Monday, August 31, 2020

"A Reason To Be" Book Review

Norman McCombs' fast moving, exciting new novel covers a wide swath of time between 15th century Scotland to present day New York City.  It starts in the Scottish Highlands where readers learn about how warriors defended their land and families.  We then meet the star of the book, Douglas McCombs, from New York City, where the story is woven in with past tales of his ancestors.  Douglas' saga was the most heartfelt, going from a millionaire who has it all to being so depressed, he doesn't want to show up in life.

Many times while reading, authors will jump back and forth between the past and present and it can be bothersome.  Not so with "A Reason To Be," it feels like flipping through a photo album.  McCombs' no nonsense glimpses into the past are stark at times, but shows how the family conquered and made paths forward.

Anyone who loves ancestry and learning about where they came from will thoroughly enjoy this.  Maybe it'll lead those who've been interested in learning about their own family history to journey back in time.

"A Reason To Be" will be available September 1, 2020 where books are sold.

Monday, May 4, 2020

"Dancing Through Life" Book Review

Allen T. Brown's remarkable new book "Dancing Through Life" is a journey of self-discovery and learning how to live life to the fullest.  A true gem in the plethora available on the subject, Brown has written what may be the best book of the year.  The simplistic approach to his suggestions sprinkled with personal stories capture how we should be living our lives.

Brown grew up on a farm in Michigan and had dreams beyond his little town.  He ended up in Colorado and California, spending $12 to make $30 million through a commercial laundry business and real estate ventures.  He ended up becoming a ballroom dancer in his 80's and competing.  Brown knows that no matter what, people can achieve their dreams from starting with very little.

"Dancing Through Life" hits on all the things we should be doing that we WANT to do.  As adults, we've forgotten to have fun.  We live by the rules society tells us, not by the inner beat all of us have.  Brown lays out lists of exercises; some will have readers do a lot of soul searching.  There are also nuggets of wisdom like " It's time to start questioning every belief you've ever taught and what you have always assumed" and "You deserve to achieve your goals and your dreams.  Believing this is the first step."

Brown manages to hit a lot of nerves with this insightful book.  Readers will take away many reasons to start living their lives instead of just surviving. 

"Dancing Through Life" is available now where all books are sold.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Best Albums Of 2019

As 2019 draws to a close, it's time to take a look back at the albums that shaped the country and Americana music world.  Newcomers and legends alike released some of the best work in decades, making it a sonically pleasing banner year for listeners. 

January saw the release of Cody Johnson's "Ain't Nothin' To It," his first on a major label and fifth album to date.  Artists transitioning from indie to mainstream often lose their sound, however, Johnson is as solid as country gold.  Top tracks include "Fence Posts," "Understand Why," "Where Cowboys Are King," "Dear Rodeo," and the stunning "Monday Morning Merle."

"Girl" dropped in March from powerhouse Texas vocalist and songwriter Maren Morris.  The title track and lead single anthem lit an emotional fire that burned all the way to the top of the country charts in August.  Despite being a mostly pop collection, music is beautiful in that it can move us regardless of genre.  Morris manages to balance that sentiment well with standouts "Common" (with Brandi Carlile), "Gold Love," "Great Ones," and "Good Woman."
As summer faded into fall, it was with great anticipation The Highwomen released their self-titled debut.  Billing themselves a movement more than a band, the quartet of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires made undoubtedly the best album of 2019.  Every song is a knockout, a rarity these days as many artists rely on singles to propel their careers.  Each member of the band has a unique voice and blended together, it's pure magic.  Standout tunes include the title track (a reworking of the original "Highwaymen" featuring guests Yola and Sheryl Crow), "Redesigning Women," "Crowded Table," "Old Soul," "Don't Call Me," and the haunting "Wheels Of Laredo."
November brought the return of Miranda Lambert with the raucous and infectious "Wildcard."  Lambert has always been a little bit country with a side of rock and roll and she straddles the fence once again with 14 tunes that are unexpected but refreshing.  Notable rollicking tracks include the wild duet with Maren Morris "Way Too Pretty For Prison," "Locomotive," and "Mess With My Head."  However, the pensive melodies win here including "Settling Down," "Bluebird," "Fire Escape," "Dark Bars," "Track Record" and the unforgettable "Tequila Does."
Red Dirt/Americana favorites Micky & The Motorcars' seventh studio album "Long Time Comin'" also dropped last month.  There's an overall theme of home found in the 11 songs, a departure from the road weary ballads of their past endeavors.  Key tracks include "Road To You," "Rodeo Girl," "All Looks The Same," and "Thank My Mother's God."

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Best Albums of 2018

2018 was quite a year for brilliant albums, ranging from Americana to traditional country and a bit of everything in between, there's something for everyone.  This year's releases are a long time coming, a sonic pleasure every single time they're played.

February saw the release of Courtney Patton's marvelous third album "What It's Like To Fly Alone."  Start to finish, this album is full of lush country ballads, shuffles, and heartbreaking lyrics.  Patton's often plaintive vocals make the songs believable and cut directly to the heart.  A voice that needs to be heard outside of the Texas scene, Patton is a torchbearer for modern country music.  Standouts include the title track, "This Road To You," "Words To My Favorite Memory," and personal favorite "Round Mountain."  Read the full review here.

Kacey Musgraves released her third major label album on March 30, a surprising mix of genres that is pleasing and easy on the ears.  Never quite leaving country but exploring pop and blues, the songs each live in their own zip codes.  Musgraves has a penchant for songs that are heavy but never sound as such, even with her broadening into pop territory.  Favorite tracks include "High Horse," "Happy And Sad," "Space Cowboy," "Slow Burn," and the title track.

May saw the release of Red Dirt veterans Jason Boland & The Stragglers' stellar "Hard Times Are Relative."  The ninth studio album is another in their mission to carry the torch for traditional country music yet listeners will hear this is more than regular fare.  Boland and company often write songs that offer social commentary and doses of harsh reality, something that's sadly lacking on mainstream radio.  Top tracks include "I Don't Deserve You," "Do You Remember When," "Going, Going, Gone," "Predestined," and the phenomenal title track.

Kenny Chesney released his 17th studio album on July 27 "Songs For The Saints."  A beautifully written and sung production, every tune weaves a story with an island vibe and that's no accident.  100% of the proceeds benefit Love For Love City Relief Fund to aid in recovery of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.  "Saints" is somewhat of a departure for Chesney, there is a maturity and depth not heard on previous outings.  It's refreshing when a seasoned artist decides to do such an introspective collection, it allows for expansion into other genres such as Americana and Reggae.  Key tracks include the first hit single "Get Along," "Ends Of The Earth," "Island Rain," "Trying To Reason With Hurricane Season" (with Jimmy Buffett), "Better Boat" (with Mindy Smith), and the title cut.

Jason Eady's "I Travel On" dropped in August and possibly his best to date.  A heady mix of pedal steel, fiddle, and Eady's plaintive vocals (along with wife Courtney Patton's lovely harmonies) warmly envelop the lyrics.  The music feels comfortable, like a worn in saddle, perhaps because Eady's style is straight up country.  Some of the tunes feel like they could've been sung in the 70's and 80's but with modern content.  Top tracks are "I Lost My Mind In Carolina," "Calaveras County," "She Had To Run," and the title cut.

Autumn is usually a release heavy season for records and this year was no exception.  The Black Lillies dropped their remarkable new set on September 28.  "Stranger To Me" is their fifth album and marks a slight departure from their typically bluegrass/country style.  "Stranger" is full of edgier rock fare but still keeping in line with the Americana sound the band is known for.  Lyrical depth abounds on this collection, story songs take a backseat this time for darker, enigmatic strains.  It's hard to choose a favorite but some of the sublime tracks include "River Rolls," "Weighting," "Midnight Stranger," and "Ten Years."

Jamie Lin Wilson's "Jumping Over Rocks" arrived on October 26 full of the amazing lyrics and distinctive warble fans have come to love.  An eclectic blend of Americana, folk, and country set Wilson's work apart as she often writes tragic tales and turns them into beautiful melodies.  Favorite tracks include "The Being Gone," "Oklahoma Stars," "Run," "Death And Life," and the stunning Guy Clark cover" Instant Coffee Blues" featuring Jack Ingram.

After a five year absence, the Pistol Annies third album "Interstate Gospel" arrived on November 2.  Fourteen solid tunes exuding sorrow, revenge, family secrets, and redemption are buoyed by the harmonies of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley.  The three phenoms in their own right create a magical blend every time they collaborate on an Annies album.  Pure country is at the heart of their sound, the Trio of modern music.  Prime cuts include the title track, "Masterpiece," "Sugar Daddy," "5 Acres Of Turnips," and the gorgeous "Best Years Of My Life."

Monday, February 26, 2018

"What It's Like To Fly Alone" Album Review

"What It's Like To Fly Alone" is Courtney Patton's much-anticipated third album and continues in the traditional country vein as her previous outings.  Rich with lush instruments and Patton's strong vocals and songwriting, the album is sure to be one of the best of the year.

The collection was solely produced by Patton and features five solo writing credits, as well as six co-writes.  Backing Patton up instrumentally on this project were Jerry Abrams on bass guitar, Chip Bricker on piano, Giovanni Carnuccio on drums and percussion, Lloyd Maines on pedal & lap steel, electric guitar, dobro, mandolin, and acoustic guitar, Heather Stalling on fiddle, and harmony vocals by Dan Tyminski (on "Shove"), and fellow Texas artists Kensie Coppen and Jamie Lin Wilson.

Kicking off the album is the Bluegrass number "Shove" and it sets the tone for the rest of the songs.  Grief, happiness, loneliness, and every other emotion in between is felt within the lyrics.  The title track languishes in Patton's plaintive vocals, "...A hawk flew from my blind side and for a moment it was us...I was feeling winded, he was waiting on a gust...I stayed the course, he flew right, into the field, into the dusk...Still I know what it's like to fly alone..."

The absolute standout of the collection is the melancholy story song "Round Mountain."  It follows the life of a woman who married too young and fell into another man's arms, abandoning her family.  The character seems to have no remorse for her behavior, "...I won't stay be be ashamed of the things I know I've done..."  The song conjures up images of 1800's Appalachia with Patton's matter-of-fact heartbreaking narrative and the ominous fiddle arrangement.

On the barroom weeper "I've Got One Waiting," the singer seems to have given up on love and has turned to aged beverages for answers.  Meanwhile, the lovely pedal steel driven "Devil's Hand" sounds like it could be the sequel to "Round Mountain."  "Gold Standard" sounds like it came right out of the 1960's with its lavish fiddle and steel.  The only song not written by Patton, Kelley Mickwee and Owen Temple capture the rise and fall of the "perfect" couple.

Another stellar track is "This Road To You," a mid-tempo traveling song written by Patton and Micky Braun.  Everything about this song is perfect, from the melody to the numerous geographical references.  Mandolin and fiddle wrap around Patton's voice, "...This road to you is winding, steep, and cold...this road to you made of concrete, gray, and gold..."

Patton has a knack for sorrowful yet gorgeous lyrics and two of the saddest songs are "Red Bandana Blue," a tribute to fallen local music hero, Kent Finlay, and "Fourteen Years."  The latter about Patton's sister will bring tears & choked back emotions.  It's a beautiful piano driven tune and is perfect for closing out the album, albeit heavy hearted.

The album cover is Patton's own photo, the twisted trees and prairie grasses a snapshot of the scenes portrayed in the songs on this stunning album.  "What It's Like To Fly Alone" is available now on CD, vinyl, and digital.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Turnpike Troubadours "A Long Way From Your Heart" Album Review

"A Long Way From Your Heart" is the Turnpike Troubadours' fifth album and quite possibly their best yet.  The Oklahoma band draws deep into regional subject matter and characters come to life with their brand of Americana.  TpT are comprised of RC Edwards on bass and harmony, Ryan Engleman on electric guitar, Evan Felker on lead vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and banjo, Kyle Nix on fiddle and harmony, and Gabriel Pearson on drums, percussion, and harmony.  Hank Early recently joined on accordion, pedal, and dobro, filling out the already rich melodies of the band.

Kicking off the album is the lead single "The Housefire," a song as much about the human spirit as a house fire.  Listeners familiar with Turnpike's music will recognize Lorrie, a character from two other songs, stemming from the imagination of principal songwriter Evan Felker.  It's love at first listen, with Lorrie grabbing the baby and "...We made it safe outside...She never missed a note...Took a breath and cleared her throat...and wrapped him in a Carhartt coat she found out in my ride..."  There's a lot of heartache heard in the character's voice but also a buoyant tone knowing it all works out.  Felker has a way of weaving an entire movie into song, the lyrics are so vivid making the characters come to life.

"The Winding Stair Mountain Blues" is a standout track featuring blazing fiddle and banjo.  The storyline revolves around two childhood friends who drift apart when one falls into trouble.  He appears to be living off the land in the Winding Stair Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma until the law catches up with him.  This is Felker at his best, blasting through the song with fervor, driving the message home.

"Unrung" deals with a friend who's concerned about his friend's choice in women.  It doesn't cover new ground but its lush melody and instruments wrap around the gloom of the relationship.  Meanwhile, "A Tornado Warning" bounces along as if there isn't an impending twister nearby.  It's as much about the girl as it is an actual storm, she's the tornado in his heart.

There's a warm tone that permeates the collection but culminates with the sad yet lovely "Pay No Rent."  A heavy ballad featuring beautiful harmony vocals from Jamie Lin Wilson, this is perhaps the saddest song of the year.  "...Is all this living meant to be or a happy accident..." sums up our short lives on Earth, leaving listeners in a pensive state.

"The Hard Way" is a straight ahead, 80's country mid-tempo romp through the back roads of Oklahoma.  If a perfect song existed for a model of what modern country music should sound like, this would be it.  A drifting cowboy who's "...On the road again off of Highway 10 in a cabin on a rural route...I'm gonna figure out the hard way how fast I can wear my welcome out..."  Everything about this song is sublime, from the opening pedal steel and fiddle to the high flying character tumbling around in Felker's poetic warble.

Another outstanding track is "Pipe Bomb Dream," about a military veteran who hits trouble when he's caught smuggling marijuana into his home state.  Staying in the band's home state, "Oklahoma Stars" switches gears into another pretty ballad featuring Wilson again on harmony vocals.

"Sunday Morning Paper" closes the album with a stark clarity about our musical legends leaving us too soon.  "Sunday morning paper said 'Rock and Roll is surely dead'...something hit me deep down in my soul...Lord I know, it's just Rock and Roll...never one time did I ever dream you wouldn't live you never planned on getting old..."  The music world has lost so many iconic artists over the past few years, including Merle Haggard, who's subtly mentioned along with many others.  Music evokes so many images and dreams and is personal on many levels.  When one of our favorites is no longer with us, we feel a loss others may not understand.  That's the true power and beauty of music and is a nice ode to close the album with.

For those who are on the fence about downloading or buying the physical CD (or vinyl), I highly recommend the physical copy.  The curious horse artwork is worth that alone and there's something to be said about the lyrics inserted into the CD.  There's a personal touch one doesn't get from digital.

"A Long Way From Your Heart" is available now.  Do the ears a favor and go buy this fabulous album from one of Americana's best bands.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"Ruffled Skirts" Album Review

John Schneider's brand new album "Ruffled Skirts" was born from heartache and triumph over Louisiana's historic flooding in 2016.  Having released over a dozen albums, this is the singer's first in over 20 years (not including 2 Christmas works).  Schneider has been out of the musical spotlight, focusing on acting, directing, producing, and opening a production studio in the Bayou state.

"Ruffled Skirts" opens with a sampling of the gospel standard "In The Shelter" before transitioning into the hard driving "The Cajun Navy."  This sets the tone for the remainder of the album, songs full of devastation and hope, and the characters who prevailed.  The Cajun Navy are volunteers who lent a helping hand during the flooding and this honors their time and commitment.

A personal favorite is "Too Much Rain," a heavy ballad marked with Schneider's warm honeyed tenor.  The most powerful line comes on the bridge "...She told me she was going to get in her car and go where it never rains..."  The heartache felt in those lines haunts the rest of the song, leaving the listener wondering if she made it to her destination.

Another standout is "The FEMA Song," a kiss off song dedicated to the government agency was recorded live.  The lyrics add to the sentiment of the raucous crowd, and Schneider's vocals really shine here.

Probably the saddest song listeners will hear this year is "How Do You Stop The Water."  The ballad revolves around a man who's lost everything in the flood, "...Over 60 years of memories that just washed away..." Thoughts of his wife and children who lived in the same house gone, along with all of the cherished belongings.

"Goin' With The Flow," "Five Feet High And Risin'" (a Johnny Cash cover), and "An Act Of God" round out the album's main subject matter, the latter being another outstanding ballad.

"Every Friday Night" is the only tune that doesn't deal with the tragic events of last year's flooding.  It's a fun romp about a boy who grew up on "The Dukes Of Hazzard."  It's a nice diversion from the heaviness of the rest of collection.

"Ruffled Skirts" was recorded in Schneider's living room, part of what was damaged in the floods, and adds to the rawness of the lyrics.  The songs were co-written with Clifton Brown, Scott Innes, and Phil Redrow.  The Cajun Navy band consists of a stellar cast including Carol Bersas, Nelson Blanchard, Randy Carpenter, Bud Carson, Mark DuVelle Doyle, Margaret Fowler, Tammy Watts Hardy, Doug Kershaw, Lauren, Valerie, and Olivia Powell, and Jo-El Sonnier.

"How Do You Stop The Water" and "Every Friday Night" have been released to radio.  The album is available now, go get a copy and treat your ears to real country music.