My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Willie Nelson

Album Review: Many Barnett – ‘Mandy Barnett’

When Asylum Records released Mandy Barnett’s eponymous album Mandy Barnett in 1996, I hoped I was hearing the first in a long string of albums for this excellent vocalist. Mandy was not unknown to me, having made television appearances in conjunction with her role in the play Always … Patsy Cline, starting around 1994 or 1995. Unfortunately, the market shifted away from anything resembling real country music so while Mandy remains active, her solo recordings remain few and far between.

Mandy Barnett would prove to be Mandy’s only successful chart album in terms of singles, but the contents were strong, the voice is terrific and her artistic integrity has been maintained through the years. The album would reach #60 on the country charts (it reached #28 on the Canadian country charts)

The album opens with “Planet of Love”, a song written by the much underappreciated Jim Lauderdale. The song was never a big hit for anyone, but it has been recorded quite a few times. Mandy’s bluesy take reveals a song that Patsy Cline could have done as well as, but not better than, Mandy herself.

 I’ve found a new planet that only I can see

Just came back to get you let’s leave this misery

Nothing can reach us so far from harm’s way

Only sunshine and rainbows every day

We’ve got to get back there hurry up and get your things

The countdown has started go ahead try on these wings

Don’t need no spaceship for what I’m thinking of

Didn’t I tell you that I’d take you to the planet of love

I should mention that this album was produced by Bill Schnee and Kyle Lehing, but clearly,  both understood what Owen Bradley accomplished with Patsy Cline and at times have created an updated version of that sound.

Next up is “Maybe”, a then-contemporary song aimed at getting Mandy some radio airplay. The son was the second single and peaked at #65. Written by Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, and John Leventhal, the song should have been a hit but perhaps it was too similar to some other songs currently floating about at the time (I could mentally hear Patty Loveless doing this song)

I know how the story ends where everything works out

I get the feelin’ once again that I can’t shake your doubt

Instead of hidin’ from romance

You’re gonna have to take a chance

 

Baby, don’t say Maybe

There’ll be no comin’ back tomorrow, Baby

“Rainy Days” is a gentle ballad sung to perfection. The song, written by Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes,   is filler but of a high grade.

“Three Days”, from the pen of Willie Nelson, is also filler. The song was a top ten hit for the great Faron Young back in 1962, and k.d. lang took it to #9 on the Canadian country charts in 1990. This is one of my favorite Willie compositions, and while Mandy does an excellent job with the song, the song seems a little more believable from the male perspective. I love the endless time loop perspective of the song – if this isn’t the definition of depression, I don’t know what would qualify

Three days I dread to see arrive

Three days I hate to be alive

Three days filled with tears and sorrow

Yesterday today and tomorrow

 

There are three days I know that I’ll be blue

Three days that I’ll always dream of you

And it does no good to wish these days would end

‘Cause the same three days start over again

“Baby Don’t You Know” was written by Jamie O’Hara has that traditional vibe, accentuated by the walking bass line and I think that I would have tried this as a single as this is just an excellent track. The song has a great sing-along chorus

Baby don’t you know I still love you

Baby don’t you know I still miss you

Baby don’t you know you’re breaking my heart

Oh, oh, oh

Baby don’t you know I still want you

Baby don’t you know I still need you

Baby don’t you know you’re tearing me apart

Kostas and Tony Perez penned “Now That’s All Right with Me”, the first and most successful single released on from the album. This is a very then-contemporary sounding song with late 90s-early 00s country instrumentation including some steel guitar in the background. The song peaked at #43. I don’t recall the song getting much of a promotional push but perhaps my memory is wrong. I only heard the song a few times on the radio.

Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp wrote “A Simple I Love You”, the last and least successful single released from the album. Mandy sings it well, but the song itself is a rather bland string-laden ballad, the only track on the album to heavily feature strings. The song died at #72.

Two more Kostas songs follow, “I’ll Just Pretend” and “What’s Good For You” (with Kelly Willis as co-writer). The former is a gentle and wistful medium slow ballad; the latter is a bit more up-tempo and a bit more of a downer. Both are excellent songs and well sung.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is one of the great folk/gospel classics, that first appeared in the early to mid-1800s. I’ve heard many versions of the song with many and varied verses. Below is a “standard” version of the lyrics (insofar as any version can be called standard) that is pretty similar to Mandy’s version. This song features very sparse instrumentation

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through a world of woe

But there’s no sickness, toil or danger

In that fair land to which I go

 

I’m going there to see my father

I’m going there no more to roam

I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home

 

I know dark clouds will gather round me

I know my way is rough and steep

But beautiful fields lie just before me

Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

 

I’m going home to see my mother

She said she’d meet me when I come

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

I’m just a going over home

It is clear that the producers of this album were trying for radio success with this album. The singles are all good – worth about a B+ but the tracks where the producers let Mandy follow her own inclinations are excellent – an easy A+. I would give this album an A and I still pull it out occasionally and listen to it.

The album is available as a digital download. If you want an actual CD, a later Warner Brothers release titled Many Barnett: The Platinum Collection contains nine of the ten songs on this album and eleven of the twelve songs on her second album I’ve Got A Right To Cry.

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Week ending 3/31/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales):  Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1958 (Disk Jockeys): Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1968: A World of Our Own — Sunny James (Capitol) 

1978: Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys — Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (RCA)

1988: Turn It Loose — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1998: Nothin’ But The Taillights — Clint Black (RCA Nashville)

2008: Small Town Southern Man — Alan Jackson (Arista Nashville)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018 (Airplay): Most People Are Good — Luke Bryan (Capitol Nashville) 

Week ending 3/24/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales):  Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1958 (Disk Jockeys): Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1968: A World of Our Own — Sunny James (Capitol) 

1978: Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys — Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (RCA)

1988: Life Turned Her That Way — Ricky Van Shelton (Columbia)

1998: Nothin’ But The Taillights — Clint Black (RCA Nashville)

2008: All-American Girl — Carrie Underwood (Arista Nashville)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018: Broken Halos — Chris Stapleton (Mercury)

Week ending 3/17/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales):  Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1958 (Disk Jockeys): Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1968: A World of Our Own — Sunny James (Capitol) 

1978: Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys — Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (RCA)

1988: Too Gone Too Long — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

1998: Round About Way — George Strait (MCA)

2008: All-American Girl — Carrie Underwood (Arista Nashville)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018 (Airplay): Marry Me — Thomas Rhett (Valory Music Group)

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘On A Good Night’

Released in June 1996, On A Good Night was Wade’s second album on Columbia. Produced by Don Cook, who also sings background on the album, the album climbed to #11 on the country albums chart and reached gold (500,000 sales) status. The album features a Who’s Who of Nashville session musician with Bruce Bouton on steel guitar, Mark Casstevens on acoustic guitar, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, Dennis Burnside on piano and organ, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glenn Worf on bass guitar and Lonnie Wilson on drums. This is nothing if not a country album.

The album opens up with the title track, written by Larry Boone, Don Cook and Paul Nelson. The first single released from the album, it topped out at #2 on Billboard’s Country chart. The song is a rocking up-tempo romp:

On a good night I could hop in my truck
Round up my friends and with any kind of luck
We could end up howling at a harvest moon
On a good night I could put on my hat
Head down to the honky tonk and dance
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Brown hair blue eyes once in a life time countrified kind of girl
Heart-breaking chance-taking wild little love making
Shaking up my world
Hey on a good night I can picture the day
All my dreams come true
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Next up is a nice cover of the Willie Nelson- Hank Cochran collaboration, “Undo The Right”. The original was a top ten hit in 1968 by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush. Bush’s recording is one of my top ten all-time favorite recordings. Hayes is no Johnny Bush, but he acquits himself well.

“The Room” was written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro. Chris is the brother of the late Holly Dunn and produced many of her records. The song is a slow ballad, rather introspective song of getting over the loss of love. It makes a nice change of pace but would not have made a good single.

Wade collaborated with Chick Rains and the redoubtable Bill Anderson on the up-tempo “It’s Over My Head” . The song was released as the third single from the album and topped out at #46. It’s a good song, well sung and I do not understand why it failed to do better:

That just goes to show how crazy love can be
Look at us now baby who would have thought it
I don’t know why you chose me

It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall
This beats anything I ever saw
Well I don’t see what you see in me at all
It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall

Marty Stuart and Chick Rains wrote “ I Still Do”. The song is a medium-slow ballad that I think could have made an effective single. This is not the same song that was a top twenty country hit for Bill Medley in 1984.

Don Cook and Chick Rains teamed up for “My Side of Town”, an up-tempo rocker that serves well to keep tempos appropriately varied on the album.

Wade Hayes and Chick Rains wrote “Where Do I Go To Start All Over”. Released as the second single from the album, the song stiffed, only reaching #42. It’s a nice ballad but and I’m not sure why it didn’t do better, especially since the previous five singles all went top ten or better.

I drove around last night, and tried with all my might
To leave the past behind, cause you stayed on my mind
So I stopped for a drink, I never stopped to think
That it wouldn’t work, It just made it worse
So I came on back home, I hadn’t changed a thing
And sat here all alone, missing you and wondering

Where do I go to start all over
From your memory
Where do I go to start all over
When in your arms is where I won’t be

“Our Time Is Coming was written by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn and appeared on their Hard Workin’ Man album. The song is a dramatic ballad that Wade does masterfully – in fact it is my favorite song on the album, and I much prefer Wade’s recording to that of Brooks & Dunn.

Times are hard and the money’s tight
Day to day we fight that fight
Nothing new, it’s the same old grind
Uphill all the way

Boss man says forget the raise
Preacher says to keep the faith
Good things come to those who wait
Tomorrow’s another day

Our time is coming
When or where the good Lord only knows
Our time is coming
When this road we’re on will turn to a street of gold

Long as we keep love alive
Something tells me we’ll survive
It’s the little things that’ll get us by
And hold us together

I feel it when you hold me close
Baby we got more than most
Steady through the highs and lows
We’ll go on forever

The album closes with “Hurts Don’t It”, a ballad from the pens of Sam Hogin, Jim McBride & Greg Holland, and the mid-tempo semi-autobiographical “This Is the Life for Me” that Hayes penned with Chick Rains & Gary Nicholson. Dennis Burnside’s piano is well featured on this track.

I really liked this album and would give it an A-.

I am sure that Wade and producer Don Cook was greatly disappointed by the poor chart performance of the last two singles from the album. Accordingly they tried something different.

Unfortunately, that effort failed miserably. As I sit here writing this article I am listening to the single release that effectively killed Wade Hayes’ career at country radio. Intended as the initial single for the next album When The Wrong One Loves You Right, radio reaction to Wade’s cover of the old Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman” single was so negative that the single was withdrawn (it peaked at #55) and ultimately did not appear on that album.

Week ending 3/10/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales):  Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1958 (Disk Jockeys): Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1968: Take Me To Your World — Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1978: Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys — Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (RCA)

1988: Face T0 Face — Alabama feat. K.T. Oslin (RCA)

1998: Round About Way — George Strait (MCA)

2008: Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy) — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018 (Airplay): Marry Me — Thomas Rhett (Valory Music Group)

Week ending 3/3/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales):  Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1958 (Disk Jockeys): Ballad of a Teenage Queen — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1968: Skip A Rope — Henson Cargill (Monument)

1978: Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys — Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (United Artists)

1988: I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love — Tanya Tucker with Paul Davis and Paul Overstreet (Capitol)

1998: What If I Said — Anita Cochran with Steve Wariner (Warner Bros. Nashville)

2008: Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy) — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018 (Airplay): Five More Minutes — Scotty McCreery (Triple Tigers)

 

Johnny Cash: A Look Back

We lost Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash within months of each other back in 2003, so 2018 marks a very sad 15th-anniversary farewell to the “Man In Black”.

The release last year of UNEARTHED, a nine album 180 gram vinyl box set (originally released on CD two months after his death) of unreleased tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, (it features some interesting pairings such as Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and the late Joe Strummer’s duets with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) provides us with a excuse to take another look back at his career.

While modern country radio has no use for the likes of Johnny Cash, preferring more commercial fodder, other sections of the music industry have kept his music alive, whether on Willie’s Roadhouse (Sirius XM Radio) or through the musical press. Cover bands continue to play his music and while younger so-called country singers play music that bears little connection to country music, his music remains a staple of Roots-Rock, Texas Red-Dirt and Bluegrass performers

Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.

Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.

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Razor X’s Top Albums of 2017

Another year has come and gone, and once again we lament the deplorable state of mainstream country music, while pointing out a few glimmers of hope that will never be heard on the radio. Among this year’s highlights are:

10. Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent had quite a year, which included being inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in March, followed by the release of one of the best bluegrass albums of the year. This generous sample of bluegrass and spiritual tunes is the perfect showcase for the duo’s trademark harmonies.

9. Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

Not to be outdone, Darrin’s big sister Rhonda also turned in a stellar collection, teaming up this time with her former label mate Daryle Singletary. Although heavily reliant on cover material, there are some new songs here as well. This is a real treat for those who are starved for some real country music.

8. Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

The legendary Charley Pride returned after a six-year recording hiatus, with one of the strongest offerings of his post-major label career. Sirius XM subscribers who listen to Willie’s Roadhouse will no doubt be familiar with “You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine”, which was my favorite song on the album. Like the Vincent/Singletary album, this one has its share of remakes but there’s not a weak one to be found.

7. Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

Reba McEntire is my favorite female singer, but I’ve been disappointed with her offerings over the last decade more times than I care to remember. This double album which is divided evenly between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs shows that when commercial considerations are cast aside, Reba is still in a class all by herself. I’m cautiously optimistic that this album is a sign that she’s finally stopped chasing chart success and ready to release some worthwhile material again.

6. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

While it’s regrettable that Sunny Sweeney never enjoyed the mainstream success she deserved, getting out of her major label deal was the best thing that ever happened to her from a creative standpoint. While Concrete was a bit too eclectic for my liking, Trophy gets it just right and is her best offering since Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. “Bottle By My Bed”, which she co-wrote with Lori McKenna, would be a monster hit in a sane world.

5. Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

Alison Krauss is another artist with whom I’d become a bit disillusioned, but she redeemed herself nicely with this collection of cover songs, which aren’t quite classics for the most part, but deserved to be introduced to a new audience. This is the best album she’s done in years — arguably the best of her career.

4. Zephaniah OHora with the 18 Wheelers – ‘This Highway’

This collection of original material which recreates the Bakersfield and countrypolitan sounds of the 60s was a pleasant surprise. Although it could have benefited from a little more variety in tempo, this a wonderful album and I hope that it is the first of many from this native of Brooklyn.

3. & 2. Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2’

These widely anticipated follow-ups to 2015’s Traveller were presumably intended to be a double album, but Mercury Records seems to have gotten cold feet about the sales potential of a double set, so they split it into two separate releases. Both discs feature very sparse production and gorgeous harmonies from Chris’ wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. With a heavy blues influence, theses albums are not traditional country, but there are a perfect antidote to the overproduced pop masquerading as country music on the radio today. I liked the second volume slightly better than the first.

1. Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection finds the Red-Headed Stranger teaming up with his two sons Lukas and Micah and digging deeply into the catalog of Hank Williams. Despite their youth, the younger Nelsons show obvious enthusiasm for the material, proving that Willie raised those boys right. This was a pleasure from start to finish. My favorite track was the Hank Cochran-penned “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which was hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1973 and later recorded by Willie for his Red-Headed Stranger album.

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Hello Darlin’

Note: I never owned this album on vinyl so I am working off a CD released on MCA Special Products in 1991, The songs are the same as on the initial vinyl release but the sequence of the songs is different on the CD.

Issued in June 1970, Hello Darlin’ was the ninth solo studio album released by Conway Twitty on Decca. The album was Conway’s first #1 country album and was eventually certified “Gold”. It also reached #65 on Billboard’s all genres chart, the highest that any of Conway’s country albums would reach, although reporting of country albums on the all-genres chart was very suspect and country albums were frequently under-reported by record shop personnel.

The CD opens with the Felice & Boudreaux Bryant classic “Rocky Top”. At the time, “Rocky Top” was a fairly new song that had not been covered to death. The Osborne Brothers had a hit with the song in 1968 and the combination of Doug Dillard, Gene Clark and Donna Washburn had a really nice version of the song on a Dillard & Clark album from that same year. Conway’s version has a banjo on it with what is otherwise an up-tempo Nashville production. Needless to say, Conway sings the song very well although he changes the words very slightly to accommodate his own phrasing.

Next up is “I’ll Get Over Losing You” a song written by Conway, a somewhat generic ballad about lost love. As always Conway sings it well, making for pleasant listening.

Conway also penned “Up Comes The Bottle” a mid-tempo song about the effects of alcohol. It’s a good song, well sung by Conway

Up comes the bottle and down goes the man

I can’t help him but I can understand

When up comes the bottle

And down, down, down, goes the man.

 

You may find him anywhere there’s heartache and despair

With loneliness so heavy you can feel it in the air

And the only thing that matters is the drink in his hand

Then up comes the bottle

And down, down, down, goes the man.

Bill Anderson wrote “You and Your Sweet Love”, which charted for Connie Smith in 1969, While I prefer Connie’s version, it would have made a good Conway Twitty single, one of many such songs stranded as album tracks on the early Conway Twitty albums. I seem to recall that Connie Smith wrote the liner notes for the vinyl album’s back cover.

The self-penned “Hello Darlin’” is the song for which Conway is best remembered, although “It’s Only Make Believe” was a huge pop hit in 1958 and by far his biggest seller. “Hello Darlin’“ reached #1 and stayed there for four weeks. The song is about a man who runs into an old flame, reigniting old feelings in the process. This was the only single released from the album.

 Hello darlin’

Nice to see you

It’s been a long time

You’re just as lovely

As you used to be

 

How’s your new love

Are you happy?

Hope you’re doin’ fine

Just to know means so much to me

 

What’s that darlin’

How am I doin’?

I’m doin’ alright

Except I can’t sleep

I cry all night ’til dawn

 

What I’m tryin’ to say is

I love you and I miss you

And I’m so sorry

That I did you wrong

Conway would revisit the theme with his next single “Fifteen Years Ago”. I saw Conway in concert several times before this song was released and several times after. From 1971 onward, this was his opening number and “It’s Only Make Believe” his closing number, perfect bookends for a great show.

“Rose” (not to be mistaken for the maudlin Amanda McBroom composition “The Rose” that Bette Midler would record later and Conway would cover) was written by L.E. White, a staff writer for Conway’s publishing company. This song is a ballad about a brother whose sister has strayed off-track in life.

“Reuben James” was a top thirty pop hit for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (it went top ten in Canada, New Zealand and Australia) that was covered by a large number of American country artists. This is a nice mid-tempo track.

Bill Anderson also wrote “I Never Once Stopped Loving You”, which reached #5 for Connie Smith in 1970, Again, I prefer Connie’s version, but Conway does a nice job with this ballad

It is difficult to find a country album of the late 1960s-early 1970s that does not contain a Dallas Frazier composition. This album features “Will You Visit Me On Sundays” which was a top twenty single for Charlie Louvin in 1968, and the title track of a 1970 George Jones album. I can’t say that Conway’s version is better than Charlie Louvin or George Jones (the lyric seems perfect for Charlie’s weathered voice) but this would have made a good Conway Twitty single.

 Just outside these prison bars

The hanging tree is waitin’

At sunrise I’ll meet darkness

And death will say hello

Darling, touch your lips to mine

And tell me you love me

Promise me again before you go

 

Will you visit me on Sundays?

Will you bring me pretty flowers?

Will your big blue eyes be misty?

Will you brush away a tear?

Fred Rose write the classic “Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain”, a song that both Hank Williams and Rof Acuff had recorded. Since Willie Nelson had yet to record this song (Willie’s version would be released in 1975), this was not a cover of somebody else’s hit single, but simply case of Conway going “deep catalog” in finding a song that he liked. Conway’s version is not the sparse recording that Willie released but a normal Owen Bradley production applied to a classic Fred Rose composition from the 1940s.

The album closes with “I’m So Used To Loving You”, the fourth of Conway’s own compositions on the album. This is a good song that somebody somewhere should have released as a single.

I’m so used to loving you sweetheart

You’re on my mind each minute we’re apart

And I love you more each day that we go through

You’re my life and I’ll live it loving you

 

I’m so used to loving you it seems

I can’t stand the thought of losing you not even in my dream

Hold me close and tell me what I’d do without you

I couldn’t take it, I’m so used to loving you

Conway Twitty was a good and prolific songwriter who would use his own compositions on his albums, but, unlike some singer-songwriters, only if they were good songs. Through this album, the highest number of Conway Twitty and/or Mickey Jaco compositions on an album was four. There would be one future album in which he wrote eight of the ten songs (there must be a story behind this since it is a complete outlier) and several on which he wrote one or none of the songs

None of the Conway Twitty compositions that I’ve ever heard were duds, and many of them fell in the very good-to-great category

This album is a solid A with solid country production throughout

Album Review: Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection is a follow-up to Willie Nelson’s 2014 collaboration his sister Bobbie, December Day:  Willie’s Stash, Volume 1.   This time around Willie is teamed up with his two youngest sons, Micah and Lukas, who join him on eleven country classics and one contemporary number that leans heavily on the Hank Williams catalog.

Material-wise, there are no real surprises here.   As always when Willie Nelson records cover material, the unknown is always how much Willie will deviate from the originals.  In the case of this album, the answer is not much.   The seven Williams songs are handled reverently.   The two younger Nelsons, despite their youth, show great enthusiasm for the material and one gets the distinct impression that they have great respect and passion for, it and that these are not just a bunch of old songs that Dad forced them to record.    The three Nelsons harmonize well together, as family groups typically do, and there are some fantastic steel guitar solos courtesy of Mike Johnson.  Rarely have these old chestnuts sounded so energetic.

The one thing that did surprise me is how good Willie’s voice sounds throughout the album, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that has been apparent on some of his recent work.  From what I can gather, these recordings were made in 2011 and 2012, so that partially explains it.  However, his voice is noticeably stronger than it was on 2010’s Country Music collection for Rounder.  Whatever the reason, it’s good to hear Willie in such good vocal form.

This album could have been titled The Nelsons Sing Hank, since some of country music’s famous Hanks wrote the marjority of the album’s songs.  In addition to the seven Williams numbers (“Move It On Over”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” , “Cold Cold Heart”, “Mansion on the Hill”, and “Why Don’t You Love Me”), the album contains a remake of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, and Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which is my favorite song on the album.  Set to the melody of “Red River Valley”, it was a hit in 1973 for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely, and it was later recorded by Willie for his Red Headed Stranger album in 1975.

The album is rounded out by a cover of Willie’s original composition “Healing Hands of Time” and a modern-folk tune “My Tears Fall” written by singer/songwriter Alyssa Miller.  This contemporary number fits in surprisingly wel l with these old classics and doesn’t sound out of place at all next to them.

Buddy Cannon’s production is tastefully understated and for the most part the album has a sitting around the living room jam-session type feel to it.  I cannot find any fault with it, other than to say I wish it had been released as a double album.   I highly recommend it without reservation.

Grade:  A+

Book Review: Freddy Powers and Catherine Powers with Jake Brown – ‘The Spree Of 83’

Freddy Powers, country-jazz musician and songwriter, was an influential figure, not least as sidekick to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The book was started a few years before his death last year aged 84, with the help of his wife Catherine and professional writer Jake Brown.

It is neither biography not autobiography, coming across more as a set of clippings, or the script for a documentary’s voiceovers. Freddy himself, Catherine, and various friends and colleagues from his past (including the late Haggard), are all quoted at length talking about the man and incidents in his life, with each original interview or set of interviews chopped up and scattered through the book, interspersed with reviews of albums and concerts from the press, and the lyrics of many of Powers’ songs. I would have preferred some overarching third (or first) person narrative which would have made it feel more cohesive. (It could also have done with a sharper eye proofreading, as there are a few spelling errors throughout.) There is also a chapter comprising rare photographs, but unfortunately these do not translate well to a kindle reading. However, there are some fascinating anecdotes and the book offers some insight into Haggard at the peak of his career.

The book’s title comes from the period in the early 80s (actually covering several years, not just the 1983 of the title) when Freddy and Haggard lived on adjacent houseboats on Lake Shasta. Both separated or divorced and happy to be single again, they engaged in a hedonistic mix of drugs and sex with an everchanging group of women, while writing songs. It’s probably not the book to read if you want to believe your heroes never have feet of clay, although to be fair everyone involved seems to have had a really good time with no regrets.

This period is not the sole focus of the book, although as an incredibly creative time it does loom quite large in the story. Freddy also talks about his childhood and early career, and about his love story with his last wife Catherine (20 years his junior but very evidently the love of his life). In his last years, when the ravages of Parkinson’s disease stopped him from playing the guitar, he adopted more of a cuddly grandpa persona and served as mentor to young female artists, including Texas artist Pauline Reese and Mary Sarah.

So the content is absorbing; it’s just a shame that it was not better produced with more editorial input.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Kenny Rogers

Our October spotlight artist has had a career spanning more than fifty years and has enjoyed tremendous success in a variety of musical genres. Kenneth Ray Rogers was born on August 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas. His recording career dates back to the 1950s. After enjoying a minor hit in 1957 with “That Crazy Feeling” he joined a jazz group called The Bobby Doyle Three. After the group disbanded in 1965 he had a brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels. A year later, he and some of his bandmates formed a new group, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. Marketed primarily as a rock group, The First Edition dabbled in a variety of styles, including psychedelic pop, folk, and R&B. In 1969 the group enjoyed a Top 40 country hit with the Mel Tillis-penned “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. Although it was only a modest success on the country charts, it reached the Top 10 on both the pop and adult contemporary charts.

After The First Edition disbanded, Rogers reinvented himself as a country artist, signing a solo deal with United Artists Records 1n 1975. His first single for the label, “Love Lifted Me” reached the Top 20 on the country charts. Two more minor hits followed, and in 1977 he enjoyed his breakthrough hit “Lucille”, a story song about an aborted one-night stand that occurs shortly after the narrator witnesses the breakup of his partner’s marriage in a bar. It reached #1 on the country charts and #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and enjoyed international success as well. For the rest of the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Kenny Rogers was country music’s best selling artist. Most of his records enjoyed success on both the pop and country charts.

He recorded a number of hit duets with United Artists labelmate Dottie West in the late 1970s, beginning with 1978’s “Every Time Two Fools Collide”. The exposure not only revived West’s solo career; it took it to new heights. In 1980 she enjoyed her first solo #1 hit, twenty years into her recording career.

Also in 1978, Rogers released the song with which he is most closely identified today: “The Gambler”, which led to a number of made-for-TV movies with Rogers in the starring role. In 1980 he teamed up with Lionel Richie, who wrote and produced “Lady”, Rogers’ only solo record to top the Billboard Hot 100.

United Artists was sold to EMI in 1978 and was renamed Liberty Records in 1980. Rogers remained with the label until 1983, when he signed a $20 million deal with RCA (a huge sum in those days). His last #1 hit for Liberty was a remake of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” performed as a duet with Scottish singer Sheena Easton. After signing with RCA, Rogers teamed up with Barry Gibb, who produced and wrote most of the material for Eyes That See In The Dark,
the debut album for his new label. The first single from that project was “Islands in the Stream”, which found Kenny collaborating for the first time with Dolly Parton. Although country in name and marketing only, the tune quickly topped the country charts and reached the top of the Hot 100 as well, marking the second and last time that either artist would top that chart. It went on to become a global hit.

At the same time, Liberty Records was still releasing Kenny Rogers singles, and “Scarlet Fever”, his final release for his former label, became a #5 country hit at the same time “Islands in the Stream” was climbing the charts. Rogers remained with RCA through the end of the decade. During his tenure with the label, his music became more adult-contemporary oriented while the rest of country music went in the opposite direction when the New Traditionalist movement got underway. In 1989, Kenny moved to Reprise Records (his label during his First Edition days), and his chart success began to become less consistent.

The 1990s marked the beginning of a long dry spell. He left Warner/Reprise and eventually started his own label Dreamcatcher. In 1999 he enjoyed a surprise late-career hit when “The Greatest”, a tune about a young boy dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player, reached #26 on the country charts. Many regarded the surprise hit as an outlier, but country music had not yet heard the last of Kenny Rogers. He enjoyed another unexpected hit in 1999 when “Buy Me a Rose” went to #1, making the 61-year-old Kenny Rogers the oldest artist to ever top the Billboard country chart. The record was broken a few years later when 69-year-old Willie Nelson topped the chart with his Toby Keith duet “Beer For My Horses”.

The success of “Buy Me a Rose” was enough to make the major labels take another look at Kenny Rogers. He released “Water & Bridges” for Capitol in 2006 and You Can’t Make Old Friends for Warner Bros in 2013. The title track of the latter paired him up once again with Dolly Parton. That same year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Two years later he announced his retirement and embarked on a farewell tour that is scheduled to conclude in Nashville at the end of this month.

Critics have often derided Kenny Rogers as not authentically country, and there is no doubt that because he tried to maintain a presence on both the pop and country charts, not all of his music will appeal to everyone. That being said, there is no denying his contributions to and impact on the country genre. We can’t possibly do justice to a 50-year career in just one month, so we’ll be focusing mainly on his country successes of the 1970s and 1980s.

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘A Life That’s Good’

Lisa McHugh released her sophomore album, A Life That’s Good, in October 2014. The title track, co-written by Sara Siskind and Ashley Monore, is a sweet ballad about personal fulfillment that first appeared early on in the second season of Nashville.

The album is ripe with covers. McHugh opens with “Applejack,” in which she more than adequately channels Dolly Parton. She turns to Trisha Yearwood with “She’s In Love With The Boy,” wrapping her innocent twang around the timeless tale of Katy and Tommy’s burgeoning love. As if to cover all ends of the spectrum, McHugh turns in a fine rendition of “Any Man of Mine,” which typically sounds like cheesy karaoke outside of Shania Twain’s hands.

A Life That’s Good proves McHugh to favor bright and uptempo material, which makes Vince Gill’s “Feels Like Love” the perfect addition to this set. Also excellent is Red-era Taylor Swift’s “Stay Stay Stay.” McHugh improves on Swift’s album track with a far more organic arrangement and mature performance vocally. Kacey Musgraves’ “My House” is also a delight, although I wish McHugh had settled for a bit less mimicry in her inflections.

On an album of curious covers, closing track “On The Road Again,” which has always been one of my favorite songs, stands above the rest. Her version of the Willie Nelson classic is excellent, infusing her own personality while keeping the essence of the song alive.

“Ireland” continues the album’s bright vibe, with an uptempo love song brimming with gorgeously ear catching fiddle. The cautionary “Hey I’m A Woman” finds McHugh delivering a stern warning to her man that she’s not just one of the guys. “What You Get Is What You See” might just be my favorite vocal of McHugh’s on the whole album. “Night Train to Memphis” is bluegrass in mainstream 1990s country style and every bit as wonderful as you might expect. “Hillbilly Girl” is cheesy but not without its charms.

McHugh does slow the pace on occasion, although those moments are rare. “Home to Donegal,” a power ballad, has good intentions but is way too loud and feels a bit staged. “All of Me” is a misplaced cover of John Legend’s song, far too pop, for placement on such a solidly country album. Steel Guitar-laced ballad “Left to Love,” which perfectly displays her sweet voice, is much better.

McHugh is a delight and I quite enjoyed listening to A Life That’s Good. It’s impossible to listen to her and not fall under her spell. There’s truly nothing not to like about what she’s given us here. I only wish she wasn’t so reliant on covering such well-known songs and was putting the focus, instead, on developing her own artistry. But I really can’t complain when an album sounds this good and this country.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Country Way’

Released in December 1967, Charley’s third album was his first to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums charts and even hit #199 on the all-genres chart, starting a run of fourteen consecutive top ten albums, all but one of which were top five or better.

The album opens up with the Jack Clement composition “Too Hard To Say I’m Sorry”, a plodding ballad that in the hands of (almost) anyone else, would have been a complete misfire. In Charley’s hands this song of self recrimination conveys the story of a man whose pride gets in the way of apologizing and perhaps salvaging the most important relationship in his life.

Just two words were all that she would ask of me
And I could have the world and all it holds for me
Of love and tender care, not the pain and the sorrow
That will be mine tomorrow, but I just can’t seem to say it – I’m sorry

I know exactly what I should do admit I’m wrong, it wouldn’t take long
And she’d forgive me
And I know exactly what I ought to say, but I’m not built that way
Wish that I could say I’m sorry

Next up is another Jack Clement ballad, “The Little Folks”, a song that assesses who the real losers are in a divorce. I’ve heard Willie Nelson perform the song but I’m not if he ever recorded the song.

“Crystal Chandeliers” was written by Ted Harris, but the hit went to the great songwriter Carl Belew. For whatever reason, other than “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”, this has become Charley’s most requested song, even though it was never a Charley Pride single in the USA (I think it was a single for Charley in parts of Europe). Charley would repeat the song in his Live At Panther Hall album released in January 1969.

Oh, the crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on your wall
The marble statuettes are standing stately in the hall
But will the timely crowd that has you laughing loud help you dry your tears
When the new wears off of your crystal chandeliers

“Act Naturally” was a cover of a huge Buck Owens hit from a few years earlier. Johnny Russell wrote the song and certainly saw considerable royalties from the records sold by Buck and The Beatles, let alone all the other covers. Charley’s version is good but not electrifying as was Buck’s version.

“Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger”, a Robertson/Crutchfeld/Clement collaboration, reached #4, his third straight top ten single. This song of a wayward wife just drips with understated irony.

Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night?
When I bought it for you, darling, it seemed to be just right
Should I take it to the jeweler so it won’t fit so tight?
Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night?

Did you enjoy yourself last night, dear, how was the show?
You know that I don’t mind it when you go
I understand sometimes we all need time alone
But why do you always leave your ring at home?

This is followed by “Mama Don’t Cry For Me” which the underrated Johnny Seay (or Sea) released as a non-charting single a few years later. I really liked Seay’s version, and Charley does a fine job with the song as well, although with a slightly less dramatic reading of the song. Fred Foster and Johnny Wilson wrote this song:

I’ve seen the big fish jumping, mama, I’ve heard crickets sing
And I’ve felt my heart start pounding at the side of New Orleans
I’ve seen the New York City with her lights aglow
I’ve been a lot of places always on the go
I’ve seen most everything I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me …

I’ve climbed the highest mountains covered with snow
I’ve seen most everything I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me
I’m sending you this message, mama, I must say goodbye
I live the life you gave me, mama, I’m not afaid to die

Even though I’m dying, mama, the hands of death are strong
I don’t want you crying, mama, after I’m gone
I’ve seen all of this old world I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me
So mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me

The second single released from this album was the Jerry Foster/Bill Rice collaboration “The Day The World Stood Still”. This ballad of lost love reached #4.

For one day in my life
You brought me happiness
You stopped the lonely world
With all your tenderness

I can’t get over you
I guess I never will
Time was a precious thing
The day the world stood still

The next song, another Jack Clement composition, is one of my favorite Charley Pride recordings. In the middle of the song Charley calls out ‘here’s Big Joe Talbot and his electric Hawaiian steel guitar’ by way of introducing Big Joe’s instrumental break. Charley did not release this song as a single but later in the year, the Jack Clement produced Tompall & The Glaser Brothers released it as a charting single, and they too made the same introduction of Big Joe Talbot (and basically used the same arrangement).

Someday I think I’ll take up thinking and try my best to understand
How she could be loving me forever and leaving on the other hand
Last night I thought I’d see a movie to help me get my thoughts in hand
I think what I saw was the western preacher or James Bond on the other hand
I placed the ring upon one finger of her left hand
The one who said she’d stay forever is gone on the other hand

Next up is a sad ballad about a love that can’t be, written by Country Johnny Mathis. “You Can Tell The World” is pleasant enough listening, but would never be regarded as singles material.

Mel Tillis and Danny Dill provided “I’ll Wander Back To You”. This song is a cover of the Earl Scott single that reached #30 in 1965. It’s a nice, but not terribly exciting, tale of wanderlust:

They say I’m like my daddy, always on the roam
I know he loved my mama but he couldn’t stay at home
I vowed to not be like him but somewhere I went wrong
Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere and the girl I love at home
One of these days I’m gonna quit my wandering
One of these days I’ll wander back to you

Younger listeners may remember Ricky Van Shelton’s 1988 #1 single of the Harlan Howard classic “Life Turned Her That Way”. Older listeners may remember the 1967 Mel Tillis recording that just missed the top ten or perhaps an earlier recording by Little Jimmy Dickens. Charley does a very good job with the song.

No one could out-Haggard Merle Haggard on one of his compositions, and Charley couldn’t either. His version of “I Threw Away The Rose” is a pleasant jog-along ballad but nothing more than that.

I liked this album, but think that the song selection was not quite as strong as on his debut album. The vocal choruses remain, but the songs are string-free and the vocal accompaniments are not too obtrusive. Nothing about this album suggest that this is anything but a country album, and while the big blockbuster singles were still on the horizon, it was clear that they were coming.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: The Highwaymen – ‘The King Is Gone’

Classic Rewind: Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss cover ‘Seven Spanish Angels’

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

Ever since he swept the 2015 CMA Award and his career-defining performance with Justin Timberlake at that show, Chris Stapleton has been regarded by many as the savior of country music, who will lift the genre out of its creative doldrums and set it back on a path towards traditionalism. The great irony is that Stapleton’s music is really not that traditional for the most part. Roots-oriented, organic, and substantive yes, but he’s hardly the modern day equivalent of Randy Travis in 1986. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the genre has benefited from his success. He has a powerful voice but his style owes more to blue-eyed sound southern rock than traditional country. His style is not usually my cup of tea, but I actually like Chris Stapleton quite a lot and have ever since he was the lead singer for The SteelDrivers. And regardless of whether or not one likes his vocal style, one can’t help but root for someone who can have commercial success while bypassing the cesspool that is country radio.

The follow-up to his immensely successful debut album Traveller was originally envisioned as a two-disc set, but Mercury apparently had some reservations about a double album and opted to release From a Room in two volumes, with the second set tentatively slated for an autumn release. One of the unfortunate consequences of his is that the first volume consists of a mere nine tracks. No album should consist of less then ten songs, in my opinion. I was annoyed when RCA trimmed back its albums to nine tracks in the 1980s and the practice, though rare nowadays, still does not sit well with me. Surely there were more songs recorded that could have been used to flesh out the album a bit. That criticism aside, From a Room is, for the most part, an outstanding collection.

Like Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 was co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb and recorded in RCA Studio A. Eight of its nine tracks were co-written by Stapleton (many apparently from his extensive back catalog), the sole exception being a stunning version of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which was a #2 hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. It tells the story of a morning in which everything goes wrong: the delivery of a past-due bill notice, an alarm clock that fails to go off on time, a spilled pot of coffee, among other things, culminating in the narrator’s wife or girlfriend calling an end to their relationship. Stapleton’s wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton provides the harmony vocals.

Another tune that will be familiar to many listeners is “Either Way”, which was originally included on Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album in 2008. A ballad about a relationship taking its last dying breaths, it is the perfect vehicle for Stapleton’s powerhouse voice. Wikipedia lists it as the current single. Don’t expect to hear it the radio.

“Up to No Good Livin'”, the sole traditional track on the album, is my favorite. Again featuring Morgane signing harmony, it is a pedal-steel drenched up-tempo number about a reformed hell raiser whose wife refuses to believe that he’s mended his ways:

Wish I could come home from workin’
And not have her checking my breath
I’m tired of her turning her questions
Into the Gettysburg Address
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t trust me
The fact that she don’t makes me mad
Can’t count all the times that I’ve begged her
Honey, just let my past be the past

I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog
Without a whole lotta sh*t not committed by law
People called me the Picasso of painting the town
I’ve finally grown up
I’ve finally changed from that someone I was
To somebody I am
But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around
So I’ll probably die before I live all my
Up to no good livin’ down

It’s no surprise, given Stapleton’s reputation as one of Nashville’s best songwriters, that From a Room: Volume 1 consists of very well-crafted and well executed songs. The sole dud is “Them Stems”, a tongue-in-cheek number about a marijuana user who has come to the end of his stash and desperate for a fresh supply. It’s catchy, but songs about drug use make me uncomfortable and as a result, I really can’t get into this one. One throwaway track on an album is no big deal but it’s a little harder to overlook when there are only nine songs in total.

From a Room: Volume 1 is sure to be one of 2017’s best sellers, and deservedly so. I’ve already played it several times and actually prefer it to Traveller. I’m looking forward to hearing the second volume in a few months.

Grade: A