Saturday, October 19th, 2013
Alabama & Friends
To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.
Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.
Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.
Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.
Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.
There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.
Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.
Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.
Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.
It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.
Category Album Reviews
Tags: Alabama, Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre, Conway Twitty, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band, Florida Georgia Line, George Jones, Jamey Johnson, Jason Aldean, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Jason Isbell, JD McPherson, Jessica Lea Mayfield, John Paul White, Kenny Chesney, Loretta Lynn, Luke Bryan, Randy Owen, Ray Benson, Tammy Wynette, The Civil Wars, Toby Keith, Trisha Yearwood, Turnpike Troubadours, Wade Bowen, Zac Brown Band
Thursday, March 26th, 2009
Stuck in my car stereo over the last couple of weeks has been a CD loaded with tunes from some of my favorite Texas-affiliated artists. I’m a big fan of the singer-songwriter, old school and raggedy rock styles of country music, and Texas excels at all three. So any time I need a break from the current “Nashville sound,” I like to check in with Texas and see what they’re up to. Invariably, it’s more colorful and interesting.
I can’ t call myself an expert on Texas country by any stretch of the imagination and my education is nowhere remotely near complete (hint: feel free to recommend), but I do sense that it’s a style of music, or perhaps a musical sensibility, that is extremely important to maintain. Texas artists exude a certain spirit of creativity and sense of individuality that is sorely lacking elsewhere in country music. And in my opinion, great music and great artists only flourish in settings where both of those are encouraged.
Here’s a sampling of the songs I’m currently listening to:
- “Dallas,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore
- “Snowin’ on Raton,” Townes Van Zandt
- “West Texas Waltz,” Joe Ely
- “Greenville,” Lucinda Williams
- “Tortured Tangled Hearts,” Dixie Chicks
- “Transcendental Blues (Live in Austin),” Steve Earle
- “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Willie Nelson
- “Treat Me Like a Saturday Night,” The Flatlanders
- “Bourbon Legend,” Jason Boland & The Stragglers
- “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson
- “Angry All The Time,” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
- “What I Deserve,” Kelly Willis
- “Old Five and Dimers,” Billie Joe Shaver
- “Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame,” Sunny Sweeney
- “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Waylon Jennings
What are some of your favorite Texas country tunes?
Category Discussion, News
Tags: Billie Joe Shaver, Bruce Robison, Dixie Chicks, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Kelly Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Sunny Sweeney, The Flatlanders, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Willile Nel
Saturday, December 27th, 2008
The SteelDrivers, The SteelDrivers
Chris Stapleton’s voice just blows me away. As Lee Ann Womack has recently observed, he sings like a real man. He takes Travis Tritt’s soulfulness to a whole new level. With incredible harmonies and terrific songs not limited to “Blue Side of the Mountain” and “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, this is a strong project that certainly stood out in 2008.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue
I love Boland’s folk-tinged country voice, which sings these memorable fiddle laden melodies to great affect. While the lyrics can be abstract at times, they still manage to feel meaningful. I’ve come to realize that what ultimately appeals to me about this album is the fact that it reminds me of good nineties country music, which is the era that drew me to this genre in the first place.
Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns
My admiration for Darrell Scott is unending. I, of course, love his voice, but I especially love his thoughtful songwriting. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” just floors me every time I hear it. In this project, however, he chose to cover some of his favorite songs that he classifies as modern hymns. Unsurprisingly, these choices turn out to be as interesting as his own compositions, which simply confirms that his talent is inspired by tasteful writing equal to his own.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Admittedly, nothing about this album is warm or pretty. Johnson’s vocals are harsh and the songs are mostly darker than we’re accustomed to hearing in country music these days. Along with the outlaw tinged productions, these factors are the fundamental elements of this great album.
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it is Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics which catch you by surprise on this folk infused, steel guitar laden album. Cooper either wrote or co-wrote ten out of the twelve tracks that explores such weighty topics as racism and poverty. He enlists the help of Nanci Griffith and Todd Snider, his two favorite singers, on the album’s stand out title track, along with recording his own mellower version of “Thin Wild Mercury”, which he co-wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s The Devil You Know album.
The best and most powerful song on the album, however, is “715 (For Hank Aaron), a song that discusses the duality of Aaron being a revered baseball player and an oppressed black man. This grossly ignored album that sounds like a mix of Darrell Scott and Todd Snider, with lots of steel guitar thrown in for good measure, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums.
Category Best of 2008
Tags: Ashton Shepherd, Charlie Louvin, Darrell Scott, Emmylou Harris, Hal Ketchum, Jamey Johnson, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Joey + Rory, Justin Townes Earle, Kasey Chambers, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Peter Cooper, Randy Travis, Reckless Kelly, Shane Nicholson, SteelDrivers
Saturday, September 13th, 2008
Jason Boland & The Stragglers
Comal County Blue
Jason Boland and the Stragglers are unaware of it, but we’ve spent a lot of quality car time together over the years. We’ve sung some amazing duets, ditched a few speeding tickets and generally had a fantastic time. So, of course, as soon as I received their latest album, Comal County Blue, I headed straight for the car and hit the highway. (Honestly, this review only took me this long to write, because I didn’t want to take the CD out of my car stereo. But, better late than never…)
The first song on the album sets the tone of the album musically, if not lyrically. “Sons and Daughters of Dixie” is a gentle rocker with a definite groove and well-placed instrumental solos. The significance of the song’s lyrics, however, only reveals itself upon repeated listens. This is surprising given that Boland’s lyrics rebuking the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina are anything but subtle: “The one thing I can’t stomach/Is how the hill watched it bleed/You bet they’d sang a different tune if a flood had hit D.C.” While the song ultimately speaks to the determination and strength of the people affected by Katrina, the impact of the song would have been greatly enhanced by a vocal and arrangement to match the biting lyrics.
The album’s sweet spot, which comes three songs in, is easily the title track, “Comal County Blue.” As soon as I heard it, I leaned over in my car and pushed repeat. Then I contemplated swinging a right and taking Interstate 8 due east. Within 15 minutes, I could have been driving through one of the great deserts of the southwest and headed towards Texas. The chugging pace and soaring fiddle of the song—which recounts a contemplative trip (either figuratively or literally) from the singer’s residence (“I have a harmless habit of being fine wherever I am”) up north to Austin (where he “paid a due”), visiting old memories and friends along the way—nearly demanded it. It comes as no surprise that this song, which manages to be universal at the same time it speaks to specific people and places, currently sits atop of the Texas Music Chart.