Tag Archives: Melba Montgomery

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent, Only Me

Rhonda Vincent-only_me

Rhonda Vincent
Only Me

stars-4.gif

Modern bluegrass legend Rhonda Vincent shows off two sides of her musical repertoire with her delightful new album Only Me, which is split across two six-track discs. The first disc is a collection of bluegrass songs, while the second showcases Vincent’s prowess in performing traditional country music.

On the bluegrass side, Vincent is joined by her longtime backing band The Rage, which includes Hunter Berry on fiddle, Brent Burke on resophonic guitar, Mickey Harris on upright bass, Aaron McDaris on banjo, and Josh Williams on acoustic guitar, while Vincent herself performs on the mandolin. The entire band proves to be in top-notch form right from the fast-picking opening up-tempo “Busy City,” which segues into the album’s fantastic lead-single, the angst-ridden Larry Cordle ballad “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All).”

Vincent is joined by two special guests on the bluegrass disc. The iconic Willie Nelson contributes duet vocals as well as guitar work to the title track – a love song which combines bluegrass instruments with Spanish guitar in a genre-blending album highlight. Vincent recasts George Jones and Melba Montgomery’s 1963 duet hit “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” as a bluegrass song on which Daryle Singletary supplies the male vocals – with glorious results.

Longtime fans know that the country disc is hardly the first foray into this genre for Rhonda Vincent, who even took an unsuccessful stab at become a mainstream country star in the nineties. Vincent’s work in the country field was highlighted by 2011’s Your Money and My Good Looks – a stellar duets project with country genre luminary Gene Watson. The country side of Only Me follows in the tradition of that excellent set, and is likewise dominated by cover material. This disc features a luscious take on the Dallas Frazier song “Beneath Still Waters,” a minor 1970 hit for Diana Trask which Emmylou Harris later took to the top of the charts in 1980, as well as a loving tribute to the late George Jones with a tear-jerking take on “When the Grass Grows Over Me.” As an extra treat, Vincent includes an original song that she wrote at the tender age of sixteen with “Teardrops Over You,” a country heartbreaker that sounds like it could very well have been recorded by any of the legends whose work Vincent here covers.

A particular highlight is Vincent’s take on Connie Smith’s Bill Anderson-penned 1964 breakthrough hit “Once a Day” – the first chart-topping debut single by a female country artist, and the longest running number-one single by a female country artist (until the latter record was broken in 2012 by… ahem… Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). Vincent here turns the classic song into a gentle barroom shuffle. As one of very few women who are anywhere close to Smith’s league as a vocalist, she reminds us that the bluegrass queen can still deliver a honky-tonk wail like few others.

Vincent offers a pleasant mood-breaker with her gender-flipped take on Bill Anderson’s “Bright Lights and Country Music” – a song to which any longtime Opry listener will react with warm recognition. As the set closes, Vincent relishes her narrator’s boozy, brokenhearted misery on the 1946 Ernest Tubb hit “Drivin’ Nails” – a song Vincent previously recorded in a bluegrass setting, but here turns into a Western-swing-tinged fiddle jam with all the energy of a great live performance.

The press material for Only Me explains that the album is meant to provide an answer to the question of whether Vincent’s voice is bluegrass or country by confirming “it’s in the perception of the listener,” while showing that “either way, country or bluegrass, it’s Rhonda!” However, the project not only showcases how outstandingly adept Vincent is at performing both styles, but it also demonstrates how similar in spirit the two are – both built on accessible, sincere storytelling. Though the banjos and mandolins are swapped out for pedal steel halfway through, the project doesn’t feel like two different albums shoved into one – both halves feel like they belong together, making Only Me beautiful realization of the album as an art form. Better yet, it’s a welcome reminder that, regardless of genre placement, great music is universal.

2 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Sara Evans

I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked.  Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.

Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself.  She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.

Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.”  Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering.  If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.

The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place.  It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites.  Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments.  If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.

#25

“A Little Bit Stronger”

Stronger, 2011

Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over?  Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel.  Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery.  At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.

#24

“New Hometown”

Real Fine Place, 2005

It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is.  Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks.  As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life.  Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”

#23

“Perfect”

Restless, 2003

The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core:  “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.”  Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.

#22

“Momma’s Night Out” 

Real Fine Place, 2005

I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often.  She’s rarely been one to record party songs.  But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls.  Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track

#21

“Cupid”

No Place That Far, 1999

The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”).  In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”

#20

“Restless”

Restless, 2003

I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does.  The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums.  The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.

#19

“Low”

Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008

Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation.  Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all.  It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song;  It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song.  It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.

#18

“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Fact:  Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music.  Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country.  Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard.  Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star.  It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.

#17

“Fool, I’m a Woman”

No Place That Far, 1999

This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it.  In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind.  She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.”  Ouch!

#16

“A Real Fine Place to Start”

Real Fine Place, 2005

I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target.  Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows.  A shining example of pop-country done well.

#15

“Why Should I Care”

Born to Fly, 2000

A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.

#14

“Imagine That”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.

#13

“Bible Song”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place.  While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.

#12

“Rockin’ Horse”

Restless, 2003

A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder.  The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning.  Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys.   By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”

#11

“As If”

Greatest Hits, 2007

Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best.  With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings.  The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.

#10

“What That Drink Cost Me”

Stronger, 2011

The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this.  This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol.  Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign.  Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music:  Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.

#9

“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery.  Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery.  Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.

#8

“Unopened”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher.  As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her.  She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.

#7

“No Place That Far”

No Place That Far, 1999

Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper.  The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor.  It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited.  Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.

#6

“I Learned That from You”

Born to Fly, 2000

Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly.  A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.

#5

“Coalmine”

Real Fine Place, 2005

The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences.  A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.”  This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.

#4

“Three Chords and the Truth”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past.  It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much.  Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action.  It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind.  “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.

#3

“Suds In the Bucket”

Restless, 2003

Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today.  Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since.  It never fails to make me feel happy.

#2

“Cheatin’”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it.  After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in.  But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.”  Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.

#1

“Born to Fly”

Born to Fly, 2000

Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable.  “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world.  It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses.  Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person?  We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”

In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it.  Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth?  It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work.  The result?  Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’

In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.

41 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

100 Greatest Women, #73: Melba Montgomery

100 Greatest Women

#73

Melba Montgomery

Ask most contemporary country fans about who George Jones sang all of those classic duets with, and they’ll say Tammy Wynette. Ask a fan with a deep love for traditional country music the same question, and they’ll answer just as quickly: Melba Montgomery.

In fact, until she got her hands on a heart-wrenching Harlan Howard song in the seventies, Montgomery was known primarily as a duet singer. It was way back in 1958 when Roy Acuff caught Melba’s act at a talent show in which he served as the judge. So impressed was the Opry legend that he asked her to replace his departing female vocalist on the road. With Acuff on her side, she signed a recording contract with United Artists in 1962.

Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under 100 Greatest Women, Features