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.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Hotel California" Turns 40

On this day in 1976, the iconic Eagles album "Hotel California" was released.  The followup to the band's previous four successful collections became one of their biggest sellers, over 32 million copies sold worldwide.

Much of the success of HC is centered on the title song & lead cut.  However, almost the entire album is filled with masterpieces, from their signature country rock sound to one that's more edgy, there's a reason why this resonated with so many fans and continues to this day.  In addition to the amazing guitar solos on the title track and other songs, is the core of the band's success, lyrics and stunning vocals.  At the time of HC's recording & release, the members were founders Glenn Frey (vocals, piano, keyboards, harmonica, guitars), Don Henley (vocals, drums, guitar), and Randy Meisner (vocals, bass guitar) as well as Joe Walsh (vocals, lead guitar, keyboards) and Don Felder (lead guitar).  The powerhouse songwriting duo of Frey and Henley dominates the lyrically visual songs, a continuum of their stellar compositions from previous albums.  This collection is very much a concept album like 1973's "Desperado" but HC is a study in California's night life, addiction, fame, relationships, and environmental issues.

"Hotel California" is perhaps one of the most debated songs in history, its subject matter being all over the map depending on the listener.  It opens with one of the most recognizable guitar intros in rock music but it's Henley's haunting voice that steals the show.

"New Kid In Town" is the only song Frey sings lead on here and is a beautiful study in relationships and the fleeting nature of fame.  The song is about a woman who moves on to the next "Johnny come lately," and also mirrors the music business where the next big act is always waiting to take over.  Frey's stunning vocals on the bridge drives the message home.  Written by Frey, Henley, and J.D. Souther, the song took home a Grammy in 1977 for Best Vocal Arrangement, was the first single off the album, and hit number one in February 1977.

Also a single, "Life In The Fast Lane" chronicles a couple who spiral downwards in their drug-fueled, high living lifestyle.  Walsh came up with the guitar intro, Frey and Henley wrote the lyrics around that signature riff.  Dire lyrics and emptiness abound despite the frenetic pace of the arrangement.  It feels as if the couple is driving off the cliff long before they reach it.

"Wasted Time" is a gorgeous, melancholy filled ballad, one of Henley's finest vocal moments on HC.  Another Frey and Henley composition, the lyrics are heavy with emotion, "...So you live from day to day...and you dream about tomorrow...and the hours go by like minutes...and the shadows come to you take a little something to make them go away..."

Eagles fans know the backstory to "Victim Of Love" but despite the Felder/Henley controversy on who ended up singing lead, Henley owns the song.  It's a classic, in your face snarl about a woman who's disenchanted by every relationship yet knows "how to play it so well."

"Pretty Maids All In A Row" features Joe Walsh on lead vocals and Randy Meisner's fine "Try And Love Again" round out the variety on HC leading up to the stunning finale.

The album closes with the epic, sweeping ballad "The Last Resort."  Relevant at the time of its release and even more so today, the song looks at the destruction humans have inflicted upon the Earth.  Another Frey and Henley penned gem, the song takes listeners on a journey from innocence to greed, urban sprawl, and despair, "...You call some place paradise...kiss it goodbye..."  Always excelling on ballads, Henley's vocals reach every level on this prophetic song.

"Hotel California" won the 1977 Grammy for Record Of The Year, cementing its place in rock and roll history, as well as in the hearts of millions of fans across the globe.  If music lovers are looking for "new" music to buy, start here and buy the physical copy.  The artwork on the cover and the photos inside are as fabulous as the art flowing out of the speakers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Sunset Motel" Album Review

Reckless Kelly's 9th studio album "Sunset Motel" bolts out of the gate with the rollicking "How Can You Like Him," just a hint of what's to come on the much-anticipated release.  It's been a long span between this and 2013's lovely "Long Night Moon" and it does not disappoint.

Reckless Kelly is comprised of David Abeyta on lead guitars, Cody Braun on fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, and harmony vocals, Willy Braun on lead/harmony vocals, guitars, and harmonica, Joe Miller on bass, and Jay Nazz on drums.  The collection was recorded at Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas, and brings a new warmth to RK's sound.  Perhaps it's the change in studios (RK hasn't recorded at Arlyn since their debut) or the depth of the content.  There's a quiet maturity felt in the lyrics (all penned by Willy Braun), the harmonies are perfect, and the instruments are classic clean and crisp RK.

"Radio" opens up with the singer flipping channels, most likely trying to find a station that plays good music but the song itself delves into the dark and disenchanting world known as mainstream radio.  The first line says it all in regards to the sad state of modern country music, "Come all you young lads with your trucker chain fads...and your hair just beginning to grow...Well you got a good look and that's all it took to get you booked on the next big show..."  It has a biting tone and rocking guitar riffs, driving the message home about how "artists" are made.

"Radio" segues into one of many standouts "Buckaroo," a mid-tempo modern day cowboy's lament about losing a love.  Meanwhile, the title track is a lovely yet sad ballad about the trials about addiction.  The motel is a symbol of all things bad and good that we encounter on the road of life.  The foreboding sound of the guitars sets the stage for the eerie lyrics "...Four walls to hold me...locked up inside...where the same thing that kills you is what keeps you hope for redemption, no safe place to fall...just a paradise waiting to escape from it all..."

Switching gears from the loneliness of "Sunset Motel," "The Champ is a knockout track about a relationship set to a sport and Wild West theme.  "...High noon and we're standing on Main Street...all or nothing and there's no backing second thoughts about a reputation...just clear leather and the hammer comes down..."  The song rolls along to a fabulous mandolin beat and despite the cheery sound, neither party truly comes out as a champ.  This is a true RK classic and is now a new favorite.

Other standouts include "One More One Last Time," a lush, harmonica driven ballad and "Volcano," a climate change rocker.  The latter has a big chorus and some harsh lyrics regarding the state of this very polarizing issue.  "Sad Songs About You" is an honest, raw look at a crumbled relationship and how the singer is going to cope with singing the songs the rest of his life.  "Under Lucky Stars" quietly closes out the collection, a truly romantic song not often heard from the band.

There's something to be said about the exquisite album artwork and enclosed CD booklet.  It includes a map of the USA and a special motel room key that unlocks more phrases and photos across the map.  It has a retro look, making the listener feel as if they're along for a ride back in time; which ties into the lyrics of this fine album.  Reckless Kelly has released another solid set of songs to cap off their 20th year in the business, go buy this album and let your ears enjoy the journey.

"Sunset Motel" was released on September 23 via Thirty Tigers.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Corey Nolen "Following The Song" EP Review

Corey Nolen's new EP Following The Song is a pleasant journey through relationships, the music business, and the trappings of the road.  The six- song collection flows nicely from traditional country into more Americana territory with Nolen possessing a tear in his voice that wraps around every song, filling it with heartbreak and longing.

The album kicks off with "Missing You Tonight," a mid-tempo song driven by prominent fiddle that segues into what's probably the best on the EP, the bittersweet title track.  The singer laments "....Now that the money's all gone, I guess I'm in it for love...'Cause I don't think they'll hear my voice on the radio..."  This gem is exactly what we need to hear on country radio.
"Not Fighting" is an achingly sad duet with Ashley Spurling, where, as the years go by, they question their relationship and they realize they're just going through the motions of everyday life.  "...It ain't the hurting we had...but it's a new kind of sad..."  Spurling's sweet vocals add a heavy dose of poignancy to the ballad.

Closing out the EP is "The Road," a lonely, pedal steel weeper that follows the singer on his way down the road and back to his "broken home."  "Lately waking up it's hard to know what town I'm in....Just moving at the mercy of whatever pays the bills..." ​ The backdrop of the steel makes the song feel even sadder than it is - true country music at its finest.

The Alabama native has released three other albums, including a live EP which was released earlier this year.  Following The Song will be available August 14.

Thank you to The Daily Country for allowing me to review this EP.