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On the Passing of Country Music’s Queen – Kitty Wells, 1919-2012

Country music lost a true legend and pioneer yesterday with the passing of Kitty Wells, just a few weeks shy of 93.  She died peacefully at her home in Madison, Tennessee, after suffering complications from a stroke.

Wells’ historical significance to country music – particularly to women in country music – certainly cannot be overstated.  She became the first female artist in history to score a number-one country single with her landmark 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”  It was an answer song to the Hank Thompson hit, “The Wild Side of Life,” and is one of only a few answer songs to nearly eclipse the song it responded to. The song made such a bold, controversial statement at the time that it was banned from a number of radio stations.

Wells was a consistent presence on the country charts from the early fifties to the late sixties – the only consistently successful female artist in country music at the time.  She became the first female country artist to release her own full-length LP with her 1956 release Country Hit Parade.  She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, and was its oldest living member for the last few years of her life.  Because of her many unique accolades and accomplishments, Wells is often referred to as the Queen of Country Music.

Barbara Mandrell, to whom Wells was a mentor as well as a personal friend, issued the following statement yesterday:

“Kitty Wells was every female country music performer’s heroine. She led the way for all of us and I feel very grateful and honored to have known her. She was always the most gracious, kind and lovely person to be around. I so appreciated her being a part of my life and a mentor to me.”

I know I sure did love Kitty Wells’ music, and still do.  I always found her performances to have a simple, unadorned sincerity about them that’s become rare in recent years.  She truly sounded like one who meant every word she sang.  In addition, I have long had a special appreciation for the many talented women of country music, which causes me to hold Kitty Wells in particular regard as the one who laid the groundwork, and provided inspiration for the generations of female talent that followed in her footsteps. Country music has a long and illustrious history of outstanding, gifted, and at time outspoken female artists – from Dolly and Loretta to Patty and Trisha – and it all goes back to Kitty Wells.  Better yet, she taught them to sing what they believed in, and not to be afraid to ruffle a few feathers.  It’s difficult to imagine what the story of country music would have been without her.

Thank you, Kitty Wells. Rest in peace.

Kitty Wells performs her signature classic, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Kitty Wells performs “Making Believe,” a 15-week #2 hit in 1955 (revived by Emmylou Harris in 1977).

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2012 in News and Events

 

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Matraca Berg – “The Dreaming Fields”

Songwriters:  Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison

Though Matraca Berg is quite deservedly one of the most acclaimed and successful Nashville songwriters of the past few decades, her own recorded work has often been criminally underappreciated.  She supplied numerous hit songs for the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, and Martina McBride, among others.  She even won the CMA Song of the Year award for the Deana Carter-recorded hit “Strawberry Wine.”  Still, her own efforts to break through as a recording artist in the country music mainstream continuously met with a cold shoulder from the industry.

Trisha Yearwood fans may recognize this particular song as having been one of the crowning moments on Yearwood’s stellar 2007 set Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love.  The song later served as the title track to Berg’s first studio album in 14 years, released last year.  It has now been released as a single and video.

“The Dreaming Fields” is a wistful reflection on the loss of a family farm that has stood for generations.  Berg relates “Oh, my grandfather stood right here as a younger man in nineteen and forty-three/ And with the sweat and his tears, the rain and the years/ He grew life from the soil and seed.”  The song goes on to invoke natural elements in rich poetic imagery, while weaving in some social commentary on the industrialization of agriculture. (“It seems the only way a man can live off the land these days is to buy and sell”) Berg paints a vivid picture of the world that has meant so much to her, such that any listener, regardless of whether or not you grew up in similar surroundings, can be gripped by it.  She sorrows not just for the farm itself, but for a cherished way of life that has come to an end.

Some may dismiss Berg’s own recording as inferior to Yearwood’s, and indeed Berg obviously does not have Yearwood’s voice, but Berg herself gives a deeply moving performance that stands fully on its own merits.  Backed by nothing more than piano and cello, her honey-sweet voice is full of subtlety and nuance – rising one moment, falling to a plaintive whisper, and then trailing off the next moment.  She ends the song by choking out a soft, deeply felt “Goodbye.”  Throughout her performance, Berg’s deep personal connection to her lyric is not only audible, but thoroughly unmistakable.

All in all, it’s one of the finest songs of Berg’s illustrious career.  Music doesn’t get much better or more beautiful than this.

MATRACA’S SCORE:  10
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Click here to hear the Trisha Yearwood version 

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Gretchen Peters is definitely not a suitable artist for the attention-deficit listener.  Indeed, Peters’ songs are not meant to be relegated to background music.  Her new album Hello Cruel World is a somber affair that is best experienced when one is able to devote full attention to it.  On a superficial level, it may seem to make for a rather plodding listen-through.  But for the listener willing to dig below the surface to grasp the carefully crafted emotional layers of each lyric, the rewards are bountiful.

Seasoned songwriting talent that she is – whose credits include her signature “Independence Day” (Martina McBride), as well as “Let That Pony Run” (Pam Tillis), “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” (Patty Loveless), and “The Chill of an Early Fall” (George Strait) among many others – Peters unerringly places song and story in the front and center.  With her soft smoky voice sounding as invigorating as ever, Peters sings in a pure straightforward manner, devoid of unnecessary vocal histrionics, yet expressive and authoritative.  Peters herself takes producer’s credit along with Doug Lancio and husband Barry Walsh, backing the songs with sparse, largely acoustic arrangements.  Though utilizing a less-is-more approach throughout, they also add special touches where appropriate, such as flourishes of harmonica in “The Matador,” eerie banjo plucking on “Paradise Found,” and subdued trumpet notes on “Camille.”  She even duets with Rodney Crowell on “Dark Angel,” with his distinctive touch bringing dynamic vocal interplay to the lyric.

For Peters, the album was born out of a time of tumult.  In the year 2010, Peters was affected by disasters such the Gulf oil spill and the Nashville flood, with that same year also bringing about her marriage to longtime collaborator Barry Walsh.  It is those experiences, both the joyful and the difficult, that provide inspiration for these eleven memorable songs that find Peters giving uninhibited vent to her thoughts and emotions, resulting in an album of notable insight and maturity.  The opening title track aptly sets the tone for the album, as the middle-aged female narrator looks back on the regrets and missed opportunities in her life, musing “Haven’t done as well as I thought I would/ I’m not dead yet, but I’m damaged goods/ And it’s getting late.”

Thus begins Peters’ fascinating musical exploration of human frailties, ripe with symbolism and poetic imagery, but not to the point of being impenetrable.  Tracks like “Paradise Found,” “Woman On the Wheel,” and “Natural Disaster” utilize accessible, plainspoken metaphors to portray pleasure as well as pain and emotional turmoil.  Peters alone writes nine of the album’s tracks, and collaborates with co-writers on an additional two.  “St. Francis,” a co-write with Tom Russell, with whom Peters collaborated on the fantastic 2009 duets album One to the Heart, One to the Head, uses the story of St. Francis of Assisi to address the thinking that this world doesn’t matter, and that there’s no need to respect and protect it, with the song having been inspired by the Gulf oil spill.  The excellent singer-songwriter Kim Richey can be heard providing harmony vocals on the track.  “Camille” is a writing collaboration between Peters and her awesomely talented “Wine, Women, and Song” cohorts Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss.  It delves into the character of a woman who attempts to numb emotional pain through indulgence in pleasure, only to carry a heavy burden of guilt and shame as a result.

Though moral issues and dilemmas are often addressed in her songwriting, Peters wisely steers clear of adopting a judgmental tone, instead inspiring thought.  This is evident in the lines such as “But who are we without the thrill, without the damage, without the kill” in “The Matador.”  On a similar note, she presents a realistically flawed heroine in “Five Minutes,” in which her character sips a glass of wine, or takes a brief drag on a cigarette to escape the burden of her past as she sees its repercussions affecting her children.  Peters never takes platform on issues, but rather, she presents topics in a way that raises a question, hones in on a certain truth, or simply causes the listener to see things from a different perspective.  Needless to say, it takes several listens to deeply grasp the song meanings – I can’t even count the number of times I listened through this album in writing this review.

A very deep album with profound, layered lyrics that grow even deeper with repeated listening, Hello Cruel World is a deftly constructed, deeply satisfying collection that effectively builds on Gretchen Peters’ already-formidable artistic legacy.  It is undoubtedly one of the best and most significant records we’ll get out of the year 2012.

GRETCHEN’S SCORE:  9
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Top Tracks:  “Hello Cruel World,” “The Matador,” “Dark Angel,” “Five Minutes”

BUY IT ON AMAZON

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert – Four the Record

There’s a reason why Miranda Lambert is one of the most consistently interesting and critically acclaimed artists in mainstream country music.  She is not afraid to take risks.  Such risks continue on her aptly titled fourth release Four the Record, an effort characterized by creative experimentation, though the results are slightly less consistent than we would normally expect from Lambert.

Four the Record experiments with a diversity of sounds, styles, and influences.  How appropriate, then, that the album opens with “All Kinds of Kinds” – a song that celebrates diversity.  The lyrics paint colorful visual images of a wedding beneath a circus tent between an acrobat and a human cannonball, of a marriage between a pharmacist and a cross-dressing congressman, while the third verse taps into the narrators desire to explore her own unique identity.  Lambert goes in an unexpected direction with the standout track “Fine Tune,” which builds on a metaphor of an “engine of a heart that would not start ’til you showed up with a master-key.”  The track finds Lambert singing over a heavy beat backed with bluesy electric guitars, which ends up sounding pretty cool, though it could do with out the excessive vocal processing.  It only loosely qualifies as “country music,” and its sound will likely prove polarizing, but the off-beat styling makes it one of the album’s most unusual and interesting tracks. (Plus the coolest thing since hearing Faith Hill sing “centrifugal motion” has got to be Miranda singing “defibrillator”)

Lambert shares writing credits on half of the album’s tracks, but there are times when she falls shy of her usual songwriting standards.  Lead single “Baggage Claim,” co-written with Luke Laird and Natalie Hembry, draws on a previously unused metaphor, only to stretch the metaphor until it nearly breaks.  To her credit, however, Lambert draws on some strong sources of outside material, with perhaps the best case being her version of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio.”  Brandi Carlile’s “Same Old You,” is a smart, self-realizing composition that shows traces of Loretta Lynn influence, and that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Lambert fantastic Pistol Annies album.  On the other hand, her co-write with fellow Annie Angaleena Presley is surprisingly one-dimensional, and almost sounds like a song that just wasn’t quite good enough to make it onto the Pistol Annies album.

Perhaps the album’s most disappointing track is “Better In the Long Run” – the obligatory duet with hubby Blake Shelton, which suffers from an over-the-top performance on Shelton’s part, as well as an extremely boring central hook.  It sounds like something that songwriter Ashley Monroe must have written on an off-day.  The results are quite disheartening, considering the inherently lofty potential of a duet between vocalists of Shelton and Lambert’s caliber (which their past collaborations often came much closer to fulfilling).

Production choices are generally beneficial, with a few exceptions.  Lead single “Baggage Claim” boats infectious acoustic strumming and hand claps, which serve to elevate its rather clunky lyrics.  The bitter “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a stronger lyric, but the chorus rocks out so hard that you’ll be diving for the knob to lower the volume, though the lightly percussive intro works well.  Fortunately, there are plenty of moments in which strong lyrics meet good protection, thus making for some notable album highlights.  On Miranda’s self-written “Dear Diamond,” a light contemporary arrangement underscores her deeply emotional performance, which is bolstered by vocal harmonies of the ever-excellent Patty Loveless, while a light acoustic arrangement perfectly frames the bouncy melody of “Same Old You.”

Though the album has its share of missteps, its best and most interesting tracks are enough to reaffirm the fact that Lambert is not content to settle into a creative rut of half-hearted repetition.  It’s clear that her work continues to be characterized by restless creativity, and though Four the Record is not Miranda’s all-time best album, it’s more than interesting enough to have us waiting with bated breath to see what she’ll do with record number five.

MIRANDA’S SCORE:  7
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

BUY IT ON AMAZON

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2011 in Album Reviews

 

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