Archive for the ‘Country Music’ Category

John Anderson is far more than an old chunk of coal at Boston’s City Winery

July 4, 2018

John Anderson may have opened his show Monday night at Boston’s City Winery with his 1981 #4 “I’m Just an Old Chunk Of Coal,” but judging from his brisk 90-minute set, the choice wasn’t self-referential. Armed with an acoustic guitar and his longtime accompanist Glenn Rieuf, he ran through hit-after-hit with merely a break to catch his breath.

Anderson traversed his whole career, jumping around so as not to put emphasis on any particular song or time period. He wasted no time getting to fan favorites like “Money In The Bank” and “Straight Tequila Night,” two of his signature tunes from his big comeback in the early 1990s. He dedicated the latter to the ladies in the crowd, which was at about half-capacity for the 300-seat venue, a respectable turnout considering the scorching heatwave and proximity to July 4th.

He didn’t talk much during the show, opting instead to give his fans their money’s worth of music. He introduced Rieuf as someone he’s known for more than 40 years and played with for more than 30. The two were perfectly in sync, with Anderson often turning to Rieuf between songs to figure out what would be sung next. Rieuf switched from acoustic guitar to dobro early on, giving the bulk of the songs some added texture Anderson couldn’t achieve with just his guitar alone.

When he did speak, Anderson made it count. He told a story about a day on his farm when he was trying to write a song. The ideas weren’t coming, and he was about to give up when his phone rang. Waylon Jennings was on the other end, requesting Anderson join him at the Ryman Auditorium to lend his talents to a live album he was making. The sessions, which took place in January 2000, would cumulate as the final album Jennings would release during his lifetime. Anderson then played “Waymore’s Blues,”  the track they collaborated on together.

Like the majority of male country singers from his era, Anderson wears his patriotism on his sleeve. He turned in a poignant rendition of “1959,” the fifth single from his debut album, his first top ten, released in 1980. The song, about a solider’s heartbreak at learning his high school sweetheart, Betty, had broken her promise never to leave him while he was deployed, is as powerful today as it must’ve been 38 years ago. He followed with “An Occasional Eagle,” an ode to American Pride and a deep cut from 1983’s All The People Are Talkin’.

He stayed in the 1980s to bring the audience some real country music, “I Just Came Home to Count The Memories,” the title cut from his third album, released back in 1981. He also mined “Would You Catch A Falling Star” from the same album. Although it’s not my favorite of his songs, “Swingin’” has retained all the swagger he originally brought to his chart-topping recording in 1983.

To this day, I still become affected when I hear “I Wish I Could’ve Been There,” which he delivered beautifully Monday night. He said it was written about his life on the road, while the next song was composed about life “back home” in Apopka, Florida. “Seminole Wind,” which I’ve always adored, is probably the most unlikely song ever to hit the country airwaves and explode into a #2 hit. Released in August 1992, when Garth Brooks was decimating everything in his path, a lyric about conservation efforts in the Everglades was just a crazy enough concept to work.

“When I Get Down” was Anderson’s sole nod to his 2011 gospel album Praise For You and was accompanied by him recounting the hearing loss that kept him off the road, missing “seven months of work” in 2017. He’s thankfully recovered, which for a time, was in jeopardy. He and Rieuff left the stage for a brief moment, and when they returned, Anderson referenced his friend Merle Haggard, who he called one of the greatest country singers who ever lived. Anderson brilliantly sang the standard “Long Black Veil,” which he associates with the beginnings of his friendship with Haggard. He closed with his outlaw classic “Black Sheep,” which became his third #1 in late 1983.

Throughout his set, Anderson was ever the southern gentleman, pausing multiple times with “thank y’all so much” as the audience cheered between songs. He also felt his sound mixing was off, stopping at the top of the show a few times to tune his guitar and ask the sound people to adjust his guitar in the monitors. The sound was fine by my ears, but when he got it just right, we could enjoy the show without further tweaking.

The acoustic format, which Anderson said will be the sonic backdrop of his next album, worked well although I could’ve used a bit more instrumentation, especially on “Straight Tequila Night,” which seemed to be needing some extra ingredients, likely just a fiddle, to bring it even further to life.

At 63, Anderson still sounds fantastic, with his signature gravely rasp firmly intact. It was an unexpected treat to see someone perform whom I never even gave a second thought to seeing live. He made a point of saying he doesn’t come around “these parts that often,” meaning Boston, and he would like to come back again real soon. I for one, wouldn’t mind in the least if he did.

Advertisements

EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

June 25, 2018

LeAnn Rimes

Re-Imagined

* * * 1/2

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’

June 13, 2018

Gretchen Peters

Dancing With The Beast

* * * * 1/2

2016 was an unintentionally cruel transitional year for Gretchen Peters. In the span of twelve months, she encountered a myriad of loss — her mom, her dog, and two of her best friends. The results of the US presidential election only confounded her already fragile state of mind.

She turned to music to make sense of it all, which has resulted in her eighth album, Dancing With The Beast, eleven snapshots of gut-wrenching brilliance inspired as much by her personal misfortune and the 2017 Woman’s March, as the #MeToo Movement that swept into our collective consciousness last autumn. Female-centric perspectives lead the record and the listener on a journey both horrifically candid and deeply satisfying.

The album opens with “Arguing With Ghosts,” a meditation on the passage of time that began when co-writer Matraca Berg supplied what became the opening line ‘I get lost in my hometown’ to describe how much, and how quickly, Nashville has changed into a city she no longer recognizes. I, too, struggle with the quickness of life and find great solace when Peters sings:

The years go by like days

Sometimes the days go by like years

And I don’t know which one I hate the most

At this same old kitchen table

in this same old busted chair

I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts

“Wichita” revives the southern gothic murder ballad and the subset of songs about children, both of which were once mainstays in country music. The song is told from the perspective of Cora Lee, a mentally challenged twelve-year-old girl who uses her mama’s gun to kill a sexual predator who robs her of her innocence and takes advantage of her mother. It’s my favorite song so far this year.

The loss of innocence is the foundation for “Truckstop Angel,” which originates from a New Yorker article Peters read twenty years ago detailing prostitutes who work at roadside truckstops. She encountered just such a girl (all of 17-18 years old) in Alabama and composed the song from her perspective:

I meet them in the truckstops

I meet them in the bars

I meet them in the parking lots

And I slip into their cars

They come and put their money down

They come and place their bets

I swallow their indifference

But I choke on my regrets

 

Sometimes they ask me questions

Sometimes they treat me nice

You don’t know what you’ll get

Until you roll the dice

You’re a loser or a winner here

Predator or prey

I’m still not sure which one I am

Or how I got this way

“The Boy from Rye” details the overwhelming insecurities of female adolescence. The lyric finds a town of teenage girls in competition for the affection of a guy who rolled into town one summer with his parents and his sister. It’s horrifying how easily the teenagers surrender their bodies to him:

The girls from school in our summer tans
Suddenly self conscious and uncertain
All in a row we arranged ourselves for him
Waiting to see if we deserved him

One too fat, one too thin
One too many flaws to measure
Impossible to live inside your skin
And serve at someone else’s pleasure

**

One too strong, one too smart
But none immune to love or summer
One by one he broke our virgin hearts
And set us one against the other

We dreamed of boys and kisses on the lawn
We yearned to feel that mystery inside us
And there we were with the summer nearly gone
We’d let that mystery divide us

“Lowlands” is Peters’ take on the 2016 US Presidential election:

And the TV it just lies to keep you watching

Politician lies to get your vote

But a man who lies just for the sake of lying

He’ll sell you kerosene and call it hope

Political-minded songs, especially ones referencing our current President, can be polarizing and tiring, and Peters allows “Lowlands” to intentionally drone on-and-on Dylan-esque without a chorus or a hook; a hint of subtly nodding to her state of mind.

“Love That Makes A Cup of Tea” originated from a dream Peters had about her mother, a woman who would show her affection by baking and knitting. The lyric ends the album steeped in hope:

And there is love that makes a cup of tea

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find

“Disappearing Act” lives in the same sonic vein as “Wichita” with a mainstream-minded production adding a layer of fury to the record. The song wonderfully chronicles the frustrations of life, the yin, and yang of good and bad. The title track details a woman in a marriage where her husband always has the upper hand:

He only comes around when he pleases

He only comes around when I’m alone

He don’t like my friends or my family

He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

 

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me

If anything it’s that he cares too much

It’s only that he wants the best for me

It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

 

But he takes me in his arms like a lover

He hears my confession like a priest

He whispers in my ear, in the darkness

I’m dancing with the beast

“The Show” finds Peters with ‘Nineteen songs and one more night to go’ until a stretch of concerts draws to a close. “Lay Low” plays like a companion piece, with Peters surrendering to the voice begging her to take some time away and ‘just lay low for awhile.’ She uses “Say Grace” as permission to ‘forgive yourself for all of your mistakes.’

Female perspectives have been the hallmark of Peters’ writing for the whole of her career, whether an eight-year-old girl caught in the middle of destructive domestic abuse or a liberated wife and mother setting her husband free of their crumbled marriage. She says it’s a prism from which to view Dancing With The Beast, and while she’s been writing this way for more than thirty years, her words have never come with this much urgency.

Dancing With The Beast is as masterful as it is bleak. Peters is in a class of her own, especially now that she’s let go of her mainstream inclinations and has been crafting albums for herself and not as a vehicle for other female singers to mine for chart hits. I’m forever grateful for her immense success in the United Kingdom and the incentive it provides her to keep her musical journey alive.

She’s been one of my favorite songwriters since I began listening to country music more than twenty years ago. She’s now one of my favorite artists, too. Dancing With The Beast is among her finest work to date.

Album Review: Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence – ‘Two People’

June 8, 2018

Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence

Two People

* * * * *

Two People is the debut duo album of Nashville born singer/songwriters Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence. The pair met at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival in 2013 and instantaneously hit it off musically. After two singles garnered eight million streams on Spotify, the duo decided to hunker down and record a full-length album.

While Two People is a duo album, Hecht & Spence are solo artists in their own right. If Robby’s name sounds familiar, it might be because I reviewed his solo record back in 2014, which I had almost forgotten about until Two People hit my radar screen last month courtesy of Juli Thanki from The Tennessean.

The album plays like an independent film centered around a charming and human love story worth rooting for and getting behind. The album traces that story through all of its facets, giving the listener eight perfect snapshots, each one capturing another moment in time.

Our story begins on “The Real Thing,” a warm ballad in which our couple meets at a crowded party. He knows she’s with someone else, a guy who wants nothing more than a fling. Our guy offers this girl an alternative — “We can ditch this crowd, we can ditch this scene, come on, take a ride with me.” He has money, and a car, but most importantly, he can offer her what her current guy cannot — a healthy relationship.

Spence takes the lead on “Trying,” in which our girl promises she’s doing everything she can to give our guy her heart. She’s having trouble giving in, letting go and trusting what’s right in front of her. “All On The Table” finds our couple laying everything bare in order to see if their relationship can go the distance. It’s Spence who takes the lead once again, using her sweet soprano to draw the listener in with her palpable venerability. This is the rare song that reenergizes my love for music, giving me the realization that real country music still exists in the world if you know where to look.

Hecht takes the lead on the romantic “Holding You,” in which our guy has found something to get him through the mundane day-to-day of life — her awaiting arms each night. When that proves not to be nearly enough he needs to spend “A Night Together” with her. He wants to go out but doesn’t care where — a country fair with a Ferris Wheel, a romantic dinner with an expensive bottle of wine that keeps them occupied until closing time — he doesn’t care as long as he can show her off and take her back home with him.

A time jump reveals the relationship began to crack and eventually fell apart. Spence leads the way on “I’ll Keep You,” a surprisingly sweet tale that finds her sorting through and boxing up the couple’s memories from their time together. It ends with a sign on the corner, pointing to their house, indicating a yard sale.

“Over You” finds Hecht embodying the guy’s gut-wrenching ache at the relationship meeting its end and finds him trying to convince himself he’s over her, as he continues to question everything he thought was right while they were together.

The album ends with an interesting thought. What if the couple had never been destined to meet in the first place? What if their paths had almost crossed but at the last second he exited the train, or he gave his seat to someone else just before she sat down? Those are the questions and thoughts raised by “Parallel Lines,” which was one of the two early singles that convinced the duo to make an album together.

I don’t want to suggest Two People is by any means autobiographical even though Hecht and Spence did write all the songs together. They are a magical pairing, bringing these songs to life with an effortlessness that cannot be fabricated. Spence is an otherworldly vocalist, with a similar tone to Ashley Monroe, while Hecht is a captivating conversationalist.

Two People is an independent release that likely won’t get the press coverage it deserves, especially in the crowed Americana/folk world it finds itself in. It may be a quieter album, but it’s powerful in its own unique way. I highly recommend everyone check it out.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Golden Hour’

April 24, 2018

Kacey Musgraves

Golden Hour

***1/2

In my more than twenty-five years of listening to and absorbing country music, I’ve come to observe the many different artistic paths taken by artists who either desire to play in the vast wilderness of mainstream pop, double down on a commercial sound out of desperation for relevancy, morph into an artistic powerhouse or stay pigeonholed as a one trick pony unable to diversify.

Kacey Musgraves really hasn’t taken any of those paths on Golden Hour. She’s simply hit the reset button on a career that had devolved into parody, with songs like the half-baked “Biscuits” showcasing an artist tail-spinning artistically. There was little to enjoy about Pageant Material, and while it was traditional, it just didn’t hit the mark on any level. Musgraves had become a persona, losing sight of the fact she had to be a human being, too.

Those days are long gone. Golden Hour isn’t just a step in the right direction. The album is leaps and bounds ahead of anything she’s done in the wake of Same Trailer, Different Park.

Our first taste of the new music, “Butterflies,” is a beautiful ode to coming into one’s own through a budding relationship and a metaphor for her new direction:

I was just coastin’, never really goin anywhere

Caught up in a web, I was gettin’ kinda used to stayin’ there

And out of the blue, I fell for you

 

Now you’re lifting me up ‘stead of holding me down

Stealing my heart ‘stead of stealing my crown

Untangled all the strings ’round my wings that were tied

I didn’t know him and I didn’t know me

Cloud Nine was always out of reach

Now, I remember what it feels like to fly

You give me butterflies

 

Kiss full of color makes me wonder where you’ve always been

I was hiding in doubt ‘ill you brought me out of my chrysalis

And I came out new all because of you

Shane McAnally makes his sole appearance on the album courtesy of “Space Cowboy,” which wonderfully chronicles a relationship that had simply run its course:

You can have your space, cowboy

I ain’t gonna fence you in

Go on ride away, in your Silverado

Guess I’ll see you ’round again

I know my place, and it ain’t with you

Sunsets fade, and love does too

Yeah, we had our day in the sun

When a horse wants to run, there ain’t no sense in closing the gate

You can have your space, cowboy

 

After the gold rush, there ain’t no reason to stay

Shoulda learned from the movies that good guys don’t run away

But roads weren’t made to not go down

There ain’t room for both of us in this town

To prove she’s still the same woman we’ve come to know and love, Musgraves had to include one nod to her past, albeit with very different window dressing. “High Horse” is an excellent kiss-off to anyone who acts righteous and likely doesn’t even know it. This is her attempt at disco, and while the beat is infectious, I’m hearing EDM more than traditional disco. The track, no matter how well-executed, is a polarizing moment for mainstream country. I love it, so none of this truly matters to me.

The pop-infused “Happy & Sad” is another standout moment and my favorite thing Musgraves’ has ever done. The lyric may find her having a good time at a party, having an incredible time with a guy, but knows better than to fully give in:

Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?

Happy and sad at the same time

You got me smilin’ with tears in my eyes

I never felt so high

No, I’ve never been this far off of the ground

And they say everything that goes up must come down

But I don’t wanna come down

The brilliance of “Happy & Sad” is how Musgraves uses the story to display growth and maturity by writing from the perceptive of a woman her own age, who has had enough relationship experience to no longer allow the fairytale aspects of a new relationship cloud her judgment. She may have “never felt so high” but she’s introspective enough to know there’s always another side where the high wears off.

The banjo and steel infused “Oh What A World” is the evolution from “Happy & Sand” and finds Musgraves in the place where she can finally, and unequivocally, let go of any and all self-doubt:

Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave

All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe

Thank God it’s not too good to be true

Oh, what a world, and then there is you

She’s clearly referring to her husband, musician Ruston Kelly, whom she married while in the process of writing and recording this album. Their relationship comes up again on the title track:

Baby don’t you know?

That you’re my golden hour

The color of my sky

You’ve set my world on fire

And I know, I know everything’s gonna be alright

Musgraves’ feelings for Kelly are at the center of “Velvet Elvis” a sonically adventurous ballad in which she defines their relationship as classic but kitschy. She admits she’s “only human” on “Wonder Woman,” in which the banjo returns to underscore an important admission:

But, baby, I ain’t Wonder Woman

I don’t know how to lasso the love out of you

Don’t you know I’m only human?

And if I let you down, I don’t mean to

All I need’s a place to land

I don’t need a Superman to win my lovin’

‘Cause, baby, I ain’t Wonder Woman

The banjo also plays a role in the sonic texture of the confectionary “Love Is A Wild Thing,” which stood out to me right off the bat when I initially listened to the album. I don’t hate but don’t love “Slow Burn” or “Lonely Weekend.” They aren’t weak tracks by any means, but I found Musgraves’ phrasing throughout both of them to be slightly annoying.

The album also boasts two piano-based ballads that offer a change of pace. “Mother” is an ambitious and short lullaby. She closes the album with “Rainbow,” a song for anyone bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders, which she played at her grandmother’s funeral.

Like most of modern country, it’s difficult to classify Golden Hour. It debuted on the Billboard Country and Americana/Folk Albums charts, both at #1. It isn’t ‘traditional country’ by any means but I don’t hear any radical sonic shift from what Musgraves’ has been doing these past five years.

To me, Golden Hour is a singer/songwriter record from a woman exploring what it means to have found a love worth holding on to for decades to come. It chronicles the budding beginnings of a marriage that will likely blossom for many albums as the years go on.

Album Review: I’m With Her – ‘See You Around’

March 6, 2018

I’m With Her

See You Around

* * * * 1/2

I’m With Her is a folk supergroup. Sara Watkins, a founding member of Nickel Creek, has been reaping the rewards of solo success since releasing her eponymous album in 2009. Sarah Jarosz began releasing albums that year as well. The final member is Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the Bluegrass band Crooked Still and the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, host of A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH Radio here in Boston.

The trio came together for an impromptu performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014 and released their two-song EP, Crossing Muddy Waters/Be My Husband in 2015. They gathered in Los Angeles and Vermont once their solo careers had slowed down a bit to record See You Around, which was produced by Ethan Johns in a tiny village near Bath, England at a recording studio owned by Peter Gabriel. The trio co-wrote the album together.

The album is rich with their tightly-woven harmonies and ear for crafting songs completely unique to themselves, that come together to create a wonderfully fully-formed record. The album begins strong, with the mid-tempo title track. “See You Around” crafts a tale of pain, with vivid imagery:

A constant ringing bell

Or the ocean in a shell I held up to my ear

While everything else

 

Is breaking like the waves down on the coastline

Breaking like the wine-stained glass that held my drink

Breaking like the heart that’s stuck inside my skin

Will it ever beat again

 

Or just go on bleeding ’til it’s empty

‘Til I fill it up again

I feel you baby

These aren’t fighting words, just a declaration

I feel you

So I guess I’ll be going now

I know you’re looking out for new eyes in the crowd

I’ll see you around

The gorgeous “Game To Lose” is a perfectly accentuated ballad anchored by Jarosz’s mandolin and Watkins’ warm and familiar fiddle. Watkins’ rich vocal tone is the centerpiece of “Ain’t That Fine,” while her falsetto leads the way on “Wild One.” The former is the sparse look at a budding relationship, while the latter is a cautionary tale and possibly my favorite song on the album. I also love “Waitsfield,” a jaunty and engaging instrumental.

Another standout moment is “Overland,” a striking lament on the promise of a new life far away from your current circumstances:

Goodbye brother, hello railroad

So long, Chicago

All these years, thought I was where I ought to be

But times are changing

This country’s growing

And I’m bound for San Francisco

Where a new life waits for me

“I-89,” which is an interstate that runs through both New Hampshire and Vermont, is actually an ode to finding an alternate escape route:

Waitin’ for the sight of headlights flashin’

Fussing with the dial on the radio

Burning through the pages of the Rand McNally

Fire in my belly gonna keep you warm

If there was another way out I’d take it

If there was another way down I’d go

If there was another way other than the highway

Show me on a map, point out the road

Two fiddle-laced ballads grace the back half of See You Around. “Crescent City” rides along at mid-tempo and relays the timeless message to make each moment of your life truly count. “Close It Down” is a tale of regret, with the protagonist falling for the charmer who has cast their spell on many a resident of the town where they reside.

“Ryland (Under The Apple Tree)” stands with “Ain’t That Fine,” in its depictions of the idyllic beginnings of a new relationship, but it strikes an ominous tone with the constant refrain: “under the apple tree, I planted for my love and me.” The final track is Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles,” which they perform with minimal accompaniment and partly a cappella.

It took me a bit to warm up to See You Around, but the nuances the trio brings to these songs are unique and captivating. This is clearly a record all their own, a great one indeed and well worth checking out.

All about the song: Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley at City Winery in Boston

March 2, 2018

Brandy Clark (with L-R, Miles Aubrey and Vanessa McGowan) performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

I had my inaugural City Winery experience on a cool, but surprisingly dry, Sunday evening in late January. The chain venue, which has successful outposts in New York, Chicago, and Nashville and just opened here in Boston in early December, mixes an urban winery with a full-service restaurant and tantalizing live music.

All 310 seats at their One Canal St location, just steps from the Government Center Garage with sweeping views of the Lenny Zakim Bridge, were adorned with the crisp cloth napkins and sparkling silverware of an establishment still in its infancy. The service, from the management to the wait staff, had the execution of a well-oiled machine fully prepared to report for duty.

In a venue of this size, with grouped seating that decreases in price the further away you sit from the stage, you’re all but guaranteed an exceptional viewing and listening experience. The owners pride themselves on the first-rate acoustics and strict policy that you remain quiet and respectful during the show.

I had no idea when selecting seats at a front row table, I would be so close to the stage you could rest your elbow on the edge. Such proximity to the action does lead to “concert neck,” a term coined by country music journalist Juli Thanki to describe the sourness from extended time with your head in an unnatural position. Thanki likes to say pain is totally worth it, and I have to agree, especially when the live entertainment is Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley.

I always knew that City Winery had the potential to bring blockbuster shows to Boston, but I didn’t know they would strike gold this quickly. This was Clark’s first headlining show in the city, after multiple supporting gigs with Jennifer Nettles, and the first time I’d ever heard of Presley playing around these parts in any solo capacity.

Clark flawlessly executed a tightly focused set segmented thematically by her clever and blunt perspectives on substance abuse and revenge. Her richly drawn character sketches came alive with minimalist accompaniment that accentuated her wit and candor while highlighting her silky twang.

She began unassumingly with the one-two-punch of “Hold My Hand” and “Love Will Go To Hell” before undertaking the risky move of gifting the audience a new song, “Favorite Lie,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. Clark unveiled the origins of “The Day She Got Divorced,” which came to fruition during a phone call between Clark and Shane McAnally concerning a writing session with Mark D. Sanders and, of all people, Ms. Presley herself. The session ended by mid-afternoon when Sanders asked Presley how she planned to spend the remainder of her day. She quipped, “well, I got divorced this morning.”

The tight segments from which Clark split her set began with substance abuse, which lasted a healthy portion of the evening. She began with “Get High” and turned in excellent readings of “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin,’” “Take A Little Pill” and to my surprise, “Hungover.” She sprinkled in “When I Get to Drinkin’” and “You’re Drunk” to round it out.

The revenge portion of the evening was more slight but no more impactful. She followed “Daughter” with “Stripes” and promptly put every no-good man in his place. Clark gave a shoutout to our local wonder kid, Lori McKenna, and played their single-mom anthem “Three Kids No Husband.” “Big Day In A Small Town” and “Girl Next Door” were highlights earlier in the evening.

Clark purposefully surprised with the encore, beginning with a request by a group of female super fans who had followed her to attend each of the four Northeast stops she played in four days (Clark went from Connecticut to New York back to Connecticut and finally, Boston). They wanted to hear her sing a particular song by her idol, Patty Loveless she had obsessively tried learning on a newly-purchased electric guitar while it was climbing the charts. Her efforts in learning “Blame It On Your Heart” were as unsuccessful as her mastery in singing it were successful. Clark finished with another new song, that I instantly loved, entitled “Apologies” and concluded with “Pray to Jesus.”

Angaleena Presley performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

Clark’s set was everything one would expect it to be and the accompaniment — Miles Aubrey on Guitar and Vanessa McGowan on Upright Bass — allowed the songs to shine without sacrificing flavor. I found Clark’s song selection, while perfectly executed, to be lacking in diversity, begging for a third course of “what else I can do” songs such as “You Can Come Over,” What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and the one I kept waiting for all night — “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” Her ballads are a killer illustration of her artistry and I wish she had expanded her set to show them off.

Presley’s brisk opening set was a whirlwind tour of her four albums. Her candor, never mind her throwback hairstyle and leopard-print top, stole the evening while her southern charm had everyone in the palm of her hand. Her songs, though, spoke for themselves, with the audience in respective stitches with each turn-of-phrase.

She opened with “American Middle Class” and “Dreams Don’t Come True,” a shining example in a long list of songs about the dream of making it in music city. She also admitted to inviting the already-committed Lori McKenna to the show, in advance of playing “Bless Your Heart,” which she called the enthuses of a song McKenna would write.

Presley dedicated “Knocked Up” to her first husband, who she admitted did nothing more than make her a mother, and joked about her upbringing in Beauty, Kentucky. She intertwined her work with Pistol Annies so easily with her solo stuff, I all but forgot “Unhappily Married” and “Lemon Drop” weren’t on her solo releases.

Album Review: Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – ‘The Rest of Our Life’

January 16, 2018

Tim McGraw & Faith Hill

The Rest of Our Life

* *

It’s no secret that two of the most influential artists that have shaped my understanding and love of country music is Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Their love story was the first celebrity love story I bought into as a kid and the one that has lasted the longest. Hill, especially, remains one of my favorite artists.

Count me among those who found it puzzling that McGraw would exit Big Machine to be a little fish in a big pond at Sony Nashville. His artistic credibility had reached new heights in 2016 and he was back in the Male Vocalist of the Year race at the CMA Awards. You do have to commend him for giving that up to help re-launch Hill into the mainstream. His heart was definitely in the right place.

But the first taste of new music from the pair, the Adult Contemporary “Speak To A Girl” was not. The ballad may have shot to #19, but it exposed Hill’s newly-acquired rasp in her lower register. Her inability to hold onto notes in her lower register was painful to hear and distracted by the message of the song, which wasn’t all that thought out anyways.

The title track, and second single, wasn’t much better. It throws the pair further into pop territory, with a lyric (co-written by Ed Sheeran) that attempts to trace a romantic relationship. The lyric is terrible, especially in the Hill-led second verse:

I’ve been making plans for children

Since I’ve been looking in your eyes

I even have names picked out for them

Daughter’d be Rose

Son it’d be Ryan

The pair debuted two of the tracks on their tour last summer. “Break First,” is a mid-paced ballad of temptation (dominated by an electronic drum loop) in which a couple is eying each other from across the room. “Telluride,” is a funky up-tempo change of pace, and while it shares a name with a track from Set This Circus Down, it is most definitely a different song.

The majority of the album is dominated by songs that just aren’t that great or worth adding to your collection. “Devil Callin’ Me Back” strips them of their individually and highlights everything that’s wrong with modern commercially-focused music. “Roll The Dice” is an electronic mess while “Love Me To Lie,” in which Hill sings lead throughout, is at least okay.

“Sleeping In The Stars” lets the pair’s harmonies shine through. “Cowboy Lullaby” is a somewhat well-written song and a good vehicle for McGraw, but I can’t help but think it would’ve sounded a lot stronger with a far less watered down arrangement.

The final two tracks were co-written by Lori McKenna and I cannot help but hold them to a higher standard. She reunited with The Love Junkies on “The Bed We Made,” which actually has bones, but likely would’ve been more appropriate for someone younger and not a couple who has been married for twenty-one years.

“Damn Good At Holdin’ On,” which McKenna wrote with Barry Dean, is the album’s strongest track by a mile. I don’t like the chorus that much, but this is the closest Hill and McGraw come to rekindling the magic of their previous duets.

The lack of that magical spark found on “It’s Your Love” or “Let’s Make Love” is truly what sinks The Rest of Our Life. Hill and McGraw are far better than most of the material they pulled together for this album. They don’t need to craft an entire album of love songs – we all get it by now. If they had diversified, with another “Angry All The Time,” or at least put effort into finding even a couple artistic moments to sprinkle amongst the radio fodder than all might not have been lost. But as it stands, The Rest of Our Lives is beneath both of them. They’ve more than proven they can do a heck of a lot better than they do here.

Album Review: The Kelly Girls – ‘May You Always’

December 27, 2017

The Kelly Girls

May You Always

* * * * 1/2 

I first came to know Massachusetts based Celtic band The Kelly Girls when I had the opportunity to attend one of their delightful live performances in Spring 2016. I’ve been waiting for the group’s debut album ever since and I’m thrilled to say it’s finally arrived and surpasses the already high expectations I had for it.

May You Always was produced by band member Nancy Beaudette, an artist of which I’ve long been an admirer. The band, which is comprised of Beaudette along with Christine Hatch, Aisling Keating, and Melinda Kerwin, recorded the album, a beautiful mixture of newly-written and traditional tunes, in Central Massachusetts.

Beaudette had a hand in writing or co-writing six of the album’s songs, including four by herself. She tells of strangers in a bar connecting over a pint in the gorgeous “Reeds on the River” and gives fair warning not to mess with the Canadian riverboat captain at the center of the feisty “Molly Kool.” The title track is a wish of continued good fortune for us all and a timely message any time of year.

Her final solely written number, “Mariners of England,” was adapted from the 1880 Thomas Campbell poem “Ye Mariners of England”. The mid-paced waltz “Daffodils,” co-written with Keating, has its origins in the William Wadsworth poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” She teams with Kerwin for her final writing credit, the stunning lullaby “Another Goodnight.”

Kerwin and Keating teamed up for, “Miss Martha / Barney’s Shenanigans & Barney Get Home,” a medley of striking instrumentals. Hatch and Kate Chadbourne contribute “Last Rose of Summer,” a haunting ballad about the passage of time framed in a story about a woman’s relationship with her mother.

The jaunty, and excellent, “Walk In The Irish Rain,” comes from the pen of Americana singer-songwriter Steve Spurgin. The band also includes their beautiful version of iconic Canadian singer-songwriter Allister MacGillivray’s “Song for the Mira,” one of my favorite songs on the album.

Another favorite, “Wild Mountain Tyme and Sommervals,” was one of the traditional tunes they performed when I saw them live. I loved it then and I adore it equally now. “Jolly Rovin’ Tar,” which opens the album, is a wonderful Irish jig and a perfect way to set the mood for the album as a whole. “I Know My Love” is equally spirited and just as delightful.

May You Always is a fantastic introduction to The Kelly Girls and a stellar debut album. I fell in love with them and their sound when I caught their show and I’m pleased to see how brilliantly their distinct personalities translated to this record. I eagerly look forward to continue following them and cannot wait for whatever it is they choose to do next. I’m very fortunate to have them performing, living and recording essentially in my backyard.

NOTE: For more information on The Kelly Girls, please visit their website

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

December 8, 2017

Tracy Lawrence

Good Ole Days

* * *

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Top Ten Singles of 2017

December 6, 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis – ‘Come See Me and Come Lonely’

November 30, 2017

Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis

Come See Me and Come Lonely

* * * 1/2

Come See Me and Come Lonely, Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis’ second collaborative album, is strictly a covers record with their version of twelve classic country songs ranging from the familiar to the slightly obscure. I didn’t even have an inkling this record was in the works, so count me among the pleased, and surprised when news broke about the impending release this past summer.

The album was produced by Richard Landis, who has handled the majority of Morgan’s production duties for more than 25 years. While he maintains the essence of each song, he updates the arraignments just enough to give the album a contemporary flair that allows the album to feel modern and not note-for-note recreations of the classic recordings from which these compositions are most known.

His choices result in a very good album that unfortunately begins with K.T. Oslin’s romantic ballad “Do Ya” sung as a duel-lead duet. The results are ridiculous but Tillis does bring vigor to an otherwise lifeless song. I had no idea what to expect from another seemingly random choice, Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs.” They handled the song with ease, as though it was born from a Nashville honky-tonk.

Skeeter Davis’ version of “The End of the World” has always been too schmaltzy and slightly comedic for my twenty-first-century ears. Morgan and Tillis’ interpretation is gorgeous and brings the underlying heartbreak in the lyrics to the forefront. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is similarly excellent and a brilliant nod to Tillis’ sound and style from the early 1990s.

The title track is brilliant and actually improves upon the version Dottie West released in 1978. I like their rendition of “Walk Right Back” and love how the emulate the Everly Brothers with their close-knit harmonies.

Morgan all but knocks Sammi Smith’s “Saunders Ferry Lane” out of the park, but I’ll always wonder how it would’ve sounded without so much age on her voice. “Rose In Paradise” is a southern gothic beauty, anchored masterfully by Tillis. My favorite track on the album is “Summer Wine,” presented as a duet with Darryl Worley and an almost unrecognizable Joe Diffie.

Tackling anything written and sung by Roy Orbison is a feat and Morgan and Tillis fall short on “It’s Over,” which just isn’t to my tastes at all. An acoustic take on “Blanket On The Ground” would’ve allowed Morgan and Tillis’ harmonies to shine, whereas the version they gave us drowns them out with obtrusive clutter.

Come See Me and Come Lonely isn’t a perfect album but there are some stunning performances throughout. Morgan and Tillis are on top of their artistic game even if the arrangements are too loud on occasion. I highly recommend checking this one out.

Album Review: Katie Dobbins – ‘She is Free’

October 2, 2017

Katie Dobbins

She Is Free

* * * * *

Boston based contemporary folk and new country singer Katie Dobbins released her debut album, She is Free back in May. The album emerged from an epiphany that the life she was living, complete with a salaried job, wasn’t satisfying her soul. It was just the last couple of years that she was able to fully embrace her musical muse and embark on the journey cumulating with this album.

She is Free opens with her debut single, the autobiographical “Something To Be Found.” Dobbins chronicles her journey, from the college student with two degrees to the twenty-five-year-old re-engaging with her inner child:

Will this road take me where I want to go
Where that is I have to say I really don’t know
I’m driving now, hoping somewhere there’s something to be found
Everything in me says I gotta get out

Get out and get back to her, to that little girl
She’s stares at me in photographs
Shining eyes, delirious
Begging me to come back home

“Post-It Notes” is a beautifully romantic mid-tempo ballad, about a guy declaring his love with a declaration tacked to the fridge. “More Love” is a battle-cry calling for compassion, whether it’s the man whose bike was hit by an elderly gentleman, parents dropping their kids off at school or soldiers on the battlefield:

This world needs more love
And it starts with you and it starts with me
There’s no telling what this world would be
If every single hand was outstretched wide
What do we miss just being passerby’s
We need more love

The jazzy “Bring On The Fire” is an anthem for anyone who needs to push out of their comfort zone and stand in their own sun, gets burned and get on with living life. “Beautiful” is a steel-laced ballad about love, with Dobbins singing about the guy who encourages her to follow her passions with simple words and gestures that define their intimate relationship. The heartbreaking “Marry You” tells a different story, one in which Dobbins envisions how incredible it would be to marry the guy if life didn’t intervene:

You and I are writing different stories
You’re the hero, baby I’m some girl with a dream
I can’t be the one to take your glory
You can’t be the one to write this chapter for me

Closing track “Puzzles” is a perfectly written empowerment anthem saying we as humans are whole and not puzzle pieces that need to be put together. Dobbins is saying we’re perfectly imperfect and that’s more than okay.

“Daddy’s Song” is one of the more personal lyrics on the album. It finds Dobbins sharing her story of encouragement as she ventured to Nashville to follow her dreams. Piano ballad “Cards on a Tuesday (Nana’s Song)” follows suit and offers a gorgeous tribute to her grandmother, her inspiration, the woman Dobbins hopes to be as she ventures through this world.

Dobbins says She is Free “is a collection of songs I created over time, and its release signifies my own personal freedom from any insecurities or fears I have held about myself or my music up to this point. The songs on the album pay tribute to certain people in my life who have empowered me along the way, and also tell stories of various real and imagined characters pursuing love and freedom.”

The time and attention Dobbins put forth when making this album shows in the nine songs, which give insight into her life and her journey back to music. I thoroughly enjoyed taking this voyage with her, whether it was empowering, heartwarming or even heartbreaking.

I highly recommend checking out this album. For further information on Katie Dobbins, you can visit her website or find her on Bandcamp.

Album Review: Natalie Hemby – ‘Puxico’

August 29, 2017

Natalie Hemby

Puxico

* * * 1/2

Natalie Hemby, Dean Dillon to Miranda Lambert’s George Strait, released her debut album back in January. The album, seven years in the making, is the musical accompaniment to a documentary she produced about her hometown of Puxico, Missouri. Hemby solely composed each of the project’s nine songs.

Hemby opens the album wonderfully, with the folksy tones of “Time-Honored Tradition,” a jaunty uptempo number about her longing for “kindred town filled with good company.” Said town ultimately goes through a “Grand Restoration,” in which the past and present beautifully collide to bring a sense of history into the modern day. She gets the sentiment right on “Worn,” a characteristic she gives to “the finer things worth keeping,” but I could’ve done with a more interesting execution. Similarly rudimentary is lead single “Return,” which details the idea that you need to get away in order to fully appreciate your life back home.

“Lovers On Display” is one of many relationship-centric tunes on Puxico. The simplistic ballad is an appealing dissertation on love, using carnival imagery to evoke innocent romance. The ambiguous steel drenched “This Town Still Talks About You” is a brilliantly heartbreaking reminder that a person’s presence can be alive and well even if they aren’t physically present. Our minds aren’t so lucky, as Hemby points out in “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me,” which says memories fade but we never forget love.

The love, or really praise, for “Cairo, IL” is a big reason why I decided to finally listen to Puxico. The gorgeous ballad, a tribute to a long abandoned ghost town, is considered one of the best country songs released this year:

All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51

Illinois is coming ’cross the bridge where the Old Ohio was

Don’t look away, it will be gone

 

Kentucky and Missouri, a trinity of states

Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks

Oh nothing moves but nothing stays

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

 

She used to be a beauty back in 1891

After Fort Defiance, now she’s weathered by the river and the sun

She’s still around but she is gone

 

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

The lyric is simple, and the song itself is very quiet, but the hook does pack a nice punch. I probably enjoy “Ferris Wheel,” a track Faith Hill recently featured in her Instagram Stories when Hemby was scheduled to open up for her and Tim McGraw on a recent Soul2Soul tour stop, even more. The steel-drenched ballad, which has a lovely and inviting melody, is far and away my favorite track on the album.

On the whole, Puxico is a very strong album and a wonderful introduction to Hemby and her personal style. I just found it to be a bit too sing-song-y in places and some of the songs could’ve been more complex. I kept comparing her, in my head, to Kacey Musgraves, which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But, that being said, this is an album well-worth checking out.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

August 17, 2017

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

Not Dark Yet

* * * *

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

July 6, 2017

Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary

American Grandstand

* * * * *

“Traditional country music is a whole different genre,” Vincent said. “A lot of people will say that there is not a market for traditional country music, but I know that is not true as it has its own niche. I did that traditional country album with Gene Watson not long ago, and I found out that there is a tremendous audience out there for traditional country music. Daryle and I have been doing shows together, and he is so much fun. When everybody hears this new album, they will know how special it is.” – Rhonda Vincent discussing American Grandstand. h/t That Nashville Sound


It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Your Money and My Good Looks, which helped redefine Vincent’s pedigree beyond bluegrass. American Grandstand is a companion album of sorts to the project with Watson, a chance to recreate the magic all over again. Her friendship with Daryle Singletary goes back 23 years when they were labelmates on Giant Records. One of their earliest collaborations, a cover of Keith Whitley’s “Would These Arms Be In Your Way,” appeared on his self-titled debut album. They’ve collaborated frequently through the years, most recently on “We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds,” from Vincent’s Only Me in 2014.

To say American Grandstand has been a long time coming is an understatement. With the timing finally right, they went into the studio to craft an album that mixes old and new, covers of classic duets interwoven amongst tracks newly-composed. A few of the duets may be oft-covered, but in the care of Vincent and Singletary, are as expertly executed as they’ve ever been. They tackle the mournful nature of “After The Fire Is Gone” with ease and extract the effervesce from “Golden Ring” without issue. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a revelation, one of the strongest collaborative recordings I’ve heard in years.

They also surprise, with a stunning rendition of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’ lesser-known “Slowly and Surely.” Also not as famous is George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “One,” which the pair released in 1996. Vincent and Singletary’s serviceable take is the album’s lead single. Other surprises include Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” which they deliver flawlessly. A third Jones cover, “A Picture of Me (Without You)” is also very good. “Up This Hill and Down,” which originated with The Osborne Brothers, is excellent.

The remainder of the album consists of the new songs, which include a reprise of “We Must Be Out of Our Minds.” These tracks are all ballads, which varying degrees of tempo. “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye,” about the end of a relationship, feels like the kind of track Singletary would’ve recorded back in the mid-1990s. In any other era, “Can’t Live Life” would be cemented as a standard.

If you can believe it, the rest of the album only slightly pails in comparison to the title track, which showcases Vincent as a songwriter (she wrote it solo). The spellbinding ballad is a grand finale of sorts, detailing the tale of duet partners preparing for their final show and the emotions attached to such an ending. I love how Vincent presents the well-worn themes in a new and exciting light.

American Grandstand is everything you would expect from a Vincent and Singletary collaboration, yet it’s even more deeply satisfying than you could even imagine. In a rare move, they actually sang together in the studio, at the instance of Singetary, who knew immediately that recording separately wasn’t going to work. The pair were born to sing together, even if Vincent’s power overtakes Singletary’s understated charm on occasion. He sounds to me like a modern day incarnation of Whitley, with a voice that has deepened over the years. It proves that Whitley’s influence continues to this day, which only makes this record even more special and essential.

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Album Review: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – ‘The Nashville Sound’

June 23, 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

That Nashville Sound

* * * * *


At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m always amazed at the frequency by which Jason Isbell releases new music, every two years, a pace largely unheard of for an artist of his ilk and prestige who isn’t bound by the regimental restrictions of mainstream country music. For most singer/songwriters, pouring their soul into an album feels like an exhaustive process, yet for Isbell, easily the most masterful artist in the Americana vein, it feels like a piece of cake. And yet, he only gets more nuanced and complex with each passing record.

The Nashville Sound, produced by Dave Cobb in RCA Studio A, has an urgent aggression that puts sound to the deep political divide that has risen in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President. Isbell began writing and recording this past January, which allowed him to tackles this unrest from different angles while exploring varying perspectives.

Isbell’s observations often veer personal, as on “White Man’s World,” a bluesy rocker in which he uses his wife and daughter as a catalyst for conveying his fears about the future under the male dominant Trump administration. The track brilliantly traverses these feelings both externally and internally, jumping from disappointment (“I thought this world could be hers one day, but her momma knew better”) and anger (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation”) to optimism (“I still have faith, but I don’t know why maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes”).

“Hope The High Road” generalizes the anger with words of encouragement, providing an anthemic message to anyone who feels they fell on the losing side of 2016. His message, that he hopes “the high road leads you home again, to a world you want to live in,” is heightened by his smart admission – he’s singing as much to himself as he is to them.

No matter how positively he spins the message, “Hope The High Road” bleeds with the same blistering anger that drives the majority of The Nashville Sound. It suggests hope as a process, not an absolute or a right. Isbell also knows the hope can seem distant, especially when a person’s reality is limited by circumstance. “The Cumberland Gap,” one of Isbell’s trademark character sketches, lays bare the struggles of a man suffocated by the extensive promise and bleak reality of mountaintop coal mining. Isbell’s brilliance is how masterfully he’s able to paint dire circumstances around men with smart moral compasses. Andy was undoubtedly the friend we all wish was in our lives. This man, who remains nameless throughout, is a son for the ages. He’s desperate for greener pastures but thinks how his mom would react. He’s the only family member left to care for her.

Another such illustration, “Tupelo,” examines the hopes we hold onto to get us through life, as told through the story of a drunk who imagines a better life with a woman in the titular Mississippi town. Isbell never allows us insight into whether or not the woman is real or a made-up construct in the man’s mind, allowing us to feel this guy’s struggle alongside him.

Isbell brings his internal struggle to the surface on “Last of My Kind,” which examines his first person perspective on trying to find his place in this world. This thought process continues on “Anxiety,” a brutally honest look at how fear can paralyze our psyche and contribute to feeling restless and lost.

As much as The Nashville Sound confronts our desire for a sense of place, it also seeks to examine personal relationships. A friendship with Ryan Adams led to “Chaos and Clothes,” a song about his 2016 divorce from singer and This Is Us actress Mandy Moore.

“Something To Love,” which Isbell wrote for his two-year-old daughter Mercy, is a rare moment of levity, anchored by the sunny fiddle played by his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. That Nashville Sound isn’t necessarily a strict country album, but “Something To Love” is no doubt a country song.

As if it’s even possible, there is one song on The Nashville Sound that ranks above the rest and belongs in the upper echelon of Isbell’s legacy. That track is “If We Were Vampires,” a stunning love song about a couple’s appreciation for one another knowing that time will ultimately tear them apart:

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

 

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

 

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

“If We Were Vampires” is Isbell at his best, giving the world a song that stands up to “Elephant,” which I’ll always consider his crowning achievement as an artist. His best songs, ten of which appear here, are like punches to the gut in all the best ways. The Nashville Sound is a brilliant album from beginning to end.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

May 11, 2017

Angaleena Presley

Wrangled

* * * 1/2

 

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Album Review: ‘Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band’

April 27, 2017

 

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

* * * *

The tagline for Bruce Robison’s first solo in eight years reads, “recorded on analog tape with no digital shenanigans.” He goes on to say, “I will tell you one thing about this project…I wanted to leave in just enough mistakes so it sound live and, well, mission accomplished.”

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band came about as a result of the time he spent working on The Last Waltz, a multi-media website that acts as a “virtual social house” of music, videos, and interviews with the cream of the crop of today’s songwriters and musicians. As a result, Robison was inspired to form his own band to record a nine-track album featuring his own interpretation of originals, co-writes and covers.

Our first taste of the project, Joe Dickens’ “Rock and Roll Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man,” about a guy refusing to cave into society’s pressures for him to suppress his rebel spirit, is an excellent infectious mid-tempo number drenched in fiddle.

Another preview track, which Robison wrote solo, is the brilliant ballad “Sweet Dreams.” The song centers around the age old tale of a small-town boy who never got out into the world, despite watching all the girls he dated take off and fly. The theme may be well worn but it never sounded sweeter than in Robison’s hands, accented with lovely heapings of mandolin and steel guitar. He also solely composed the slow-burning “Long Shore,” which rests on the nakedness of his gravely vocal.  “Long Time Comin,’” a Robison co-write with Micky Braun, is a gorgeous folk-leaning ballad with an ear-catching lyric.

Braun co-wrote “Paid My Dues,” an ironic up-tempo about the dark side of making it in the music business, with the always fantastic Jason Eady. The song, which Robison presents as a duet with Jack Ingram, has a wit and infectious melody that drew me right in. If this truly is the dark side, then they’re having way too much binging on cocaine in a cheap motel room.

My favorite track on the album is Robison’s take on Christy Hays’ “Lake of Fire,” a stunning traditionally accented ballad. “The Years,” by Damon Bramblett, is a sweet and endearing waltz concerning the trajectory of love, beautifully framed with gentle percussion mixed with fiddle and steel. Michael Heeney and John Moffat’s “Still Doing Time (In a Honky Tonk Prison)” is a classic country weeper and a brilliant one at that.

The centerpiece of the album is its most famous song, Pete Townshend’s “Squeezebox,” which Robison considers “a great country song by some English dudes.” Robison’s version is great, if cluttered, and has a nice assist from his wife Kelly Willis.

As a whole, Bruce Robison and the Back Porch Band is a welcomed surprise and a nice follow-up to the two excellent duets records he did with Willis in the past few years. I wasn’t expecting so much slower material, but there truly isn’t a sour track in the bunch. Robison’s pen is as sharp as his keen sense of song. His liner notes may begin, “You’re not going to listen to this! It’s a goddamn record!” but to heed his premonition is to miss out on one of the year’s most uniquely satisfying offerings.

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

March 21, 2017

Sunny Sweeney

Trophy

* * * * *

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

_____________

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country