Posts Tagged ‘Faith Hill’

Album Review: Sara Evans “Slow Me Down”

March 28, 2014

Sara Evans

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbum

Slow Me Down

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When Sara Evans appeared on Opry Backstage with Bill Anderson in the late 90s, she commented on her voice, saying no matter what she sings it’ll always come out country. That logic may’ve been true at the time, but with producer Mark Bright at the helm and a 2014 mentality to uphold, Evans is as far from her country roots as one can be and still associate with country music.

If you’ve studied the careers of the 80s and 90s country women as closely as I have over the years, you know they show their true colors when their commercial prospects begin to fade. Do they go the Reba or Faith Hill route and squeeze out every last hit, with little regard for quality? Or do they take the Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless route and seamlessly transition into a legacy career marked by adventurous and risk taking records that display the innate artistry that made them too smart for country radio in the first place?

With Slow Me Down Evans fits squarely into the former category with an album that exposes a hidden truth of her career – that she was never that artistic at all, just a trend follower who happened to come of age at a time when good quality songs were still the mainstay of mainstream Nashville. With that era firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left with a singer resorting to whatever she can to find a platform, and the results are more than a little desperate.

When the title track was released late September, the press behind it made “Slow Me Down” out to be the best thing Evans had ever recorded, a record akin to the 80s crossover hits that came between the Urban Cowboy era and the new traditionalist movement. In reality it’s a terrible song, shoddily written by Merv Green, Heather Morgan, and Jimmy Robbins. The verses are stunted and repetitive and the chorus, while strong, becomes too breathy when Evans morphs into a pop diva by the end.

The rest of the album follows suit, with Evans turning out one generic ‘bright pop’ moment after another with little regard to singing anything that actually has something to say. Bright’s use of drums and electric guitars is far too generic for Evans, and any uniqueness in her voice is suppressed in favor of exploiting the lowest common denominator. Even her trademark covers of mainstream hits have taken a beating, with her take on Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” maintaining far too much of his original, down to inviting him in for a guest vocal.

When I reviewed Stronger three years ago, I said one of that project’s shortcomings was the lack of Evans’ trademark sweeping story songs (‘I Learned That From You’ and ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’) and her distinctive honky-tonkers (‘Born To Fly’ and ‘Suds In The Bucket’). Those problems exist here, too, but after three years of such songs going the way of VCRs and Landline telephones, it’s hardly a surprise. Evans does try and maintain the last ounce of her country credibility with “Better Off,” a fiddle-heavy tune featuring Vince Gill, but the production is still far too loud, with drums and noise marring the purer elements.

If it’s any consolation, there’s a lyrical consistency on Slow Me Down that elevates the album above Stronger, which had too may juvenile lyrical couplets. But that’s hardly a cause for celebration, as the music here is far too weak, generic, and bland for a singer of Evans’ caliber. I’m not overly disappointed, though, as I kind of expected this, and in the context of mainstream country, this is one of the less irritating releases to come so far this year.

A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

September 20, 2013

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success ofRed came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Kelly Clarkson

January 31, 2012

I’ve never really admitted this before, but I’m a huge fan of Kelly Clarkson. No, I didn’t watch her compete on or win the inaugural season of American Idol. I fell in love with her after hearing “Breakaway” for the first time in 2004.

When I bought her album in Jan 2005 I was surprised to like it. As a country music fan, I’m not easily drawn to pop music. But I didn’t just like the Breakaway album I loved it. It’s easily my favorite pop recording of the 00s. I had become a fan.

On that premise I bought My December in 2007. I was so shocked by the contrast in sound to Breakaway, I sort of gave up on Clarkson. Fearing All I Ever Wanted would only make me wish for a return to her Breakaway glory, I skipped that album entirely.

Now, I’m hardly a fair weather fan. I love Clarkson’s music so much, I begged for her to be good again. After she sang “Don’t You Wanna Stay” with Jason Aldean, she reclaimed the glory I was hoping she’d come back to.

Now I’m mad I skipped All I Ever Wanted but consider it a lesson learned. It’s  taken until this year to finally dive in and become the fan I should’ve been since that day in 2004 when she captured my attention with one little song.

Here are my 25 personal favorite Clarkson recordings with my two favorite albums Breakaway and Stronger receiving ample attention. If this level of quality continues into the next ten years of her career, there’s no telling where she’ll be able to go.

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Album Review – George Strait “Here For A Good Time”

September 7, 2011

George Strait

Here For A Good Time

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On the title track to his new album, George Strait sings “I’m not here for a long time/but I’m here for a good time,” suggesting an attitude shift towards lightening up the mood and enjoying whatever remains of his time on earth. The contradiction is, he didn’t tell that to the rest of the album. He might not want to sit around and sing some old sad song, but that’s just what he’s doing, and doing it better than almost anyone half his age.

Here For A Good Time isn’t quite the feel-good party album the title suggests but rather an album born from reflection. More than 30 years into his career, Strait has assumed the role of the elder statesman looking back as much as looking forward. It’s easy to understand why, no less than seven tracks were co-written by Strait, his son Bubba, and Dean Dillon. Many were skeptical of Strait’s need to write his own material, a practice he put into full force on 2009’s Twang, complaining that he’d never be introspective.

With “I’ll Always Remember You” he proves all the naysayers wrong. The album’s closing number, it’s less a song than a recitation spoken directly to his fans on the subject of his looming retirement. While he says he still has much left to say and do, the day is growing closer when he’ll walk out of the spotlight. It’s kind of strange to hear an artist address his listeners on an album so clearly, but Strait pulls it off with ease.

And even though it closes the album, it’s “Remember” which sets the tone of reflection permeating the rest of the album. On “A Showman’s Life,” Jesse Winchester’s ballad featuring backing vocals from Faith Hill, he brings the pitfalls of life as a musician into full focus while he takes a cold hard look at his life choices on “Drinkin’ Man.”

He may not of closely lived either track, but he infuses his vocal performances with just enough conviction to pull them off and the easygoing production of fiddles and steel guitars only adds to the mix here. It’s nice to hear her again even if on someone else’s album, but Hill’s contributions to “Life” are pretty slight. And “Drinkin’ Man” succeeds on two distinct fronts – Strait’s storytelling abilities and the killer hook, “It’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man.” Quitting the bottle is nearly impossible to do, and Strait pulls off the regret perfectly. It’s also my favorite song on the album because it’s true – growing up with an alcoholic grandfather, I know all about the control alcohol can have over a person.

The most daring moment on the album comes from Chuck Cannon and Allen Shamblin’s “Poison.”  The finished track is unlike anything Strait has ever recorded – bleak in nature, it employs an echo in the final chorus that only adds to the spookiness. The idea that you have to pick your poison because “you can learn to love anything” no matter if it’s good for you or not, is chill-inducing. It’s also It’s hard to imagine a better use of steel guitar on a song in 2011. It always amazes me that one instrument can bring fourth joy and pain so convincingly that its mere placement can alter the mood of a song. Only in country music is that possible.

And only in country music can artists have such a breadth of work that newer songs recall classic hits. “House Across The Bay” recalls “Marina Del Ray” while “Shame On Me” is so timeless Strait, it could’ve worked on any of his past projects including his debut. Of the two, “Bay” is the better song, using the barrier of a body of water to display heartache. “Me” isn’t bad, though, just unremarkable compared to Strait’s past work since you feel like he’s done it before. But to hear him do it again is to hear a master at work. No one, except maybe Alan Jackson, can pull off the neo-traditionalist sound like Strait.

Also, no one sticks to his roots like him, either. Even on a somber collection like Time, there’s room to add a little Texas flare. While “Lone Star Blues” may appeal to some, it’s among my least favorite tracks on the album along with “Blue Marlin Blues.” It might be the upbeat honky-tonk nature of the tracks, but I’ve never really cared for Strait in this mode. I did enjoy the ever-present steel guitar on “Lone Star Blues,” but couldn’t get into the lyrics.

And like the honky-tonk romps. The other two tracks are a mixed bag as well. While both “Love’s Gonna Make It” and “Three Nails on a Cross” are solid, only “Cross” the album’s gospel number is a keeper. While not one I’ve gotten into much yet, I really like the message of forgiveness conveyed in “Cross.” “Love” on the other hand isn’t very memorable apart from the chorus, which blends voices together so well you almost forget Strait is the one singing.

In the end Here For A Good Time is one of the strongest mainstream country albums of 2011. He proves once again why he’s assumed his legendary status, and this is one of the most interesting recordings you’ll hear all year. I honestly wasn’t going to buy the album, and having listened to it through an advanced copy, I’m very glad I did. Time outshines every album he’s made for quite some time.

30 Day Song Challenge

June 4, 2011

A recent trend on Facebook is the ever popular “30 Day Song Challenge” a game that has people posting a song a day relating to a theme. When the 30 days are through, all of your friends will know just a little more about you – though the songs that shaped you in some way. I’ve been working on my list since April 26 and have found it both fun and frustrating because I want to think outside the box and pick songs that aren’t predictable for each day.

NOTE: A sincere apology in the tardiness of this post – I was trying to embed a YouTube clip for each song, but was encountering so many technical difficulties, I decided to abandon that idea all together.

To listen to the songs below, please follow this link to the notes section of my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150162533882511

Day 1 – your favorite song – Eagles “Lyin Eyes”

The story of a woman who can open doors with just a smile, “Eyes” is the purest country song in the Eagles catalog. An epic tale of cheating, the protagonist knows exactly where to find what her husband can’t give her.

On the cheating side of town resides the man with fiery eyes and dreams no one can steal, but even as she rushes to his arms, she knows it’s only for a while. She promises to leave her man with hands as cold as ice, but she’s so far deep into emotional betrayals, she doesn’t even know what she wants. Even a sane girl can draw the shades, hang her head to cry, and wonder how it ever got this crazy. In the end she’s the same old girl she used to be – hoping a new life would change what only she can fix from inside herself.

“Eyes” is my favorite song, a distinction that took a long while to figure out, because of the vivid nature of the story and the masterful songwriting of Glen Frey and Don Henley. To think that two living legends were able to craft something so perfect is almost beyond my comprehension. This is a once and a lifetime gem worthy of its place among the greatest pieces of recorded music.

Day 2 – Your Least Favorite Song – Jason Aldean “Crazy Town”

A colossal failure, “Town’s” core message – the fakeness of those trying to make it in the country music industry – is lost in a sea of rockish guitars and shier noise. Much like the message in the lyrics, Aldean comes off as a pseudo-rocker, shouting to be heard.

The juxtaposition of “Town’s” message and the song’s production are most perplexing – if Aldean wanted to get his message across, why do it by adding to the problem? If country music really has become Hollywood with a touch of twang, than you’d think he’d do his part to keep his music on the other end of the spectrum.

Day 3 – A Song That Makes You Happy – Mary Chapin Carpenter “I Take My Chances”

A tough choice, I had it between two Carpenter classics – “Chances” and “The Hard Way,” songs that elicit a feeling of jubilation and never fail to brighten my mood.

The production by John Jennings is everything I love about 90s country – crisp and clean yet modern in its sensibilities. “Chances” is an anthem for anyone assessing risk – a statement on stepping out of a comfort zone  and a timeless message that’s grown with me my whole life.

Day 4 – A Song That Makes You Sad – Pirates of the Mississippi “Feed Jake”

The heartbreaking tale of a man and the dog he wants taken care of if he should ever leave this world, is one of the saddest expressions of love I’ve ever heard. Anytime a dog is involved in anything, I’m a puddle. 

Growing up with dogs, I know the bond first hand – they’re more than pets, but extensions of who we are. They’re members of the family, yet appendages attached to us at the hip. A big shout out to songwriter Danny “Bear” Mayo for writing this masterful song. 

Day 5 – A Song That Reminds You of Someone – Stevie Nicks “Landslide”

Who knew that when we chose this song for my grandfather’s funeral back in January, it would appear around every corner for the rest of the year? Lets see, it was covered by Gwyneth Paltrow, Heather Morris, and Naya Rivera on Glee and by Nicks herself on Oprah (with an assist by Sheryl Crow) and Dancing With The Stars.

The lyrics speak to the essence of my grandfather – the message about climbing mountains and seeing your reflection in snow covered hills – speaks to how his spirit is going to live on in the land around our condo in Bretton Woods, a place he found for us now 17 years ago. 

More than mine, it’s really my mother’s story of her relationship with him. When Fleetwood Mac returned in 1997 for their The Dance reunion concert Nicks prefaced this song with “This is for you Daddy.” It’s the version most heard on radio, and the one cemented in our hearts forever. 

Day 6 – A Song That Reminds You of Somewhere – Lonestar “Everything’s Changed”

The singular power of great works is their ability to transport us back to that special place and time. In every day life, it’s music that accomplishes the time time travel most often, taking us back to memories long over but hardly forgotten. 

My memory of this song began bright an early on the last day of a vacation in Cleveland, Ohio, the last week of August 1998. Instead of the generic alarm, the clock was tuned to the local country station where this song woke me from a slumber. I was overwhelmingly distraught that day, not wanting to leave. 

Whenever I want to go back to that week, I can turn on this song, a number #2 hit that year, and relieve a great moment in my life. 

Day 7 – A Song That Reminds You of a Certain Event – Garth Brooks “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”

In 1997, when my grandfather was turning 75, we thought it would be fun if I would play this song at the celebration we were throwing for friends and family. I’m not a singer or guitar player but got by on the fact it was entertaining.

Looking back, I had much fun doing it – I had the cowboy hat and everything – and regard it as one of the more memorable events of my life.

Day 8 – A Song You Know All The Words To – Faith Hill “Breathe”

I know all the words to many a country song, but none stick out in my mind as Faith Hill’s turn of the century smash. 

When this song first came out I was enthralled by her breathy vocal. I loved the sexiness of the verses coupled with the booming power of the choruses. I’d never heard a country song command so much attention and much such a statement as “Breathe” did. It took me a few listens to remind myself that Faith Hill was singing. I was so obsessed with the song, it never left my head.

This, of course, led to the explosion of Faith Hill in 2000. She was everywhere – on our television screens, the covers of our magazines, selling out our concert venues, and representing country music on a mass scale. Hill dealt with her share of criticism for leaning too far into the mainstream, but she couldn’t do wrong in my eyes. “Breathe” is the symbol of a moment in time when the stars aligned for a girl next door turned pop diva. Hill may never be this iconic again, or release a more perfect music video, but with one song she made her mark on music history.

Day 9 – A Song You Can Dance To – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John “You’re The One That I Want”

A hard category to come up with something groovy enough to get you on your feet, I chose this iconic classic when nothing else would come to mind.

The overall magic of the musical accompaniment mixed with an actor with musical chops and a singer who can act,  will get even the whitest male on the dance floor.

Day 10 – A Song That Makes You Fall Asleep – Alan Jackson “Good Imitation of the Blues.” 

Nothing is more soothing then slow balladry, Alan’s deep voice, and production by the queen of relaxation Alison Krauss. 

Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose is one CD I could never quite wrap my head around – slow and lounge-like yet cold and off-putting, the overall package wares on you after a while and makes it almost impossible to get through without being lulled to sleep. The album, and especially this song, are not meant to be heard when driving.

Like Red on a Rose was supposed silence the critics looking for something new from the iconic singer, but he went a bit too far away from his roots. Many liked it after repeated listenings, but I never could get into it all that much.

Day 11 – A Song From Your Favorite Band – Dixie Chicks “Cold Day in July”

The least remembered single from Fly, “July” is a story of dissolve, regret, and moving on – A masterclass of musicianship and vocal prowess. 

The Dixie Chicks are my favorite band because they never fail to stand out, rise above, and command attention. There hasn’t ever been anyone like them and there never will again – they brought Bluegrass to the mainstream and won the hearts of fans the world over.

Never has an act gone from universal love to calculated hate so fast. But through it all, the music remains at a quality rarely surpassed and that’s all that really matters.

Day 12 – A Song From A Band You Hate – JaneDear Girls “Wildflower”

The puzzling mix of winey girl-like vocals and embarrassing production values mix with inane lyrical content to create a duo that would only be signed to the Nashville of today – a town hell bent on a fast dollar and easy marketability. Talent often takes a backseat in this new model and it shows here.

When thinking of the group/band evolution in country music you have The Carter Family laying the foundation and everyone from The Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Diamond Rio, Highway 101, Restless Heart, Blackhawk, Shenandoah, Dixie Chicks, and more recently, Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, Little Big Town, and The Band Perry building on that foundation.

Against those that paved the way, JaneDear Girls are a step below in all aspects and not worthy of building on or adding to the legacy that precedes them.

They did a better than average job on the recent ACM Women of Country special, but it’s hard to take them seriously in their quest to be the next great band in country music.

Day 13 – A Song That Is A Guilty Pleasure – The Carpenters “Top Of The World”

When it comes to music, I’m not afraid to stand up and lay claim to something I love, no matter how corny or embarrassing it may be.

“Top of the World,” a massive hit for The Carpenters in the early 70s, is just such one of those songs. The sunny production and proclamation of a young romance are irresistible. Sure, the whole thing is dated by about forty years but it doesn’t matter – music, and not just country, is a feeling and this never fails to bring out my optimistic side.

Day 14 – A Song No One Would Expect You to Love – Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al”

This tale of mid-life crisis is a wordy gem in need of a deeper listen. The magic isn’t in Simon’s weightless vocal but in the lyrics themselves. It’s a masterclass in clever wordplay and a cool record in an era where style outranked substance. 

Day 15 – A Song That Describes You – Tim McGraw “The Cowboy In Me”

If ever the lyrics of a song were meant to mirror my life, it’s this one. When searching for a song to fit this category, I was looking at McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album jacket and re-read the words to “Cowboy” and just knew I’d found it. 

I’m that guy who doesn’t know why he acts the way he does, like he doesn’t have a single thing to lose. Without a doubt I’m my own worst enemy. My life is definitely one most would love to have, yet I can’t seem to really fundamentally get that through my head. And yes, I’ve been known to wake up fighting mad.

Maybe it is just the cowboy in me, or at least the pseudo-cowboy, since I’m as far from “cowboy” as Jason Aldean is from hardcore traditional, but this is the song that best describes the essence of my being.

Day 16 – A Song You Used to love but now hate – Shania Twain “You’re Still The One”

A first-rate pop/country love song, “One” is, at it’s core, a really good song. It’s an iconic record that defines an era and has one of the sexiest music videos of its day.

But with all it has going for it, it has a major problem – It doesn’t hold up well after repeated listenings and since it was a major hit, radio played the fire out of it in 1998. Due to its success, I can’t stand it to this day – even after more than a decade of not hearing it, I’m still extremely sick of it.

But that’s just me.

Day 17 – A Song you Hear Often On The Radio – Jessica Andrews “Who I Am”

This is too weird. As I go to write my piece on this song, it’s playing on my local country station. You think I hear it often?

I chose Andrews’s sole number one hit because it would’ve been too easy to chose Jason and Kelly’s duet or Sara Evans’s latest. I wanted to go with a song that either hasn’t died or has seen a resurgence in recent years and this one fit the bill perfectly. Plus, I’ve always loved the song, so I can’t complain about being able to hear it again.

Day 18 – A Song You Wish You Heard on the Radio – Trisha Yearwood “Nothin’ Bout Memphis”

My favorite non-single of the last ten years, “Memphis” is a masterclass in vocal prowess, expert storytelling, and using your talents to full effect.

The story of a women visiting a town with a new love that was made famous through memories made with a former flame, is the single greatest missed opportunity in years. This is the kind of song country radio needs – intelligent and introspective yet modern and classy. Unfortunately, it’s too good for country radio which kind of makes me happy it wasn’t a single. To watch it bomb, a la “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” would have been much too painful.

Day 19 – A Song From Your Favorite Album – Dixie Chicks “More Love”

Upon its release in August 2002, Home grabbed my attention and  stole my heart. I had an admiration for the Chicks since 1997, but this is when I first fell in love with they had to offer country radio. I loved all of their previous hits but I had a deeper affection for them after Home.

My favorite track from the album is “Truth Number 2,” but I chose to highlight “More Love” here because I wanted to go with a track not herald over on the project; one needing more attention.

Day 20 – A Song You Listen to when you’re Angry – Sheryl Crow “If It Makes You Happy”

No one does angry, angst ridden rock better then Sheryl Crow. Which is why I’ve steered away from her recent output of out of character music. 

But “Happy” is one of her best songs and one of her most country. It’s the perfect tune to throw on when you just feel like screaming. There’s nothing better than belting the chorus to relieve negative energy pent up inside.

(NOTE: My runner-up choice is Dixie Chicks “Not Ready To Make Nice,” the song I would’ve gone with had they not appeared twice in 20 songs already)

Day 21 – A Song You Listen to When You’re Happy – Ashton Shepherd “The Bigger The Heart”

This little number from 2008′s Sounds So Good shouldn’t fail to put anyone in a good mood. It’s the kind of upbeat traditional country Patty Loveless brought to the mainstream in the 90s and Shepherd is nicely updating it for the 21st century.

It’s the right kind of sunny excitement and a case where you can be upbeat and happy without sacrificing substance. The whole package (production and Shepherd’s vocal) is so intoxicating you can’t help but be drawn right in. This is how uptempo country music used to and should still sound. Here’s a perfect example of it done right.

Day 22 – A Song You Listen to When You’re Sad – Alison Krauss and James Taylor “How’s The World Treating You”

When sadness penetrates you, it’s best to play an equally dreary song to turn around your mood and get you out of your funk.

And for me, this Grammy winning duet does it every time. When they sing about empty schedules and blue Mondays, its so over the top gut wrenching, you can’t help but foster a smile. It’s comforting to know you aren’t feeling this down and out and it helps turn you around.

Day 23 – A Song You Want To Play At Your Wedding – Charlie Daniels Band “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” 

To go the classic love song route would’ve been too easy. How many people do you think went and posted “I Cross My Heart” or “Keeper of the Stars?”

I chose to go from a different angle and pick CDB’s 1979 classic, the perfect get on your feet and dance number. Its already livened up a few weddings I’ve been to, and trust me, it does the trick every time. As much as you want romance, the guests have to dance the night away, right?

Day 24 – A Song You Want To Play At Your Funeral – Vince Gill “Go Rest High On That Mountain”

Unlike the out-of-the-box wedding pick, I went ubber-traditional with this one. Believe me, it wasn’t because I wanted to, but I couldn’t think of the perfect “he lived a good life” song. 

In the end, though, this timeless tale that honors both Keith Whitley and Gill’s late brother, is the perfect song for anyone being laid to rest because when the time comes, your work on earth really is done.

Day 25 – A Song That Makes You Laugh – Mark Chestnut “Going Through The Big D”

Country music has had its share of quirky lyrics but this tale of divorce is a play on words laugh fest that turns a serious event into brilliant comic fodder.

As the story goes, the couple married after six moths and bought a house in a sub-divided neighborhood. Pretty quickly the fuses were short, the night were long, and it was over before they knew what they had gotten themselves into. Problem is, divorce is never final because they’re “still paying on the vinyl.”

Maybe the multi-colored waterproof flooring in the laundry room did the marriage in, or was it the warning from his friends who said he jumped into the river of love a little soon?

But he shouldn’t be complaining – she got the lemon of a house while he made off easy with the Jeep. At least we know what’s really important in all this – when you’re going through the “Big D” it doesn’t mean Dallas.

Day 26 – A Song You Can Play On An Instrument – NO SELECTION

That’s right, folks. I can’t play a single instrument so I opted out of this category.

Day 27 – A Song You Wish You Could Play On An Instrument – Nickel Creek “Sweet Afton” 

I credit this song, their version of the lyrical Robert Burns poem set to music, with making me love the mandolin. I’d never heard such a beautiful sound in my life. If I could learn any instrumental part of a song, it would be that one.

Please listen to this recording if you haven’t already – it’s a flawless record that bridges the best of bluegrass with the storytelling made famous by country music and creates a marriage sweet and pure. It’s one of the best records I’ve ever heard in my life.

Day 28 – A Song That Makes You Feel Guilty – Tracy Lawrence “Lessons Learned”

They don’t call this a song challenge for nothing – I couldn’t think of a single song to fit this theme. Instead I went with a song about being guilty, this top 5 hit from 2000. 

Through any guilt you inevitably learn something not just about the situation but about yourself. And the best lessons are those that run deep, don’t go away, or come cheep because this world turns on those lessons we’ve learned.

Day 29 – A Song From Your Childhood – Lila McCann “I Wanna Fall In Love”

Probably among the easiest of categories, I could assemble a list a mile wide of defining songs from my childhood. But in the spirit of choosing just one, I picked McCann’s sole chart topper from 1997 because it stands out as one I couldn’t get enough of back then, and still love today.

The infectious vocal and melody were perfect for McCann’s young age and showcased the promise of her talent while framing her with the right mix of country and pop. Plus, the lyrical content help this from becoming an embarrassment all these years later. I’m as proud to say I love this now, as I did back then.

Day 30 – Your Favorite Song From This Time Last Year – Miranda Lambert “The House That Built Me”

Its fitting that the end of this challenge comes with one of the best songs in recent memory. In May 2010, I hadn’t yet heard “From A Table Away” or “If I Die Young,” so this was still number one on my list at the time.

A timeless tale of finding yourself from within the walls of your childhood home, “Me” is at the heart of the human journey to becoming whole. We look to what built and shaped us to recapture the innocence taken from us by the journey into adulthood. Problem is, you can never recapture a memory or a feeling no matter how much you try; it’s going to turn out differently every time. But those feelings of innocence are in the essence of our souls, and to tap into them, is to bring you closer to your authentic self, the person you were put on this planet to become.


Music Review: Lori McKenna at the River Club Music Hall

March 7, 2011

Saturday night, March 5, marked Lori McKenna’s inaugural performance at the River Club Music Hall, an intimate 300 seat theatre in Scituate Massachusetts.  The perfect venue to showcase her raw sensibilities, and with its ceiling fans and stone fireplace, the River Club is ski chalet meets country roadhouse (and in the old Golden Rooster location). It’s very rare to have such an accommodating venue on the South Shore and my first visit won’t be the last. Plus, It’s an uncommon delight when someone of Lori McKenna’s stature tours near where you live. While on her website in late January, I browsed her tour dates thinking the closet would be Harvard Square or a folksy Boston club. Imagine my surprise when I found the date in Scituate, just 25 minutes from my home in Hingham. After falling in love with Lorraine, I didn’t hesitate to purchase tickets.

McKenna has a natural ease about her suited to smaller venues. When she opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the TD Garden in 2007, the enormity of the experience swallowed her whole and poorly showcased her talent. That performance was marred by appalling acoustics that drowned out her vocals. I’m not exaggerating when I say you couldn’t understand a word she was singing. McKenna was loosing herself but smartly found her way back. Her concert Saturday night not only fixed all those problems, but brilliantly showcased one of the best singer/songwriters I’ve heard in quite a long time. When Hill said we were fortunate to have her as a native daughter, she wasn’t kidding.

McKenna often sings about the disillusion of marriage and frequently takes the stance of an unhappy woman. While her songs speak to human experience, the way she spoke of her husband Gene was to see a woman deeply in love with her man. The  stories from her small-town life, like when she admitted to visiting her local Roche Bros supermarket 5-6 times a week, because she can’t seem to remember that Tuesday follows Monday, brought a homegrown authenticity to her performance. She may be a recording artist, but she’s also a wife and mother living as normal a life as you or I.

That homespun wisdom threaded together the whole set. Whether she was singing newer material like “The Luxury of Knowing” and “All I Ever Do” or classics like “Your Next Lover” and “Fireflies,” the audience could feel the emotion pouring out of her. This was never truer than on the heartrending show stopper, “Still Down Here” which also closes her latest album. Backed by only a piano (the one instrument she admitted to not knowing how to play) and Mark Erelli on guitar, she stood at the microphone with clasped hands and gave the song her all, even letting her voice crack as it went up an octave. She prefaced the tune by dedicating it to everyone, making it clear that the most outstanding music really is universal.

The always dazzling “Stealing Kisses,” was the only time in the night McKenna faintly mentioned her connection to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. (Hill herself took the song to #36 in 2006). She mentioned always loving when the audience applauds at the beginning of songs, and urged everyone to do it as she launched into “Kisses.” We were all happy to oblige. It’s funny, it wasn’t until she sang this song at the TD Garden four years ago that I fully grasped its meaning. For some reason, the line “I was stealing kisses from a boy/now I’m begging affection from a man” went over my head. Now that I get that both the boy and the man are the same person, quiet desperation never sounded so good.

Another highlight came when McKenna spoke of her foray into the belly of the beast. She mentioned how she’s tricked well-known songwriters to visit Stoughton and write with her by making them believe her hometown is just like Boston. To get anyone to travel to Massachusetts to write with you is a marvel in itself. She faced an uphill battle yet won everyone over in the process, singling out songwriter Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” with Miranda Lambert and the aforementioned “All I Ever Do” which appears on Lorraine.

The way McKenna spoke of her fellow songwriters including Hemby but also Andrew Dorff, brought a grounding to the evening. She unknowingly transported the audience to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, and made everyone wish they knew Dorff personally. He came off as quite the character, a common visiter in McKenna’s world. She told the story of how he visits her local Panera Bread for a well endowed waitress, and tried to get McKenna to write a song about her entitled, “Cross in the Cleavage.” She said no but urged Dorff to write it himself and get Toby Keith to sing it. After “Get Out of My Car,” Keith will sing anything, so you don’t know how much truth is in that statement.

What I took away from the show wasn’t the authenticity or homespun wisdom, but her natural ease on stage. With her friends and family in the audience, McKenna came off Loretta Lynn-esque – a hard working country gal doing what she loves on a Saturday night. More than a gig, it was a showcase for her wit and charm. Her looseness was quite surprising. After listening to her music I expected McKenna to be serious and almost brooding, yet she was very funny; almost like a very toned down version of Wynonna and Naomi Judd in their early days. McKenna sings about being a witness to your life, yet I felt like I was a witness to a bygone era in music. Nothing about her performance felt rehearsed or forced. Even if she’s been telling the same stories on stage every night, they felt as fresh as if she’d never told them before. McKenna is a treasure and should be treated as such.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about her opening act, Matt Chase, a singer/songwriter based in Boston. While he put in a solid performance, he overstayed his welcome by four songs and let his set get overrun with sameness. Let it be a lesson, and McKenna struggles with this herself from time to time, but singing every song in the same tempo with identical mellow and ease, doesn’t help you form an identity. While he has a distinct tone to his voice, it was all too mellow to make much of an impression. He did have one memorable moment towards the end of his set, though, when he sang a song about divorce entitled “Back My Name.” A country/rocker, I could see Vince Gill recording the tune and working his magic on it.


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