Album Review – Stoney LaRue’s Aviator

Born in Texas, bred in Oklahoma, Stoney LaRue grew up in the heart of Red Dirt country music. It’s no surprise that the organic honesty embodied by this music scene is one that LaRue has worked on building and perfecting for years. All that work and effort put into live shows and two previous studio projects has paid off in Stoney LaRue’s newest studio album, Aviator. Always doing it his way, Stoney LaRue sticks with his core producers Frank Liddell and Mike McCarthy to bring Aviator to life. Team LaRue recorded these songs in one take live in the studio, recorded on two-inch tape. No fancy production tricks, just simple, raw, pure instrumentation captured live.  Also, Stoney LaRue has Aubrie Sellers and Mando Saenz providing great backing vocals and harmonies on the album.  (Thanks to Stoney himself for letting me know this tidbit via twitter!) Content wise, Stoney LaRue taps into a lot of personal issues and drastic life changes for his songwriting. But the results aren’t moody, heartbreak songs, but rather messages of self-rediscovery and overcoming the obstacles of life’s trials.

“One and Only” starts off with a gentle acoustic strum, but the instrumentation builds throughout the song, offering up instrumental breaks of fiddles and steel guitars. The song serves as a nice introduction for Aviator, and discusses a looming, hidden danger. This enticing temptation is essentially like chasing an empty dream. It’s meant to bring you down with no happily ever after. Following this is the more upbeat “Golden Shackles.” Here LaRue describes himself a monster of man, standing tall, strong and proud. Yet, as the famous saying goes, pride comes before the fall. But LaRue recognizes his fall and realizes that there’s a lesson to be learned with this setback. For my money, “Golden Shackles” is on the top-tier of this album in terms of songwriting.

“Til I’m Moving On” is one of the many songs where LaRue sets a scene of wandering lost, directionless in life. But in this more subdued track, music is the short-term remedy to the broken-hearted, offering an escape from reality. Next up is the title track, which you may remember made my top ten list from October. This is another song written about wandering lost and reminiscing about the innocence of youth while in the midst of a broken heart. “Aviator” is about putting on a mask to hide these lost feelings.  The instrumentation build along with the lyrics and LaRue’s delivery present a fantastic display for this song.

Stoney LaRue starts to explore failing relationships in the next few tracks. “First One To Know” is another album standout. This song is about the self-awareness of the man. He knows he’s in a rut and not the same guy she fell in love with, and once he figures out how to change back, she’ll be the first to know. Next up is “Blending Colors.” This song has the feel of a more traditional country heartbreak song, with LaRue singing about wanting to show her his sorrow. He’s desperate for her attention and wants her to notice him again. “Spitfire” has more rock influence in the song’s instrumentation than the rest of the album, and rightfully so. This details a final argument; the last biting words that she said to open his eyes to his wrong ways. She didn’t waste any words spitting that fire to him.

Next up is another standout track, “Still Runnin’.” This song is a bit more redemptive with the realization that everything else in life is still the same and still running even though his heart is broken. This song has great piano and steel guitar instrumentation with some excellent harmonies here. In “A Little Too Long” Stoney LaRue sings about a woman who grows tired. She’s tired of waiting for him, tired of giving him second chances. She’s ready to move on because she’s been waiting just a little too long.

“Too Soon” is an upbeat country jam about not giving up on what you’ve started just yet. The instrumentation here is nice, but the lyrics are rather repetitive. “Million Dollar Blues” is another song about broken hearts while battling pride. This heartbreak came from losing his love and feeling empty while chasing dreams. “I paid the price I’ll never know walking them lonely streets of gold with million dollar blues.” The album caps off with a second song I featured on my top ten, “Dark Side of the Line.” This is a song of acceptance that life isn’t forever, and every day we move closer to the inevitable end. The long journey of wandering lost and searching for anything worthy in life is becoming weary.

Overall, this album is loaded with great instrumentation and vocals within every track. Aviator is a musical definition for “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” There may be songs or instances within songs that can nit-picked for doing or not doing something. But this album is meant to be enjoyed by pushing play at “One and Only” and letting it spin from there. This is an album in the true sense of the word.  Each song adds to the story and theme as Aviator progresses.  And if you find the deluxe edition, you’ll be treated to two wonderful bonus tracks: “Natural High (For Merle Haggard)” and “Studio A Trouble Time Jam” which features Stoney and the band rocking out at Nashville’s historic recording studio. Stoney LaRue earns himself a well deserved place along side Red Dirt’s best artists. Aviator is a statement album that speaks loud and clear.

Grade: 9.5/10

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