A number of name-brand stars are reinventing themselves by recording in varying shades of bluegrass. We have previously noted this in records by Merle Haggard, Ken Mellons, Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton and others. This week, we find Joe Diffie and Michael Martin Murphey in their ranks, plus former country chart makers Donna Ulisse and Tim O’Brien continuing on this path.
Ironically, Ricky Skaggs, among the first to make a country-to-bluegrass transition, is now working under the influence of pop mastermind Gordon Kennedy to craft a distinctly non bluegrass sound. Lend him your ears.
Jason Aldean & Kelly Clarkson nail down the Disc of the Day award with the goose-bumpy duet they introduced on the CMA Awards telecast.
In an unusual listening session, the DisCovery Award also goes to someone with a ballad performance. That would be The Harters, a sibling trio produced by the esteemed Keith Stegall.
MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY/Blue Sky Riding Song
Writer: M.M. Murphey; Producer: Ryan Murphey; Publisher: 3M/Bro ‘N’ Sis, BMI; Rural Rhythm (track) (www.ruralrhythm.com)
—Murphey calls what he plays these days, “Buckaroo Bluegrass.” He sings mostly the same way, but now draws his backing musicians from a talent pool that includes Rob Ickes, Ronny McCoury, Sam Bush, Pat Flynn, Charlie Cushman and Andy Leftwich. His current CD draws its title, Riding Song, from this rapid-fire track. It showcases the fleet-fingered bluegrass sidemen more than it does its writer and singer. Instrumental sounds to tickle the brain.
LEANN RIMES/Crazy Women
Writer: none listed; Producer: none listed; Publisher: none listed; Curb
—“They hauled her off in high heels and handcuffs.” He treats her wrong, so she goes over the edge, torching his car, among other things. The conclusion to this snazzy rocker? “Crazy women are made by crazy men.” A winner.
JOE DIFFIE/Tennessee Tea
Writer: Joe Diffie/Billy Joe Foster; Producer: Joe Diffie & Luke Wooten; Publisher: Diffitunes/Billy Joe Foster, BMI; Rounder (track) (www.joediffie.com)
—After co-writing the 2005 chart topper “My Give a Damn’s Busted,” Joe took a left turn toward bluegrass music. His CD is titled, simply, Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album. His yearning vocal style fits the genre like a glove. On this sizzling barn burner, he wails up a storm while red-hot pickers flicker around him. The album’s cast is a who’s-who of acoustic music, including Rhonda Vincent, The Grascals, Alecia Nugent, Bradley Walker, Byran Sutton, Aubrey Haynie, Harley Allen, Carl Jackson, Mike Compton and Sonya Isaacs. With a talent level that high, you don’t have to be a bluegrass fan to love this album.
ALAN JACKSON/Ring Of Fire
Writer: June Carter/Merle Kilgore; Producer: Keith Stegall; Publisher: Painted Desert, BMI; Arista (track)
—As you might expect, it’s a somewhat mellower vocal take on this Cash classic. Groovy electric guitars replace the distinctive Mexicali trumpets heard on the original. Lee Ann Womack’s backup singing is also a plus. The song is so strong, that if you let it just carry you along like this, you’ll be rewarded. And Alan is.
DONNA ULISSE/Caney Creek To Canaan Land
Writer: Donna Ulisse/Rick Stanley; Producer: Keith Sewell; Publisher: Uncle Hadley/Pop ‘N’ Paw, ASCAP; Hadley Music Group (track) (www.donnaulisse.com)
—I was a big fan of this lady when she was an Atlantic Records country act in the 1990s. She’s been making bluegrass records for the past several years. The new one, Holy Waters, is a bluegrass-gospel collection that kicks off with this this spirited shouter. With the exception of a cover version of The Stanley Brothers chestnut, “Who Will Sing for Me,” the entire CD is self-composed.
JASON ALDEAN & KELLY CLARKSON/Don’t You Wanna Stay
Writer: Jason Sellers/Paul Jenkins/Andy Gibson; Producer: Michael Knox; Publisher: Sony-ATV Cross Keys/Becky’s Boy/Godfather Rich/Do Write, ASCAP; Broken Bow (track)
—Response to the pair’s performance of this on the CMA Awards has been so enthusiastic that the duet is now being serviced to radio. He’s up higher in the mix here than he was on the telecast, but she still owns the power ballad with that sensational range of hers. A thrilling listening experience.
Writer: Gordon Kennedy/Ben Cooper; Producer: Ricky Skaggs & Gordon Kennedy; Publisher: Vistaville/Brown Eyed Blonde/Almighty Den, ASCAP/BMI; Skaggs Family/Fontana (track) (www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com)
—Ricky is at the top of his game on his latest gospel collection. This pop-flavored title tune features thumping drumming, electric guitar and organ. Elsewhere on the collection, you’ll find string sections, steel guitar, bouzouki, synthesizer, piano, choirs and Irish fife, among other eclectic sounds. Those who have become accustomed to his bluegrass discs are in for a shock. But this is wildly creative stuff. Check out the gloriously electrified and uplifting “My Cup Runneth Over,” for instance.
THE HARTERS/If I Run
Writer: Leslie Harter/Michael Harter/Rachel Williams; Producer: Keith Stegall; Publisher: Tunes of Bigger Picture/Bug/Rain Valley/Anozera/Sage House, ASCAP; Bigger Picture
—This trio of siblings stages its debut with a lovely. lustrous ballad that begins with Leslie trembling in anticipation, then being joined by her brothers in lushly harmonized choruses. Hang on for the bridge when everybody starts weaving vocal parts in and out of the mix. In a word, fabulous.
TIM O’BRIEN/You Ate The Apple
Writer: Tim O’Brien/Jonathan Byrd; Producer: Tim O’Brien; Publisher: Cornbread Nation/Bluewater, ASCAP/SESAC; Howdy Skies (track) (www.timobrien.net)
—This wry commentary on Eden is a folk ditty that kicks off Tim’s current Chicken & Egg collection. Stuart Duncan’s jazzy fiddle accompanies Tim’s scat singing brilliantly. The rest of the CD is a showcase for his always inventive songwriting style(s). The man is a Music City treasure.
THE STEELDRIVERS/The Reckless Side Of Me
Writer: Chris Stapleton/Mike Henderson; Producer: Luke Wooten & The SteelDrivers; Publisher: Sea Gayle/Son of a Miner/Irving/Chicken Shack, ASCAP/BMI; Rounder (track) (www.steeldrivers.com)
—The second SteelDrivers CD is also, alas, apparently the last one that will feature the gripping singing of Chris Stapleton. I hear he is now heading in a rock direction. The Restless collection kicks off with this uptempo rouser that typifies what is so great about this band—the combination of the bluegrass instrumentation and Chris’s bruiser, blue-eyed soul voice. The bluesy fiddling of Tammy Rogers, in particular, stands out on this track.
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