Album Review – Darrell Scott’s ‘Couchville Sessions’

Darrell Scott Couchville Sessions

One of the reasons why I love Americana and great country music is the brilliant songwriting. The stories that the songs tell and the amount of emotions it brings out of the viewer is something you can’t put a price on. Derek pretty much hit the nail on the head in his piece last week on why songwriting is so important to him. Excellent songwriters don’t just spring out of thin air, so when I come across one I cherish their music. Darrell Scott is one of those few excellent songwriters. Scott of course is most well-known for penning such hits as “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (a personal favorite of mine, most famously recorded by Brad Paisley), Travis Tritt’s “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” and the Dixie Chicks’ hit “Long Time Gone.”

Scott is not one of flash and fame, but one of the most well-respected and revered songwriters in country and Americana circles. It’s been four years since he’s released an album of new material and he now returns with new music that really isn’t new in age. In fact they’re over a decade old. According to Garden and Gun, in the early 2000s Scott “recorded 45 songs in the living room of his house on Nashville’s Couchville Pike.” After sitting for around 15 years in a vault, Scott picked 14 of the songs (nine written by him and five covers of who he considers his heroes) out for his brand new album Couchville Sessions. And thank goodness Scott never forgot about them because this album is a master class in songwriting.

The opening track, “Down to the River”, really sets the tone for the whole album. The folksy, down to earth tone combined with sharp lyrics like when Scott sings, “and we won’t give a damn if it’s rock, folk, country or blues” really makes it easy to get into. From the first listen it drew me in and you’ll undoubtedly be singing along with it. At the end of the song, Scott’s friend and fellow singer-songwriter Guy Clark tells an anecdote about finding a crow’s nest made out of barbed wire. It’s really surreal to hear the recently passed icon tell the story and makes for one of the coolest moments I’ve heard in a song this year. The soulful “Waiting for the Clothes to Get Clean” really shows off Scott’s smooth as silk voice. He just makes it sound so flawless. The song itself is about a troubled relationship, in the most part because the guy in it is an asshole. The bluesy guitars cut through the lyrics like a hot knife through butter.

“It’s Time to Go Away” is about a relationship coming to an end and the man realizing he’s leaving for all of the right reasons. It’s really hard to describe how great of a songwriter Darrell Scott is and this song is a perfect example. The story is simple, yet told so vividly you can picture the song in your head instantly. It’s just something you have to hear. Scott covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River” next. The song is about a man following his woman down the Mississippi River, as she seems to care more about living life down throughout the river than be with him. Scott definitely does the Man in Black justice with the cover. One of my favorites on Couchville Sessions is “Love Is The Reason.” The soaring instrumentation and Scott’s voice just mesh so well on this song about love.

Another cover on the album is Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man.” Darrell Scott’s version is slower and more melancholy. Or to put it more bluntly, it’s pretty damn sad. It’s the kind of song you play after a brutal breakup and play while you sit in the dark and drink. That’s probably the way Hank would have preferred it too. Only the truly patient will want to sit and listen all the way through this nearly seven-minute song, but it is worth it. “It’s About Time” is perhaps the darkest song on the album. Scott deals with his own mortality and the legacy you leave behind when you die. As he explains on the song, he’s lived it all and when death comes he will be ready. But it shouldn’t be sad because from a fallen tree new sprouts will emerge. It’s the circle of life. The Celtic folk sound really jives well with the lyrics on this song. It’s yet another example of why Darrell Scott is so respected by fellow writers and artists.

This is followed by Scott’s cover of Peter Rowan’s “Moonlight Midnight.” Rowan himself joins Scott on the song and they sound great together. It’s the most rock-influenced track on the album and features some stellar electric guitar play. Scott pokes fun at radio DJs on “Morning Man.” This is evident by the lines about getting a fat man to laugh at his jokes and signing autographs at the mall. It shows Scott has a humorous side too and helps break up some of the more serious songs on the album. I know I got some good laughs. The icing on the cake to me is how Scott makes the song sound exactly like old morning radio shows bumpers; really light, catchy and even a call name. The romantic “Come Into This Room” follows and I just have to say it’s refreshing to hear a song striving to be romantic is actually romantic. After hearing so many hackneyed attempts at this by popular country artists, my ears almost forgot what a romantic love song should sound like. So I extend a thank you to Scott for redeeming my faith that these songs can still exist.

“Loretta” is the third cover song on the album and it’s by the legendary Townes Van Zandt. Scott really hits a home run with the cover songs he chooses and of course you never go wrong with a Townes song. When it comes to Van Zandt songs, you just need to hear them for yourself. The final cover song on the album is James Taylor’s “Another Grey Morning.” The song is about waking up and living out the same things each day. The woman in the song is so exasperated with the monotony that she thinks she would maybe rather have death over another grey morning. It’s a little extreme, but for anyone who has felt depressed, they could relate to the feeling. Couchville Sessions closes out with “Free (This Is The Love Song).” It’s what it says it is, as Scott sings a love song he probably should have sung sooner to a woman he loves. It comes from a man who has experienced life and realizes he’s made mistakes along the way and this is one he’s trying to amend. It’s another nugget of wisdom Scott imparts upon the listener.

Upon the very first listen of Couchville Sessions, I instantly connected with it and loved it. It’s like a long-lost friend you knew you never had and found again. If you’re not familiar with the work of Darrell Scott, just listen to this once and you’ll be blown away. The songwriting is fantastic and the instrumentation is pretty damn good too. The only thing I would say I don’t like about the album is it runs a tad too long at 14 songs, even though every single song is good. It’s hard to believe these songs have just been sitting around for 15 years. We can only hope we hear the rest of the 45 songs recorded in that same session. In the meantime I can’t recommend Couchville Sessions enough. You aren’t going to get too much better than this.

Grade: 9/10

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 – Courtney Patton’s ‘So This Is Life’ Shines a Light on Relationship’s Darker Corners

Courtney Patton is still relatively new to the country music scene, but she’s made a quick impact. Her simple, observant writing steeped in descriptive, effective imagery as earned herself a large fan base. Her musical arrangements are simple, yet beautiful; relying on an acoustic guitar, fiddles, and a steel guitar. As Courtney told Ken Morton Jr. Country music to me is simple stories with beautiful words with a simple melody and beautiful arrangement.” Patton’s follow up to her 2013 debut album, Triggering a Flood, comes after a time of life’s changes. Her parents have divorced and remarried others, and Patton herself has gotten married to fellow Texas singer/songwriter Jason Eady. The varying emotions that stem from those events make their way into the songs on Courtney Patton’s new album So This Is Life.

The album starts off with the heartbreaker “Little Black Dress.” The violins are present along with Patton’s acoustic guitar. The song’s subject packs a black dress and prepares for a night on the town, hoping to find some comfort in the arms of a stranger. Maybe she’s hoping to fall in love; maybe she’s hoping not to attach feelings to the one night with him. Regardless, the night ends with her alone, after he leaves, feeling heart-broken. “War of Art” feels a bit more personal. In this song, Patton wrestles with the conflicting desires of being a stay at home mother/wife and fueling her passion for playing music on the road. The steel guitar and accompanying production give the song a feeling of forward movement, giving her internal debates a slight sense of urgency.

“Her Next Move” deals with a woman who vies for attention from her husband. She consistently threatens to leave town and end the relationship, but her constant game of crying wolf no longer worries her husband, as he knows she’ll never act on her words. One night stands are the explored again in “Need for Wanting.” Here a woman is alone in the bar conversing with a man. She knows the man’s intentions, as she says “you look like a lesson I learned long ago.” This country ballad makes it clear that if they do end the night together, it’s nothing more than that night.

Relationships of a husband away from his wife are explored in the next two songs. “Twelve Days” is a song Patton wrote early in her marriage with Eady. The traveling musician is back on the road and the listener hears the wife’s side of their many conversations. From her telling about her local show, to asking if he brought his coat for the cold northern weather. It’s a beautiful song of a wife coping alone while she misses her husband, and both Josh and myself included this on our lists of best songs from June. On the flip side, “Killing Time” deals with a husband who is carted off to jail for stealing money. This is a more upbeat country song where the husband knows he has screwed up, and she’s left waiting for his sentence to end.

Courtney Patton sings of a woman who messed up in the relationship on “Maybe It’s You.” This woman left her man for a little bit and feels guilty about her actions. It could be the actions themselves that cause the feelings, or it could be the comfort at home and forgiveness from her husband. The simple production of the acoustic guitar and slight percussion and violins work wonderfully on this song. Another late night rendezvous is the subject of “Sure Am Glad.” This mid-tempo song finds both the man and the woman sleepless in their own homes. They both are lonely and vulnerable, and while his knock on her door was unexpected, his arrival is welcome.

The title track is a brutally honest exploration of how life can disrupt relationships. Youthful dreams of fairytale marriages are abandoned as a young mother and father work to make ends meet. As time goes on and more children are in the picture, he works long days and she’s left to tend to the home and all the chaos of raising children. It’s not the life either of them planned, and when separately dealing with this life has taken its toll, divorce is the only answer they find. It’s a heartbreaking song, but so vividly told and sung by Courtney Patton. “So This Is Life” is why people refer to country music as three chords and the truth.

The theme of loveless marriage continues on the next few songs. “Battle These Blues” deals with a husband who drinks too much and stays out too late. A common subject for females in country music, and the woman in the song is left heartbroken, unsure of how to handle this season of life. However, “Where I’ve Been” finds the woman of the marriage being the night owl. Life at home isn’t pretty, and she feels unloved by her husband. In order to fill the hole in heart he can’t, she takes to the nightlife, presumably being unfaithful. Though she’ll be ready to drop this lifestyle when he’s ready to begin again, as long as he doesn’t ask where she’s been. Finally, the album ends with “But I Did,” a song that feels like a Courtney Patton autobiography. It’s song that details the values she’s inherited from her parents while having her own free spirit. She’s always been a dreamer with a love for playing music who follows her dreams with blind faith.

So This Is Life couldn’t have a more appropriate album title. The songs detail relationships of all kinds: happy and sad marriages and temporary flings with strong women and weaker women. It’s a personal album where Courtney Patton has dug into her soul with a few songs that could be direct snapshots from her life. These songs are delivered with eloquent lyrics and vivid images and a vocal delivery that matches each mood beautifully. The musical arrangements, as beautiful as they are, sometimes drag the album. There’s a bit of monotony among some of the songs’ productions. So This Is Life is a songwriters album: the focus is on the stories that Patton has penned. It’s a darker album simply because it tosses a spotlight on real moments that most would want to avoid in songs. However, country music’s legacy wouldn’t be what it is without songs like the ones found here. Courtney Patton’s So This Is Life is real; it’s honest; and it’s as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – James McMurtry’s ‘Complicated Game’

If you mention the name James McMurtry to anyone in the Americana world, they’re likely to respond with nothing but high praise. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics,” says Jason Isbell of the singer-songwriter. John Melloncamp has said, “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime.” And even author Stephen King has said, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” With that kind of praise, you can imagine that expectations are high with each album release from McMurtry. And with his newest album, Complicated Game, being his first release in six years, James McMurtry doesn’t disappoint.

Complicated Game is a songwriter’s album. The production in each song has slight variations, but a majority of the album is met with simple acoustic guitar notes and light drum beats. The driving force of the album is the lyrics and stories that McMurtry has penned. “Copper Canteen” is one of a few songs that speak to the hardworking, little man. Times are rough in the small town, money is tight, and life’s unavoidable circle of old ones dying and new ones being born add to the weight of mom and pop shops closing up because of the invading big box stores. But there’s still time to enjoy the small offerings of life, like getting in that last hunt before the season ends, or drinks with friends at the local pub.

“You Got to Me” is a love song about a wedding. McMurtry reminisces of the two of them when they first started out while providing vivid details of the wedding and party around them. The song documents the maturing process of growing from a single, reckless man to a married, more subdued husband, and McMurtry himself may not quite understand what it all means yet. “I Ain’t Got a Place” is about a traveller. A drifter roaming from town to town, be it a musician or just a nomad, unsatisfied with each place he stays. McMurtry does a great job painting a poignant picture on this track.

“She Loves Me” deals, again, with a travelling man. In one particular town, he has a woman who loves him. Their relationship isn’t monogamous, and they’ll both do as they please while he’s away. However, once he’s back in town, she makes him top priority for her affections. There’s a bit of arrogance in the way McMurtry sings this song, and it’s fitting. “How’m I Gonna Find You Know” is a rocking journey. This man is looking for a woman he’s infatuated with. She’s a badass bartender, and he’s down on his luck with a beat up old car and broken cell phone. This man is hot and ready and made preparations for a passionate night, but after running late, he can’t find, but continues to look. From the banjo to McMurtry rattling off-line after line of great, hilarious details of a night going from bad to worse, this song just rocks, certainly making it an album highlight.

“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is another semi-love song. McMurtry sings of the things he’s learned about the woman he loves. These things seem to be more and more impressive to McMurtry as the song progresses. In “Deaver’s Crossing” McMurtry tells the fictional story of a hitchhiking man who’s hard life got even harder as his farm land was taken to make room for a national park. The story was influenced by Shenandoah National Park’s inception over old farm land, one of which was actually owned by a family named Deaver. McMurtry simply tells a heartbreaking story filling in the blanks himself.

In “Carlisle’s Haul,” James McMurtry tells an epic story of a struggling fisherman. The fisherman and couple buddies illegally fish and try to catch enough to feed themselves and sell to the market for some much-needed cash, all while trying to avoid the law. The seven-minute saga is excellent, fantastic storytelling. “Forgotten Coast” is a simpler, more classic country tune. McMurtry simply moves down to an old coastal town, leaving behind his life and love to fish, sit on a front porch and enjoy an uncomplicated life in solitude. “South Dakota” may be the most heartbreaking song of the collection. A soldier returns to his small South Dakota home after being discharged. But the struggles of the farm life aren’t glamorous: cows are killed by a blizzard, their hides won’t sell much, and there’s no oil or gas to drill for to get some cash. The soldier entertains the idea of re-upping for the army because at home “you won’t get nothing here but broke and older.”

“Long Island Sound” is about a man who moves to the big city to start a new life. As the years have gone by, the hustle and bustle of the big apple and family responsibilities take over, leaving times of growing up in a simple, small town nothing but a distant memory. It’s a memory McMurtry reflects on with a beautiful Celtic-inspired production and an easy sing-along chorus. “Cutter” ends the album with another heartbreaking, sorrowful tune. It’s a biting song that doesn’t beat around the bush. There are demons, painful memories, loneliness haunting this man, and the red ridges from cuts on an arm are the only physical sign of his emotional pains.

James McMurtry can write one hell of a story. The attention to detail he puts in every song is excellent. Old heartbreak songs, love songs, the everyman struggles of making ends meet, all these topics are explored in fresh, innovating ways. There aren’t many songwriters in music like McMurtry. While the production may not necessarily change much between songs, McMurtry’s detailed words and phrases along with the slight rasp of his voice help each song earn a place on the album. Complicated Game is a great songwriting offer from James McMurtry.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – John Moreland’s ‘High on Tulsa Heat’

John Moreland has spent most of his life writing songs and making music. He was in a punk band for a bit, but shifted his personal musical direction once he realized he wanted to sing songs that would hit listeners right in the chest. He wants to write and sing stories that were raw, emotional, and real. 2013’s In the Throes was Moreland’s breakout album, and he follows that heartbreaking collection of songs with High on Tulsa Heat. High on Tulsa Heat is equally as eloquent and poignant as its predecessor. Moreland wrote ten deep, heartbreaking songs about life’s toughest moments. These songs aren’t light, and the mostly stripped back production aids the songs in way that’s like John Moreland inviting his listeners into his soul.

The album begins with “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” The song appears to deal with dissatisfaction. Searching endlessly to find life’s calling and dealing with pain that you feel when life lets you down. Moreland describes this search with intense imagery; his word choice is excellent with some wonderful rhyme schemes. “This world will have the wolves outside your door, and make you leave all that you love to fight a war and never tell you what you’re dying for.” If you, like myself, hadn’t listened to Moreland before now, this is a prime example of the type of writing he delivers across the board. The production picks up a bit on “Heart’s Too Heavy.” The drums find a nice place behind the guitars, and it sounds like a faint steel guitar in the mix. The song deals with being weary on a journey. Love is dying, dreams aren’t panning out, and there’s doubt and pain weighing you down.

The album slows down again in “Cleveland County Blues.” Here Moreland deals with the pain of being left by his love. He compares her with a tornado, and even though he’s way up in Cleveland County, he won’t soon forget her. There’s some great acoustic country instrumentation behind Moreland’s vocals. Moreland writes of a different side of love on “White Flag.” The relationship in this story is one of endless devotion, possibly to a fault. Where she is struggling to get by with life, he is there to be her white flag. He’ll give everything he has to help her make it through. For my money, “White Flag” is the best song of the album: great writing, great vocals and a perfect production behind the lyrics.

“Sad Baptist Rain” is about being drawn toward temptation. Moreland grew up in the Baptist church, and speaks of how there were times of guilt with his actions and aspirations conflicting with the Baptist ideals. There’s a nice light rock production to this song that fits nicely. “Cherokee” is said to have been written about a lucid dream. The lyrics depict a search for a long-lost figure of wisdom, maybe a deceased father. Moreland engages the listener with vivid descriptions and details that tell a story while leaving interpretation up to the listener.

“Losing Sleep Tonight” finds Moreland dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart. She has left him cold, confused and searching for answers. Moreland simply ponders if she, like him, is losing sleep tonight over the end of the relationship. The melody picks up a bit on this track with heavier drums and guitar strums behind the vocals. “American Flags in Black & White” is another great track that allows room for the listener to find their own meaning. The title alone paints a great picture in your head, and the song uses that image to pine for a time of simpler ways. Life has gotten hard, blows have been dealt, and the characters long for the days from their old black and white pictures.

John Moreland shows a different side of relationships falling apart on the next track. “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” is about a relationship that’s gone cold. His old demons have gotten the best of him and allowed it to affect their life together. And while he continues to struggle, his actions have left her so burned that she can’t feel any sympathy for his pain. When Moreland describes his desire to punch people in the chest with his songs, this one is a prime example of that. The album ends with the title track. “High on Tulsa Heat” ties the album together in a sped up, but similar melody to the opening track. The theme of searching for a place to call home add to the songs paralleled similarities. Moreland grew up in Tulsa after moving from Kentucky, so it makes sense to have these two particular home-themed songs named after that city. The song works nicely to tie the album together and drive it home.

High on Tulsa Heat is about identity. It’s an album depicting some bad situations and how we can find out who we are in light of those challenges and struggles. John Moreland’s insight on this album is not something that you find in music much anymore. The lyrics all paint vivid, wonderfully imagery, and Moreland puts himself and the listener in the center of each story in a natural way. While fans get a further look into the complex mind of John Moreland, the lyrics also leave enough room for each person to gather their own meaning from the songs. That same praise will also be the dividing line between the casual music fan and those who pine for deep songs and gut punching stories. Moreland doesn’t write for the casual fan; he writes for himself and those who are willing to tag along on his journey.

Grade: 9/10