Posts Tagged ‘Dolly Parton’

EP Review: J.P. Harris (with Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray, Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash) – ‘Why Don’t We Duet In The Road’

January 5, 2017

J.P. Harris

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Why Don’t We Duet In The Road

* * * *

J.P. Harris, whose sound is described as ‘booming hippie-friendly honky-tonk,’ found the inspiration for Why Don’t We Duet In The Road in the collaborative spirit of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The EP finds Harris covering iconic duets with some of Nashville’s most innovate female singer/songwriters, in an effort to bottle his experiences in Music City with a record aimed at prosperity over commercial viability.

Harris hunkered down in Ronnie Milsap’s former studio to record the four-track album, which he self-produced in a single six-hour session. What resulted is rough around the edges, fueled by twangy guitars and a gorgeous interpretation of outlaw country.

No one better exemplifies the modern outlaw spirit than Nikki Lane, who burst onto the scene in 2011 blending rockabilly and honky-tonk. She teams with Harris on “You’re The Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” which finds the pair embodying the spirit of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1978 original. Harris’ choice of Lane to accompany him is a smart one. You can hear her ballsy grit as she uses her smoky alto to channel Lynn’s feisty spirit without sacrificing her distinct personality.

The least familiar of Harris’ collaborators is likely Americana darling Kristina Murray, who joins him for an excellent reading of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring.” The pair is brilliant together, with Murray emerging as a revelation with her effortless mix of ease and approachability. I quite enjoyed the arrangement, too, which has the perfectly imperfect feel of a band completely in sync with one another.

Harris is the star on “If I Was A Carpenter,” which finds him with the criminally underrated Kelsey Waldon. Her quiet assertiveness, which could’ve used a touch more bravado, is, unfortunately, no match for his buttery vocal. Waldon’s contributions are by no means slight; he’s just magnetic.

The final selection, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Better Move It On Home,” finds Harris with the most recognizable vocalist of the bunch, Leigh Nash. She’s best known as the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer, the band that hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the iconic “Kiss Me” in 1998. She’s since gone on to a solo career, which includes a country album released in September 2015. She taps into that grit here, and erases any notion of her pop sensibilities, but proves she doesn’t quite measure up to Parton on the 1971 original. The pair had an uphill battle ahead of them from the onset and they didn’t quite deliver.

That being said Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is a fantastic extended play highlighting five uniquely talented vocalists. If country artists continue to churn out releases of this high a quality than 2017 is going to be a very good year, indeed.

Grade: A 

NOTE: Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is offered as a random colored double 7” limited to 500 copies, which as of press time are about halfway to sold out. Rolling Stone Country also has the tracks accessible for streaming, which I highly recommend. The EP is also available on iTunes as of January 6.

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50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

November 10, 2016

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcases the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B 

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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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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Album Review: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis: ‘Our Year’

May 27, 2014

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

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Our Year

* * * * 1/2

Over the Christmas holiday last year, a friend asked how Texas country was different from Nashville country. I had to stop for a moment and finally came up with an answer – to me Texas country often has more of a back to basics sound, more roots based than the commercial sheen coming out of Music City.

So it always surprises me when Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis record their collaborative projects there, not Austin, where they live, and spend most of their time. Like last year’s Cheater’s GameOur Year maintains the Texas sound they’ve come to hone, down to the minimalist production and close harmonies.

Instead of a direct sequel, Our Year plays like a companion piece to Cheater’s Game – far shorter in length and less commercial in scope. The absence of production drives the record, giving the ten tracks a demo-like feel that leaves them sounding somewhat unfinished, but no less enjoyable or musically appealing.

No more is this apparent than on their cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley PTA,” oft-covered in their live shows and the track that spearheaded this album. It opens with a lone acoustic guitar and doesn’t get much more rocklin’, save some dobro riffs, as it goes along. Willis’ strong vocal drives the song and works well to tell the story.

Robison and Willis bring a bluegrass flair to The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and while they don’t add anything new to Vern Gosdin and Emmylou Harris’ “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On,” their version works just as well. A cover of T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” is pure honky-tonk bliss and a stunning showcase for Willis vocally.

Like Cheater’s Game, Our Year isn’t all country covers. The pair keeps it in the family on “Departing Lousania,” a mandolin driven ballad written by Robison’s youngest sister Robyn Ludwick. Robison appropriately takes the lead, sticking in his wheelhouse of journey songs, and does a bang-up job of bringing the story to life.

The harmonica is out in full force on delightful rocker “Motor City Man,” penned by late Austin singer/songwriter Walter Hyatt. The track breathes some much-needed attitude into the album and gives Willis a chance to deliver a strong and confident vocal.

The title track, a Zombies song written by Chris White, is a staple of their annual Christmas show and features a lovely banjo-driven arrangement and the pair’s signature harmonies.

Robison contributed two of the strongest compositions found on Our Year. “Carousel,” is a glorious steel-front waltz co-written with Darden Smith that concerns the end of a relationship, where a couple has to “step off of the carousel and say goodbye.” “Anywhere But Here” is an ode to youthful innocence and a perfectly articulated number about the restlessness of growing up.

“Lonely For You” is a Willis original, co-written with Paul Kennerley. Willis may be one of the best honky-tonk balladeers recording music today, but she also shines on uptempo material like this, about a woman who’s still holding on to a relationship that’s already come to an end.

Often when an iconic collaborative pairing (the Trio, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) tries to record a follow-up record the sessions are either marred with drama or the project takes years to see the light of day. It’s even harder, just ask Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, to follow-up an iconic work with something even half as good as the original.

With Our Year, Robison and Willis have succeeded splendidly on both fronts with an album tighter and even more fully realized than Cheater’s Game. They could’ve done without the Statler Brothers or Gosdin/Harris covers and thrown in two more Robison originals, but there’s no other way this project could be more perfect. Our Year is easily yet another of 2014’s spectacular releases.

Album Review – Joey + Rory – “His and Hers”

July 30, 2012

Joey + Rory

His and Hers

* * * * 1/2

When The Life of a Song launched the career of husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek in 2009, it established a rarity – an artist using traditional country music as the basis for their sound, without a rock or pop element in sight. It also introduced Martin’s astonishing soprano, a crystal clear vision cut from the Dolly Parton / Emmylou Harris cloth all the while sounding uniquely herself.

A sophomore CD Album Number Two and Holiday collection A Farmhouse Christmas followed, but their new release His and Hers is the fullest picture of their individuality yet. Martin and Feek trade off lead vocals for the first time, but smartly avoid the pitfalls of sounding pieced together. And by sticking firmly to their traditional roots, Joey + Rory have made not only their most satisfying album, but also one of the most authentic recordings of the year.

It’s all too easy to knock His and Hers for sounding too retro. The exclusion of electric guitars and decision to record songs displaying actual depth will alienate it from the majority of mainstream listeners, while the ample steel guitar, flourishes of dobro, and touches of fiddle will make it essential listening for country music aficionados.

The strongest material on His and Hers comes when the songs aren’t bogged down with detours into comical situations. “Josephine,” a Feek original inspired by real life letters between a Civil War soldier and his wife leads the way in stunning fashion. Backed by an ear catching bluegrass-y mix of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, Feek tells his story with striking poignancy, detailing the horrors of war in a way still relevant today.

Also touching is “The Bible and A Belt,” a tribute to two apparatuses used in raising a child. Another Feek original, he conveys the emotional story with an everyman quality that keeps it universal all the while sounding deeply personal. The soft mix of dobro, mandolin, and acoustic guitar frames the ballad beautifully, giving Feek the perfect bed to lay down his vocal.

Like Feek, Martin succeeds brilliantly in bringing her material to life. The emotional centerpiece of the album, Sandy Emory Lawrence’s “When I’m Gone” rests on Martin’s gentle vocal, the guiding force in drawing out the song’s emotional core. The story of a wife’s plea to her husband about life after she passes is a remainder that quality material is still being written and performed, a fact lost by any major recording label, no matter the genre.

Martin also breeds life into the title track, a full-circle story about a couple’s love and eventual parting of ways. Their knack for song selection is on full display here as what appears to be a simple love song unfolds into something quite different. But storyline aside, the beauty of this track is Gary Paczosa’s production, which lets the song build from Martin’s gorgeous a capella beginning to an instrumental bed of sliding steel and fiddle.

One can easily be forgiven for categorizing His and Hers as a somber album, as the standout tracks are darker than the usual radio fare. But the project has its share of lighter moments, too, although the results are a mixed bag.

The Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We Never Met,” a fast paced traditional honky-tonker complete with infectious steel, is the best at mixing the duo’s offbeat wit with their serious demeanor and stands as a fine showcase for Martin’s playful vocal abilities. Also excellent is “Love Your Man” a 90s country throwback on par with some of Patty Loveless’ best work.

“Someday When I Grow Up,” another Feek original, tries too hard to convey its tale of boyish leanings, all the while smartly avoiding detours into the frat boy lifestyle. While “Your Man Loves You Honey,” a Tom T. Hall penned tune he brought to #4 in 1977, fails to bring anything new to the song and feels more carbon copy than remake. Another oddity is “Waitin’ For Someone,” a Martin fronted tune about blind dating that’s technically fine, but lacks an added spark to make it stand out against the album’s strongest material.

His and Hers rebounds splendidly with the gorgeous “Cryin’ Smile,” a tender ballad showcasing the breadth of Feek’s uncomplicated yet powerful vocal style. Pure and simple, “Cryin’ Smile” is a heavenly piece of country music, harkening back to a day when melodies were uncluttered, and steel guitar extenuated real life storytelling.

The winning streak continues with “He’s A Cowboy,” another simple ballad showcasing the duo’s adeptness at making real country music sound effortless. The arrangement works in the song’s favor and slowly builds behind Martin’s tender (but tough) vocal. “Teaching Me How To Love You” works in much the same way, but uses a nice dose of fiddle and acoustic guitar as its backdrop.

His and Hers will likely be ranked among the top country albums of 2012, if only for Martin and Feek’s ability to stay true to the history of country music all the while pushing the genre forward in all the appropriate ways. They stay clear of clichés, and avoid any tendencies to overcomplicate matters, something I greatly appreciate. And unlike most duos, they’re vocally equal, each bringing a comfortable every person quality to their perspective songs.

Of the song selection, Martin says it best – “It has to be genuine, it has to be honest, it has to be sincere.” Who could ask for anything more?

Remembering Kitty Wells, with the music leading the way

July 17, 2012

Over the past twenty-four hours, much has been said about the legacy of Kitty Wells (check out this from The New York Times), the first true female country star. Her pioneering efforts towards the advancement of country music, especially for women, place her among the most important country singers who ever will live.

For modern country music listeners its hard to imagine a time when Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette weren’t icons and legends but in the 1950s, their careers wouldn’t have even been possible. At that time, females weren’t looked at as lead performers much less recording stars.

That all changed 60 years ago with the release of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angles,” an answer song to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life:”

Wells’ landmark recording was bold to say the least, and even banned from most country stations due to its subject matter that men are the reason most women cheat. But the song managed a climb to #1 and earn a spot in the history books:

While “It Wasn’t God” remains Wells’ most lauded career achievement, her lengthy career spun other classic singles as well, most notably “Making Believe,” which climbed to #2 for an unheard of fifteen straight weeks in 1955:

Another of her classic singles, “Searching (For Someone Like You)” hit #3 in 1956:

Her timeless and classy approach to country music endeared her to fans around the world as did her marriage to fellow country star Johnnie Wright. At the time of his passing last fall, they had been married 70 years. Here’s one of their many duets, the gospel song “Singing His Praise:”

Wells also had many other hit singles up through the early 1970s. They include:

“Amigo’s Guitar” (#5, 1959):

“Password” (#4, 1964):

I’ll leave you with a first rate tribute song in honor of Wells, here’s Laura Cantrell’s “Kitty Wells Dresses,” released last year:

The greatest legacy of Donna Summer? Her songwriting

May 21, 2012

The music world is once again reflecting on the career of another magnificent singer gone far too soon. This time, though, demons aren’t the downfall but rather unfortunate and cruel health woes.

But the legacy of Donna Summer stretches farther than her title “Queen of Disco.” It would have to, as more energy has been spent on the whole “disco sucks” movement than on celebrating its merits.

Summer’s greatest achievement came as a songwriter not as a singer. When she and husband Bruce Sudano teamed up to pen a song about his parent’s divorce, they wrote one of the finest heartbreak ballads in the modern era of country music.

As the story goes, “Starting Over Again” was written specifically for Dolly Parton who released it as the lead single from Dolly, Dolly, Dolly in 1980. A big hit, the song quickly topped the country chart and saw the top 40 0n the pop chart.

Fifteen years later, the song would see another lease on life as the title track to Reba McEntire’s 20th anniversary album of coversReleased as a single, McEntire’s version was less successful only hitting #19.

But what McEntire lacked in airplay she gained in overall magic. Her version of the song managed to update Parton’s campy confection with a dose of twang that highlighted the mournful lyric, and brought the song to life. In her hands, “Starting Over Again” became story centric for the first time. And what a story it is.

The song opens by setting the scene – the couple has sold their home, split their earnings and parted ways. It becomes apparent they’re scared, as this couple has never been on their own. To make matter worse, with grown children and shattered dreams, they don’t have many options for people to lean on as they get back on their feet.

What’s clear from the beginning is their paths in life. He’s moved on to an apartment and big deal scheming with a friend. But not one to forget, she’s now living with her sister and pouring over their more than 30 years of “left over” memories.

The construction of this tale, not to mention all the small details that bring it to life, place the listener in the heart of their struggle and pain. His ease at moving forward is perfectly juxtaposed with her struggle to come to terms with the status of her now shattered life.

But it’s Summer and Sudano’s ability to relay important details such as the length of the marriage (“30 Odd Years”) and the status of the kids (“And The Kids are all Grown”) that elevate this above your average love-gone-wrong song. The pair present a packed four minutes where every important detail is perfectly placed in just the right spot. “Starting Over Again” highlights a known truth about songwriting – the simpler a lyric, the harder it is to construct. They manage to make something extremely hard look very easy.

And that’s best exemplified by the bridge. The glimpses into the psyche of the couple are breathtaking:

What will the neighbors say
They’re talkin’ talk it’s small town news
They’re facing fifty years old wrecking up a happy home
And this far down the road
You find yourself alone
Two fools

In the end, there isn’t any resolution to the story, as Summer and Sudano opt to  let the heartbreak linger long after the story ends. Like the lyric’s most memorable line (all the kings horses/and all the kings men/couldn’t put mom and daddy back together again” ) the song can’t be put back together either. This choice to end the song deep within the couple’s pain only makes it resonate that much more.

Summer’s passing, at 63, further illustrates the state of flux within the modern musical landscape, where singers settle for modernity in place of pushing for greatness. Summer’s 70s disco heyday may be outdated in 2012, but her ability to craft, and be associated with, songs like “Starting Over Again” will ensure her legacy will live on into the decades to come.

Dolly’s 1980 original version:

Reba McEntire’s cover from 1995:

Donna Summer’s own take on the song (It’s a shame, but she never recorded it herself. However, she did sing it on TV specials a few times):

Album Review – Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – “Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down”

April 24, 2012

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down

 * * * * *

Of Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down Marty Stuart says, “This record is the subtotal of a 40 year journey. It represents most everything I love about Country Music.” And that’s what Stuart has created, a historical document embodying the past while transporting it into the present.

Picking up where 2010’s Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions left off, Tear The Woodpile Down follows in Stuart’s tradition of marrying newly written originals with well-chosen covers and instrumentals. He once again displays his acute skill of writing music that sounds and feels decades old while his band, His Fabulous Superlatives, have never played with such heightened intensity.

The Superlatives proficiency as a tight unit, due to recording the album with Stuart in the same room, is perfectly displayed on the title track, a honky-tonk number distinctive for its muscular guitar, strong harmonies, and banjo work by the legendry Buck Trent. “Tear The Woodpile Down” is easily the coolest sounding song on the album; a convergence of honky-tonk meets country rock that never looses traditional sensibilities yet feels modernistic in execution.

But the track’s selling point is the memorably comedic lyric. “Tear The Woodpile Down” details the trouble a man finds himself in while on the town with a gal – a night in jail and time before an unsympathetic judge. The sense that it doesn’t take itself too seriously only adds to the overall enjoyment of the story.

Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives also cut loose on “Hollywood Boogie” the sole instrumental among the ten tracks. Like “Tear The Woodpile Down,” “Hollywood Boogie” is brawny in nature but acts as a showcase for the band’s playing prowess, most notably Harry Stinston’s mesmerizing drum work. It’s rare in modern music to find this talented a band and “Hollywood Boogie” is a wonderful showcase for the breadth of their abilities.

In keeping with Stuart’s finest work, the heart and soul of Nashville, Volume 1 comes when he celebrates the past, something he does for most of this project. A favorite of his for years, Dwayne Warwick’s “Sundown In Nashville” first appeared on his 2003 album Country Music with far more distracting instrumentation. This mix is much more tasteful, allowing the cautionary tale painting Music City as the land of broken dreams (“A Country Boy’s Hollywood”), to breathe and sink in with the listener.

Stuart also resurrects two country classics – Jerry Chestnut’s “Holding On To Nothin’” which Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton brought to #7 in 1968 and “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” A Hank Williams, Sr classic written as a Luke The Drifter poem.

“Holding On To Nothin’” succeeds because Stuart, a fan of the song from The Porter Wagoner Show, remains faithful to Wagoner and Parton’s record down to bringing in Trent to reprise his banjo work. Stuart’s version, though, has one key difference – he makes the guitar more prominent and in turn modernizes the overall feel of the song.

In contrast, “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” has had so many versions over the years; it’s hard to pick a definitive one. Doesn’t matter, though, as the inclusion of Hank III makes this essential listening, with his pure and raw vocal drawing me in. It’s my favorite song from Tear The Woodpile Down and one of the top album tracks of 2012 thus far because of his stunning guest vocal.

Another standout is “A Song of Sadness,” written by Stuart for Lorrie Carter Bennett (Anita Carter’s daughter and Mother Maybelle Carter’s granddaughter) to sing with him. Another smart choice on his part, her vocal adds extra flavor and creates beautiful contrast to his deeper vocal tones. But the framing of their voices against the backdrop of pedal steel is the real selling point. The mix is so effortless it feels like he has sung with her all is life.

The final resurrection comes in the form of a trucker’s anthem, a seemingly lost ideal in modern country music. “Truck Drivers Blues,” which contains the records only mention of Connie Smith, celebrates the truck driving lifestyle with radiant authenticity. Another fantastic catchy sing-a-long, it comes complete with a mandolin heavy arrangement that helps it stand out for more than just extremely clever lyrics alone.

Tear The Woodpile Down also includes three Stuart originals (“Matter Of Time,” “Going, Going Gone,” and “The Lonely Kind”) that bear trademark Nashville Sound ideals. “A Matter of Time” glides along with a gorgeous guitar riff that repeats throughout, “Going, Going, Gone” mixes pedal steel and electric guitar with an effortless lyric that slithers off the tongue, and “The Lonely Kind” has a moody vibe to distinguish itself from the pack; almost reminiscent of Gary Allan’s “Smoke Rings In The Dark” or classic Roy Orbison.

Overall, I’ve rarely heard a ten-track album this perfectly constructed in my more than fifteen years of listening to country music. While additional songs and a guest vocal by  Smith would’ve enhanced the listening experience, it’s hard to improve upon what Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have created here. To call Tear The Woodpile Down astonishing would be an understatement. It’s a record for the ages, essential listening for anyone with a love of country music.

 

Album Review – The Little Willies – “For The Good Times”

January 15, 2012

The Little Willies

For The Good Times

**** 1/2

Isn’t it refreshing? The first new country album of 2012 also marks the year’s first great one. A sequel of sorts to the one-off side project from Jazz/pop vocalist Norah Jones and vocalist Richard Julian (among others), For The Good Times features a smart mix of tunes originally written and sung by the likes of Dolly Parton, Ralf Stanley, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Lefty Frizzell, and band namesake Willie Nelson.

Like their 2006 debut, For The Good Times consists mainly of cover songs but this is hardly another in the “covers album” sub-genre. Instead they leave their own mark on each recording, making it sound like their own. I’ve been really digging the retro sound the band has cultivated making For The Good Times feel like a long lost album from the 1960s and not a new project from 2012.

The record opens with their take on Stanley’s “I Worship You,” an acquired taste for country fans, like myself, who haven’t grown up listening to songs with distinct changes in tempo. The slow burning chorus, complete with the crescendoing drums and guitars, is the perfect compliment to the heavy twang from Jones and Julian, but the song truly shines when it picks up steam and becomes a rockabilly stomp. I only wish “I Worship You” didn’t keep the back-and-fourth in tempo, it feels quite awkward to me when it changes from fast to slow and the heavy twang on the chorus becomes grating as the song progresses.

While “I Worship You” may not have been a slam dunk, the other places The Little Willies experimented with sound and texture come off much better. I’m in love with Cal Martin’s “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” which features a gorgeous almost snake-like guitar riff and the magical combination of Jones and Julian, who work extremely well together when they use the contrast of their voices on different parts of a song.

Throughout the album he sounds a lot like Lyle Lovett while she comes like a gypsy woman plucked from another era. The conviction in their vocals helps to enhance the overall mood of the record and they don’t just play their parts perfectly, they sound like they’ve been making this music all their lives. I’m always amazed when a singer, such as Jones, can exist in multiple musical landscapes seemingly without transition.

I was never one to consider her as serious country vocalist but her take on Lynn’s iconic “Fist City” easily rivals the original. It’s always tricky when a vocalist tries to take on one of Lynn’s classics since you need the right amount of ferocity in your delivery to pull it off without sounding like a cheap imitation, or worse, a singer simply trying to show they have country cred. Jones aces the exam and the arrangement of drums, guitar, and piano give her the perfect backdrop to let loose and tap into the growl in her voice. This is my first favorite song of 2012 because Jones and company pull off what could’ve been an epic mess by lesser musicians.

Another such slam dunk is their smoky and bluesy take on Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” For a song with such honky-tonk beginnings it’s quite alarming to hear it given a jazzy club treatment but it works. In their attempt to honor opposed to discriminate against, they’ve given the song a new lease on life. Given that this isn’t the first time Jones has covered Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart” appeared on Come Away With Me, she knows how to handle the material quite well.

The same though can’t be said for their take on Parton’s “Jolene.” I was slightly disappointed in how they turned it into a ballad given that it was done before by Mindy Smith on Just Because I’m A Woman – The Songs of Dolly Parton in 2003. But while they failed to bring anything new to the song, there’s nothing wrong with how they interpreted it, just that it had been done before. Given how they took on “Fist City” and “Lovesick Blues” with such attack, I was hoping for more from this one.

But the slight disappointment in “Jolene” is easily forgotten on tracks like Cash’s “Wide Open Road” and Frizzell’s “If You Got The Money (I Got The Time).” Prior to this album I wasn’t familiar with “Road,” but their fast paced take on the song makes me wonder how it slipped under my radar. Julian takes on the bulk of the work here and pulls it off wonderfully. But more than his vocal, I’m really enjoying the arraingment what at first, when the guitars some screeching in on the opening chords, can sound a little loud turns out to be quite delightful. The fast-paced drum throughout may just be one of my favorite production choices on the whole project. Sonically, it doesn’t get much better this for country music in any era let alone in 2012.

“If You Got the Money” benefits from a very similar arrangement and works equally as well. The blending of both Jones and Julian’s voices here works pretty well although she does tend to overpower him. While that could’ve been purposefully done, it would’ve been just as effective to hear both vocalists on a more even playing field. But, no matter what, I’ll prefer this pair to the likes of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley any day.

Given that they’re known as The Little Willies, leaving out a homage to their namesake would make an album of theirs seem incomplete. Here they cover his “Permanently Lonely,” Scotty Wiseman’s “Remember Me” which he covered last November on his Remember Me, Vol. 1, and of course, “If You Got the Money.” The aforementioned “Money” is the lone uptempo number of the group. Both “Lonely” and “Remember Me” are gorgeous ballads showcasing the best of what Jones and Julian have to offer.

“Remember Me” is given a straightforward piano-driven arrangement not unlike Jones’s solo work and the best indicator for her jazz/pop fans that she isn’t turning completely away from the singer they love (which is a farce in and of itself – a new solo album from her is expected this summer). But no matter what the style, she pulls it off with the brilliance she’s mastered during her years in the big leagues. Plus, it isn’t jazzy at all bur rather the best in 1970s honky-tonk ballad tradition.

Along the same lines, Julian takes “Permanently Lonely” to much the same places. It’s another I hadn’t known previously and he digs deep into the lyric and pulls out a stunning emotional conviction that’s only heightened by the slow and brooding piano-led arraignment.

Another of my favorite tracks, “For The Good Times” has an arrangement that would make Charlie Rich smile. When Jones comes in on the opening line, “Don’t look so sad/I know it’s over” I instantly have a smile on my face. No matter the subject matter, there is something inherently comfortable in everything Kris Kristofferson writes and I feel like I’m being visited by a friend. I have to give Jones credit here for handling the song with tender care and pulling off another stunning achievement.

For The Good Times is the year’s first great country album because it displays a level of appreciation for the material being covered lacking in almost any covers project coming out of Nashville today. Instead of trying to make these songs fit within today’s market, the band uses a retro sound to transport the listener back to when these songs were commonplace on the radio. In addition, the combination of Julian and Jones on vocals only heightens that feel as Jones is able to tap into not only her gravel but her twang. She isn’t a jazz/pop singer doing country songs but rather a full-fledged country singer. In the era of imitation, that is nearly impossible to achieve.