Posts Tagged ‘George Strait’

Album Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game”

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

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Cheater’s Game

* * * * *

If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music. 

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 19-11

December 5, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 19-11, enjoy!

Wreck and Ruin

19. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Wreck and Ruin

Peculiarity only works when it doesn’t feel like a shot in the dark, but rather a driving force. Following Rattlin’ Bones proved no easy undertaking, but Chambers and Nicholson deliver another quirky set all their own – ripe with originality but most importantly, fun.

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18. The Little Willies

For The Good Times

Listening to this band, I’m always amazed at Norah Jones ability to finally let loose, breaking down the tight reins she holds on her solo work. Their second outing, another set of wonderfully executed cover tunes, is excellent – especially on the Jones fronted “Fist City,” a rousing three minutes of pure sassy exuberance.

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17. Carrie Underwood

Blown Away

The best compliment I can pay Carrie Underwood right now is to reward her efforts of ambition, now matter how bombastic they may be. Her “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs” were two of the year’s most daring singles – dark and twisted but also unnervingly smart. Of all her contemporaries, Underwood is trying hardest to be an excellent songstress and her results are paying off. Now if she’d only release “Do You Think About Me…”

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16. Don Williams

And So It Goes

It’s a fine legacy if you’re known for fostering exciting new talent, but also resurrecting the careers of genre legends? That’s what elevates Sugar Hill Records into one of the finest entities around.

That’s thanks in large part to And So It Goes, which may cast Williams in the same mellow light he created more than forty years ago, but in 2012, that makes for a simple delight.

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15. Jason Eady

A.M. Country Heaven

What’s a guy to do who’s fed up with the general adolescence of Nashville’s country scene? Well, go write and record the smartest and most articulate slice of genre commentary  since “Murder On Music Row.” Oh, and following it up with a duet featuring Patty Loveless? That doesn’t hurt either.

Joey + Rory

14. Joey + Rory

His and Hers

Here’s a concept – build an album in two halves – he takes six songs, she takes six songs. But instead of seemingly mashing together two solo projects, make the result feel like a cohesive whole.

Joey + Rory’s appeal is their down home neighbors next door appeal and His and Hers furthers their homespun image wonderfully, but also elevates them to new and daring heights, proving that with the right song, they are outmatched. The title track is a fine ode to the trajectory of a couple’s love but they are simply devastating when tackling death, whether from the battlefield (“Josephine”) or old age (“When I’m Gone”). Palpable emotion hardly ever feels this real.

Free The Music

13. Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

Often, newer acts are easily panned for staying on message by following the trends of the day, thus never really making a musical imprint of their own. Leave Jerrod Niemann to be the exception to that and every other rule.

Free The Music bucks convention so abrasively it’s difficult to find common ground, but underneath the smorgasbord of horns and beats is a man trying to be an artistic country singer, a title he pretty much has locked up. Never has an individual sound been this fully formed, or sound so good.

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12. Little Big Town

Tornado

Coming out parties are never this exciting, are they? The latest in a long line of B acts elevating to A list status, LBT finally broke the mold and brought their expertly crafted harmonies and keen ear for song selection into the mainstream. It’s not a perfect album, but it blows almost all their competition out of the water.

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11. Lori McKenna

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole – EP

The title track may be the attention grabbing risk taker, but its how she changes up her sound – all while staying true to herself that makes this EP so exciting. Expertly crafted songs? That a bonus this time around.

Album Review – Easton Corbin “All Over The Road”

September 27, 2012

Easton Corbin

All Over The Road

* * * 1/2 

Upon the release of his self-titled debut in 2010, Easton Corbin was branded as the savior of country music thanks to his neo-traditional sound and George Strait-like vocal approach. Corbin showed promise, and scored back-to-back #1s, but his debut felt too safe, like he was aiming to please by recording songs that were middle of the road and took few risks.

Unfortunately that trend continues with All Over The Road and I can fully understand why. In our post “Neon” and “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” society, it’s clear that neo-traditionalism is being pushed out in an effort to “Kick It In The Sticks” with “The One That Got Away” while we “Tip It On Back” and “Take A Little Ride.”

But thankfully Corbin and producer Carson Chamberlin didn’t completely sacrifice quality at the price of commercial viability. There actually are some excellent songs thrown into the mix, and if country radio will play them, they might turn into big hits.

I’ve been a big fan of the lead single, Jim Beavers and Bob DiPiero’s “Lovin’ You Is Fun,” the catchy two-step number currently sitting at #8 and climbing. The easygoing nature of Corbin’s vocal coupled with the beautiful stands of steel guitar laced through the arrangement more than sell the song while the upbeat nature means its perfect fodder for heavy rotation at radio.

I also love the romantic “A Thing For You,” which Corbin co-wrote with Chamberlin and Tony Lane. Sounding like a long-lost mid-90s shuffle, the track succeeds because its light as air and turns the mournful steel guitar into an optimistic delight.

“Only A Girl” co-written by Chamberlin with Will Nance and Wade Kirby exists in much the same fashion, and is very ear catching. The hook of “It’s Only a Girl/There’s A Million of them in this Town” is kind of basic, but Corbin makes up for it by injecting the track with his personality.

Another standout is album highlight “Tulsa, Texas,” which Tony Lane co-wrote with Mike Lane and David Lee. Another upbeat steel infused honky-tonker, it didn’t make the cut for Corbin’s debut, but he liked it so much he put on here.

It’s easy to see why, as it boasts the best lyric on the album with the story of a guy telling his ex where she can find him:

I’ll be down in Tulsa, Texas, Tallahassee, Tennessee

Memphis, Mississippi, it’s probably where I’m gonna be

Albuquerque, Alabama, St. Lou, Louisiana

If you wanna find me, you can find me in Tulsa, Texas

Another favorite is the closer, Tom Shepherd and Jeff Silvey’s “I Think Of You,” which sounds like the best Zac Brown Band song they didn’t record. A perfect country tune, Chamberlin did a wonderful job of opening the track as a piano ballad before bringing in the steel, fiddle, drums, and guitars. That beginning allows Corbin to display his venerability and showcase how he’s grown since his debut.

Likely second single “Are You With Me” is a little slicker than we’ve come to expect from Corbin, but it never becomes bombastic thanks to the healthy dose of steel in the not-to-distant background. The romantic ballad also succeeds because of Corbin’s tender vocal, but the track would’ve been even better had it been a duet with someone like Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or maybe even Kellie Pickler or Lee Ann Womack.

A duet would’ve given the album some added spice, which wouldn’t have hurt the proceedings, which were brought down by the addition of a few throwaway tracks. “That’s Gonna Leave A Memory,” “This Feels A Lot Like Love” and the title track are all okay in their own right, but feel like light weight filler. They’re the kind of songs Alan Jackson has been getting away with for more than a decade – indistinguishable honky-tonkers where you swap lyrics out of the same basic melody over and over again. I’ve been over this practice since before it began and don’t want to see Corbin brought down by it.

“Hearts Drawn In The Sand” has a solid story, but kind of feels like the type of song given to a new artist when they’re trying to establish themselves. I wasn’t impressed by its inclusion here, although Corbin does his best with what he’s given to work with.

But I really like “Dance Real Slow,” even if it has the same fiddle licks as Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” I love the accents of fiddle throughout and the whole vibe of the song just works.

Overall I really like All Over The World. When I was listening to it, I kind of felt like I was back in 1995 listening to Daryle Singletary, but the more I dig in the more solid the album feels. He definitely could’ve stood to take more risk and stretch himself (does every song have to be about a girl?) but he proves here he’s one of the good guys, even if he should rough himself up a bit more.

The 2012 CMA Nominations: The year that, well, just couldn’t

September 5, 2012

Such as they are, here’s the CMA nominees list for 2012 with my comments and Will Win / Should Win picks:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

The usual solid, yet unspectacular group. The lack of Carrie Underwood will have all her fans fuming as usual and everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility.

Will Win: Taylor Swift – I’m betting on the safest choice this time around. She’s the most likely to pull off a win, her third. Chesney may’ve had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

Should Win: Luke Bryan, but he wasn’t nominated. As an all around entertainer, he’s so much better than Aldean, the only one who stands to keep the award out of Swift’s hands.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? I adore her but she hasn’t fully embraced a career in country music…yet. But she did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally justified. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14 consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral.

See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Will Win: Lambert – she’s at the top of the heap and the countriest of the big 3

Should Win: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson, she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s it. I’ll say Lambert because of her intuition with Pistol Annies

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of the red hot Dierks Bentley. His exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should’ve joined Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Will Win: Shelton – there’s seemingly no stopping him right now despite one mediocre single after another.

Should Win: Bryan. While I love Church, Bryan is the most exciting male vocalist to come along in years and a personal favorite of mine.

Vocal Group of the Year

The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band

On chart hits alone, all five deserve to be here this time around. It’s nice to see the exclusion of Rascal Flatts as their already bland material has only gotten worse in recent years.

Will Win: Lady Antebellum – is there any reason to bet against them?

Should Win: Little Big Town – Their latest single “Pontoon” isn’t just their biggest single, but its country music’s song of the summer. Zac Brown Band has also yet to score a deserving win, but LBT has been waiting for their time in the spotlight for far too long.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Big & Rich
Love and Theft
Sugarland
The Civil Wars
Thompson Square

Another interesting list. Sugarland shot themselves in the foot with Incredible Machine and thus are the least likely to repeat in this category. Love and Theft just scored their first #1, and Thompson Square have the ACM momentum.

Will Win: Thompson Square – they’ve yet to repeat the monster success of “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” in their last two tries, but they’re far from one hit wonders. Shawna may not be the most flashy female vocalist, but she’s the most akin to the genre’s traditions.

Should Win: The Civil Wars – there isn’t a more ear catching duo in country music right now

New Artist of the Year

Lee Brice
Brantley Gilbert
Hunter Hayes
Love and Theft
Thompson Square

If we ever needed proof country music is in a rut, this is it. No one on this list has proven truly outstanding in anything they’ve done to date, and none have displayed the integrity to correctly push the genre forward.

Will Win: Brice, Gilbert, and Hayes are so even I can’t predict between the three. That may give Thompson Square the edge.

Should Win: Thompson Square – of this group, they’re the best of the bunch

Album of the Year

Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

The significance of this category is huge. For the first time since his MCA debut When I Call Your Name, Vince Gill isn’t nominated. Guitar Slinger was one of the best country records of 2011 and deserved to be on this list. Also missing are George Strait’s Here For A Good Time, despite the fact his last two albums won, and Pistol Annies for their excellent Hell on Heels.

But rest assured, we get Own The Night. The category wouldn’t be complete without it now would it?

Will Win: Own The Night - if its good enough to get a Best Country Album Grammy, than it can’t loose here, right?!

Should Win: Chief – The Church album is the best of this list and the most original commercial country album of 2011. Four The Record was good, but nowhere near the caliber of Chief.

Song of the Year (Award goes to songwriters)

“Even if It Breaks Your Heart” – written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
“God Gave Me You” – written by Dave Barnes
“Home” – written by Dierks Bentley and Jon Randall Stewart
“Over You” – written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
“Springsteen” – written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Another boring list. The exclusion of “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” is a travesty, and George Strait should’ve been honored for his songwriting contributions to Here For A Good Time. But the inclusion of “Springsteen” is all that matters to me.

Will Win: “Over You” – I can already see Lambert and Shelton accepting this together and I’m very happy about it

Should Win: “Springsteen” – its the best song of this bunch hands down

Single of the Year (Award goes to artist and producer)

Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
Dierks Bentley, “Home”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”

Aren’t the nominations for Aldean’s awful rap over? Shelton, meanwhile, has been nominated for one of his grossest productions ever. Bentley’s patriotic anthem is wonderful, and Church’s ode is his best single yet.

Will Win: I’m leading towards, “Home” but could also see “Springsteen” sneak in a win. But as far as singles of the year go, “Pontoon” is about as big as it gets

Should Win: “Pontoon” – sure its frivolous, but unlike the Aldean hit its harmless fun, and LBT deserve anything the CMA decide to throw their way

Musical Event of the Year

“Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
“Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
“Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars
“Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

The most thought out and interesting list, by a wide margin. The Jackson duet is his most exciting song from Thirty Miles West, the Swift duet is the most compelling single of her career, and the Nelson song is an hilarious classic in the making. The reworking of Richie’s classic suits him and Rucker well while the only clunker is the awful excuse for Chesney and McGraw to sing together on stage this past summer.

Will Win: “Feel Like A Rockstar” – the CMA can’t resist when two genre superstars team up

Should Win: “Safe and Sound” – putting Swift aside, its the most compelling track and another reason why The Civil Wars are currently the genre’s best duo.

Music Video of the Year

Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Of these, Church has the best video, followed by LBT. What’s so remarkable about the whole “Pontoon” thing is LBT haven’t caved into any pressure to act like 20 year olds. They’re being completely themselves all the while making millions.

Of the others, The Keith video is stupid fun, Chesney is all sex and no substance, and Lambert is as boring and depressing as the song.

Will Win: “Red Solo Cup” – as stupid as the song, but captures it perfectly

Should Win: “Pontoon” – lets have fun with this one, and this video is pure fun in the sun. But if Church only ones award, it’ll likely  be this one

Musician of the Year
Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

The award I know the least about, but all talented musicians. Can’t go wrong with any of them.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – too strong to bet against

Should Win: Sam Bush – for some variety

 

Album Review – Bradley Gaskin – “Bradley Gaskin EP”

April 18, 2012

Bradley Gaskin

Bradley Gaskin EP

* *

In this age of digital downloading, the extended play (EP) album is making a comeback as a way for artists bubbling under to receive a showcase before the release of a full-length record. Columbia Nashville artist Bradley Gaskin is the latest to receive this treatment.

Gaskin first became prominent in 2011 when the neotraditional “Mr. Bartender” established him, and his Travis Tritt-like vocal ability, as a promising new voice to hold up the traditions of country music.

Even though “Mr. Bartender” is stone cold country down to the fiddle and steel guitar, it stopped short of adding a fresh perspective to the lore of drinking songs. The story of a man drowning his sorrows in the stiffest drink at a bar has been done countless times before. But that only slightly dampened it from sounding fresh and almost revelatory. “Mr. Bartender” reached a chart peak of #32, a small miracle for traditional country music.

Decidedly more upbeat and radio friendly, second single “Diamonds Make Babies” seems like a better fit to launch Gaskin as a radio star. The slick production, somewhat mundane lyrical content, and writing credits from Jim Beavers, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Stapleton nicely position it for heavy rotation status.

Problem is, the song centers around the idea that becoming a parent starts with an engagement ring, a pleasing idea to religious traditionalists that becomes trite and unimaginative when turned into a piece of music. No amount of country instrumentation or twangy vocals can elevate this; either by Gaskin or Dierks Bentley who has a version on his latest album Home.

In addition to the singles, Bradley Gaskin EP offers two other glimpses into the artist. “I’m All About It” is a George Strait-like vanilla flavored ditty that manages to say nothing at all and take three minutes saying it. It fails on the account that it tries too hard to be country by employing a laundry list of overwrought cliches (beer, trucks, mud, buddies, lakes/rivers) that erase any authenticity and sincerity from the intent behind what he’s singing.

In a shocking turnaround moment of actual good taste, the album closes on a high note, with a song that delivers as interesting a lyric as its title.  “Satan Knew My Grandma Well” was originally done by The Grascals, (as “Satan and Grandma” on 2010′a The Famous Lefty Flynn’s) and both versions are very similar. Gaskins’s vocal brings a decidedly country element to the song and the story of a woman’s relationship with the patron saint of Hell, a metaphor for temptation, conjures up some great images despite a thin lyric sheet.

Overall Bradley Gaskin EP finds an artist with an obvious affinity for tractional country music making needless concessions in an effort to fit in with the current marketplace. The arraignments for “Diamonds Make Babies” and “I’m All About It” scream country, but they cheapen the overall listening experience with their obvious pandering.

And for someone with an above average to nearly remarkable voice, he shouldn’t be trying this hard to prove himself. His immense talent puts him in a class above most major label artists and this EP should’ve reflected that.

In essence he’s better than the chosen material. “Mr. Bartender” introduced an artist acting as a clear alternative to the country/pop and country/rock of late; someone not afraid to return the steel guitar to its rightful prominence. But until he finds stronger and more impactful material, he’s a long way from a 21st century Randy Travis.

Favorite Country Albums of 2011

December 21, 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete - Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

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Top 45 favorite country singles of 2011

December 21, 2011

Here’s my picks for the best of the best, the cream of the crop for country singles in 2011. See, the year wasn’t all bad, now was it?

45. Steel Magnolia – “Last Night Again”

A flirty romance tale finding a couple eyeing each other from across the room is made even sweeter  knowing Megan Lindsay and Joshua Scott Jones are an item in real life.

44. Terri Clark – “Northern Girl”

How refreshing is it to hear a singer singing about where they’re from and instead of a bunch of cliches, it relays to personal experience? Clark, from Canada, sings lovingly of her homeland here and shows just how great her voice still is after more than fifteen years in the industry. If you haven’t paid Clark much attention in a while, she’s worth checking out.

43. Miranda Lambert – “Baggage Claim”

A Beyonce inspired ditty that says everything Reba McEntire wished she could’ve said in “Who’s Ever In New England.” This guy ain’t got a place to come back to.

42. Jacob Lyda – “I’m Doing Alright”

This light and breezy tale is an exercise in being comfortable in your everyday life, something we could use more of in our world. Lyda co-wrote it with legendary songwriter Paul Overstreet (whose son Chord is Sam Evans on Glee) and it has that old-time feel of a great country song. Lyda didn’t make waves in 2011, but he sure deserved to.

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

September 7, 2011

George Strait

Here For A Good Time

* * * *

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.

Concert Review – Martina McBride at the South Shore Music Circus

August 25, 2011

For the first time in eleven years, Martina McBride held residence at the South Shore Music Circus, an in-the-round concert tent complete with a rotating stage, for two shows Aug 6-7. Judging by the sold out crowd, the fans were as happy to see McBride as she was to be back in Cohasset, Ma. This show marked my annual trip back to the venue (a mere fifteen minutes from my house), and my first time seeing her from front-row seats.

During the set she ran through most of her beloved hits. Sitting so close to the stage, I was privy to her set list, so I knew what she was going to sing before she walked on stage. Neither good nor bad, it took away that element of surprise I often look forward to at a concert. It kind of ruins it for me to know what’s going to be sung in advance, but it didn’t dampen my appreciation for the night.

She opened with a brand-new song, “One Night” which will appear on her upcoming album Eleven. An up-tempo tune, it continued down the path set by “Teenage Daughters” of showing off a fun more relaxed side of the singer. Without skipping a beat she ran through other up-tempo hits including “My Baby Loves Me,” “Wild Angles,” and “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues.” It was nice to see her spanning her whole career and not just her hits post-millennium.

The night’s first ballad was the recently-debated “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” a story about a woman battling cancer. I was most anticipating this song because I wanted to hear for myself if it really was as prodding and lifetime movie-esque as people have made it out to be. Hearing her talk about she knew she had to record the song the moment she heard it, put it in a new light for me. It’ll never be among my favorite of her singles, but it isn’t as god-awful as everyone makes it out to be. As always, she gave it a very passionate performance.

For the remainder of the evening she mixed her biggest hits with well-chosen covers. What struck me about the set was the balance of up-tempos and power ballads. I really enjoyed how she didn’t lean too heavy on one area of her catalog but covered all her bases. Of course, though, it was the ballads that got the strongest reaction from the crowd. She received long standing ovations after performing “Anyway,” “Where Would You Be,” and “A Broken Wing,” which she sang with all the gusto in her body. I enjoyed how she would give the crowd time to applaud before signaling to her band to launch into the next song. Being so close to the stage, you’re able to see, and appreciate, all the little nuances of the performance.

But the highlight of her set was her cover of Kris Kirstofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” She quieted down the arrangement and let the steel guitar player do his magic. As with her studio recording from Timeless, she uses this song as an exercise in restraint, rarely singing above a whisper. I loved hearing how simple the song came off. In giving the song room to breathe, she let the quiet moments shine through.

The other cover, Bill Wither’s 70s classic “Lean On Me” was well-sung and had the crowd singing along, but seemed an odd choice. I loved her take on the song and enjoyed the opening bluesy steel riff. Her steel guitar player seemed to play on and on for well over a minute and a half, whipping the audience into a tizzy.

I love how McBride relinquished the opening verse of the song to her younger brother who’s the lead guitar player in her band. It added another dimension to the night. Of all the songs, “Lean On Me” was easily the one sung along to the most. Everyone knows it from either hearing it on the radio or from their childhoods. I loved she chose to cover the tune, but wondered, if she hadn’t, which of her own hits she would’ve sung instead.

The biggest surprise of the night was the medley of “Love’s The Only House” and “Blessed.” In a reflective sense, those two songs go together really well. You have the social commentary of “House” mixed with the I’m doing alright nature of “Blessed.” Almost like, there’s a lot of downtrodden people in the world but my life is pretty well on track. McBride nicely opened the medley by playing the harmonica bit herself.

Following “House/Blessed” she went on to close the show with “This One’s For The Girls” and “Independence Day.” She sang “Over The Rainbow” as the encore, a cover I’d first heard her sing at the same venue eleven years earlier. It really is true, you can never grow tired of hearing that one.

In the end, it was an excellent show that brought up my appreciation of McBride and her music. I’ve been thinking a lot about her since and am really looking forward to the new album in October. I only wish the acoustics weren’t so loud, but it didn’t dampen my experience in the least.

Following the show, McBride sent out this Tweet: “Tonite’s show in Cohasset was amazing!U guys rocked! Loved it! Now on the bus.Have John and all 3 girls w/me. #3dayvacationofficiallystarted.” I LOVE modern technology!

The biggest surprise of the night was the opening act, Blaine Larsen.

Discovered by Joey + Rory’s Rory Lee Feek when he was just a young teenager, he’s 25 now, Larsen used just a guitar and a stool to  come off extremely likable, and inject more personality into his performance than any other opening act I’ve seen in recent memory.

And while his style is very similar to that of Chris Young, Scotty McCreery, and any other deep voiced male country singer, he was able to distinguish himself from that pack with his mix of both serious and playful songs.

He ran through a few of his singles including “I Don’t Know What She Said” and “Chillin.”  He left not a dry eye in the room with his only top 20 hit “How Do You Get That Lonely,” and played the “songwriter’s version” of George Strait’s “I Gotta Get To You” which he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale and Jimmy Richie. But it was his excellent cover of Merle Haggard’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” that proved his talent. Anyone who can come up to snuff with a Haggard cover, is worth a lot in my book.

And even though I’m not to familiar with it, I would’ve liked him to sing his debut single, “Back In My High School,” only because it was the song that first got the attention of the industry and allowed “Lonely” to go top 20. But nonetheless, he should be a big star, but given that there’s much competition from others who sing just like him, and the fact he didn’t have American Idol or Nashville Star to gain exposure, that seems unlikely. But that doesn’t diminish his talent.

Hits not withstanding, and if his songwriting career keeps picking up, Larsen proved in one 30 minute set, that he really is going places.

My Kind of Country

July 2, 2011

My lack in recent updates is partly do to an exciting opportunity I accepted over a month ago. I’m now a staff writer for My Kind of Country, a popular country music blog.

That doesn’t mean this blog is going anywhere, it’s just an extension of my love for country music.

My duties are to write single reviews for new country songs and album reviews for their spotlight artist series. Here’s what I’ve written so far:

I can’t believe how much I’ve already written. Six already?! I have many more in the pipe line, and as I write them, I’ll link them to my blog so they’ll be easy to find in one place.
Thanks again to J.R. Journey for inviting me to blog about my favorite subject to a much wider audience. In the coming months, I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.
Now I just have to find the balance to write my own blog along with all the MKoC work I do. That shouldn’t be too hard.

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