Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Cash’

Album Review: Hayes Carll — ‘What It Is’

February 14, 2019

Hayes Carll

What It Is

* * * * 1/2

One listen to Hayes Carll’s What It Is and it becomes abundantly clear he’s using these twelve songs, his first new music in three years, to express himself fearlessly. The album is a split personality with one parts love, Carll is engaged to Allison Moorer, whom he plans to wed later this year, and one parts social commentary.

Not surprisingly, it’s the latter that wins the fight for dominance, and while it may seem repetitive to hear another artist use their music to vent their frustrations, or as Carll puts it “get off the sidelines,” few execute as uniquely and memorably as he does here.

The first of these songs is the solely written “Times Like These,” an effective rocker about our current political climate and how Carll desires “to do my labor, love my girl and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope in my dreams” which he says is “sure getting hard brother in times like these.” Less successful is the eccentric “Wild Pointy Finger,” which begins strong:

It points at the fever and the accomplishes of man

It points at all the problems it don’t understand

It points at Persians across the sea

It points at anybody who thinks differently than me

If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news

My wild pointy finger is probably pointing right at you

But dissolves into a bizarre rant weighted down by unwieldily symbolism. He rebounds nicely with the excellent “Fragile Men,” in which he talks directly to those who feel the world is undermining their ideals. Carll turns inward on “If I May Be So Bold,” the record’s thesis statement, where he sings about no longer standing in the shadows:

I’ll make my way if I should be so bold

Bold enough to make a difference

Bold enough to say I care

Bold enough to keep on trying

Even when the wills not there

There’s a whole world out there waiting

Full of stories to be told

And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all

If I may be so bold

“Jesus and Elvis,” the album’s best-known song thanks to Kenny Chesney, who included it on Cosmic Hallelujah in 2017, is one of those compositions. The title originated with co-writer Matraca Berg, but the story of the bar and its patrons, which is rich with the tiniest of details, from the “neon cross and the string of Christmas lights” to the camaraderie between “old friends,” is all Carll’s.

He bridges the gap between the album’s two halves on the gorgeous “American Dream,” where he uses everyday observances (summer sunshine, tumbleweeds, dresses on a clothesline waiting for Saturday night) to paint an idyllic picture of his life in Texas. The romantic side of the album, largely bolstered by his romance with Moorer, also his co-producer and frequent co-writer, finds him as relaxed as Johnny Cash in the presence of June Carter.

Carll is at his most tender on the sparse “I Will Stay,” the album’s masterpiece and the essence of true love, a relationship ballad where he vows to be there for Moorer through the good times and the bad. He goes back in time on “Beautiful Thing,” a shot of bluesy adrenaline that details the combustion he felt in the infancy of their courtship.

Although Moorer co-wrote “None’ya” with Carll, the song his tribute to her, his perspective on the woman he’ll soon call his wife. He shares intimate details of their lives together, like how she painted the ceiling of their front porch turquoise in order to keep out evil spirits because it’s “the way we do it the south,” and captures her essence in all its eccentricities with beauty and sensitivity.

Given the self-doubt he hints at in “I Will Stay,” it’s safe to assume Moorer is the one taking the lead on “Be There,” which paints a less than optimistic view of the couple’s relationship. The banjo-driven title track, in which she provides background vocals, serves as a reminder that “what it was is gone forever, what it could be god only knows, and what it is, is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go.”

Carll’s very character is at the heart of the cautionary “Things You Don’t Want To Know,” which is directed at Moorer and his fans and warns against asking questions that can lead to uncomfortable truths you might not be ready to hear.

What It Is may be a record of two halves, showcasing distinctly different sides of a fascinating and complicated man, but it works as a cohesive whole thanks to Moorer and co-producer Brad Jones, who infuse the album with an urgency that binds the songs together with a softness and aggression that reveal Carll’s unwavering assurance in his ideals.

What It Is is a journey worth taking from beginning to end, with not a single pit-stop along the way.

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Tanya Tucker dazzles at Lancaster Fair

September 19, 2018

The Lancaster Fair, located on a flat grassy fairground in rural New Hampshire, has been carrying on a Labor Day weekend tradition since 1870. In recent years, the featured entertainment has been legacy country acts including Jo Dee Messina, Sawyer Brown and Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan. In fact, it was through Tillis herself I found out the fair even existed at all.

The act this year, who plays a free concert at the bandstand with admission to the fair, was Tanya Tucker. Having never seen her live before, I jumped at the opportunity to add her name to my ever-growing concert resume. As I suspected she dazzled the crowd and didn’t skip a beat as she ran through a nice cross-selection of her vast catalog.

What struck me the most, was her vitality. I had very wrongfully conjured up the perception in my mind that Tucker was on her last legs as a performer without much of a singing voice anymore. I’m thrilled to report she couldn’t have looked or sounded more like herself.

Her band opened the performance with a faithful rendition of Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” before Tucker graced the stage in a black western button-down, black pants, and a rhinestone-studded belt. She began with “Some Kind of Trouble” and kept the setlist tied to her work from the 1980s and 1990s, running through most of the hits from her well-deserved and celebrated comeback.

The majority of her set was accentuated by her up-tempo material with the gorgeous twangy guitars that always set her apart from the pack. She flubbed, and quickly recovered from forgetting the opening line of “Hangin’ In,” and turned in stellar renditions of “If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight” and “Walking Shoes.”

She referenced 1997’s Complicated, the final album of her commercial peak, to introduce a surprise performance of “Little Things,” her most recent top ten single. It comes off a bit slicker and more pop-leaning than her earlier hits, especially mixed in the company of the earlier hits she performed, but it’s still classic Tucker and remains one of my favorites of hers.

Another favorite of mine, and one of hers too thankfully, is “Strong Enough To Bend,” which was dosed with gorgeous mandolin licks throughout. “Love Me Like You Used To” was equally as wonderful. The biggest surprise was the non-single “Can’t Run From Yourself,” the title track from her 1992 album, and a song she said she’s always liked. Her passion for the track was on fully display and her performance was feisty and incredible.

Mid-way through, she dipped her toes back into the 1970s, beginning with the creepy “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and continuing through “Lizzie and the Rainman” and “San Antonio Stroll.” “Texas (When I Die)” was another highlight, and the perfect excuse for a sing-a-long by the end.

Another detour found Tucker covering a few hits from her favorite artists. She began with a joyous and faithful reading of the Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling” before jumping into a unique medley of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” mixed with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Despite the obvious differences between the two songs, Tucker and the band found a way to blend them together perfectly and with ease. She concluded with Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever,” which she recorded on her most recent album, the country standards covers record My Turn in 2009. Tucker’s performance was a revelation, and for me, one of the top highlights of the whole night.

Returning to her hits, Tucker somewhat stumbled through “It’s A Little Too Late,” inadvertently switching the first and second verses. Her performance was excellent though, and even included a nice bit of line dancing during the instrumental breakdown. She dedicated “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane” to her parents.

While Tucker doesn’t move on stage like she used to thirty years ago, she did inject her signature personality into the performance. I would say she did a lot of folding her arms and posing at the ends and between songs, but she never once stood still. At one point she even said she’d like to do a Harley trip in the area sometime during the autumn months some year, this after seeing the biggest cow she had ever seen, in the area that day, or possibly even at the fair itself.

If I could find any fault with the show at all, it came as Tucker began an impromptu and long intermission where she signed autographs from the stage for what felt like an eternity. Concertgoers were rushing to the front of the stage in droves for autographs and selfies, much to the disdain of everyone else, like myself, who would’ve rather seen the time filled with more music (such as “If It Don’t Come Easy,” “(Without You) What Do I Do with Me” and “Soon”).

One concertgoer had her sign their copy of her autobiography Nickel Dreams, which had her proclaim the book might’ve been billed as a tell-all but “a lot of people would have to die” before she could really “tell all.” Tucker joked she’ll have to write a sequel (none is currently in the works) and at this point, call it “Quarter Dreams.” She was sharp as a tack, even as people began filling out to get to their cars before a mad rush. Tucker did redeem herself, closing the show with a beautiful medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Delta Dawn,” the latter of which had the audience singing the final chorus back to her.

The crowd was mixed with people ranging from both young to older, with many young boys (5-7 years old) who were moving, grooving, and clearly had music in their souls. It was heartwarming to see young people exposed to authentic and traditional honky-tonk country music, which the seemed to be enjoying.

I also sincerely appreciated the lack of alcohol at the show. People may have had their share of soda, and other drinks, but there wasn’t any beer and the ruckus it causes. It truly was a refreshing thing not to have that added aggravation to potentially put a damper on the night.

I had never been to the Lancaster Fair before, despite having a ski condo in the area for the past 24+ years. I only went for Tucker and she was incredible. I’ve been to many unique and special concerts through the years, and this one was right up there with the best I’ve seen.

I hope this goes without saying, but if Tucker comes to your area, make it your duty as a country music fan to attend the show. She’s still got every bit the swagger she had all those years ago. You will most certainly not be disappointed.

Country 102.5 WKLB rebrands canceling Sunday Morning Country Oldies

July 3, 2014

wklb_logoWant yet another example of the corporate machine striking again? Well, here you go – Country 102.5 WKLB, Boston’s twenty-one year old country music station has cancelled their ‘Sunday Morning Country Oldies’ program after a twenty year and five month run, replacing it with the same mix of bro-country and progressive sounds that litter their airwaves every other hour of the week.

The move comes in response to the decision by 101.7-FM to switch from an EDM format to country, giving Boston two country music radio stations for the first time. This new station, run by Clear Channel and billing itself as ‘The Bull’ in a shameless effort to covet the younger country music audience, is the ultimate soul sucker. They’re running an uninterrupted commercial free summer to draw in listeners and have slotted the Nashville produced (i.e. syndicated) Bobby Bones Show during the coveted Morning Drive hours.

According to the Boston Globe article announcing the format switch at 101.7, Dylan Sprague, vice president of programming for Clear Channel Media and Entertainment Boston, says the format switch is in accordance to the changing tastes of listeners, most of whom wouldn’t have considered themselves country 1017_the_bull_commercial_free__0_1402657108music fans even ten years ago.

To achieve this goal, 101.7 has launched a “comprehensive search” for DJ talent, as Sprague puts it, to be put on air after Labor Day. The Boston Globe article doesn’t divulge how they plan to find this talent, or even how hard they plan to “search” but at least they have plans to bring a personal touch to the station, who’s call letters are WBLW, and aren’t planning on a syndicated format around the clock.

So, where does Country 102.5 WKLB, Boston’s Country Music Association award winning country music powerhouse, play into the equation? Well, in response to the new station they’ve rolled out what they hoped would be a subtle rebranding campaign as “Boston’s New Hit Country,” which in turn left no room for the venerable oldies program on Sunday mornings.

Sunday Morning Country Oldies began in January 1994, running 8am-noon with the hits from bygone eras no longer heard on mainstream radio. Hosted by Michael Burns and Stu Fink, the program most recently heavily featured 70s, 80s, and 90s country with a nod back to the 60s with a ‘classic oldie of the hour’ like Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” or Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

Up until 101.7 switched formats, the Oldies program was going strong with no signs of imminent cancelation. This spring they even dedicated shows to featuring tracks from and giving away copies of Johnny Cash’s Out Among The Stars and Ronnie Milsap’s Summer Number Seventeen in coordination with the artists promotional teams in Nashville. On Mother’s Day, they played Jimmy Dean’s tearjerker ‘I.O.U.’ once every hour.

Now the program is gone, cancelled without warning to the listeners or the hosts themselves. Burns and Fink were told on June 16 that their final show had aired the day before. Burns will continue his relationship with Greater Media, who owns WKLB and a host of other stations, while Fink has been let go entirely. The fans of the program, who where wondering what was going on when they tuned in this past Sunday, flooded WKLB’s Facebook page with messages lamenting their anger.

Listeners reminisced about tuning into the program with their 97 year old parents or listening with their spouses who originally hailed from Texas and couldn’t find this music anywhere else beyond CDs and such. Others downright disowned the station and planned to never listen again.

As one of those disgruntled listeners, I’m deeply saddened by the show’s cancelation, but I’m not surprised or shocked at this move by Country 102.5 WKLB. We live in a world, especially with regards to media, where corporate greed wins out every time no matter how it might effect a entity’s image or well being within the community.

I’ve had by soul shattered by the continuing devolution of country music for years now, and I’d be a fool to think it could possibly recover even to a fraction of what it once was and should’ve always remained. The mainstream country music genre and establishment, no matter how much money it makes on a daily basis, is corrupt and morally bankrupt.

If I didn’t understand that fact before, the cancelation of Sunday Morning Country Oldies makes it loud and clear. This move puts Country 102.5 WKLB on par with 101.7 instead of establishing themselves as an exception to the rule. Sunday Morning Country Oldies is what helped them stand out from the pack and retain the older country music audience in and around Boston starving for authenticity out of the music they love. Without it they’ve lost, my 26-year-old self included, whatever fraction of that audience they had left.

I’d have to be an even bigger fool if I thought this move would significantly impact Country 102.5 WKLB’s bottom line. Will they suffer as a result of cancelling Sunday Morning Country Oldies? Of course they won’t. WKLB makes their money off of the latest and greatest in country music and their pivotal role of turning Boston into a must visit city for all major country music tours. With the growth of country music, they’ve become the number one most listened to station in Boston with ratings going through the roof. Country 102.5 WKLB hasn’t been this popular at any other point in its 21-year history.

With those statistics, it’s hard to believe they’d be so insecure about loosing their audience to 101.7 that they’d quickly rebrand and yank their Sunday morning oldies show. I find it mind boggling that a weekly four-hour block of classic country on a Sunday morning would deter listeners to another station. They seriously believe that fans are so impatient they can’t wait until noon for the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, or Jason Aldean? The thinking here, suggested by the cancelation of Sunday Morning Country Oldies, is flat-out ridiculous.

Michael Burns (Left) and Stu Fink - hosts of Sunday Morning Country Oldies

Michael Burns (Left) and Stu Fink – hosts of Sunday Morning Country Oldies

Without so much as a press release or statement from Country 102.5 WKLB explaining this move in their own PR spun words, is there any hope going forward for the fans of the program? With the damage already done, they’re shouldn’t be. By making the move in the first place Country 102.5 WKLB have shown their true colors as a station just like all the rest, a follower of demographics and industry trends. Keeping the show alive would’ve been the bold move, a stance against the devolution of corporate radio at a time when a protest is needed most.

There’s been speculation about Burns and Fink trying to revive the program online or through another medium but any formal announcement, beyond a ‘Save Sunday Morning Country Oldies’ Facebook page has yet to come down the pipeline. I sincerely hope they get the last word in all of this as they are the true victims here, lovers of classic country who had their voice diminished without as much as a chance to officially thank their listeners for twenty great years.

As for Country 102.5 WKLB, they can be yet another voice diminishing real country music on the airwaves, catering to the mainstream audience that’s done more to murder music row than any artist in Larry Cordle’s song.

WKLB, go and cram Luke Bryan’s August coming out party at Gillette Stadium down our throats. Its okay, now that we’ve seen who you really are once and for all.

Further Reading: 

Boston Radio: New Sheriff In Town Country Is #1

Clear Channel converts 101.7 to country music format

WKLB DROPS “SUNDAY MORNING COUNTRY OLDIES”

 

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles: ‘That Girl’

February 5, 2014

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer-Nettles

That Girl

* * *

In the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machineit’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Album Review: The Band Perry – “Pioneer”

April 30, 2013

“Daddy rocked us to sleep with the Rolling Stones; Mama woke us up with Loretta Lynn. So we get it honest” – Kimberly Perry

The Band Perry

Pioneer

***1/2

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It’s no secret that “If I Die Young” is one of my favorite singles of this decade, no matter how much airplay it receives. Nathan Chapman’s simple production combined with Kimberly’s sweet vocal is an irresistible combination, difficult for me to resist.

So about a year ago now, I was thrilled when The Band Perry announced they’d be working with Rick Rubin on their sophomore album. The veteran producer who famously resurrected Johnny Cash’s career in the final two decades of life, he also produced the final Dixie Chick record Taking The Long Way, possibly my favorite album from them. In addition, they expressed their intent to work with songwriting genius (and Semisonic front man) Dan Wilson based on his involvement with “Someone Like You” and “Don’t You Remember” from Adele’s 21 (He also had a lot to do with the genius of the Chicks’ album). The Perry siblings even spoke openly of their love for those two songs, which made me very excited, as I love them, too.

So, what the heck went so horribly wrong? Well, it seems like the their label had other ideas. Kimberly has explained that Rubin “in his current incarnation” is a minimalist, but “we also knew that to accommodate all of the goals that we had, the best producer was Dann Huff.” One can assume, reading between the PR fog, that Republic Nashville didn’t approve of Rubin’s artistry, and wanted the band to go with a producer that would keep them firmly within the good graces of country radio. In other words, an intelligently articulate record wouldn’t be supported in today’s Nashville in the same ways an overproduced Huff-led record would.

And is Pioneer ever overproduced. Huff works his usual magic, suffocating the songs until they are one click away from needing life support. The rock production has even affected Kimberly’s voice, the band’s crowning instrument, which is now sadly showing the wear of extreme overuse. I wasn’t expecting to hear such breathy vocals from her, and like Carrie Underwood’s newly acquired rasp, it’s kind of sad. What ever happened to simply singing?

Pioneer is what happens when country music becomes too commercial. Every aspect of the product is grossly overdone in an attempt to appeal to the arena and stadium crowd, and while the songs may work well live; they fail as a listening experience on an album. Luckily, though, this isn’t the atrocious mess it could’ve been and they did find (and write) some decent songs, even if nothing here lives up to the singles from their debut.

I quite like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” despite the somewhat muffled production and “I Saw The Light” is possibly my favorite song on the whole project. The title track is as folksy as they seem to get, and “Back To Me Without You” is nicely restrained although it gets a bit power ballad-y by the end. I don’t have a huge issue with thick production at all when it’s done correctly (here’s looking at you, Eric Church). Huff’s style actually works well on “Forever Mine Nevermind,” which has noticeable country elements in the choral melody.

I’m also enjoying the tender “Mother Like Mine,” which the trio wrote as a declaration of what the world would look like if everyone had been raised by their mom:

So the wars would all be over

‘Cause she’d raise us all as friends

And no one would ever wonder if somebody wanted them

We’d walk on grass that’s greener

And our cares would all be freer

If the world had a mother like mine

The no wars line is a bit predictable, and Kimberly’s vocal shows the wear of shouting too much on stage, but overall it’s a very touching song that would work well as a single. Their southern gothic tribute “End of Time” isn’t as revelatory as I would’ve liked, but it’s probably closest to the sound on their debut. “Night Gone Wasted” is a mess in this form, but I can hear the honky-tonk elements beneath all the noise, especially on the chorus. If any song ever called for an acoustic makeover, this would be it.

The rest is just plain dreck. I do get why some would praise “Chainsaw” for being a country romp, but it sounds to me like something Huff would’ve done with Rascal Flatts circa 2004. There’s just nothing new in the production to peak my interest. The lyric is typical Band Perry but the melody sounds very dated. Even the Target exclusive tracks are marred by unintelligent choices in both vocals and production, and can hardly be appreciated for the quality songs they probably are.

To call me disappointed in Pioneer would be an understatement. I’m thankful this isn’t an obvious clichéd attempt at commercialism, but this record could’ve been and deserved to be so much more. The songs are there but you wouldn’t know it based on all the distracting elements hindering overall enjoyment. Pioneer will rightfully get The Band Perry to that next level they so deserve to ascend to, but it comes at far too big a price for the fans that loved the simplicity of their debut. Hopefully, they’ll be able to find a happy medium next time.

Television Review: “The Joey+Rory Show”

July 17, 2012

Joey + Rory

The Joey + Rory Show

* * * 1/2 

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

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.