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”
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”
On her exquisite new album Calling Me Home, Kathy Mattea shows herself to be an artist who fully understands music as a medium of art and self-expression. Following down a path similar to that of her stellar Grammy-nominated 2008 effort Coal, but expanding upon it by dealing with a wider range of topics, Calling Me Home finds Mattea turning to her own roots for inspiration, and producing what just might be the finest album of her illustrious career.
Produced by Gary Paczosa and Mattea herself, Calling Me Home is a confident, ambitious album that displays broadness in thematic scope, and eclecticism in musical influences, yet does so without sacrificing cohesion. The album is perhaps most instantly appreciable as a work of astounding sonic beauty. Mattea’s distinctive alto has rarely sounded better than it does when poured into a collection of simply beautiful Appalachian songs that she renders with poise, grace, and palpable personal connection. Her voice is framed by the sounds of pure, gorgeous mountain instruments, performed by an ace team of veteran pickers that includes Bill Cooley on guitar, Bryan Sutton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, among others.
Several songs encapsulate the warmth and comfort of home, as well as the homesickness brought on by one’s being separated from it. The former is manifested in a warm and inviting waltz-like take on Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home, with the latter being explored on the beautiful mandolin-driven album opener “A Far Cry.” Mattea also addresses the coal mining industry that is central to the West Virginia economy. In musing on man’s unending lust for coal, she takes on the voice of coal itself in the brilliant Larry Cordle/ Jeneé Fleenor composition, “Hello, My Name Is Coal.” She ventures into bleaker territory with Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters,” (which features contributions from two of country music’s finest harmony vocalists, Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris) a song which conveys the frustration of a narrator who sees his beloved farmland overrun by mining pollution. Another Jean Ritchie song, the tragic “West Virginia Mine Disaster” deals with the heartbreak of a woman whose husband is killed in a coal mine, with Mattea delivering a desperate, heartrending performance.
A foremost thematic thread running through the album is that of respect for the natural world, and of the ongoing conflict between preservation of nature and man’s desire for growth and expansion. “The Maple’s Lament” is worth hearing even just for the piercing, moaning fiddle that opens the track, and winds its way throughout, but Mattea’s take on Laurie Lewis’s aching tale of a maple tree that loses its life to a woodsman’s axe is more than enough to keep one interested. In a similar vein, “The Wood Thrush’s Song” takes on the voice of the woodland bird whose song is no longer heard in the Appalachian woods. Mattea’s vocal renderings show that she deeply she identifies with the characters she inhabits in these songs, whether giving voice to the widow of a deceased coal miner, or to something as simple as a personified wood thrush or maple tree.
The theme of human activities’ effect on nature comes to a head on Alice Gerrard’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day.” In this haunting, unadorned a cappella performance, (one of two a cappella tracks on the album, the title track being the other) Mattea recounts an exchange between God and man that serves as a reminder of humankind’s responsibility to tend earth’s natural resources rather than damage them. A message of hope is echoed by Si Kahn’s Gaelic ballad “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” which deals with the restorative power of nature in the face of having been marred by human carelessness.
The value of this album is manifold. Calling Me Home acquaints us on a personal level with the woman behind the microphone, giving insight into her background, and the things that are important and dear to her. It enlightens, and challenges the listener to become a better, more caring person – not through a preachy or condescending tone, but through thought-provoking song material that that appeals to the listener’s heart, as well as to one’s own sense of home.
In short, the album does everything that music in its finest and purest form is meant to do. The resulting product is not only the best country album of 2012, but a new peak for a woman who has already made some of the most compelling music of her generation. Without a doubt, Mattea’s Calling Me Home is a must-have.
Listening to the new Joanna Smith single, I’m reminded of when Lee Ann Womack first hit it big. I was impressed by her taste in material and I thought the production of her records was impeccable.
But on those early hits like “The Fool” and “A Little Past Little Rock”, I always had the nagging feeling that the songs would’ve been better if they’d been recorded by Pam Tillis, who has a similar vocal style but more power and range.
Over time, Womack perfected her vocal technique and created her own distinctive style, one that is best showcased by simple arrangements and tasteful restraint. The power of later hits like “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and “Last Call” comes from her ability to accentuate an understated vocal will little punches of twang and power that create a dramatic effect.
So now, fifteen years after Womack first surfaced, I find myself listening to the new single by Joanna Smith and wishing it was being sung by Lee Ann Womack. Smith’s got a great song, and she sings it well, following Patty Loveless’ golden rule: “Don’t get in the way of the song.”
But she stays out of the way of the song just a little too much, and there aren’t enough moments of twang or power to make the record interesting. I still hope it gets a shot at radio, as it would be the best breakthrough single for a new female artist in a good long while. I want to hear more from Smith, so I can hear more of Smith as she hones her style over time.
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Shelley Skidmore
Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.
I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music. So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.
So today’s iP0d check: List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.
You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays. Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each. We’re easy here. (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)
Here’s my top twenty:
Pam Tillis – Deep Down (89 plays)
Keith Urban – I Told You So (81)
Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone (71)
Taylor Swift – Mean (68)
Trisha Yearwood – Where Are You Now (63)
Patty Loveless – You Can Feel Bad (59)
Emmylou Harris – Easy From Now On (55)
Carrie Underwood – Undo It (50)
Lori McKenna – Lorraine (50)
Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet (46)
Sara Evans – Rocking Horse (45)
Sawyer Brown – Cafe on the Corner (45)
Reba McEntire – The Fear of Being Alone (44)
Shania Twain – Up! (43)
Faith Hill – Stealing Kisses (41)
Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)
I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively. Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist. How about you?
He spent most of the eighties struggling for recognition, but thanks to his smooth ballads and country’s suddenly expanded audience, Vince Gill emerged as one of the biggest superstars of the nineties.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, he followed in the footsteps of his musician father, but while it was a hobby for his dad, it became Vince’s life mission. His ability to play several different instruments and his talent for harmonizing earned him a place in local bands, and he moved to Kentucky and then to Los Angeles seeking out further opportunities. An audition for the Pure Prairie League in 1979 resulted in him becoming their new lead singer, and Gill had his first taste of success when their single, “Let Me Love You Tonight”, topped the adult contemporary charts and cracked the pop top ten.
He left the band to join Rodney Crowell’s backing group, Cherry Bomb, only a few years after he had played a similar backing role for Ricky Skaggs. His time with Cherry Bomb connected him to Tony Brown, the musician and record executive who signed him to RCA in 1981. For the next several years, stardom remained just out of reach for Gill, who managed to score just three top ten hits with the label. He was better known for his session work as a guitarist and as a harmony singer, with his distinctive vocals appearing on #1 hits by Rosanne Cash (“I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”) and Patty Loveless (“Timber I’m Falling in Love.”)
When Brown left RCA for MCA records, Gill followed shortly thereafter. In 1989, he released the dramatic ballad “When I Call Your Name”, featuring harmony vocals from Loveless. The record made him one of the genre’s hottest stars, setting up a decade of dominance at radio and retail. Throughout the nineties, Gill racked up a stunning run of hits and big-selling albums, with I Still Believe in You selling more than five million copies on the strength of four #1 hits.
Gill alternated between rave-ups that featured his guitar prowess and power ballads that brought country’s traditional heartache sound into the late twentieth century. Despite his new popularity, he still did as much session work as ever, happily accepting offers to sing and play on the albums of anyone who requested him to. He became known as the genre’s leading gentleman, and his quick wit led to him hosting the CMA awards for more than a decade. Because of both his talent and his work with other artists, Gill dominated the two award shows voted on by his peers, winning more than a dozen Grammys and CMA awards. He is tied with George Strait for the most CMA Male Vocalist trophies, and holds the record for the most wins in the Song of the Year category.
As radio support slowly dwindled toward the late nineties, Gill focused on making ambitious albums, most notably the four-CD set These Days, which earned him another pair of Grammys and a platinum award. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and he was one of the youngest inductees in history to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. A marriage to fellow singer Amy Grant has kept him focused more on family than music in recent years, but he still tours regularly and remains an Opry staple. His most recent set, Guitar Slinger, hit shelves in 2011 and earned him multiple songwriting nominations for the lead single, “Threaten Me with Heaven.”
Loveless’ Bluegrass and White Snow is one of the best Christmas albums around and a staple of my holiday soundtrack. This song boasts background vocals from Jon Randall and Emmylou Harris, which proves that if you want to make a great song even better, get Emmylou to sing on it.
Leeann’s Pick: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors
I am not familiar with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors outside of the Christmas album on which this song can be found, but I can say that the album is a mix of fun and warmth and this song is just one example of that.
Along with all the other traditions that come with Christmas time – watching your favorite TV specials, getting together with family on Christmas Day, wondering how you ever lived without a pre-lit Christmas tree - one of the best ones involves breaking out the collection of Christmas music.
As a kid, it meant that the Bing Crosby and The Chipmunks Christmas albums make their way out of the buffet draw and take up a month-long residence on my mom’s stereo. Now, it means flipping over to my Christmas songs playlist on iTunes, where Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam and The Chieftains all are a part of the family’s Christmas soundtrack.
Seeing as how Christmas has more beloved songs than any other holiday around, Leeann Ward and I have put together a list of some of their favorite renditions of classic holiday songs. Feel free to add your own personal favorites in the comments section.
Song #1: Twelve Days of Christmas
Leeann: John Denver and the Muppets
Not a particularly high brow pick, but neither is this Christmas classic anyway. The juxtaposition of Denver’s straight delivery and the Muppets’ goofiness is especially delightful. What’s more, the way Miss Piggy revels in making the typically drawn out “Five golden rings” line even longer than usual is somehow endearing.
Sam: Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
As fun as the song is, even the merriest of people get a little tired of it by the time it gets around to the leaping lords and the dancing ladies. Fleck and company decide to ratchet up the degree of difficulty by performing each day in a different key and a different time signature — AND include some Tuvan throat singing to boot.
Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…
What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?
If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.
If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.
If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.
But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.
Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.