Posts Tagged ‘Trisha Yearwood’

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson - The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell - Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin - American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies - Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin - Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

December 17, 2013

Garth Brooks

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Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence 

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When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down asCountry ClassicsClassic RockBlue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

October 21, 2013

Brandy Clark

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12 Stories

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If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013 there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue – Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows yet improves upon the past, all the while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With12 Stories Clark has redrafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it onAll The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Strips,” the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche (I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down) in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him,” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observances – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger then which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) past on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – “Same Trailer, Different Park”

April 30, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

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Same Trailer, Different Park

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A major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old formerNashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk.Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

That’s a far cry from “Keep It To Yourself.” Musgraves does a brilliant job of playing the strong woman here, and like Lee Ann Womack’s (a major influence) “Last Call” she doesn’t buy into an ex’s advances once he’s under far too strong an influence:

Keep it to yourself
If you think that you still love me
Put it on a shelf
If you’re looking for someone
Make it someone else
When you’re drunk
And it’s late
And you’re missing me like hell
Keep it to yourself

Possibly the strongest aspect of Same Trailer is the emotional range Musgraves covers in the songs. Everyone knows that life has its share of euphoric highs and crushing lows, even if most modern music hardly reflects that at all. She manages to pack desperation into the majority of the album albeit her own (“Back On The Map”) or society’s (“Merry Go ‘Round”) but also touches on the idea of finding one’s place in the world, no matter how scary. “Follow Your Arrow” is as much about love as life and “Silver Lining” takes it to the next level, saying “If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning/You’re gonna have to stand in the rain.” The sunny steel guitar-laced atmosphere suggests she thinks going through life’s fire is a joyous undertaking, and while the outcome might be so, getting there more often than not, isn’t.

Probably the frankest moment of desperation comes from “It Is What It Is,” a McAnally, Brandy Clark co-write that finds Musgraves dealing with the after effects of a relationship in which the pair is ‘so much alike’ they’re doomed to failure, but can’t get enough of each other. I love the simple steel-fronted arrangement and how Musgraves so beautifully brings out the pain on the final chorus by starting it a cappella:

But I aint got no one sleepin’ with me,
And you aint got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
It is what it is
Till it aint,
Anymore

“My House” comes on the flipside to the heaviness of the other tracks, providing a welcomed respite and chance for Musgraves to show off a playful side (she is young, after all) without resorting to fluff territory. I love the Dylan-esque 60s folk arrangement here a lot, especially the harmonica and upright bass. The humorous and memorable line, ‘Water and electric and a place to drain the septic’ doesn’t hurt either.

The main criticism Musgraves has gotten for the project is the demo-like delivery of the tracks, almost too under produced. I don’t hear it at all because in my opinion this is how music is supposed to sound – uncomplicated and straightforward. One of my favorite people, Luke Laird, produced the album and he did an incredible job of bringing the tracks to life. The album does verge on being a bit too pop in places and I still can’t figure out the metaphor she was reaching for on “Dandelion,” but this is as close to perfect (and country) as a mainstream album is likely to get in 2013. Loretta Lynn, who’s longed for songs that actually say something, should be very proud.

Album Review – Little Big Town – “Tornado”

September 18, 2012

Little Big Town

Tornado

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You’d think the combination of irresistible four part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town have had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite latched onto the fans and country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sung and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one.

Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”

Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.

I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which Joyce turns into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.

“On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped up rock that’s well presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on Tornado) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic, its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Album Review – Don Williams – “And So It Goes”

June 21, 2012

Don Williams

And So It Goes

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In the eight years since Don Williams released My Heart To You he seemed to go comfortably into retirement. His warm baritone and mellow style, indicative of the 1970s and 1980s where he found major success, was far out of touch with the beer chugging and hot girl chasing boys who’d taken over country radio, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame aside, there was no real incentive to return.

So it’s a welcome surprise to see And So It Goes, Williams’ new ten-song collection out on Sugar Hill Records. Produced by his longtime wingman Garth Fundis (who should be hard at work on Trisha Yearwood’s next album), it comes across as a visit from an old friend, that never forgotten person from your past who you’re so glad to see again, someone who hasn’t changed a bit.

By sticking to the familiar, Williams has created an impressive collection of songs that perfectly display his distinct and mellow style, all wrapped in his warm baritone (an instrument that hasn’t shown any distinct wear and tear). Each of these songs would also stand up nicely against any of Williams’ classic recordings.

A few even rank among the strongest songs released this year. “I Just Come Here For The Music” a gorgeous duet with Alison Krauss, finds their voices blending effortlessly on a gentle weeper about a man in a barroom for the music, only to find a woman instead. “Hearts of Hearts,” enhanced by Vince Gill’s backing vocal, is a quiet reminder to live from truth and “She’s With Me” is the song every woman wants to hear from their man, a sentiment about true love.

And So It Goes abounds with relationship-centric tunes, from the lasting-love anthem “Infinity” to the out-of-love title track, a Williams co-write. “She’s A Natural” finds Williams pleased by everything his woman does and “Imagine That” finds him pining for a life he can visualize but one that hasn’t yet come true.

All are expertly crafted and treated with the respect they deserve, but framing them in the same mellow, dobro and fiddle heavy production can make the listening experience a bit dense and they tend to run together, hard to distinguish. That more than illuminates “Better Than Today” and “What If It Worked Like That,” noticeable for their driving guitar and use of drums.

“What If It Worked Like That,” is also the biggest breath of fresh air lyrically, somewhat of a sequel to his classic hit “I Believe In You.” He wonders aloud about his ideal version of the world, a place where beer would make a person thin and the world gave a little back after we’ve taken so much.

Both melodically and lyrically, it ranks with “I Just Come Here For The Music” as my favorite tracks on the project, both unique in nature from the rest of the album, and the two that have stuck with me the most.

All and all And So It Goes is another fine collection of songs and a stellar return from Williams, who in just under 36 minutes schools all of us in the creation of authentic and genuine country music. He could’ve, however, stood to vary the tempo a tad more, tapping into his “Tulsa Time” groove on more tracks. A more frequent change of pace would’ve helped the songs sink in deeper and keep from running together.

But nonetheless, this is still one of the top releases from 2012 and a suburb collection of songs.

So, how musically healthy am I?

May 20, 2012

Last week the good folks at Country California issued a mid-year battle cry – “You’re overdue for your seasonal music check-up.”

The exam is as follows, in these simple steps:

1) grab your media player of choice

2) turn your head to the left

3) Shuffle 20 times

In doing so, and without any editing of embarrassing results, my returns are as follows:

  1. Miranda Lambert – “Guilty In Here”
  2. Don Williams – “The Flood (Wish I Was In Nashville)”
  3. Connie Smith – “I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again”
  4. Patty Loveless – “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
  5. Trisha Yearwood – “The Woman Before Me”
  6. Connie Smith – “Blue Little Girl”
  7. Jamey Johnson – “Lonely At The Top”
  8. Tracy Lawrence – “If The Good Die Young”
  9. Randy Travis – “Forever Together”
  10. Rosanne Cash – “Big River”
  11. Patty Loveless – “Feelings Of Love”
  12. Rosanne Cash – “707”
  13. Emmylou Harris – “Ooh Las Vegas”
  14. Bradley Gaskin – “I’m All About It”
  15. Tanya Tucker – “Down To My Last Teardrop”
  16. Garth Brooks – “Shameless”
  17. Nickel Creek – “Scotch and Chocolate”
  18. Sugarland – “Something More”
  19. Eric Church – “Like Jesus Does”
  20. Collin Raye – “I Think About You”

I was amazed, actually, at what my iPod spit back. This could’ve gone in so many ways and yet the random shuffle actually showcased some of the better tunes in my collection. It’s never a bad day when the likes of Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker show up in the same random 20 song sampling.

At least my copies of Kip Moore’s Up All Night and Tim McGraw’s Emotional Traffic were no where in sight.

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.


Album Review – Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields

May 22, 2011

Matraca Berg

The Dreaming Fields

* * * * *

Known for writing such classic 90s country as “Strawberry Wine,” “You Can Feel Bad,” and “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Matraca Berg is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last twenty years. And the artists who’ve recorded her music (Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Patty Loveless) have gone on to redefine the essence of what it means to be a country singer.

Also a recording artist, Berg has released five studio albums and just returned with her sixth, The Dreaming Fields, her first album in 14 years. Inspired by the sparse 70s singer/songwriter fare she grew up with, Fields mixes impeccable songwriting with pitch-perfect vocals to create one of the best country releases of 2011.

The attention to detail rivals anything being released on major labels, and the quiet production help to elevate this album above your standard indie-country release. What could’ve been lifeless and boring is instantly brought to life by Berg’s confidence in what she’s singing. Instead of merely going through the motions, she puts her heart and soul into each of the 11 songs. Berg grabs you with her emotional delivery and never lets go.

Without even listening to the album, fans should already be familiar with at least two of the album’s songs. Trisha Yearwood brought the title track to new heights on her Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love album and “You and Tequila” is Kenny Chesney’s latest single, a duet with rock singer Grace Potter. And the 9513 reviewed the album’s first single, “Oh Cumberland” in advance of the album.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of hearing Berg’s version of “Fields.” After Yearwood tackles a song, it’s hard to imagine anyone else matching, let alone exceeding, her power and delivery. But, of course, Berg proves she’s more than up to the task. The way she wraps her voice around the tale of a family losing their farm will bring even an emotional ice cube to tears. You know she feels what she’s singing.

And on that note, when listening to the album I could actually hear Yearwood singing some of these songs. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Yearwood to have put “Silver and Glass” on her Hearts and Armor album.  The story of a girl trying to find her place in the world is one of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record.

Another standout track, “Clouds,” makes such a simple statement – “I only like clouds when it’s raining/they do no good just hanging around” – and conveys so much with so little. It only emphasizes the the importance of a strong hook. When a song is properly executed lyrically, it becomes a poetic declaration. Plus, the lush production and use of harmonica in the intro, break-up the sameness of the preceding tracks and offer a refreshing change of pace in the listening experience.

The uniformity of the production is really the only area worthy of negative criticism. The album rolls along so gently, at times it can feel sleep-inducing. Berg does have up-tempo songs she could’ve recorded, including her excellent “They Call It Falling For A Reason” which Yearwood made a low-charting single in 2008, but to include such a song would’ve tinkered with the pace of the album just enough to throw off the vibe she was after.

Berg mirrored the album after Emmylou Harris’s solo debut Pieces of the Sky, Neil Young’s Harvest and Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue - three albums from her childhood. She lives up to Harris’s legacy the most; Fields is more than worthy of her influence. Berg sings with the clarity Harris had on her 70s classics, and has a similar knack for choosing songs aren’t the typical country fare that’ll be dated in the decades to come.

It’s just a shame that country radio has all but passed on intelligent music like this – to hear Berg on the radio would be a refreshing change of pace from the muscular country getting crammed down our throats. We do have Chesney to thank for getting “You and Tequila” on the airwaves and, possibly, calling slight attention to this fine recording. You know if Chesney recorded it, it’ll more than likely burn up the charts and becomes a major success.

But it doesn’t matter if country radio passes on the album or not, the music has reached the public and will live on as long as Berg continues to shape her legacy. And as cliché as it sounds, with a voice this stunning, and music this brilliant, let’s hope she doesn’t wait another 14 years to record a follow-up.


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