My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Zac Brown

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Welcome Home’

The Zac Brown Band, always eclectic, took that spirit rather too far in their last, terrible, album. Evidently chastened by fans’ lack of enthusiasm for their new direction, they have returned to more organic (though not necessarily paticularly country) sounds on their latest release, their first for Elektra. They have turned to Dave Cobb to produce the album.

The overarching theme is one of home, and family, a mood set by the charming lead single, ‘My Old Man’. A touching tribute to Zac’s late father set to a gentle melody, this is a true delight. The piano-led ‘Real Thing’ is also very good, with a nostalgic look back to a father or grandfather who teaches Zac you can’t substitute for the best, a lesson which he applies to other things in life. (Coca cola, most associated with the title phrase, is not mentioned by name, but the band’s Atlanta background makes it an inescapable point of reference – if Zac’s lucky he might get this picked up for a commercial; if he’s unlucky he could get sued.)

‘Family Table’ is a fond ode to a welcoming home, which I liked. ‘2 Places At 1 Time’ is about the competing lures of home and away, and is a nicely delivered wistful ballad. ‘Long Haul’ is quite pleasant but a little forgettable, with a 70s country-rock-AC ballad feel.

All but one of the songs were composed by the writing team of Brown, Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, with occasional outside help, not necessarily for the better. Indeed, it is with the co-writes that the album gets off course. Band member Coy Bowles co-wrote the opening tune, ‘Roots’. This is a good but ironically slightly over produced big ballad about the lure of music and a musician’s life. ‘Start Over’, co-written with rapper/producer Pharrell, is one of the band’s signature Caribbean styled tunes, which (although not really my cup of tea) is quite well suited to the lyric (about getting away to the beach as a way of reconnecting with an ex). Some introductory yelping, however, should definitely have been dispensed with – it sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it.

‘Your Majesty’ is a pretty love song, written by the guys with Kenny Habul (an Australian race car driver and solar power entrepreneur, who was mixed up in Zac Brown’s 2016 drugs bust), marred by slightly annoying production, particularly annoying ah-oh interjections. Aslyn, a female pop singer-songwriter from Atlanta with a powerful voice, co-wrote and duets on rock ballad ‘Trying To Drive’. The song is nothing special and not country at all), and the production too heavy, but the vocals are strong in their own style.

The album closes with a fine cover of John Prine’s ‘All The Best’, a pained and subtly bitter farewell to a former love:

Well I guess love
Is like a Christmas card
Decorate a tree
And throw it in the yard
It decays and dies
And the snowman melts
Well I knew love
I knew how love felt

I knew love
Oh, love knew me
When I walked around
Love walked with me
But I got no hate
And I got no pride
Well I got
So much love
That I cannot hide

This is a definite highlight.

This is less of a return to form than I had hoped, and there are few standout moments other than ‘My Old Man’ and ‘All The Best’. Those two tunes are definitely worth downloading, and the whole thing is probably worth checking out if you’re a fan. There is also not much variation in tempo. One cannot help wondering if the band’s hearts are really elsewhere.

Grade: B-

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Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘My Old Man’

The Zac Brown Band have always maintained that they are not a strictly country band; however, they they have been one of the few (mostly) bright spots at country radio over the past decade.  With the release of the polarizing Jekyll + Hyde album, they ventured into the world of EDM and reggae.  It didn’t seem to hurt them commercially but it did alienate many of their fans.  The Band now seems to be extending an olive branch to those fans with their new release, “My Old Man”.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, “My Old Man” is the latest in country music’s long-standing tradition of honoring one’s parents.  It channels old chestnuts as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Daddy’s Hands”, “That’s My Job” and “Love Without End, Amen” and delivers essentially the same message as those classic songs.  While it doesn’t break any new ground, it does take the initial steps needed to get country music in general – and the Zac Brown Band in particular – back on track artistically.

A sparsely arranged ballad consisting of acoustic guitar, a little fiddle, a subtle string arrangement and the Band’s trademark harmonies, “My Old Man” opens with the narrator’s boyhood reminiscences of his father.  In the second verse, the narrator is grown with a son of his own.  The third verse reveals that the narrator’s father has passed away.  The narrator expresses hope that he can live up to the example that was set for him, and looks forward to an eventual reunion with his father in the afterlife.

“My Old Man” was produced by Dave Cobb, best known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.  It’s the refreshing glass of water that  fans have been crying out for during a long drought in the bro-country desert.  I look forward to hearing the Band’s forthcoming album.

Grade:  A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Homegrown’

homegrownEven though their music is not always strictly country, the Zac Brown Band has been one of the few bright spots at country radio in recent years. Much of their music to date has been a hybrid of country and the type of pop played on Top 40 radio stations back in the 70s. With “Homegrown”, their first release since joining forces with Big Machine, they seem to be branching out in a slightly different direction.

Whether it’s due to the label change or new co-producer Jay Joyce, this record sounds a bit different than the others. For one thing, the production is a bit louder with heavy emphasis in the intro on drums and fuzzy electric guitars. I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed upon hearing those opening notes, fearing that it would be another one of country radio’s typically dull and overloud offerings. Things improve, however, once the song gets underway with Zac Brown’s unmistakable voice. There’s a little banjo and fiddle thrown into the mix, but neither is featured prominently. Sonically, it isn’t structured like a country song at all, but the tune is very catchy and before you know it you’ll be tapping your toes in spite of yourself. The lyrics, about a protagonist who is more than content to smell the roses and enjoy his lot in life, are on the light side, but at least provide a theme that is country, even if the sound isn’t.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and bandmate Wyatt Durrette, seems more like a feel-good summertime record rather that a January release, but it’s apparently struck a chord with both radio and fans. It currently resides at #4 on the charts, only ten days after its release. It looks like it’s going to be a monster hit. I wouldn’t rank it among the Zac Brown Band’s best work, but there is nothing terribly objectionable about it — and these days, that’s a big plus.

Listen to it here.

Grade: B

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘All Alright’

all alright epI was really looking forward to hearing the latest from the always eclectic Zac Brown Band, now going it alone having cut their ties with Atlantic. Their new single comes from an EP released digitally in December last year and on CD on 19 May, produced by rock musician Dave Grohl.

The song, composed by band members Brown, John Driskell Hopkins and Jimmy DeMartini with Brown’s frequent co-writer Wyatt Durrette and Eric Church, is extremely well written, from the viewpoint of a man who has lost in love. He complains,

You made me think you were mine
Then you changed your mind
I’m lost as a feather in a hurricane

The big chorus is set to a catchy and memorable meolody which should make this a radio hit, as Zac bemoans the way.

It was all alright
Now it’s all all wrong
That’s just how it goes when you’re gone

But perhaps he is not all that heartbroken after all, as he confesses

I guess God did not make me a one woman man
I’d have a lot to give
If I still gave a damn
That’s just how it goes when you’re wrong

Zac Brown’s passionate vocal is well supported by his bandmates’ excellent harmonies. Unfortunately, the instrumentation is muddy and rock-sounding, with an intrusive electric guitar, no doubt the influence of their new producer. This is a genuinely good song, but I would like it so much better with an acoustic or at least solidly country-rock arrangement. Having said that, the production is still understated compared to some of the dreck out there, and perhaps I wouldn’t dislike it as much if it didn’t start with the intro, but that seems like faint praise. Country radio generally loves the Zac Brown Band, with only the bluegrass of ‘The Wind’ failing to make the top couple of spots on the Billboard chart, and this should do well for them too.

So, an A-worthy song, fine vocals, but unappealing musical backings, average out the grade at:

B+ for me. Those with more rock-tinged tastes will probably have this as an A.

Listen and decide for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVf6ulpDdGo

Album Review: Joey + Rory: ‘Made To Last’

joeyandroryBarely three months after the release of a collection of inspirational songs, Joey + Rory are back with Made To Last, their fifth album overall and the first released on their own Farmhouse Recordings imprint. Like its predecessors, its songs are homespun tales of love and heartache with touch of nostalgia and the occasional more contemporary number, all simply yet elegantly produced.

To get things started, the duo dusts off the old Townes Van Zandt chestnut “If I Needed You”, which is a faithful reproduction of the Emmylou Harris and Don Williams recording that reached #3 in 1981. It is the first of the album’s two cover songs, which will be familiar to many country fans. The second is “Just A Cup Of Coffee”, which finds Joey trying to keep her expectations in check before a reunion with an old flame. The Stephanie Davis-penned tune was included as a bonus track on Trisha Yearwood’s Greatest Hits album in 2007. It’s an excellent song that deserves wider attention, but sadly isn’t considered commercially viable in the current environment.

Made To Last conatins no surprises — in fact most of the songs were already performed on the duo’s RFD television series — and no artistic stretches. Instead the duo gives their fans exactly what they have come to expect: typical Joey + Rory fare — quiet and mostly acoustic fare that makes the listener feel as though he or she is sitting around the living room with Joey and Rory. Among the highlights are two tear-jerkers: “50,000 Names”, a Jamie O’Hara composition that pays homage to the fallen heroes of the Vietnam War and “Now That She’s Gone”, a Rory Feek co-write with Morgane Hayes, which tells the sad story of a young widower who is unable to come to terms with his devasating loss. “Made To Last” is a lovely ballad written Austin Cunningham and Allen Shamblin number that talks about the increasingly rare enduring items in a throw-away society. Both “50,000 Names” and “Made To Last” feature Rory on lead vocals — the duo is sharing lead vocal duties as they did on His and Hers. I haven’t been a huge fan of his singing in the past, but I’ve come to appreciate his vocal abilities on this collection.

Two of the album’s most intimate numbers discuss the music business itself: Tim Johnson’s “To Do What I Do” expresses appreciation for the fans, whose support compensates for the dues-paying that comes with an entertainment career. In “I Sing For You”, the husband and wife duo address each other, vowing to continue singing for each other, even when the world is no longer listening.

The album’s weaker moments are on two of the uptempo numbers: “Good Truck”, a Rory co-write with Zac Brown, Coy Bowles and Nick Cowa and “I Love You Song”. The former isn’t a bad song per se, but like many country fans I’m suffering from truck song fatigue, although this one is admittedly a great deal better than any other truck song I’ve heard lately. “I Love You Song” is lyrically vapid filler.

I was slightly underwhelmed by last year’s His and Hers, so I was pleasantly surprised when the material turned out to be stronger this time around. It is quite possibly my favorite Joey + Rory album to date and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Randy Houser – ‘How Country Feels’

how country feelsRandy Houser’s third album, while his most consistent to date, is still a very mixed bag. Derek George’s production is generally unsubtle and loud, and acceptable but uninspired on the quieter tracks. Houser’s career seemed to have hit the roadblocks, when he left Show Dog-Universal for independent label Stoney Creek. However, ‘How Country Feels’ his first single for the new label proved to be a hit, and became only his second top 10 single to date. It isn’t a very interesting song, but regrettably that seems to be what it takes for commercial success these days.

New single ‘Running Outta Moonlight’, written by Dallas Davidson, Kelly Lovelace and Ashley Gorley, is quite catchy but too loud, and while not dislikeable, rather bland lyrically with its generic picture of outdoor romance in the South. However, its very flaws make it a good bet to repeat the performance of ‘What Country Feels’. Much the same goes for the equally loud ‘Growin’ Younger’, written by Randy with Justin Weaver and Brett James, with its positive but unoriginal message about living life to the full, and I could see this as a successful single later this year.

The nadir of the album is reached with ‘Absolutely Nothing’, a half-spoken, largely tuneless, incredibly bland and completely pointless song about doing nothing. It’s the kind of thing that was probably fun at an uninspired writing session, but has no interest for anyone else (the guilty parties are Lee Brice, Joe Leathers and Vicky McGehee). Luckily, it is the only track (of 15) which has absolutely no merit.

There is a handful of genuinely outstanding songs which make this project worthwhile (or are at least worth downloading separately). Perhaps the best of all is ‘The Singer’, written by Trent Willmon and Drew Smith. It is a tender portrait of the (ex?) wife of a successful but troubled musician:

She loved the singer
She just couldn’t live the song

Almost as good is Randy’s own ‘Power Of A Song’, written with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten. This gentle but powerful ballad sounds as though it was inspired by ‘Three Chords and the Truth’, telling the story first of a man planning on leaving his wife and kids and turned around by hearing a song on the radio:

That’s the miracle of music
Loves’s the only thing as strong

The second verse is a contrasting, and even more powerful, story of a woman who never thought she would have the courage to leave a violent relationship – and this time the song gives her the strength not to turn round, 40 miles out. Oddly, this great song has a copyright date of 2004, but somehow has never been cut before. I’m garteful Randy revived it for this album.

The third great song is ‘Along For The Ride’, a pensive philosophical number with gospel-style paino and a bluesy feel to the vocals which Randy wrote with Zac Brown and Levi Lowrey. The last standout is the closer, ‘Route 3 Box 250D’, even though it is a co-write about rural life with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson. What makes it work is that it is an emotionally invested, detailed story about a specific family situation which feels very real, which does not shy away from the dark side. The story of growing up in a trailer in Mississippi with a violent stepfather with the only refuge fishing on a neighbour’s pond until the child’s prayers are answered when rescue comes from an uncle is deeply moving, as the protagonist reflects,

That’s where I became a man
Long before my time

The lyrics note bleakly, “Hollywood don’t make no movies” about the kind of life he led, but actually there is the kernel of a film, or perhaps a novel, in this song.

I liked ‘Shine’, written by Neil Thrasher, Trent Summar, Wendell Mobley. Set to an engaging banjo-led arrangement (but still a bit too loud), it tells the story of a rural moonshiner giving some hope to the residents of a town badly affected by the economic downturn of the past few years.

‘Top Of The World’, written by Jason Sellers, Rob Hatch, Lance Miller and Vicky McGehee, is a pretty good mid-tempo love song with a catchy tune, and I also quite liked ‘Goodnight Kiss’, written by Hatch and Sellers with Randy. ‘Wherever Love Goes’ is a pleasant contemporary country duet with labelmate Kristy Lee Cook, written by Sellers with Neil Thrasher and Paul Jenkins.

‘Like A Cowboy’ and ‘Let’s Not Let It’ are decent songs both co written by Randy, hampered by heavy handed production. ‘Sunshine On The Line’, written with Dallas Davidson, has a fairly generic lyric about good times with a pretty girl in the summer, but is saved by the energetic Southern rock performance.

This is an uneven record, which always makes giving a grade somewhat notional. The best songs deserve A status, and I recommend cherrypicking those to download. I suspect these are the ones that won’t get played on radio, but it is good to see that artists with one eye on the charts are stil able to include songs of substance on their albums.

Grade: B

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Uncaged’

The Zac Brown Band’s music is difficult to categorize. While much of it is firmly rooted in country music, it is also heavily influenced by Southern rock and reggae, and at times it also reminds me of what Top 40 and adult contemporary radio used to sound like back in the 1970s. Because their selections tend to be eclectic, I’m always a little apprehensive when they release a new album, figuring it is only a matter of time before they release something that I don’t like. I’ll also admit that I was initially put off by Uncaged’s creepy cover art by Brandon Maldonado, which depicts what looks like a demonic representation of the Virgin Mary, and which is titled “Our Lady of Merciful Fate”. Cover art aside, however, Uncaged is a solid collection of tunes, though it isn’t quite as satisfying as the band’s previous two releases.

Once again Keith Stegall shares production duties with Zac Brown, and the band members all had a hand in writing ten of the album’s eleven tracks, and once again they’ve managed to push the boundaries of country music while maintaining a freshness that continues to elude the music of most of their peers. The album opens with the Caribbean-flavored “Jump Right In”, a catchy and enjoyable, though not remotely country number. The Caribbean theme is revisited a few tracks later with “Island Song”, a fun but lightweight summertime number that is the album’s only song not written by any of the band members.

The album’s best track is the current single “The Wind”, a bluegrass-tinged, fast-paced number that Occasional Hope reviewed last month. It is quite different from anything that the band has done previously and the sort of song I never expected to hear from them. Nothing else on the album comes as close to traditional country, which is a slight disappointment because I’d really like to hear more music in this vein from them. They push the envelope further on a few other tracks, which unfortunately don’t work as well. The Southern-rock title track is a bit too heavy on the electric guitars for my taste, though it is probably a good number to jam onstage. Likewise, I could have done without the R&B flavored “Overnight” with guest artist Trombone Shorty, which really sounds out-of-place in this collection.

The bulk of the album sounds similar to the band’s first two major label releases and all of the songs are worth listening to. “Sweet Annie” reminds me a lot of “Colder Weather” and is a good candidate for a single release, and the fast-paced “Natural Disaster”, which has a beat similar to John Denver and Emmylou Harris’ “Wild Montana Skies” is a particular favorite of mine. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” reminds me of the kind of song Blackhawk used to do; it too is a potential hit single. The album’s last two tracks, “Day that I Die” with guest artist Amos Lee, and “Last But Not Least”, which the band co-wrote with Mac McAnally, are both excellent but probably aren’t commercial enough to be sent to radio.

Despite a few missteps, Uncaged is a good example of why one shouldn’t judge a book — or an album — by its cover. While I prefer The Foundation and You Get What You Give, Uncaged has grown on me with repeated listenings and there is more than enough here to keep Zac Brown Band fans satisfied.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Thirty Miles West’

Listening to a new Alan Jackson album is much like watching a John Wayne movie; one pretty much knows what to expect and there are very seldom any big surprises, yet when it’s over, one usually feels satisfied and fully entertained. His latest effort, Thirty Miles West, is his first release on his own imprint, through a new arrangement with EMI Nashville. Despite the label change, the album’s content is still very much in the same vein as most of his Arista albums. Longtime collaborator Keith Stegall is once again in the producer’s chair.

Radio seems to have cooled towards Jackson lately; aside from his guest appearance on the Zac Brown Band’s #1 hit “As She’s Walking Away”, he hasn’t scored a Top 10 hit in three years, and the first of Thirty Miles West’s two advance singles, the self-penned “Long Way To Go”, failed to reach the Top 20. A catchy, fun, if somewhat unoriginal Jimmy Buffett-style summertime song, it deserved to chart higher than its #24 peak. The current single “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” currently sits at #26. It is a very nice break-up ballad written by Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, in which the male protagonist graciously offers to take the blame for the relationship’s failure.

One of my favorite tracks is the energetic bluegrass-tinged “Dixie Highway”, which features a guest appearance by Zac Brown. It’s the best of the six songs that Alan wrote for the album. At nearly seven and a half minutes, it is too long to be a single, though a heavily edited version might eventually be released to radio. I also quite “Life Keeps Bringing Me Down”, which is a real toe-tapper and not a mournful ballad as the title suggests.

The album does contain a few missteps; Alan’s compositions “Everything But The Wings” and “Look Her In The Eyes and Lie” aren’t quite up to his usual standard. Likewise, “She Don’t Get High” — which despite its title isn’t about a recovering addict — is a bit pedestrian; however, it is just middle-of-the-road enough that it might have a shot at being well received at radio.

There are no great artistic stretches here; Jackson remains fully within his comfort zone for the entire album. However, it is a solid and entertaining album that holds its own against Alan’s impressive back catalog. Sometimes that’s all that the listener wants, especially in an era in which country music is increasingly overwhelmed by over-the-top pop and rock. It remains to be seen if Thirty Miles West can revive Alan’s radio career, but even if it does not, it is one of this year’s better efforts and is worth buying.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Colder Weather’

In many ways, the Zac Brown Band reminds me of the sort of act that could frequently be heard on Top 40 AM radio stations in the 1970s when artists such as Mac Davis, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, and Crystal Gayle were fixtures at the top of both the country and pop charts. Though the boys from Georgia are more firmly rooted in country music than their 1970s counterparts, it’s not difficult to imagine them achieving the same kind of crossover success with many of their records. Their current release, “Colder Weather” is prime example. Reminiscent of Dave Loggins’ 1974 hit “Please Come To Boston,” it tells the tale of a man with wanderlust, who in the song’s first verse, is heading back out on the road, leaving behind the woman who loves him. As he bids her farewell, she says to him:

“… you’re a rambling man
And you ain’t ever gonna change,
You got a gypsy’s soul to blame
And you were born for leavin’.”

By the second verse, however, the song moves in a different direction. Unlike Loggins’ song where the main character keeps moving from place to place, “Colder Weather’s” protagonist pulls into a truck stop diner and starts having second thoughts about having left his lover behind. He returns to her but it isn’t long before the urge to roam overtakes him again. By the end of the song there isn’t any resolution; the listener is left with the impression that the character is perpetually conflicted about whether to stay or to go, and that the relationship never really moves forward.

I’ve frequently been critical of artists who stray too far from their country roots in pursuit of pop stardom, but “Colder Weather” is a good example of a well-crafted country-pop record. It opens with a gentle piano solo, with some subtle fiddle and steel entering into the mix during the second verse. The production soars just a bit before the bridge, with some percussion and electric guitars, which though prominent, are not ostentatious and overwhelming, in stark contrast to most contemporary country recordings. It’s not a traditional record, but Keith Stegall’s restrained production and the band’s harmonies help to create a fresh sound that should stand out amongst the slickness and blandness of almost everything else on the radio.

“Colder Weather” was written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey, and Coy Bowles. It can be heard here.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Zac Brown Band feat. Alan Jackson – ‘As She’s Walking Away’

The Zac Brown Band are one of the most interesting groups around at the moment. Certainly not traditional country, they more or less successfully incorporate various musical influences into an organic sounding whole which is not over-produced. Each of their singles to date has brought out a different side to their music while managing to please radio each time, a feat which has helped to propel their debut album, The Foundation to almost two millions sales and counting, and the band to a slate of nominations at the upcoming CMA Awards, including an unexpected nod for the biggest prize of all – Entertainer of the Year.

Their likeable guitar and fiddle led new single is the first from their second album, You Get What You Give, which has just debuted with encouraging early sales. It has an attractively lilting tune and a neatly constructed storyline, apparently based on a real life incident. Written like the majority of the band’s work by lead singer Zac Brown and Wyatt Durrette, the straightforward story has the protagonist too shy to make a move on an unknown girl he like the look of, only to feel the pangs of regret as she disappears:

Now I’m falling in love as she’s walking away

Alan Jackson (with whom the group shares producer Keith Stegall) has been recruited to play the wise older man at the bar advising the protagonist to take a chance and not risk regretting the one that got away, as he did himself. His warm sincere vocal is very effective as he proffers the words of wisdom,

Roll the dice and have some faith

The story is not actually resolved in the song. The video, which otherwise interprets the song rather literally, does end with the boy approaching the girl, but leaves the payoff hanging. But the song itself is all about the snapshot, the regret of the moment, and the old man’s advice. It is all very charming and is deservedly doing well on country radio.

Grade: B+