Posts Tagged ‘Vince Gill’

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

October 31, 2014

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertPlatinum

Platinum

* * * * 1/2

Midway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came Fromnine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, butPlatinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Album Review: Sara Evans “Slow Me Down”

March 28, 2014

Sara Evans

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbum

Slow Me Down

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

jason-isbell-southeastern

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.

AnnieUp

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.

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

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 – Steve Wariner – ‘It Ain’t All Bad’

September 10, 2013

Steve Wariner

SW.Cover Hi res_sm

It Ain’t All Bad

* * * 1/2

In the modern age of country music, where genre blending is the new normal, it’s difficult to find artists exploring their love of different types of music for artistic and not commercial gain. Steve Wariner, who’s back with his first full-length country album in eight years, is an exception to the rule.

A bucket list record, as he calls it, It Ain’t All Bad gives Wariner the opportunity to explore his wide range of musical tastes without sacrificing the core sound he brought to such hits as (and some of my favorites) “Small Town Girl,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Kansas City Lights,” and “The Weekend.”

Wariner doesn’t succeed with every style choice, but the majority of tracks on It Ain’t All Bad are very good to excellent. He’s at his best on slower mid-tempo numbers where he’s able to show off the delicate nature of his voice. Steel and electric guitar backed “Arrows At Airplanes,” a co-write with Rocky Lynne and Mike Severs is a beautiful example about enjoying life, framed around the story of an old man “shooting arrows at airplanes, throwing pillows at freight trains” on the bank of a river. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it’s the type of tune Wariner excels at.

He’s equally in his artistic wheelhouse on “Spokes In A Wheel,” an environmentally conscious track about our place on ‘a little blue rock called mother earth.’ Co-written with Kent Blazy, “Spokes In A Wheel” works because it relays a timely message backed by gentle acoustic guitars without coming off as preachy. “’48 Ford,” a 70s singer/songwriter inspired folk song is a gorgeous reflection on the titular truck and the memories it holds throughout the life of a family. One of the album’s strongest tracks, it works summarily to “Spokes In A Wheel” by using simple imagery to frame the storytelling.

Western Swing ballad (and fan favorite) “Bluebonnet Memories” is the project’s most traditional track, blending steel guitar and fiddle with a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of Vince Gill’s signature style. Wariner co-wrote the track with Rick Carnes as an ode to Texas, and while good, there are too much jazzy overtones for my taste.

“What More Do You Want” is a slicker more pop-leaning slow burner about a man wronged by his woman that recalls Wariner’s 80s sound, although he intended it to be Beatle-esque, in the style of George Harrison. He brought his son Ryan in on the slide guitar and it all works to create an ethereal feel. “Don’t Tell Her I’m Not,” possibly my favorite track on It Ain’t All Bad and the most current sounding song. Although it maintains the healthy dose of steel missing from country radio, I could see Blake Shelton scoring a big hit with this one.

Wariner is back in “I’m Already Taken” territory on “I Want To Be Like You,” a co-write with the always brilliant Bill Anderson and Tom Shapiro. It’s another relationship-between-a-family-song that starts off typical (a son emulating his dad) but twists into the dad emulating the son as their relationship evolves. The lyric is spectacular, but the string section makes the piano led production feel slow and heavy, giving the song more weight then it needs.

The up-tempo numbers are where It Ain’t All Bad looses its luster. The swampy “Voodoo” isn’t bad per se, just not to my personal taste and the chorus (“Must be the voodoo that you do, do”) sounds like it came from a rhyming generator. “It’s Called A Brand New Day” is too rock, with electric guitars that aren’t too loud, but not to my liking. The title track has grown on me, but the opening riffs are a little too progressive coming from Wariner.

I could also see Shelton scoring big with “Whenever I See You,” a modern day poppish number Wariner co-wrote with Carnes. The synth bass Wariner plays gives the track a neat groove that accomplishes the intention to help the song stand out. “A Thousand Winds” is Wariner’s response to how he wishes to be remembered in death, and an excellent lyric. I just wish the track wasn’t so slow and prodding, but at least it’s a good song.

I’ll admit that this was my first time listening to one of his recordings from beginning to end and it proved very satisfying. It Ain’t All Bad may drag a little as a listening experience, but it’s a solid above average album with some really wonderful tracks. It’s great to have Wariner back recording vocal tracks again, and the eight year gap was well worth the wait.

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

August 21, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own onBakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Album Review – Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

July 27, 2013

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin

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Bakersfield

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With Bakersfield, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have created the first perfect country album of 2013. The ten-track collection, a tribute to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard with five songs apiece by each artist, is a masterwork thanks to the flawless combination of song selection, astute musicianship, and vocal prowess. 

Initially, I was furious at the prospect of another covers project as they’ve suffocated the genre of late and left little room for talented artists to help push pure country ideals into the twenty-first century. Lee Ann Womack gets it – instead of covering songs, why can’t these artists evoke the signature style on newly written material? The experience would be far richer than another dip in the lukewarm waters of the country music songbook.

Knowing that song selection is key, Gill and Franklin thankfully leave the most iconic Owens and Haggard hits on the table, making room for some lesser known songs, and three choice album tracks that were never singles. By dipping deeper into the pool they display a keen sense of imagination and effort towards the project that’s both honest and refreshing. 

Of big hits they do have a few. “Branded Man,” A #1 Haggard single from 1967, is nicely updated with a memorable guitar lick from Franklin, that Gill doubled in time during the recording process. They honor the original by still making it a classic Gill record. Also excellent is their rendition of “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a lyric that remains timeless, even after forty-three years. Gill had a deep emotional connection to the song in the studio that comes out in his straightforward vocal. I also love how they tweaked the opening to make it their own, adding Franklin’s bright steel behind Gill’s always-masterful guitar licks. 

As if I couldn’t love Emmylou Harris any more, her presence in country music helped inspire two of the album’s most sublime moments. In her glory days, she recorded Owens’ “Together Again” and Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and Gill does the same here, making good on his promise to her that he would honor this important music. Gill and Franklin turn “Together Again” into a honky-tonk wonder, anchored by Gill’s otherwordly vocal (that channels Owens in all the best ways), and Franklin’s stunning backdrop of pedal steel. Their lively take on “The Bottle Let Me Down” is pure genius, and a wonderful compliment to “Together Again.”

In honoring the Bakersfield sound this record inspires, Gill and Franklin cover the gateway Owens tracks that helped Gill appreciate how the West Coast was influencing country music back in the early 1960s. You can also hear Owens in Gill’s vocal on “Foolin’ Around,” so much so you may wonder who that guy is singing. It opens the record in stunning fashion, showcasing Gill’s fine interpretation skills on guitar – Owens record was centered around steel, so it gave Gill room to create. “Nobody’s Fool” is just as wonderful a country shuffle, nicely complementing “Foolin’ Around.” Gill says he drew from George Jones for his beautiful electric guitar work here, and that cross genre influence helps the song stand out on its own. 

What’s great about Bakersfield is the lesser known tracks, moments that allow Gill and Franklin to show off their stunning prowess without fear of tampering with an iconic standard. “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” is a perfect weeper, with damn near brilliant guitar and steel work to offset Gill’s awe-inducing vocal. Owens co-wrote the track with Arty Lange and it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up by anyone before now, as songs in this style, no matter how old, need to be heard by younger ears. Tommy Collins’ “But I Do,” an unreleased song of Owens’ from 1963, has a spectacular twin-fiddle opening courtesy of The Time Jumpers’ Tommy Franklin and Joe Spivey before morphing into a moment of pure honky-tonk bliss.   

A go-to song for Gill in his club days, “Holding Things Together” is the lone unreleased Haggard track and a stunning ballad about a family on the brink of collapse. The ending gives way to a gorgeous jam session with Gill bringing out his Stratocaster, which is a nod to Reggie Young who introduced the guitar to Haggard and helped define his sound in the 1970s.

As if it’s even possible, the CD has one major highlight – a spot shining so bright, it overtakes the other tracks, flawless as they are. I was first introduced to Haggard’s 1970 #3, on LeAnn Rimes’ Gill co-produced Lady & Gentleman and since then I’ve been obsessed with “I Can’t Be Myself.” Gill’s been playing the song since he heard it on a Steve Young album as a late teen, and gives the track an “El Paso” type feel to honor iconic country music sessions guitarist Grady Martin, who played on Marty Robbins’ hit as well as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Sammi Smith’s hit recording of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” among others. Those facts don’t change, but only enhance the fact that, Gill has turned in an iconic recording here that’s as important and significant as any of his biggest hit records.

I love this album so much, I just jumped online and bought the project on vinyl. I can’t help but long to hear Gill’s exceptional guitar work and Franklin’s flourishes of steel and guitar coming through those speakers courtesy of a needle. Call me old fashioned at 25, but I don’t care – Bakersfield is a project that begs for such treatment. I’ve come to hold Gill in the highest regard among living country singers since he stopped courting the masses and made projects that help build his legacy, and he only succeeds in adding to my admiration with each of these ten songs.  

I don’t praise a project lightly, and have found my ability to be impressed harder and harder to fully satisfy with each passing year. But I mean it when I throw around phrases like “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “flawless.” Gill (and now Franklin, whom I’ve never paid close attention to) is a national treasure. Between his solo work, affiliation with The Time Jumpers, and time in the studio with newer artists like Ashley Monroe, he’s elevated himself into a national treasure as important to country music The Carter Family and Hank Williams, Sr.    

I cannot wait to hear what projects he has cookin’ (I believe a bluegrass album is up next) as he looks to be giving his fans little musical treats that show he’s just getting better and better with each passing year. I applaud you MCA Nashville for not letting him get away.

Go pick up Bakersfield. It is impossible to feel even the slightest bit disappointed. Maybe it is, but only if you don’t have a pulse.   

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

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

MI0003484229

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. 

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 – Don Williams – “And So It Goes”

June 21, 2012

Don Williams

And So It Goes

* * * *

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.

Album Review: Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell: “Kin – Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell”

June 8, 2012

Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell 

* * * * 1/2

The relationship between Mary Karr, a New York Times bestselling author, and Rodney Crowell began in 2003 when Crowell mentioned the author in “Earthbound” a track from Fate’s Right Hand. He’d just finished her book The Liar’s Club and had suspicions, based on her background in poetry, she could write songs.

Flash forward nine years and they’ve acted on that premonition with Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, an album for wordsmiths and musical connoisseurs alike. With an all-star cast of heavyweights (Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson) and fringe artists (Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams) lending their talents, the appreciation is only deepened by results worthy of their talents.

Kin shows its brilliance by presenting each artist in a new light, by giving the listener an unexpected treat with each composition. Producer Joe Henry pushes everyone out of their musical comfort zones with delightful arrangements that deepen their artistic integrity while allowing for substantial growth. Without the need to tread in the stagnant waters of mainstream Nashville, the artists have a chance to explore each song without fear of displeasing younger listeners, a constituency who wouldn’t be drawn to Kin in the first place.

Sonically, Kin is a slice of ear candy, an observation enhanced by the mix of steel, fiddle, upright bass, and acoustic guitar that drench each song. Womack exemplifies this perfectly, turning in her best song in over half a decade with “Mama’s On A Roll.” Soaked in dobro and acoustic guitar, she infuses the song with the slow-burn felt after downing a sift drink at a bar. Equally appealing is Jones, who infuses her trademark smoky warmth into the ear-catching “If The Law Don’t Want You.” By interjecting her performance with her Little Willies playfulness, she proves how compelling she is at singing country music and seduces the listener into hoping she’ll dabble in it with more frequency.

Another standout is the impressive Gill, who turns up the twang with “Just Pleasing You,” a steel and fiddle led number proving him correct in thinking his best days musically lie ahead. “Sister oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is like a visit from an old friend and fits her like a glove. While I would’ve liked to hear Cash sing something a little more energetic, you can’t fault her expressive tone on the somber tune about the relationship between close siblings.

Along the same lines is the sleepy “Long Time Girl Gone By” which finds a wispy Harris running the gamut from soft to strikingly compelling. More folk than country, it needed just a slight pick me up to hold my attention, but there isn’t any denying her artistry. Same goes for Williams who infuses “God I’m Missing You” with her usual tipsy delivery.

Crowell, not to be out done by the guest vocalists, turns in four songs of his own, his first since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline. The Dylan-like “Anything But Tame” rolls along with an acoustic guitar led arrangement, “I’m A Mess” recalls a Steve Earle-like sensibility, and “Hungry For Home” is straight-up folk. But the most appealing is “My Father’s Advice,” a duel role duet with Crowell as the son and Kristofferson as the advice-lending dad. The most country of Crowell’s vocal contributions to Kin, it offers flourishes of fiddle and harmonica that helps move the story along at a nice even pace.

As a whole, Kin is a patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments, led by Karr and Crowell’s simple yet evocative lyrics and brought to life by the stellar cast who gathered to record them. It’s a not-to-be-missed collaboration and one of the most original country albums of 2012.

My “Chaos Theory” playlist

December 26, 2011

Last week C.M. Wilcox of Country California posted his “chaos theory” playlist for 2011. In essence, he mixed all the music he purchased in 2011 into one playlist on iTunes and hit shuffle. The first 20 entries comprised the list.

A couple of commenters did the same, adding their lists to the conversation. I thought it might be fun to see what 20 songs iTunes would pick if I used the same method. My list is below:

1. Alone – Kelly Clarkson

2. Mr. Know It All – Kelly Clarkson

3. NASCAR Party – Julie Roberts

4. The Dreaming Fields – Matraca Berg

5. My Opening Farewell – Alison Krauss and Union Station

6. Honestly – Kelly Clarkson

7. Baggage Claim – Miranda Lambert

8. Away In A Manger – Joey+Rory

9. Love’s Looking Good On You – Randy Travis featuring Kristin Chenoweth

10. Wildwood Flower – Suzy Bogguss

11. Modern Love – Matt Nathanson

12. You Don’t Have To Be A Baby – Del McCory Band and The Prevention Hall Jazz Club

13. Stronger – Julie Roberts

14. Don’t You Wanna Stay – Jason Aldean feat. Kelly Clarkson

15. It Wrecks Me – Sunny Sweeney

16. Blue Velvet – Tony Bennett and k.d. Lang

17. My Name is Emmett Till – Emmylou Harris 

18. Kept – Matt Nathanson

19. Don’t Throw It Away – Foster & Lloyd 

20. Guitar Slinger – Vince Gill

There is some extremely well-crafted music here from some very talented individuals who released new records in 2011. The Emmylou Harris and Suzy Bogguss entires were much better than almost anything getting mainstream exposure and my appreciation for Vince Gill knows no bounds.

While I do wish there was a bit more diversity, whatever popped up is what I went with. In any event it makes for a fun exercise and I enjoyed seeing what iTunes spit back at me on random shuffle.

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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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.



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