Album Review – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings Bring Together Best Americana Male Artists on ‘Kings and Kings’

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What began as a tribute to Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have spent the past 20 years growing into one of Canada’s best roots music bands. Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson, all with their own solo musical careers, have together developed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings into more than just a one-off tribute group. In 2011, the group collaborated with many of Americana and country’s finest female artists like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Pam Tillis in Kings and Queens. Now five and a half years later, the group returns with Kings and Kings, a collaboration album with country and Americana’s best male singers, including Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell, Eric Church and many others.

Kings and Kings takes the best of each member and guest, which makes for an eclectic sound throughout. Written by all three members of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and joined by the great Rodney Crowell, “Live by the Song” details the life of the band on the road and playing music. Fearing and Crowell split the vocals, and Crowell’s seasoned voice shines through; a perfect collaboration choice given the song’s content. Not all songs are vocal collaborations, with guest Nick Lowe taking full lead on “Secret of a Long Lasting Love” while the band harmonizes behind him. With Bruce Cockburn, Linden (who has produced many of Cockburn’s albums) not only splits verses with him on the tender “A Woman Gets More Beautiful,” but the pair move between English and French lyrics, adding a layer of romance onto the ballad.

Many guests bring their native band’s flair to their collaborations with the Canadian trio. Buddy Miller, who’s played guitar for many Country and American stalwarts, joins in on the rollicking “Playing By Heart.” Raul Malo brings a taste of The Mavericks’ signature Latin-inspired sound on Fearing’s “High Wire.” Jason Isbell (on “Land of the Living [Hamilton Ontario 2016]”) and Eric Church (on “Bury My Heart”) stay true to each of their respective rock oriented sounds, while the Willie P. Burnett penned “This Lonesome Feeling” sounds like a classic country standard, which is appropriate given the inclusion of Vince Gill on vocals. Keb Mo duets with Fearing on “Long Walk to Freedom”, a track that reminds the listener of a gospel song. The haunting “Bitter and Low” is benefited from a great vocals from Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, while Dallas Green of City and Colour turns in a memorable performance on “Beautiful Scars.” Kings and Kings comes to a close with the men of the show Nashville on “Where the River Rolls.”

Overall, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings make the most of their talented guests, playing to each of their respective strengths and sounds, to create an authentic sounding roots album. Kings and Kings is the perfect example of why Americana is such a tough genre to define because a variety of sounds and styles all work under that umbrella. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings provide music fans with an album that epitomizes the genre, with great collaborations from the most respected singers of country and Americana music.

Grade: 9/10

Recommend? – Absolutely!

Album Highlights: Playing By Heart (feat. Buddy Miller), Long Walk to Freedom (feat. Keb Mo), This Lonesome Feeling (feat. Vince Gill), Bury My Heart (feat. Eric Church)

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None

Album Review – Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’

The return of Lee Ann Womack to country music couldn’t have come at a better time. Female country artists are struggling to make a dent in mainstream country music in radio and older artists are being pushed further from radio every day. Womack falls in both of these categories, making her album even more significant. She’s also no longer part of a major label, joining bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records. With this newfound creative freedom and some extended time off, the anticipation for her new album The Way I’m Livin’ has certainly been high. I should note from the beginning that she did not write a single song on this album, but this is not a problem. Instead of writing her own songs, she went out and did something I’ve been begging mainstream country artists to do. She brought in an all-star cast of writers for the songs on this album. Garth Brooks has been rumored to do the same thing with his album. There are so many talented writers out there that deserve to be noticed and by bringing in these great writers, it allowed Womack to focus more on her vocal performance on this album (which shines brightly I might add).

The album begin with the prelude, “Fly.” It’s a soft song about Womack wishing she was in heaven flying above and seeing the whole world. Her vocals are absolutely stellar (get used to me saying this throughout the review). The writers for this song are Reed Foehl and Brent Cobb. If you recall, Cobb also co-wrote and performed the background vocals on “Poor Sweet Me” on Lucette’s debut album. This song was also a good way to transition into the second song on the album, “All His Saints.” It’s an upbeat song about Womack looking to get to heaven someday. The song is definitely Christian-oriented. The instrumentation on this is pretty good and the beat really draws you into the song. Mindy Smith was the writer of this song.

“Chances Are” is a song about a woman’s tough luck romantic life and this sets the scene for her in a bar where she wonders what her chances are with the guy across the room. It’s a heartbreak song that features strong country instrumentation. Womack’s twangy and dynamic vocals really shine on this song. Fellow country artist Hayes Carll wrote this song and it’s great to see Carll’s work featured on a big album like this one. I’m looking forward to his new album next year. This song is followed by “The Way I’m Livin’,” the debut single from this album. I already reviewed this song (click here for the full review) and here’s the main snippet of the review: “This song is a traditional country song without a doubt, but it feels fresh and new still. This is the kind of sound all country artists need to be striving for, which is honoring tradition and brining new elements in to make it fresh.”  I will say after hearing the whole album that this song doesn’t come off as strong as I originally thought because there are better songs on the album.

The next song on the album is “Send It On Down,” which is about a woman praying to God to help her get out of her hometown. She wants to escape for many reasons, from her father’s hardware store being out of business to the men in the town having the unrealistic expectation that women should be rich to be attractive. It’s a real soulful song and I like the inclusion of the piano in the song. Chris Knight and David Leone do a great job with the songwriting. The great song writing continues on the Buddy Miller penned “Don’t Listen To The Wind.” It’s a song about a woman getting over a breakup and having a hard time escaping the memory of her ex. Womack’s vocals are excellent and she shows such great emotion in her voice at the right moments. The instrumentation is great too. One of the best songs on the The Way I’m Livin’.

Womack gets even better on “Same Kind Of Different.” It’s a stripped down love song about two different people who are really not different and are actually quite the same. They may not have experienced the same things in their life, but the feelings from these experiences are the same and this connects them. Natalie Hemby and Adam Hood exhibit top-notch songwriting and Womack once again blows me away with her vocals. This song is really the whole package and is arguably the best on the entire album. “Out On The Weekend” and “Nightwind” are two solid love songs from Womack, but each have a distinctive sound. The Neil Young song “Out On The Weekend” has a more Americana sound and “Nightwind,” written by Bruce Robison, has more of a country sound. The latter was a little more complex too, as the metaphors used in the song make you really pay attention to the story being told.

The low point of this album I feel is “Sleeping With The Devil.” It’s a song about a woman sleeping with a man who she believes is the devil. I’m not the song is bad, but it’s a bit repetitive and the theme is cliché. Womack already sang about the devil in “The Way I’m Livin’,” so maybe that’s why it feels repetitive. It is well written though, so kudos to Brennen Leigh. “Not Forgotten You” is another Bruce Robison penned song and it’s about a woman who continues to remember a man in her past. I felt this song could have had a little bit more to it, but it’s solid nonetheless. Although I found both of these songs to be slightly underwhelming, Womack’s vocals and the instrumentation are great on both of them.

Womack caps off her album with a bang in the final two songs. “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore” starts off with the beat of a drum and acoustic guitar. The instrumentation used in this song gives it a fresh and modern feel, yet traditional. It really has a distinctive sound compared to the rest of the album. The song is about a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who is a singer, and he’s determined to win her heart back. Despite her fame, he continues his pursuit of her. The writer of the song, Kenny Price, tells a nice little story through the lyrics. The album closes with “When I Come Around.” The song is about a woman looking for a man she lost contact with several years ago and she continues to wait for him around the spot where they last saw each other, hoping she can find him again. Again it’s a well written song that tells a good story that draws the listener in. Mando Saenz shows just how fantastic of a songwriter he really is and I hope more artists take notice of his talent.

Womack took several well-written songs on this album and just knocked them out of the park with her outstanding vocals. I’m going to reiterate once again what a great decision it was for her to recruit these fantastic songwriters for her album. Her husband and producer of the album, Frank Liddell, deserves credit too for a well produced album. The instrumentation never overtook Womack’s stellar vocals, which is important. When you have a vocalist with the talent of Womack you should always go lighter on the instrumentation and just let the vocals do the heavy lifting. Womack’s album is already being met with critical praise and her lead single, “The Way I’m Livin’,” is receiving radio time. And Womack did it her way too. She didn’t sell out to a major label nor did she try to play to radio programmers with her music. She made the music she wanted to and in the end when you make quality music like this people are bound to take notice. This album lived up to expectations and I certainly thinks it’s a top ten country album of the year. The Way I’m Livin’ comes highly recommended.

Grade: 9/10