Home | Music Row Report | Music Reviews | Book Reviews | Paid Content | Contact

The Official Website of Stacy Harris 

Copyright © 2013
Stacy's Music Row Report  All Rights Reserved

` Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at LivePerson

Picks & Pans

With Nashville's Top Music Critic, Stacy Harris

Nathan Lee

Risk Everything

Rating ****

If you’ve a 12th & Porter regular, you’re no stranger to Nathan Lee’s music. A tattoo collector, Nathan Lee, is no longer homeless, though his personal struggles factor into the autobiographical lyrics, as well as the personal philosophy, permeating the lyrics of these 11 self-penned (or co-written) tracks. (Something to keep in mind lest you, scanning the titles of song selections, think that Still, a song Lee co-wrote with Paul Moak, is a Bill Anderson cover.)

It’s hard to classify Nathan’s music, though it is in keeping with one whose musical persona is that of “Hallmark cards & hand grenades," "rainbows & razor blades” and on and on. Lee’s vocals suggest a raspy, growling mixture best described as Rod Stewart meets Bob Seeger meets Kenny Rogers.

Nathan is clearly a thinker and one with an ability to turn a phrase. There’s a little gospel, a little Christian imagery, and a lot of introspection in these lyrics.

It’s hard to pick out any particular song that will drive this album, though the infectious, Open Road (Yes, for all his raspiness, Lee can hit a high note) is the perfect opener.

Hollis Brown

Rating *** 1/2

Bob Dylan fans know the name Hollis Brown. So do those who have followed the indy quartet for years. (Check out the group’s Running Out of Range released in 2000.)

Hollis Brown’s new self-titled CD (featuring Passin' Me By) has been heralded by both MTV and CMT. Such convergence commands respect that music critics appreciate, as should music fans, whether or not the band’s energized, hard-driving sound appeals to those beyond a certain age.

Hollis Brown is Jon Bonilla (lead guitar), Mike Montali (vocals, guitar), Mike Graves (drums) and Michael Woscyk (bass).

All 11 songs were written by Jon and Mike. Best bets (especially for those who are more CMT than MTV): Walk on Water and Carolina, Carolina

Bryan Ragsdale

Where Cowpokes Grow

Rating ***

Nothing in Bryan Ragsdale’s Luck Media bio suggests any kinship to Ray Stevens (née Harold Ray Ragsdale), so I’ll assume there is none.

Indeed, Bryan’s music is less suited to Stevens’ style than to say Michael Martin Murphy. Listeners instantly get the feeling that if Bryan didn’t cut these largely western songs first, Riders in the Sky, or singers of yesteryear ranging from Moe Bandy to Rex Allen, Jr. might have chart career resurgences.

Actually, Ragsdale has done all right for himself, building on the success of his 2007 debut album Wyoming Melodies with this CD and the debut single from it, Modern Day Mountain Man.

The single was wisely chosen since it is easily the most radio-friendly song on this 13-song CD, though I’m sure many will enjoy the title song or any number of the other recordings found here.

Looking at the list of tracks, I couldn’t help but notice #13: Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Surely, there can only be only song by that title, I thought (sometimes it’s not good that you can’t copyright a title), but how would it fare alongside the largely cowboy titles like He’s A Cowboy and A Cowboy Lives?

Actually, the musical departure suggests some versatility, as Ragsdale keeps Judy Garland’s wistfulness while changing a line or two to make his rendition truly Bryan’s song (Apologies to Brian Piccolo fans. I couldn’t resist!)


Rating **

This self-titled EP features the music of Brooklyn-based songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Nicole Schneit and her group.

Nicole is a promising songwriter- she wrote each of the five songs featured here- but as a singer I can only charitably call her a stylist.

That’s not a slam if Schneit’s music is to reviewed the same way one might critique Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson or many other songwriters who record but are not really “singers.” However, when I can hear Nicole’s lyrics over what is at times overpowering production, I’m still giving points largely to what is impressive musicianship

Nicole’s vocals sounded flat and off-key when I heard the first track Gems, which, frankly, sounded more like an assault on my ears than- well, a gem.

Thanks to shared vocals with drummer Dave Ferraro, Ryan Trott (on bass and guitar) and Chester Gwazda (the album’s producer), Lightning is a vast improvement.

The other songs here are OK, but maybe by shifting lead vocals and recording its next CD in a Nashville studio (this one was recorded in Baltimore), Airwaves will make me more of a fan.

David Nail

I'm About To Come Alive

Rating ****

This 11-song CD’s title track may not become a classic, but it is a well-written addition to music of the classic “don’t give up on me” theme of many country songs.

Indeed, it sets the mood for the following selection, one with which David Nail’s fans are already familiar, given the hit status of Red Light, again, an interesting lyrical twist on the traditional leavin’ (or, in this case, being left) country song.

Lookin’ For a Good Time is the title of a song that comes close to that of an Alan Jackson hit, but its interesting take on the realities of casual sex seems more suited to David’s ability to address the concepts of introspection and growth than to Jackson’s shy, laid back persona.

Summer Job Days sounds more like a song Kenny Chesney may have written or had on hold. (In reality, the song was written by Neil Thrasher, Dulaney and Gary LeVox.) This is especially intriguing in that Kenny co-wrote (with Scooter Carusoe), the almost equally-nostalgic Turning Home, seemingly for David who wrote about his own roots in the “Show Me” state, Missouri.

But my hands-down favorite on a CD of several good songs is one that David co-wrote with Scooter: Clouds got my attention with a brilliant lyric espousing a philosophy that many women probably haven’t considered and don’t necessarily want to hear, but this “guy’s song” lays it on the line, if you want to know “the truth.”

As with most of the other songs on this CD- and how could I resist saying so?- David’s nailed it!

Sean Walsh and the National Reserve


Rating ** 1/2

Sean Walsh & the National Reserve are a Brooklyn-based group (with members, apparently, whose number exceeds the number of fingers on both hands) that have a style all their own.

That’s not to say I fully understand their music, described as being “steeped in Americana tradition.” That’s because, even with a second listen, some of the songs seem to be overpowered by the mix.

The listener feels robbed, but not sure whom to hold responsible: Kyle “Slick” Johnson engineered and mixed Lovesick, co-producing the album with Walsh. In any event, Sean is obviously content with his choices because he’s released Lovesick on Lover’s Dream, Walsh’s own label.

I enjoyed what I could clearly hear, notably My Dizzy Head, the theme of which is suggested by its title and a rockin’ hand-clapper titled You Know.

Cathy-Anne McClintock

Rating *** 1/2

Former Tumbleweed singer/songwriter Cathy-Anne McClintock’s self-titled CD is much-anticipated by fans of the Canadian bluegrass band. McClintock’s newest ”ensemble” effort (hubby Steven produces, daughter Tessa sings harmony, as do Trisha Gagnon, Eric Uglum and Matt Borden) also features Alan Doyle and the songs of David Fertitta, Larry Wayne Clark and others.

McClintock’s inclusion of I Wanna Live Like That , a pleasant, upbeat duet (one of two, featuring Tim O’Brien) proves that Cathy-Ann continues to embrace the bluegrass sensibilities that have brought these 13-songs being marketed as folk/Americana/country to the fore.

Highlights include No Matter What (I like the wisdom and willingness to take a stand suggested in the lyrics and well as McClintock’s rendering of the song) and Strong Enough (Cathy-Anne, as protagonist, projects an artful display of crabbiness, somehow making such an emotional display an almost endearing quality.)

Hey, a song of attitude, is puzzling in that it contains the four-letter alternative to the word excrement. Unfortunately, this all but(t) guarantees either radio censorship or an edited radio version of an unnecessary diversion from lyrics that are powerful enough without evoking a reaction suggesting that, even in the 21st century, behavioral double standards still rule.

Best song found here? That would be So American, an artfully-written commentary that Bob Dylan might have written had Dylan been channeling John Mellancamp . (Indeed, how many songs can you name that conceptualize “serial monogamy” while name-checking Ben Bradlee’s better-half/Quinn Bradlee’s mom, the equally-famous-in-her-own-right, Sally Quinn and Page Six favorite, Steve Wynn?)

Tanya Tucker

My Turn

Rating *****

By now most of Tanya Tucker’s fans are aware that Tucker’s cut a dozen country standards for a record label imprint as a one-off project. They know that these covers of hits, ranging from Faron Young’s recording of Wine Me Up to Merle Haggard’s Ramblin’ Fever, are songs that Tanya believes honor the memory of her father Beau (a/k/a Bo), who loved traditional country music.

They may not know, however, that while no one twists Tucker’s arm, she had to be persuaded to go this musical direction.

When I interviewed Tanya at entertainment law attorney Jim Zumwalt’s office July 8th, Tucker told me she was six songs into a Greg Brown-produced album of new material when Pete Anderson called her “out of the blue… I asked Greg to call [Pete] back [but Greg] never did.

“So I called Pete back and I said ‘What’ve ya got?’ He told me and I still was a little hesitant because I was more into coming out with something new, but then I met with Jim Zumwalt and he put it into layman’s terms for me."

Zumwalt’s practicality impressed Tucker, ultimately winning out because Saguaro Road Records, while hardly a household name, packs the muscle of its Time-Life association in the all-important areas of marketing and distribution.

In the end, Tanya told me “ I’m so glad I made the decision to do it because working with Time-Life has been a real walk in the park. Compared to all of my other record labels put together, they have done more for me already than any of them have… They listen to suggestions… and they actually do something about them.”

Listeners are the real winners, however. While Tanya’s pairing with Jim Lauderdale on Love’s Gonna Live Here Again won’t bring back Buck Owens and Don Rich, it’s the next best thing.

Similarly, while Tanya and The Grascals are no Conway and Loretta, they bring off an entertaining yet respectful interpretation of After the Fire is Gone.Tanya and Rhonda Vincent also offer a respectful rendition of You Don’t Know Me that I think both Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold would have thoroughly enjoyed.

Even the staunchest Wynn Stewart fan will admit that Tucker and Jo-El Sonnier do justice to Big, Big Love, while Charley Pride and Ben Peters would concede that Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone remains in good hands, despite the improbable combination of Tanya Tucker and Flaco Jimenez bringing back that classic.

Wisely, Tanya does not try to mimic Lefty Frizzell in her recording of I Love You a Thousand Ways, thus averting the potential disaster inherent in all of these ”men’s songs” Tanya has either feminized or otherwise made her own.

Safe to say, comparisons to the originals are impossible and therefore pointless. This reviewer has chosen another standard by which to judge. The broad standard is entertainment value, broken down to include style, production and substance.

If you’re a fan of Tanya Tucker, and/or if the original recordings that inspired these choices hold a special place in your heart, you’ll grant Tanya’s handwritten wish, as expressed in this CD’s cover art: “I want you to love this CD!!”

John Flynn

America's Waiting

Rating ****

If Garth Brooks and Neil Diamond combined voices and wrote what used to be called protest songs and folk music, adding the story songs of Tom T. Hall, the intensity of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, or Kris Kristofferson, you might mistake their voices and pens for John Flynn’s.

The title tune of 11 self-written songs John offers for our consideration immediately strikes the listener as a train song with a twist (a bit of panoramic patriotism as viewed from a train window) Johnny Cash would die for, were he alive today.

A well-connected singer/songwriter who needs no introduction to Kristofferson, is produced by Steve Fishell and who has hired a pair of rather expensive backup singers in the form of guest appearances by Kim Carnes and Elizabeth Cook, John keeps his performances interesting as his music explores several different themes.

The Passunder (New Orleans) is a respectful reminder that Hurricane Katrina packed a wallop that continues to resonate (sometimes to unexpected effect) among those most affected and that the rest of us really can’t look away even in 2009.

The Prodigal Father strikes the listener as another lyrical standout until the final verse and chorus which leaves the listener with regret: “I thought John wasn’t going there." Taking the obvious tack in this instance can only be described as highly unoriginal, pandering songwriting.

This bit of disappointment assures me a clear favorite among Flynn’s songs. That would be Semper Fi, proving you don’t have to be a Marine to appreciate an Iraq war-era tribute to those whose experience typifies both the best and at least one of the worst aspects of military service.

Daisy Mallory

Rating *** 1/2

Daisy Mallory’s self-titled EP will inevitably invite comparisons to Taylor Swift if only because, at 16, Daisy is an amazing singer/songwriter/guitarist who has already come to the attention of Rod Essig, Henry Neuman, the folks at PLA Media and other industry types.

The five songs here provide a great introduction to a teen with a great future ahead of her. Posin’, a young woman’s assessment of a relationship’s future based on the discordant intentions of parties to it, is the obvious single here. Whether the song becomes the hit it deserves to be seems contingent upon Daisy securing a label deal (although Mallory’s myspace following and a street team associated with it could prove me wrong). However, I’ve already decided on the natural follow-up: the autobiographical Daddy’s Boots, the curly-haired redhead’s personal reminiscence, but one that will spark a similar personal early memory upon listeners’ first hearing.

Charlie Faye

Wilson St

Rating ****

Music Row has been waiting for someone of Charlie Faye’s ilk since- well, when Charley McClain stopped having hits!

Faye goes McClain one better, though: Charley’s hits were largely written by, as in the title of one of her hits, men. As a result, the lyrics to McClain’s hits were rather stylistically presumptuous, while Faye is either the co-writer or sole writer (conceding that Charlie’s co-writers are Will Sexton and background vocalist Philip Gibbs) of the 10 songs found here.

Charlie’s vocals are refreshingly clear and closer to the alto range than those of the screechy soprano sirens who often dominate the country charts. While some of the songs are bit esoteric (none of them explain the significance of the title, which is that it involves a story that takes a paragraph to explain, the upshot being that Wilson Street in Austin is Charlie’s old stomping grounds), Lady of the Leading Man has all the elements of a classic.

When I heard Jersey Pride it reminded me of My Home’s In Alabama in the sense that, while I am neither an Easterner nor a native-born Southerner, let alone from New Jersey or Alabama, you can’t hear either of these songs without feeling the pride of those who hail from those regions and wishing you were one of them.

The album’s only sour note is its cover. Charlie Faye’s talent alone sells these songs. Why in the post-feminist era of 2009 is Faye compromisingly-photographed in skin-tight attire, hands clasped behind her back, legs draped virtually spread eagle, or otherwise, around a record player?

Johnny Bulford

Livin' It Up

Rating ***

Johnny Bulford sounds like a cross between Moe Bandy and James Taylor. Johnny’s songs, with themes of growing up, being dumped and grudgingly maturing, limit the comparisons to Bandy and Taylor- both old enough to be Bulford’s father- and are winning Johnny his own following.

A Colgate Country Showdown grand prize winner, Johnny is being marketed via publicity releases that troublingly-tout his endorsement deals as readily as Bulford’s singing and songwriting. It’s all part of an unsettling scene that, at age 23, Johnny should call a halt to, lest the focus shift from what could be a promising career.

Best cuts: The title song, Remember the Brave (a timely military tribute) and The Real World (a slacker’s witty realization that, even though society respects a hard-won sheepskin, it covets a strong work ethic over, say, generation-based self-indulgence).

Tina Guo

Autumn Winds

Rating *****

Tina Guo’s music is not country, but she doesn’t consider that an insult any more than my divulging that Autumn Winds doesn’t boast any moving lyrics.

That’s because the 23-year-old producer/performer/arranger/recording artist is a classical/multi-genre electric cellist and the 10 selections found on Autumn Winds are all instrumentals spotlighting Tina’s unique artistry.

Whether interpreting the work of the masters (such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air) or introducing her own (A Song With No Words, co-written by Tina’s co-producer/engineer, Thomas “Baraka” DiCandia), Guo will make many fans with this CD.

Other notable selections here include Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (The Tragedy of) the Bumble-Bee (evoking memories of the legendary composer’s Flight of the Bumblebee) and the instantly-familiar Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Roy Rogers

Split Decision

Rating **** 1/2

As is clear from the opening bars of Calm Before the Storm, this (bluesy slide guitarist) Roy Rogers has no ambition to be the next Leonard Slye. And, in this instance, as Martha Stewart might say, that is a “good thing.”

This multi-talented Roy Rogers could probably hold his own as a singing cowboy, but the songs he sings, writes, and co-writes are more along the lines of his “commiseration” with Donna Johnston which the duo aptly title Patron Saint of Pain. (How can you not love their warning to a woman who has mortgaged her soul that she is being pushed to extremes?)

Rod Serling would surely appreciate Requiem for a Heavyweight and when the CD’s instrumentals (Your Sweet Embrace and Walkin’ the Levee) weren’t taking me to another dimension, I was enjoying Holy Ghost Moan, the album’s closer, which finds writers Rogers, Dave Gionfriddo and Steve Gordon challenging listeners to “Listen to the Holy Ghost narrate all your dreams.”

Richard Jaymes

Dollar and a Dream

Rating ***

Having previously reviewed the title single, I’m breaking a self-imposed rule and reviewing Richard’s album only because I think it’s important that fans not limit their perception of Jaymes’ capabilities, as they often do re: those whose careers are either jumpstarted or given momentum by novelty numbers.

As previously noted, Dollar… is smartly written with a timelessness that transcends the novelty category, but the single gives no hint of Jaymes’ musical range. The nine other songs here suggest that range is considerable.

Richard’s style suggests many musical influences and an ear for a lyric that is evident in these songs, all of which he has written alone or with the mysterious W. Pauley.

Whether Jaymes assumes the persona of a guy on the make (Sweet Southern Girl), a lover scorned (Four Leaf Clover), or a rebel (Never Learn), he demonstrates impressive vocal versatility and promise as a songwriter, given his approach to classic themes.

Spring Creek

Way Up on a Mountain

Rating **** 1/2

Spring Creek, a bluegrass festival favorite, formed five years ago. Most recently the quartet (Chris Elliott on banjo, Jessica Smith playing a mean upright bass, Guitarist Taylor Sims and Alex Johnstone mandolin and fiddle) caught Rebel Records' attention.

Deservedly so, since these grassers bring a special excitement to their unique sound. From trading lead and harmony vocals to surprising listeners with a couple of change-of-pace instrumentals and the musicianship of Michael Cleveland and Sandy Van Meter thrown into the mix, Spring Creek's contemporary sound signals that this ain't your daddy's bluegrass.

Of course, your daddy might disagree, particularly when he gives a thumbs up to the quartet's version of Bill Monroe's recording of In Despair.

Then again, I don't know what Baker Knight would make of Spring Creek's cover of Ricky Nelson's hit, Lonesome Town, but I thought it was great!

What would a bluegrass album be without a "little darlin'" song? Better, if you ask me. But, for those who don't ask, It's Alright My Darlin' will fill the bill.

The album's title is derived from My Love Is Way Up On A Mountain, the first of a dozen performances, many of which will have fans counting the days till the May 5th release of Way Up on a Mountain.

Wyatt Easterling

Where This River Goes

Rating ***1/2

Easterling teams with producer Celeste Krenz to make music that teams intelligent lyrics and streams-of-consciousness thought-patterns with complimentary melodies. The amalgam is often pure poetry of the Americana or what used to be called folk-country variety.

With a little help from Jessi Colter (billed here as Jessi Colter Jennings), Sonny LeMaire, John Scott Sherrill and others, Wyatt draws on lyrical and/or vocal support and inspiration for nine of these 10 songs that Easterling either wrote or cowrote. The strongest of these are the title song, Modern Day Drifter and Fireflies and Whippoorwills.

Wyatt's cover of Tony Joe White's classic, Rainy Night in Georgia, isn't bad, either!

Carolyn Currie

Waves of Silence

Rating ** 1/2

Not to be confused with Andres Condon's 2004 CD, Carolyn Currie's Waves of Silence may be best termed Maine's answer to Nanci Griffith at her ethereal best.

That is to say, Carolyn's distinctive voice and what I would call "insistent lyrics"- lines that demand your rapt attention, lest the meaning be totally lost on you- demand an emotional investment that a distracted, hook, or melody-oriented listener may be unable and/or unwilling to make.

Even if a listener is intent on making that investment, there should be gratitude for the lyric sheet packaged with the CD, since what is at times overpowering production distracts where it should assist in conveying what, in some cases, turn out to be some very powerful, if simple messages.

Carolyn fuses poetry with inspiration that is sometimes populist in nature, but other times maddeningly exclusionary, due to what seems to be an esoteric creativity that for listeners is akin to wanting to be privy to what sounds like it might be a good story.

The first half dozen of the 11 songs found here I could easily do without. The lyrics seemed like they might be compelling, but again, all I could make out was snatches. (A subsequent read of the lyrics showed a talent for writing songs- Carolyn wrote all 11- but nothing really new in the messages of these first six.)

Thank goodness reviewers don't listen to an opening line(s) and then toss the CD. Cut seven (Kaleidoscope) either had me listening more intently (if that was possible) or I was beginning to get it. The imagery was all that I might hope for from a song with such a title.

Rolling Thunder spotlights production techniques to best advantage though the title is more metaphor than the message of a song best appreciated by Vietnam vets.

The World Is Flat and Hot for a House are easily the most "fun" songs found on Waves of Silence, with the latter, a bit of jocularity in these recessionary times, being the most commercial of selections if one is searching to find a track that is "radio-friendly."

Megan Munroe

One More Broken String

Rating ****

I don't know if Megan will be flattered or insulted, but Munroe strikes me as a new artist in the Miranda Lambert (musical) tradition. The jury is out as to whether I am alone or not in that perception (Megan's debut CD is set for a February 10th release), so let's add to the confusion by adding Gretchen Wilson and Carrie Underwood to the comparative mix.

The result is country's emerging mainstream: the intelligent, sometimes marginalized, young, edgy, white woman whose rough edges are softened with a touch of humor and an appealing self-confidence.

One More Broken String (the title is taken from the lyrics of Pennies in the Ocean, one of the CD's 12 tracks) accentuates the singer's pensive side, while Moonshine, Megan's debut single, showcases the singer's vocal range and no-nonsense persona in a radio-friendly fashion.

Just about every song found here is worthy of your attention, albeit for different reasons. Angel on My Shoulder (Devil on my Back) begs the (rhetorical) question, How many other instances can you name of a song with lyrics that reference both the word "hell" as an expletive and "Jesus" as- well- taking the name of many listeners' Lord other than in vain?

The lyrics of Belle Meade, another intriguing song title, must not refer to the snooty, upscale area within walking distance of my Nashville home. If they do, Munroe has some 'splainin' to do.

While most of the songs here are, as indicated, listener-worthy, the singer/songwriter can be most proud of Leavin' Memphis. If the story-song is not Megan's next single, the powers-that-be are passing up, given the competitive nature of the music business and its small window of opportunity for newbies, potentially-crucial career cement.

Ryan Delmore

The Spirit, The Water, and The Blood

Rating ***

No less an authority than the Jordanaires' Ray Walker spanked me (figuratively speaking, and therefore probably deservedly), then lectured me (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration), when, during a fairly-recent phone conversation, I used the terms "Christian" and "gospel" music interchangeably. (Shhhh... Don't tell Ray I wrote promotional material, some years ago, for Ron Cornelius.)

I thought of that conversation when reading the promotional material accompanying singer/songwriter Ryan Delmore's debut album. Lotos Nile Media's single-spaced, six-paragraph introduction to Delmore and his music calls this 11-song CD "a unique collection of gospel music" equally-suited for "AAA or American radio" in one sentence, adding in the next "This record eludes consumer classification."

So is this Christian music? The title, taken from the English translation of 1 John 5:7-8, is the best evidence to support that idea, should one want to advance it in the absence of the apparently-polarizing "Christian" designation anywhere in promotional materials that state The Spirit should be exempt from the record business retail rules of genre distinction.

I'm not sure that an artist can sing and write lyrics that embrace a philosophy (such as that suggested in the title and Bible verse) and distance himself from the singular, my way or the highway message by delivering his "intimate" love songs with a familiar roots twang."

Interesting cuts: Sacred, The World Can't Take it Away and Love of God.

To the extent that a partisan can shoot for ecumenism, I think "raggedy-voiced" Ryan has has the best chance of reaching the "varied and adventurous" mass appeal audience, in a way not possible by say, The Delmore Brothers, if his label, Varietal Records, expends its energy promoting my favorite among Delmore's less-divisive cuts, the prayerful Provide for Me.

Thompson Ward

Porch Funk

Rating *** 1/2

Having had the good fortune to meet and hear Steve Thompson and his partner, Bonepony founding member Bryan Ward, for the first time at a Printer's Alley showcase, I wondered how the music of this most visual of duos fronting a high energy Band would translate to CD.

I needn't have worried. Just as hearing a CD for the first time and having not seen the video gives you a whole different take on the lyrics and performance, which is not necessarily better or worse, the Porch Funk CD is just a different listening experience.

"Different," as in unique or original, is a categorization that seems to crop up with some regularity in any description of Thompson Ward's various modes of performance. Porch Funk is not only a catchy album title (there is no title song of the same name to be found here), it is an apt, albeit somewhat contradictory, description for a genre the band has made all of its own.

Steve, Bryan and the band have mastered the art of staying close to the original while also rendering a unique performance of the former. Similarly substituting a stylistically original take on the latter- same lyrics, melody, but different interpretation- they makes up for the performance's lacking of the hallmarks of Jerry Reed's recording: humor, showmanship and intensity.

I heard 10 of the 16 selections here at the aforementioned showcase, including a couple of familiar hits of yesteryear: a cover of David Bellamy and Jim Stafford's Spiders and Snakes (Thompson Ward's take on The Bellamy Brothers hit will be released in January) and Jerry Reed's Amos Moses .

These could easily be radio hits again. Neal Spielberg proclaims them to be "two of my favorite covers" and they certainly help to bridge a gap in musical tastes among listeners; an otherwise mostly-generational chasm that allows some to appreciate, and others to wonder, what to make of what is often a fusion of heavy metal with Mississippi swamp music.

The other selections for this album, that was three years in the making, may not be quite as radio-friendly, though, as indicated, mainstream country radio airplay doesn't seem to be the band's primary goal.

Bryan and Steve have had a hand in writing most of the songs found here. One gets the feeling they and their biggest fans are most partial to a couple of songs with political themes: Difficult Times and Stank.

I'm still wondering if Mother's Work Song is meant to be tongue-in-cheek as I ponder the significance/inclusion of the recitation titled Buddy Love's Testimony.

Jesse Goplen


Rating **1/2

If, unlike a book, you can judge an artist by his (album) cover (art), Jesse Goplen is the most baby-faced Cowboy I've ever seen. (Flip the cover open and a second photo reveals Jesse in shades. The look remains less than menacing, but the still unsmiling shaded Goplen seems to have instantly shed some of his youthful visage.)

These may be silly observations, but, hey, Jesse's thumbprint is on every other aspect of this CD (except perhaps the album photography and small vinyl design within the package. They come courtesy of Kyana Taillon, Goplen's gal pal and the mother of his two children.) As the liner on this 9-track set reads, "All songs written, performed, recorded and produced by Jesse Goplen at his studio in Humboldt County, California. Guitar and vocals were recorded simultaneously with no overdubs or additional tracks."

I get the "blues and punk aesthetic" of a singer whose sound affirms his "aspirations to change American's drug laws." But, to my ears, the title track (a not-so-thinly-veiled tribute to Willie Nelson) is the only song that would incline me to pay the often-brooding Goplen any attention. The other songs aren't bad, they're just nothing special. The last three of these (Highway 101- no, not another tribute song, to an erstwhile country-music group, anyway- Freedom's Twilight and Blind Morning Light are all radio edits, begging the question of whether the new listener- in this case, that would be me- is missing something that might be more evident with a complete hearing. (Major remixes of performances, in the name of radio friendliness, label economy, or whatever, shortchange the befuddled listener who wonders if something other than, say, the absence of profanity, is limiting the listening experience.)

Colleen McFarland
Let It Shine

Rating **

If you believe Colleen, Rose Katherine McAtee McFarland is "the wisest, kindest, and strongest woman I have ever known." Small wonder that Colleen, the youngest of Rose's nine children, dedicates her fourth album (McFarland's first release on High Horse Records) to her mom, adding "Thanks for making me number 9." (Hence, it wasn't a love potion that inspired Colleen to name her ASCAP-licensed music publishing company 9th Child Publishing.

I hope Rose likes the album. I won't say it's one only a mother could love, but Colleen has an unusual voice and I'm too intimidated- by everything from the title of the CD to the McFarlands' obvious close ties- to pan it.

For a stylist's vocals- a stylist being one whose greatest defies imitation, or simply a singer who can't sing- will enthrall some, irritate others. This is perhaps to say that an Andy Williams fan shouldn't be critiquing Bob Dylan's vocals.

In any event, personal taste will be a factor in anyone's evaluation of Colleen's work. If she argued that Let It Shine follows popular acceptance of her style during three previous outings, who could argue with her?

Colleen wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, including the title track, on this CD, so I want to give her credit for several well-written compositions. And, for all of its seductive frivolity, I did like Sweet Surprise.

Still, the only other song on the album that intrigued me was a possibly Dylan-inspired Suicide Road. That song combines a plea for reason with an air of resignation; a combination not generally found in musical themes that typically depict suicide as either a glorified choice or in a soul-condemning fashion.

No surprise then that it's not Suicide Road, but rather Down This Road (along with the title track, London and I Do) that Colleen's label is pushing for "marketing and promotional" purposes.

The Youngers


Rating ****1/2

It's hard to say what makes The Youngers' second CD all come together. Read the lyric sheets and you won't find much out of the ordinary, but this trio sure has the musicianship and the band sound down!

The songs are a strange amalgam best appreciated by the album' producer, John Carter Cash. (Cash has done a little stretching of his own, going from producing "Mom"'s albums to this Pennsylvania-based roots-rock band's CD. That's John Carter's wife, Laura on fiddle, who, along with Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, adds a bluegrass touch to The Youngers' own vocals, drums and percussion as well as the traditional tones of Ralph Mooney's pedal steel.)

The opener, Heartbreaker will resonate with anyone on either side of the perennial ledger, while the title song is a timeless tip of the hat to the American laborer, soldier, or patriot of any stripe who wonders if anyone in Washington, D.C. knows what it's like these days just to try to keep your head above water.

The Youngers (Todd Bartolo, Randy Krater, Justin Schaefer and former group member Jesse Nocera on guitar) focus on traditional country-music themes (drifters, truckers, freighters, drunkards, gamblers, the misunderstood and unappreciated), adding a bit of esoteric wistfulness as a change-of-pace.

Todd wrote 11 of the 13 songs. The other two, including my favorite, Our Little Secret, were written by Randy.

Barry & Holly Tashian

Long Story Short

Rating ****1/2

The Tashians' seventh album is a compilation of various musical styles: bluegrass, country, swing, rockabilly- you name it, most of it is here.

Barry and Holly wrote, or cowrote, all but three of the 11 songs on this live, studio album recorded in August, 2008. They even had a hand in the packaging: How can you not love a "green" couple who address the envelope and inserts in the liner? It reads: In an effort to reduce plastic waste, this album is being furnished without a jewel case in hopes that [record-buyers] will furnish their own. If your CD arrives damaged, please let us know and we will replace it promptly." (Contact information provided.)

I like the humor of the title song, which removes it from the realm of the standard issue "I got dumped" song. We Don't Give Up On Love spills the secret to fidelity while Holly shines on her musical explanation of why Worry Doesn't Worry Me.

Barry is center stage with Honey, Where's the Money Gone.

Holly and Barry bring a folk sensibility to their work and a sound that is much appreciated by those of us who value the simplicity of true talent over the bells and whistles others rely on to hide a lack of talent.

Listeners won't ask if the Tashians omitted lyric sheets for environmental (or any other) reasons since, thanks to the clarity of their voices, there's no need for such "packaging materials."

You won't go wrong with this one.

Reba McEntire

50 Greatest Hits

Rating *****

To hear Reba McEntire tell it, as she does in the liner she wrote for this box set, the significance of the 50 "greatest hits" chosen for this project is a tie-in with McEntire's having "embraced turning 50." (Good for her! Reba turns 54 March 29th )

I once heard (from Reba herself or someone quoting her- it's been so long ago I don't remember which) that You Lift Me Up (To Heaven) was one of McEntire's favorites of the songs she recorded. That thought prepared me for the worst, as I couldn't stand the song when Reba popularized it and was in no mood to endure it again.

Fortunately, that is the only "hit" song McEntire seems to have omitted from this collection, spanning what Reba regards are her best years, in the chronological passage from the opening cut on Disc One of Three (How Blue, released September 24, 1984) to the final cut on the third disc (Because of You, McEntire's duet with Kelly Clarkson, released June 2, 2007).

Listening to these hits all over again, I was struck by the constant themes of heartbreak, infidelity and restlessness. But Reba has used the power that comes with a sustained career to branch out with songs with socially-important, transcending themes ranging from those found in Is There Life Out There (a lyric greatly enhanced by the message of its video) to She Thinks His Name Was John.

Reba's range also extends from an appreciation of the standards (Sunday Kind of Love) to the reworking of another classic (Cathy's Clown).

This box set is a "must" for Reba's fans and comes highly recommended for anyone who appreciates the country music of the last few decades.

Charlie Craig

The Hitmaker

Rating ****

Though he's best-known as a hit songwriter and, to a lesser extent, a producer, record promoter and A & R executive, you can't listen to this CD and believe anything other than that if anyone was born to sing country music it was Charlie Craig.

Craig's voice has a traditional quality, buoyed by the luxury of his having had a hand in the writing of each of these 10 songs.

Beginning with I Wish I Had You Back Again, Charlie gets the listener's attention, sustaining that interest, and perhaps evoking a listener's identification, with the theme of that song or yet another mournful saga of relationship regret, Blowing Smoke In My Eyes.

Charlie's version of Wanted figuratively draws in the listener as a fly on the wall who can deduce a scenario of how Craig and Alan Jackson had a meeting of the minds in writing that song.

Those who remember Moe Bandy's Following the Feeling get a chance to hear the song as interpreted by the man who wrote it. And while Travis Tritt fans can't imagine there could be another version of Between An Old Memory and Me, once again Charlie gives you an idea of what it was like when the song came together for him and co-writer Keith Stegall.

Gospel music fans familiar with Porter Wagoner's recording of Frog for the Water won't be disappointed with Charlie's rendering of the song Craig wrote with Paul Bogart.

I'm not the biggest trucking song fan, but Charlie has perfected a change-of-pace with Lay Me Down A Truck Driving Man.

And who can resist Charlie's comedic turn on I Married Your Sister? Certainly not me. It may even be the highlight of this musical project.

Billy Currington

Little Bit of Everything

Rating *** 1/2

Billy has come back from the depths of despair with a very commercial album. Currington could not be in better form and this bodes well for his future releases.

In fact, Billy is held back only by his choice of songs. This is unfortunately a big "only" because mediocre lyrics are a big deal to this reviewer. Again, the songs are commercial, but in the worst sense of the word.

For while country radio might thrive on playing it safe, its listeners are not yearning for songs that sound like rewrites of songs Eddie Raven and Kenny Chesney have already recorded. Rather, this was Currington's opportunity to expand in song on much of what he's had to say in recent interviews.

It's easy to see why this album's opener, Bret Beavers' and Jim Beavers' Swimmin' in Sunshine got Currington's attention. And Billy sings the heck out it. But instead of encouraging the Beavers' to write an extra verse that would have given the song a purpose beyond lapsing into what sounds like a Bellamy Brothers retread, an additional verse and fade out have been replaced by an inexplicable, extended chorus of "la da da da da da da" that listeners haven't been subjected to since the Beatles recorded Hey Jude.

I Shall Return, which Billy co-wrote with Bob DiPiero and Scotty Emerick, has me longing for nothing more than the resurrection of General Douglas MacArthur, since Jerry Fuller had this theme covered when he wrote Ricky Nelson's recording of Travelin' Man, a decade and one-half before Currington was born.

By the time Billy redeems himself with Heal Me, penned by Bonnie Swayze and Tony Stampley, listeners have heard the last of 11 songs that should have been equally arresting.

I guess that's one way to exit with the crowd wanting more, but there could be a little resentment from those who regret it when they unknowingly buy an album with only one song they consider justifying the purchase.

Janet McGarry

Just Passing Thru

Rating ****

Entertaining fans with 14 songs, Janet is hardly "just passing thru." But listeners will definitely not be through with McGarry after being treated to some of her favorite numbers. (Janet's self-penned liner lists the name, writer/writers and publisher/publishers of each song along with McGarry's reason for recording it.)

Harkening back to A.P. Carter (Hold Fast to the Right) and Woody Guthrie (Forsaken Lover), Janet doesn't miss a step, with selections from the time of The Delmore Brothers (Some of These Days [You're Gonna Be Sad]) to the present day (check out Janet's version of Emmylou Harris-Paul Kennerley's Heartbreak Hill).

Listeners will also enjoy McGarry's interpretation of Felice & Boudleaux Bryant's Change of Heart and Carl Story and R. L. Blanchard's co-write, Who's that Gal (I Saw You With).

But we all have our favorites and mine would be Janet's performances of Mel Foree's All the World is Lonely Now and Louisa Branscomb's Wildflowers on the Hill.

Common Strings

The Rain Came Down

Rating ****

This multi-talented quartet (Vanessa Nichols, Darron Nichols, Blake McDaniel and Ethan Walker), with an assist from Wyatt Rice on guitar, has learned the secret to producing an entertaining CD: Spotlight each member of the group.

Too often groups feature a lead singer surrounded by, the inference is, nearly extraneous satellite personalities. Not so here: The songs of this eclectic mix flow from the pens, vocals and harmony vocals of the Nichols' and McDaniel. As each trades the role of predominant voice on these (total of) 11 unique selections, the Nichols' add their guitar work to McDaniel's lead guitar, while Darron and Blake are featured on mandolin.

Add to this musicianship Blake's banjo and dobro, Darron alternating with Ethan on bass. while Walker adds his distinctive three-finger guitar to the project produced by Rice and the Nichols'. (Credit Rice also for engineering and the mix.)

Attention appears to be directed toward the title song, for good reason, but I also like Midnight Georgia Freight Train and Back to the Point. Two instrumentals Changing of the Guard and Chadwell Hollow captured my attention. Daddy, I Love You addresses death as experienced by a five-year-old while Picket Fences (First Movement) creates the perfect blend of vocals, mood and instrumentation with which to close the album.

Rural Rhythm Records Class of 2008

Rating ****

This is another compilation sampler I found in my 2008 World of Bluegrass goody bag.

Among the 13 recordings, culled from individual albums by the groups and solo artists featured, are selections ranging from The Lonesome River Band's Long Way from Here to Jim Van Cleeve's nod to Bill Monroe, The Road from Rosine (the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2007 IBMA Award Show theme).

If your taste in bluegrass music is like mine, your favorite cuts will be Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain's Second Chances, Mountain Heart's It Works Both Ways and The Crowe Brothers' Holdin' On When You've Let Go.

April Verch

Steal the Blue

Rating **** 1/2

April Verch is the total package: a triple-threat singer, songwriter and fiddler.

Steal the Blue provides a dozen examples of bluegrass bliss, complete with occasional assists from Randy Kohrs, Sam Bush and Travis Book.

Best vocal tracks are Slip Away (with a message best appreciated by those who have figured out how to live in the present), You Hurt Me All Over Again and He's Holding on to Me.

April's fiddling finesse highlights the instrumental selections My Friend Craig, Fork Creek River and Independence.

Some People may not be the song LeAnn Rimes, Kenny Chesney and Cliff Richard fans expect to hear, but this different song with the same title may appeal to them anyway.

The lyrically-quirky I Might Have One Too should be singled out for special merit, along with the clog-danceable Reels Tadoussac Et Lindbergh.

Debra Lyn

I Can't Remember To Forget You

Rating *****

It's always exciting to encounter an independent artist who seems to be one elusive hit album away from being a major act. Debra Lyn is one such artist.

Major label signings usually come with strings attached: "We'll offer you a contract only if you first agree to ditch your manager, your producer, etc."

Such concessions, at best problematic, would destroy the heart and soul of Debra Lyn's music should she even be tempted to consider making them. For the singer's husband, Jeff Silverman, produced, mixed and mastered these 11 cuts, any one of which would be enough to garner the majors' attention, thanks to the "marriage" of Debra Lyn's winning performances and Silverman's production.

Beginning with a bit of fun in the form of I Don't Want A Man (Who Looks Better Than Me) (co-written by the Debra Lyn and Jeff), listeners get a sense of the singer's originality. I Know and the title song sustain interest while Sound of the Door is somewhat reminiscent, if not particularly evocative, of George Jones' hit recording of Billy Sherrill and Norro Wilson's The Door.

Similarly, Debra Lyn's recording of When He Cheats tells a tale that reminds listeners of Carrie Underwood's hit, Before He Cheats. That said, Debra and Jeff's song was not written nor rendered in a manner that impinges on the Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear copyright.

With the proper exposure, Save the Mistletoe for Me could be a perennial Christmas hit.

James and Me is esoteric, in a way that is a departure from the nine other original songs found here. But anyone who wonders why Debra Lynn covered the Harry Chapin classic, Cats in the Cradle- which could have been a dangerous move- will wonder no more upon hearing a version that is a cut above, say Cat Stevens' version. That's because Debra Lynn provides a slight-but-refreshing lyrical twist to the Harry and Sandy Chapin original, similar to what listeners might have expected had Sandy had the hit on a song inspired by Sandy's unhappy marriage to her first husband.

Debra Lyn definitely has what it takes to take Music Row by storm, as she will surely do if she follows the example of just being herself; an example for which she has no further to look than her Mount Juliet neighbor, Charlie Daniels.

Digital downloads are available at debralynn.com and cdbaby.com.

World of Bluegrass Showcase Artist Compilation

Rating ****

This CD features a dozen performances by an equal number of showcase acts featured at the 2008 World of Bluegrass Business Conference. While most of these performances are entertaining, highlights include Donna Ulisse's I'm Calling Heaven Down, Sawmill Road's bluegrass cover of The Everly Brothers'/Linda Ronstadt's When Will I Be Loved, Balsam Range's Burning Georgia Down, and Valerie Smith & Becky Butler's aptly-named Life is Not a Guarantee.

IBMA 2008 Rounder Records Sampler

Rating ****

If you frequented the Exhibit Hall during the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2008 World of Bluegrass Convention you may have received a copy of the IBMA 2008 Rounder Records Sampler, courtesy of a Rounder representative who was distributing them there.

This collection of 22 full-length performances by an even larger number of solo artists, duos and groups underscores a considerable diversity within the bluegrass genre. Whether one is arguing with the theology of James King's It's Hot Down Here, or seemingly finding both intellectual and emotional consensus with Blue Highway's Two Soldiers, there's a little something here for every bluegrass fan as well as potential converts.

Eddie Rabbitt fans will enjoy Bobby Osborne's cover of Eddie's Drivin' My Life Away, retitled Living My Life Away. Other treats included Rhonda Vincent's Who's Cryin' Baby, Newfound Round's Try to Be, Alecia Nugent's Cryin' All the Way to the Bank, Tony Rice's Never Meant to Be (a song that justice demands be as much of a standard as Fox on the Run), a Tony Trischka instrumental (Bloozinee) and the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss duet, Living My Life Away.

Palmer Divide

Radio Singles

Rating ****

This nine-song compilation is not Palmer Divide's first recording, but were it not for IBMA slipping this CD into 2008 World of Bluegrass goody bag, I'm embarrassed to say I'd still be unfamiliar with the Colorado quartet.

Embarrassed, because JODY ADAMS, DICK CARLSON, GREG REED and MICKEY STINNETT are well-known to Bluegrass Unlimited and Bluegrass Now readers as well as bluegrass festival fans and XM radio's Bluegrass Junction listeners.

It's about time I became aware of this group's talent, particularly Adams' ability as a lyricist. Jody wrote all of the songs on this CD except for The Legend of Baby Doe, which Mickey wrote.

Somebody Keeps Playin' My Fiddle will tug at listeners' heart strings, but my favorite cuts are Dress Rehearsal (reminding us of the brevity of life) and The Silence Says It All (an axiom familiar to anyone who has ever been dumped).

Eduard Glumov


Rating ***

Unlike SASHA BARON COHEN, Glumov really does hail from Kazakhstan. Listeners to this four-song sampler will only deduce from his accent that Eduardo "ain't from around here."

Ominously opening with I'm Not Your Friend, Glumov mesmerizes drawing in the listener (with props that must be shared with musicians Mike Johnson, Jim Hoke, Steve Stokes and Jeff Silverman).

The title song speaks to a particular kind of homesickness known only to an aging, ambitious apartment-dweller trying to survive in an industry city (like Lalaland) that can literally "can make or break you."

Invisible conjures an image of a restless square peg vainly trying to fit in a round hole, while trying to attain a little inner peace of mind along the way.

Bus Stop, not to be confused with The Hollies' 1966 hit, is a song about priorities and the virtues of striving for patience as one yearns to attain freedom.

Timothy Craig

You Got It

Rating *** 1/2

I'm more used to books that I can't put down than CDs that grab my "undivided," as Paul Harvey calls it, from the get-go, but Timothy Craig's You Got It had me hooked from the first bars of the opening, title song.

No, Craig hasn't covered Roy Orbison's classic, though the lyrics of Timothy's debut single, which he cowrote with Billy Falcon, suggest the same desire to please. What woman wouldn't fall for a guy who is willing to forgo football to view a movie with his beloved or to join her as she shops at Target?

Timothy's energy, coupled with his cookin' musicians, compels a listener to keep listening to this highly original talent.

Unfortunately, there's an unevenness to the quality of the songs. This is accentuated by Craig's initially setting a pretty high bar. (Why kill the momentum with a song referencing an ipod and ear buds? Such lyrical devices are common among commercial songwriters, as in the Target reference, but it makes She's All About The Beat seem contrived. I suppose you could argue that about You Got It, were it not for the charm factor there that is missing on She's All About The Beat.)

Still, Tell Me Where It Hurts is radio-friendly (and I'll only cry "product placement" if I see Tell Me... as background music for a TV ad hocking bandages) as is Real Big Love. Groupie Love Song starts out interestingly, but it fizzles. (A minor rewrite and this one could have been a hit!)

Concluding with One Small Miracle, the unspoken hope is that Timothy, who wrote or cowrote every song on this CD, follow his muse. With a little luck and experience, he'll be able to build on the promise of his debut album, cut through the clutter and otherwise maintain the buzz with his next CD.

I know I'll be looking forward to hearing more from him.

The Band of Heathens

Rating **** 1/2

If you didn't know that Ray Wylie Hubbard produced this eclectic, self-titled CD you'd listen to it thinking "This sounds like a Ray Wylie Hubbard production."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might say. For Hubbard seems to bring out the best of the Band of Heathens, rather than upstage and overpower the quintet with ill-fitting musical direction or distract with the vocals and slide guitar assist Hubbard gives the Band on its evocative rendition of Cornbread..

The result is a strong Austin vibe (These songs were recorded at The Zone in Dripping Springs, Texas) with an occasional nod to other cultural influences; including Maple Tears, a song perhaps best appreciated by our neighbors to the North and Patty Griffin fans. (Patty also contributes vocals on Second Line and 40 Days.)

Gurf Morlix and Stephen Bruton appear as guest musicians on Second Line (Morlix on pump organ, Bruton on mandolin) while Steve's mandolin is also heard on Jackson Station..

Heart on my Sleeve is a bit of interesting lyrical wordplay- as is, in its own (different) way, Hallelujah, a title absent an exclamation point as if to silently underscore that the 11th and final song rounding out this package is not a proclamation of faith in anything other than the glory of the open road; a
"saving grace" for any broken-hearted traveler for whom "home is not a place."

Celeste Krenz

My mother and me

Rating ****

As the title suggests, Celeste dedicates this 12-songs CD to "my Mother, Jean Krenz."

As Celeste's liner notes (no pun intended), "When my mother suggested that we finish writing some songs that she had started years ago, within about five days we had finished what would come to be the core of this CD. On a whim we went into the studio just to document the songs, and I ended up loving them so much that I decided to finish the project and release it as my new album."

The result (Early, Where the River Goes,) is often pure poetry, evocative imagery or both.

While Little Things is neither, nor a cover of the Bobby Goldsboro classic, it shows yet another side of Celeste whose protagonist finds satisfaction in the things we often take for granted but that matter most.

Cry is not a Johnnie Ray cover, but it too, is a breakup song Krenz's fans will appreciate.

You Can't Love Me From Over There is a flirty invitation that sounds like something Mary Chapin Carpenter might want to "borrow" for her next CD.

Johnny Cash Remixed

Rating ****

As its title indicates, Johnny Cash Remixed is a posthumous, contemporary dance music tribute to the Man in Black.

While these 13 remixes are rendered by the likes of DirtyPop artist Kennedy (Sugartime), Hip-Hop's Pete Rock (Folsom Prison Blues) and other decidedly non-country acts, unlike most tribute compilations featuring country artists, this one does include (remixed) samples of the original performances.

That is to say, given the creative arrangements, for better-or-worse, Johnny Cash's fingerprint is on all of these songs, though his electronically-altered vocals are featured predominately on some cuts and sparingly on others.

While Johnny's mainstream fans may find this tinkering blasphemous, Cash's proclivity toward the innovative, coupled with Snoop Dogg's and Matthew Knowles' credits as executive producers of the remix being shared with John Carter Cash, suggests Johnny would give a thumbs up to a collection with his son's imprimatur.

Snoop Dogg, in fact, opens this CD. He is featured on the ODT music remix of I Walk the Line.

Like any proud Minnesotan, I'm partial to Philip Steir's remix of Get Rhythm, though my rockabilly shoes are taken with Troublemaker's remix of Straight A's in Love.

My favorite: Alabama 3's remix of Leave that Junk Alone. I can't get it out of my head!

Mel Street

20 Super Hits

Rating ** 1/2

This CD's liner notes indicate that, in 1972, when Royal American Records released Borrowed Angel, a song Street wrote and recorded, the single "became his first of 23 hit songs over the next nine years.  Sadly, a number of those hits were posthumous."

This should be no excuse for the hype inherent in the titling of this collection. Not only is Borrowed Angel missing, ALL of Mel's "cheatin'" hits are missing! (My definition of a Street hit is one that, as the original artist, Mel recorded and the trades recognized as a chart-topper.)

Instead the "super hits" comprising this Gusto reissue are mainly covers of recordings popularized by other artists: I Really Don't Want to Know, Guitar Man, Walk on By, Pass Me By and Loving You Could Never Be Better, to name a few examples.

Other selections, such as I Can't Dance, a Tom T. Hall album cut, were never hits.

There are many theories as to why Mel committed suicide on his 45th birthday rather than, say, celebrate the occasion that coincided with his scheduled participation in the Grand Ole Opry birthday celebration. It brings to mind the joke about a country song titled I Can't Decide Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling.

At any rate, perhaps Mel foresaw that his musical legacy would be as Gusto suggests, rather than the string of cheatin' songs that gave Street his niche in country-music history.

On the other hand, if Mel was depressed about being musically-typed, these selections showcase the originality of his vocals in a way that honors his memory as it underscores his versatility.

Porter Wagoner Duets

Rating *** 1/2

These sides feature The Thin Man from West Plains harmonizing with Pam Gadd and Penny DeHaven, but there's no question which duet partner Gusto is promoting. For it's not Pam nor Penny who is photographed alongside Porter with Wagoner's arm around her.

But, while you might not be crazy about that if you are Pam, Penny or one of their fans, you realize that Gusto knows that a photo of Porter with Dolly Parton is the logical one to move these units, marketed as they are with the advisory that this CD "includes Porter & dolly's last recording together."

While Norma Jean is nowhere to be heard in this collection (let alone seen), Pam Gadd partners with Porter on 9 of the 12 cuts! (I guess that means if I were Pam I'd feel especially insulted by Gusto's reliance on Dolly to call attention to this collection.)

Pam and Porter are featured on the remake of Carl & Pearl Butler's Don't Let Me Cross Over and When I Lay My Burdens Down as well as several perhaps lesser-known collaborations, including Workin' On A Building and Old Country Church.

Penny and Porter are heard on the gospel chestnut Walk That Lonesome Valley and We Don't Want the World.

Dolly and Porter contribute the opening number, a song well-remembered by their fans, You're Drifting Too Far From the Shore.

Would this compilation be packaged and released as is if Porter Wagoner had not passed in the year prior to its release? As the folks at the Fox News Channel say, "We report. You decide."

Grandpa Jones

Mountain Dew

Rating *** 1/2

Don't confuse this Gusto Records reissue with a similarly titled collection of Grandpa Jones favorites.

This 10-song set includes Louis Innis' backliner notes as they appeared on the original Mountain Dew LP.

I would suspect just about anyone reading this review is familiar with the title song and anyone who loves Grandpa's banjo music will enjoy this CD. That said, this collection will be most appreciated by those who long for music of that earlier era. Titles of selections ranging from My Darling's Not My Darling Anymore to Chicken Don't Roost Too High tell it all.

Jones' music is often synonymous with novelty and songs such as My Little Nagging Wife, a ditty about a disgruntled city dweller suggest why. Longing to return to his rural roots, the protagonist offers to expedite the sale of his city home and return to the country, by throwing in his nagging wife as a deal-sealing incentive!

The funniest song here is I Don't Know Gee from Haw, about a self-described "dumb" guy who wishes he had "more" (formal) education." It would make a great theme song for a GED PSA campaign.


Old Time Banjo Pickin' & Singin'

Rating ****

Gusto Records has just reissued this collection featuring "The Kentucky Wonder and his Five String Banjo" pickin' out the late Grand Ole Opry and Hee-Haw star's "14 most requested songs."

The collection is an educational volume for those of us whose frame of reference for David "Stringbean" Akeman is limited to the Opry and Hee-Haw. Even though I was the last person to interview Stringbean and one of the last people to see him alive, this CD gave me a new appreciation for his pre-Hee-Haw recordings.

Gusto includes Don Pierce's backliner notes as they appeared on the original LP recording. This only adds to the historical significance of this project. However, lest any newbie-fan conclude from Pierce's use of the present tense that Stringbean lives in anything but our hearts, an understated disclaimer is also found here: "Since the original album was released, David Akeman (Stringbean) passed away on November 10, 1973."

There's an additional reason for this juxtaposition and it relates to the lyrical content of a few of the songs. The foreboding sounds of Wake Up Little Betty had one meaning for those who heard String's recording when it was first released. But in light of the grisly double murders of Akeman and his wife, Estelle, lyrical references to a gun, Betty having "a pistol in her hand" and digging a "hole in the cold, cold ground," suggest an eery, posthumous irony, as does String's recording of Birdie with its reminder that life offers a "short time" to live and a  "long time to be gone."

Most of these songs are just plain fun (putting aside present-day sensitivities about sexism, misogyny and other societal ills). Who else but Akeman could pull off a recording of Stringbean and His Banjo without the slightest trace of self-indulgence? 20 Cent Cotton & 90 Cent Meat suggests that the pain of economic inflation is timeless.

Give Me Back My Five Dollars refers to the cost of a marriage license, as it warns single men not to marry, terming marriage as a bunch of "bologna" and mothers-in-law unnecessary accessories to the "crime."

Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy is rendered as the title sounds. The listener doesn't have to conjure much more of an imagination while being entertained by Herdin' Cattle (In An Airconditioned Cadillac)

Stringbean turns fashion critic with Don't Bob Your Hair, Girls, only adding to my appreciation of this music of another era.

Steve Richard

Rating ***

Produced by John Rich, Steve Richard's self-titled CD gives new meaning to the phrase "scratch vocals," as Richard lends his raspy voice to Faster, Faster and Stomp.

With a change of key and tempo, Steve sounds like a different singer entirely, smoothly delivering Beautiful to Me. By the time he eases into Lost Time, Richard is delivering the lyrical goods.

But wait- the sandpaper-voice is back on Tried and True and We Ain't Saints. (This is ohhhhh-sooooo confusing!). Steve morphs into a Jimmy Buffett-like persona on Make It Into Heaven!, turning torch singer as he vows I'll Never Leave You.

I Don't Need A Reason is convincing while Bridge Back Home could be titled Mr. Raspy Turns Rowdy.

Last Lines will appeal to bluegrass and folk fans as Write This Song rounds out the CD with Steve sounding something like a cross between a '50s teen idol and a refugee from the British Invasion.

Richard in concert must be something to see. I wouldn't be surprised, though I'm yet to be told that one of his musical influences is a impressionist.

The Grascals

Rating ****

Review readers may be surprised to learn that The Grascals have reviewed this CD. They write: "Some may say this one is a little bit more traditional than our other two albums and we're OK with that."

As I listened, I wondered about the eclectic nature of the mix, be it Vince Gill adding his vocals to Sad Wind Sighs and such firsts as Aaron "Boo!" McDaris' banjo- Keep on Walkin' is Boo's first album with the group- or Danny Roberts being heard for the first time on CD singing four-part harmony on Farther Along with his fellow Grascals.

Farther Along? Yep, it's in the public domain as is another bluegrass standard found here: Rollin� in My Sweet Baby�s Arms.

One could argue that both songs have been covered to death, but, as Merle Haggard would probably agree, so has Today I Started Loving You Again, also found here. (Or maybe not- so long as Merle and Bonnie Owens' estate rake in songwriters' royalties, perhaps the Grascals and their predecessors have been more than welcome...)

Add Choices and The Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line, as the Grascals do, and you'll find that perhaps George Jones and Waylon Jennings would appreciate the sextet's apparent belief that good country standards lend themselves to bluegrass.

No argument here. But Keep on Walkin' isn't all traditional covers. The title song is an ode to living prudently, while Indiana has a great line about the protagonist's Daddy who, though a garbage collector by trade, "didn't raise no trash."

Best bets:Remembering (about a shell-shocked World War II vet who lived for four decades after the war ended) and a celebration of hedonistic fun titled Happy Go Lucky.


Rating ***1/2

Tracylyn is blessed with a commanding, energetic voice. No wonder listeners will be instantly captured by her opening musical invitation to Think Big.

Seems like Tracylyn could have thought bigger, though, when it comes to finding songs that match the impressiveness of her voice. Such compositions are largely lacking here, though there are exceptions: the title song grabbed me with its lyrical in-your-face infidelity dialogue.

Takin' My Time is a pleasant ode to self-assertion, while Little Big Stuff also posits a reminder about life's truest priorities, as does Exactly What I Am, boasting a theme of controlled rebellion.

Shane Wyatt

Rating ** 1/2

Listening to the first few songs on this CD one might conclude that Shane has a finger on the pulse of country radio- and that that's not necessarily such a good thing.

For the first eight cuts, including the title song, are probably as good as the run-of-the-mill mediocrity that is heard on much of today's commercial radio. Though the music "fills the bill," it doesn't bring Shane out from the pack of the list of hat acts all vying for your attention. (If the idea of a singer who sounds like he's channeling Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and George Strait appeals to you, though, you'll know Wyatt's onto something!)

This is why it would be a shame if the last three of Shane's songs- Wyatt wrote all of the numbers on this CD- were ignored.

Indeed, Happy Hour caught my attention with its creative hook. She Could Do Better would only be better if Shane does this one on stage with the obvious rhyme (change the verb "have" to the verb "do") that country radio wouldn't play.

If you can say "ass" on country radio, "air personalities" will have no problem playing The Big Bad Dog, as well they should, since truckers, in particular, will love this road song.

Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis

Rating *****

Willie Nelson is no stranger to duet partners, but Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, Julio Iglesias, Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings & Jessi Colter, Darrell McCall, Mary Kay Place, David Allan Coe, Hank Cochran, and the rest of a list too long to mention were/are not (as the case may be) multiple Grammy Award-winning instrumentalists.

On the other hand, Wynton Marsalis is a multiple Grammy Award-winning instrumentalist; a classical and jazz virtuoso- who boasts a Pulitzer Prize to boot!

Likewise, Marsalis is no stranger to Blue Note Records (the label that has brought record-buyers "the finest in jazz since 1939"). Yet, it is Willie who receives top billing on this Blue Note release.

Assuming nothing calculated nor negotiated in that regard, there is a suggestion of two symbiotic professionals who have left their egos at the door. If so, that accounts for the synergy; a musical imperative to the success of a Wynton-Willie collaboration.

Other keys to the freshness of this venture? With songs ranging from, Bright Lights, Big City to My Bucket's Got a Hole in It, the duo perform with the versatility that would impress both Sonny James and Hank Williams.

Further, the two take Willie's own standards (Night Life, Stardust, Georgia on My Mind and Rainy Day Blues) and give them new life with elongated versions that spotlight Marsalis' instrumentation and Nelson's improvisational rendering.

Caledonia and Basin Street Blues capture the attention of Big Band and blues aficionados as the arrangements to those songs, as is the case with several of the others, also capture the imagination.

Willie and Wynton's playfulness is captured in the classic buddy bluster of Ain't Nobody's Business, while the Marsalis-Nelson musical journey appropriately ends with what would otherwise be the perfect encore: Wynton and Willie's rendition of the timeless That's All..

Andrew Calhoun & Campground

Rating **** 1/2

This CD is my introduction to the music of Andrew Calhoun & Campground. If you are expecting a country-music recording, so was I. But no matter. If you send it, I'll review it!

Bound to Go is as country as a lot of what passes for country music on country radio these days. That is to say what you'll find here is more Paul Robeson than Paul Brandt.

But if you love folk songs and spirituals, the music that has served as the inspiration for country music's pioneering songwriters, you'll want to give this collection a listen.

There are 35 selections of varying lengths found here. The shortest, Sheep and Goat, runs only 33 seconds, while the longest, Tree of Life (which could serve as a fund-raising anthem for the Jewish National Fund) clocks in at 3:17.

If I had to pick a standout, it would be the title song; an infectious, bouncy, rowing/shout song that will have you singing along as you pick up on the somewhat repetitive but ear-pleasing lyrics. Other highlights: Milly Biggers (a song of racial pride and feminist defiance), Wakeup Jacob (no, this is not the song popularized by Porter Wagoner) and Michael, Haul the Boat Ashore (sung to the tune of Michael, Row [the/your] Boat Ashore.).

Jason Brown

Rating **** 1/2

If I had to guess Jason Brown's musical influences I would surmise he has many.

That's a plus for Brown's fans, since Jason's music is an eclectic blend that makes him one of country music's most promising up-and-comers.

While Brown shares co-writer's credit (with Darren Theriault and Joel Brentlinger) on the title song, interestingly, the other 11 songs rely exclusively on the pens of Theriault, Brentlinger and others to hold listeners' interest.

We're All in the Same Boat is a man's metaphor and, by extension, a "man's song." While I didn't have to be hit on the head to relate to the song's refrain, I think guys who have a yen for "Slim Jims, pork rinds and beer" are Jason's target audience for this one.

80 acres on Fire scores points for its timeliness. Props to Warren Cox and Shane Robinson for being able to write a lyric, referencing an intent to "foreclose by the first of the month," that is both topical and flowing.

From I Did It Anyway (an ode to youthful impulsiveness and a salute to the school of hard knocks) to Can't Stay Here (a song Jason emotes so convincingly by song's end you'll be grabbing your keys), Brown has listeners in eager anticipation of his next CD.

Julianne Hough

Rating **** 1/2

I may be the only person in the United States who has never watched Dancing With the Stars longer than to get a glimpse of former TNN program host Samantha Harris, my second cousin once removed, whom, it seems, has something to do with this ratings winner. (I worked with Samantha's granddad, Wally, grew up with her aunt, Andrea, but have never met Samantha nor her mother, Bonnie.)

That being the case, I may the only person in the United States who doesn't know Julianne Hough as anything other than one of the hottest acts in country music.

Music Row generally doesn't have a lot of interest in anyone who appears to be hopping on the country-music bandwagon ("appears to be" because nobody ever admits to doing so, though there's a lot of hopping off when instant, unearned popularity fades). So what's the fascination with this dancer who has recorded a self-titled album?

Assuming she doesn't owe it all to ProTools, Juliane is more than a blonde beauty who's gone country. That Song In My Head is not only a hit, it's an example of what Hough's debut album brings to a major label (Mercury): a total of 11 songs, several of which are as good or better than anything else you'll hear these days on country radio.

Best bets: My Hallelujah Song, Jimmy Ray McGee, My Hallelujah Song, Help Me, Help You, plus Julianne's duet (Dreaming Under the Same Moon) with another talented singer, Julianne's actor/dancer brother Derek Hough. Seems the Osmonds don't have a corner on Mormon country-singing siblings!

Crooked Still

Rating ***1/2

If there's such a sub-genre as easy-listenin' bluegrass, the quintet calling itself Crooked Still would be its progenitor.

Not to characterize all of Still Crooked, by any stretch of the imagination, as "easy-listenin'"...

Vocalist/songwriter Aoife O'Donovan, like her fellow Crooked Still instrumentalists, (O'Donovan plays guitar, baritone ukulele, glockenspiel and upright piano) knows how to tailor her often-lilting vocals, and to temper her skillful instrumentation, so that each is in synch with the harmonious sounds of fellow (tenor) guitarist (double bassist Corey Dimario), fiddlers (Brittany Haas, Tristan Clarridge) and banjoist/lyricist (Gregory Liszt).

A couple of snippets (Pharoh, Theme from the Absentee) number among the 13 tracks heard here.

I don't find the lyrics of these story-songs particularly compelling, though listeners will enjoy Tell Her to Come Back Home, which harkens back to Uncle Dave Macon.

I expect the purchase of this CD to be largely driven by the masterful musicianship and O'Donovan's distinctive singing style. And that is as it should be.

Becky Schlegel

Rating ****

Becky Schlegel may have grown up in Kimball, South Dakota, rather than in the Bluegrass state, but that might be misleading. For Becky is a multi-award-winning favorite of the Minnesota Music Academy, Garrison Keillor, RFD-TV Midwest Country Theatre and the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Schlegel's third album spotlights the singer/songwriter's transcendent appeal- How can you not love a distinct, clear voice singing lyrics you can understand?- though her bluegrass roots are never in question.

While Becky's lyrics are largely too esoteric for my taste, her music comes alive for me toward the end of these 11 performances, perhaps because I can identify with Spotlight and Sound of Your Voice in a way that Hills of South Dakota probably appeals to those, who, like Schlegel, have called the Mount Rushmore State home.

Rebecca Owen

Rebecca Owen (self-titled)

Rating ****

Jaded music critic that I am, I wasn't particularly taken with Sidewinder, the first song on Rebecca. But I didn't have to give Owen 11 (the number of selections remaining on this CD) more chances to persuade me that time spent listening to the remainder of this album was time well spent: Rebecca's talent became apparent by Track Two: World Without You.

Just another indication of how important the song and singer match must be: a mantra confirmed with Rebecca's mastery of Marv Green's What I Need and affirmed by Owen's take on Lucinda Williams' I Lost It.

I wonder what Rodney Crowell thinks when he hears Rebecca's recording of Ain't Livin' Long Like This. I'll bet it ain't Waylon Jennings and his musicians, who interpreted Crowell's lyric and medley much, much differently.

Jessica Andrews and Carlene Carter fans will want to check out Owen's rendition of Unbreakable Heart, while Rebecca's cover of My Heart Would Know is good enough to wind up on the next Hank Williams tribute album.

What's missing? Obviously, original material, though I like the controlled self-confidence of the singer's persona as Owen vows You Will Be Mine. And, with songs about domestic violence being so fashionable, I've take notice of Rebecca's performance of Ariel Caten's well-written lyric, A Man's Home is His Castle.

My hands-down favorite: Owen's performance of Tenderly (Peter Fisher's lyric, not to be confused with the standard of the same name, better known to fans of Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan, Bette Midler et al).

Caroline Herring

Rating ***1/2

If you're a fan of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and other assorted folkies, you'll love Caroline Herring.

If you're a fan of the group, Lantana, the city in Florida of the same name and/or the tabloid press, you may be confused by the title of this CD. (There are no songs among the 10 found here titled Lantana.)

But don't be fooled. Caroline is as country as Danny Barnes' banjo. (Barnes is one of several musicians, including Warren Hood on fiddle and viola, whose musicianship is featured here along with Caroline's own guitar.)

Herring had me from the lead-off song, Stone Cold World, on. (How can you not love a song that champions the cause of an admitted "selfish girl" who longs for freedom from "the old complaining crew" and for whom "nothing comes easy"?)

Children-murderer Andrea Yates' fans will love Paper Gown, (That's what I got out of this "downer," anyway, though the "cheat sheet" indicates the song was inspired by the Susan Smith saga), while Heartbreak Tonight spoke to me.

Caroline's work, as represented here (This is not her first CD, but it is the first I've heard of Herring's work) is often esoteric. And some may regard that as- dare I say?- a red herring.

Consider that the CD's finale is titled a Song for Fay, yet the lyrics don't mention Fay by name.

But maybe Herring was in a "fey" mood when she wrote "This album dedicated to: Beverly, Christie and Carrie." (But not Fay).

Perhaps Caroline's fans will familiarize me with Beverly, Christie, Carrie- and for that matter, Fay.

Zane Lewis

Rating *****

Zane Lewis' high-energy vocals take this eponymously-titled CD to the proverbial other level.

I haven't been as entertained in some time by a relatively-new artist. (This is not Zane's first CD, but it is the first I've heard.)

A dozen songs from the pens of more than two dozen songwriters (including Zane) provide the inspiration for Lewis' spirited performances. The diversity of contributors holds Zane's interest- and the listener's!

There's nothing heavy here, just a lot of fun songs, though Becky Brown's Dad (No, it's not about Jim Ed Brown's father-in-law) may be a standout. Those who can identify may prefer Bad Ass Country Band. Then, of course, Elvis Presley fans (Lewis namechecks Presley)- and maybe even Conway Twitty fans, given Zane's sometimes Twittyish growl, will appreciate the seductiveness of Come With Me. With some sound business decisions to buttress what has the appearance of a trademark sound, Zane is only another album or two away from taking his place among the top tier of country-music's most popular artists.

Katy Kiefer

Rating ***1/2

Referencing my review of Katy Kiefer's previously-released single, Caught Up In Your Gravity (below), two things are obvious: First, Katy has not taken my advice, as the title of the album and this CD's artwork (an outdoorsy photo of a "nude"- save for a strategically-placed bench Kiefer appears to be straddling- Katy, a piece of forbidden fruit in her hand) suggest. (How do ya like them apples?)

Second, courtesy of the artwork, I now know what Katy looks like. (Young? Yes. Sexy? Kiefer can certainly sell sexuality!)

So what of Katy's music?

Kiefer's performance of Baby So Long, the first burst here, has all of the sass and attitude required of a kiss-off song. Well done!

Caught Up In Your Gravity, the second of the 14 songs found here, follows (see previous review).

The rest is a good mixture of ballads and up-tempo material. I don't know what to make of much of it, possibly due to an inability, at times, to understand some of the lyrics, due to overpowering production.

Caged Bird sounds rather pointless to me, but Maya Angelou fans will probably like it.

If I Were is interesting, as is the somewhat gimmicky Shakin' the Family Tree.

Best bet for radio play: Girls With Tattoos.

Willie Nelson

Rating ***1/2

They say that the term "genius" is thrown around. Then "they" usually go on to say something to the effect of "But in this case, the assessment is justified."

While Willie Nelson fans may be disappointed to learn that I'm not going there, my point is that, with the advent of country-music recording artists assuming the title, the designation "producer" is perhaps now thrown around more than the kudo "genius."

When I saw Buddy Cannon and Kenny Chesney listed as producers of Willie Nelson's latest CD, my immediate instinct was to flip the pages of the accompanying booklet.

Sure enough, there is some political motivation to the composition (no pun intended) of this CD: Kenny, Dean Dillon and Mark Tamburino wrote I'm Alive (a song conjuring The Highwayman, though more about this life than a past or future presence). Knowing that, listeners won't be surprised to learn that Willie also recorded Buddy Cannon's copyright, When I Was Young and Grandma Wasn't Old.

While radio-friendly, these disposable ditties are no more lyrically-interesting than Over You Again, a song Willie co-wrote with Nelson's sons, Micah and Lucas.

Fans are paying more attention to Willie's more memorable duet with Chesney, the infectious Worry B Gone.

Only an ardent Nelson or Kenny Alphin fan could love Willie's recording of The Bob Song, a pointless pirate-inspired salute to Bob, a dumb drunk, and Bob's individuality.

By now you're thinking I don't like this 13-song album.

Au contraire. It has its moments: Nelson's rendition of Randy Newman's Louisiana paints indelible images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (though the song was written back in 1974- over three decades before what became the costliest hurricane in United States history).

Nelson's own pen produced Always Now, a quirky, nebulous steam-of-consciousness suggestion variously leaving one sure that Willie is reading one's mail while wondering, simultaneously, if one is being taken in by a bunch of nonsense.

Again, one wonders why Willie needed to rely on any other songwriter's pen with such gems as You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore. (Too bad a line about a "dirty whore" will leave country radio too nervous to play this one!) The best thing about Willie's recording of Gotta Serve Somebody is that one senior citizen (Nelson) may succeed in introducing the music of another (Bob Dylan) to a younger crowd. (The song itself is not up to Dylan's own lyrical standards.)

I'm saving the best for last: When I heard Kris Kristofferson sing the title song, choked with emotion, I sobbed.

Hearing Nelson open this collection with Moment of Forever, again, I burst into tears. Willie makes Kris' copyright his own and that alone is worth the price of this CD.

Blue Highway

Rating *****

Blue Highway (featuring Tim Stafford [guitar, vocals], Wayne Taylor [lead vocals, bass], Shawn Lane [tenor vocals, guitar, mandolin], Rob Ickes [Dobro, Scheerhorn acoustic slide guitar] and Jason Burleson [banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass vocals] may be new to country fans, but Through the Window of a Train is the bluegrass quintet's eighth album.

For the last several years, lyrics have taken on an added importance in the bluegrass genre. And, in recent years, the most lyric-driven grassers' material has become more topical.

Through the Window of a Train is Exhibit A.

Sure, the customary travelin' songs (the title song, Life of a Travelin' Man) are found here. But there are also some stark diversions: a tale of love, loss, war and determination down in the "holler" (Sycamore Hollow) the plight of a Vietnam war hero (Homeless Man), even a song about an aging prison lifer whose sentence has been cut in half; something he finds as threatening as presumably does the society he's re-entering, having been punished but obviously not rehabilitated, (A Week from Today).

There are some pleasant story-songs and a metaphor for life (Where Did the Morning Go). But the most memorable, chilling song should be required listening: Two Soldiers is written and rendered from the perspective of those who carry the message that military families of fallen soldiers never want to hear.

Anne Murray

Rating *****

When Anne Murray's last solo album was released in 2006 she so intended it to be her last recording that she titled the CD I'll Be Seeing You.

Fortunately, Murray's manager, Bruce Allen paid no attention. Persuading Snowbird's songbird to record a duet album reprising many of Murray's hits, Anne narrowed the field to include only female duet partners.

Largely a Phil Ramone production (with assistance from Mutt Lange on Shania Twain's vocal contribution to You Needed Me, "phoned in" from Switzerland), Anne pairs with a total of 17 artists or groups, including Martina McBride (You Needed Me), Carole King (Time Don't Run Out on Me), Olivia Newton-John (Cotton Jenny), k.d. lang (A Love Song), Emmylou Harris (Another Pot o' Tea) and Amy Grant (Could I Have This Dance).

While Friends & Legends' promotional video clearly shows Ann and most of her duet partners sharing the same studio, I wondered how long I Just Fall In Love Again, Anne's collaboration with Dusty Springfield) had been in the can. The back story surprised me: Dusty first recorded the song in 1979. It can be found on Springfield's Living Without Your Love; an album that was reduced to obscurity when, in tandem with the LP's release, Dusty's label was sold.

Anne's hit version of I Just Fall In Love Again was released that same year.

Spring forward to the Dusty-Anne "collaboration" and the following (liner notes) explanation: "With the blessing of the Springfield family and estate, Anne was able to record this version with Dusty's original vocals."

Nobody Loves Me Like You Do features Murray in performance with her daughter, Dawn Langstroth, a demo singer who has inherited her mother's talent.

The switch from studio performances to a "live" recording of When I Fall In Love (with Celine Dion) is a little jarring, but it doesn't detract from a first-rate CD with, as mentioned, many memorable performances, not the least of which is my favorite: Anne and Shelby Lynne collaborating on You Won't See Me.

Randy Thompson

Rating ****

I've yet to see Randy Thompson perform "live," but I only had to listen to Further On to realize that Randy is a dynamic performer.

Don Helms evidently agrees. Helms plays steel on this CD that, while undeniably country, is less twangy than traditional, less evocative of Hank Williams than of Steve Young (Young being one of Thompson's musical influences).

This 10-song Jackpot Records collection begins with an incongruous rocker; Don't You See is a kind of a plaintive appeal for reason in what has become a frustrating relationship.

Ol' 97 will get your attention. Yes, it's the same song known as Wreck on the Ol' 97 when Johnny Cash recorded it (Older listeners may also remember recordings of the classic by Woody Guthrie, Flatt & Scruggs, Hank Snow and The Seekers; Younger listeners will point to Hank Williams, III and Nine Pound Hammer's renditions).

Cash was himself experimental enough to appreciate Thompson's take on the song; Just as Johnny made the song his own, Randy's rendition is custom-made for Thompson.

Similarly,when you listen to Track 7, Randy's interpretation makes it clear that it is not Bill Monroe's, nor even Tom T. Hall's, rendering of Molly and Tenbrooks.

It wasn't hard to get my attention with Riptide: Not with lyrical gems like the one suggesting "the price we both pay for your not knowing your own mind."

That priceless observation alone is worth your attention, but the aforementioned highlights of this CD make for recommended listening.


The Last Stand

Rating *****

The next best thing to hearing Alabama live would have to be hearing a live recording of the group.

The latest in the Cracker Barrel Presents series features a dozen previously unreleased recordings of the group's hits that the quartet performed on their 2003-2004 farewell tour. The band's most popular songs (from Old Flame to Feels So Right) are found here with performances, despite the fact that they are for the umpteenth time, that do not disappoint.

Performances, whether they be The Closer You Get or, perhaps, the greater fan favorite, The Cheap Seats>, feed off the crowd's enthusiasm, culminating in an encore performance of the only choice for a true finale: The Fans.

Record-buyers will note that Mark Herndon's photo is conspicuously missing from the CD's artwork which includes two photos of the group's original members: Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook. Kirt Webster, publicist for Cracker Barrel, informs us that the visual statement was made in the wake of the group's decision to stop touring and Mark's pursuit of other projects.

Josh Turner

Rating ***

Having established himself on Music Row and with fans as a force with which to reckon, courtesy of a little help from the street cred of a somewhat premature Opry induction, Turner is at a career crossroad.

A rising star, Josh proved with his last ("live") CD, that not only is he no one-hit wonder, he's a real concert crowd-pleaser.

An exception: Turner's cover of Johnny Horton's One Woman Man. While a version is yet to be cut that could top the original, Turner's young fans, who may not be familiar with the song that is older than Josh by a generation (Perhaps Turner's own first exposure to the song was via George Jones' cover), couldn't be faulted for thinking this is a new paean to fidelity.

On the other hand, The Way He Was Raised, is a predictable story-song with no need of a spoiler alert (I'm being kind), while South Carolina Low Country capitalizes on Turner's trademark bass vocal in a manner that will prove unsettling if Josh's future forays include copycat material that takes Turner's style from the signature category to that of gimmickry.

Van Morrison

Rating ****1/2

Certainly if the standard is endurance, Van Morrison is "still on top." Indeed, those of us of a certain age remember Them, even if we didn't know then the name of the rocker's lead singer. (Yes, Van tips his hat to his former mates with Gloria and Here Comes the Night, cuts one and two, remastered for this CD.)

And listeners continue to wax nostalgic for the days when Morrison, having succumbed to the temptation of virtually all successful bands' lead singers, rocketed to the top of the charts as a solo act with Brown-Eyed Girl. (Track #3 here.)

As for this 21-song collection including only Morrison's "greatest hits"- well, that is a stretch. The Belfast-born rock, blues and jazz artist's worldwide following suggests that a case could be made for classifying some songs as hits if they were more popular abroad than in the States, I suppose.

But, apart from Domino, the actual hits (Crazy Love, Have I Told You Lately That I Love You) are largely standards listeners will associate with other artists.

None of this detracts from the range and versatility of Van's performances. What may be construed as criticism is directed only toward an all-too-common marketing strategy that is less about truth in packaging than it is moving CDs.

Personally, I prefer the original performances/arrangements of the songs mentioned, but the first-time listener, with no basis for comparison, will enjoy these songs as much as I enjoyed this project as a whole.

It's good stuff.

Porter Wagoner


Rating ****

I don't generally review gospel CDs. I make an exception here, because this is the last CD to be released prior to Porter's passing (though it arrived just after he died), because the Thin Man from West Plains would have referred to these as sacred rather than gospel songs, and because, ironically, Wagoner didn't live till 2008.

With 22 songs on two CDs (including guest performances featuring Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Pam Gadd and Ralph Stanley) there, if you like the songs and the singer you can't go wrong.

Trouble is, I don't like the messages of songs. Not on the first disc anyway.

If you like hellfire and brimstone/fear-based religion you will strongly disagree.

My sentiments made the listening on Disc 2 all the more refreshing. Leading off with the Mother Church of County Music (with a tip of the hat- had Porter worn one to Roy Acuff), Porter seems to be more in his element. Brother Harold Dee illustrates Wagoner's famous recitation skill, though that song is as cloying as I remember it when Porter made it a staple of his eponymous TV series.

I wish When My Time Comes to Go had been played at Wagoner's funeral. It would have been the perfect sendoff, just as it would have been my choice for Song 22 (rather than Song 14). You'll find Rank Strangers (which was performed- as a tribute- at Porter's funeral) here, illustrating the singular style and the voice of the singer who loved my description of him as Johnny Cash meets Howdy Doody.

Jimmy Dale

Jimmy Dale (self-titled)

Rating ****

Typically, a new artist doesn't receive songwriters' best material. So, it's encouraging that Jimmy Dale's debut, self-titled CD has some impressive moments.

While the "push" is on for Bad Luck, the first single from the CD and while Enough to Make an Angel Cry, with its images of a homeless Vietnam vet and references to other familiar societal ills (crime, illegitimacy, drugs and violence) manipulates to move the masses, I like the sleeper, A Long Ride.

Those who may be disappointed that Dale's Hell and High Water is not a cover of the T. Graham Brown hit, should feel that regret lift when they hear Jimmy sing this particular torcher.

No torture here. Just a versatile artist (Jimmy even does a little Cajun music) with some decent material, my favorite of which is a song about good luck, titled Pink Fuzzy Dice.

Katy Kiefer

Rating **

I was caught up in my inability to put my finger on what is about Caught Up in Your Gravity that causes me to react as I do. I'm guessing Kathy's producer has advised Kieffer to "sing sexy."

To a female reviewer, the result sounds affected, though Kathy's natural artistry isn't entirely hidden.

Men tend to hear whatever it is that female singers exude differently, but Kiefer got stuck with a female reviewer! (Since the advance CD single didn't come with artwork , I have no idea what Katy looks like. That's a plus when the above observations come to mind.)

Carole King

Rating *****

Main Feature Running Time: 110 minutes. Bonus Feature Running Time 25 minutes.

Just released, this DVD features the filming of Carole's August, 2005 live performance in Ternecula, California and additional footage of a 2006 concert in Sydney, Australia.

Additionally, viewers are treated to sections titled The Making of the Living Room Tour (featuring interviews with Carole and her band, complete with a "behind-the-scenes" view) and Songwriting 101 (an entertaining tutorial, that, as it sounds, demonstrates how songs are written- on stage, to boot!) They also see Carole and the band in rehearsal.

Exuding the intimacy suggested in the DVD's title, Carole breezes through nearly two dozen selections (including a medley), encompassing her hits (as a songwriter, singer or both)- and then some! King is accompanied by Rudy Guess and- here's the Nashville connection- Gary Burr. Whether you're of the Little Eva, King- (Gerry) Goffin, or Tapestry eras, or even too young to remember any of these, you can't help but enjoy what, for my generation, is a trip down memory lane with Carole, updated for the 21st century. Highlights: Welcome To My Living Room, Beautiful, Up on the Roof, It's Too Late, and Locomotion.

Lisa O'Kane

Rating **1/2

Lisa O'Kane is of the stature that she can command songs from Music Row's finest tunesmiths (when she isn't writing her own), but I don't find John Prine's Speed of the Sound of Loneliness (despite its provocative title) to be the most interesting performance on this CD.

Indeed, sometimes Lisa's own material is- well, not up to standards she set with her last release- though Ain't Done Nothin' has some great lines about a guy who's less than a great lover; a man who even the protagonist's dog "don't like." I'm not a great fan of songs that milk popular cultural phrases, though I like the "attitude" Lisa voices in I'm Done, but there's something to be said about the saga of a woman torn between staying and leaving, Got the Car Running, and a plea for redemption Paying for My Sins.

So take that which is good, add that which is merely radio-friendly and you'll have pleasant fare that excites at times as it makes you hopeful Lisa will come up with something even better next time out.

Tess Reyes

Rating ***

Mix equal parts of Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker, throw in a little Teresa Brewer, Lacy J. Dalton and Connie Cato. Now, tone down some of the brassiness and you have a singer in what fans are coming to know as the Tess Reyes tradition.

I'm more impressed with the singer than I am with most of the dozen songs found here (exceptions noted below). While you won't find a better classic than End of the World (as evinced by the scores of cover versions, including Reyes'), nobody performed that standard better than Skeeter Davis, so for Tess to include it here, presumably as filler, makes no sense to me.

Since "It all begins with a song," here's hoping for some more inspiring material, Skeeter's signature song and those below excepted, next time around.

Highlights: Can't Take This Any Longer, Life is So Wonderful, Turn and Run Away and Saying Goodbye.

Deana Carter

Rating ***

Deana Carter's fifth studio release is a tribute, largely in duet form, to her father, noted session player/producer, Fred Carter, Jr.

The Chain links Deana not only to her dad, but to standards largely more of Fred's era than her own.

Leading off with Deana's solo version of Roy Orbison's classic, Crying, (Carter's version, veers from the original, alternately evoking vulnerability and a vamping that makes the listener wonder what the arrangement would have been if k.d. lang had been a party to it.)

Carter's fans will love her duets with Kris Kristofferson (Help Me Make It Through the Night), Dolly Parton (Love Is Like a Butterfly), Jessi Colter (I'm Not Lisa) and John Anderson (Swingin'"). Lay Lady Lay (performed without Bob Dylan) and The Weight (minus The Band) remain, even as solos, men's lyrics, so Deana's including the songs doesn't make any sense to me. (I guess you could argue that Carter's presenting a lesbian persona in the former, but I don't think that's what the divorced mother of young Gray Hayes intends.)

Deana sounds pensive when she sings On the Road Again, the tempo forcing Willie Nelson to slow down, though, as always, Nelson sings behind the beat. I would have preferred to hear Deana singing Good Hearted Woman with Waylon Jennings (a computerized possibility), rather than with Shooter Jennings, just as I would have enjoyed Carter singing The Boxer with Paul Simon rather than with Harper Simon.

And, though this has nothing to do with Deana, George Jones sadly gives a really tired performance with Carter on S/He Thinks I Still\Care. As tribute albums go, this isn't bad.

Deana couldn't make a bad album, but Carter is not (just) a cover artist and I'd like to see her back with some good, original material.

Reba McEntire

Rating *****

One of country music's best artists singing songwriters' best copyrights with other top artists can't miss- and Reba Duets doesn't. It's easy to see why sales of this one are through the roof!

My favorites: When You Love Someone Like That (with LeAnn Rimes), Because of You (with Kelly Clarkson), She Can't Save Him (with Trisha Yearwood) and Everyday People (no- this is not the Sly & the Family Stone smash, it's Carole King singing something other than a Carole King copyright with Reba. Lorrie Harden, Tommy Harden and Don Rollins wrote this tribute to unsung heroes and heroines).

Tim Krekel

Rating *****

If Tim Krekel's newest CD doesn't offer a song for every mood, well- I've lost count at 11. The singing and "orchestra" (that would be Tim on guitar, harmonica and lead vocals, along with an assortment of 10 equally-talented instrumentalists and background singers) performances are first-rate.

Highlights: Casualties, I Can't Help Myself (Noooo, not as in the Four Tops, Sugar Pie/Honey Bunch and all of that), Love One Another (Do I hear Big & Rich covering this one?), I Just Can't Cry Anymore, Stir Me Up Inside and a strange, post-game midnight hour burial tribute to Wilson Pickett.

Josh Turner

Cracker Barrel Presents Josh Turner Live at the Ryman

Rating ***1/2

If you've never been to a Josh Turner concert, you'll feel like you've had the privilege after listening to this 14-song Cracker Barrel collection, Turner is able to engage his audience (whether speaking, joking, introducing the band members, or singing to the crowd), showcasing his rich bass vocal as he leads off with the campy Way Down South.

Josh mixes new songs, the most lyrically-interesting of which is Loretta Lynn's Lincoln, with suitable covers of Hank Williams (I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive), Merle Haggard (Silver Wings) and George Jones (He Stopped Lovin' Her Today) standards before closing with his signature song, Long Black Train.

Todd Fritsch

Rating ****

The only thing missing from Sawdust is a song of the same title.

If you're out honky-tonkin', these are the songs you'll want to hear on the jukebox. And, with 17 selections from which to choose, you're bound to have a few favorites.

What's Wrong With Me, a multimedia hit, courtesy of Todd's video featuring Eddy Raven's cameo, both asks and answers the perennial question. I'm partial to No Part Of and Guilty Conscience, two statements of cowboy wisdom that should be as popular with listeners as Honky Tonk Talk will be among those bar-scene veterans and Tables will be to those chasing dreams of country stardom.

If you're not already wanting to go home to the Armadillo, Todd's teaming with Gary P. Nunn on Every Honky Tonkin' Hero (Has His Day) might provide just the incentive for packing a bag.


Make Money Online Infographic
Infographic of WordPress Essentials by Industry – Brought to you from InMotion Hosting – A VPS Hosting Provider

Make Money Online Infographic

Top Resources for How to Make Money Online – Brought to you from InMotion Hosting – A VPS Hosting Provider

Home | Music Row Report | Music Reviews | Book Reviews | Paid Content | Contact