Joy Williams Gets Back to Basics with Intimate New Release

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

Joy Williams is a folk singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s best known as the feminine half of the fantastic country duo, The Civil Wars, but she’s made quite the name for herself as a solo act as well, working mostly in the contemporary Christian world. She debuted with a self-titled LP in 2001 and went on to be fairly prolific through 201 before she and her then writing partner, John Paul White, found breakout success with The Civil Wars. After the group announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012 and fully dissolved in 2014, Williams quickly returned to her solo career, reasing Venus to mixed reviews in 2015. After a longer period of silence than usual, she’s back with Front Porch, which sees Joy return to her folk roots in new and exciting ways.

The album opens with two of the best country songs I’ve heard all year in the opener, “Canary,” and the title track. Both tracks live and die by the fantastic vocal performances by Williams which decorate the entirety of this record. She finds a perfect mix of powerful, emotive singing and technically proficient executions of well written vocal melodies. Additionally, Kenneth Pattengale’s production does her a big favor by avoiding the trap of over correction and instead leaving every imperfection in place for a full picture of just how good she is.

Joy isn’t the only vocalists doing excellent work on this record, however, as Anthony DaCosta’s harmonies are fantastic. Tracks like “The Trouble with Wanting,” and the closer, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” are driven by airtight harmony lines in which DaCosta serves as a perfect counterpoint to Williams’ lead. Their voices blend remarkably well and he knows when to take a backseat and when to join her in the spotlight. No folk or bluegrass album can succeed without strong harmonies and Front Porch is no exception.

Instrumentally, the record is quite impressive as well. DaCosta and Pattengale share acoustic guitar duties and nearly every cut is the better for it. From the rhythmic backing on “When Does a Heart Move On,” to the sparse but complex lines on “Hotel St. Cecilia,” the guitar is consistently a driving force at the very front of every mix. Thanks to more great production, it’s able to set the tone of the record quite well.

The rest of the band is excellent as well. A hand full of strong mandolin and violin tracks decorate most of the album, most notably the fantastic “All I Need,” but none of them are as prominent as Russ Pahl’s pedal steel guitar. On the most country-esque cuts like “Be With You,” the steel guitar fits perfectly in the arrangement, never overpowering but consistently adding a howling melody to the already strong collection.

Perhaps the record’s best quality comes in Joy Williams’ lyricism. This is particularly true in the middle of the album with cuts like “When Creation Was Young,” and “Preacher’s Daughter.” The former is packed with powerful imagery which mirrors the powerful nature of the love it centers on. The latter is a wonderfully grounded tale of Williams’ childhood, with a heartbreaking final verse. Each and every song on this album showcases Joy’s incredible songwriting prowess and it’s a treat to hear.

Some of the arrangements are a bit of a mixed bag, specifically in terms of chord progression. While a track like the relatively simple “No Place Like You,” has such a fantastic, jazz-gospel inspired progression that it elevates the song far above what it would generally be, others like “One and Only,” make a few questionable choices which the track itself struggles to overcome in the execution. It’s the record’s only misstep, but it’s fairly noticeable when it’s at it’s worst.

Overall, I enjoyed Front Porch quite a bit. Venus was criticized for embracing modernity a bit too much and shedding much of Joy’s folk sensibilities, and while I’m a bit more partial to that record than most, it’s nice to hear her come back to her roots once again. She has a unique ability to make more traditional folk and bluegrass styles accessible to fans and non-fans alike, and it would be a shame to waste that.

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

8/10

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George Strait’s 30th Release is a Testament to Golden Age Nashville Music

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.

George Strait is a country music icon from Pearsall, Texas. He released 18 albums from the start of the 1980’s through the 1990’s, all of which went platinum. In total, Strait has released 23 platinum records, placing him third all time for the most gold and platinum releases, behind only Elvis and The Beatles. He also holds the title for the most number one singles of any artist in any genre. He’s largely seen as one of the most influential country artists of all time having toured consistently for multiple years and being named as “Artist of the Decade,” for his work in the 2000’s.

The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and Music City’s influence bleeds through every song, particularly in the tightness of the instrumentation. Paul Franklin, an absolute legend in country and outlaw music, helms the steel guitar which shines blindingly on “Some Nights,” but decorates virtually every cut perfectly. Bluegrass icon Stuart Duncan plays violin and mandolin as well, both of which are particularly noticeable on one of the album’s lead singles, “Codigo.” As is often the case with modern records from country icons, the instrumental personnel on Honky Tonk Time Machine is absolutely stacked.

Not to be outdone, however, George Strait gives quite a few impressive vocal performances himself. On “Sometimes Love,” for example, his tight runs and thick baritone timbre are pure country and represent a sound that Strait himself pioneered. He’s even more impressive on “Old Violin,” in which he sings with quite a bit of sincerity and vulnerability about coming to grips with his age and waning status within the industry. Ultimately, George’s voice still holds up to this day thanks to his soft touch and laid back style.

The strongest point to the record is fairly multifaceted, but can be generally summed up as great songwriting. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the shortcomings are mostly hidden by the fact that several of these tracks are just a blast to listen to. From the very funny concept of a song like “Two More Wishes,” to the Buffet-esque, island dwelling sound of “Blue Water,” and even the roaring blues riffs on the title track, the majority of this album is simply enjoyable.

On top of this, some of the slower, sappier songs dodge the common pitfalls of being boring or overly idealistic by leaning heavily into the very most classic cliche’s of the genre. “God And Country Music,” is heavily driven by twanging violins and an impassioned vocal performance while “The Weight of the Badge,” benefits quite a bit from a well played acoustic guitar. These tracks will likely turn off many outsiders and casual fans, but if you appreciate the works of country’s golden age, these are quite enjoyable.

Best of all, George and his team of cowriters are fantastically talented when it comes to writing hooks and choruses. The opener, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” for example, will rattle around the minds of listeners for days after the first listen thanks to an extremely catchy chorus. The closer and strongest cut, “Sing One With Willie,” is hilarious and extremely listenable, brought together perfectly by the singable hook which is sung by both Strait and fellow country legend, Willie Nelson.

I do have a few gripes with the album. As I said, the lyricism leaves quite a bit to be desired on most of the tracklist. On top of this, George’s voice doesn’t sit all that well in the more bluegrass inspired tracks like “Codigo.” The worst offense however, comes in the production by longtime Nashville engineer, Chuck Ainlay, who can’t seem to keep his hands out of these tracks. Most of the mixing is relatively inoffensive but the vocal tuning makes the lead feel somewhat lifeless very often and several of the harmonies just don’t quite mesh. This can often be ignored, but tracks like “Take Me Away,” and “What Goes Up,” are nearly ruined by the production.

All told, George Strait’s 30th LP is a fun addition to his legendary catalog. It’s full of enjoyable callbacks to the sound of country’s golden age with a few interesting twists and it’s extremely well performed, despite several hiccups along the way.

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.

5/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

CLASSIX REVIEW: Tom T. Hall’s “In Search of a Song”

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

Tom T. Hall is a country and bluegrass icon from Olive Hill, Kentucky. He debuted with two albums in 1969 and two more in 1970, all released on Mercury Records, who’m he’d work with all the way through the mid-90’s. He was known as “the Storyteller,” among fans because of his ability to weave narratives throughout each of his songs, and by the early 70’s, he was a staple in the country music world. 

He was also known for what he called “song hunting” trips, where he would travel through rural areas not unlike his small hometown. On these trips, he’d take notes and have conversations with locals in order to get a feel for the area he was visiting. Later, he’d reopen his notes and begin to write music, attempting to capture the spirit of the towns he’d just visited. This became a common practice in Hall’s music, certainly playing a role in the continually high quality of his output over his many years, but his skill as an author and story teller simply can’t be ignored. He would go on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in late 2018, but before all of that, the year was 1971 when Tom T. Hall would release In Search of a Song. It’s the first full album to have resulted from one of his song-hunting trips and hailed as one of the best country and bluegrass records of all time, but is it all that good? Let’s discuss.

The album’s best quality comes in Hall’s lyricism, particularly when he’s telling a story. Tracks like “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” and “The Little Lady Preacher,” carry direct narratives, one of which is quite moving and the latter a bit comical. The ability to weave a storyline across verses is somewhat lost in modern country music, but Hall was one of the best to ever do it. His rhyme schemes are simple and his stories are remarkably descriptive, not to mention inthralling.

While the traditional narrative structures are interesting, he also has a talent for what I would call descriptive narrative. On tracks like my favorite on the album, “Trip to Hyden,” “A Million Miles to the City,” or “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” Hall uses storylines to provide description of and commentary on the area he writes about. The story becomes cursory to the experience, and thanks to the fantastically visual writing, listeners are able to experience the towns and people first themselves.

In addition to these two styles, each track is decorated with Tom’s unique sense of humor. The most obvious and well known example of this comes on “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs,” but tracks like “Ramona’s Revenge,” and “Tulsa Telephone Book,” are colored with subtle jokes and comedy throughout. His real skill as a lyricist shows in the way his humor and personality permeate every aspect of every track. Hall is always able to use himself as a sympathetic main character, or at least narrator, thanks to the many jokes and relatable thoughts he expresses throughout.

On top of all this, the instrumentation is fantastic. From the howling harmonica on “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines,” to the sweet guitar on “Second Hand Flowers,” and even the surprising rock influences on “L.A. Blues,” each track is perfectly played by a talented cast of musicians, many of whom are Nashville legends in their own right and fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a veritable who’s who of 70’s Nashville studio musicians and each of them does fantastic work on In Search of a Song.

Ultimately, In Search of a Song is one of the best country/bluegrass records of all time. Thanks to talented instrumentalists and an uncanny talent for lyricism, Tom T. Hall was able to craft a truly unique piece of country music that is still hailed to this day for it’s storytelling qualities.

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.