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

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South Branch Road

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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

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Della Mae

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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

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The Woman In Me

 February 7, 1995

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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

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I Can’t Imagine

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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

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Jekyll + Hyde

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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

Reba_LoveSomebody

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

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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

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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

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Blackbirds

* * * *

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

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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 www.wnbp.com or www.sanfordlegends.com.  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 www.1330wrca.com.

Be sure to stop by our website, at www.bostoncountryoldies.com.  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!

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘Pain Killer’

January 28, 2015

Little Big Town

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Pain Killer

* *

Little Big Town and producer Jay Joyce approach Pain Killer with red hued wild abandon, unapologetically subverting convention in favor of experimentation. If they thought of it, they used it, no matter how outlandish the result.

More often than not Pain Killer devolves into heavy rock, often smothering the individual tracks. “Turn The Lights On” is a progressive mess. “Stay All Night” and “Things You Don’t Think About” drown their harmonies in crashing drums. “Faster Gun” turns up the sexy factor with a filter on Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook’s vocal that renders them indistinguishable. “Save Your Sin” is more heavy metal than anything; a waste of what could be a shining moment for Kimberly Schlapman. “Good People” is just more of the same, with rock and pop colliding, but not meshing at all.

The band is slightly more enjoyable on “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” which is catchy, but rests its fortunes on a terribly unintelligent lyric. Lead single “Day Drinking,” which actually has structure and audible mandolin, is a step up from there.

For the remaining tracks, Little Big Town is good, if not great, or excellent. I love the title track, even though it features elements of the album at its worst, because the chorus is excellent and the band sounds engaged like nowhere else on the project. Second single “Girl Crush,” which only could’ve been written in this day and age, is an inventive lyric and one of Karen Fairchild’s most committed vocal performances. I do wish “Live Forever” retained more a country sound, but Joyce should be credited for a beautifully breathable harmony-centric production bed that’s too lush, but still a showcase for the band. Eerily similar is “Silver and Gold,” which keeps the harmonies in the forefront, but could’ve been a bit more interesting if Joyce had borrowed from “Shut Up Train,” one their strongest ballads.

Pain Killer is the blandest album of Little Big Town’s career. The elements of rock, pop, and metal do nothing to elevate their sound and are thus a distraction that deflects from their talent instead of enhancing it. The record is not without its bright spots, like Eric Church’s Joyce-produced The Outsiders. But I find it difficult to derive pleasure from wading through the dense forest to find them.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists: Taylor Swift

January 2, 2015

10858588_10152594659633196_3607573155036106459_nOver the course of the last decade, no artist has been scrutinized and debated more than Taylor Swift. Large swaths of music fans don’t understand the appeal citing either weak vocals, the fact they’re out of her target demographic, or both in their critiques. But through it all Swift has grown into a one woman machine who’s become the heart and soul of the music industry. The first genuine superstar of the social media age, she connects with fans at a level never before seen. Her impact and influence cannot be understated.

On some level Swift is a brilliant business woman. You don’t sell a million copies of your last three albums – Speak Now (2010), Red (2012) and 1989 (2014) – in the first week by accident. Swift knows her audience inside and out, thus giving them exactly what they want.

I’ve loved Swift ever since “Our Song” was released to country radio in the summer of 2007. Her five albums have constantly been some of my favorite records during the years they were released. In fact, no other artist has gotten me more excited for new product than Swift. Why? Simply put, her songwriting speaks to me. No one crafts lyrics like her, framed impeccably in the melody and instrumentation that best suits the song. Taylor Swift has it all figured out – haters be damned – and is laughing all the way to global domination.

Ranking my 25 favorite songs of hers was a challenge. I finally got it down to list I could live with, which you see here, complete with commentary. These truly are my favorite songs by a favorite artist, a singer who’s grown from a teenager to a fully fledged woman before our eyes.

Taylor_Swift_-_Fearless

#25

The Way I Love You

Fearless (2008)

Written By: Taylor Swift & John Rich

I was obsessed with this thumper in the early days of the Fearless era, stomping to the infectious drumbeat and screaming along as she belted the lyrics. Swift rarely expands her co-writing circle, but she let in Rich, if only for a one-off. My ears find this a bit cluttered now, but how I loved it back then.

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Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

November 28, 2014

Garth Brooks

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Man Against Machine

* * *

Excluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

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Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘Numbered Doors’

November 21, 2014

Lori McKenna

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Numbered Doors

* * * *

Ever since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005, Lori McKenna has been one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters and a delightful artist in her own right. She’s scored major radio cuts by the likes of Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town and even secured a major label deal that resulted in a single collection far more upbeat than her usual fare.

Most songwriters in her enviable position would focus on the big time, but McKenna has maintained her small-town Massachusetts roots all the while continuing to keep one foot in music city. Her music, as a result, has maintained its uniqueness; no one is as astute in crafting such simple lyrics about the eccentricities of small town life. Her “Grocery Store,” an Angaleena Presley co-write from her American Middle Class focuses on the act of standing in a checkout line, but reveals its brilliance in the quiet pondering of both fellow customers and the checkout clerk’s life story.

In September, McKenna returned the focus to herself with her eighth LP, the experimental Numbered Doors. This time around she wrote with an outsider’s perspective, crafting songs from other people’s stories instead of self-absorbed personal narratives. It doesn’t mean she detours from her comfort zone too much sonically. The tracks are still clothed in the trademark lush instrumentation she’s famous for leading to few surprises but still providing a delightfully ear catching experience for the listener.

The extraordinary title track, a mandolin soaked manifesto on quite desperation, served as the promotional single. Few paint extreme hopelessness as vividly as McKenna who gives voice to women paralyzed by the rabbit hole they can’t dig themselves out of. These women are often the byproduct of long marriages where, as the lady in “All A Woman Wants” can attest, longs to take away the breath of the husband who renders her sexually and emotionally starved. They’re also painfully self-aware, able to recognize the lack of life in their years, lamenting over “All The Time I’ve Wasted” on a relationship that couldn’t be saved. Their inwardly reflective pity-party only serves to make the situation worse, and without an exit, makes their prognosis seem pretty grim.

McKenna sings from the other side, too, turning “Livin’ On Love” on its side with “Good Marriage,” a tune about life’s daily struggles dissolving into a fight where the couple “take back every word that’s said” before heading to bed. Hope continues with “God Never Made One of Us To Be Alone,” a track about how the daily struggles will always be there but we’re not meant to face them without companionship and love. Said company isn’t always a significant other, as the woman with “Three Kids No Husband” can confirm with a ‘broken home [that] ain’t no fairytale.’

The ever present brokenness seeps back in with “Starlight,” which uses the old rhyme “starlight star bright” to convey a woman’s inner desire to wish for a life consisting of more than ‘kitchen tiles [that] used to be white.’ McKenna has long danced around the subject of extramarital affairs from “Stealing Kisses” to “If You Ask,” but she’s never tackled the subject head on like she does while playing a woman confronting the best friend who’s “The Stranger In His Kiss.” Erin Enderlin passively sat next to the forthright woman screwing her man, saying nothing, but McKenna drives said mistress to tears during a late-night rendezvous. When she reveals ‘you were standing right there beside me when he said, “till the day he dies,”’ the listener feels the true intensity of the woman’s pain. “The Stranger In His Kiss” is the crown jewel of an album beaming with specifically crafted studies of emotional depth.

If I can fault McKenna for anything, it’s her ability to craft albums basking in lyrical and sonic repetition. There’s no denying her masterful ability to craft material from the perspective of a woman living a small-town life. But a whole album worth of these type songs, typically immaculately produced ballads, is too weighted down and begins to get old very quickly. As individual compositions each of the ten tracks are truly incredible. I just wish she’d give a little thought to diversifying each project to ramp up the overall listening experience. That doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend Numbered Doors because I do. There’s hardly a stronger collection from a prominent female singer-songwriter released this year. It just doesn’t come without a one slight flaw, an issue with a very easy fix.

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.

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