Reviews by Paul McGee

Kathy Mattea Pretty Bird Captain Potato

Six years since her last release, Calling Me Home, sees Mattea return with a collection of twelve cover songs that highlight the talents which turned her into one of the most successful country singers of her generation. Not that she restricted her recording history to just one genre of music; Mattea has often explored bluegrass, gospel, celtic and folk leanings.

This release displays her wonderful phrasing and tone, despite some health scares over recent years which saw her temporarily fear the loss of her voice. Her ability to interpret a song over many years of experience has served her well and she tackles covers by Martha Carson (I Can't Stand Up Alone), Jesse Winchester (Little Glass Of Wine), The Wood Brothers (Chocolate on My Tongue), Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billie Joe) and Joan Osborne (St. Teresa) with her unique stamp of making the songs her own.

Mostly the songs are pared down to simple guitar or piano accompaniment and this allows for a new perspective on the sentiment or words contained within.  A good example is her treatment of the traditional arrangement, He Moves Through The Fair and the fine version of Mercy Now, a timeless classic written by Mary Gauthier. 

Production by Tim O’Brien is wonderfully bright and vibrant in the speakers and the musicians excel on every track. Welcome back to one of the greats.

Martha L. Healy Keep the Flame Alight Self Release

This is the second release from a Scottish artist who really impresses. Healy sings in a confident and strong style that brings an extra energy to these ten tracks and the instantly appealing openers, No Place Like Home and Fall In Love Again, have you hooked from the outset.

Recorded in Nashville during 2017, Healy used the production talents of David Spicher who had worked on her debut release, Better Days, back in 2014. Local Nashville session players on the sessions include Bill Cooley (guitars/bazouki), Todd Lombardo (guitars/mandolin), Rory Hoffman (accordion, piano), Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle), Wendy Newcomer (vocals), Dave Racine (drums) and Chas Williams (Dobro). All songs are penned by Healy with one co-write included, We Will Be OK, written with Wendy Newcomer and a song that speaks of hope for tomorrow.

The title track is a personal testament to the need to keep enduring and work through the inevitable hard times that we all face from time to time on our respective journeys. The swing and the swagger of Woman With No Shame channels Dolly at her best and the Folk tinged Unmade Bed takes a wry look at an old relationship that time has passed by ("All that is left is the things that they should have said; in an unmade bed...").

There is a soulful power to Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream and the frustrated message of this song is extended into Sisters To Strangers, a look back at the toll paid in living a life that veers away from youthful hopes and dreams. The closing ballad, Don’t Give Up, is a fitting sentiment to an artist who has forged a career for herself that continues to grow and the momentum gained with this superb release will surely power her along to greater heights.

Lisa Mednick Powell Blue Book Self Release

This collection of ten songs has a release date in 2017 but only recently found its way to the Lonesome Highway mailbox. It is a real keeper and worthy of a belated review, albeit at the end of 2018.

There is a wistful atmosphere to these reflective sounds and a sense of long forgotten memories that come back to remind us of younger days. Understated, stripped back arrangements and a soft focus to the production on songs that resonate and repeat like some lost dream…

Victoria Williams, Tommy Malone, Alison Young, Greg Leisz, among others, assist in the studio but it is the focus of Lisa and her husband, bass player and co-writer, Kip Powell, that brings the magic to tracks Checkpoint, Cold Coffee and Highway Prayer.

With a debut release in 1994, (Artifacts Of Love), it was 2002 before the release of her follow-up (Semaphore), until sixteen years later we are given Blue Book. This artist has played with Earl King, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry to name but a few and has quite an eclectic history, having toured with The Chills and Juliana Hatfield. Something for every taste here. 

Tom Freund East of Lincoln Surf Road 

A quality release from an artist who has been creating terrific music for over 20 years. He has collaborated with so many headline names, such as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, The Silos to name a few… His song-writing is superbly crafted and his back catalogue is well worth investigation. On this latest release there are eleven songs and Freund is joined by a list of great players – drums from Matt Johnson (St. Vincent, Jeff Buckley) and Michael Jerome (Richard Thompson, John Cale, Blind Boys of Alabama), pedal and lap steel from Ben Peeler (Dawes, Shelby Lynne, Father John Misty), keys from Rami Jaffe (Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams) and Chris Joyner (Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones) and violin from Jessy Greene (Wilco, The Jayhawks). 

His writing is subtly laid-back in style but filled with little gems and great insights. A toxic relationship in Freezer Burn is captured in the lines "I was running on hope and fumes" while the self examination of a life lived in the fast lane (Brokedown Jubilee) is referenced with "I was a friend of the devil, but even he got sick of me." 

Abandoning The Ship and Homer Simpson’s Clouds (Day Of The Locust) are other tracks with real punch. Great writing and excellent songs that stay in the memory long after the disc has finished. Always a good sign!

Brad Colerick Nine Ten Thirty Back 9 

This is the fifth release from Los Angeles resident & singer-songwriter Brad Colerick. It was recorded in South Pasedena and co-produced by Colerick and Guillermo Guzman, who contributes bass and percussion across most of the 12 tracks.

They are joined by a group of local musicians who play their part in adding colour to the song arrangements. David Plenn on electric & 12-string guitars is very much to the fore as are the talents of Tim Fleming on pedal steel, dobro, 12-string and baritone guitars. 

Colerick sings in an easy style and there is a commercial, contemporary sound to tracks like Bachelorette Party, while Great Year and Millard Stream channel a Jimmy Buffet style and the sense of a soft breeze on a sunny day. Healer, Almost Home and Weeds are songs with a gentle tempo that drift along on a pleasant groove. A very easy listening experience. 

Ultan Conlon Last Days Of The Night Owl Darksideout

In the five years since his last release, this talented singer-songwriter has continued to grow into an artist of real quality and his creative muse is further enhanced on this latest project. There are twelve songs included and the warm production adds greatly to the arrangements and melodies of opening songs, As The Light Gets Low, The Town Square and Hall Of Mirrors, which set the tone for the rest of the album.

There is some lovely tight playing from the band that comprises of Ultan (acoustic guitars, vocals), Dave Curtis (electric guitars, baritone and 12-string guitars, piano, keyboards and vocals), Jon O’Connell (double and electric bass, acoustic guitar and lap-steel, mandola & vocals), Donal Kerins (drums, vocals), along with Jimi Higgins on percussion, Sabrina Dinan on vocals and Adam Shapiro on violin. 

Strings and brass add greatly to the overall production and these were recorded at Tesla Studios in Sheffield with additional musicians credited in the liner notes, along with pedal steel credits to Russ Pahl in Nashville, who plays on A Weak Heart Like Mine... This has recently been released as a duet with Mary Coghlan providing vocals to great effect.

Quite an investment in terms of energy and time, the commitment given certainly pays off and Ultan can move forward with some confidence into a future that holds plenty more opportunity to build further media attention.

Sorrow Ease and Hurt Inside are fine songs with gentle tones while Ojai takes things down a little with the reminiscence of a city trip, with an old flame, that still lingers in the memory. The radio friendly sounds of The Measure and Twice The Child are perfect examples of how astute a song-writer Ultan is; plenty of feel-good grooves and sing-along choruses that point to increased chart opportunity. However, it is the quiet, pensive strum of the final track, The Fine Art Of Happiness, that gives the greatest hint towards the future success of this blossoming talent. A release of some substance and one that comes highly recommended.

Sina Theil Under Cover Downda Road

Debut release from an artist who was born in Germany and has now settled in Ireland and taking her music career to the next level. Sina has quite a talent and her abilities have seen her songs achieve seven separate number one slots on the Country download charts from her Kildare base. 

This covers record has already gone to the number one slot on the Country download charts and to see what all the fuss is about; well, just go and buy this collection of eleven songs.

The difficulty with releasing a covers record is that you are "damned if you do; damned if you don’t…" Delivering a decent version of a favourite song is hard to do and if you fall short then you open yourself to all sorts of criticism. Especially if you decide to cover such diverse artists as Gretchen Wilson, Cheap Trick, Paul Brady, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Eagles.

The good news is that Sina carries it all off with some style and the overall production by Brian O’Mahoney at Golden Egg Studios in Portlaoise is very impressive. The players, including O’Mahony, deliver a tight sound across each track and the fiddle playing of John Davidson is a real joy throughout and brings a real country feel to covers of These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ (Lee Hazelwood) and I Want You To Want Me (Cheap Trick).

Some of the covers work better than others, which is only to be expected across such an eclectic mix of choices. However, the overall project is very infectious and the three Brandy Clark inclusions (Stripes, Crazy Women, Since You’ve Gone To Heaven) show the key influences in Sina’s choices. She certainly likes to rock it up but it is the superb version of Colder Weather (Zac Brown Band) that steals the show and points a clear direction for where this talented artist should concentrate when it comes to following this release.

A word about the stylish press kit that was given to Lonesome Highway and the colourful biography and three separate singles that were included. Proof positive that here is an artist with her eyes set on the big prize. The packaging is high quality and makes a statement about the very professional approach being taken here. 

A recent single is Travelin’ Soldier (Bruce Robison), covered by the Dixie Chicks, and is blended with the traditional Irish song, The Minstrel Boy, to great effect. Not included on this covers release but another reason to seek out this rising talent. Watch this space…  


Reviews by Paul McGee


Billy Hector 'Old School Thang' - Ghetto Surf

This New Jersey-born blues guitar player has been releasing records for over 20 years. Hector plays with a very dynamic and fluid style that is reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the phrasing and touch (Short and Sweet Blues, Vitamin Big Daddy). With a brass section that really adds to the fine blues playing and tight backbeat rhythm, the eleven songs here are a great example of his talent at play and the sound that Hector has been perfecting for many years.

Sim Cain on drums is a real driving force on all tracks and whether joined by Winston Roye or Tim Tindall on bass, the pace never slackens as the tunes are given full throttle, topped off by Tommy Labella on Sax and Steve Jankowski on trumpet. It is the great guitar licks of Billy Hector that carry the day and really colour the songs with his fine guitar riffs and runs, from the down home dirty sound of Fake ID to the sweeter groove of Come On Home and the slow burn of Evil, Slick ‘N Sly.

This guitar player has taken the blues and stamped his own influence on a genre that pays dues to the greats of the past, but also carves out a unique place for his own impressive talent.

Scott Albert Johnson 'Going Somewhere' - Self Release

Johnson is resident of Jackson, Mississippi and has been honing his craft as a harmonica player for many years. This collection of nine songs is a follow up to his 2007 debut Umbrella Man. The self- produced project kicks off with a couple of tracks that are energising and Going Somewhere and If I Only Knew the Words leave a strong impression on the listener. The cover of I Don’t Remember (Peter Gabriel) is less convincing and it is hard to understand the decision to include it here.

Johnson is a strong singer and carries the songs well, from the funky groove of Haunt My Dreams to the honky-tonk workout of A Bigger Gun. The closing song Fragments is a gentle and thoughtful piano based arrangement with fine harmonica and the vocal delivery sounding like John Hiatt. This artist has delivered a solid record that should easily find an audience to enjoy his talents. 

Tom Freund 'Two Moons' - Surf Road 

New York-born Tom Freund has been releasing music since his debut album in 1998, and has also contributed to releases by the Silos and Graham Parker among many others. This self-produced record is on his own Surf Road Records and sees guest appearances from Ben Harper and Brett Dennen. The feel is mainly acoustic and the mood is predominantly laid-back with the slow tempo of Heavy Balloon a perfect example; pedal steel and electric guitar weaving fine lines through the melody.

These are songs of hope and of reflection with the stance of Lemme Be Who I Wanna Be a validation for living free and being true to oneself. Happy Days Lunch Box is a nod to the past and the full flush of youth; ‘when did I get so jaded’? Freund sings, and the string arrangement adds a melancholy feel to the song. The sunshine of California, where Tom currently resides and where this project was delivered, comes through in the upbeat playing on Next Time Around, an ode to love gone wrong. Weekend Guy is another love oriented song that questions relationship roles and the need to meet someone who is compatible. 

This is a solid set of songs and an enjoyable listening experience.

Danni Nicholls 'Mockingbird Lane' - Self Release

Born in Bedford, England, this talented singer-songwriter releases her second recording as a follow up to her 2013 debut, A Little Redemption. Again we have Chris Donohue at the production desk (Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, and The Civil Wars) recorded in Nashville.

’The path is steep, hold somebody’s hand’ sings Danni on Let Somebody Love You, a plea to open up and trust in feelings and vulnerability. Leaving Tennessee reflects on the other side of that coin with the singer nursing a wounded heart, but more worldly wise after a failed relationship. Look Up at the Moon is a light jazz arrangement that shows the breadth of talent on display and Beautifully Broken has a sweet acoustic swing, while the slow blues groove of Back to Memphis has traces of a Sheryl Crow influence.

Danni sings in a beautifully clear voice that has a hint of melancholy in its’ wistful delivery. The musicians are all top drawer and serve the songs in such an understated way that the melodies just glide on by in an easy manner. Chris Donohue plays a range of instruments and the appearance of multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough adds plenty of range to the melodies.

All songs are written by Danni with co-write credits on seven tracks. Mockingbird Lane is very impressive, highlighting an accomplished artist fully in tune with her creative muse.

Canaan Smith 'Bronco' - Mercury

This is the debut release from country music artist Canaan Smith and it comes full of great songs with an honesty and style that bodes well for the future. Smith is working here with producers Brett Beavers, Jimmy Robbins and Ryan Tyndell, all of whom play on the album.

There are songs about dangerous women (Good Kinda Bad), returning to the old neighbourhood (Stomping Ground), drinking to forget (Hole In A Bottle) and lost love (Stuck). However, Smith displays a talent that rises above the usual country clichés contained in such songs. Great production and harmonies promote a tight country sound that can more than hold a place against the current crop of rivals in this genre.

The songs are performed by a group of very talented players who know when to hold back on the dynamics and give the tunes room to breathe. This is a welcome change from a lot of the full blooded assault tactics that stifle many of the current releases in country music.

Love You Like That has already brought Smith to the attention of country radio listeners and there a other numbers here that can also challenge the charts (One of Those, Mad Love) as they are so well delivered and produced. Love at First and Two Lane Road are two examples of what this artist can deliver and the use of synths and programming sounds are used here in a subtle but effective way that adds to the production qualities.

The title track is a tribute to Smith's older brother, Nathaniel, who died in a car crash and the song is a real standout with a heartfelt lyric and delivered with a classy elegance in such emotional context; ‘takes a life time of prayers on bended knee, trying to come to peace with your memory’. 

This new country artist is one to watch and he has delivered a fine collection of songs on his first outing.