He’s clearly still on top of his game vocally, and he delivers “How Country Feels” with gusto. You can almost hear him tapping his toe and bobbing his head just from hearing his performance. The production is pretty thick, but it has a catchy guitar hook going for it.
Unfortunately, the lyrics are pretty uninspiring. The lyrical hook of “Let me show you how country feels” is so-so at best, and the height of the lyrical cleverness is its rhyming “hollers and hills” with “feels.” Plus, you’d think a song called “How Country Feels” would feel a little more… you know… country.
Taken as a piece of ear candy, it isn’t bad. I just hope “How Country Feels” doesn’t start a trend of Randy Houser playing it
The original rockabilly queen returns with a vengeance on her sassy, spirited new album Unfinished Business, following up last year’s solid Jack White-produced comeback set The Party Ain’t Over. This time around, Jackson swaps out White for Americana star Justin Townes Earle as producer as she takes on another set of classic cover tunes mixed with some newer material.
Unfinished Business draws material from a variety of
genre wells spanning classic country, blues, R&B, and rock and roll. The album kicks off with a bang as Jackson tears into a rollicking rendition of Sonny Thompson’s ”Tore Down.” Kenny Vaughan injects a searing guitar riff into the tune that serves as a perfect match to the raw energy and grit of Jackson’s performance. Certain choices might not fare well in comparison to previous renditions - We’ve heard superior versions of ”Old Weakness (Comin’ On Strong)” by Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker, while Jackson’s take on Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” sounds surprisingly tame. But even at their weakest, Jackson’s versions are always enjoyable for what they are, and there are no real duds in the bunch.
Jackson nods to her country roots with the sweet pedal steel-laden ballad “Am I Even a Memory,” a duet with Earle, as well as the aching ”What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” – a fine country shuffle if ever there was one. But it’s not an entirely gloomy affair, as Jackson balances out the melancholy material with upbeat fare such as the Townes Van Zandt gospel rave-up “Two Hands,” which she sells with infectious joy. Though Jackson’s vocal power may have deteriorated, her natural spunk and sense of presence more than make up for it, as toe-tappers such as ”The Graveyard Shift” and Etta James’ “Pushover” show that Jackson can still belt and growl with the best of them. The album closes with a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s ”California Stars,” featuring some lovely steel guitar work by Paul Niehaus.
Considering Wanda Jackson’s musical style has long drawn from an amalgam of influences, it’s fitting that she here draws from such an eclectic selection of material. What’s particularly impressive is that she is able to take songs from different genre origins, and make them sound like they belong together, blended by the unique flair of her performances. Similarly, Earle’s production approach borrows elements from varying genre influences, and brings them over to traditional Wanda Jackson territory, creating an album that sounds diverse without sounding disjointed.
Indeed, though Unfinished Business pays tribute to Etta James, Sonny Thompson, Bobby Womack, and Woody Guthrie, among others, the star of the show is Jackson. It’s not so much a country album, a rock album, or a blues album as it is simply a Wanda Jackson album – a fun, entertaining collection that serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of the talented rockabilly legend. Her place in music history may already be secure, but as hinted at by the album’s title, Wanda Jackson is clearly not resting on her laurels.
Top Tracks: “Tore Down,” “Pushover,” “California Stars”
A great covers record, no matter how sincere the artist’s intentions, must provide a satisfactory answer to one question: Why should we listen to this artist’s versions of these songs when the originals are still there for us to enjoy?
There are moments when Terri Clark’s Classic answers that question effectively, as well as some when the answer is murky at best. Produced by Clark with Jeff Jones, the project fares best when Clark brings thoughtful vocal interpretations and creative production touches to her renderings of these classic songs. Her take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” marries a pleasantly subtle vocal reading to a warm and inviting bluegrass-tinged arrangement. Another highlight is a reworking of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 debut hit “Delta Dawn,” on which Tucker herself contributes duet vocals. Tucker proves to be in fine voice, while an acoustic guitar and fiddle-based arrangement accentuates the song’s Southern Gothic charms. The album also includes some less-expected cover choices such as Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” – not necessary the usual go-to selections for a classic country covers project, but Clark’s searing fiddle-laced reworkings are a real treat.
The album’s most polarizing aspect would likely be its recurring tendency to place the songs in contemporary country-rock settings (which may make some country purists wince) similar to the style that became Clark’s calling card during her days as a mainstream country star. One could commend Clark for adapting the songs to her own style (as opposed to causing the same musical whiplash as Martina McBride’s by-the-book re-creations from her Timeless project), but the strategy does suffer from the occasional overhaul. She amps up Kittle Wells’ landmark hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a honky-tonk shuffle that could have worked if not for her overwrought vocal delivery, but an over-produced take on Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” all but buries the infectious sass of Lynn’s 1967 original. By the time Clark’s rocked-up versions of Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” roll around, the style begins to feel somewhat tired.
The duets included on the album are something of a mixed bag. Dierks Bentley turns in one of his better performances as he fills George Jones’ shoes on the classic Jones-Wynette duet “Golden Ring.” Dean Brody joins Clark on “I’m Movin’ On,” thus shifting the song to a two-person (ostensibly an ex-couple) perspective. The third-person narrative of “Delta Dawn” is likewise well-suited to the duet treatment. On the other hand, sonically pleasant duet versions of “How Blue” (with original artist Reba McEntire) and Patsy Cline’s ”Leavin’ On Your Mind” (with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jann
Arden) suffer from the simple common flaw that the songs don’t work well as two-woman duets.
Terri Clark is to be commended for the sense of risk-taking evident on Classic, but unfortunately it sometimes comes at the expense of consistency. Sleepless Nights it isn’t, but the best moments on Terri Clark’s Classic make it an enjoyable and worthwhile listen as a whole, even if the project falls a degree short of fulfilling its lofty potential.
Top Tracks: “Love Is a Rose,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “Delta Dawn”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with a good sexy country song, as such have a storied history in the genre. But there is something to be said for subtlety. The best attempts are often lightly clever, emotionally raw, or perhaps delivered with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek.
Everything about “She Cranks My Tractor” practically beats the listener over the head, from the pounding bass to the T.M.I. lyrics. It’s like three minutes of Lynch bellowing “Yee haw! Farm sex!!!” The titular metaphor feels corny and tacky (Can you imagine playing this in front of your non-country-fan peers?), and the lyrics lay on the details so thick as to make the listener feel voyeuristic. It’s all audacity, with little genuine creativity.
On the positive side: It has fiddle and banjo. I like fiddle and banjo.
Dustin Lynch has a great voice, and has earned a coveted spot on country radio playlists. No need to waste it on this.
Written by Dustin Lynch, Brett Beavers, and Tim Nichols
I love how Hayden Panettiere’s “Juliette Barnes” character on ABC’s Nashville supposedly represents the “adolescent pop” side of country music… and yet somehow still manages to sound more country than half of what’s on country radio today.
I can’t get over how cool this record sounds. The dobro, the mandolin, the hand claps… I find it nearly irresistible. ”Telescope” tackles the tried-and-true country music theme of cheating with a clever concept and a great hook, while Panettiere rides the catchy beat with an assured performance – subtle when necessary, forceful when appropriate.
My inner critic will step in just long enough to say that the production and background vocals are laid on a bit too thick in some places, particularly toward the end the song, but not to the point of sapping my listening enjoyment. I can totally get into this.
An ambitious effort, but not quite as airtight as one would hope.
“Better Dig Two,” the first single from The Band Perry’s forthcoming sophomore album, sports a cool and slightly eerie sound that makes it oddly addictive – a feeling that is nicely enhanced by low banjo plucking, leading up to a searing fiddle solo in the song’s bridge.
Though the lyrics convey the narrator’s undying love for her spouse, the overall tone of the song is one not of romance, but of desperation. The narrator recognizes that she has formed such a close attachment to her love that to lose him, be it by death or divorce, would destroy her. The lyrics are spiced up with a few clever turns of phrase, but they could potentially have benefited from added specificity, as it’s unclear why she sounds so fearful of the union coming to a heartbreaking end. (Granted, this is the same woman who not too long ago was singing about what her burial plans would be if overtaken by young death)
Unfortunately, the record suffers from a view ill-advised attempts to polish it up. The synthetic hand claps come across as somewhat gaudy and out of character with the song. The bass line feels intrusive. Also, what’s with the exaggerated twang in Kimberly’s voice during the chorus? Perhaps such additions were motivated by commercial concerns, yet the trio’s past few singles were able to succeed at radio largely without resorting to gimmicks.
But those little hiccups don’t stop “Better Dig Two” from being one of the most interesting and organic-sounding new tunes with a shot at radio airplay. It’s great to hear the Perry siblings tweaking their formula, and it definitely raises anticipation for what surprises they might have in store for their second album outing.
Written by Trevor Rosen, Shane McAnally, and Brandy Clark
How many female country artists these days kick off a radio run with two back-to-back songs of heartache, both with audible fiddle and steel to boot?
At any rate, Jana Kramer is shaping up to be the breakout surprise of 2012. Her debut single “Why Ya Wanna” was well-written, competently sung, tastefully produced, and almost inexplicably became a Top 5 hit.
Kramer offers a most worthy follow-up with her new single “Whiskey.” With its themes of emotional angst and regret, it will likely imbue a most welcome shot of melancholy into the mix of interchangeable love songs and party anthems that populate country radio. “Whiskey” is built around an easily accessible, yet surprisingly effective metaphor, as seen in its winning chorus:
“Should have just called it like I saw it
Should have just called for help, and ran like hell that day
The burning, the stinging, the high and the heat
And the left-me-wanting-more feeling when he kissed me
I should have just called him Whiskey.” Though things are glossed-up just enough to keep from offending P.C. country radio standards, both the production and vocal stay out of the way of the lyrics, and the moaning fiddle intro feels like the return of an old friend. Though the sound of the record is not squarely “traditional,” it demonstrates that it is possible to incorporate pop sounds and melodies without entirely abandoning country genre signifiers.
As for whether Kramer can keep the ball rolling commercially after scoring one bona-fide country hit, we’ll have to see. But based on the quality of her first two radio outings, one would definitely hope that Jana Kramer is here to stay.
Great hooks have become a dying breed in mainstream country music. It seems every other single review I write includes criticism for a hook that falls flat. Exhibit A: Tim McGraw’s new single.
“One of Those Nights” could be seen as a step up from “Truck Yeah” – though that’s probably the epitome of a hollow compliment. The production is heavy, and hardly country at all, but it generally avoids becoming a distraction until the overwrought finish. (A gospel choir? Really?) The lyrics aren’t particularly original – a backwoods love story the likes of which we’ve heard a few times before - but they’re laced with a few details that lend a degree of interest to the story.
Yet the one thing about the song that I just can’t get over is the way it keeps repeating the phrase “This is gonna be one of those nights” as if it’s somehow significant. It doesn’t summarize the content of the song in any meaningful way. It doesn’t convey anything deeper than what it says on the surface, and it’s not especially interesting or clever. A better hook could have compensated to some extent for the generally uninspiring lyrical content, but the way it is, there’s precious little for the listener to grab onto.
No matter how charitable I try to be in discussing Tim McGraw’s new song, ”One of Those Nights” simply offers nothing to get excited about. I miss the days when I could get excited about Tim McGraw’s music, and I highly doubt that Scott Borchetta is going to be the one to bring those days back.
One of the things that frustrates me the most about today’s mainstream country music is the way so many of the songs just seem to be screaming ‘Like me! Like me! Like me!’
Sarah Darling has a beautiful voice, and has made some absolutely delightful records in the past, although radio hasn’t bitten on any thus far. But everything about her current single just sounds a little too calculated, too spit-and-shine polished, too obviously crafted with the goal of appealing to a mass audience.
The hook “You feel like home to me” simply falls flat. The figurative language doesn’t make sense (“Look like Georgia”? “Talk like Kansas”? Huh?) The production sounds recycled from just about any recent country radio hit, and the melody has no real pull to it.
Even at its very best, “Home to Me” feels like little more than the musical equivalent of nice wallpaper – pretty enough, but hardly anything to get excited about.
Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Grits & Glamour Tour
Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center
Bowling Green, Kentucky
October 13, 2012
This past Saturday night, I had the immense pleasure of seeing two favorite artists of mine – contemporary country legends Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan – perform live in concert at the newly completed Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The SKyPAC is a beautifully decorated 1800-seat venue with excellent acoustics, thus providing an ideal atmosphere for Tillis and Morgan’s fantastic Grits & Glamour show.
The Grits & Glamour tour is all about the fans, and all about great music. No unnecessary gimmicks, bells, or whistles – just Tillis and Morgan singing their hearts out, joined by a small four-piece band. Both ladies were in fine voice, boasting some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, as they performed together backed by fiddle, bass, guitar, and keyboard. Such simplicity created a warm, laid-back, almost familial environment as Tillis and Morgan treated the eager crowd to a selection of best-loved tunes, all the while cutting up like one would expect from a couple of longtime girlfriends, and sharing often-humorous personal anecdotes – such as Tillis’ account of being mistaken for Patty Loveless at a Waffle House, by a fan from Knockemstiff, Ohio. (Google it – It’s a real place)
The bulk of the concert set list consisted of a selection of well-known hits from both artists, finished off with covers of classic songs that are close to their hearts, as well as some more recent cuts. The two opened the show with a lovely duet version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” From that point onward, they alternated between performing Morgan’s hits and Tillis’ hits, beginning with Morgan’s “Watch Me” (performed in a fierce fiddle-laden arrangement quite different from the relative slickness of the 1992 hit version) and Tillis’ “Shake the Sugar Tree.” Obviously, both ladies have had more than enough hits to fill up an entire set list (Tillis has had 13 Top 10 country hits; Morgan has had 14), but Tillis and Morgan did a fine job covering the main highlights of their careers, such that virtually any audience member could enjoy the thrill of hearing something familiar. Though the hits dominated the set list, Tillis and Morgan also performed standout cuts from each of their most recent albums. Tillis performed “Train Without a Whistle” from her 2007 career-best effort Rhinestoned, while Morgan gave a heartrending performance of “How Does It Feel” from 2010’s I Walk Alone.
A major facet of what makes Grits & Glamour such a broadly enjoyable show is the way its two headliners simply exude genuine love for great country music new and old. They commented on the increased scarcity of ”real” country music in modern times, but Tillis nonetheless assured the audience that “We got it all – fiddles, steel guitar, mandolins – and we ain’t ever lettin’ go of it!” Both ladies shared a common experience of growing up with the musical heritage of a famous parent – an experience they recollected with fond enthusiasm - being the daughters of singer-songwriter legend Mel Tillis, and of late Opry star George Morgan, respectively. One of the night’s most memorable moments was a heartfelt tribute to Tillis and Morgan’s famous fathers, as they eased into a medley of George Morgan’s 1949 signature “Candy Kisses” and Mel Tillis’ classic composition “Burning Memories,” a hit first for Ray Price in 1964, and then for Mel Tillis himself in 1977. In addition, the ladies also lovingly covered classics such as Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
As the show neared its end, Tillis and Morgan were met with the loudest applause of the night as they treated the audience to performances of their respective signature classics – Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” and Morgan’s “Something In Red.” They then rose to their feet for an inspired performance of gospel song “Jesus On the Line.” After an encore, they returned to the stage to perform brief snippets of Morgan’s 1993 number one “What Part of No” and Tillis’ 1990 debut hit “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” Then came one of the biggest highlights of the evening as the two closed out the show by tearing into the rousing up-tempo number “I Know What You Did Last Night” – a new song which is to appear on Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s forthcoming Grits & Glamour duets record. After the show ended, Tillis and Morgan headed out to the atrium to sign autographs for a crowd of enthusiastic concertgoers.
Needless to say, the Grits & Glamour concert experience was more than enough to whet one’s appetite for the ladies’ soon-to-be-completed duet effort. The unique chemistry shared between the two outstanding talents was on full display throughout the evening. If you have the opportunity to catch any of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s future shows on the Grits & Glamour tour, you will be in for a real country music treat.
“Both Sides Now”
“Shake the Sugar Tree”
“Except for Monday”
“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
“A Picture of Me (Without You)”
“Train Without a Whistle”
Medley: “Candy Kisses”/ “Burning Memories”
“The End of the World”
“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”
“How Does It Feel”
“King of the Road”
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
“Something In Red”
“Jesus On the Line”
“What Part of No”
“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”
“I Know What You Did Last Night”