Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Skaggs’

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

May 29, 2013

Pistol Annies

AnnieUp

Annie Up

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One of the most satisfying surprises of 2011 was Miranda Lambert’s come-from-nowhere trio Pistol Annies. Their airtight harmonies and brutally honest lyrics took a unique spin on mainstream country music. Hell On Heels was an incredible album – ten expertly crafted slices of the hillbilly lifestyle.

The time they’ve spent together over the past two years has made Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe more of a cohesive unit than three solo singers thrown together in collaboration. And the songs cover a wider array of topics than no good men, thus making Annie Up far more well rounded than its predecessor, a fact that couldn’t make me happier.

Like Hell On Heels they wrote the entire record themselves, and as three of the best singer-songwriters in the business, they deliver the goods. There’s no country shuffle of “Bad Example” or seething angst of “Takin’ Pills,” but they make up for it with a surprising amount of subtly and grace that elevates the band to the next dimension.

The quieter moments are the album’s strongest, and Monroe takes the lead on two that take equally compelling but albeit vastly different looks at relationships. “Dear Sobriety” (easily the best track here) is a stunning look at the limits of willpower in face of genetic addiction while “I Hope you’re the End of My Story” finds the band in perfect harmony, hoping a current love is meant to last for life. They continue in this mode, taking on the beauty industry with pitch-perfect candor on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” while “Blues, You’re A Buzz Kill” finds Monroe doing all she can (with no avail) to ward off emotional pain.

“Damn Thing,” their somewhat modernized approach to Ricky Skaggs’ classic 80s country/bluegrass fusion is the opposite of “Blues,” finding the Annies brushing off the things they can’t worry about. They’re also effective on “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina,” a mid-tempo honky-tonker about a woman who needs to let go of an ex once and for all. I also liked “Loved, By A Workin’ Man,” a Presley solo composition where she spills her guts about her kind of guy, and the slower burner “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” is the perfect showcase for how well they play off each other.

This is where my praise hits the proverbial brick wall. Pure and simple – Annie Up showcases everything that’s hazardous about mainstream country music. The more I listen the more pissed off I get at the producers (Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainley, Glen Wolf) and their dim-witted production values.

I totally understand the need to appeal to a younger audience (i.e. where the money is) that is eating up the amped up rock of Jason Aldean and company, but to BLATANTLY erase any hint of fiddle and steel guitar is simply unforgiveable. How the hell do you not drench a number like “Dear Sobriety” in mournful steel? Those idiotic chimes don’t cut it at all. “Loved, By A Workin’ Man” practically begs for some fiddle in place of that annoying electric guitar heard throughout. And I quite enjoyed “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” until that wall of sound comes in at the end engulfing the track in nothing more than noise.

When a band is going to this great a length to actually be country (you can hear it in the vocal performances and in the only use of audible steel on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”) than they should be rewarded with the hallmark instruments of country music backing them up. I know the times have changed but this is inexcusable. Have we actually “evolved” to the point where the elements that differentiate country from other genres of music doesn’t matter let alone need to be present to call a record country? (I know, I know – this has been happening forever. But Annie Up is a real country record or at least as close to one lacking in down home instrumentation can be).

All involved have royally screwed up. And sadly, each and every one knows better. The songs, vocals, and originality are here in spades. It’s a “damn shame” the production didn’t follow suit.

Album Review – Zac Brown Band – “Uncaged”

July 22, 2012

Zac Brown Band

Uncaged 

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In four years, Zac Brown Band has positioned themselves nearly peerless among country duos and groups by crafting a fiddle heavy sound unique to their southern rock meets sandy beach brand of country music. By standing out, they’ve racked up eight number one hits in eleven singles and proven trustworthy for inventive (and sometimes emotional) lyrics framed in tasteful production.

With Uncaged, they look to expand their formula by building upon the benchmarks that have afforded them a creative license to do whatever they want. Their willingness to build from their solid foundation gives Uncaged a sense of familiarity that allows longtime fans to continue on the musical journey, while the inclusion of new sounds will allow them to grow at the same time.

There’s no better example of this growth than lead single “The Wind,” a Brown, Wyatt Durrette, and Levi Lowrey co-write that fuses the romping fiddle stylings of Charlie Daniels with the Bluegrass meets country concoction Ricky Skaggs made famous in the early 1980s. Sunny and bright, it chugs along at a breathless breakneck speed and brings the energy of their live performances to a studio recording for the first time.

“The Wind” also sets the bar extremely high for the rest of Uncaged and while the album mostly lives up to that promise, it could’ve and untimely should’ve gone much further. But that isn’t for lack of trying, as Zac Brown Band are still a welcomed ripple in the stagnant pool of plateaued ambition, even if that ambition hasn’t been fully realized yet.

The best moments on Uncaged are the ballads, which the band uses to showcase their tight harmonies, exceptional musicianship, and instinctive abilities to write a complete emotional story. Songs like “Sweet Annie,” “Lance’s Song” and “Natural Disaster” are all excellent, and some of the strongest mainstream material we’re likely to hear all year.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for  Brown and Durrette’s “Goodbye In Her Eyes.”  The lyric is wonderful, but the lack of fiddle on the first half of the song suggests a move towards a popper production, as it appears they aren’t really that country without it.

The upbeat material also gives me pause, as it fails to have an added spark and rise above mediocrity. The Brown, Durrette, and Jason Mraz co-write “Jump Right In” is too sing-a-long and the often-repated “As the Southern wind sings again an island lullaby” grows grating on repeated listenings, while “Island Song”  stands as a second rate attempt at re-creating the magic of “Toes” and “Knee Deep” but lacks their by the water freshness.

The collaborations aren’t much better as the Trombone Shorty assisted  “Overnight” borrows too heavily from jazz and reggae. “Day That I Die,” the duet with Amos Lee, sounds like we’ve heard it before; a retread from You Get What You Give.

But the weakest spots on the whole project should’ve been some of the album’s strongest. The title track is an unnecessary rock screamer that leans much to heavily on aggression to tell its story and Mac McAnally’s “Last But Not Least” starts off excellent but descends into a bizarre free-form vocal mixture that sounds both random and out of place.

Uncaged adds up to less than the sum of its parts because the songs ultimately fail to excite the listener while the lack of welcomed surprises leaves Uncaged feeling very caged in.

After the excellent first single, I had extremely high expectations for the overall sound and musical quality of this project and I’m not afraid to say they let me down. The dabbling in other genres through the collaborations and island themed songs seemed out of character from the band that brought us “As She’s Walking Away.”

I totally understand an artists need to grow, but why can’t some mainstream country act just do it within their own genre? Is that too much to ask?


Three more names cemented in bronze: the class of 2012

March 7, 2012

As winter slowly turns to spring and the chill begins to exit, a celebration is brought fourth where more than a century of tradition is whisked back into the spotlight, if only for a brief time.

The importance of this commemoration knows no bounds as the past and present collide to bestow an honor upon three worthy individuals whose contributions have been revolutionary.

This recognition, which concludes with a medallion ceremony later in the year, elevates greatness, yet sparks fierce debate among those who object to this honor coming too soon or far too late.

But one ideal will always rise victor – the highest professional honor in country music is induction into the Hall of Fame. And in 2012, that prestigious mark of upmost respect shines a light on Hargus, “Pig” Robbins, Connie Smith, and Garth Brooks.

In three unique and different ways, each inductee has left a stamp on country music not likely to be erased with time. Through his paino-playing on iconic songs such as “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “White Lightning,” Robbins has redefined the essence of the studio musician.

With “Once A Day,” a little tune pinned by Bill Anderson, Smith did the impossible – becoming the first female artist to log eight consecutive weeks at #1. That feat, accomplished more than forty years ago, has yet to be topped.

And Brooks took our notion of what a concert tour could be, turned it on its head, and ran with it.

Hargus “Pig” Robbins

I must admit that before this morning, my young age prevented me from knowing Robbins and his contributions to country music. But after listening to his introduction by Kix Brooks, I found familiarity with most of the songs he played on.

Especially this day and age, with digital sales rendering the dust jacket obsolete, the ideal of the studio musican has nearly gone out the window. No longer do we care who backs up our favorite singer as long as said artist releases new music.

But the studio musician is the backbone of all music. Without session players, as they’re also called, albums would never be released. We need these professional musicians who can learn a song on a dime (often without sheet music, thanks Kix) and execute them flawlessly.

Robbins was one of those such people and arguably one of the best the genre has ever seen.

Connie Smith

Unless you are far too close to mainstream country music, the release of Long Line of Heartaches last August brought fourth much joy. It was Smith’s first album since 1997 and an excellent reminder of country’s rich past.

At 70, Smith sounds better today than most female singers in the business. I was recently scanning the television channels when I came across The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV. A homage to all the great variety shows from the 60s and 70s, The Marty Stuart Show is a shining example for classic country music in a world in which country rock knows no bounds.

Marty’s guest that evening was none other than Smith, his wife. For half an hour she took to the stage and sang from Heartaches. She performed more than half of the album and even brought her three daughters on stage for “Take My Hand.”

The show can be “hicky” at times, but Smith’s voice shined loud and clear. It was so nice to have an outlet from which to see her perform and I knew I was witnessing something special.

My first vivid memory of Smith came in 1997 when I watched her perform on the Grand Ole Opry from my grandparent’s living room. I don’t remember what she sang, but I remember it airing after she married Stuart. Being young and naive, I didn’t understand what I was watching and thought she looked “tough.”

The next time I remember paying attention to her was during a duet of “Once A Day” live on the Opry with Martina McBride in 2005. That performance is on YouTube and very good, although Smith steals the show (as she should have).

Like Jean Shepard last year, Smith’s induction is long overdue. Her importance to country music may be quiet in comparison to the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton, but she belongs with them in a class of her own.

With a better understanding of her importance, and a deep love of Heartaches, I now can say I’m a bonafide fan.

Garth Brooks

Being a 90s kid, (oh how I loathe that term), I have the most vivid memories of Brooks. It’s funny, as a child, I first came to know him trough his famous stage show and always viewed him as larger than life; some unapproachable giant force. His image of flying over rafters and gliding on his back through rows and rows of fans only magnified it for me.

I remember, once, not “getting” him. This idea of his popularity being something overblown. I don’t know when I woke up and got a clue but it came pretty fast.

In 1997, when I was also first learning about Smith, my grandfather turned 75. So my mom had an idea – I would sing “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” at the party. I’m not a singer or guitar player, so I did my best to pull it off. I remember having to learn the song for weeks before hand and feeling pretty cool that I could use the word “damn.” It was a special moment and I can still see myself sitting on the stool in the middle of the dance floor.

That same year, like the rest of the world, I tuned into the famous Central Park concert. Being young, I really had no idea the magnitude of what that show really symbolized for country music. I remember how happy everyone was that Garth was sticking only to old material.

Watching from my grandfather’s basement, I can see clear as day, his inability to get the VCR to work so we could tape the show. I was mad but it was just so cool to be able to watch it. Funny thing, when he brought Billy Joel on to sing “New York State of Mind” I had never heard of him (or at least really knew who he was). I always thought he should’ve been wearing a cowboy hat.

Apart from his concerts, yes I also saw his 1998 show from Ireland, and a concert of my own in 1996, I have vivid memories of Brooks’ music. More than any other artist, he was a true marketing genius.

Getting a new Garth Brooks album was always a treat because there would be multiple covers and “first editions” to choose from. I have first edition copies of SevensDouble LiveThe Magic of Christmas, and Scarecrow.

I remember listening to a radio show, in 1998, when they played every cut off of The Limited Series with commentary from Brooks. It was so cool, at that time, to think he was releasing a boxed set of his material with one new cut on each album.

I also rushed out and bought everything he had for sale during his “Wal-Mart Only” years. Sure, you could say I’m a sad sap for buying into all this, but for some reason you had to – it’s Garth Brooks. (Along those same principles – I also own In The Life of Chris Ganes).

In his day, Brooks had it all. The mammoth concert tours, hit singles, and everything in between. And with Trisha Yearwood he had the tabloid love affair we all love to speculate about (did they hook up in the 90s or not?).

But the truly remarkable aspect of Brooks’ career are the songs. It isn’t very often that an artist can back up their success with such memorable and iconic records. There isn’t a single superstar today – from Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, to Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, or Tim McGraw who can match Brooks song for song. His is music of substance, class, and grace.

For instance, on 9/11, I remember singing “The Dance” to myself on the way home from school. When I got home, the first song I turned to was “The Change.”

There isn’t anyone who can match him. I remember people would take the day off from school or work to stand in line at their local CD store on Garth Brooks release day. His albums were events.

But Brooks’ induction came so soon, ahead of the more deserving Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs (who he singled out in his speech), because of one aspect – touring. His concerts were revolutionary for elevating the stage show to heights previously unknown in country music. Like his albums, his shows were happenings.

Before Brooks, you didn’t have fans rushing online at 10:00am to secure their seats to a show. Country artists may have seen sellouts aplenty, but never in places like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. He brought country music to a whole new level; one not surpassed until Chesney’s stadium shows in the 21st century. Brooks drew the blueprint that made the mammoth country shows we all go to today, possible.

All and all, If Brooks is anything, he’s his own man. He was the first to announce a retirement (via a silver covered Country Weekly cover in 2000) at the height of his fame, and remains the staunch holdout for a presence digitally. He doesn’t even have any vintage clips on YouTube.

But like any great artist, the songs will always live on. I was listening to my local country station just last week and what came on? None other than “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Singing along to his first #1, it felt comfortable, right. Just like his entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Looking Ahead

As we look back at the legacy Robbins, Smith, and Brooks bring to the Hall, the debate over future inductees rages on. Brooks may have gotten in ahead of his time, but no one exemplifies the “90s boom” better and as the forefather of the country spectacle, he made the stadium shows of today doable.

But here’s my list of who should welcome the exit of winter’s chill in some upcoming March and allow us to have a celebration in their honor:

Modern Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Randy Travis
  • Alan Jackson
  • Gene Watson
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Hank Williams, JR
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • John Anderson
  • Dwight Yoakam
  • Clint Black
  • The Judds
  • Alison Krauss
  • Patty Loveless
  • Marty Stuart

Veteran Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Kenny Rogers
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • David Allan Coe
  • Johnny Paycheck
  • June Carter Cash
  • Tanya Tucker
  • Anne Murray
  • Rose Maddox
  • The Browns (and/or Jim Ed Brown)

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