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Picks & Pans

With Nashville's Top Music Critic, Stacy Harris


A little "housekeeping": I welcome the receipt of and will review just about all NEW product received. (Contact me for an explanation if you think there might be extenuating circumstances.)  Major or independent label. It makes no difference.

That said, my unique, open door policy requires, in fairness to all, that product be evaluated and reviews posted in the order in which submissions have been received.

Ground rule: I don't do downloads.  

If a review peaks your curiosity, please consider sampling/and or making a purchase through its Amazon cover art link. Commissions I earn through your purchases make updates possible.

A link without artwork indicates cover art has not been supplied to Amazon. The absence of a link indicates that Amazon does not distribute the CD.

Stacy's Ratings

*****Outstanding

**** Good

*** Promising

** Fair

*Makes A Good Coaster



Garrett Morgan

 Standing on a Bridge

Rating ***



 

Garrett Morgan is an independent Americana/country artist and songwriter currently living in Northern California.  

A Southwest Texas native, Garrett’s EP showcases both his gritty voice and thoughtful, relationship-inspired lyrics (every one of these songs is a Morgan original).

 She Says acquaints listeners with a woman who exudes confidence and seems to have it all together, however…

 Then there’s troubled, prayerful, Kacey experiencing the pain of rejection

 Our protagonist is clearly enamored of Sugar, perhaps accounting for two renditions (the finale on this handful of songs is an acoustic version of the song), though not in succession.   Morgan has some words of comfort and advice for Sirena, who embarks from “the middle of nowhere” via “a bus to California,” still unable to shed her disappointment, while the title song is yet another love song rendered as an introspective metaphor about life at the crossroads.

 A good mix from an up-and-coming artist… 


Ann Claire

 Honkytonk Princess

Rating ***  1/2



Nearly eight years after her debut as an E! ”reality” series (Love is in the Heir) star, Princess Ann Claire, the London-born granddaughter of HH Princess Shams of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty and the late Shah of Iran’s great-niece), professionally drops her royal title, comes to Nashville and trades her crown for a debut album.

As I listened to Honkytonk Princess, all of the above was news to me.  The CD’s title was not a tip off, since its only significance to me was that it was the title song of this 12 song collection.  Only when I later read the project’s liner notes and played the accompanying, roughly four and one-quarter minute-long “bonus DVD featuring never-before-seen interviews & footage of the making of the record: the road from TV to reality” was I brought up to speed on this “celebrity” whom I thought was another new, unknown artist vying for my attention.

Any project that has Bob Tur’s backing, as this one does according to the liner notes and DVD credits, is worthy of my consideration, but when an artist doesn’t adequately explain the connection, thanks a plastic surgeon by name and acknowledges her “corporate sponsors,” is a reviewer justified in asking if this is just another instance of a carpetbagger (though one who is now a naturalized American citizen), in this case a princess (with all of sense of entitlement that title suggests) expecting Music Row to give her, pardon the expression, the royal treatment?

Again, having heard the CD with none of these prejudicial thoughts to ponder, as a lyric-lover, I was struck by the production that, while creative at times, at others renders some of the lyrics unintelligible.   With no lyrics list provided, at times I was picking up on only bits and pieces of what some of these songs are about.

Better Girl is the CD’s first singe and video.   It is a good, radio-friendly upbeat choice.    Let’s Go To Mexico might initially have eyes rolling- like the world needs another song in the Jimmy Buffett- Kenny Chesney tradition.  Yet how can a listener not love the line expressing the wish to “maybe catch a glimpse” of Chesney “without his hat?”

Likewise,  Shania Twain fans will also enjoy Go With Me as a line in that songs suggests Ann Claire wonders not what would Jesus do but rather “what would Shania say?”


Ray Stevens

 Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music

Rating *****




 Expanding in 2012 on his 2009 three-disc box set (pictured above) of the same title, Ray releases a nine-disc, 108-song recorded encyclopedia of comedic music. 

This review is of the latter's 12-song sampler, heavily-laden as it is with novelty songs. 

The opener, a reprise of Spike Jones' signature song, Cocktails for Two (written by Arthur Johnson and Sam Coslow), should carry a warning: Don't listen while driving!  (I made the mistake of doing so.  Though, having been familiar with the original, I should have been prepared for the cacophony of sound that might have resulted in an accident, and perhaps an arrest for distracted driving, had I not instantaneously recognized the sirens et all I was hearing did not necessitate my pulling over and that all I needed to do in the moment was to relax, enjoy the craziness and slightly lower the volume!)

Following Ray's rendition of that Big Band era hit, Stevens treats us to his delivery and slight retitling of another (with apologies to Tim Spencer): Cigareets and Whusky and Wild Wild Women.

Ray evokes a favorite childhood memory (though this may be the first time I've heard the complete lyrics) with his interpretation of Lonnie Donegan's Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight), written by Marty Bloom, Ernest Breur and Billy Rose.

And why wait for Halloween to listen to Stevens' cover of Gene Simmons' (the solo singer, not KISS' front man Chaim Weitz) Haunted House (written by Robbert Geddins)?

Other highlights?  Ray's performances of all of the songs here are great, but the other particular sampler standouts are his takes on such rock era standards as Mr. Custer, Searchin', and They're Coming To Take Me Away Ha Ha, as well as Stevens' standout version of the George Jones classic, White Lightnin' (written by the Big Bopper).  


Janie Fricke

 Country Side of Bluegrass

Rating ****  1/2

Janie Fricke’s kicks off 2012 reprising her country hits, and those of other artists, bluegrass-style.

While, of late, bluegrass artists have taken an occasional country or pop standard and given it the bluegrass treatment, Janie devotes her entire 13 track CD to the Country Side of Bluegrass.

Fricke fans, be they purists or open to experimentation, will likely appreciate Janie’s reworked versions of You Don’t Know Love, Do Me With Love, He’s A Heartache, She’s Single Again, Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby, Tell Me A Lie , It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy, Down To My Last Broken Heart and Fricke’s 1978 hit cover of Hank Locklin’s classic, Please Help Me I’m Falling (In Love With You).

Janie is blessed with the wisdom to know which of her many hits work when adapted bluegrass-style and, as importantly, those that don’t.

Still,  this is probably not the album for a listener who is not receptive to evaluating Fricke’s performances of country classics associated with the original artists, let alone Janie’s bluegrass rendering of Faithless Love and Ring of Fire.

The latter, billed as a “bonus track,” loses a little zip without the horns one associates with Johnny Cash’s hit recording.  But then Fricke understands that horns and bluegrass don’t mix.






Mark Wayne Glasmire


 Rating ****

Mark Wayne Glasmire's first release of 2012 is a seven-song EP that features Glasmire's  recent singles I Like You and Going Home, as well as some new favorites with which to kick off the New Year.

Last of a Dying Breed, a paean to living one's life with integrity, leads the "seven-pack."  The song sets the bar high for the songs that follow and certainly got my attention.

Other highlights: Now I Believe (billed as a "bonus track," it's an impressive showcase for Mark's arresting voice) and The Moment (a song that can't help but appeal to the romantics among us).



The Topp Twins

 Untouchable Girls

 Rating *****

Leanne Pooley’s 2009 award-winning documentary about New Zealand’s Jools and Lynda Topp, billed as the world’s only yodeling, country-singing, twin lesbian comediennes (though they prefer to be known as singers who are funny), has just been released on DVD.

The documentary profiles the Taurean twin sisters (born May 14, 1958 in Huntly, located in the Waikato region of the North Island of New Zealand); real cowgirls, who grew up singing to the cows on the family’s dairy farm near Huntly.

Patriots with a particular political passion for social justice and nuclear disarmament, Lynda and Jools left home at 17 to join New Zealand’s rough equivalent of the United States’ erstwhile Women’s Army Corp.  Reflecting on their New Zealand military service “before it was integrated,” Lynda describes the three-month training experience as “sort of like a pajama party with guns.”

Natural-born entertainers, the twins' harmony singing and comedic bent resulted in their developing a cast of characters including Camp Mother & Camp Leader, Raylene & Brenda, and the cross-dressing Ken and Ken.  But the sisters don't flaunt their sexuality so much as embrace it and, as a result, they have a worldwide, mainstream appeal.

As Comedy Writer Paul Horan says of the Topp Twins, "On paper they should not work.  On paper they should be commercial death.  But they totally deliver to the audience time and time again.”

In their native country, the Topps have used humor to both make a point and defuse controversy when they assert their penchant for activism.  Such was the case when the twins dealt with their government's position on gay rights: "The law had said it was illegal for consenting adult males to engage in sex.  But it was an injustice.  We felt like it was an injustice.  We said one day they’ll make a law that includes the lesbians.  We need to step up to the plate and we need to make sure we’re part of this homosexual law reform bill.”

Needless to say, they were.  As New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark recalls, debate on the bill "polarized the Parliament… I think the Topps being so proudly who they were helped make the issue seem a more mainstream one…  It had real people associated with it.  Good people- like the Topps.  And that helped carry the day.”

When cameras are not capturing the Topp Twins singing, as they are positioned on the front lines of numerous political demonstrations for their favorite causes,  Joolie and Lynda are seen clowning around, most famously during their Great New Zealand Gypsy Caravan Tour.

But life is not all joy, even for the joy-filled Topp Twins (who, for instance, demonstrably inform audiences that "Yodeling is all about hip movement.")  Should there be any doubt about that, or the fact that the camera never blinks, "thanks" to archival film Pooley took full advantage of access to footage of Jools going through chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Untouchable Girls, titled after the Topp Twins' song of the same name, has won more than 20 Best Documentary awards.  Non-rated and running 84 minutes, the film has been screened at over 80 international film festivals, winning the Cadillac People's Choice for Best Documentary at its North American premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival.



Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Prime Tyme

 Rating *** 1/2


With this collection of 14 potential bluegrass hits, Russell, Steve Dilling, Wayne Benson, Justin Haynes and Edgar Loudermilk prove they are nearly ready for primetime (as in a music performance slot on late night network TV).

The International Bluegrass Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year winner for seven consecutive years, Moore and his mates' 16th album in 20 years features its bluegrass chart hit single, If Your Heart Should Ever Roll This Way Again.

Kentuckians and Montanans will especially enjoy the opening track, a tribute to Old Kentucky Farmers, followed by Goodbye Old Missoula, a bittersweet farewell to Rosie, the object of an unrequited passion, as a new love awaits in Bozeman.

Moon Magic retains the bluegrass flavor of every other song on this CD, while providing some  cross-genre stylistic surprises.

The guys also provide contemporary covers of Sugarfoot Rag and the instrumental, Carroll County Blues.

They close the album by sounding a populist, yet weary lament in the form of What's the World Coming To. While songwriters  Ronnie Bowman and Michael Garris deserve kudos for creating a lyrical reference (and rhyme yet!) to North Platte, Nebraska that is actually singable, the bluegrass equivalent to the sentiments expressed by Merle Haggard in his hit, If We Make It Through December is marred by the scapegoating, simplistic "solution," favored by the ignorant, to all of the world's problems, including greedy "politicians and Wall-streeters": Returning (Christian) prayer to the (public) schools.  


Ricky Skaggs

Country Hits Bluegrass Style

 

 Rating *****


Ricky Skaggs has just released a second volume of A Skaggs Family Christmas  (Volume Two is a 10-sided CD combined with a Bonus DVD featuring 26 concert performances, released five years following the initial Skaggs Family Christmas album).  But since, with very few exceptions as I have previously explained, I don't review Christmas albums, I wanted to at least acknowledge receiving Ricky's latest release while not overlooking Skaggs' most recent, mostly secular release, Country Hits Bluegrass Style.

I can't think of a better reminder of how many top hits (several of them admittedly covers) Skaggs has amassed than to spend some time listening to Skaggs' new bluegrass arrangements of his country (though sometimes bluegrass and gospel-tinged) classics.

The 14-time Grammy winner was encouraged to pursue his creative approach to reprising the familiar songs when he tried them out during his road to great audience reaction.  I have to believe that such acceptance stemmed from Ricky's knowing just how to give the folks a little something extra and unexpected without straying too far from the familiar stains they've come to know and love.

While keeping these re-recordings fresh for himself, Ricky delights fans with his instrumental turnarounds as his bluegrass pickin' lifts the spirits and pleasures the ear.

Highlights: Heartbroke, You've Got A Lover, Flatt & Scruggs' Crying My Heart Out Over You, Highway 40 Blues,   Porter Wagoner's Uncle PenWebb Pierce's I Don't Care While, Country Boy, I Wouldn't Change You If I Could and Don't Get Above Your Raising.

 


The Oak Ridge Boys

It's Only Natural

 

 Rating ****

The Oak Ridge Boys can’t leave a stage without singing Elvira.  Likewise, a Cracker Barrel collection of the Oaks’ hits, and the newer songs they hope will be as well-received, also includes a re-recording of that most famous showcase of Richard Sterban’s bass vocal.

Five other Oaks hits are included among the dozen fan favorites.  They are True Heart, Gonna Take a Lot of River, No Matter How High, Beyond Those Years and Wish You Could Have Been There and Lucky Moon, along with William Lee Golden’s solo project and video hit, Louisiana Red Dirt Road.

This brings us to the newest material.  What’  Gonna Do? is light-hearted lyrical celebration of commitment that, like Elvira, is a nod to Richard Sterban’s signature style and an example of how the group allows not only Duane Allen, but all of the four of the “Boys”’ strong vocals to shine.  Before I Die is, as its title suggests, about taking stock.  The Shade is a similarly sober bit of shared philosophy while Sacrifice… For Me is Joe Bonsall’s paean to heroism.




Jason Michael Carroll

Numbers

 

 Rating *** 1/2 

The irony of this latest release from the Cracker Barrel collection is that Jason Michael Carroll first sang in public while working as a server at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store's Henderson, North Carolina restaurant.  (Had the establishment hired Carrol as a short-order cook, I might be wondering now how Carroll's recently-shorn trademark shoulder-length+ locks fit in a hairnet, but, as it is, Jason's, less-menacing, new clean-shaven look is a hit with this lady!)

I'm not a big fan of disposable music.  The title song sounds like a novelty tune written after a brain-storming writers session.   Fun on first hearing, the sense that the writers (Rodney Clawson and Patrick Davis) are clearly going for the obvious quickly wears thin.

This is for the Lonely is a little less predictable and a little more promising.

Meet Me in the Barn is as infectious as it is predictable- and hokey, while Hell or Hallelujah is interesting, primarily for its artful rendering of juxtaposition.

Can I Get an Amen seizes on an overworked expression, occasioning a shout-out to the singer's redneck friends.

My Favorite is a cut above the average, run-of-the-mill love song.

Don't Know Why is the perfect reflection of, just that, uncertainty.

Stray focuses on fear about a relationship while  Last Word spotlights that hardheaded couple whom we all know.

Numbers closes with Jason's Top Five tearjerker, Alyssa Lies.

 

The McClymonts

Wrapped Up Good

 Rating *** 1/2 

The Aussie sister trio’s sophomore album features three singles (the title song, Kick It Up and Hearts on Fire) that will be new to all but the sister act’s longtime fans who follow the Australian music sales charts.

The other three-quarters of the CD is highlighted by He Used To Love Me, a tongue-in-cheek tale of a spurned woman’s resolve to drag the man she wants to marry to the altar.

Rock the Boat is neither a cover of The Hues Corporation’s 1974 hit nor Aaliyah’s 2001 chart-topper.   Rather, it’s an anthem to individuality and, if need be, telling others where they can go.

Nothing beats family vocal harmony, so check this one out!


Brandon James

Down in the Sand

Rating *** 1/2 

A native of Toronto, self-professed "naturalized citizen of Los Angeles" Brandon James calls his music, West Coat Country (a/k/a  the kind of music that especially appeals to those whose famous last words of reaction to Brandon's stage performances has been "I'm normally not a country fan but...").

This four-song EP opens with James' self-penned, upbeat, musical invitation to join him down at the beach and to relax Down in the Sand (With Me).  Beautiful Eyes, (written by Brandon and April Matson), offers a bit of advice from the voice of experience to a friend whose vision of the present is somewhat clouded by past lies.

The World's On Fire, also written James, is an introspective suggestion on how to deal with brick walls and other matters beyond one's control.

Walk in the Sun (which Brandon wrote with Femke Weiderna and Jason Land) conveys the experience of living the good life in a way which Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney could appreciate.

 

 

Michael Mandella

American Outlaw

Rating *** 

 

Singer/songwriter Michael Mandella’s first album in 10 years marks a musical rebirth, of sorts, detailed in the autobiographical lyrics of I Miss ‘Em, a song Michael co-wrote with one of his favorite co-writers, Eddie Cunningham (Cunningham either wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs on American Outlaw.)   

While there is no title song, American Outlaw typifies Mandela’s musical persona.  But, if a listener were somehow to miss that point, songs such as Big Damn Star, Room Number Eight and Lead Guitar are replete with lyrical  namechecks of Michael’s music mentors.

Despite the namedropping, these selections are among the album’s standouts. 

Buff, hatted and thoroughly tatted, Michael’s voice has a gruffness one would expect from the hard-living about which he sings.

Music Man, a song Michael wrote with Conrad Murphy and Clark Murphy, while not a candidate for a persuasive copyright infringement suit, is entertaining but only in the same way as equally good songs sounding the same theme.

Proud American suffers from the same corporate sound, while resurrecting (no pun intended) the twisted assumption of similar songs suggesting that patriotism has, not only an intrinsic link to Christianity, but an exclusive tie.

 

Ronnie Milsap

Country Again

Rating **** 1/2



Ronnie Milsap’s first album in five years effort is a blend of new songs and standards. 

Advance publicity for the 12-track release pegged If You Don’t Want Me To (The Freeze) as the CD’s first single with a video showcasing a dance (hence the song’s subtitle), “inspired by the song.”

The upbeat, infectious number not only has a radio-friendly lyrical bounce, it reminds those of us who gave up our piano lessons at the first opportunity that we may have learned to play as well as Ronnie and Catherine Marx had we persevered.

The title song will please those who enjoy not only a well-crafted lyric but who also have an appreciation for modern production values and musicianship, a selling point of several of the songs comprising Country Again.

Of the songs on the new side of the ledger, I’m partial to Almost Mine (a David Ball-Randy Goodrum ballad), though Ronnie does justice to all of the material here.   

Johnny Paycheck and Foster & Rice fans will give a thumbs up to Ronnie’s rendition of For A Minute There, while I can visualize Bobby Darin thanking Ronnie for reviving You’re the Reason I’m Living in a manner that shows respect for the original recording. 

Likewise, I would think Jimmy Newman and J.D Miller would tip their hats to Milsap in appreciation of Ronnie’s recording of Newman’s signature song, Cry, Cry Darlin’.

This is an eclectic package, rather than the stone country impression one who has not heard the title song might infer from the CD’s title, but it has a little something for everyone who enjoys Ronnie Milsap’s music.

 Royal Wade Kimes

Crossing the Roads

Rating **** 1/2

Royal Wade Kimes is country music’s most underrated singer/songwriters.

Crossing the Roads only underscores that observation, Billboard chart hits being the yardstick that frustrates those who see other methods of measuring music that resonates.

Whether in a bow to the realities of commerce, or a desire to be consistent in offering his fans good songs, Kimes leads off the first of 13 tracks found here with a cover of Five Hundred Miles so credible that, if a listener had never heard Bobby Bare’s classic recording (which Bare penned with Charley Williams and Hedy West) nor that of the Kingston Trio and numerous others who have recorded the song, one would swear Kimes’ was the definitive version. 

I rather think Elvis Presley would have liked Royal Wade’s version of Donnie Summer’s Mr. Songman, just as those who find meaning in Amazing Grace will find Kimes’ version as compelling as any they’ve ever heard.

But Royal Wade Kimes is hardly a cover artist.  He had a hand in writing or co-writing 10 of the 13 songs on Crossing the Roads. These originals are all worthy of a listener’s time and attention.

I’m an Ole Song is already an international favorite.  As of this writing it is the #5 song on the Top 50 Pop Country Roots Music Chart and #2 on the Top 40 Hot Disc Chart in Europe and Australia.   Love is the focus of several of the other selections, be it wistful, true, lost or a temptation best avoided. 

In My Land will serve as the rallying cry for not only gun-toting NRA members but also anyone who shares Kimes’ interpretation of the Bill of Rights, especially the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

My favorite of all the songs Royal Wade wrote for this CD, however, is Kimes' commentary on where many of the idealists among us were, politically, socially, and culturally in 1969, as he answers in song the contemporary question those who not only remember the ‘60s, but who embraced the religion of flower power,  must ask themselves 42 years later: “How’s it workin’ for ya?”  


The Roys

Lonesome Whistle

Rating ****


Downloaded music may be supplanting CDs, but there’s something to be said for the experience of removing the shrink wrap (well, not that part of it, but…) from The Roys’ CD  while popping Lonesome Whistle into your idling car’s CD player and, as you do so, noticing that the jewel case cover art of the sister-brother duo folds out into a same-side, six-sectioned lyric sheet and song commentary (with an additional photo of the duo) that, when reversed,  becomes a 9 ½ x 14 inch poster of Lee and Elaine.

 Releasing the car’s brake, you resume your ride to the strains of The Roys’ hit, Coal Minin’ Man, a jaunty tribute that screams movie soundtrack to me. 

That’s What Makes It Love sounds like a Ricky Skaggs song and that is probably all the inducement Ricky and The Whites needed to join The Roys in performance of a song that, in actuality, Lee co-wrote with Morry Trent.

Nothing I Can Do About it Now is a spirited song of coming to terms with what you can’t change.  Right Back At You twists a popular expression  into what Mel Tillis might call sweet mental revenge.

Speaking (writing?) of popular expressions, Give A Ride to the Devil seems to have been inspired by some axiom that I should not be hearing here for the first time.  But a Google search of the phrase, coupled with the rest of the line about what happens if you do provide the Devil that ride (“Someday he’s gonna wanna drive”) suggests that is not the case.  However, the hook and lyrics of my favorite of the 11 songs found here is (co)written (by Robert Ellis Orrall and Lee Roy with more humor and greater universality than some of the more preachy songs that round out Lonesome Whistle.

The title song is a train tune that might have received Johnny Cash’s blessing.   Everything I Ever Wanted (with its surprise ending) could serve as the musical theme for a public service announcement.  (To be more specific would require a spoiler alert.)

Trailblazer, written by Elaine, Steve Dean and Bethany Dean, is a 21st century feminist anthem for even those women who balk at being labeled feminists,  while the CD ends on a positive note with a bit of musical philosophy (and the only song among these that The Roys didn’t have a hand in writing): Tia Sillers’ and Pete Sallis’ High Road.

Blind Boys of Alabama

Take the High Road

Rating *****

 

Take the High Road.  There could not be a more fitting title for this sextet’s latest CD (to be released May 3, 2011.) 

 Jamey Johnson (yes, that Jamey Johnson), along with co-producers Chris Goldsmith, Kevin Grantt and Chad Cromwell have captured the Blind Boys…’ upbeat, infectious group sound- and basically run with it!

 And no, that’s not the extent of Jamey’s input.  Johnson is featured on Have Thine Own Way, Lord.

 A Baker’s Dozen of cuts leads off with The Oak Ridge Boys joining the Blind Boys… on the title cut.  The all-star guest list continues with Lee Ann Womack joining in on I Was a Burden and Vince Gill’s featured performance of Can You Give Me a Drink?

 Willie Nelson reprises Family Bible while the Blind Boys… enlist Hank Williams, Jr.  paying tribute to Hank, Sr. with a rousing performance of I Saw the Light. 

 The Blind Boys… and their star-powered guests spread the “Good News” with such joy that the happiness they radiate becomes part of the listening experience.

Kenny Rogers

   For the Love of God       

Rating **** 1/2

“What an incredible album this has turned out to be.”

So writes Kenny Rogers in the liner of his first Southern Gospel CD ((Rogers’ second Cracker Barrel song collection).  Kenny, who has recorded Christmas music, writes of his “personal relationship” with each of the 12 songs, be they traditional favorites (Will the Circle Be Unbroken, What A Friend We Have in Jesus, Amazing Grace, perhaps Kenny’s nearly a cappella version of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms) or more contemporary choices such as The Rock of Your Love (written by Al Anderson, Vince Gill and Leslie Satcher) and Grace (written by Michael W. Smith and Martin Smith).

 Kenny is joined by Winfield’s Locket on In the Sweet By and By,  The Whites on I’ll Fly Away, and by Point of Grace on Circle of Love, but the performances I most enjoyed were the For the Love of God and (especially) Peace (the latter written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Michael McDonald).

This CD strikes me as the perfect match of singer and song(s).  If you love the mix of traditional and modern Southern Gospel, or if you are simply the penultimate fan of Kenny Rogers singing whatever he chooses, this CD is for you.

The Grascals & Friends

       Rating ****  

The Grascals & Friends: Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin is not only this CD’s full title, it is a descriptive yet concise Twitter-age review.

The Grascals need no introduction and neither do the more than a dozen “friends” with whom they harmonize, as most of the recruits are country artists whose names you know.  And yes, the Grascals and Friends do perform nearly a dozen songs that could be considered country classics with a bluegrass spin, along with an instrumental titled Cracker Barrel Swing and I Am Strong (the latter reprised in a slightly different form, as a bonus track, than the first performance heard here).

The CD kicks off with a strong guest performance by Brad Paisley doing his best Buck Owens tribute on Tiger by the Tail.   Next up is Dierks Bentley's interpretation of  Folsom Prison Blues. I suppose if Johnny Cash could lift Folsom... from Gordon Jenkins’ Crescent City Blues that it could be argued that  Bentley offers a credible cover, but Cash’s indelible nuances and the singular musicianship of the Tennessee Two (and later Three) is so ingrained in my memory that I can’t say tinkering here isn’t actually tampering.

Just as, for reasons fair or unfair, Bentley's Folsom... didn’t work for me, I’m trying to fathom the wisdom of a Born to Boogie/All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight medley sans Hank Williams, Jr.   The lyrics of Hank’s hits are so personalized, for The Grascals or anyone else to record them- even in medley form- makes no sense to me.

Contrast these observations with Darryl Worley’s spot-on performance of White Lightning.  (Perhaps George Jones had another commitment?  Regardless, my guess is The Possum would share my enthusiasm for Worley’s rendition.)

Not surprisingly, Dolly Parton nails Pain of Lovin’ You (with Terry Eldredge’s able assistance, in the absence of the late Porter Wagoner)   It is Parton, in fact, who is featured  on the previously-mentioned I Am Strong, a song written from the composite point-of-view of a  St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital patient (with a portion of the proceeds from the song earmarked for St. Jude’s), represented by the heart-tugging vocal performance of three-year-old Ansley McLaurin.

On the bonus track rendition of I Am Strong, presumably executed through the magic of combining separately-recorded audio tracks, Ashley and Dolly reprise the resolute anthem of critically-ill children, this time teaming with the Grascals’ lead vocalist Jamie Johnson, The Oak Ridge Boys, Worley, Charlie Daniels, Terri Clark, Randy Owen, Joe Nichols, Tom T. Hall and Steven Seagal.  

With the added star-power of their “friends,”  the Grascals have zoomed up the Billboard charts, not only reaching #23 on the Top Country Album chart, but commanding the #1 Top Bluegrass Album position for three consecutive weeks!

The Grascals & Friends… is available exclusively at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store® and online here

Matt Bailie

       Rating *** 




Matt has a distinctive voice that ironically sounds like a blend of many established country-music stylists.

While Bailie acknowledges the influence of the Van Zants (Donnie and Johnny) on his music, I’m hearing less 38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd in Matt’s music than- well, I don’t want to be repetitious,  judge for yourself.

True, Donnie and Matt co-wrote Man Behind These Eyes, the lead off song.  A tale of a man in search of his father, this attention-getter is quite possibly the best song on a CD of decent songs, all of which Bailie had a hand in writing.

I also enjoyed the song Matt proclaims “the story of my life,” Great To Be Alive. While similarities could be drawn between that song (co-written with Jan Linville) and the Travis Tritt hit,  Great Day To Be Alive (written by Darrell Scott) the songs are not too close for comfort.


 

Janet McGarry & Wildwood

       Rating ***

Janet McGarry & Wildwood (Serge Bernard, Naomi Doncaster, Kyle Legere) treat fans to a blend of 15 songs, old and new.

With the assistance of Troy Engle, Heather Berry and Tony Mabe, there is an abundance of respected bluegrass musicianship about which to brag here.

Traditionalists will not be disappointed by Janet’s version of Gloryland,  just as I was amazed that McGarry could make My Heart Has a Mind of Mind of Its Own (yes, the Howie Greenfield and Jack Keller standard one would think no one but Connie Francis could pull off and certainly not with a banjo backbeat) her own.  

The rest of the performances are equally strong, but the other songs are lyrically rather ordinary.  They’re not bad.  They just don’t stand out, so, in that sense, whether it’s the title song or the others not mentioned The Next Train misses the boat.


Dr. Elmo's Bluegrass Christmas

       Rating *** 1/2





For Christian bluegrassers there's fun and a bit of inspirational listening to be had with Dr. Elmo's Bluegrass Christmas.  Dr. Elmo spreads the seasonal joy and humor, with Christmas favorites, old and new.  He and Gary Potterton add a measure of good pickin', especially on instrumental versions of Greensleeves, December Rain, and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer


Thanks to this collection, Elmo's "Grandpa" is not forgotten as the singer reminisces about favorite Christmases starring Grandpa in the Santa Suit Show

Guy Penrod

   Breathe Deep       

Rating ****




With a baker’s dozen songs (including the CD’s title selection) from which to choose, one might ask why Are You The One (also found here) is Guy Penrod’s debut country single. 

Of course, that is not a question anyone who has heard Guy’s performance of the Tammy Hyler and Shaye Smith-pen song will ask.  Are You The One, an introspective, rhetorical questioning of parental responsibility and values, is easily the standout release of the 13 songs of inspiration here.

Penrod, late of the Gaither Vocal Band, offers up contenders for  follow-up singles.  These include the album opener, Even When We Do (about the joy of religion-centered wedded bliss), the infectious Pray About Everything (a musical variation of the adage “Let go.  Let G-d.”, The People That Matter (an otherwise self-explanatory affirmation of what should be most obvious among our priorities) and Young Enough to Know Better (a source of support for those struggling with the desire to remain abstinent).

Message music is most effective when it is subtle.  Every Saint has a great hook, but its blend of radio-friendly story-song and preachiness is one best reserved for a church service.   Some of the other songs are interesting slice-of-life morality plays, but they sound like commissioned material that breaks no new musical ground.

Penrod walks a fine line with one foot in the secular market and the other still planted in gospel.  In the instances that I’ve cited that work, he’s been able to keep both feet planted firmly on the ground.  With respect to the others and, going forward, Guy needs to be mindful that if mass market appeal is his goal, his inspirational themes ought to stress the most universal aspects of religious morality (that Penrod has proven he can do so well) rather than the divisive, sectarian dogma that is becoming largely passé in country music (except for obligatory Christmas releases), as the genre strives for a multicultural following.

Michael Sarver

       Rating *** 1/2


When a singer owes his career to American Idol, and lands a recording contract after placing 10th in the eighth season of the program’s finals, a jaded, veteran music critic is going to set the bar quite high.

Whether fans will be as critical has yet to be seen, but, at 29, Michael Sarver, to take a line from the strong opening song, Watch Me, suggests skeptics won’t hold him down (this small-town boy whose dreams transcend the county line) because “it’s my time.”

 Always Surviving, another well-written selection, strikes a similar tone. 

 Ferris Wheel may do more for the amusement park ride than any song since Freddy Cannon’s Palisades Park.

Were that all of the material were as strong: The chorus to the otherwise uninspired I’m in the Mood sounds like a self-involved, castrated male’s oxymoronic mating call.  Let Me Love You is not much better, typifying much of the filler here, the lyrics of which seem to draw on familiar country-music themes best communicated in past chart-toppers..

Team Sarver has chosen the final song, You Are, as the first single.  But Tell Me, an abandoned son’s message to his father, is much more compelling

The cover art to this self-titled CD (my advance copy, anyway) suggests a rush job.  How else to explain that there are 13 songs listed when, in fact, this CD, without apparent bonus cuts or other extras, has 14 tracks?

 

Gary P. Nunn

Taking Texas to the Country

       Rating *****

    


If you were as lucky as I was during the early ‘70s to see Joan Baez perform on your college campus, you know the joy of hearing someone who can actually sing, singing lyrics you can actually understand, with a musical accompaniment that neither drowns out the artist nor blasts your ears.  You also have an appreciation for Gary P. Nunn’s approach to making records.

Those of us who have followed Nunn since his recording of London Homesick Blues (courtesy of public TV’s Austin City Limits) have come to respect Garry for his directness and simplicity.  So it is refreshing that Taking Texas to the Country doesn’t involve a lot of bells and whistles, merely an appreciation of what Nunn’s core audience wants.       

There’s really not a bad selection among the 13 here.  Déjà Vu provides a jaunty, jocular opening that should find fans singing along while providing just the proper inspiration and instruction for any songwriter challenged to write about classic country themes in a new and entertaining way.  The title song, “road-tested” by Gary and his Bunkhouse Band, is a musical statement of a mission: To bring the Texas-based music loved by fans of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (all name-checked here) to Nunn’s own while “having fun and making money.” 

Merle’s fans may be surprised that It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) is not a cover of Haggard’s 1972 hit single.  One wonders, however dissimilar the actual songs of the same name, if Gary’s title will catch the attention of Hank Cochran, who, along with Grady Martin, co-wrote the Haggard hit.  

Other tracks are familiar Texas Swing and Texas Two-Step fare, there’s even a bit of Cajun music and a hint of Jamaican reggae here, but my favorite are I’m Not That Kind of Guy (about a gent who lays his cards on the line) and The Likes of Me (a celebration of differences).

2010 is only almost half over, but, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, Taking Texas to the Country gets my vote for the best country-music album of the year- so far…

The Kathy Kallick Band

Between the Hollow and the High-Rise

       Rating *****


The Kathy Kallick Band (who are guitarist/lead and harmony vocalist Kathy Kallick,  Kallick’s fellow harmony vocalists,- Dobro and banjoist Greg Booth and fiddler Annie Staninec- plus acoustic bassist Dan Booth and Tom  Bekeny on mandolin who trade lead vocals with each other and with Kathy) are the future of bluegrass.

 Kathy’s lyrics give a contemporary lift to music that endures as it pays homage to its storied past.  Where Chris Gantry wrote of the Dreams of the Everyday Housewife, Kathy’s My House is a song that speaks to the modern working woman’s leaky sink full of dirty dishes, the house’s peeling paint and, if she can bear to consider the thought, even a broken window.

With 14 songs with which to please the band’s fans (and also to justify the title of the CD), there are reminders of, and bows to, the traditional bluegrass sound that bring those who grew up in the hollow to the high-rise.  They include excellent renditions of traditional bluegrass favorites including There’s A Higher Power, Lonesome Night, Come Walk With Me,  and a great updated and rewritten version of  White House Blues the quintet calls New White House Blues (given its name-checking presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush,  Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld,  Alan Greenspan and even Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

There’s also the band’s take on a song I always thought was more folk or mountain than specifically bluegrass- (Get Along Home) Cindy- but with additional lyrics I guess it is now!

Panhandle Rag and a couple of original pace-changing instrumentals complete the package:  Greg Booth’s Monobrow and Tom Bekeny’s Winterlight Aire.  

Plunder: The Crime of Our Time

       Rating **** 


Veteran Emmy award-winning network (ABC, CNN) news producer (and author) Danny Schecter has produced/directed a 100 minute video (excluding bonus footage) as a companion to his book, The Crime of Our Time: Why Wall Street is Not Too Big to Jail.

Using archival film, animation (as in Larry King Alive!) and multi-genre musical soundtrack, Schecter dissects Wall Street fraud through conversations with the players (e.g., former Bear Stearns, Chase Bank and Goldman Sachs employees), investors and protesters in a manner that is both entertaining and understandable.

Danny surveys the buying, selling and insuring of fraudulent mortgages, concluding that the “bedrock of the whole process is crime.”  Yet, Schecter charges, the story is not being told by America’s cable networks business and news channels nor its daily newspapers. 

Further, Danny opines “the media” (which, by definition is NOT monolithic) has been co-opted.  This has resulted, Schecter believes, in what he calls (a cadre of) Wall Street-embedded (business) journalists whose focus on, for example, Bernie Madoff’s $65 million Ponzi scheme misses the point.

For Danny believes that while focusing on Madoff puts a face on evil, it obfuscates the larger issue which is an estimated total of $171 that has suddenly disappeared from a country where 70 per cent of the wealth is owned by one percent of the people.

Amid all of the outrage over the bailouts following liars’ loans, “We need a jailout,” Schecter opines.

It might be suggested that Danny’s blaming media, mainstream and otherwise, for the financial crisis is an oversimplified easy out.  While I would recommend this DVD for the factual information, Schecter’s featuring of say, Jesse Jackson (who seems to insert himself into everything even vaguely political), whose refusal to make the finances of his Rainbow Coalition transparent, suggests an alliance that may not exist.

The soundtrack, with titles such as Plunder, Speechless!, Free Money Blues, The Economy Bailout Song, Nobody Wants My Debt Anymore, I Love Subprime and on and on, adds the necessary elements of parody and/or dark humor here.

The DVD's “extras,” including Sex Addiction on Wall Street, are intriguing, too.

Further information is available here, here, here, and here. 

Marty Rabon

At His Best

       Rating **** 1/2




Shenandoah’s former lead singer, if he must be still so identified, is nearly at his best performing these 11 sides.    Any equivocation evinced by the qualifier “nearly” references not Marty Raybon’s superb performances, but rather the weakness of some of the material.

Marty simply loves to entertain and to emote- and it shows on record as well as on stage.  I’ll be he is equally passionate about his music when simply rehearsing.  Marty sings what he knows – and Raybon is not a bad songwriter, either, having co-written almost half of the songs here.  One of these Still My Little Man (Matty’s Song),  Marty co-wrote with Peter McCann as a tribute to Raybon’s soldier son.   

That’s The Only Way, probably the best song on the CD, is a reminder of the importance of self-knowledge and integrity, while The Change is an introspective,  close second.

Marty delivers The Heat is On in such a way that the music, the lyrics and the production fuse, appropriately building to the musical equivalent of a haunting yet frenzied burst of sexual energy.

Big Pain is a pretty convincing “hurtin’ song,” but the evident hit, Daddy Phone, strikes me as mawkish contrivance, while I Don’t Want to Lose You Anna (set in, predictably, Louisiana) simply sounds contrived.

Still, in all, this is a "must" album for Marty Raybon fans.

The Grascals

The Famous Lefty Flynn's

 Rating *** 1/2




Sonny Osborne's liner notes tend to make any comments of mine (or any other reviewer for that matter) seem superfluous.
Reflecting on the Grascals following a trend of other bluegrassers who’ve been covering ‘60s pop tunes of late, Sonny writes that the sextet, with the release of The Famous Lefty Flynn’s, has recorded “some songs that will put you in another orbit.  Last Train to Clarksville is enough for me… but there’s so much more.”

What could be interpreted as a left-handed compliment from Sonny, if not a concession to the popularity of music out of Osborne’s “orbit,” comes with praise for including covers of Bobby and Sonny Osborne’s hits:  Up This Hill and Down is a song I thought no one could ever get the feel for… but they did…  Son of A Sawmill Man is hard to do because it is so fast… but they did it.”  

The Grascals’ fourth album also features the group’s rendition of Steve Earle’s My Old Friend the Blues and, with the assistance of Hank Williams, Jr., a 21st century recording of  I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.  (Hank Williams and Bill Monroe shared writers’ credits on this one.)

The banjo of the Grascals’ newest (and only female) group member, two-time IBMA Banjo Player of the Year honoree Kristin Scott Benson, is prominently featured on all 12 performances found here, including the title song (a story-song tribute to a legendary prison inmate, told from the perspective of an admiring co-conspirator).

Satan and Grandma will impress Christians and amuse non-Christians, while the Grascals’ revival (no pun intended) of the public domain chestnut, Give Me Jesus, will likewise please the largest segment of the Grascals’ audience, perpetuating religious exclusivity at a time when a bow to diversity would be more helpful in expanding its fan base.


Shy Blakeman

Long Distance Man



 Rating ***

If Waylon Jennings had not already sired a son who seems to be following in his (mother, Jessi Colter’s and) late dad’s footsteps,   he might have claimed Shy Blakeman.

While the Texas singer-songwriter also claims The Black Crowes and Ray Charles as his musical influences, Waymore’s specter even extends to Blakeman’s choice of producers:, Ted Russell Kamp (whose credits include, yes, Shooter Jennings).

Shy’s opener, The Kamp-penned title song is a bit of bravado Waylon might easily have recorded as is the track that follows, So Many Honky Tonks. 

But with musicians such as Marc Ford and Audley Freed lending credence to Blakeman’s Crowes’ connection and other all-star musicians  (Doug Pettibone, Kenny Vaughn, Jason Sutter, Don Dziubla and Gia Ciambotti contributing their time and talent,  this is hardly a Waylon Jennings tribute album.

Not that remakes are totally absent.  Shy shines on his reprise of the Rusty Wier hit,  Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance.

Then again, Quarter to Three is not a remake of the Gary “U.S.” Bonds classic but rather a brassy, ballsy, bluesy self-indulgent slightly gospel-infused rocker written by the Warren Brothers and Rob Stoney.

 Likewise, Living Proof is not the cover of a Hank Williams, Jr. hit and listener won’t be thinking of Jeanne Pruett as Blakemore goes full-throttle on Willis Alan Ramsey’s daydream of sorts, Satin Sheets (Rest assured, John Volinkaty’s heirs will NOT be suing for copyright infringement).

Those who like their music rollicking, rockin’, raucous and sometimes with a touch of the blues, will find that Long Distance Man does not disappoint.  For Shy Blakeman is anything but- well, shy!


Steve Palmer Band

Apparition

 Rating *** 1/2

The Steve Palmer Band’s debut album positions the quintet (Palmer, lead vocalist and guitarist; Bryan Ewald, lead guitarist; Anthony Setola, bass, musical director; Larry Hall, keyboards and B3; Tony Morra on drums) among 2010 newcomers worthy of your attention.

Palmer, who co-produced (with David Huff) and wrote each of these 12 songs released on his own label, is the driving force and focal point for a tight band of musicians who, along with background singers Vicki Hampton and Cindy Walker, enhance Steve’s performances.

P
almer takes universal musical themes and personalizes them in a way that  is somewhat revealing, but sometimes a little guarded to the point that listeners are forced to rely on their own interpretations.  While this is par for the course with much music of the Americana genre, this reviewer prefers the in your face approach .

Yet, from his musical articulation of the burden of Living a Lie to the stark reality of Never Gonna See Her Again,  Steve’s music provides the proverbial window to the soul, his often subtle style notwithstanding.  The title song is a message from a potential suitor to a prospect weighed down by personal baggage, while I Think I Am In Love is a celebration of new love and moxie.   

The music of the Steve Palmer band hits just the right note at the intersection of rock and country.  Palmer’s is easily one of the most entertaining groups I’ve heard in 2010.

Michelle Turley

Dance With Me Tonight

 

 Rating *** 1/2

Singer/songwriter/keyboardist Michelle Turley’s album is a family affair.  Michelle co-writes with her producer (who just happens to be her brother) and looks to her husband and mother for additional inspiration.  (Daddy is apparently posthumously immortalized in one of the songs, despite his daughter's apparently feeling conflicted about him due to memories of abuse.)

As the listener scours the list of song titles on Dance With Me, it would be erroneous to conclude that Michelle is covering ‘60s hits.  For I Understand is not the old Herman’s Hermits hit, it is Turley’s lyrical acknowledgment, based on experience, that some lessons must be learned firsthand. And Bus Stop is not Michelle’s version of The Hollies’ hit, but rather a slice-of-life musical metaphor for the various forms of fortune.      

While the title song suits the singer, it’s the album’s opening song and another positioned toward the end that bring cohesiveness to the project.  Caroline provides a geographical setting for a story-song that is reprised near the close.  Add to this a familiar, rousing instrumental train tribute, in the form of, as Michelle titles fusion of original writing with a “special” country-music standard, Caroline (in Orange Blossoms).    

Turley has an affinity for occasional falsetto, just short of a yodel, and her music will be of particular interest to fans who would like to hear a singer whose voice conjures comparison to what is best described as a blend of the artistry of Margo Smith and Christy Lane.

Gary Allan

Get Off on the Pain

 Rating **** 1/2



Gary Allan is one of the most underrated of country-music’s established talents.

Gary’s music has long been overshadowed by his personal life, but there has always seemed to be a convergence of the singer’s turbulent private life with his music and/or his persona.

For Gary Allan sported the threatening tattooed biker’s look `long before tatts became a generational fashion statement for many who are young enough to be Gary’s children.

The masochistic “appeal” of the title song suggests Bill Luther, Brett James and Justin Weaver set out to write a “Gary Allan song;” one in which the protagonist interrupts his pity party just long enough to voluntarily take responsibility for his actions.

Gary’s brooding, bad boy image is played out in several of these songs, redeemed as it arguably is by the saving grace of a somewhat oxymoronic tender vulnerability.

In Gary Allan’s musical world, women are usually at the center of the recording artist’s frustration or occasional despondency.    These attitudes are occasionally offset by the swagger and assertiveness typified by the mildly sexist lyrics of That Ain’t Gonna Fly.

Today is a song of jealousy and immaturity.  The hostile imagery of its lyrics suggests a powerful emotion is not limited to the double entendre evinced by the title of Kiss Me When I’m Down and begs the question, assuming its authenticity, amid the self-indulgence of yet another selection (Along the Way) "When will Gary Allan grow up?".

We Fly By Night is an upbeat sexual celebration; one of the album’s concessions to country radio (others include When You Give Yourself Away and the somewhat supposedly autobiographical tribute to a special lady: She Gets Me).

No Regrets, a charitable bit of introspection, is an ideal closer to the ten songs available on the standard issue of Get Off On the Pain.  Those who opt for the deluxe version will enjoy Long Summer Days as well as “live” versions of Right Where I Need to Be, Best I Ever Had and Watching Airplanes.

The latter underscore the strong connection between Gary and his fans and provide the best examples of Gary’s captivating performances that suggest a total entertainer at his best.


Becky Schlegel

Dandelion

Rating ****

Becky Schlegel’s latest CD is a baker’s dozen of self-written songs produced by Becky and her manager, Brian Fesler.  (Fesler also contributes his musicianship to the project.  That’s Brian listeners hear on banjo, acoustic and electric guitar.)

Anna, the opener, is a story-song of fractured domesticity that Becky delivers with an appropriately haunting tone.  The title song is a metaphor of wistful frustration. 

All of Becky’s songs capture a certain imagery, several retaining the esoteric quality I commented upon when reviewing Schlegel’s For All the World To See.

Colorado Line (a song of regret about the one the protagonist left behind),  Don’t Leave It Up To Me (a plea for parity in a relationship) and I Never Loved You Cowboy (self-explanatory, no doubt, but requiring clarification for the rodeo rider who has seemingly missed the point) feature Randy Kohrs on harmony vocals.  Randy returns to add not only harmony vocals but also the sound of his resonator guitar on So Embarrassing, a tale of what ensues when one of the parties to a relationship is caught off-guard.

Becky’s creativity shines on this venture and, unlike many songwriters, her vocals are strong enough for her to possibly be her songs’ best interpreter.

Dandelion was engineered by Matthew Zimmerman at Minneapolis’ Wild Sound Studio.

Mike Schikora

This Cowboy's In Love

 Rating ****

Mike Schikora may be a cowboy, hat, horse named JB and all, but if This Cowboy’s in Love (a bow to the title song?) is cowboy music, it must be cowboy music for the 21st century, as there are only bits and pieces suggesting a throwback to the singing cowboy era of yesteryear.

Mike wouldn’t have to evoke Muddy Waters’ name in Long Way From Where I’ve Been (the first of 12 songs Schikora either wrote or co-wrote here)- though he does- for it to take me too long to conclude that Mike's kind of cowboy music is at least equal parts blues (Check out Be Good To Me) and/or sometimes country.

Hoot Hester and  Hargus "Pig" Robbins lead the list of impressive musicians assisting Schikora (who provides his own background vocals) with this project.

Mike produced this CD and also assisted Zane Baxter with the arrangements.

The songs are uniformly pleasant.  All have their moments and some seem to coax the listener to sing along, though be advised that Run Like the Wind is not a cover of the old Christopher Cross hit.

As far as hit material, that might depend on if the world is ready for yet another song titled Blue Heartache.  Then again, with the right promotion, Come Closing Time, Pour Me Back Down and Be Good To Me could be contenders.

Josh Turner

Haywire (Deluxe Edition)



 

Rating *** 1/2


Perhaps the first order of business should be to explain that “Deluxe Edition,” in this case,  refers to four tracks not found on the standard-issue 11-song Haywire CD and two video downloads (an interview with Josh and Turner’s Why Don’t We Just Dance video).  The four bonus songs include This Kind of Love, Let’s Find A Church (a song recorded during Turner’s 2003 Long Black Train sessions, but only released seven years later), and “live” recordings of Long Black Train and Your Man.

Josh Turner fans, who have yet to buy either version of Haywire, don’t need me to tell them that, if they can afford the couple of extra bucks to spring for the deluxe edition, it will be well worth it.  For the casual Turner fan, the recommendation to buy either version or neither is less certain.

That’s because Josh’s latest album (counting two editions of this one alone, imports etc., I’m more hesitant than others to put a release number on it), while one that offers (on both editions) Turner's hit, Why Don’t We Just Dance and, at this writing perhaps the next one (the label favorite, Your Smile), while, it has its moments (notably, Why Don’t We Just Dance and Josh’s cover of the Don Williams classic, I Wouldn’t Be A Man) several songs seem to fall into a pattern of sameness established by Turner’s choice of material on earlier albums.

The insipid choice of the lyrically-silly Eye Candy (which concedes that a lover’s kisses, while, “ain’t nutritious,” are “delicious”) all but pulls down the rest of this CD with it.

I applaud Turner for his strong convictions, positive attitude and insistence on recording songs that uplift and inspire rather than those that degrade or otherwise send a destructive message.  To the extent he has proven that it can be done I give Haywire high marks, but I hope his next up for the inability to find an album’s worth of consistently good, new, innovative material. effort will not rely as heavily as this one does on covering and rerecording past hits to cover.

Bill Anderson

Songwriter

Rating ****

Having not heard a new Bill Anderson album in years (Thanks for adding me to your promotional mailing list, Bill!), I expected from the title of this one and a glance at the unfamiliar titles of these 12 songs that I was in for a less-than-routine listening session; one perhaps where Bill would take the role of the reluctant songplugger intent on expressing his innermost thoughts while searching for a convergence of the esoteric and commercial.

Since I’m not sure what my role would be in such a scenario, I’m glad Bill’s effort relieves us both of those respective “responsibilities.”

The initial track, It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey (which Bill co-wrote with Rivers Rutherford and Anderson’s co-producer Rex Schnelle) immediately strikes listeners as not your typical Bill Anderson song.  That was my first impression.  But, then again, it might be a song I could have written if Bill commissioned me to write a ditty that combined the popularity of  Po’ Folks and Peel Me A 'Nanner.

Bill co-wrote all of these songs, variously assisted by Rex (who engineered, mixed, mastered as well as played and sang background), Jamie Johnson, Buddy Cannon, Jon Randall, Brad Paisley, Barry Dean, Tim Nichols, Joshua Ragsdale, Bobby Tomerlin, Jim Martin, Gordy Sampson, Coley McCabe, John Wiggins, Billy Montana and Brad Crisler.  (That’s Paisley’s electric guitar you hear on If You Can’t Make Money- an Anderson/Paisley/Randall cut I don’t see being covered by a female artist.)

Wherever She Is is interesting in that same, vaguely misogynous, way in that it's not the sort of song co-writers Anderson, Martin and Tomberlin would have pitched to Conway Twitty.  (Twitty often said that the secret to his success was Conway's refusal to record a song with lyrics that put a woman -as opposed to, say, lay a woman- down.)

Anderson’s songwriting has always intrigued me.  Bill has written and/or performed some of the best- and unfortunately, especially when he panders, worst- songs I have ever heard.  Rarely have I encountered a songwriter/performer who hits both extremes.  (Perhaps because Bill's best choices are so good, as with other capable songwriters,  it is disappointing to listen to lyrics that sound calculating, personifying the person the writer may have been at one time but is no longer, or just not up to a writer’s demonstrated capabilities.  In fairness, artist/songwriters typically deliver a series of consecutive singles and/or albums that are terrific, before the rigors of the road, the pressures of topping themselves, adjusting to a new lifestyle, the loss of identity or whatever, reduce their writing and/or song choices to caricature.)

More talented, ambitious and self-aware than the average hit songwriter, Bill has enjoyed an all-but-unprecedented successive career as a songwriter who co-writes.  But, since Anderson's  best work has historically been his own, I hope he’ll consider removing the security blanket.

For, while several of these songs ignite creative sparks, there are only three I don’t feel like I’ve heard before:  The Songwriters (Anderson’s and Sampson’s paean to tunesmiths, the tribute is both well-written and executed as well as refreshingly humorous, unlike more intense efforts to lyrically cover the same ground),  That’s When the Fight Broke Out and Some Kind of War.

That’s When the Fight Broke Out, while repetitive and, like an old and/or corny joke, predictable in spots, is a jocular, comedic Anderson/Schnelle cowrite  that adds to the variety of material here.

Some Kind of War, written by Bill, Coley and John, vys with The Songwriters for the most gripping song on this album (perhaps depending upon one’s mood).  It is the lyrical reminder that we all need from time-to-time of what former Nashville radio-TV news and talk personality Ruth Ann Leach (now philanthropist and occasional public speaker Ruth Ann Harnisch) refers to in her speeches as our "own private hell;” that incident, or series or incidents or perhaps time, in our past or present, that is so sad, traumatizing, debilitating or worse that, if we do not keep it secret, remains difficult to address even if we don’t consider it inappropriate conversation between us and those we know less than intimately. 

In Anderson’s world, this negative “corner of my life,“ as Bill might put it, need not be quite as hidden so much as unapparent.  The point expressed, so much more succinctly than I am doing, is that it’s not necessarily necessary that we know what roads our fellow travelers have walked- or are walking.  Rather, and more important than learning the specifics sought by a gossip, we can take it on faith that if someone’s behavior appears inexplicable, atypical, inappropriate to the situation or otherwise extreme- it doesn’t mean there isn’t the provocation that might surface were we insightful enough, and possibly not so wrapped up in ourselves, to ask the right questions.   

Randy Kohrs

Quicksand

 Rating ****

Randy Kohrs calls his music a mixture of blues, country, bluegrass and Americana.

It is all of that- and more. 

Kohrs delivers 13 songs, several of which are as attention-getting as his cornucopia of musical influences.  The title cut brings this home as Randy’s credible covers of Del Reeves’ It’s Been So Long, Webb Pierce’s This Must Be the Bottom and Tom T. Hall’s revisionist take on John Henry (More About John Henry) makes this old music  new again, to a brand new generation of listeners,  while not alienating those of us who remember the originals..

Kohrs really shines, though, as he evokes the imagery of a young man dressing in Sunday Clothes and, on perhaps the most unusual and well-written song on this CD,  a social commentary of the anti-eminent domain variety: Truman’s Vision.  (Yes, that’s as in Harry S.)



Liz Talley

More Than Satisfied

Rating *****

Of the twelve tracks, including the title song (the title of which summarizes my reaction to this collection), the rousing Bump Bounce Boogie, and Liz’ duet with Tony Booth (remember him?) on a Billy Yates-Jerry Salley song (What We Don’t Have), I have a few favorites of my own:  These include Talley’s take on Leona Williams’ The Way It Was and  Liz' reprise of I’m Not That Good At Goodbyes ( perhaps even Stella Parton agrees, a standard deserving a cover rendition at least every decade or so, that it might be introduced to a new generation of listeners).

But perhaps the most innovative recording here is Johnny Getting Out of Jail Barbeque.  If you’ll recall, it was a perhaps apocryphal barbecue (depending upon the source), that resulted in Johnny Rodriguez heading for jail (for the first time), so this song has nothing to do with Rodriguez.  Rather, it’s a creative tale about an unusual gig, with a narrative from the “entertainment’s” perspective.  (Road-weary and otherwise struggling musicians will want to buy Liz’ CD based on this story-song alone!)           

If the surname Talley makes you thing of James or Lewis, realize that, in addition to her loyal U.S. following,  Liz receives “a lot of attention and sales overseas.  I’ll be going back to Germany in March with Martha Moore and a couple of Texas acts… Hopefully with time, I’ll get some opening act spots or increased sales.”

I expect both for Liz in 2010.  She’s easily made one of the best CDs I’ve heard in 2009!



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.




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

Homesick

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?)


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!)

Airwaves

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.



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.


Richard Jaymes

Dollar and A Dream

Rating ***

Over the years there has been no shortage of neither dollar and/nor dream-themed country-music songs. But Richard Jaymes has written and recorded a contemporary take on Main Street's response to Wall Street in a manner that would get Horatio Alger's notice.

While I have yet to hear the album of the same name, its title song (one version of which is absent the other's fiddle mix) spotlights Richard's energetic style as it suggests to listeners a bit of optimism available to anyone, even in these hardest of times, when all they may have is A Dollar and A Dream.

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

Cowboy

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 promotion" purposes.

The Youngers

Heritage

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 "renegade" 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 "after 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 "repackaging" 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

Home

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 "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."

Stringbean

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.

Tracylyn

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