Album Review – Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…’

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It’s pretty simple: If Dwight Yoakam releases new music, you should pay attention. At least that’s how I feel about the iconic Bakersfield-sound country artist. When discussing the titans and legends of country music you’ll always (rightly) hear about Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, George Jones, Willie Nelson and George Strait. But you never hear Yoakam’s name thrown in with them when in my opinion he 100% belongs amongst the best in the history of country music. Thanks to him, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley, they brought style and tradition back to a genre in the 80s that sorely lacked the earmarks that had made the genre special and memorable. Yoakam’s incorporation of elements of rock into his brand of country music quickly made him a ton of fans and still has a pretty loyal following to this day. He really did introduce a lot of rock fans who didn’t bother with country before to the genre, something that often gets overlooked.

The last we heard from Yoakam was his 2015 album Second Hand Heart, released via Warner. It was personally one of my favorites from last year and found it to be a solid country album from start to finish. And unlike a lot of older country artists Yoakam has accepted that country radio won’t play him anymore. He certainly won’t ever be one to chase trends either. In fact he’s done the opposite with his newest project. Yoakam announced earlier this year he was going to do a bluegrass album that would consist of some of his best music, only in bluegrass form (plus a surprise I’ll get to in a second). That album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movies Stars…, is now here (released via Sugar Hill Records). If you’re a fan of Yoakam or bluegrass, you’ll certainly have a lot of fun listening to it.

While it’s jarring at first to hear iconic songs like “Two Doors Down” and “Guitars, Cadillacs” in bluegrass form, after a few listens they’re really fun and it’s cool to hear them in a different way that’s still great. They don’t top the original versions of course, but it’s interesting as a fan to hear Yoakam be able to craft such untouchably good songs into something different and still make the music sound great. What also impressed me about these bluegrass covers is Yoakam’s swagger and attitude really doesn’t disappear. When I think of bluegrass I think of a humble tone, yet Yoakam makes it sound cool because I think it’s impossible for Yoakam to not give his music a feeling of coolness. Of course while I’m impressed by the album as a whole, the track that undoubtedly stands out for me and I think a lot of listeners is Yoakam’s cover of the legendary Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The one-of-a-kind artist’s death earlier in 2016 undoubtedly sent shockwaves throughout the entire music world, as Prince’s music influenced and touched artists and fans of all genres. It was no different for Yoakam, who felt inspired to honor the artist’s late memory by covering one of his best songs he told People:

“I always loved the song. The first time I heard it, it stopped me in my car. It struck me as interesting and as unique an expression of love musically as anything ever in pop music,” Yoakam says. “I thought it spoke volumes about the honest willingness of the person who wrote it to bare his heart to the world through his music. Prince, I never really knew you, but I’m sure going to miss you.”

I recommend reading the whole interview he gave on recording it and deciding to put it on the album if you haven’t yet. One thing I love about Yoakam’s cover is that he keeps the rawness and passion of the song intact. That’s what makes the song standout so much for me, as Prince just puts all of his heart and soul into the song. Yoakam’s interpretation doesn’t match it because nobody can match it, but I’m glad I still felt those elements when listening to Yoakam’s version. It’s good the instrumentation was kept downbeat too, as this song is supposed to have a melancholy undertone to it. So many artists covered Prince after his death, but not many did him justice like Yoakam does here.

I always find it fun and exciting to watch legendary artists take on new and different musical side projects and Dwight Yoakam’s Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… is no different. It’s yet another album for fans of Yoakam to enjoy, as well as a pleasure for anyone who enjoys bluegrass. Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is one of those albums you can just throw on at anytime and enjoy.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Robbie Fulks’ ‘Upland Stories’

With 13 albums in 20 years, Robbie Fulks is a singer and songwriter who deserves a large audience. Now over 50 years old, Fulks is a songwriter with life experience and wisdom to offer through his music, which is how many will perceive his newest album Upland Stories. An album that put musical production in the back seat in order to make room for storytelling and eloquent lyricism, Upland Stories is a look at the world through Robbie Fulks’ eyes. Songs full of nostalgia and longing for the time of youthful innocence, Fulks’ honest look at life makes for a great album full of story songs.

“Alabama At Night” is one of three songs on the album influenced by James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book details the desolate lifestyle of southern farmers during the Great Depression. “Alabama At Night” offers a view of the beauty surrounding the dusty fields and weary workers. Fulks’ writes about an out-of-towner who stops in town and is blown away by the beauty and peace of the night sky over Alabama. “Baby Rocked Her Dolly” details an old man recalling and sharing memories of his family singing and dancing together. Robbie Fulks does a great job with this cover of Frankie Miller’s song written by Merle Kilgore.

Fulks’ strength as a songwriter is capturing emotions, and “Never Come Home” best exemplifies that. It’s a story song that finds an old, dying man returning home for his final days. His presence at home is unwelcome from his family and the locals, and the man regrets his decision to spend his few remaining days at home. Fulks’ vocals perfectly capture the heartbreak of the song. “Sarah Jane” tells the story of a man who’s lonely as he continues to chase the wrong dreams. The man has had rotten luck in pursuit of his dreams, and he misses his home with the woman he loves.

Robbie Fulks brings in his bluegrass roots with “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man.” After the passing of her long time husband, Aunt Peg has a new boyfriend who’s a little quirky to the rest of family, who are only too eager to learn as little as possible about the guy. The lyrics aren’t anything special, but the bluegrass production of the song is great, and it’s a welcome upbeat number as most of the album has an acoustic production. Fulks’ recalls his mistakes and carelessness as a teenager in “Needed.” After falling in love with a girl, she gets pregnant and Fulks gets cold feet with their relationship. It’s a story that builds up heartbreak and regret, only to turn it on its head with the final verse.

Robbie Fulks sings of memories in “South Bend Soldiers On.” A man seasoned with life sees how life around him as changed. And as things continue to change, he relies more on his memories of the past for joy. The song paints a grim picture of memories and includes my favorite lyric on the whole album. “If all that we’re made of is the ghosts inside our head, who could blame us for pretending otherwise?” 

The next two songs were also influenced from Let Us Praise Famous Men. “America Is A Hard Religion” is another bluegrass song. This song correlates directly with the book’s content as Fulks’ sings of the farmers struggling to find prosperity in the dusty fields. “A Miracle” focuses more on how the Great Depression also affected areas beside the south. The big cities aren’t as grand as they once were, and all anyone can do is hope for change. It’s interesting for Fulks to choose that book and time period to write a handful songs about, but he does a great job on spreading his focus and painting a complete picture with “Alabama At Night”, “America Is A Hard Religion”, and “A Miracle.”

“Sweet As Sweet Comes” is a jazzy and bluesy influenced song with a prominent upright bass line in the production mix. It’s a love song where Fulks sings to how much he loves his wife and wouldn’t change a thing about their life together. It’s a good love song and an honest sentiment from Fulks. “Katy Kay” is a rambunctious bluegrass song. Fulks sings of a man who only falls in love with sad girls he can fix, and this man is nervous for the day when Katy Kay will no longer be sad. The story is goofy, but it’s a fun song to listen to. Upland Stories comes to a close with the album’s longest song, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals.” Fulks sings of his foolish escapades while living in North Carolina. He remembers the times he had growing up while he prepares to move on to the next chapter of his life.

Upland Stories is like an invitation into the mind of a man who’s lived a lot of life and has wisdom to pass on to the next generation. Songs about regret, mistakes, and lessons learned are what you’ll find in Robbie Fulks’ thirteenth album. Even with the great songwriting, the album still has its flaws, mainly in the production. There are times where the album falls into a monotoned acoustic production that bridges multiple songs, and there are a few times where Fulks’ voice is hard to hear in the mix of the music. But Robbie Fulks’ seasoned voice fits perfectly with the lyrics he’s written. Upland Stories is an album with rich stories and a unique songwriting style, but you have to devote yourself to the listen in order to fully grasp Robbie Fulks’ stories and wisdom.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Sierra Hull’s ‘Weighted Mind’ is a Beautiful Coming of Age Album

Sierra Hull was a child prodigy in bluegrass music. At age 11, Hull joined Alison Krauss on the Grand Ole Opry stage and soon thereafter signed with Rounder Records. Sierra Hull’s mandolin playing has earned her high praise and respect in the music world. Krauss even said of Hull, “Talent like hers is so rare, and I don’t think it stops.” Banjo master Bela Fleck says, “She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved.” Sierra Hull released her first album at 16, and now, 8 years later, has released her 3rd full length album with Fleck serving as the producer. Hull’s Weighted Mind shows how her own songwriting has taken a step forward to match the maturity in her musicianship.

As suggested by the cover art and album title, Weighted Mind is Hull’s own, cluttered mind, weighing her down and she tries to make sense of her life. Like most people in their early 20s, Hull too was struggling to find her identity while transitioning into full-blown adulthood. The result is an intimate album with a simple production. Per Fleck’s recommendation, the songs were recorded without much of a backing band – only Hull’s mandolin along with Fleck’s banjo and Ethan Jodziewicz on the bass. No percussions, just a quiet production of strings allowing Hull’s voice to shine and lyrics to be heard.

The opening track of “Stranded” showcases the instrumental skills of Sierra Hull. The introductory track moves from a quiet calmness, gradually becoming a bit more chaotic and darker as Hull sings “dear 22, I’m stranded here” before transitioning right into “Compass.” Building off the lyric of feeling stranded, she sings of readying herself for a journey of self discovery. Feeling lost and sure, she throws away her old self, trusting that what is meant to be will be. “Choices And Changes” continues on the theme of this mental and emotional journey. “If you won’t go where I’m going, then I’ll have to go alone,” Hull sings with acceptance and confidence. There’s more urgency in her mandolin play, complimenting the lyrics of needing to move forward because the changes are necessary.

“Wings Of The Dawn” reads as if it’s a prayer for guidance. It’s a hopeful realization that she won’t feel lost forever. Hull’s higher vocals and mandolin picking are beautifully complimented with the lower bass and violin. With the extended solo in the song’s middle, the complex instrumentation takes a front seat on the song, showcasing Hull’s skills more, as well as Fleck’s production skills. “Wings Of The Dawn” is nicely layered with vocal harmonies on the chorus as well. One of the best tracks on Weighted Mind, in my opinion, is “Birthday.” Here Hull sings to what seems to be a former lover. She remembers that its his birthday, but after the break-up, he’s left angry and heartbroken. Hull still cares for him, and accepts that he would rather remain angry at her and ignore her because there’s nothing she can say to change the situation. Beautiful lyrics combined with Hull’s soothing vocals help “Birthday” shine.

Sierra Hull shows off more of her mandolin brilliance on the album’s title track. It’s the only instrument found on the track, and her solo toward the song’s end is executed perfectly, a way in which only a veteran player could. The lyrics feel like a commentary and explanation of the album as a whole. Hull steps away from herself for a song. On “Fallen Man” she sings from the point of view of a dying man. This is a man’s final thoughts as he drifts away into the afterlife; they’re his final thoughts about his process of dying. A quick song with simple strums, but beautifully sung by Hull. “The In-Between” again finds Sierra Hull commenting on her situation in life and finding motivation. “Life is a hanging sharp edge sword,” she sings in the second verse. Life may throw curve balls, but if you don’t let it get the best of you, then you’ll be bound to come out on the good side of the in-between. At 5 minutes long, “The In-Between” features another extended solo where Sierra Hull wows with her mandolin skills with the bass layered behind her to create a dynamic instrumental break before the song ends with one final chorus.

“Lullaby” finds Hull singing to her mother, pleading for love and comfort. Hull sings that she’ll never be too old to cry to her mom when she’s feeling down and dejected. The lyrics are reflective, honest, and perhaps the most vulnerable of the whole album. This is a song which she wrote by herself, which adds more authenticity to her heartfelt delivery. “Lullaby” is another one of Weighted Minds’ strongest songs. “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” is a song dealing with love and heartbreak. Lyrically, it’s a bit more traditional than “Birthday” in the sense that if her love leaves her, she’ll feel lost because “young men are plenty, but sweethearts few.” The song features several instrumental breaks where Bela Fleck joins in on the banjo alongside Hull’s mandolin and Jodziewicz’s bass.

Love has ended again in “I’ll Be Fine.” Sierra Hull sings to a man who has wronged her one too many times. She ends the relationship and tells him she’ll be fine in time. It’s a song of hope because this storm of heartbreak will blow over. The instrumentation shifts as the song progresses moving from a smoother, hopeful sound to more harsh picking in the middle, and returning to the hopeful, smooth mandolin strum as the song concludes. Hull’s dynamic vocal delivery on “I’ll Be Fine” is one of the best on the album. Weighted Mind concludes with “Black River.” On this emotional journey, Hull hasn’t quite found her way, but it’s hopeful that she will. As Hull sings in the chorus, “A thousand years is but a day, they say. And maybe in a thousand more, I will find my way.” A complex, but brilliant lyric portraying both doubt and hope. While not as instrumentally rich as other songs, “Black River” does have an excellent multi-vocal harmony in the final chorus, with Alison Krauss lending her vocals to the mix behind Hull’s. “Black River” is a confident end to the album.

It’s easy to see why Sierra Hull is held in such high regard as both a mandolin musician and a singer-songwriter. The vulnerability and honesty embedded in the lyrics show maturity in Hull that seems beyond what you’d expect from your average 24-year-old, but Sierra Hull is anything but average. Her skills and delivery on Weighted Mind are proof that she’s earned every bit of praise that’s come her way. Rich and complex, Weighted Mind is album for the listener. It’s not easy to pick up on the masterful intricacies at first, but that’s the beauty of the album. The closer you listen to the music and to Hull’s words, the more beauty you’ll find.

Grade: 9/10

Weighted Mind can be purchased through Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review – The Honeycutters’ ‘Me Oh My’

The Honeycutters are a roots country band from Asheville, North Carolina. Tal Taylor plays the mandolin, Rick Cooper the bass, Josh Milligan plays the drums for the band, and Matt Smith offers his skills on the pedal steel, electric guitars and a dobro. But the driving force of The Honeycutters is founder, primary songwriter, and singer Amanda Platt. She brought the band together in 2007 and led the way for the band through two albums. On this third album, released by in April, Platt also took the production reigns, taking full control of the creative direction of Me Oh My.

Platt says, “The new album is the one I’m most proud of to date…I took much more of a driver’s seat in it’s making, and the process has forced me to do a lot of growing up… I feel like I’ve really found my voice.” She worked alongside assistant producer and engineer Jon Ashley to deliver the 14 tracks found on album. The country roots are firm, with the ring of the pedal steel and the pluck of the mandolin noticeably behind Platt’s vocal delivery on nearly every track.

Me Oh My kicks off with a western swing in “Jukebox.” Here we find two down-on-their-luck people alone in the bar. Platt provides first person narration of asking the lonely man to dance with her. The moving production inspires the listener to dance along and is a great choice for an album opener. “All You Ever” finds a prideful man being knocked down a few pegs. This conceited fellow wants all eyes on him in the public, but in the privacy of his home, he’s been humbled. He doesn’t know how to cope with not being the center of attention.

The title track is a commentary of the modern woman. Unlike in our parents and grandparents’ age, women have children out-of-wedlock. They don’t all settle down for marriage. “Me Oh My” suggests the central character may be acting out in the wake of losing a child. It’s a hard-hitting song with honest lyrics, and that’s how Platt likes to write. “Me Oh My” is one of my favorite songs from the album. “Edge of the Frame” deals with a famous “friend” who simply uses people as he or she sees fit. Platt sings in the chorus, “Why you make a beggar out of your best friend? You pull me in and you push me away, ’til I’m standing on the edge, standing on the edge of the frame.

The Honeycutters touch on marital affairs in “Ain’t it The Truth.” Here, Platt sings of a woman in small town where everyone, including said woman, knows her husband is unfaithful. Judgments from the townsfolk are passed because this woman stays with her husband despite his actions. “Carolina” is a love story involving a rambling man. The wanderlust and call for the road is too much for him to stay, and she holds on, despite knowing how hopeless her love is. The theme of love continues on the ballad “Texas ’81.” This is a husband who travels frequently and keeps coming back. Together, they reminisce on their beginning and she yearns for him to stay, for their moments together to not end before he has to leave again. It’s a heartbreaking song punctuated by a great production that captures the passion and hope described in the lyrics.

“Little Bird” carries a theme similar to “Jukebox.” The song describes two people who are flawed and lonely, and that vulnerability allows them to let their guard down to the other person, just for the night. The two are scared of the morning, broken and hiding in the darkness. “Not That Simple” is another song exploring the topic of a cheating husband. In this case, the woman is hurt that he won’t love her, and that she’s fallen for someone who can’t love her. She tries to cope but simply shies away from everything until she simply can’t cry about it any longer. It’s a song about coming to terms and accepting his lies as a truth in her life.

With all the cheating and heartbreak songs, The Honeycutters offer up a song with a positive take on love. “Wedding Song” is about a bride thanking her husband for his love. When they met she was broken and hurt. Through his love and passion for her, he’s helped rebuild that heart and shown her happiness again. “Wedding Song” is a nice, bluegrass inspired love song. The following song, though, finds a marriage falling apart. “Hearts of Men” deals with a father and a husband who’s unhappy with this life. The sacrifices he made to build his family cause him angst. He desires some freedom and independence from his responsibilities, and his children simply want their father back.

“I’ll Be Lovin’ You” is a song of one lover’s encouraging. Life has brought them down and he’s not handling it well. She’s devoted to keep on loving him while he feels like he can’t love himself. At almost six minutes long, “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” has an excellent extended musical outro. “Lucky” finds a girl who continually makes mistakes in the relationship. However, her husband continues to forgive her time and time again, and she ponders how she got so lucky. The album ends with the love song “A Life For You.” It’s not your typical love song, as we see a Bonnie and Clyde type couple that are on the run from the cops. The woman, knowing that her husband is a better person than she, encourages him to save himself. She’s continually dreamed of a better life for him, and wants him to live that out. It’s a touching song that hits you hard. You really just have to hear it for yourself.

Overall, Me Oh My, is a pleasant album. The country rooted production and bluegrass styles in some of the songs are great. Amanda Platt’s lyrics are honest and deep, and she provides a good vocal delivery. My only complaints with the album are that the length of 14 songs is a little much, especially since none of the songs drift above a mid-tempo beat. Me Oh My drags a bit with the high song total. However, Platt’s sharp story telling and production do help make up for the drag, as the last couple songs do make the wait worth it. This is an album country fans missing the roots will love.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Ronnie Reno’s ‘Lessons Learned’

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For over 60 years, Ronnie Reno has pretty much seen it all in his long and illustrious career. His dad was banjo pioneer Don Reno, who made up one half of the Hall of Fame duo of Reno & Smiley. Ronnie started out his own career working alongside his dad, the Louvin Brother and the Osborne brothers. Reno then caught the attention of Merle Haggard and worked with the Hag on several of his major hits, including “If We Make It Through December” and “I’ve Got a Darlin’ For A Wife.” Reno went on to earn his own record deal with MCA Records, all while working alongside legends such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. He also wrote Conway Twitty’s #1 hit “Boogie Grass Band.”

Reno is still going strong now too, as he has his own television on RFD-TV called “Reno’s Old Time Music.” It’s seen in over 46 million homes. In addition he produced the upcoming duo project featuring Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman, Timeless, due to be released later this year. All the while releasing his first album in over decade titled Lessons Learned. And as long as Reno’s career has been, he’s certainly learned a lot of lessons along the way. With this in mind, Reno certainly has a wealth of experience to fall back on as inspiration for this comeback album.

Lessons Learned begins with “Lower Than Lonesome,” a song about being heartbroken. You’ll know right away this album is going to be old school and traditional sounding in every way from the instrumentation to the song structure. This is a nice song to start the album, as it’s kind of an introduction of what’s to come. The next song, “Lessons Learned,” is a catchy little tune about how we learn something from everything we do every single day. We learn from joy and pain, growing because of these experiences. It’s a simple song with an honest message. Reno sings about love in “I Think of You.” The stripped down instrumentation gives it a romantic and easy-going feeling, which works great for a song like this one. The man in the song has seemed to have a falling out with a woman who was in his life and now he can’t stop thinking about her. It’s a yearning for a feeling that is now gone.

Reno picks the pace back up with “Sweet Rosa Lee.” It’s a short love song dedicated to a woman named Rosa Lee. The banjo instrumentation will make you tap your feet as you listen. “Deep Part of Your Heart” is a sentimental love ballad that really goes to the core of what love is all about. We all have a deep part of our heart and that deep love is only shared with a few people in our lives that we love the most. You really can’t get a better definition of a love song than this one. The instrumental “Reno’s Mando Magic” is next. The sweet bluegrass sounds you’ve heard throughout the album get a song to itself to really remind you of what country music should sound like.

“Trail of Sorrow” is about a man who knows he is on a path of sorrow he caused after a night of drinking. It’s gotten him in trouble with his woman and he’s lost his money in a card game. Everything is going wrong around him and he knows tomorrow he’ll have to face those consequences. The song does a great job of telling a story and the lessons learned from drinking too much (something you never see in mainstream country songs).

The nostalgic “All That’s Worth Remembering” is about a man’s memories throughout life, but the one that stands out most for him is a woman who was the love of his life. He chased his dream and left her behind, but he realized that was a mistake. To me this is the best song on the album because it’s the perfect blend of emotion and storytelling. The next song “Our Last Goodbye” feels like the epilogue to “All That’s Worth Remembering.” The man is begging the love of his life to take him back one last time and to not make their goodbye their last goodbye. He reminds them of their love, hoping that convinces her.

“Bad News” is about a man having bad news from home, something that he brought on himself through his own behavior. This includes losing all of their money in a game of five-card stud, which prompted his wife to kick him out of the house. The instrumentation I should mention in this song and throughout the album is pretty damn good. The final song on Lessons Learned is “Always Late,” where Reno is joined by David Frizzell. It’s about a man’s love always being too late with her kisses and how this causes him strife. I love how Reno’s showing the achenes in his voice to express the displeased attitude of the man in the song. This is an all-around great song that caps off the album perfectly.

Lessons Learned is an album that you can tell was crafted by a man who has seen it all and can seamlessly blend those experiences into his music. It’s genuine and from the heart. Reno simply understands how country music works and many artists today would be wise to take notes from an elder statesman like Reno. Being that this is Reno’s first album in over a decade, I thought it was wise to stick to simple themes throughout, as they’re easier to build around. Not to mention it allows more listeners to connect with the music. Older listeners and younger listeners who appreciate the craft, will enjoy the bluegrass stylings of Lessons Learned.

Grade: 8.5/10

To preview and purchase Reno’s Lessons Learned, click here