Posts Tagged ‘Emmylou Harris’

Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

June 11, 2015

Della Mae

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Della Mae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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 – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

January 15, 2014

Rosanne Cash

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The River & The Thread

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In the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

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

August 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 27, 2013

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

Bakersfield

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

MI0003484229

Cheater’s Game

* * * * *

If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music. 

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – “Calling Me Home”

September 10, 2012

Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

* * * * * 

Coming off the supposed one-off side project Coal, Kathy Mattea found her purpose as a recording artist transformed from a commercial country singer to an Appalachian folk singer. The four-year journey has led to a full exploration of her West Virginian roots and the land surrounding the mountains where she’s from.

Calling Me Home finds Kathy exploring the austere realities of man’s desire for growth at the expense of preserving our natural world. The album richly chronicles the death of nature from many perspectives, and features the works of notable folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Alice Garrard, and Hazel Dickens among others.

“The Woodthrush’s Song,” written by Lewis, leads the charge with an effective thesis on the drawbacks of advancement within the human race:

Man is the inventor, the builder, the sage


The writer and seeker of truth by the page


But all of his knowledge can never explain


The deep mystery of the Wood Thrush refrain 

The thesis makes a bold yet true statement, and I connected with the way Lewis used the plight of the Wood Thrush to hone in her main point about man’s relentlessness to grow, seemingly without consequence.

Kathy explores that sentiment on a more human level with Ritchie’s masterfully heartbreaking “Black Waters,” a crying out over the state of Kentucky’s decision to allow the building of a strip mine in her backyard. I was taken aback by the brilliance in Ritchie’s storytelling; how she layered the vivid imagery to devastating effect. The climax of the track comes towards the end, when Kathy sings about Richie’s lack of sympathy from those causing the destruction:

In the summer come a nice man, says everything’s fine


My employer just requires a way to his mine

Then they blew down the timber and covered my corn


And the grave on the hillside’s a mile deeper down


And the man stands and talks with his hat in his hand


As the poison black waters rise over my land

“Black Waters” comes off a bit too sing-song-y, a bit too commercial in feel. But the lyrical content speaks for itself as does the haunting combination of Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, which adds an additional texture to the proceedings.

Kathy continues her main theme on Lewis’s “The Maple’s Lament,” which is told from the prospective of a maple tree dying so the fiddle can live (Lewis is a master fiddle player, hence the elegant fiddle that opens the track). The concept sounds strange on the onset, but it’s a beautiful number about an element of nature (trees) we all take for granted.

A part from man’s destruction of nature, these songs explore the broader theme of home, whither it’s the structure where we live or the land we were birthed from. Kathy further explores the coal mining lifestyle on Ritchie’s disturbing “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” which chronicles the death of miner from the often overlooked prospective of the wife and children he leaves behind. Kathy brings it to life unlike any other track on the album simply from her authoritative vocal, which places the listener directly into the small town from which the song arises.

The title track quite literally rests on Kathy’s vocal, and marks one of two a cappella tracks on the project. Another angle on the idea of home, Kathy sings Garrard’s tale of a man’s final moments on earth and the friend there with him. It’s a beautifully touching story, and the lack of production furthers the emotional resonance of the track. The other a cappella track, Ritchie’s “Now Is The Cool of the Day” works a bit less well as it becomes a bit repetitive, but Kathy manages to save it with her compelling vocal.

Thankfully, not all the songs are bleak. Possibly my favorite track (that distinction changes almost daily) is Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home,” a love letter to Kathy’s home state. I love everything about it, from the folk/Celtic arrangement to Kathy’s gorgeous phrasing of the lyrics. Mollie O’Brien makes the execution of the track even better with the lightness of her harmony vocal perfectly offsetting the richer tones of Kathy’s voice. This track is nothing short of magic.

“Hello, My Name Is Coal” is the closest the album comes to black comedy, as Kathy takes on the titular object in Larry Cordle and Jeneé Fleenor’s tale. The track also boasts the album’s sunniest accompaniment, and is the one most likely to get stuck in your head. What sold the song for me was Oliver Wood’s harmony vocal, raw grit that feels abstracted from the earth, mirroring the coal itself.

“Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” written by Western Pennsylvanian Si Kan, may not be the happiest track on the album, but it boasts my other favorite production. The plucky banjo opening is so ear catching you can’t help but be drawn in to the tale of a grandfather leaving life (corn stalks and apple trees) behind on his land for his grandchildren to enjoy as the grow up.

I also admire Mike and Janet Dowling’s tale of homesickness, “A Far Cry.” No matter where you’re from, when you leave your home for another land, you leave behind that sense of belonging engrained in you from birth. They capture these universal feelings perfectly.

What’s surprising to me is how much I love and adore this album. Calling Me Home took me many listens to fully embrace, as I found myself unable to grasp the density of Gary Paczosa’s production values, especially the slowness of the ballads and the choice to record “Calling Me Home” and “Now Is The Cool Of The Day” a cappella. But the more I listen, the more I connect with Kathy’s ability to bring each song to life in its own way solely with her voice, and that was my ticket to appreciating the record as a whole. I’m also an avid nature lover and connected with Calling Me Home on that level as well.

I’ve since come to understand Calling Me Home as a declaration of Kathy’s authentic self, her Mountain Soul, the portrait of a woman operating from an authoritative space deep within. These aren’t merely emotionally driven vocal performances but glimpses into her core. There’s a palpable urgency to her singing that drives the record from start to finish, a need to spread these messages to anyone who’ll listen. She’s never sounded so grounded, so pure as she does here.

This is the music Kathy was put on earth to sing, and I cannot wait to witness the journey she takes with this record, and what will follow in the years to come. I feel like I’m discovering the breadth of her talent for the first time, in the same way she’s discovering her purpose as a recording artist.

I cannot recommend this album enough.

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?

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

June 8, 2012

Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell 

* * * * 1/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how musically healthy am I?

May 20, 2012

Last week the good folks at Country California issued a mid-year battle cry – “You’re overdue for your seasonal music check-up.”

The exam is as follows, in these simple steps:

1) grab your media player of choice

2) turn your head to the left

3) Shuffle 20 times

In doing so, and without any editing of embarrassing results, my returns are as follows:

  1. Miranda Lambert – “Guilty In Here”
  2. Don Williams – “The Flood (Wish I Was In Nashville)”
  3. Connie Smith – “I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again”
  4. Patty Loveless – “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
  5. Trisha Yearwood – “The Woman Before Me”
  6. Connie Smith – “Blue Little Girl”
  7. Jamey Johnson – “Lonely At The Top”
  8. Tracy Lawrence – “If The Good Die Young”
  9. Randy Travis – “Forever Together”
  10. Rosanne Cash – “Big River”
  11. Patty Loveless – “Feelings Of Love”
  12. Rosanne Cash – “707”
  13. Emmylou Harris – “Ooh Las Vegas”
  14. Bradley Gaskin – “I’m All About It”
  15. Tanya Tucker – “Down To My Last Teardrop”
  16. Garth Brooks – “Shameless”
  17. Nickel Creek – “Scotch and Chocolate”
  18. Sugarland – “Something More”
  19. Eric Church – “Like Jesus Does”
  20. Collin Raye – “I Think About You”

I was amazed, actually, at what my iPod spit back. This could’ve gone in so many ways and yet the random shuffle actually showcased some of the better tunes in my collection. It’s never a bad day when the likes of Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker show up in the same random 20 song sampling.

At least my copies of Kip Moore’s Up All Night and Tim McGraw’s Emotional Traffic were no where in sight.

My “Chaos Theory” playlist

December 26, 2011

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

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

1. Alone – Kelly Clarkson

2. Mr. Know It All – Kelly Clarkson

3. NASCAR Party – Julie Roberts

4. The Dreaming Fields – Matraca Berg

5. My Opening Farewell – Alison Krauss and Union Station

6. Honestly – Kelly Clarkson

7. Baggage Claim – Miranda Lambert

8. Away In A Manger – Joey+Rory

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

10. Wildwood Flower – Suzy Bogguss

11. Modern Love – Matt Nathanson

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

13. Stronger – Julie Roberts

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

15. It Wrecks Me – Sunny Sweeney

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

17. My Name is Emmett Till – Emmylou Harris 

18. Kept – Matt Nathanson

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

20. Guitar Slinger – Vince Gill

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

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

Album Review – Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields

May 22, 2011

Matraca Berg

The Dreaming Fields

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Known for writing such classic 90s country as “Strawberry Wine,” “You Can Feel Bad,” and “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Matraca Berg is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last twenty years. And the artists who’ve recorded her music (Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Patty Loveless) have gone on to redefine the essence of what it means to be a country singer.

Also a recording artist, Berg has released five studio albums and just returned with her sixth, The Dreaming Fields, her first album in 14 years. Inspired by the sparse 70s singer/songwriter fare she grew up with, Fields mixes impeccable songwriting with pitch-perfect vocals to create one of the best country releases of 2011.

The attention to detail rivals anything being released on major labels, and the quiet production help to elevate this album above your standard indie-country release. What could’ve been lifeless and boring is instantly brought to life by Berg’s confidence in what she’s singing. Instead of merely going through the motions, she puts her heart and soul into each of the 11 songs. Berg grabs you with her emotional delivery and never lets go.

Without even listening to the album, fans should already be familiar with at least two of the album’s songs. Trisha Yearwood brought the title track to new heights on her Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love album and “You and Tequila” is Kenny Chesney’s latest single, a duet with rock singer Grace Potter. And the 9513 reviewed the album’s first single, “Oh Cumberland” in advance of the album.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of hearing Berg’s version of “Fields.” After Yearwood tackles a song, it’s hard to imagine anyone else matching, let alone exceeding, her power and delivery. But, of course, Berg proves she’s more than up to the task. The way she wraps her voice around the tale of a family losing their farm will bring even an emotional ice cube to tears. You know she feels what she’s singing.

And on that note, when listening to the album I could actually hear Yearwood singing some of these songs. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Yearwood to have put “Silver and Glass” on her Hearts and Armor album.  The story of a girl trying to find her place in the world is one of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record.

Another standout track, “Clouds,” makes such a simple statement – “I only like clouds when it’s raining/they do no good just hanging around” – and conveys so much with so little. It only emphasizes the the importance of a strong hook. When a song is properly executed lyrically, it becomes a poetic declaration. Plus, the lush production and use of harmonica in the intro, break-up the sameness of the preceding tracks and offer a refreshing change of pace in the listening experience.

The uniformity of the production is really the only area worthy of negative criticism. The album rolls along so gently, at times it can feel sleep-inducing. Berg does have up-tempo songs she could’ve recorded, including her excellent “They Call It Falling For A Reason” which Yearwood made a low-charting single in 2008, but to include such a song would’ve tinkered with the pace of the album just enough to throw off the vibe she was after.

Berg mirrored the album after Emmylou Harris’s solo debut Pieces of the Sky, Neil Young’s Harvest and Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue – three albums from her childhood. She lives up to Harris’s legacy the most; Fields is more than worthy of her influence. Berg sings with the clarity Harris had on her 70s classics, and has a similar knack for choosing songs aren’t the typical country fare that’ll be dated in the decades to come.

It’s just a shame that country radio has all but passed on intelligent music like this – to hear Berg on the radio would be a refreshing change of pace from the muscular country getting crammed down our throats. We do have Chesney to thank for getting “You and Tequila” on the airwaves and, possibly, calling slight attention to this fine recording. You know if Chesney recorded it, it’ll more than likely burn up the charts and becomes a major success.

But it doesn’t matter if country radio passes on the album or not, the music has reached the public and will live on as long as Berg continues to shape her legacy. And as cliché as it sounds, with a voice this stunning, and music this brilliant, let’s hope she doesn’t wait another 14 years to record a follow-up.

New artist obsession: Emmylou Harris

April 9, 2011

Thanks, in no small part, to My Kind of Country, I’ve finally woken up to an artist I should’ve been loving years ago – Emmylou Harris. It’s weird, I’ve always known her musical catalog is incredible,  and I remember when all her classic records from the 70s were re-released in 2004. I even had the rare opportunity of scoring an old vinyl of Blue Kentucky Girl when my college radio station was having a record sale in 2009. But I never took the time to buy her music and give her a chance – until now. I didn’t have an epiphany when the My Kind of Country staff chose her as the latest addition to their spotlight artist series, but rather chose to right a wrong. I’ve always known she was critically acclaimed and I had to find out why, for myself.

As the story on that old Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl goes, I had my radio show (country music of course) the day before the sale and since I was alone in the station decided to look over the collection and take what I wanted before it would be gone. I didn’t even know they had any country records, and was shocked when I saw Emmylou sitting there. I had always hoped it was a real find, and not some record Emmylou made when she was past her prime. After conducting about a minute’s worth of research I saw it won her a Grammy for Best Country Female Vocal performance (back when albums were allowed to win in vocal races, a practice I’ll never understand) and was considered her most pure country release when it came out in 1979.  Better yet, it was a name your price sale and I only had to pay $1 for it. I’ll NEVER see that kind of deal again in my lifetime. I’m eagerly awaiting My Kind of Country’s review of that project.

Also, if I ever needed proof that Blue Kentucky Girl a gem, and my recent downloads of Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, and Luxury Liner were worth their less then $10 price tag, it was something Kevin Coyne wrote on Country Universe yesterday morning – “She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.” The proof is in the (really Kevin’s) writing.

In “discovering” her first two (at the time of this writing I haven’t listened to Luxury Liner) solo releases, I’ve found an artist with one of the most magnificent voices I’ve ever heard, marking her own distinctive path in the genre. In all my years listening to country music, I’ve never heard anyone quite like her. She has a voice like fine crystal and is a stunning balladeer. Harris can also pull off a honky tonk song better than most who came before her. But what I really respect and admire is her ability to create music that stands the test of time and doesn’t fall victim to trend. Listening to an Emmylou Harris album is like visiting a fine hotel – equal parts luxurious and sophisticated. Her’s is music for the ages and sounds even better in 2011 than it did more than forty years ago. By forging her own path she created a lasting identify that’s led her straight to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Before this week, my only association with Ms.Harris was through her single, “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and her duet with Rodney Crowell, “My Baby’s Gone” from the excellent Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’ tribute album to the Louvin Brothers. I did purchase her 2003 Stumble Into Grace album but never could get into it (I’m giving it another spin in this new light). My grandfather had a copy of White Shoes and I never bothered to ask him why he only owned that particular recording of her’s. And of course, there was the Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl. I also own Trio II, the follow-up record with Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt but have yet to buy their 1987 original. But now I am so immersed in her catalog, I want to get my hands on everything Harris has ever sung. I admire those who refuse to give in to pressure and do their own thing. By being an original, she’s carved her own place in history.

Which is odd given that Harris has sung more cover tunes than most singers I can remember. It’s partly true that if you name a hit country single, Harris has likely sung her own version of it. Throughout her career she’s wrapped her voice around “Sleepless Nights,” “Coat of Many Colors,”  “Sweet Dreams,” “To Daddy,” “Poncho and Lefty,” “On The Radio,” “Together Again,” and countless others. On many occasions Harris had big hit singles with these songs. For instance her cover of “Sweet Dreams” was the only version of the song to top the charts.

Even more than that, she’s influenced most female singers who’ve come along in her wake. Chely Wright paid tribute to Emmylou twice – recording “Actin’ Single/Seeing Double” on her 1997 album Let Me In and “C’est La Vie” on 2005’s The Metropolitan Hotel. Martina McBride lent her voice to “Two More Bottles of Wine” on her 1995 album Wild Angles, Miranda Lambert closed her 2007 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend album with a version of “Easy From Now On,” and Trisha Yearwood recorded “Women Walk The Line,” on 1992’s Hearts In Armor. None of these covers were released as singles, but they’re worth checking out. Plus, it’s also worth nothing that Wright’s cover of  “C’est La Vie,” a #6 single for Harris in 1977, is a cover of a cover – Chuck Berry wrote the song and released the first version of it in 1964. Plus, you can hear her influence in singer-songwriters Tift Merrit, Patty Griffin, and others. And while not a cover, Joey + Rory, as well as Australian country singer Catherine Britt, recored a tribute to Harris with the song “Sweet Emmylou.” It was written by Rory Feek and Britt and featured on J+R’s debut album The Life of a Song in 2008.

As I’m learning more and more about Emmylou Harris, I’m seeing how indelible her stamp on not only country but modern music continues to be. While she isn’t having chart hits today, she continues to release album after album and even has a new collection of music Hard Bargain and a single, “The Road” out right now. It’s also worth noting her contribution to the classic O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and her 2005 Grammy win for her song “The Connection.” While the consistency of her newer music is up for discussion, she hasn’t stopped wowing music critics and fans alike since her days with Gram Parsons.

Another memory of Harris comes courtesy of the free digital download Sarah McLachlan gave fans who signed up for the Lilith newsletter in anticipation of the 2010 revival of the tour – a live duet version of “Angel” with McLachlan and Harris. This version blows the studio track out of the water with gorgeousness and a powerful intensity that elevates the song to new and far greater heights. When those two sing together, it’s magic. I really wanted Harris to be on the Boston date of the tour but it wasn’t in the cards. The recording more than makes up for it, but it couldn’t ever compare to the live experience. No recording ever can.

As it turns out, I may have been loving Emmylou Harris indirectly all these years. But now that I’ve put a direct focus on it, I’m discovering what I’ve been missing out on. It’s criminal that I’ve never heard “Boulder to Birmingham” before this week. A song of that stature is so rare and a vocal like that so delicate it’s amazing I’ve never crossed paths with this recording before. And if you haven’t heard it the song, you should.  You might not know the history of the track, it’s a tribute to Gram Parsons, but it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it any less. And as far as covers go, Parton recorded a version of “Birmingham” on her 1976 album All I Can Do.

And that’s what I’m finding with both Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. It’s really cool to come at music from the perspective of a listener and a fan opposed to someone so focused on that particular album’s success. I have no history with her music, so I can enjoy every track with the same intensity. And unlike most singers, I’ve found every track as good and if not better than the last. Harris isn’t a filler artist, she knew how to make complete albums. I admire anyone who can look at a project as a whole, not as a couple of singles paired with forgettable fluff. Trust me when I say, there is nothing unmemorable about Emmylou Harris.

It’s funny, I’ve always been wondering which artists out there have done the near impossible – created complete discographies with their music. You know, where each album they make is as essential a listen as the one preceding it. Most artists have at least one dud among their many records. I’ve thought about the singers I love like Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, and others who have made great albums throughout their careers. But I think Emmylou Harris comes closer than anyone else I’ve ever heard to doing so. When Kevin said that about Harris,  I knew my search was over.

The closest any artist has come to matching Harris’s unparalleled consistency is Miranda Lambert. With just three albums under her belt, she’s begun a career destined for the history books. While she has more of Loretta Lynn’s spunk, than Harris’s quiet intensity, Lambert has proven with every single she’s ever sent to radio, she knows a fantastic song when she hears it. And like Harris, she knows how to write them, too. Which is what I most admire about Lambert. she’s carrying on the same ideals artists like Lynn and Harris put into place forty to fifty years ago. You cannot ask for anything more in a modern country singer.

Which is what made Harris so important in the first place – she created the groundwork for every female country singer to come through the ranks after her. And most will never live up to her example not because they don’t want to, but they don’t have nearly what it takes. In thinking about what’s made her so special, I’ve come to understand why she’s such a revered legend. In my generation she’s known more for letting her hair go prematurely grey than she is for her music. Which is true for most of the artists who’ve built country music – they’re not known so much for their great music anymore.

And that’s why country music blogs are such an important piece of the overall listener experience. They help to bridge together the legends and the new folk so we don’t forget where we’ve come from or where we’re going. It’s that place in the middle country radio lost all those years ago. By bringing Emmylou Harris back to the forefront of American thinking, My Kind of Country has offered a sort of answer to why modern Nashville isn’t the great mecca it used to be. It isn’t because the artists of today will never match up to the greatness of those like Harris, but because the soul is missing in most of the hits of today. Emmylou Harris has that soul, and each of her records from the 70s proves that more and more.