Posts Tagged ‘Merle Haggard’

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

August 17, 2017

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

Not Dark Yet

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 6, 2017

Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary

American Grandstand

* * * * *

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

May 11, 2017

Angaleena Presley

Wrangled

* * * 1/2

 

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

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

I thought

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

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

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

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

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

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

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

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

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

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

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

I came so close so many times

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

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

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

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

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

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

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

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

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

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

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

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

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

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

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

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

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

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

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

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

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

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

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

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

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

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

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

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

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

 

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

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

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

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

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

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

November 10, 2016

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

20.

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

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

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

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

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

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

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

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

Grade: F  

16.

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

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

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

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

Grade: B- 

14.

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

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

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

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

Grade: B 

 12.

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

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

Grade: B

(more…)

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

October 28, 2015

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfieldlast year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Concert Review: Loretta Lynn in Cohasset, MA

August 27, 2015
Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

In the immortal words of the almighty Chris M. Wilcox, we need to revere the living icons of country music and ‘Love ‘em while They’re Here.’ His 2012 piece is a subtle battle cry of sorts, a wake up call to seek out concerts the talent we’re fortunate still has the energy and stamina to traverse the country and put on shows. Wilcox’s article is met with added urgency for the mere fact a good number of the artists he cited have died since it was published.

One legend still going strong, at 83, is Loretta Lynn. I had the good fortune of seeing her live for the first time last Saturday, August 22, at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. I’ve seen many a legend there through the years and have witnessed many incredible evenings of music under their tent. But this may’ve been the most special night of all.

The night began with Lynn’s daughter Patsy taking the stage with some housekeeping and other general announcements. She got the crowd going with talk of an autographed box set and lyric book available at the merchandise booth. Once she was done, Lynn’s band The Coal Miners (which features her son) took the stage for some opening numbers to get the crowd going. They began with a feisty “Mama Tried” and ended with “Good As I Once Was.” The pair is random on paper, but the Toby Keith hit really isn’t terribly far off from the Merle Haggard classic sonically.

I was pleasantly surprised when Patsy returned with her sister Peggy for a couple of tunes. They opened with a contemporary number before closing with the crowd pleasing “Tulsa Time.” I was kind of  remiss they didn’t perform “Nights Like These,” but I was likely the only one in the crowd to distinctly remember their sole “hit” from the late 1990s.

Once Loretta came out to a standing ovation, she literally didn’t let up for just over an hour. A blessing of country music from her era is the length of songs. At about two minutes or so each, you can cram in quite a bit in a short amount of time. And boy did Lynn give us everything she’s got.

I’m not as familiar with everything in her vast catalog, but I was surprised just how many of her hits I was familiar with, at least on some level. Lynn ran through the requisite classics – “Fist City,” “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin,’” “You’re Lookin’ At Country,” “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Lynn executed each of her iconic songs with precision – no false notes or signs her voice has significantly aged.

The poignant “Dear Uncle Sam,” which she said she wrote at the start of the Vietnam War was an emotional highlight. For a forty-nine year old song, the message in “Dear Uncle Sam” rang loud and clear. Everyone was chocked up when she got to the final verse. It was a lesson that great songs really do stand the test of time.

IMG_5122Lynn didn’t go off a set list, which allowed for audience requests. I hate that distracting option, but it didn’t hinder the flow at all. No matter what we threw at her, she gave all the gusto she had. Her son joined her on “Feelings,” the only one of the duets with Conway Twitty that was performed. Lynn also gave a gorgeous reading of “Love Is The Foundation” and added even more humor to “One’s On The Way” by upping the number of kids in the title (“Four’s on The Way”). I’ve always found that song to be a little cutesy, but it’s one of the most honest portrayals of motherhood in country music history.

The only negative aspect of the evening, and it was very minor, was Lynn’s overall attitude. She seemed a little sad – frustrated when she didn’t feel her voice was making it. Lynn explained to the audience how she’s much better when she’s sung on consecutive nights opposed to coming back after three or so weeks without a performance. Towards the end of the hour she had to rest and her band took over with a couple more songs. Once they made the decision to have Lynn sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” you knew the once-in-a-lifetime night was drawing to a close.

The concert was magnificent. I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more from a woman who’s given so much goodness to the betterment of country music. It would’ve been wonderful to hear her talk more about the individual songs, (she did say no one would probably remember “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” after she performed it), but she chose to fit in as much music as she could instead. There’s no arguing about the gift of hearing great music instead of a lot of talking. She also focused solely on the hits, leaving out tracks from Still Country and Van Lear Rose.

What surprised me, though, was how modern everything sounded. I didn’t feel like I was listening to tracks designed for a 1960s/1970s musical landscape. Lynn’s songs are so expertly composed they transcend decades and trends. No matter what generation you were from, and there were some kids in the audience, you could relate to what Lynn was singing. It’s a good thing, too, because five new albums are coming – Patsy teased them at the start of the night.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to have had this rare chance to see Loretta Lynn live. If she hadn’t come to that venue, I never would’ve sought her out. I urge anyone who’s never been to one of her shows to run if given the chance. Chris M. Wilcox is correct, we really do have to love ‘em while they’re here.

Concert Review: Suzy Bogguss in Natick, Massachusetts

April 27, 2015

IMG_0899Towards the end of her majestic set at the Center For The Arts (TCAN) in Natick, MA April 16, Suzy Bogguss declared her Midwestern roots have led to a life of running, always heading somewhere. It’s been a subtle thematic presence in her music since the beginning, only growing stronger the more fully realized her catalog becomes.

Flying by the seam of her skirt, Bogguss and her band mates (which included Charlie Chadwick on upright bass) let inspiration guide the evening and erase the fourth wall, gifting the audience a rare intimacy. We were as much a part of the show as the trio on stage, proving the essential need to help tiny venues (TCAN, housed in a firehouse built in 1875, has just 270 seats in its performance room) prosper for the sake of feeding hungry souls craving the authenticity of genuine performers singing and playing real music.

Bogguss ran through her hits, opening with the one-two-punch of “Outbound Plane” and “Aces,” the latter of which she admits is so open to interpretation she doesn’t try and explain its meaning anymore. She gave an all-to-brief shout out to her friend and co-writer Matraca Berg before “Hey Cinderella” and spiritedly performed “Drive South.”

She spent the majority of the evening reflecting on Merle Haggard and Garrison Keillor, the separate inspirations behind her two most recent projects. It was those Haggard and folk tunes that stole the show, from the angelic “Today I Started Loving You Again” to the playfully wordy “Froggy Went A ‘Courtin.’” Bogguss stunned with “Shenandoah” and turned in a masterful rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger.”

She referenced hallowed company before “I Always Get Lucky With You,” which had George Jones covering Haggard before he then recorded the ballad himself. When talking about Haggard, she reminisced about wanting to return to country, looking for a Haggard song to include on the album and choosing to end up with a whole record of his songs.

Bogguss grew emotional talking about her 20-year-old son Ben, a college sophomore, and the empty nest he left behind. She celebrated the highs of reconnecting with her husband Doug through her tantalizing version of “Let’s Chase Each Other ‘Round The Room” and the lows with her own “Letting Go,” one of the greatest off-to-adulthood songs in country music history.

“The Night Rider’s Lament” kicked off a detour into her penchant for Western themed songs and displayed how much she’s grown as a storyteller since first recording that track twenty-five years ago. “Someday Soon” fit in nicely, too, with Bogguss encouraging the audience to sing along. Bogguss opened the encore yodeling away on “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” a 90 year old tune that sounds as at home in her hands as it did when Patsy Montana took it up the charts in the 1930s.

Bogguss and her band relied on the power of their voices for “Red River Valley,” coming off their microphones to give an already intimate performance another level of closeness between singer and audience. She came full circle with the theme of escape through Haggard’s “The Running Kind” and confessed she isn’t confrontational; she just wants people to like her.

IMG_0898If anything, Suzy Bogguss doesn’t have to worry about being liked. She’s easily one of the warmest artists I’ve ever seen live, a homey presence on and off the stage. By leading with her heart, she rewards her audiences with a transparency that once defined the essence of a country singer. She’s a mother and a wife who just so happens to spend her life making records and singing live. She shares her emotions and leaves us feeling like we’re friends gathering in a coffee shop to catch up. In addition, she’s genuinely grateful whenever someone comes through the meet-and-greet line with a bunch of her records to sign.

As if that isn’t enough, what makes Bogguss truly special is her innate ability to separate from the big machine and create passion projects that allow her to further the legacy she’s been cultivating since the beginning. That enthusiasm for her work allowed her to effortlessly glide between the Merle Haggard Songbook, timeless folk tunes, the Wild West and distinct nods to her hit making heyday with confident ease and sophistication. Bogguss may be a woman on the run, but she’s found a home at every pit stop along the way.

Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

April 16, 2015

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Academy of Country Music Awards is being held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX  this Sunday on CBS. Blake Shelton is returning for his fifth year as host while Luke Bryan will co-host for the third consecutive time. Notable performers include George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley along with the usual mainstream country suspects. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera will also take the stage as part of unique duets.

Along with the regular awards, the ACM will also be handing out specially designed 50th anniversary Milestone Awards to Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait. (Swift is expected to accept in person despite distancing herself from the genre).

Check out the nominations, here.

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Garth Brooks, who has six previous wins, is nominated for the first time since 2001 in a year that saw him break ticket sale records, but underwhelm with his Man Against Machine album. The absence of Taylor Swift, George Strait and Tim McGraw left the category open for some fresh blood, resulting in Florida Georgia Line’s first nomination.

Should Win: Garth Brooks – he continues to show how it’s done, twenty-five years after his debut.

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’ll ride his CMA momentum all the way to the finish line, scoring his second win in three nominations.

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

Despite eight previous nominations with five wins, it’s not shocking to see Brad Paisley included here. But after such an underwhelming year, it’s still surprising to see him included in a six-way tie. Dierks Bentley scores his second nomination in ten years, while half of the remaining four consist of previous winners. Jason Aldean has taken home this award for the past two years.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – His only previous nomination came in 2005, while he was still in the promotional cycle for his sophomore album. His stature has only risen in the years since, with critical acclaim and consistent support from country radio, making him long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.   

Will Win: Luke Bryan – He’s arguably the biggest male artist in country music right now, eclipsing Aldean, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton with his stadium show, fast rising singles, and immense popularity. There’s little chance he’ll walk away empty handed, taking home his first win on his third consecutive nomination.

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Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

March 11, 2014

Don Williams

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Reflections

* * * * 1/2

On his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interrupter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

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.

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

December 17, 2013

Garth Brooks

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Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence 

* * *

When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down asCountry ClassicsClassic RockBlue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

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

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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.   

Concert Review – Martina McBride at the South Shore Music Circus

August 25, 2011

For the first time in eleven years, Martina McBride held residence at the South Shore Music Circus, an in-the-round concert tent complete with a rotating stage, for two shows Aug 6-7. Judging by the sold out crowd, the fans were as happy to see McBride as she was to be back in Cohasset, Ma. This show marked my annual trip back to the venue (a mere fifteen minutes from my house), and my first time seeing her from front-row seats.

During the set she ran through most of her beloved hits. Sitting so close to the stage, I was privy to her set list, so I knew what she was going to sing before she walked on stage. Neither good nor bad, it took away that element of surprise I often look forward to at a concert. It kind of ruins it for me to know what’s going to be sung in advance, but it didn’t dampen my appreciation for the night.

She opened with a brand-new song, “One Night” which will appear on her upcoming album Eleven. An up-tempo tune, it continued down the path set by “Teenage Daughters” of showing off a fun more relaxed side of the singer. Without skipping a beat she ran through other up-tempo hits including “My Baby Loves Me,” “Wild Angles,” and “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues.” It was nice to see her spanning her whole career and not just her hits post-millennium.

The night’s first ballad was the recently-debated “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” a story about a woman battling cancer. I was most anticipating this song because I wanted to hear for myself if it really was as prodding and lifetime movie-esque as people have made it out to be. Hearing her talk about she knew she had to record the song the moment she heard it, put it in a new light for me. It’ll never be among my favorite of her singles, but it isn’t as god-awful as everyone makes it out to be. As always, she gave it a very passionate performance.

For the remainder of the evening she mixed her biggest hits with well-chosen covers. What struck me about the set was the balance of up-tempos and power ballads. I really enjoyed how she didn’t lean too heavy on one area of her catalog but covered all her bases. Of course, though, it was the ballads that got the strongest reaction from the crowd. She received long standing ovations after performing “Anyway,” “Where Would You Be,” and “A Broken Wing,” which she sang with all the gusto in her body. I enjoyed how she would give the crowd time to applaud before signaling to her band to launch into the next song. Being so close to the stage, you’re able to see, and appreciate, all the little nuances of the performance.

But the highlight of her set was her cover of Kris Kirstofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” She quieted down the arrangement and let the steel guitar player do his magic. As with her studio recording from Timeless, she uses this song as an exercise in restraint, rarely singing above a whisper. I loved hearing how simple the song came off. In giving the song room to breathe, she let the quiet moments shine through.

The other cover, Bill Wither’s 70s classic “Lean On Me” was well-sung and had the crowd singing along, but seemed an odd choice. I loved her take on the song and enjoyed the opening bluesy steel riff. Her steel guitar player seemed to play on and on for well over a minute and a half, whipping the audience into a tizzy.

I love how McBride relinquished the opening verse of the song to her younger brother who’s the lead guitar player in her band. It added another dimension to the night. Of all the songs, “Lean On Me” was easily the one sung along to the most. Everyone knows it from either hearing it on the radio or from their childhoods. I loved she chose to cover the tune, but wondered, if she hadn’t, which of her own hits she would’ve sung instead.

The biggest surprise of the night was the medley of “Love’s The Only House” and “Blessed.” In a reflective sense, those two songs go together really well. You have the social commentary of “House” mixed with the I’m doing alright nature of “Blessed.” Almost like, there’s a lot of downtrodden people in the world but my life is pretty well on track. McBride nicely opened the medley by playing the harmonica bit herself.

Following “House/Blessed” she went on to close the show with “This One’s For The Girls” and “Independence Day.” She sang “Over The Rainbow” as the encore, a cover I’d first heard her sing at the same venue eleven years earlier. It really is true, you can never grow tired of hearing that one.

In the end, it was an excellent show that brought up my appreciation of McBride and her music. I’ve been thinking a lot about her since and am really looking forward to the new album in October. I only wish the acoustics weren’t so loud, but it didn’t dampen my experience in the least.

Following the show, McBride sent out this Tweet: “Tonite’s show in Cohasset was amazing!U guys rocked! Loved it! Now on the bus.Have John and all 3 girls w/me. #3dayvacationofficiallystarted.” I LOVE modern technology!

The biggest surprise of the night was the opening act, Blaine Larsen.

Discovered by Joey + Rory’s Rory Lee Feek when he was just a young teenager, he’s 25 now, Larsen used just a guitar and a stool to  come off extremely likable, and inject more personality into his performance than any other opening act I’ve seen in recent memory.

And while his style is very similar to that of Chris Young, Scotty McCreery, and any other deep voiced male country singer, he was able to distinguish himself from that pack with his mix of both serious and playful songs.

He ran through a few of his singles including “I Don’t Know What She Said” and “Chillin.”  He left not a dry eye in the room with his only top 20 hit “How Do You Get That Lonely,” and played the “songwriter’s version” of George Strait’s “I Gotta Get To You” which he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale and Jimmy Richie. But it was his excellent cover of Merle Haggard’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” that proved his talent. Anyone who can come up to snuff with a Haggard cover, is worth a lot in my book.

And even though I’m not to familiar with it, I would’ve liked him to sing his debut single, “Back In My High School,” only because it was the song that first got the attention of the industry and allowed “Lonely” to go top 20. But nonetheless, he should be a big star, but given that there’s much competition from others who sing just like him, and the fact he didn’t have American Idol or Nashville Star to gain exposure, that seems unlikely. But that doesn’t diminish his talent.

Hits not withstanding, and if his songwriting career keeps picking up, Larsen proved in one 30 minute set, that he really is going places.