Concert Review: Loretta Lynn in Cohasset, MA

August 27, 2015
Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

In the immortal words of the almighty Chris M. Wilcox, we need to revere the living icons of country music and ‘Love ‘em while They’re Here.’ His 2012 piece is a subtle battle cry of sorts, a wake up call to seek out concerts the talent we’re fortunate still has the energy and stamina to traverse the country and put on shows. Wilcox’s article is met with added urgency for the mere fact a good number of the artists he cited have died since it was published.

One legend still going strong, at 83, is Loretta Lynn. I had the good fortune of seeing her live for the first time last Saturday, August 22, at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. I’ve seen many a legend there through the years and have witnessed many incredible evenings of music under their tent. But this may’ve been the most special night of all.

The night began with Lynn’s daughter Patsy taking the stage with some housekeeping and other general announcements. She got the crowd going with talk of an autographed box set and lyric book available at the merchandise booth. Once she was done, Lynn’s band The Coal Miners (which features her son) took the stage for some opening numbers to get the crowd going. They began with a feisty “Mama Tried” and ended with “Good As I Once Was.” The pair is random on paper, but the Toby Keith hit really isn’t terribly far off from the Merle Haggard classic sonically.

I was pleasantly surprised when Patsy returned with her sister Peggy for a couple of tunes. They opened with a contemporary number before closing with the crowd pleasing “Tulsa Time.” I was kind of  remiss they didn’t perform “Nights Like These,” but I was likely the only one in the crowd to distinctly remember their sole “hit” from the late 1990s.

Once Loretta came out to a standing ovation, she literally didn’t let up for just over an hour. A blessing of country music from her era is the length of songs. At about two minutes or so each, you can cram in quite a bit in a short amount of time. And boy did Lynn give us everything she’s got.

I’m not as familiar with everything in her vast catalog, but I was surprised just how many of her hits I was familiar with, at least on some level. Lynn ran through the requisite classics – “Fist City,” “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin,’” “You’re Lookin’ At Country,” “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Lynn executed each of her iconic songs with precision – no false notes or signs her voice has significantly aged.

The poignant “Dear Uncle Sam,” which she said she wrote at the start of the Vietnam War was an emotional highlight. For a forty-nine year old song, the message in “Dear Uncle Sam” rang loud and clear. Everyone was chocked up when she got to the final verse. It was a lesson that great songs really do stand the test of time.

IMG_5122Lynn didn’t go off a set list, which allowed for audience requests. I hate that distracting option, but it didn’t hinder the flow at all. No matter what we threw at her, she gave all the gusto she had. Her son joined her on “Feelings,” the only one of the duets with Conway Twitty that was performed. Lynn also gave a gorgeous reading of “Love Is The Foundation” and added even more humor to “One’s On The Way” by upping the number of kids in the title (“Four’s on The Way”). I’ve always found that song to be a little cutesy, but it’s one of the most honest portrayals of motherhood in country music history.

The only negative aspect of the evening, and it was very minor, was Lynn’s overall attitude. She seemed a little sad – frustrated when she didn’t feel her voice was making it. Lynn explained to the audience how she’s much better when she’s sung on consecutive nights opposed to coming back after three or so weeks without a performance. Towards the end of the hour she had to rest and her band took over with a couple more songs. Once they made the decision to have Lynn sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” you knew the once-in-a-lifetime night was drawing to a close.

The concert was magnificent. I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more from a woman who’s given so much goodness to the betterment of country music. It would’ve been wonderful to hear her talk more about the individual songs, (she did say no one would probably remember “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” after she performed it), but she chose to fit in as much music as she could instead. There’s no arguing about the gift of hearing great music instead of a lot of talking. She also focused solely on the hits, leaving out tracks from Still Country and Van Lear Rose.

What surprised me, though, was how modern everything sounded. I didn’t feel like I was listening to tracks designed for a 1960s/1970s musical landscape. Lynn’s songs are so expertly composed they transcend decades and trends. No matter what generation you were from, and there were some kids in the audience, you could relate to what Lynn was singing. It’s a good thing, too, because five new albums are coming – Patsy teased them at the start of the night.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to have had this rare chance to see Loretta Lynn live. If she hadn’t come to that venue, I never would’ve sought her out. I urge anyone who’s never been to one of her shows to run if given the chance. Chris M. Wilcox is correct, we really do have to love ‘em while they’re here.

Album Review: Kasey Chambers – ‘Bittersweet’

August 6, 2015

Kasey Chambers



* * * *

Kasey Chambers’ tenth album, which has finally been released in the United States, has quickly become one of my favorite records of the year. Composed on the heels of her divorce from Shane Nicholson, Bittersweet is also her first set of music without her brother Nash at the helm.

Chambers wanted something different this time around and enlisted the aide of Nick DiDia, a rock producer best known for collaborating with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen. As a result, Bittersweet is a tender collection soaked in Banjo, tasteful piano, and a whole lot of emotion.

At its heart and soul, Bittersweet showcases a woman grappling with the sensations that follow unexpected life turns. On “I Would Do” Chambers beautifully lays out her devotion to her man, vowing to go to the ends of the earth for him – even if the journey leads to heartbreak. The waltzy “House on a Hill” likens her brokenness to the plight of a dilapidated house, spelled out with gorgeous poetry:

And it’s old and it’s worn

And the curtains are torn

And tomorrow they’re tearing it down

And just like a heart

It’s falling apart

It couldn’t stand up

If a hard wind blew

And it’s been through it all

And there’s cracks in the wall

They may as well just

Take me down too

She spells out her pain in the devastating title track, my favorite song on the album. A duet with Bernard Fanning, “Bittersweet” is a masterful reflection by a couple that have grown so far apart they don’t need each other anymore. Chambers relinquishes the lead to Fanning, which gives the track its bite. As a result, her interjections are all the more powerful.

“I’m Alive,” in direct contrast, finds Chambers turning defiant, declaring she’s gone through the fire and come out the other side a stronger woman. Backed by acoustic guitar and harmonica, Chambers adds every ounce of pathos to the lyric she can muster:

And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears

Things ain’t always what they appear

I made it through the hardest fucking year

Rockers like “I’m Alive” are hard to come by on Bittersweet, but they’re also some of the album’s finest moments. I adore lead single “Wheelbarrow,” a collaboration with Ashleigh Dallas. The lyric relies on repetitive phrasing, which allows it to joyfully get under your skin. I’m not usually one for loud arrangements but the mix of blistering rock and back porch picking is perfection. “Hell of a Way To Go” applies similar production techniques to frame Chambers’ request of what should be done with her remains if she dies of a broken heart.

“Stalker” finds Chambers unleashing her inner crazy while “Heaven or Hell” has her warning an egomaniac to come off his high horse. The almightily plays a surprising role on Bittersweet, showing up at the beginning and end of the album. The beautiful “Is God Real” finds Chambers looking for something to believe in. “Christmas Day” is an exquisite holiday tune about Mary and Jesus.

Bittersweet is my favorite album so far this year because Chambers has a way with a lyric that keeps the project from detouring into ‘breakup record’ territory. Her ability to traverse a wide array of emotions, while coming to terms with the changing tides of life, is striking.

Album Review: Christa Gniadek – ‘Leaving Boston’

July 16, 2015

Christa Gniadek


Leaving Boston

* * * *

For 25-year-old Christa Gniadek, music has always been in her blood. A classically trained pianist she left her Connecticut hometown for Boston. Gniadek studied at Berklee College of Music where she earned a Songwriting Degree.

In her relatively short career, Gniadek first took to the stage at 18; she’s recorded three full-length albums and two EPs. Gniadek teamed with Charles Haynes, best known for his work with Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga, for her latest release, Leaving Boston. The ballad heavy album is lush in nature, which perfectly compliments Gniadek’s beautifully smoky voice.

A steady melody of guitars and light percussion frames “I Had You,” about a woman ready to dive into a relationship headfirst. I love Gniadek’s clever lyric, which dives into her fearlessness about the potential for heartbreak, and boldly declares, ‘if I lose you, that means I had you.’

Gniadek’s palpable pain is all too real on “No Way Out,” a heartbreaker about a relationship gone sour. She’s at his place, with ‘a wall of sheetrock between your hand and mine’ and so may internal feelings left unsaid. Gniadek ‘s quiet simplicity reveals her hurt, allowing the listener to fully appreciate the magnitude of her circumstances. On “Never Let Me Go” Gniadek is a woman pleading with her man to sober up and realize what he has – a woman committed to his love.

“Love Like Ours” is my favorite type of song, rich with details about the little things in life that comprise the bond between a woman and her man. Their relationship isn’t about fancy indulgences. It’s about the little gestures that mean a whole lot more:

It’s barely eight you made coffee and pancakes

One of the few mornings I’m glad that I’m awake

I take a sip,

Know you left the sugar out

Look up for a kiss, yeah,

This is what it’s about

The beautiful “You” is another love song. Gniadek is torn in two – she wants to live her dreams yet desires to have her man by her side to wake up to each morning. The push and pull is all too real, perfectly detailed in Gniadek’s brutally honest lyric.

She’s ravished on “Nothing Left,” which finds a woman with an empty heart who doesn’t really know exactly what she wants. “Worst Kind of Love” may give some answers, as Gniadek has no idea what she’s done to deserve the treatment she’s experiencing. That treatment is all too clear on jaunty album opener “It’s Not Right,” which has Gniadek confronting her man for not being more explicit with his feelings. It’s my favorite song on the record because of the production, which adds a texture that invited me in from the first note.

Gniadek is a woman on the run in the title track; quickly ripping the Band-Aid off the relationship in order to move on, no matter how much hurt is left in her wake. In the end she leaves for “The Road,” which is where her heart belonged all this time. The intoxicating pull was too much for her to bear and Gniadek had to do what was right for her and follow what is really in her heart.

The journey of this record is fascinating. Gniadek uses Leaving Boston to work through unresolved questions and pain to get the clarity she needed to follow the right path. Her astute songwriting makes these songs come alive. This is not your average singer-songwriter rehashing well-worn themes. Leaving Boston showcases a fully formed woman elevating those themes to another level with honest relatability. You feel exactly what she’s going through, which makes it all the more satisfying to join her on this journey.

At first I wasn’t onboard with the quietness of the album, but it’s what makes Leaving Boston so special. Gniadek forces you to stop and pay attention to every last word. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.


For more information on Christa Gniadek, check out her website.

Leaving Boston is available on iTunes and Noisetrade

You can also ‘Like’ her on Facebook

Album Review: Jason Isbell – ‘Something More Than Free’

July 15, 2015

Jason Isbell


Something More Than Free

* * * * 1/2

Following up an album as iconic and masterful as Southeastern is not an easy task, even for the smartest of artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Jason Isbell had readied a follow-up record so quickly but nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the artistic behemoth that proceeded it. After all, how does an artist even begin to build upon the impossible foundation set by the greatest songwriting triumph this decade? Well, he just does it all over again.

Something More Than Free cements Isbell’s status as the best singer-songwriter currently orbiting the country universe. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. He’s simply a master among armatures.

Lead single “24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with the chorus:

You thought God was an architect

Now you know
He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow
Everything you’ve built that’s all for show goes up in flames

In twenty-four frames

One of the most poignant aspects of Something More Than Free is the reliance on songs about work with an overarching reflection on life as a whole. Album opener “If It Takes A Lifetime” is the greatest rumination on patience I’ve ever heard. “The Life You Chose” is a take-no-prisoners reality check on personal trajectory, asking, ‘are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?’ Isbell’s turns of phrase are impeccable, when the chorus continues by asking, ‘are you taking the grownup dose?

Isbell is at his strongest on the title track, in which he paints a character spending his days enduring hellish extremes who is ‘just lucky to have the work.’ His songwriting genius reveals itself in the sly way he incorporates the lyric’s true meaning, by stating the song’s title only once. That single usage gives the song its powerful twist:

The day will come. I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb and my hands are freezing
but what I’m working for is something more than free

Those who’ve been deeply affected by Andy’s love for his cancer stricken friend in “Elephant” know Isbell is a storyteller in his class of his own. The remarkable “Speed Trap Town” isn’t as by the book, but it finds Isbell embodying the soul of a man as he realizes he needs a quick exit strategy:

And it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight,
when there’s no one left to ask if I’m alright
I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide

if there’s anything that can’t be left behind

In “Children of Children” Isbell introduces us to Michael, the son of a teenage mother who becomes a teenager with a child of his own. The heartbreaking twist comes when you realize the song is really about a woman’s worth and sacrifice:

You were riding on your mother’s hip

She was shorter than the corn
and all the years you took from her just by being born

Amidst all the grim realities, Isbell throws us a bone with “Flagship,” a sweet love song about one man’s observances and a simple vow to always find a way to keep the romance alive. He gives us a completely different kind of adoration on “The Band I Loved,” which is presumably about The Drive-By-Truckers. Isbell is trying to justify the circumstances when everything went to hell and how he looks back on it all today.

Like Southeastern before it, Something More Than Free is soaked in gritty reality. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His albums, at least these last two, are drenched in rock elements that perfectly compliment his signature gravel and help create the individual mood of each song. Now that he’s strongly framed the house, I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material’

July 13, 2015

Kacey Musgraves


Pageant Material

* * *

Despite the prestigious awards and critical acclaim, Kacey Musgraves has spent the better part of the last two years failed by an industry that doesn’t appreciate her unique quirkiness. The Country Music Association marred her performance of “Follow Your Arrow” by bleeping the word ‘joint.’

The Academy of Country Music offered her a slot for a shortened performance on their 2014 telecast, which she refused. Country Radio pulled “Biscuits” before it could gain any momentum. Mercury Nashville held back on “The Trailer Song,” her most fully formed slice of commentary, only to dump it on iTunes as an afterthought.

Fortunately for Musgraves, the songs speak for themselves. Same Trailer Different Park is one of the best mainstream country albums of the decade, showcasing an artist with an original perspective confidently following her own arrow. That arrow has now pointed to Pageant Material, her second major label album.

Like Same Trailer, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally produced Pageant Material, with Brandy Clark and McAnally returning as co-writers. That’s all fine and good, but is Pageant Material the worthy sophomore release it should be? Well, it’s not Same Trailer Different Park.

For all the criticism that both projects are incongruously similar, Pageant Material relies too heavily on observation. I don’t think Musgraves is deliberately trying to duplicate “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” but the album sure has more than a few songs in that vein.

Pageant Material begins very strong. “High Time” is an excellent backwards country romp featuring handclaps and whistling, which keep it thoroughly modern. “Dime Store Cowgirl” is a strong first person ‘where I’m from’ narrative that cultivates an image without succumbing to cliché or stereotype.

When it debuted in April, I thought “Biscuits” was a contrived second-rate knockoff, but I’ve grown to admire the infectious melody and memorable hook. I also love “Good ‘Ol Boys Club,” which uses a soaking of steel to take the male artists monopolizing Nashville to task. Pageant Material comes alive on “Late For The Party,” easily the best song by a mile. Musgraves’ conversational vocal and the lush production are flawless, giving the track inviting warmth. “Fine” is also excellent, as is the cruelly hidden duet with Willie Nelson.

Problem is the majority of Pageant Material suffers without more “Life of the Party” or “Fine” type moments, which would’ve given the record much need diversity. Instead we’re treated to “Family Is Family” and “Cup of Tea,” and the title track, which come off as cheap imitations that try too hard to live up to her other songs in the same vein. If Musgraves had made smarter choices that relied more on varietal substance, I would’ve enjoyed the album more.

Concert Review: Lee Ann Womack in Brownfield, Maine

July 6, 2015

10418219_10153975043913916_5933730150065047502_nWith her blonde hair resting in curls below her shoulders, Lee Ann Womack strutted onto the stage to the tune of her debut single, “Never Again, Again.” The setting was Stone Mountain Arts Center; a barn located five miles down a rural road in the sticks of Brownfield, Maine.

Womack charmed the packed house; capacity is just 200 people, with a taut set that revisited the past, reverted to the present, and took some satisfying left turns along the way. At forty-eight Womack’s as spry as ever, with one of the clearest sopranos I’ve ever heard.

Earlier in the week she did an interview with The Boston Globe in which she said she only sings her favorite past hits, so as she ticked them off one by one, I had fun guessing what she would and would not sing. Womack ran through the majority of her eponymous debut, stopping short of “The Fool.”

I was quite surprised that she performed “Buckaroo,” which barely qualifies as an essential Womack single, but it sounded incredible in the setting, which is regarded as one of the top ten venues in the country to hear music. Her biggest risk came with “The Bees,” a Call Me Crazy non-single that would only appeal to those who are intimately familiar with that album. Womack also shined on “You’ve Got To Talk To Me,” which has been a favorite of mine going on eighteen years now.

Additional highlights included a sinister reimagining of “Little Past Little Rock” and a toe-tapping “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” one of those hits I fully expected she’d thrown away. Womack stopped in the middle of her set to reflect on her upbringing in church before launching into a breathtaking mandolin soaked reading of “Wayfaring Stranger,” which she performed how she learned it all those years ago.

Her small town childhood crept in again, as slight context before her latest single “Send It On Down.” Womack spent ample time treating us to her masterful The Way I’m Livin’, from renditions of “Don’t Listen To The Wind” and “All Them Saints” to an effortless take on “Chances Are.”

The night’s most enjoyable element was the cheeky introductions Womack gave to her past hits. The band would play some slightly non-descript instrumental bed before playing the recognizable openings of the various songs. This concept provedIMG_1130 fun, especially as a segway from her aching new material to something more sunny and upbeat from her early years.

To that end the night leaned heavily on her most recognizable material, although she threw in a beautiful rendition of her low charting hit “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” which foreshadows the darker elements that threads together her most recent material. Womack even found a way to make her biggest hit, “I Hope You Dance,” work. By stripping the song bare, she ditched the sheen and reduced the song to its simplest form. By focusing squarely on the lyric message, Womack proved there was substance beneath the inspirational hoopla. She closed her main set with “Ashes By Now,” which sounds as good today as it did fifteen years ago.

Throughout the night, Womack referenced her admiration for George Jones, but even I was surprised when she emerged for her encore, asking the audience if they were ready to hear some hardcore country music. She sang a Jones song I’m still unfamiliar with, but it involved drinking in a barroom. Womack closed with her beautiful rendition of the Don Williams classic “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good.”

If you only know Womack from her albums, than you must find a way to see her live. She’s easily one of the most remarkable vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in person. Unlike a lot of singers, she not only knows what she has but how to use it. I couldn’t ask for any more from an artist. Well, she could’ve sung “The Fool,” “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” and “Last Call.” But other than that she more than gave us a stellar evening of fine country music in a setting worthy of her authenticity.

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette – ‘South Branch Road’

June 23, 2015

Nancy Beaudette


South Branch Road

* * * * *

A virtue of the independent music scene is the joy in discovering artists for which the act of creating music is a deeply personal art. Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario, but has made a name for herself in Central Massachusetts, is one such singer-songwriter. With South Branch Road, her eighth release, Beaudette’s homespun tales are the most fully realized of her nearly three-decade career.

The gorgeous title track, where the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar frame Beaudette’s elegant ode to her childhood, is a perfect example:

I fell in love with tar and stone

And a county lined with maple and oak

In sixty-one with three kids in tow

Mom and dad bought a place there and made it home

I spent my summers on a steel blue bike

Weaving shoulder to shoulder like wind in a kite

Dreaming big and reaching high

Riding further and further out on my own

The image of a girl and her bike surfaces again on “Ride On,” a wispy ballad chronicling a daughter’s relationship with her father. The track, co-written by Beaudette, Kerry Chater, and Lynn Gillespie Chater, succeeds on the fact it doesn’t end with the father’s death, like these songs almost always do. The journey of life surfaces again on “Can’t Hold Back,” a mid-tempo ballad co-written with Rick Lang. The track beautifully employs a nature metaphor that Beaudette and Lang keep fresh and exciting with their clever lyric.

Beaudette solely penned the masterfully constructed “Something Tells Me,” the devastating centerpiece of South Branch Road. An unpredictable twist follows a story that sits in an air of mystery until the final verse belts you square in the gut. I haven’t felt this much emotion towards a song in years, probably because the woman in the song and my mom are the same age.

Beaudette clearly isn’t a novice, as she smartly surrounds “Something Tells Me,” the most affecting number on South Branch Road, with joyous moments of levity. These moments are the heart and soul of the record, showcasing Beaudette’s everywoman nature and her ability to draw you in with her aptitude for turning narratives into conversations, as though you were just casually catching up over a cup of coffee.

“’Till The Tomatoes Ripen” takes me back to my childhood and my grandfather’s tradition of planting an insanely large garden of the titular vegetable. I fondly remember the pleasure of going through the rows and picking the red ones by the basketful. Beaudette’s lyric conveys the much simpler notion of planting the garden itself and the contented happiness that comes from watching it grow. The peaceful oceanfront setting in which she places said garden only increases the joy abounding from the proceedings.

The bonds of newly minted friendship take center ice on “Shoot to Score,” a hockey-themed uptempo number that values the importance of dream visualization. Cornwall is a hockey city, so Beaudette is right-at-home name-checking the likes of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. The lyric turns wonderfully personal when Beaudette recounts her own memories with the sport:

I loved to play but I wasn’t great

An’ I showed up with my figure skates

And my first step out onto the ice

And I fell flat on my face

“End of Line” is the purest country song on South Branch Road. Banjo and fiddle abound on a story about a couple, their love of watching trains, and the moment their relationship has to end. The rollicking tune feels almost like a prelude to “Between Your Heart and Mine,” a mournful ballad about a woman, a lost love, and a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t remember an instance when such a memorable walk was so delightfully clouded in ambiguity.

“Build It Up” teams Beaudette with Marc Rossi, a Nashville-based songwriter who graduated from high school with my parents. The lyric details a farmhouse fire in the early 20th century and the way lives were altered as a result. The slicker production, which recalls Forget About It era Alison Krauss, is perfectly in service to the downbeat but catchy lyric. Opener “Starlight” harkens back to early 1990s Mary Chapin Carpenter with a gloriously bright production and Beaudette’s high energy vocal.

South Branch Road is extraordinarily layered and nuanced. Channeling her inner Don Williams, Beaudette draws you in with her natural simplicity. Her songwriting gets to the heart of the matter by conveying emotion without bogging down the listener with unnecessarily clunky lyrics. She’s a master storyteller, which in turn has informed her ability to craft lyrical compositions that fully utilize this very rare gift.

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road; a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and rolls, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter.

Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

June 11, 2015

Della Mae


Della Mae

* * * *

2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Shania Twain, The Woman In Me

June 1, 2015

This is the first in an occasional series of reviews spotlight albums celebrating significant anniversaries.

Shania Twain


The Woman In Me

 February 7, 1995

* * * * 1/2

After the commercial failure of her eponymous debut, the execs at Mercury Nashville pushed Shania Twain to return to the studio and ready a second album. It was during this period between projects that her legendary affair with Robert John “Mutt” Lange began, with long-range telephone calls cumulating in their first face-to-face meeting at Fan Fair in 1993. The pair would marry at the end of that year.

Treading lightly, Twain returned to Luke Lewis, her label president, with the confession she’d been writing with Lange. Lewis initially balked at the notion of a full-length collaboration, fearful Lange would move Twain too far away from what was considered commercially acceptable at the time. After hearing a demo of their work together, Lewis reluctantly agreed to hire Lange as the album’s producer.

By January 1995, Twain hadn’t had a single at radio since “You Lay A Whole Lot of Love On Me” failed to chart sixteen-months earlier. To introduce her new sound, Twain wanted “Any Man of Mine” to be the lead single from The Woman In Me. Mercury Nashville, much to Twain’s chagrin, went more conservative and released fiddle-heavy “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” instead. The very clever tune, about a woman confronting her husband over his many infidelities, began at radio with a whimper. It wasn’t until The Woman In Me started selling, that radio finally took notice. By April, the track had reached #11.

That same month, the trajectory of Twain’s career, and the sonic direction of country radio, changed forever. “Any Man of Mine,” the most significant radio offering since Randy Travis’ “On The Other Hand” ten years earlier, was unleashed upon the masses. Mixing elements of a backwoods hoedown with brazen signifiers of arena rock, “Any Man of Mine” was unlike anything country radio had ever heard – a fully formed artistic statement that melded genres without sacrificing integrity. It quickly rose to #1.

The title track, a seductive ballad, impacted radio next. It was met with a cooler reception, peaking at #14 despite a gorgeous music video that had Twain gallivanting amongst the Egyptian Pyramids. Her next three singles were all radio smashes, with each hitting #1. “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!” and “You Win My Love” were expertly crafted slices of country-rock. “No One Needs To Know” was back-porch acoustic country at its commercial best.

Hoping to finally strike with a ballad, “Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)” was selected next. It may’ve been the worst performing single from The Woman In Me (peaking at #28), but it was also the strongest lyrically and emotionally. With flourishes of steel guitar, Twain takes on the role of a woman reflecting on her husband’s behavior in their disintegrating marriage. They were once in love but bills, babies, and change broke him while she stayed home to keep what was left of their lives afloat. “God Bless The Child,” a minute-and-a-half long a capella prayer that was expanded into a full-length track for its music video was the eighth and final single.

In a format known for the ten songs per album with just three singles formula, releasing eight songs to radio was virtually unprecedented. That left four of the album’s twelve tracks, which were also the most traditionally minded songs on The Woman In Me, as forgotten leftovers. “Is There Life After Love,” “Raining on Our Love,” and “Leaving Is The Only Way Out” mix steel guitar with lush strings and piano. “If It Don’t Take Two” remains one of the purest examples of a song that actually got the line dance craze right with a throwback honky-tonk arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place just a few years earlier.

In just five years, The Woman In Me sold a staggering twelve million copies in the United States alone. When fans bought the project, they were getting the single greatest example of a formula every female artist who came up in Twain’s wake has spent the last twenty years ruining. The Woman In Me is brilliant because Lange’s deceptive simplicity perfectly showcased Twain’s personality all the while keeping her wild abandonment in check.

Even more astonishingly, you can make out each instrument and aren’t bombarded by noise and distortion. This is how you expertly meld rock, pop, and country together – cleanly and with adequate breathing space. There’s a reason no one, not even Twain herself, has been able to duplicate the magic of The Woman In Me – it cannot be done, even with all the right ingredients. Simply put, The Woman In Me is a record for the ages.

Album Review – Shelby Lynne – ‘I Can’t Imagine’

May 27, 2015

Shelby Lynne


I Can’t Imagine

* * * *

For the first time in twenty years Shelby Lynne has recorded an album outside of Southern California, where she first found her artistic voice on I Am Shelby Lynne. The sessions for I Can’t Imagine, her fifth self-produced set, took place at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana.

The album continues Lynne’s penchant for jazzy acoustic ballads, a signature of her most recent work. The title track, a co-write with Pete Donnelly, was issued as the lead single. An excellent mid-tempo ballad, the track centers on a breakup with a woman friend sympathizing with the man, unable to comprehend what he must be feeling.

Lynne co-wrote half the album, while she authored the other half solo. On the self-penned tracks, Lynne finds herself exploring themes of exploration and self-examination. She desires to find herself within the woman she’s become on “Back Porch, Front Door” while she longs for her place in this world on “Son of a Gun,” which straightforwardly references her mother’s death. “Following You” centers on a flashback to her childhood, where she’s more observant of her father’s habits then she chooses to let on.

She finally breaks on “Paper Van Gogh,” the soaring centerpiece that opens the album with a defiant roar. Lynne leads with the record’s greatest statement, that little in her life is organic and real, a mantra that threads the personal confessions that follow. Rock thumper “Down Here” is the columniation of her five-track odyssey, where she seeks comfort in her relationship to God, the only person who knows who she feels truly knows her.

These tracks are wonderful explorations of Lynne’s broken soul, segmented into different fractions of her shattered spirit. While they transmit a decided lyrical heaviness, she keeps them approachable by giving each moment enough tempo to engage the audience. We hear her pain because prodding arrangements don’t bog us down.

Lynne finds some positivity in “Love Is Strong,” a co-write with Canadian Singer-Songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Even though her vocal may suggest otherwise, she feels newly born; an odd one-off on an album filled with despair. Her other co-write with Sexsmith, “Be In The Now” is the album’s lone anthem, a battle cry to enjoy the present for it isn’t as bad as the darkness that surrounds it.

“Sold The Devil (Sunshine)” is the lone track Lynne co-wrote with Mavericks guitarist Ben Peeler. The song rests on the brilliant metaphor “we sold the devil a dash of sunshine,” one of the greatest ways of describing desperation I’ve ever heard.

“Better,” the other track co-written with Donnelly, is an ambiguous ballad with a beautifully poetic lyric. The protagonist is stronger now that she’s without her man, better off now that he’s long gone.

I Can’t Imagine is as emotional an album as you’re going to find this year, a project that finds Lynne in a strong a voice as she’s ever been. It’s an incredible glimpse into her psyche as she battles the demons that have followed her for most of her life. It’s a journey well worth taking with an artist who gets better and better with each passing album.

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Jekyll + Hyde’

May 20, 2015

Zac Brown Band


Jekyll + Hyde

* * *

Since debuting eight years ago, Zac Brown Band has been a bright light on the increasingly barren landscape of mainstream country music. Ballads “Highway 20 Ride,” “Colder Weather” and “Goodbye In Your Eyes” join rompers “As She’s Walking Away” and “The Wind” as some of the strongest radio singles of the period. I’ve always loved Brown’s affable voice and his instance that fiddle prominently factor into the core of his band’s harmonic sound.

Still, the need for change has always been there. Zac Brown Band is quick to grow complacent, retreading musical ground when they should be pushing to elevate to the next level artistically. Uncaged, for example, beat their island-themed subset into the ground with the ear piercing “Jump Right In.”

Like clockwork, they’ve managed to do it again. Jekyll + Hyde is their widest album yet stylistically, covering everything from EDM and rock to jam band and, yes, more of those island rhythms. In turn, it mixes a hodge-podge of everything with a lot of retreaded ground.

The album opens with the wailing “Beautiful Drug,” which attempts to cross-pollinate by mixing EDM with acoustic country instrumentation. They venture into acid rock on the disastrous second single (it was a #1 on the Billboard Rock Chart) “Heavy Is The Head,” which features an assist from Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell. They further hone this sound on “Junkyard,” another slice of head pounding acid drivel.

Lead single “Homegrown,” while not a complete misstep, is the worst song they’ve ever sent to country radio. The suffocating production, complete with harmonies lifted from Eagles “The Long Run,” is only compounded by a lyric that’s too rudimentary to be interesting. Brown, Niko Moon, and Al Anderson ingeniously give third single “Loving You Easy” a catchy chorus to distract from the fact the song is nothing more than blandly warmed-over 1970s soft rock, a slower sonic counterpart to “Keep Me In Mind.” The jam band aesthetic continues on groovy love songs “One Day” and “Young and Wild.”

Brown employs a hoard of songwriters, a tradition in modern pop music, to help with two of the album’s tracks. “Wildfire,” which is co-written with Eric Church, follows in the same musical vein as “Homegrown” and feels primed to be a single. “I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter),” presumably written from Brown’s personal experience (he has four of them), explores a pop-leaning waltzing style complete with staccato beats.

The resurrection of their island-theme signature comes in the form of “Castaway.” A breezy ukulele and steel drum soaked jam that continues the escapism of “Knee Deep,” the song beautifully evokes the intended feeling in a way that feels somewhat fresh yet cheesy at the same time. They go a step further by fully exploring horn-laden Swing on “Mango Tree,” a duet with pop vocalist Sara Bareilles. The upbeat jazzy grove fits Brown like a glove, which surprised even me.

The remainder of the album showcases how Zac Brown Band fares when they revisit what they’ve already done musically, but with fresh eyes. Life affirming “Remedy” preaches love as the answer with ribbons of Celtic influence. Discourse continues on “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a bluegrass romp delivering the same central message as the Garth Brooks classic. “Bittersweet” tells a dark tale about lost love with a melody that recalls, but adds a bit more meat to, their penchant for tracks with a delicate acoustic softness.

The Jason Isbell composition “Dress Blues” is easily the album’s most hyped moment, a rare instance where a mainstream artist uses their platform to elevate the stature an independent singer/songwriter. The proceedings are marred by a production that favors slick over raw, but it doesn’t hinder the overall beauty of the song, which features harmonies by Jewel. It says a lot about the quality of an album when its strongest track comes courtesy of an outside songwriter.

Concert Review: Suzy Bogguss’ opening act, Wisewater

April 29, 2015

IMG_2759As if seeing Suzy Bogguss April 16 at TCAN in Natick, MA wasn’t enough we were also treated to a performance from Americana band Wisewater, who opened the show. I’m always weary about opening acts – I’ve seen my share that that add nothing to the show, but these guys were the opposite in every conceivable way.

On the onset, the setup is oddly familiar. Wisewater is a trio comprised of Forrest O’Connor on Mandolin, Kate Lee on Fiddle, and Jim Shirey on Guitar (O’Connor and Lee also perform, as a duo, under the Wisewater name). While their sound may hearken back to those early days of Nickel Creek at the turn of the century, they’ve found an individuality that’s allowed them to shine on their own.

While the particular songs may’ve been unfamiliar, I came away with my heart filled with a joy it hasn’t felt in a long time. The sound they’ve created is amongst my favorite in the world – I’m addicted to the magic created when mandolin and fiddle come together as one, either on a song or as the foundation for the sound of a band.

But what totally sold me was their unbridled passion for their craft. They give the appearance that their group is a jam session among friends and not a fully formed label assisted entity given direction about how they should sound or what they should wear. Wisewater is the real deal in world starving for authenticity from their favorite artists.

While Lee’s angelic voice is the center of the music, O’Connor stole the set with his approachability. He came across as anIMG_2762 everyman, so it was kind of surprising to learn he is the son of six time CMA Musician of the Year Mark O’Connor. Throughout their set, he was playing the same Mandolin his father plucked during the sessions for Aces twenty-four years ago. O’Connor played the fire out of the thing, but treated it with the reverence is rightfully deserves.

While Lee doesn’t have a personal connection to Bogguss, she shared how influential Bogguss was in helping her shape what she wanted to sound like as an artist. It was a shame Bogguss didn’t bring them out on stage during her set, even for a song, but she did reference them a point along the way. To close their set Wisewater played two covers, ending with the rip-roaring highlight “Johnnie B. Good,” which served as a showcase for O’Connor’s breakneck picking and rapid-fire singing.

When they were through O’Connor came out to the lobby and signed copies of the band’s EP, which proved very popular. The concertgoers were raving about their authenticity and commenting that you don’t hear much of that in today’s musical landscape. Even more rare is to find the band as genuine as their sound; eager to play for and meet the fans they’ve just so easily won over.

Music Video for a track performed at the show:

Concert Review: Suzy Bogguss in Natick, Massachusetts

April 27, 2015

IMG_0899Towards the end of her majestic set at the Center For The Arts (TCAN) in Natick, MA April 16, Suzy Bogguss declared her Midwestern roots have led to a life of running, always heading somewhere. It’s been a subtle thematic presence in her music since the beginning, only growing stronger the more fully realized her catalog becomes.

Flying by the seam of her skirt, Bogguss and her band mates (which included Charlie Chadwick on upright bass) let inspiration guide the evening and erase the fourth wall, gifting the audience a rare intimacy. We were as much a part of the show as the trio on stage, proving the essential need to help tiny venues (TCAN, housed in a firehouse built in 1875, has just 270 seats in its performance room) prosper for the sake of feeding hungry souls craving the authenticity of genuine performers singing and playing real music.

Bogguss ran through her hits, opening with the one-two-punch of “Outbound Plane” and “Aces,” the latter of which she admits is so open to interpretation she doesn’t try and explain its meaning anymore. She gave an all-to-brief shout out to her friend and co-writer Matraca Berg before “Hey Cinderella” and spiritedly performed “Drive South.”

She spent the majority of the evening reflecting on Merle Haggard and Garrison Keillor, the separate inspirations behind her two most recent projects. It was those Haggard and folk tunes that stole the show, from the angelic “Today I Started Loving You Again” to the playfully wordy “Froggy Went A ‘Courtin.’” Bogguss stunned with “Shenandoah” and turned in a masterful rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger.”

She referenced hallowed company before “I Always Get Lucky With You,” which had George Jones covering Haggard before he then recorded the ballad himself. When talking about Haggard, she reminisced about wanting to return to country, looking for a Haggard song to include on the album and choosing to end up with a whole record of his songs.

Bogguss grew emotional talking about her 20-year-old son Ben, a college sophomore, and the empty nest he left behind. She celebrated the highs of reconnecting with her husband Doug through her tantalizing version of “Let’s Chase Each Other ‘Round The Room” and the lows with her own “Letting Go,” one of the greatest off-to-adulthood songs in country music history.

“The Night Rider’s Lament” kicked off a detour into her penchant for Western themed songs and displayed how much she’s grown as a storyteller since first recording that track twenty-five years ago. “Someday Soon” fit in nicely, too, with Bogguss encouraging the audience to sing along. Bogguss opened the encore yodeling away on “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” a 90 year old tune that sounds as at home in her hands as it did when Patsy Montana took it up the charts in the 1930s.

Bogguss and her band relied on the power of their voices for “Red River Valley,” coming off their microphones to give an already intimate performance another level of closeness between singer and audience. She came full circle with the theme of escape through Haggard’s “The Running Kind” and confessed she isn’t confrontational; she just wants people to like her.

IMG_0898If anything, Suzy Bogguss doesn’t have to worry about being liked. She’s easily one of the warmest artists I’ve ever seen live, a homey presence on and off the stage. By leading with her heart, she rewards her audiences with a transparency that once defined the essence of a country singer. She’s a mother and a wife who just so happens to spend her life making records and singing live. She shares her emotions and leaves us feeling like we’re friends gathering in a coffee shop to catch up. In addition, she’s genuinely grateful whenever someone comes through the meet-and-greet line with a bunch of her records to sign.

As if that isn’t enough, what makes Bogguss truly special is her innate ability to separate from the big machine and create passion projects that allow her to further the legacy she’s been cultivating since the beginning. That enthusiasm for her work allowed her to effortlessly glide between the Merle Haggard Songbook, timeless folk tunes, the Wild West and distinct nods to her hit making heyday with confident ease and sophistication. Bogguss may be a woman on the run, but she’s found a home at every pit stop along the way.

Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

April 16, 2015

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Academy of Country Music Awards is being held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX  this Sunday on CBS. Blake Shelton is returning for his fifth year as host while Luke Bryan will co-host for the third consecutive time. Notable performers include George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley along with the usual mainstream country suspects. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera will also take the stage as part of unique duets.

Along with the regular awards, the ACM will also be handing out specially designed 50th anniversary Milestone Awards to Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait. (Swift is expected to accept in person despite distancing herself from the genre).

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks, who has six previous wins, is nominated for the first time since 2001 in a year that saw him break ticket sale records, but underwhelm with his Man Against Machine album. The absence of Taylor Swift, George Strait and Tim McGraw left the category open for some fresh blood, resulting in Florida Georgia Line’s first nomination.

Should Win: Garth Brooks – he continues to show how it’s done, twenty-five years after his debut.

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’ll ride his CMA momentum all the way to the finish line, scoring his second win in three nominations.

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

Despite eight previous nominations with five wins, it’s not shocking to see Brad Paisley included here. But after such an underwhelming year, it’s still surprising to see him included in a six-way tie. Dierks Bentley scores his second nomination in ten years, while half of the remaining four consist of previous winners. Jason Aldean has taken home this award for the past two years.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – His only previous nomination came in 2005, while he was still in the promotional cycle for his sophomore album. His stature has only risen in the years since, with critical acclaim and consistent support from country radio, making him long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.   

Will Win: Luke Bryan – He’s arguably the biggest male artist in country music right now, eclipsing Aldean, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton with his stadium show, fast rising singles, and immense popularity. There’s little chance he’ll walk away empty handed, taking home his first win on his third consecutive nomination.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – “Love Somebody”

April 14, 2015

Reba McEntire


Love Somebody

* * * 1/2

In the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Album Review: The Mavericks: “Mono”

March 30, 2015

The Mavericks

Album Cover_TheMavericks_Mono


* * * 1/2

Passion, not purpose, leads the way on The Mavericks newest release, their eighth. Listening to old vinyl led them to record the album Monaural, where channels are filtered from a common signal path. Their mission is to take each listener on their own unique journey, and come away with a project that sounds almost precisely how it was recorded.

Nico Bolas teamed with Raul Malo to produce the album, appropriately titled Mono. The pair also helmed In Time, a critical masterpiece that garnered the strongest reviews of the band’s career. Malo, who had a writing credit for each of the songs on In Time, composed eleven of Mono’s twelve tracks.

Horns, courtesy of Max Abrams, find their way onto the majority of the songs found on Mono. I’m not personally a fan of this production choice, but they do help The Mavericks achieve the Cuban meets Tex-Mex style they only hinted at during their prime in the mid-1990s.

Album opener “All Night Long,” solely written by Malo, is the first single. He brings urgency to the track, turning what could’ve been a simple love song into a primal plea from a man to his woman. The horns are annoyingly grating, but I love the overall salsa vibe they successfully achieved.

Varying expressions of love find their way onto the majority of the horn drenched tracks. Energized by a bright mariachi-styled arrangement, “Summertime (When I’m With You)” compares feelings to seasons with the protagonist lamenting how he’d enjoy them more in the company of his woman. Malo’s vocal pairs perfectly with the subtlety of the content, which is distinctly straightforward. “Stories We Could Tell,” about a meeting between strangers, wonderfully evokes 1950s doo-wop. The production is quite busy, but feels perfect for jiving on a dance floor. The jazzy “Do You Want Me To” also feels ripped from a club, with a striking arrangement. I only wish Malo had turned in a subtler vocal, with some sultry tenderness.

Salsa creeps in again on “What You Do (To Me),” a cheekily executed exploration about the effects of love on the male psyche. Malo and Alan Miller capture the dizziness perfectly while Malo effortlessly links the arrangement and his vocal, giving each a fair amount of needed energy. Bonus cut “Nitty Gritty,” written by Doug Sahm twenty-three or so years ago, finds our leading man trying to rationalize why his woman left him. She didn’t enjoy the ‘nitty gritty’ of his life and thus bolted the first chance she had. While not a love song, “Waiting For The World To End” carries a similar tone and features ear catching turns of phrase that keep it distinguishable.

“Out The Door” is easily one of the strongest tracks on Mono and The Mavericks at their classic best. Malo wrote the fire out of the simple lyric, which is about his visceral reaction once she walks away for good. It would’ve been a home run for them during their 1990s heyday, but the busy production keeps it very good to great. “What Am I Supposed To Do (Without You)” covers nearly identical ground, expect now that she’s gone, he wonders how he’ll be able to go on. The treatment is excellent, giving the band space to showcase their harmonies on the catchy yet mournful pop leaning ballad. The wistful “Let It Rain” strips the way the noise, but nicely retains the mournful cry in Malo’s voice. “Pardon Me” is beautifully tender, with a man seeking room to display his out of character emotions.

Mono is a very interesting album, one that retains The Mavericks’ signature ability to defy convention around every turn. The use of horns isn’t my favorite and most of the arrangements are very cluttered, but they did manage to sneak in a few tunes that are a worthy addition to their legacy. It’s also wonderful to see one of the most eclectic bands in country music’s recent history unapologetically maintaining their title. The Mavericks have always been masters at what they do; making amateurs of anyone who dare try to imitate their sound.

Concert Review: Wynonna and Friends – ‘Stories and Song’

March 19, 2015

photoShe emerged from the wings, her fiery red mane draped past her shoulders. Dressed in basic black extenuated with a lightly patterned wispy overcoat, Wynonna Judd walked up to the microphone strumming her white acoustic guitar. Alone on stage she started in, belting the glorious beginning to “Mama He’s Crazy.” The band gathered around Judd, who’d taken to sitting on a stool, for the acoustic rendition of “Rock Bottom” that followed, jet setting the audience from 1984 to 1993 with seamless ease.

From the onset it was clear this would be a show unlike any other from Judd, devoid of production, and heavy on the power of that voice. Billed as ‘Wynonna and Friends: Stories and Song’ she traversed the country playing historic theaters armed with her husband Cactus Moser on percussion, a lead guitarist, an upright bass player, and her. Judd’s March 8th stop at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre brought the tour to a close.

For the next two and a half hours Judd navigated through her extensive catalog, opting for surprises over forgone conclusions. She turned soulful with her version of Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning “Change The World” and contemplative with “Dream Chaser,” a spiritual highlight of The Judd’s catalog. Emotions ran high during “She Is His Only Need,” which had her thanking the audience for her first solo number one, and sass led the way on both “Give A Little Love” and “Turn It Loose,” which had Judd shredding on her harmonica.

“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good ‘Ol Days)” was a revelation, a hit-upside-the-head reminder of our changing world that’s even more relevant today than it was thirty years ago. The night’s emotional and spiritual center, I was struck by the generational shift – the ‘good ‘ol days’ to kids today are the childhoods of our parents.

The stories aspect of the show was heavy on her relationship with her mother, a much-belabored subject that somehow didn’t feel clichéd. She talked about doing her mother’s hair before each show, seeking revenge by jacking it to Jesus, and reminisced about their appearances with Johnny Carson. Mom would sit next to Carson for the first segment before they’d switch seats during the commercial break.

Judd’s very open observations about the music industry were far more interesting. She lamented about the electronic recording techniques used today. She shed some light on The Judds’ first meeting with RCA Records, a showcase of family harmonies backed by their own guitars. She reminded us that Garth Brooks had opened for them back in the day, a young cowboy who had Naomi wondering if he was going to make it. She mentioned her daughter’s insistence that she hear this new Tim McGraw song, which prompted her to remember when McGraw, and his mullet, opened for her in the early 90s. Judd felt proud she’d ‘helped raise’ many of the stars who came up in her wake.

If you’ve ever followed Judd the person, you know how open she is. She traced her life back to childhood, talking about being the child of an unwed teenage mother saved only by the power of their voices in Appalachia. She then gifted us with a gorgeous rendition of a hymn she and her mother would sing together during that time. She also referenced playing for several presidents even though she didn’t agree politically with any of them.

Judd’s trademark openness became a hindrance, when nine-year-old twin girls made their way to the stage with flowers. The show stopped while selfies were snapped and interviews conducted. Turns out one of them had composed a song (“Possibilities”) Judd asked to have sent to her via Twitter. A second set of concertgoers, armed with a ‘Wynonna’ license plate, were next for pictures as was a man who jumped the stage to join in on the action. Never mind there was a woman begging for Judd’s attention, who finally got it, when she called her ‘Wy, Wy.’

When Judd returned to singing she belted “No One Else On Earth,” which required us in the audience to vigorously sing along. She turned giddy during the encore, when she introduced opening act Pete Scobell, a former navy seal, who devastated with a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” during his opening solo set. Judd gushed about her admiration for Scobell, whom she felt should be a huge star, before he snuck on stage to sing their Chris Kyle inspired duet “Hearts I Leave Behind.” It was a tender moment for Scobell, who wore his military heart on his sleeve, and told stories about deceased friends from the Naval Academy and the time he lost 22 comrades in one day.

What struck me about the show, in addition to Judd’s voice, was her band’s passion for playing. Usually when you to a show, thephoto 2 band members are hired to backup a singer and make them look good. Since Judd knew most of these members personally, they were so hungry to be there, they played long after the show had officially ended. There was a joy from Scobell, Moser, and the others that I loved, and rarely see.

What I truly enjoyed the most about the evening was the chance to be reacquainted with an artist I love and see what they’re up to now. I had downloaded “Hearts I Leave Behind” prior to the show, but appreciated it so much more with the context Judd provided not only into the song but also into him.

It truly was a wonderful evening and a very vivid reminder that Wynonna Judd sings circles around every other singer on the planet. She truly is one of the strongest vocalists I’ve ever heard, a fact that only seems to be enriched by age.

Soundtrack Review: “Glen Campbell: “I’ll Be Me”

February 27, 2015

Various Artists


Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

* * * 1/2

After going public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, Glen Campbell embarked on a final tour in support of his then recently released Ghost On The Canvas album. Director James Keach followed Campbell, capturing the journey for his film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

The documentary, released last August, centers on Campbell’s struggles with the disease and goes behind the scenes of the tour. An EP co-produced by Dann Huff, consisting of five tracks, including three by Campbell himself, accompanied the film. A full-length soundtrack was released earlier this month.

The album includes “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which Campbell wrote with the soundtrack’s co-producer Julian Raymond. His final studio recording, the track took home the Best Country Song Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar while its music video will compete for an ACM Award in April.

An aching piano ballad “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is the haunting reflection of a man with a fading memory, singing to the wife he’ll leave behind. With that premise the hook is rather unapologetic, which matches his bluntly authoritative vocal performance.

Campbell also has four other songs on the soundtrack. “All I Need Is You” is an AC leaning string-soaked ballad while “The Long Walk Home” harkens back to his classic work with beautiful flourishes of gently strummed acoustic guitar.

The other two songs come from an historic concert Campbell gave at The Ryman Auditorium. “A Better Place” is a beautiful mid-tempo number while the other is a soaring rendition of “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell gives a deeply effecting vocal performance on his classic tune, even ending with a haunting wail of “and I’m doing fine,” which has the audience erupting in cheers.

Apart from the man himself, the soundtrack features a revelatory turn by The Band Perry on a cover of his 1967 hit “Gentle On My Mind.” The band shines with the banjo drenched backwoods arrangement that nicely modernizes the tune without sacrificing the unique qualities that endeared it to audiences more than forty-five years ago. The track appears in two versions, which are both excellent. I prefer the ‘single version,’ though, because it leads off with the banjo (opposed to a solo vocal opening by Kimberly) and gets to the goods much faster.

Campbell’s daughter Ashley takes the lead on the soundtrack’s remaining two songs. “Remembering” is beautiful autobiographical ballad, accentuated with ribbons of dobro and acoustic guitar, about her promise to keep her father’s fading memories alive. “Home Again” picks up the pace, with gently rolling banjo, and tells the tale of a daughter that has seen the world and now desires to go back to where she came from.

The highlight of Ashley’s tracks is how the production perfectly frames her voice, which has a sweet quality not unlike that of another Ashley (Monroe). The rest of the record is excellent, too, because it serves as the perfect snapshot of a man’s poignant reflections as he’s robbed of the life he’s always known.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Blackbirds’

February 10, 2015

Gretchen Peters



* * * *

In the months leading up to the release of Blackbirds Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and she also performed as part of the Poets & Prophets series at the Country Music Hall of Fame with her husband Barry Walsh. The follow-up to her 2012 masterwork Hello Cruel WorldBlackbirds is the most personal album of her illustrious career.

Peters began the songwriting process for Blackbirds in the summer of 2013, drawing inspiration from a week where she attended three funerals and a wedding. Thus, she explores mortality from varying perspectives, through transcendent bouts of vivid poetry, compositions commanding the listener’s attention without letting go.

The exquisitely bleak “Pretty Things,” co-written by Peters and Ben Glover, serves as the promotional single. A raw meditation on the fleeting lure of beauty, “Pretty Things” is a stunning battle cry about gratitude, and our need to appreciate what we have, while it’s still here.

Peters co-wrote two other tracks with Glover, a musical partner with which she feels both kinship and safety. The songs couldn’t exude a sharper contrast thematically, running the gamut from murder in Southern Louisiana to an account of a snowy winter set in 1960s New York City. The cunning murder ballad is the title track, a vibrant tale of destruction soaked in haunting riffs of electric guitar. A second version, recorded more soberly, closes the album. The wintry anecdote is “When You Comin’ Home,” a dobro drenched Dylan-esque folk song featuring singer-songwriter Johnny LaFave.

Peters, who often does her best work by herself, penned half of the album solo, including the album’s timely centerpiece, “When All You Got Is a Hammer.” The tune masterfully paints the mental conflict raging inside veterans as they readjust to life on home soil. Peters investigates another facet of darkness with “The House on Auburn Street,” set where she grew up. Framed with the image of a house burning down and recounting memories with a sibling, the track beautifully captures quite desperation, but the dragging melody could use a bit more cadence to get the story across most effectively.

Peters takes us to California to examine the mysteries of death on “Everything Falls Away.” She asks the questions that remain enigmatic while gifting us a piano based production that stretches her voice to an otherwordly sphere she rarely taps into, allowing it to crack at the most appropriate moments. Her vocal on “Jubilee” taps similar emotional territory, with a story about surrendering once death is near. Like “The House on Auburn Street,” the melody here is slow, and could’ve benefited from picking up the pace a little.

Her final solely written tune is “The Cure for the Pain,” which she wrote after a weekend in the hospital with a loved one. The acoustic guitar based ballad doesn’t offer much hope, and rests on the idea that the only cure for pain is more pain.

The only outside cut on Blackbirds comes from pop singer-songwriter David Mead. His “Nashville” is a track she’s loved for more than a decade, and she gives it a beautifully delicate reading. In searching for Mead’s version of the song, I was surprised to find a live cover by Taylor Swift, who apparently sang it a couple of years ago in her shows.

“Black Ribbons” reunites Peters with her musical sisters Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, for a tune about a fisherman who lays his wife to rest in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. One of the album’s strongest tracks, thanks in a large part to the inclusion of tempo and the background vocals by both Berg and Bogguss, “Black Ribbons” is a brilliant illustration of despair that serves as a reminder of the pain the fisherman in the gulf went through during that time.

Blackbirds is masterfully lyrical, setting pain to music in a myriad of different contexts that put the listener at the heart of each story. The end result leaves that listener emotionally exhausted, which is why Blackbirds should be taken in small doses in order to fully appreciate all the goodness found within. Peters has been one of Nashville’s strongest female singer-songwriters for well over two decades now, but she’s only gotten better as she’s amassed more life experience and concentrated on creating soul baring masterworks. Like Hello Cruel World before it, Blackbirds is an album not to be missed.

Boston Country Oldies Expands to Four more Radio Stations

January 30, 2015


UPDATE: There’s good news on the ‘Boston Country Oldies’ front. In a message to their fans, Stu Fink and Michael Burns have announced an expansion to their brand:

Hello Friends…

We hope this finds you well and we wish all of you the best of the new year.  2015 is off to a great start.  After starting our new venture, Boston Country Oldies, back in July, we have now added 4 new stations to our network…for a total of 5 stations now airing the show.

Effective February 1, 2015, Michael and Stu will be heard on The Legends, WNBP 1450-AM and 106.1-FM in Newburyport, MA, and WWSF 1220-AM and 102.3-FM in Sanford and Biddeford, Maine.  The program will air at 9pm.

We hope these new stations can be heard in your area.  If not, you can get them online at or  Both are superb oldies stations, and definitely deserve a listen.

We are also in talks with other stations on the map, and we are hoping some new affiliates will be announced, if not sooner, than later.

Of course, in the Boston area, you can hear Boston Country Oldies on 1330-AM, WRCA, Friday night at 9pm, and again Saturday night at 11pm.  You can get them online at

Be sure to stop by our website, at  You’ll be happy to know our 2015 calendar is there and ready for you to print.

Thanks to many of you for staying close during these last months.  We are glad to now be able to reach out with some really good news.

Talk to you on the air,

Stu Fink and Michael Burns

I also want to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who read and commented on my original post, last summer, when I lamented over the cancelation of their show on Country 102.5 WKLB. I knew I wasn’t alone in my distain for that decision, but it was wonderful to hear from so many of you. I’m pleased to able to bring you this positive update!


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