Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Warden 'The East Dallas Warden' - Idol

Ward Richmond, a Texas native and long time part of the Dallas music community, has released a debut album under the name The Warden. Describing his music as "East Dallas honky tonk", he delivers a set of 12 self-written songs that loosely fit that definition. They are rough and ready roadhouse honky-tonk which feature Richmond’s his upfront life-worn voice. He is ably joined by a quartet of backing vocalists who both bolster and back up his punchy delivery.

Fellow Texas musician Robert Jason Vandygriff produced the album after pushing Richmond to take his semi-biographical songs into a studio. Vandygriff is also one of three guitarists while a solid robust rhythm section holds things down.  The sound is also embellished by pedal steel, keyboards and brass, all of which makes for diversity in the overall sound. At one point Richmond points that what is lacking in proficiency is made up in pure "moxie"; In other words, attitude and enjoyment count for a lot in The Warden's territory.

The songs give you a fair clue as to the lyric direction as they are tales of touring, drinking, fussing, fighting and fellowship with titles like Deny, Deny, Deny, County Line, Interstate, High Life and Dark Clouds. There is nothing unfamiliar to anyone with a penchant for punky, Southern styled, beer-stained, hardass country music, but you can't help but smile and enjoy this CD, especially on catchy tracks like Our Town and Bullets where Richmond duets with Madison King, one of his female guest vocalists.

Richmond wanted to express the highways and byways of his life with a degree of truth and a little added fiction to make them interesting. Texas is a big place and there's much going on outside Austin's city limits. This album is harder than the more traditional Heart of Texas styled releases, but it still draws from a Friday/ Saturday night having a good ethos, one that is both timeless and universal. 

Ted Z and the Wranglers 'Ghost Train'- Rip Cat

The Wranglers are a grassroots roots band from California fronted by the man named as Ted Z. He kids his Wranglers through a bunch of songs that are built around some serviceable melodies and hooks. There are elements of rock 'n' roll and outlaw country tempered with some lighter, folkier, storytelling. The title track evokes the spirits of lost musical souls featuring diverse icons such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as well as Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly  over a train rhythm beat, while Jackson Leverone’s atmospheric slide guitar evokes the essential spookiness of the song. 

Throughout, Monty Byrom's production brings out the best in these romantic, robust and rousing songs of love, lingering doubts and a liberalism that considers politics, people, places and the search for some truth and justice in the American way. Z is the writer and he has some skill in that department along with a dependable voice that has both warmth and grit.

Ghost Train probably has more in common with the insurgent county/cowpunk moments of decades past than with some of the more metalized rock that masquerades as country these days. There are strands of blues and Southern Rock neatly woven into their take on Americana. The songs are often hurtling down the tracks and building up a fair head of steam such as Joseph Ratcliff, Kansas, Bitter Hands and Postcard, which works particularly well with the rhythm section of Dan Mages and Mike Myers providing an insistent chugging base for Z's vocal and Leverone's guitar. 

On the other hand, this quartet are equally comfortable on ballads and slower tempos. The final track, Broken,  is just guitar and vocal and a heartfelt lyric of a "broken man waiting to bleed". Bitter Hands starts out slow but builds with baritone guitar and acoustic before the band kicks in. Producer Monty Byrom adds Bill Mason's keyboards on certain tracks to give a wider texture to songs like Go Find Your Heaven which tells the listener to go find the place that the singer never can. Ghost Train is an easy album to like if you like your Americana with some weight and songs that ring true. Z and the Wranglers have made a debut that will make them friends. 

Speedbuggy USA 'South of Bakersfield' - Wagon Wheel

As the title suggests,  Speedbuggy USA are an LA based-band who play what would have been termed 'cowpunk' a couple of decades ago; cowpunk being avibrant mix of classic country, rock 'n' roll with a punk attitude. This, their 8th release, is an 8 track collection of self-written songs that deal with blue collar lifestyles and some of life's rougher deals. Still Movin' On is a song about the travails of a trucker and is delivered at the speed of a high-rolling truck on a straight highway. Wrong Side is a duet with Bunny West that is about the battle with the bottle; a steel guitar infused poignant ballad it contrast with the more hi-octane nature of a couple of the other songs. The band’s lead singer, Timbo, having come through some pretty severe health issues, sings with the conviction of a survivor about these hard times. He sings with all the feel of someone who has lived through or been close to them and the rest of the band are right behind him and give these songs a solid and satisfying kick. 

There are enough changes of tempo and texture to keep it interesting throughout. The twanging Telecaster, steel guitar, strident rhythm section and, on occasion, as with Rusted Cars, an accordion adds to the overall feel. Git Yer Wagon Rollin' has the tongue in cheek feel of a speed driven hoedown with banjo prominent. Liars, Thieves and Ramblers sums up the types who live within some of these songs. It has a standout vocal from Timbo on a mid-paced stripped down song that doesn't so much judge the misfits as understand something of their plight. 1000 Miles from Nowhere is not the Dwight Yoakam song, but another song of a man who feels isolated on the road and from life at home. The road is a way out - or maybe not. Bakersfield closes the album with a song about being back on the road, broken down somewhere outside of that storied town.  

Speedbuggy USA sits outside the country mainstream, and always have done, but they play music that they want to play they way they want to play it, and for a small band that counts. It's also music I'm happy to listen to. 

Toby Keith '35 MPH Town' - Show Dog

Drink, the consumption of, taken to forget or just to unwind, has always been a fundamental part of country music but of late it seems to be Nashville’s solution to world peace. There's Beer on Clint Black’s most recent album and here Toby Keith opens his new album with another such salute to the leveling (pun intended) nature of alcohol in Drunk American,  a song written by Bob DiPiero, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. They are all seasoned writers, but this song will not be remembered as one of their best. Many of the other songs on the album are co-writes between Keith and Bobby Pinson, who made a fine solo album for RCA some time back. Pinson also co-produced the album excepting the Buffett-esque Rum Is The Reason which Mac MacAnally co-helmed. Buffett himself appears on Sailboat for Sale, although this is less related to his trademark sound than Rum is. Another song that has alcohol as its theme is Haggard, Hank And Her where the two named singers help with the pain induced by the latter. The final song Beautiful Stranger closes the album in a welter of strings on a power ballad inspired by the appearance of the woman of the title 

More to the point is that this album sounds a Hell of a lot more traditionally country than many of it's contemporaries. Russ Pahl’s steel is prominent throughout but having said that it is still not as edgy as it could be giving the fact that this is Keith's own label and he presumably records what he wants. He obviously still records with an ear for radio airplay. It is largely free from the political stance that some of his songs have taken in the past, concerning itself largely with the pursuit of a good time - albeit via lubrication amid an aura of lasciviousness.

Those who have enjoyed Toby Keith in the past will enjoy this album, as he plows his own furrow with a an identifiable voice that is at the centre of these songs and there is no doubting his prowess in that department. Like few of the other singer/songwriters who emerged when he did, Keith has followed his muse and while his music may not be for those who look to the rougher, more outlaw edges of country, he has remained true to his own vision and attitudes and for that his many fans will raise a glass (or two).

George Strait 'Cold Beer Conversation' - MCA Nashville

The latest album from George will hardly change opinions about his more recent output. It is solid, dependable, listenable and country. But there's not much different to consider and that maybe is exactly the point. Like Alan Jackson, Strait represents the forefront of traditional styled country in this day and age. We seem to be on a cusp of something a little broader in the American context without falling into the trap of bro-country or lame rock country, with artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton selling albums in quantities large enough for the majors to take notice.

That is as may be, but George Strait isn't likely to change his game plan at this stage. More likely he will change some of the writers whose songs he chooses. So while there are a couple of co-writes with long time contributor Dean Dillon, the name s that come to fore here are Jamey Johnson (two co-writes, one with seasoned veterans Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon). Four come from the pen of Keith Gattis, solo or co-writes. Gattis was an interesting solo artist with some good albums to his name as well as acting, for a time, as Dwight Yoakam's lead guitarist. 

The songs that stand out, for this writer are Cheaper than a Shrink, which is guess what?  Yep, it’s drink. That's also the key ingredient in Cold Beer Conversation. The musician credits include Paul Franklin on steel and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin alongside A-teamers like Glenn Worf, Brent Mason and Greg Morrow.  Top notch players all, though they rarely cut loose in the Chuck Ainlay/George Strait production. Take Me to Texas by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally is a song that is filled with longing for a Texas of the past and a wish to return there as a final resting place. This one has fiddle and steel at its heart, as would only be right given the subject. Strait now also writes regularly with his son Bubba and their co-write (with others) It Takes All Kinds is a fun song that swings western style. Stop and Drink is another strong number that has a little message beneath the light-hearted approach.

There is indeed little to dislike about this album, even if you have wished for the odd surprise. You can't fault Strait's smooth vocal integrity and delivery. He is a seasoned pro and knows what his fans want and, mostly, he delivers, but a man who has sustains a career as long as George Strait is bound to have his own signature sound and may not feel the need to step outside it the way that, say, Alan Jackson has on a couple of his albums. Even so, while not his best album in recent times, it is a lot more satisfying than the recent live album.

Duane Rutter 'Crazy Things' - Flat

Crazy Things is a solid third set of songs from the Ontario based singer/songwriter. Rutter has a suitably lived-in voice that has some grit to it. The are some memorable songs in the set from the opening Don't Forget through a soulful I Don't Ask to the stripped back understanding that in time We Find Ourselves at Last. He and producer/guitarist Andrew Aldridge have assembled a supportive band that includes (on one track Take That Water) Band keyboard player Garth Hudson and his wife Sister Maud. Other players include a defining contribution from Steve "Honeyboy" Wood on steel guitar and a tight rhythm section of Carrie Ashworth on bass and Nick Burson on drums.

The title track is a slow paced reflection of how people will do crazy things under certain conditions. The song has a strong contribution from JB Reed on duet vocals; she also sings on three other songs offering a nice contrast and counterpoint to Rutter's voice. The songs largely deal with affairs of the (often broken) heart, with titles like Will I Ever Learn?, I Ain't No Good and Number One. But there is a redemptive quality to these self written songs and an uplifting feel to their performance that makes Crazy Things an easy album to like and to revisit.

The final song, the aforementioned Take That Water has an understandably) Band-like feel with the contributions from the Hudsons being very much to the fore and a solid groove throughout. Rutter reminds me of no one and everyone at the same time, in that the music is generic in content but is elevated by the production and collective performances that make this an album that has the potential to appeal to a larger audience than just the one he enjoys in Hamilton, Ontario. Crazy Things just goes to prove that there's a lot of good music out there just waiting for a connection. 


George Strait 'The Cowboy Rides Away' - Humphead

This recording of George Strait’s final record-breaking attendance concert from the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas is already raising some controversy due to the alleged use of Auto-Tune throughout. This is something that is hotly debated online. What you get is a star studded event that finds some of Strait’s best known and loved songs given the live in concert treatment. Over the 20 tracks you have a rake of duets with such guests as Vince Gill, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, Martina Lambert, Alan Jackson and Strait’s son Bubba.

Strait’s long time Ace in the Hole Band does a fine job throughout, but the surprising thing is how flat it whole thing sounds overall. Why is difficult to figure out, as, if anything, it should have sounded like a huge celebration with songs like Marina Del Ray, Ocean Front Property, All My Ex’s Live in Texas, The Chair, Here for a Good Time and Murder on Music Row. The guest stars represent a mix of old hands and the new breed and I doubt the seasoned performers like Vince Gill or Alan Jackson would ever need outside assistance to sing in tune. In fact, the duet of Strait and Jackson on the attack on the direction that radio and the labels were heading is a highlight on the album.

When you have released as many albums as Strait has, the choice of final songs is always going to be difficult as fans will feel has missed out one of their own favourites. In the 20 tracks he has chosen he mixes songs from different points in his career so that fans are bound to have firm favourites. All My Ex’s Live in Texas finds all the guests onstage for the choruses. The final song, the title track, finds Strait thanking the audience and guests for their support and he also says that, like Schwarzenegger character quote “I’ll be back”. So while this is his live swan sing (for now) he is likely to deliver further studio albums. It’s just a shame that this album, to some ears, doesn’t sound quite like it should. Others however will enjoy this souvenir of a steadfastly traditionalist entertainer. 

Humphead new releases by Stephen Rapid

George Strait  Love Is Everything / The Cowboy Rides Away  

By now there can be few who listen to country music who don't know what George Strait sounds like. He has stayed pretty much on track since he started. However if you compare the earliest tracks to the later ones on the 3 CD compilation The Cowboy Rides Away you can hear the changes in production techniques and the difference in how instruments are mixed. On Strait’s latest album, Love Is Everythin, g the drums are bigger and the guitars a little bit harder but that doesn't distract from the reason why George Strait still has such a big fan base and continues to make some convincing country music.

His voice is as good as it ever was -  better in fact now. The years of live and studio work have added a little timbre to his tone, yet it is still distinctively Strait. He has stuck to his path and still sells large quantities of records.This suggests that there are still many listeners who are not convinced by the ongoing "modernisation" of country, supposedly for an ever younger audience.

Another change is that Strait is more involved in the recording  process these days. He is writing songs, mostly with his son Bubba. There are a couple here that are written by the two of them with longtime supplier of songs Dean Dillon. I Just Can't Go On Dying Like This is a fine ballad written by Strait solo and it shows a continued confidence in his ability. Another name that might surprise some is that of Keith Gattis, who as well as being a solo artist in his own right, once served as Dwight Yoakam's lead guitarist. One of the standout songs here is Blue Melodies, a song about songwriting with some stellar pedal steel, which was written by Gattis and Wyatt Earp.  Other well know names here include Al Anderson and Chris Stapelton, both artist who now concentrate on writing rather than any other aspects of their careers.

Love is Everything is one of the best of Strait's recent albums, all of which have seemingly re-engaged the singer,  maybe as a reaction to what he's hearing on the radio these days. A fine album with a solid country setting that has lots of fiddle and steel , two instruments which have always been prominent aspects of George Strait's music.

The Cowboy Rides Away is full of solid country performances from the cream of Music Row's writers and players. There are classic hit songs from his back catalogue that include Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, Blue Clear Sky, Ocean Front Property, Amarillo By Morning and All My Ex's Live In Texas. But of course with such a strong back catalogue there are songs here that have not appeared on previous best of compilations.

George Strait is such a consistent artist that any such compilation will be full of great songs and singing and The Cowboy Rides Away is no exception but Love Is Everything is proof enough that this cowboy isn't ready to hang up his saddle just yet and with many the old masters no longer around it's good to know that George Strait is as straight and true to his vision as he ever was.

Lee Ann Womack The Definitive Collection 

This is a career overview from Humpead,  who are doing sterling work with their compilations and current releases. Lee Ann Womack originally appeared as a traditional country singer who then crossed over to a more mainstream, pop-orientated series of hits such as I Hope You Dance before reverting back to a more straight country style. Since then she has been moved aside by a set of younger singers which finds her moving on from her stint with MCA in the USA. 

Whatever she sings Womack has a powerful voice with an undeniable twang that is to the fore on songs like I'll Think Of A Reason Later.

Throughout her time at MCA she worked with different producers like Mark Wright, Byron Gallimore and Frank Liddell (who is Womack's husband). Through the different styles she maintained a consistent voice with a recognisable twang and tone gave her a strong country identity. Much of the material she has recorded comes from both left-field talents as well as the Music Row mainstreamers like Chris Stapelton, Leslie Satcher, Buddy and Julie Miller, Rodney Crowell, Bruce Robison, Jamie O'Hara, Gretchen Peters and Hank Cochran. 

The songs here include Never Again, Again,  A Little Past Little Rock,  Ashes By Now,  Lord I Hope The Day Is Good, Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?,  Last Call, I May Hate Myself in the Morning and I'll Never be Free and Mendocino County Line – the last two duets with Willie Nelson. Womack may have lost out to the new names currently riding high in the charts but she will, no doubt, be back. In the meantime this collection sums up a singer who deserves the kudos she received and the lasting work she delivered for MCA.

Bill Anderson The Definitive Collection

Best known as a songwriter and for his relaxed vocal style which was the source of his nom de plume "Whisperin'", Bill Anderson is a stylist who has written songs recorded by performers from Ken Dodd to country singers Connie Smith and George Strait and even Aretha Franklin. This collection has 50 songs that span the late 50s to the late 70s, with songs like Po' Folks, Happiness, Five Little Fingers, Bright Lights and Country Music through to his smooth version of Lionel Ritchie's Three Times A Lady, the final track on this two CD set.

The chronological running order goes from his more traditional sounding songs,  recorded with then A Team players like Pete Drake, Grady Martin and Floyd Cramer,  to the more cosmopolitan pop country of his later songs. Bill remains a writing force today and has written in recent times with current hit makers like Brad Paisley. He remains a man in love with his work and while he may not appeal to everyone, there is plenty here to cement his reputation as a consistent hit maker.  

Steve Earle  The Definitive Collection 1986-1992 

Showing the diverse nature of these collections,  this one brings together Steve Earle's work from his MCA albums. This period produced some of his hardest, twang-filled music,  songs that included Guitar Town, The Devil's Right Hand, Copperhead Road, Someday, Billy Austin, and I Ain't Ever Satisfied; songs that have stood the test of time and ones often still included in his live set.

There are 39 tracks here including live versions of the Rolling Stones' Dead Flowers and Nebraska  which both show his affinity with both blue collar rock and Stones' styled raunch. Most Earle fans will have these songs in their collection,  but if you're coming to Steve Earle from his recent live performance and albums,  this bookends them well.

Earle is an always engaging writer and these songs have relevance and righteousness. They show that Earle had learnt from his contemporaries if not from life. Some of this music comes from a time when he was in thrall to various addictions and it has a rawness that was tempered later by a more acoustic approach after fronting the Dukes, a band who could rock pretty hard when required. 

Steve Earle's career has spanned more than 30 years and he is still focused on what he is saying and playing; still a good old boy getting tough, but one with a fearless heart.

George Strait 'Here For A Good Time' Humphead/MCA

The latest album from the dependable Mr. Strait is another straight down the line album of his trademark country. Nothing much has varied here from the last few albums other than Strait is now writing a lot more of his own songs. Seven songs here bear his name, all co-written with his son Bubba and long-time Strait scibe Dean Dillon. Production is again shared between Strait and Tony Brown who has been in that role for quite a few albums now. The players are, like the production, smooth and right on target. The vocal delivery is reliable as ever and he seems more connected here than he has at some times in the past and songs like Drinkin' Man show one side of the song direction while Three Nails And A Cross shows another way to gain some deliverance. Other self-penned songs are strong like Shame On Me. The them of drinkin' appears again in Chuck Cannon and Allen Shamblin's Poison. Veteran writers Gary Nicholson and Delbert McClinton co-wrote the rodeo rider reminisce, the uptempo Lone Star Blues which allows the players to strut their stuff. Jesse Winchester's A Showman's Life features harmonies from Faith Hill and is a song about the downsides of life on the road. He delivers it with conviction and some understanding of the subject matter. George Strait ain't going change much now and for that many of his fans will be thankful. Strait is what he is and while here been here for a long time he's also here for a good time and on this album he delivers just that.