitely better is a gorgeous reading of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, although it gets a tiny bit self-indulgent towards the end. ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, from the Dolly Parton movie ‘Best Little Whorehouse In Texas’ does have a musical theater vibe about it, but is beautifully sung. ‘Her version of ‘The Man With the Bag’ is also very well done, and I enjoyed it a lot despite its lack of any country elements.

I was very disappointed by this album as a whole, but there are a few bright spots.

Grade: C

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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Single Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance’

baby-lets-lay-down-and-dance-cover-artI might as well just come out and say it – The return of Garth Brooks over the past two years has been one of the most infuriating “comebacks” in recent memory. He began by announcing his gargantuan world tour, which I would’ve been excited about, except for the fact it features Trisha Yearwood and doesn’t give her the full performance slot she deserves. He subjected us to Man Against Machine, which was crap, and announced his long-awaited duets album with Yearwood would consist of…Christmas songs. I haven’t even mentioned GhostTunes, which he’s now abandoned since it provided diminishing returns.

Brooks is attempting to re-write the narrative with a deal through Target which consists of an exclusive edition of his new album Gunslinger packaged in a bloated ten-disc boxed set entitled The Ultimate Collection. This is purely a marketing and sales move, but even he has to be smarter than to rehash his hits in another form at this point. I’m only invested because of Yearwood and her contributions to this new material, which are slight, to say the least.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Brooks. His material has consistently been top notch and his ability to captivate a crowd is unlike anything country music has ever seen (especially in that combination). He knows music and I’m confident his heart is in the right place. But even I’ve had enough of his overblown ego and sense of importance. He craves relevancy, which is totally understandable, but his desperation is more than OLD.

Which leads us to “Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance.” Quite frankly, the song is terrible. There’s nothing to latch onto lyrically and the production feels like it was generated rather than played. This is “Wrapped Up In You” minus the heart, soul and personality.

“Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance” may be inoffensive uptempo radio fodder that doesn’t try to overreach and claim some big substantive payoff. But it also doesn’t give the listener anything to latch onto and is as empty as anything currently on country radio. This may give Brooks the hit he craves, but it more than damages his credibility as a songsmith and boasts very poorly for the quality of Gunslinger.

Grade: C-

Week ending 10/22/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

images-111956 (Sales): Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys):Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1966: Open Up Your Heart — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1976: You and Me — Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1986: Just Another Love — Tanya Tucker (Capitol)

1996: Believe Me Baby (I Lied) — Trisha Yearwood (MCA)

2006: Would You Go With Me — Josh Turner (MCA)

2016: Setting the World on Fire — Kenny Chesney featuring Pink (Blue Chair/Columbia)

2016 (Airplay): It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To — Billy Currington (Mercury)

Week ending 10/15/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

hqdefault-91956 (Sales): Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys):Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1966: Blue Side of Lonesome — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1976: The Games that Daddies Play — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1986: Both to Each Other (Friends & Lovers) — Eddie Rabbitt with Juice Newton (RCA)

1996: Believe Me Baby (I Lied) — Trisha Yearwood (MCA)

2006: Would You Go With Me — Josh Turner (MCA)

2016: Forever Country — Artists of Then, Now & Forever (MCA)

2016 (Airplay): It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To — Billy Currington (Mercury)

Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can go To Hell’

love can go to hellHaving loved Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, I was disappointed by some of the musical and arrangement choices producer Jay Joyce made for her current album, although her strong songwriting continues to shine. While the arrangement on new single ‘Love Can Go To Hell’ is more cluttered than it needs to be, fortunately it does not detract from the song, which Brandy wrote with Scott Stepakoff (a rock singer turned Nashille songwriter). It doesn’t sound bad – just a touch too busy.

A bitter post-breakup musing on the nature of love and pain sees Brandy reflecting on a recent breakup. She claims, not entirely convincingly, not to blame her ex:

Heaven knows
I only wish you well

I don’t blame you at all
No, I don’t hate you at all
It’s all love’s fault

But she is unable to move on:

I can get drunk on a Saturday night
And try to fall for someone new
But I’d just wake up hungover
Cursin’ the day I fell for you

The mid paced tune is redolent to me of 90s contemporary country, the kind of song Trisha Yearwood or Matraca Berg might have recorded (with a more subtle backing). Brandy is a fine singer as well as an excellent songwriter, with a voice capable of expressing strong emotions, and she performs this song well.

Curb artist Ashley Gearing also released the song as a single this year, but it failed to chart for her. Hopefully it will do better for its writer.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood ft Kris Kristofferson – ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

Trisha covers a classic with help from its writer:

Promo Song Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Broken’

500x500This Sunday (March 20) Fox is airing The Passion: New Orleans a three-hour live musical event modernizing the story of Jesus Christ. Hosted by Tyler Perry, the show will highlight ‘the voices and songs of the most celebrated performers of today.’ Among them is Trisha Yearwood, who will assume the role of Jesus’ mother Mary.

Anytime Yearwood is attached to a musical project, whether it’s an album of her own or a separate endeavor, is an event in and of itself. Her musical contributions this time around find her covering modern pop songs including “I Won’t Give Up” (Jason Mraz), “My Love is Your Love” (Whitney Houston), “Hands” (Jewel) and “You Never Walk Alone” (From Carousel).

Her promotional track, which was made available as an advance download when you pre-order the soundtrack, is “Broken” a song originally released by Alternative band Lifehouse as a single in 2008. Jason Wade, who fronts the band, was inspired to pen the tune after visiting a friend in need of a kidney transplant. It wasn’t a big hit although it peaked at #7 Adult Top 40 chart.

In interviews Yearwood has said the song comes towards the end of the musical in conjunction with a giant lighted cross that will be paraded down the streets of New Orleans as she sings. It’s a powerful anthem and she sings the fire out of it. As indicated by the newly recorded tracks on Prizefighter: Hit After Hit, she hasn’t lost an ounce of her power and vibrato.

I do take issue with the production and not the fact this is purely pop. The whole thing has the feel of a winners single from American Idol – generic and bombastic with mass appeal over nuance. There is absolutely nothing interesting in how this track came together. I’m not surprised seeing as this musical special and Idol air on the same network.

But I have to give the producers credit for casting a fifty-one year old country singer, who has fallen out of favor with radio, as the female lead. It would’ve been easier to go with someone like Carrie Underwood, even if she’s about twenty years younger. All this proves that Yearwood, likely thanks to her cooking show, still has some mass appeal. I, for one, couldn’t be more ecstatic about that.

Trisha Yearwood is my favorite singer, which “Broken” more than affirms. I only wish they had framed her vocal with more subtly to let her and not the arrangement take center stage. If the production had been toned down just a hair, this would’ve been a slam-dunk. As it stands, this is just above very good.

Grade: A-

Razor X’s top 10 singles of 2015

Compiling a list of the year’s best singles has become one of my least favorite tasks. It seems as though with each passing year country radio gets a little worse. I stopped listening to it in 2007; there is plenty of good music available outside the mainstream, but non-mainstream artists don’t always bother releasing singles to radio. Twenty years ago I’d have had trouble paring my list down to just ten songs; nowadays it is challenge to find ten singles that I like. But in the end, I always manage to find a little wheat among the mountain of chaff. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers to discover that my list is dominated by old favorites who are mostly past their commercial peaks. In fact, my list contains only one bonafide hit, and even that hit #1 without much help from country radio:

fae8ca732384cd6a272747f48c4ebbe010. I Met a Girl — William Michael Morgan

In a stronger year, I wouldn’t have taken much notice of this song but it stands out from the pack because it is a legitimate attempt to get country music back on track without all the hip-hop, bro-country and R&B influences that have come to all but drown out traditional country sounds. It peaked just outside the Top 40, but Morgan has got a good voice and is an artist I’m keeping an eye on for the future.

9. Boy and a Girl Thing — Mo Pitney

Like “I Met a Girl”, this tune is a bit generic but it’s a step in the right direction towards bringing the genre back to its roots. It failed to make the Top 40, but Pitney is an artist that deserves to be heard. Hopefully his music won’t be held hostage by his record label (Curb)

8. Time For That — Clint Black

Clint Black was one of a handful of my old favorites who made a comeback in 2015. It was a shame, but no surprise, that this single did not chart. But regardless of its commercial performance, it sure was good to hear from Clint again.

ashley-monroe-48th-annual-cma-awards-2014-arrivals_44470897. On to Something Good — Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe is a very talented artist whose shot at stardom has been hampered by bad timing; she’s had the ill fortune to come along at a time when female artists — particularly traditional-leaning ones — are not given much consideration by country radio. The Blade, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, is one of the year’s best albums. This single, which got stuck at #53, makes some compromises in an attempt to be heard. Hardcore country it is not, but it is very good, and in another era it would have been a big hit.

6. Cold Beer Conversation — George Strait

The title track of an album that took everyone by surprise proves that drinking songs don’t have to be mindless party songs. It also unofficially marks the beginning of Strait’s post-radio career. After an impressive 35-year-run at the top of the country singles charts, this is his fourth consecutive record not to make the Top 20, and as such, as forced his fans to finally acknowledge that even King George is no longer welcome at country radio.

5. Jim and Jack and Hank — Alan Jackson

This catchy kiss-off tune would have been a big hit during the 90s line-dancing craze. It’s a little light in the lyrics department but is an example of what passed for a fun song on the radio before country music became one big frat party in a cornfield.

lwomack4. Send It On Down — Lee Ann Womack

A beautifully crafted ballad that is a prayer to the Almighty for the strength to make it through adverse times.

3. If I Was Over You — Amanda Watkins feat. Jamey Johnson

This independent release is an interesting pairing between Amanda Watkins (formerly of the pop-country Miss Willie Brown) and Jamey Johnson, which works surprisingly well. It is a stripped down, beautifully produced and well-sung ballad, that can’t possibly have been expected to succeed commercially. However, if Watkns’ forthcoming album is as strong as the lead single, she could be well poised to be country music’s next critics’ darling.

2. Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton

I surprised myself by ranking this one so highly. When I reviewed Traveller last spring, I commented that Stapleton’s bluesy take on this Dean Dillon tune that was previously recorded by David Allan Coe and a hit for George Jones, was not to my taste. While I still greatly prefer Jones’ version, Stapleton’s remake has grown on me. It is the only decent song to make it to #1 this year, having been driven up the charts by download sales after Stapleton’s CMA wins, and without much help from country radio. It’s a ray of hope that mainstream country may finally start to improve before too much longer.

images-91. I Remember You — Trisha Yearwood

Trisha Yearwood is another old favorite who finally released some new music in 2015. This beautiful, stripped down ballad, on which her sister sings harmony, is a tribute to their late mother, and shows that although radio may have left Trisha Yearwood behind, she can still deliver the goods. This is about as good as it gets.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top 10 Singles of 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

 

Occasional Hope’s top 10 singles of 2015

law 2015Country radio may be going from bad to worse with the arrival of the likes of the obviously non-country Sam Hunt, but there have been some superb singles released this year, particularly from female artists. A few of them have even made an impact on radio, proving there is still hope. Among the singles that just missed the cut for my top 10 were the charming first two singles from Kacey Musgraves’ second Mercury album – ‘Biscuits’ and ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’; Sunny Sweeney’s dead-marriage duet with Will Hoge, ‘My Bed’; and Chris Young’s sexy ‘I’m Comin’ Over’.

10. Jon Pardi – ‘Head Over Boots’
Sunny and catchy – this is country rock done exactly right. It’s currently working its way into the top 40.

9. Chris Stapleton‘Nobody To Blame’

Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s unexpected triple victory at this year’s CMA Awards was the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at an awards ceremony in years. Showing why he deserved it, his November single release is an excellent song imbued with his bluesy soulful brand of country music.

burning house8. Cam – Burning House
I hear Camaron Ochs as more folky pop rather than a country singer at heart, but I’ve really liked her two 2015 singles, the upbeat ‘My Mistake’ (about embarking on a one night stand with no regrets), and the gentle melancholy of ‘Burning House’. The haunting melody makes this my favourite of the two, and for a change radio agrees with me, as this has proved to be her breakthrough, with the track at #11 on the country radio chart as of early November. Her debut album is due this month.

shut up and fish7. Maddie & Tae – ‘Shut Up And Fish’
An irresistibly catchy tune from the effervescent duo, which uses its comic trappings to dress up a serious message about sexual harassment.

6. Jason James‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’
Perhaps the most obscure of my top 10 singles is this solid barroom shuffle, which sounds like a forgotten county classic:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

5. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got the Boy’
Disappointingly the album it heralded turned out to be otherwise terrible, but I still like Jana Kramer’s mature reflection on the passing of teenage romance, written by Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols and former child TV star Jamie Lynn Spears. Her vocal ability may not stand up to the other women who made my top 10 this year, but on this song at least, she has an appealing warmth. It was another genuine hit, and is still rising.

4. Trisha Yearwood‘I Remember You’
The second single from Trisha Yearwood’s 2014 mixture of hits and fine new songs, Prize Fighter, is an impeccable song, written by Canadians Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. My review said it was “as close to perfect as it gets”, and it is an exemplary example of understated subtlety in both the vocal and the production.

jamey johnson3. Jamey Johnson‘Alabama Pines’
Jamey Johnson has not been very forthcoming with new music even now that he has launched his own label. But he did share this single with us earlier this year, even initially allowing it to be downloaded free. A beautiful, steel laced melody, it looks back on his southern childhood and the dreams of a life in music who took him away.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
For most of this year, the title track of Ashley’s latest album has been the song I’ve returned to over and over again. When I reviewed that set I called this a truly outstanding song, and my feelings have not changed. Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, and sung by the delicately vulnerable Ashley Monroe, this is a beautiful depiction of the pain of love which lasts longer on one side than the other:

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t
For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

It wasn’t a hit of course – it was far too good for country radio: too country, too subtle, and too female.

1. Lee Ann Womack‘Chances Are’
I thought Ashley Monroe’s single was going to make #1 on my list until I heard late in October that Lee Ann Womack had issued the best song on her critically acclaimed 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’ as its third single. A world-wearied and desperately lonely soul still has hope for love and happiness:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to take
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every chance I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
As I watch you ‘cross the barroom, I wonder
What my chances are

Well, I know you’ve been around
And you’ve seen what you needed to see
And at night when you’re dreamin’
You’re probably not dreamin’ ‘bout me
Oh, it’s safe to say I’ve stumbled
But I’ve managed to make it through this far
As I take one step and then another
I wonder what my chances are

I have watched the world go by
Hand in hand and wondered why
I’m still so alone
Could I lay down my foolish pride
Maybe finally find my heart a home

The band has started playing
A simple song I used to know
I take your hand and walk you out
Dance to the rhythm way down low
Every heart has got a story
Mine just has a few scars
But they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are
Well, they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are

I first heard this excellent song sung by its writer Hayes Carll a few years ago, but LAW’s version of this excellent Hayes Carll song is quite exquisitely beautiful: beautifully sung and interpreted like a masterclass in country music, and tastefully produced with lovely steel guitar dominating the mix. Her unexpected but well deserved nomination as the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year probably won’t gain her airplay for this stunning record, but it’s unmissable.

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Trying To Love You’

Classic Rewind: Alabama ft Trisha Yearwood – ‘Lady Down On Love’

A very special guest helps out on this 2013 version of the band’s #1 hit from two decades earlier.

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood – ‘You Don’t To Move That Mountain’