Album Review – Alison Krauss’ ‘Windy City’

alison-krauss-windy-city

When discussing some of the best and brightest artists in the history of country music, Alison Krauss is a name that should come up. I feel like she’s one of the most underrated artists of the genre, probably due to being more involved with bluegrass with her band Union Station. But she’s pretty much done it all in both genres. Her 27 Grammys, tied for second most all-time, is shining proof of this. Whether it’s her bluegrass work with Union Station, doing a duet album with Robert Plant or her own great work on her own, she shines and gains widespread attention. Now after over 18 years, Krauss has released a new album of solo material. Together with veteran country producer Buddy Cannon, the two picked out ten classic country songs to cover. And the results are really good.

The waltzing “Losing You” opens up Windy City. Right away it’s obvious Krauss sounds as fantastic as ever on this tragic Brenda Lee heartbreak ballad. Krauss gets more upbeat on “It’s Goodbye and So Long To You.” It’s an instantly catchy track with plenty of horns and steel guitar. Krauss delivers a Dolly-like vocal performance, really giving the song more punch. The album’s title track is a heartbreak song about Chicago capturing the heart of a woman’s man and begging to have him back. She walks the lonely streets of the city wondering if she’ll ever win him back. It’s an adaptation of the Osborne Brothers’ song of the same name. One of my favorites on the album is her cover of Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared For You.” It’s a clever song about the person saying they never cared for their ex, although admitted to be an outright lie and a coping mechanism in a time of heartbreak. Krauss really nails the emotion of the song. “River In The Rain” is an Roger Miller song that Krauss does more than great justice. Originally this was a duet between Huck Finn and a slave, but Krauss turns this into a touching love song. Anyone can cover a song, but I love it when an artist makes the cover their own and Krauss certainly does this.

Another standout on Windy City is Vern Gosdin’s “Dream of Me.” It’s a song that perfectly suits Krauss’ voice, as she sings of telling her man to dream of her every time he feels down and blue. Laden with plenty of steel guitar to go with these great lyrics, this one was an instant favorite for me. John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” made famous of course by Glen Campbell, is another cover on Windy City. It might be my new favorite cover of the song. Of course this is a really enjoyable song in itself. “Poison Love” is a really simple song that you can instantly gravitate to and find yourself singing along with from the first listen. The piano-driven Brenda Lee song “All Alone Am I” is a taste of how great Krauss can be on more vulnerable tracks. But this is best demonstrated on the album’s final track “You Don’t Know Me.” It’s an Eddy Arnold song about letting possible love slipping through your fingers and being left to forever wonder what if. You’ll never truly know them and they’ll truly never know you. It’s regret that’ll never leave you. Krauss is at her absolute best here, as well as the instrumentation. Each perfectly frames the song and delivers a gut-punch to close out the album.

For fans of classic country and Alison Krauss, Windy City is a real joy to listen to from start to finish. I really applaud Krauss and Cannon for picking a great group of songs to cover. There’s plenty of variety, a song for any mood you’re in on this album. Each listen through you’ll have a new favorite. It’s also an educational album for those aren’t as informed about the history of the genre and brings to light some quality old artists worth knowing about. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album sees Krauss add to her staggering Grammys total. Krauss once again delivers really good music with Windy City.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: You Don’t Know Me, I Never Cared For You, It’s Goodbye and So Long To You, Dream of Me, Losing You

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Randy Rogers Band’s ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

Randy Rogers Band Nothing Shines Like Neon

If you asked me to list the ten artists in 2015 in country music who had the best year, Randy Rogers would be near the top of this list. His collaboration album Hold My Beer Vol. 1 with buddy and fellow Texas country artist Wade Bowen was one of the best of 2015 and reminded everybody just how great these two are at making music. It felt like many country fans had forgotten about them, especially after their less than stellar stints on major labels in Nashville for the last few years. But now both have returned to their roots in Texas and are wholeheartedly pursuing the music they want to make.

Rogers is back with new music again in 2016, with his own Randy Rogers Band. The group is made up of Rogers, Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Jon Richardson (bass guitar), Brady Black (fiddle) and Les Lawless (drums). It’s been three years since they’ve released an album of new music. Combined with the intriguing details that have been revealed in the months leading up to this new album (being produced by the well-known Buddy Cannon and the announced collaborations most notably), it’s something many country fans have been anxiously anticipating to hear. Rogers and the band promised that this new album, Nothing Shines Like Neon, would be full of traditional country music. And after listening to this album several times, I can say they wholeheartedly lived up to this promise.

The album begins with the easy-going “San Antone.” It’s an ode to Texas and how proud they are to be back home in Texas after trying their hand in Nashville for the past several years. It’s sort of their re-introduction as a Texas country band and an appropriate opener for the album. Plus it’s quite catchy and features plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. But this is something I can say about the entire album. This is followed by the romantic ballad “Rain And The Radio.” The song is about the power being out and a couple being together in the darkness of their house. I know some listeners will express concern this song is too much like the romantic slow-jams on country radio the past few years, but I don’t think this is in that territory. This song is sincere in its romantic intentions and implies it’s more than quick fling, but rather an honest, loving moment between two people. That being said it is one of the weaker songs of the album, although not a bad song in any way.

“Neon Blues” is your classic drinking song about a woman trying to drink her heartbreak away. The woman isn’t in any mood to talk about it, but rather continue to put back shots to dull her pain. After you hear this song a few times, you’ll undoubtedly catch yourself humming it randomly as I’ve found out (this is a good thing). One of the standouts of Nothing Shines Like Neon is “Things I Need To Quit.” It’s about a man realizing a list of habits he needs to quit, most importantly a woman from his past he can’t let go of. He knows he needs to move on and quit waiting around for her to come back because it’s never going to happen. The songwriting on this song is great and really captures the feelings of someone experiencing this well.

Randy Rogers Band team up with the talented Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski on “Look Out Yonder.” This is another song that demonstrates just how far and how great this band has become over the years. Perhaps a self-reflection song for Rogers, it’s about a man returning home to his family and how he’s been many things over the years, but has always had the best intentions in mind. The instrumentation and production are light-weight, which is quite beneficial the song. This really lets the lyrics shine and tell the story at hand, allowing the listener to connect with the song and experience their own feelings with it. For many this will probably be their favorite song on Nothing Shines Like Neon.

Following this is “Tequila Eyes,” a song about a woman drinking tequila to drown her sorrows away, but as her friends explains it can only hide her true feelings for so long. It’s a solid drinking song with some great fiddle play and slightly catchy lyrics. Nothing Shines Like Neon is at it’s most fun and exciting on “Taking It As It Comes.” Rogers duets with the Texas country music icon Jerry Jeff Walker and their voices go together perfectly. Walker hasn’t missed a beat after all these years. The instrumentation is fantastic, blending piano, fiddle, steel and electric guitar throughout. It’s just one of those songs where you just can’t help to move your feet and sing along with it.

There are a lot of really good songs on this album, but none are better than “Old Moon New.” It’s a tender love ballad about a man nervously trying to profess his love to a woman through various ways. Whether it’s his love letter that he knows has a “thousand clichés” or the eleven red roses he gives her just to shake it up from the usual number, he knows the love he feels for her. He knows there’s nothing new being done under the old moon that night, but she makes it feel new when she’s with him. It’s such a refreshing and enjoyable take on the romantic, moonlight, country ballad that has been tainted in recent years. This is the type of song I could have easily seen Alan Jackson and George Strait cutting back in the 90s, with the genuine lyrics and heavy steel guitar and fiddle.

“Meet Me Tonight” is your classic “ex regret” song, as a man reaches out to a woman from his past to meet up with him tonight to rekindle a lost love. But it’s not going to be successful, as it’s just a failed relapse out of desperation. This song has the misfortune of following the best one on the album, but you shouldn’t overlook it. Jamey Johnson joins the band on the next song, “Actin’ Crazy.” Johnson did a lot of cool collaborations with fellow country artists in 2015 and to start off 2016 he’s part of another. It’s another really fun song and features the best and most witty line of the album when the duo utters, “The rent is high as Willie.” That definitely made me chuckle. Randy Rogers Band did one hell of a job picking guest artists for this album and it’s reminder that more country artists need to do fun collaborations like the ones on this album.

Nothing Shines Like Neon is capped off with “Pour One For The Poor One,” another strongly traditional country song with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. A man has had his heart-broken after professing his love for a woman and she responds by leaving in the middle of the night. Now he’s stuck on a bar stool and asking the bartender to continue to poor out the drinks for his “poor, pitiful” self. Once again the band captures the feeling of heartbreak perfectly.

The year 2016 is quite young, but I can say with certainty that Randy Rogers Band has released the first great country album of the year with Nothing Shines Like Neon. It’s an album full of entertaining and engaging traditional country music that is sure to wet the whistle of any country fan. Randy Rogers Band does a fantastic job of balancing serious songs and fun songs. I was most impressed by the depth of the serious songs, one of the few small concerns I had coming into this album. I always knew they could make entertaining, fun songs, but to make as great of love ballads as they did on this album it demonstrates to me how much this band has grown. This is a big step forward for Randy Rogers Band and reminds everyone that they’re still one of the best in the Texas country scene. Traditional country music doesn’t get much better than it does on Nothing Shines Like Neon.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – George Strait’s ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

George Strait Cold Beer Conversation

The King of Country. The Cowboy. The Man. George Strait is a man of many names and many timeless country songs that will be remembered for decades and decades. While some may dispute the king moniker place upon him by his many fans, you at the very least have to put him near the top when counting the all-time greats in country music. He’s closing in on three decades of music and shows no signs of slowing down making music. Last week at this time none of us had any idea we would be getting a new Strait album this year and then Strait surprises everyone last Tuesday by announcing Vegas concert dates and a brand new album. Clearly an old dog can learn new tricks, as Strait essentially “pulled a Beyoncé” on us (where an artist surprise releases new music, as made famous by the pop star). Cold Beer Conversation is the name of the new album and I was definitely eager to dig into it because it’s George Strait and any new music from him is very welcome to this listener.

Cold Beer Conversation opens up with the love ballad “It Was Love.” It feels like your classic Strait love ballad, where with each listen it gets better and better. This Keith Gattis-penned song fits Strait like a glove and is a solid opener to the album. The album’s title track and current single follows. It’s a nostalgia driven song about two friends reminiscing, “shooting the shit” and wondering what lies ahead in the future. This song is definitely aimed more at a younger listener and I think it will appeal well to this group. Your mileage may vary with this song, as it will depend on whether or not you can connect with the theme. Personally it reminded me a lot of hanging out with an old friend.

The lead single from the album, “Let It Go,” is next. When this song came out earlier this year I reviewed it and my thoughts have remained unchanged. I will say though I was disappointed it didn’t even sniff the top 30 at radio. From my review of “Let It Go”: It’s sunny and happy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba Strait and Keith Gattis (also co-wrote Strait’s “I Got A Car”). The song is about how tough life can be, but you shouldn’t let that get you down and just let your problems go. Instead move past them and be sure to enjoy the truly good times and let them roll. It’s a pretty simple theme, as that is the intention. This song is intended to be a carefree and easygoing summer song.

“Goin’ Goin’ Gone” is your classic working man’s blues song. Strait sings about being overworked, not having a 401k and drinking your troubles away. It’s catchy, fun and relatable to the everyday American. In the 90s or even the 2000s this song is a number one song at country radio easily. This is the kind of fun country song we need at radio right now, but radio doesn’t want it. The album slows down with “Something Going Down.” It’s a love ballad where a man is having a romantic evening with his wife. He’s trying to get “something going down.” I can see what Strait is going for here, but the phrase comes off a little clunky to me. It just feels like something better could have been used. This surprised me considering the writers of the song are Jamey Johnson and Tom Shapiro. Despite this slight misstep, it’s still a good song, albeit one of the weaker ones on the album.

Strait goes back to his roots with “Take Me To Texas.” He proudly sings of his home of Texas and what it means to him. Now as most of you know Texas country artists love to have these songs on almost all of their albums and it comes off so hokey and clichéd. But for some reason it’s charming coming from Strait. It’s hard to explain. I guess it just sounds natural from him and speaks to his talent. One of my favorite tracks on Cold Beer Conversation is “It Takes All Kinds.” King George drops some good old Western Swing on us! It’s definitely one of the most pleasant surprises of the album and Strait’s little wink towards traditional country fans. The song itself is about how the world takes all kinds and it’s okay if others are different. In fact he makes a possible veiled reference to today’s mainstream country artists with these lyrics halfway through:

Some wear a backwards baseball cap/If that’s you I’m cool with that/Me I’m more a cowboy hat/It takes all kinds

It may not be a reference to mainstream country artists of today, but I could definitely see it being one. Nevertheless it shows George Strait is always the gentleman.

“Stop And Drink” feels like another classic Strait song from beginning to end. It’s about observing the craziness of the world around you and making you want to drink a cold one in response. You listen to this song and you mutter to yourself, “I’ve been here.” I have to mention the instrumentation on this song is fantastic, but that’s no surprise with Strait. One of the gems of the album is “Everything I See.” Strait reflects on the death of a close friend and how he’s trying to move on after losing him. Everywhere he looks he sees a little piece of his friend and still finds himself dialing his number everyday. It’s a heartfelt song and will really hit home if you’ve just lost a friend. Strait wrote this song with his son Bubba, Gattis and Dean Dillon.

A song that took me more than a few listens to really grasp was “Rock Paper Scissors.” It’s about a woman leaving a man and how she left a rock (diamond ring), paper (“she slapped ink on a good-bye note”) and scissors (what she used to “cut his face out of every picture”) on the table. The song is a really clever take on the classic heartbreak country song. Not to mention Jamey Johnson joins Strait on the song, making it even better. It should be said that it’s nice to see Strait have Johnson involved a lot in this album. By the way we’re still waiting on that new album from you too, Jamey. “Wish You Well” is a drinking/heartbreak song. A man is drinking at the bar as he recovers from his woman leaving him and remarks that there are six beers separating him from wishing she was there with him and wishing her well. Being that there are several strong songs on this album, this song is one of the weaker ones. It’s solid, yet unspectacular.

A troika of prolific songwriters for Strait wrote “Cheaper Than A Shrink.” That troika is Johnson, Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon. This same trio wrote the Strait classic “Just Give It Away.” While “Cheaper Than A Shrink” may not be at that song’s level, it’s still pretty damn good. With a wry sense of humor, Strait sings of how spending money on drinking is much cheaper than a shrink to solve your problems. This is another song that if released in another decade, would have reached #1. The album closes out with “Even When I Can’t Feel It.” And it may just be the best song on the entire record. The song is basically about life and how even when life is unfair and keeping you down, you can still believe things will get better even when you can’t feel it. Once again it’s another classic Strait song where he just hits it out of the park with the right amount of emotion and lyrics that describe it perfectly.

Just as I expected, George Strait delivers with Cold Beer Conversation. It’s a very good album full of a variety of songs about life, love and drinking. Pretty much any country fan could pick this album up and find at least one song they can enjoy. Strait is simply timeless and shows no signs of losing his magic touch. Many artists when they get older lose what makes them great, but Strait still very much has it and seems poised to release a lot more great music for years to come. Go get this album and just listen to it repeatedly. And thank you, George, for another memorable album.

Grade: 9/10

There are currently no available ways to hear songs on the album via YouTube (at least legally, as I don’t like to advocate illegal videos on here) or Spotify. Your only way to hear it legally is via Apple Music, iTunes or Walmart. But as I said above I definitely recommend getting it.

 

Album Review – Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard’s ‘Django and Jimmie’

Willie & Merle Django and Jimmie

When looking back through the history of country music, there are several pioneers you can point to as the forefathers of the genre. There’s the early days with Hank Williams and Earnest Tubbs. There’s the Man in Black himself Johnny Cash, the biggest crossover star ever from country music (sit down, Garth). There’s George Jones, arguably the greatest voice ever in country music. There’s trailblazing women like Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. There’s the neo-traditionalists like Keith Whitley, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. There’s the stars of today like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell carrying the tradition on. Then you have the outlaw era, which gave us several of country’s biggest names like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Many of the biggest icons of the genre have sadly left this earth already and you really don’t truly appreciate the impact they’ve made until they’re gone. Willie and Merle are still alive, kicking and making great music. This is why all country fans should sit down and listen to their new collaboration album Django and Jimmie, as you should appreciate these two legends while they’re still with us. Not just because of this of course. Their new album is pretty damn good too.

The album opens with the title track, which is pretty appropriate as it sets the theme and meaning behind this album. Both Willie and Merle sing about how big of an impact Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers had on their careers and how they wouldn’t be here today without them. It’s a fitting tribute to two unheralded country icons. The lead single from the album, “It’s All Going To Pot” is next. It was released back on April 20 because Willie is a smart businessman. There’s something weirdly endearing hearing two older gentlemen like Willie and Merle singing about smoking pot. This isn’t the best these two have produced of course, but it’s a fun little tune that’s easy to sing along with. Also Jamey Johnson makes an appearance by the end of the song (he’s one of the writers of the song). The addition of the horns at the beginning and end is a nice touch too.

Willie and Merle sing about the value of having a good friend on “Unfair Weather Friend.” What they mean by an “unfair weather friend” is that they’re there for you in the bad times all the time. It’s the mark of a true friend. The stripped back instrumentation really let the duo’s voice be front and center, allowing the message of this song to get across loud and clear. The two country legends show off their humorous side and pay ode to their old friend Johnny Cash with “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash.” It’s a great tribute to the Man in Black and it’s perfect coming from two men that knew him really well. The first three-fourths of the song they tell the story of Cash and at the end get to some funny stories they know about him. Merle asks Willie if he knows anything about Cash. Willie responds: “Well yeah I know a lot of things about Cash, I’m not sure I should talk about it. But I checked with John and asked him if it’s okay, he said he didn’t give a shit.” Then Willie tells of the time Cash took a casket up to this hotel room, laid in it and then called room service. I busted out laughing when I first heard this and I guarantee it’s a true story. This is one of my favorite songs on the album.

In “Live This Long” the two reflect on lives they’ve lived and how they have managed to live as long as they have. They say that they might have adjusted the way they lived if they knew they would last this long, but this is definitely said tongue in-cheek. It may be hard to detect, but I can definitely sense it. I think many people who have lived life hard will tell you same. “Alice In Hulaland” is about a young woman who is a big fan of a band and goes to all of their shows. Willie and Merle wonder if she’s there for the music or there for the band. The pedal steel guitar play really stands out for me on this song. The duo sings of past relationships in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It’s mostly bad relationships, as they tell their ex as they leave that they don’t need to think twice as they walk out the door. This is a song that may not stand out upon first listen, but it gets better each time you hear it. The harmonica interludes throughout are a nice touch.

“Family Bible” recalls the past memories held by a bible that’s been in the family for years. Merle really takes the lead on this song and it fits his seasoned voice perfectly, as he tells of the days of his youth of sitting around with his family while they read the bible. It’s a simple story that I’m sure many can connect with. Willie and Merle up the tempo on “It’s Only Money,” where they warn of the emptiness of money. Again, this is a song with a simple theme that the two just hit out of the park. It’s the perfect song to come from them, as they’re speaking from experience as country superstars who have been doing this for years. One of my favorite tracks on Django and Jimmie is “Swinging Doors.” It’s a song about a heartbroken man who’s home is now the local bar where he drinks his blues away. This is a classic drinking song that Merle and Willie knock out in their sleep, as they’ve made so many great drinking songs over their illustrious careers. Of course Merle originally recorded this song year’s ago and it’s great that they re-recorded it to remind everyone how drinking songs are done.

One of the most-tender songs on the album is “Where Dreams Come To Die,” where the two reflect on the concept of dreams and how they come to be and then eventually come crashing down. This song could be interpreted in a lot of ways. This was one of my lesser favorites on the album, as the theme is a little confusing. The only solo song on the album is “Somewhere Between,” where it’s all Willie. He sings about the disconnection between him and his love, which is symbolized by a wall that reached all the way to the sky. There’s also a door on the wall, but there is no key to unlock it. It’s a brilliantly written heartbreak song. “Driving The Herd” like “Where Dreams Come To Die” can be interpreted in many different ways. The theme isn’t real clear. However, the instrumentation is fantastic. Willie and Merle sound great together of course.

The final song of the album is “The Only Man Wilder Than Me.” They both sing of their admiration for each other and their friendship together. It’s really the perfect way to cap off this album. While they show their respect for each other, I think I speak for the listeners in that we’re all marveled and amazed at the same time at how these two country legends are still making top-notch music after all these years.

As I said at the beginning, this album is pretty fantastic. In their advanced age, Willie and Merle are making music that’s better than artists twice as young as them. And they’re still touring too. You won’t find many artists at this age making an album as good as Django and Jimmie. Their voices may sound more weathered now, but they’re really not that much different from when they were in their prime years. If you asked them though they would probably tell you they’re still in their prime years and I wouldn’t argue with them. The songwriting on this album is marvelous and credit to co-producer Buddy Cannon and Nelson who wrote the majority of the songs. I definitely recommend checking this album out and it’s certainly in the top bracket of country albums released this year. In 1983 Willie and Merle released the timeless Pancho & Lefty album and in 2015 they’ve released yet another album in Django and Jimmie that will live on for years to come.

Grade: 9/10