Tag Archives: Loretta Lynn

A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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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-tribute-to-alabama-2013

Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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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.

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Album Review: Tammy Wynette, The Essential Tammy Wynette

the essential tammy wynette

Tammy Wynette
The Essential Tammy Wynette

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The legendary First Lady of Country Music is the subject of a generous new forty-track double-disc career retrospective in Legacy Recordings’ Essential series.

The Essential Tammy Wynette opens with her 1966 debut single “Apartment No. 9,” which set the tone for the many heartbreak-themed hits that would follow it, going on to enter the annals of country music classics despite charting at only #44. From there, the album checks off Wynette’s biggest and best-loved hits in chronological order. All 29 of her Billboard Top 10 solo hits are included, with essential classics such as her signature “Stand by Your Man,” heart breakers such as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” and toe tappers such as “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “He Loves Me All the Way” all present and accounted for.

Of Wynette’s ten Top 10 duet hits, only four are included – her chart-topping 1967 David Houston duet “My Elusive Dreams,” two of her duets with George Jones (“Take Me” and “Golden Ring”), and her 1985 Mark Gray duet version of “Sometimes When We Touch” -Wynette’s final Top 10 hit, previously a pop hit for songwriter Dan Hill. “Two Story House” is a particularly puzzling exclusion – a classic hit which ranks among Wynette’s best work. The Essential Tammy Wynette might have benefited to some degree by including a few more of her most essential duets at the expense of some of the lesser hits included on the album.

Still, the album remains a remarkably thorough overview of Wynette’s outstanding career, and one which, in addition to the big hits, includes a few less-expected cuts such as her final pair of Top 20 hits, 1987’s “Your Love” and “Talkin’ to Myself Again.” An especially pleasant surprise is album closer “That’s the Way it Could Have Been,” a beautiful self-written cut which Wynette recorded with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for their stunning 1993 collaborative effort Honky Tonk Angels. It offers an enticing hint at all the great songs that Wynette might still have written had her voice not been silenced by untimely death at the age of 55.

The Essential Tammy Wynette is a thoroughly enjoyable collection which impresses both in content and in effectively summing up the career of one of country music’s most important women. It will likely be more than enough to satisfy the casual fan, and it’s an ideal starting point for listeners who are just beginning to delve into the rich musical legacy of Tammy Wynette.

Track listing: (Disc 1) 1. Apartment #9 2. Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad 3. My Elusive Dreams (with David Houston) 4. I Don’t Wanna Play House 5. Take Me to Your World 6. D-I-V-O-R-C-E 7. Stand by Your Man 8. Singing My Song 9. Too Far Gone 10. The Ways to Love a Man 11. I’ll See Him Through 12. He Loves Me All the Way 13. Run, Woman, Run 14. The Wonders You Perform 15. We Sure Can Love Each Other 16. Good Lovin’ (Makes it Right) 17. Take Me (with George Jones) 18. Bedtime Story 19. Reach Out Your Hand 20. My Man (Understands)

(Disc 2) 1. ‘Til I Get it Right 2. Kids Say the Darndest Things 3. Another Lonely Song 4. Woman to Woman 5. (You Make Me Want to Be) A Mother 6. I Still Believe in Fairy Tales 7. ‘Til I Can Make it On My Own 8. Golden Ring (with George Jones) 9. You and Me 10. Let’s Get Together (One Last Time) 11. One of a Kind 12. Womanhood 13. They Call it Making Love 14. No One Else in the World 15. Crying in the Rain 16. Another Chance 17. Sometimes When We Touch (with Mark Gray) 18. Your Love 19. Talkin’ to Myself Again 20. That’s the Way it Could Have Been (with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton)

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Single Review: Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan, “I Know What You Did Last Night”

I Know What You Did Last NightGreat singers. Great title. Great song.

Would you expect anything less from a collaboration between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, especially one that has them officially being billed as Grits & Glamour?

Much like both ladies were known for doing in their chart-topping days, “I Know What You Did Last Night” weds traditional country structures with the contemporary female experience.  It’s one of those classic conversational duets, with both singers alternating lines and talking as much as singing at certain points.  They don’t quite break the fourth wall, but they push up against it, much like Loretta & Conway and Porter & Dolly would do on their album cuts.

But the girls night out spirit is completely modern, without even a hint of apology for their rowdiness.   If anything, it’s a friendly competition for who did the most partying down, with the details grounded enough in reality that it never becomes a caricature.

Pam and Lorrie toured together for a bit in the nineties, but they’ve been pairing up regularly for a couple of years now, and that helps the collaboration feel natural, not forced.  Grits & Glamour, the tour moniker, has taken on a sound that has elements of both artists but is uniquely its own.   They have more than a few classic recordings between them, with Tillis being especially strong as an albums artist, but I don’t remember either of them having so much pure fun on a studio recording.

In a year that has seen some incredible collaborations already, it looks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are still quite capable of hanging in the big leagues.   I cannot wait to hear the rest of their album.

Written by Al Anderson and Karyn Rochelle

Grade: A

Listen:  I Know What You Did Last Night

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Single Review: Chris Young, "Aw Naw"

Chris Young Aw NawIt's hard not to root for Chris Young.   He can really sing and his music would sound identifiably country if it was released twenty years ago, making it sound like Hank Williams in comparison to what's passing for it these days.

But he's got to pay the bills, I guess.  “Aw Naw” is a typical 2013 country party song that is easier to tolerate than most of the others because it's sung really well and at least sounds like it's been written and

performed by people of legal drinking age.

Now, even the greatest country artists pandered to the trends of the times.   Check out the hillbilly humor tracks that even Alan Jackson and Pam Tillis recorded in the nineties, or the string-drenched crossover pap that even George Jones and Loretta Lynn succumbed to when Nashville went uptown in the seventies and eighties.

Those songs don't make their way to the essential collections that surface when a great act's radio days are done.   Hopefully, this one won't make it to Chris Young's when his time comes.

Written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley and Chris Young

Grade: B-

Listen:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmQQu6Kp90o

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A Conversation with Amber Hayes

Amber Hayes

Independent country artist Amber Hayes released her first EP C’mon in the summer of 2010, and has since been covering all media ground, building up a solid fan following without the support of a major label.  She had already added “theater performer” to her resume back in 2008, when she was cast as Kathy in the Conway Twitty musical.  The year 2012 brought about the release of her second EP Any Day Is a Good Day, as well as her screen debut in the film Cowgirls ‘n Angels.  Amber Hayes recently spoke with Country Universe to discuss her accomplishments over the past year.

Ben Foster:  How would you describe what your journey has been like in the two years since you released the C’mon EP, and how is that reflected on Any Day Is a Good Day?

Amber Hayes:  I think it definitely reflects in the song “Any Day Is a Good Day,” because I just feel so blessed for all the opportunities I’ve gotten over the last two years.  I’ve gotten to perform overseas and be in a movie and sing the National Anthem at two NFL games.  It’s just been really exciting, and I’ve been really blessed.

What kind of lyrical themes do you deal with on this record?

I think it’s pretty diverse.  I’ve got “Somewhere Out West” which is a story song about a girl trying to find her father.  When I was on WSM the other morning, Bill Cody said “I see ‘Somewhere Out West’ as not just a story song about a little girl.”  “Somewhere Out West” is like what they’re looking for in their life, so I think it definitely doesn’t just have to be about that storyline.  “Suspicious” is just fun – kind of a laid-back feel to it.  “Built This Wall” is more like in your face,  independent.  Then we have “Far Far Away,” and it’s definitely towards the love side of it all – a little vulnerable.  So I think it definitely shows different sides.

What can you tell about your inspiration for writing the title track “Any Day Is a Good Day”?

I wish I could tell you exactly what it was, but when we got into the room that day, we just started talking and throwing out some ideas, and nothing was really going anywhere.  Somebody just said something about it being a good day, and wanting to write a positive song, and so we just kind of came up with that.  But what’s cool about that is one of the co-writers with me, he’s blind.  He has a different outlook on “Any Day Is a Good Day” because his day compared to ours is a little bit harder.  I think when we got done writing that song, it was pretty cool because he sang the work tape, and we were like ‘Oh my gosh, you know this is pretty awesome.’  Our day compared to his is so much easier, but his outlook on it is just like ‘I’m not going to worry about it.  If I can wake up, it’s a good day.’

What kind of experience was it for you being involved in the Cowgirls N’ Angels film?

It was so fun.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself because people will say ‘You were in a movie,’ and it’s like almost kind of hard to believe a little bit, but it was definitely a really cool experience – something I had never been around.  I had done theater, but had never done any kind of movie or TV or anything like that.  It was pretty cool.  The scene that I’m in is a bar scene, and I am the girl singing in the bar, so it kind of made sense.  But I got to sing two of my songs from the C’mon EP, and the stars actually line danced to “C’mon,” so it’s very cool.

What was it like working with Richie McDonald?

He’s very nice.  He’s so nice.  When we wrote this song [“Always There for Me”], and we were trying to decide who to sing it with, he came to mind because I love his voice.  It’s soothing, plus it commands, and I thought it sounds like a dad.  He was just very easy to work with, and so nice.  It’s pretty cool.  He’s done so many great things in his career.  That I got to record with him and perform with him was awesome.

You’ve also branched into television with having four of your songs selected for use in The CW’s Heart of Dixie.  How did that feel?

I’ve been a fan of Heart of Dixie since it actually started coming on TV.  I’ve just always loved the show because it reminds me of where I grew up, and I just always knew that they had a lot of great country music in there, and I kind of in the back of my mind thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if I actually got some music on that show?”  Then we did, and it was really awesome.  I was watching the first season a couple of weekends ago, and all of the placements we got are in the first season, so it really cool to watch that, and then it’s like “Oh gosh, there’s the song!”  So it was neat!

What can you tell us about your contribution to Liam Sullivan’s new book Making the Scene:  Nashville?

Well, Liam came to my album release show that we did with WSM at Station Inn.  I met him then, and he asked if he could interview me for this book, so we just sat down and talked, and I just kind of told him my story like an interview type thing.  I kind of just forgot about it, and then when I found out it came out, I just started looking into it, and come to find out I actually made the book, so it was really cool.  So it’s a great book about Nashville, what you should do when you come to town, and great places to go – even if you’re not into the music industry, but just visiting.

Let’s talk about some of your musical heroes.  In what ways do you endeavor to carry on the musical legacy of the women in country music who have inspired you?

My biggest influences are Reba and Dolly and Barbara Mandrell probably, but I love people like Jeannie Seely and Jean Shephard, and I’ve also had the big honor of knowing both of those women and working with them.  I just am so grateful to people like them who still to this day get to go on the Opry every week and sing country music, and they’re so proud to represent country music in such a great way.  They’re so classy.  I think that’s the deal with all these people that I love.  If I could say one word that sums them up, it’s class.  They’re great entertainers.  I think that every single one of those women, when they walk out onstage, they have you right in the palm of their hand.  Of course, Dolly and Reba and Barbara Mandrell have all done a little bit of everything, and that’s what I want to be, and that’s what I want to do.  I definitely want my fans to go away from a show

thinking ‘Wow, this was so fun’ and ‘She puts on a great show,’ and I can’t wait to go back again.

You pay tribute to one of your heroes with the song “Me and Loretta.”  How did that song come about?

Well, I wrote that song with Brian Eckert and Brady Seals, and Brady is a huge traditional country music fan.  He said “You know, we should write a song about your love for country music, or somebody that you love.”  He loves Loretta, and he knows Loretta and has worked with her in the past.  He said “You know, every song of Loretta’s that you hear you’ve gone through, somebody has lived.  Let’s just make it where you’re like talking to her, or in the car with her or something,” and we came out with “Me and Loretta.”  I think it’s a pretty cool story.  I think it’s just kind of like with “Somewhere Out West.”  Loretta can be whoever you want it to be, but to me it’s just Loretta.  Every one of her songs is just so real, and like I said, you’ve lived it at some point in your life.

What’s next for Amber Hayes?

“Any Day Is a Good Day” is the single, and we’ll see what happens with that.  Just booking stuff for 2013, and I don’t know.  I guess I’ll just see what happens!  I’m just so excited to get new music out, just because it’s been two years, and I’ve done a lot since then.  I feel like I’ve really built up a lot of new fans, and old fans that need to hear some new music, so it’s exciting!

Official website:  www.amberhayesmusic.com 

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Album Review: Terri Clark, <i>Classic</i>

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”

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Country Music Hall of Fame Welcomes Garth Brooks, Connie Smith, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins

Garth Brooks, Connie Smith, and keyboardist Hargus “Pig” Robbins will join the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.

Brooks is the top-selling country music artist in history.  At fifty, he is one of the youngest living inductees ever.

Smith is the fifth female artist to be inducted since 2008, when Emmylou Harris ended a nine year drought for female inductees.

Since playing on the George Jones classic “White Lightning” in 1957, Robbins has recorded with countless legends of country and rock music, including Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Alan Jackson, and Bob Dylan.

What’s your take on the 2012 inductees?  More importantly, who deserves to join them in 2013?

We’ll run a list of our picks for the next round. Share your suggestions in the comments!

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Album Review: Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof


Kellie Pickler
100 Proof

From early on, it was announced that Pickler’s third album would more closely reflect the sound of the traditional country music that is closest to her heart, with Pickler claiming to have made the album “as country as I was allowed to make it.”  The bouncy steel guitars chords of opening track “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and opening lyrics “While I’m torn between killin’ him and lovin’ him/ He stays torn between neon lights and home” quickly announce that Pickler is not kidding.

Does that mean that the album is a retro effort?  Not necessarily.  Rather, Pickler and her producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten effectively craft a sound that gives a respectful nod to country music’s past while simultaneously making tasteful use of modern sounds.  Thus, the album carries a strong traditionalist bent, but sounds vintage without sounding dated, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to create a fresh and modern contemporary country album while still maintaining a strong connection to the traditions of the past.

Ultimately, what really makes the album work is the fact that Pickler sounds at home and in her element throughout.  Though her technical vocal abilities are rather limited, the song selections and stylings of this album serve her well, highlighting her strengths as an interpretive singer.  Pickler herself takes writing credits on six tracks, collaborating with songwriting talents such as Dean Dillon and Leslie Satcher.  While she opts for softly wistful vocal takes on ballads such as “Long As I Never See You Again” and “Turn On the Radio and Dance,” she throws herself into the groove of “Unlock That Honky Tonk” with a loose, infectious energy.  “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)” is just a simple charming delight of a song, with a lightly catchy melody that lingers in the head long after the song has ended.  Pickler longlingly sings “Don’t stop rockin’ with me, baby” while soft, airy fiddles lend the song a pleasant breezy feel.

While “Where’s Tammy Wynette” is unfortunately tainted by association with the ill-advised name-dropping craze, it’s actually a surprisingly decent song in which a wronged housewife looks to the honky tonk heartbreak queens of the past for advice and inspiration.  Like the 2008 Heidi Newfield hit “Johnny and June,” Pickler’s “Tammy Wynette” manages to reference a legend in a way that feels genuinly reverent and fleshed-out instead of superficial.  Even better is the straight-to-the-point “Stop Cheatin’ On Me” which has lyrics that sound thematically reminiscient of Loretta Lynn’s “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me)”  The female narrator counteracts her man’s philandering ways by threatening to repay in kind, while the song is backed by a steel-laden arrangement steeped in country tradition, the likes of which are rarely heard on country radio these days.

There are moments when the formula hits weak points.  Lead single “Tough” was written by Leslie Satcher, and was written for and about Pickler, supposedly inspired by her troubled childhood – an approach that is reflected in the song’s accompanying music video.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit too obvious that the song was written, not by Pickler herself, but by a co-writer (Leslie Satcher) who did not have Pickler’s firsthand experience, as the lyrics ring hollow for want of detail.  To her credit, Pickler sings it with gusto, and her producers dress it up with plenty of fiddle and banjo, making for a song that is sonically engaging but lyrically uninspiring.  Similarly, the production and vocal elevate the not-particularly-interesting road song “Little House On the Highway” to a degree, though it still ranks as one of the album’s more forgettable cuts.  The only instance in which production becomes an issue is in the overdramatic bridge on the title track, which culminates in an intrusive guitar solo.

Pickler shines brightest when she gets personal.  Drawing on her troubled childhood, she addresses both of her parents in songs with the tracks “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy).”  The former, written by Pickler with husband Kyle Jacobs, connects solidly by isolating a specific childhood experience that many listeners can relate to – buying a Mother’s Day card, having a photo taken with one’s mother – with Pickler expressing how she wishes she could have experienced such things for herself.  Though both songs mourn the heartaches of the past, they also cast a hopeful eye toward the future.  “Mother’s Day” finds Pickler vowing to be the mother she never had, should she ever have a child of her own, while “The Letter” concludes with Pickler determining to “make up for lost time” with her estranged father.  Best of all, both tracks utilize sparse acoustic production, allowing Pickler to connect deeply with some of her most beatifully restrained and compelling vocal performances to date.

All in all, there is much that 100 Proof gets right.  By placing Pickler in the musical environment that suits her best, and giving her a strong batch of song material, 100 Proof demonstrates that Pickler’s potential is significantly greater than her previous efforts suggested.  Without a doubt, 100 Proof is Pickler’s strongest album to date, and likely one of the better mainstream releases we’ll hear this year.

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Retro Single Review: Dolly Parton, “Washday Blues”

1972 | Peak: #20

This is just plum terrible.

Loretta Lynn might’ve been able to make something useful out of it, a dime store take-off of “One’s On the Way” or something.

But there’s nothing domesticated about Dolly Parton.  Amazing how she’s much more believable as a lady of ill repute or a runaway teen than she is as a housewife.

It just doesn’t fit.

Written by Porter Wagoner

Grade: D

Next: Together Always (with Porter Wagoner)

Previous: Lost Forever in Your Kiss (with Porter Wagoner)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaY5uFyTyxA

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Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me. 

Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics.  For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.

The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves.  Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort.  Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.

If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly.  In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully.  Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals.  Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.

One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”  Fact:  Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover.  Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow.  But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier.  Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.

Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record.  Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”   On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker.  A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else.  No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.

The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover.  Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick.  Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.

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