Tag Archives: country

Christmas Favorites #5: The Star Still Shines–A Diamond Rio Christmas, by Diamond Rio

A few years ago, country super-group Diamond Rio released a greatest hits album. As a bonus track, they included the patriotic “In God We Still Trust.”  Naturally, it wasn’t a favorite with many critics, but it quickly became a fan favorite. It was my introduction to the group, not having heard of them before then (this was before I really knew much about specific musical artists at all, just what I happened to hear and like). Since then, I’ve discovered just how talented these guys are. They’re not only good guys, but they’re exceptionally good at what they do. I can’t help enjoying their music. I imagine many if not most of my readers are already familiar with them, but if for some reason you aren’t… I highly recommend them. And I think this Christmas album would be the perfect introduction, since it gives you an excellent sense of their style with songs that are already familiar to everyone.

The Star On Top: “Christmas is Coming [Instrumental]” — This is the only instrumental track on the album, yet so brilliant it stands head and shoulders above everything else. It takes the Vince Guaraldi classic and completely reworks it as a combined jazz/country jam session. Every instrument sparkles, but at the center of it, the piano holds the listener enraptured. A must-hear.

Golden Rings:

“The Star Still Shines” – This song is classic, and Diamond Rio’s warm, rich harmonies are the perfect match for it. It can be done slowly or quickly. This version is upbeat, showcasing some really nimble piano work. If you play, you’ll probably try to play this after hearing it. Superb mandolin backup too.

“Winter Wonderland” – Lead singer Marty Roe said they were aiming for a slight 60s/70s pop feel with this arrangement. The rhythm departs from the traditional for a fresh twist. It’s got a faint Beatles sound in the guitar and harmonies, but it winds up firmly in the realm of country. Good different.

“Sleigh Ride” — This album is full of bluegrass overtones, and they come through particularly well on this infectious cover. Get ready for some merry electric guitar, banjo and mandolin pickin’… if you can keep up.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” – You don’t hear much country acapella, but Diamond Rio does it with class and style. Their tenor singer has an uncannily pure sound, and all the voices blend in a way that would melt the coldest Scrooge. Never content to leave the familiar un-tweaked in a good way, they throw in some gorgeous surprise chords on this one.

“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” – This chestnut is usually done slowly and jazzily. Once again, Diamond Rio surprises with something a bit different from the ordinary. Instead of lazily lounging back, their version of this carol grooves along at a nice mid-tempo pace. It made me enjoy the song in a whole new way, which is exactly what a good, creative cover of any song is supposed to do. There’s an unexpectedly lovely vocal breakdown toward the end.

Stocking Stuffer: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” isn’t the first song I would think of when I think “country Christmas,” but Diamond Rio turns in a very interesting cover of it. It starts out completely acapella, with some faint, echoed “O come, O come” in the background. Then the instrumentation kicks in immediately with strings and guitar, coordinating in a way that feels oddly discordant for the first few bars before things settle into a strong country rock groove. Granted, Diamond Rio’s cheerful voices feel a bit strained as they attempt to imbue this song with solemnity and weight (the bass is greatly appreciated on this particular track), but this is worth a listen.

Stale Cookies: “The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Time is Here,” but only because neither of those songs has ever been a huge favorite. Diamond Rio performs both beautifully.

Coal in the Bottom: There’s no single track that merits this label.

In my opinion, it’s exceedingly difficult for anyone with a taste for Christmas music, country music, or music in general to dislike this album, because this album is good country music, Christmas music, and music in general. Even if you weren’t a fan of country voices, you’d still have to admit that there’s some amazing musicianship here.

And with that, I close out this year’s installment of my Christmas favorites. Come back next Christmas for more. Although I didn’t end up fitting in a lot this time, I did showcase some of the albums that are at the very top of my list, and this is one of them.

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A Little More Scotty McCreery…

Yes, yes, I know. I already posted a video of Scotty the other day. Indulge me a little, ‘k? This might be my favorite of his mainstage performances. (Though he sure made it tough. )

Better than George Strait? You decide. (Very sweet movie scene, by the way):

Scotty definitely made it his own, no question about that. His voice is deeper, though I think Strait is a little smoother. I would still give Strait the edge, but both versions are beautiful.

McCreery has loads of potential and IMO already deserves to be counted among the best country singers out there. He’s poised to become this generation’s Randy Travis. I’d say at this point the main thing he should work on is smoothing out his upper register. The judges pointed out that he does tend to fall off his high notes a little. But that sort of thing should just improve naturally with more practice and experience. The kid is 17 for crying out loud!

By the way, I had to pick a nit with the fact that some people are calling him a “bass singer.” Clearly they have never listened to any southern gospel basses. Scotty is quite obviously a baritone with an extended lower register. :)

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Meet Your New American Idol

Folks, I present Scotty McCreery. Yes, I am hooked. How about you?

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Country Music: Yea or Nay…or Both?

Country music can get a bad rap in some southern gospel circles. When Sarah Palin described southern gospel as “sort of like country” at the NQC, people were just dying with embarrassment (even though I think that’s a perfectly natural thing to say given the interplay and musical similarities between the genres). Although some listeners and many artists have expressed appreciation for the genre, the wrinkled nose seems to be a rather common reaction.

I think perhaps that’s because country music is viewed by certain SG fans as an unsavory genre. And to be honest, it can be, which is why I don’t listen to my local country station. But it doesn’t have to be. Moreover, while a lot of country songs really are just lachrymose and/or bitter meditations on lost love, it would be unfair to paint the whole genre with that brush either.

A new country album just came out yesterday, and the title track/lead single is called “This is Country Music.” It attempts to capture in a single song everything that country music is about. The artist is one of my favorite country singers, Brad Paisley. Not all his songs are equally appropriate, and I feel like he’s lost the thread over the last couple albums he’s done, but I enjoy this song. I thought it might be fun to talk about it on a southern gospel blog.

This is the first stanza:

Well, you’re not suppose to say the word “cancer”
In a song.
And tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer
Can rub ‘em wrong.
It ain’t hip to sing about
Tractors, trucks, little towns
Or mama. Yeah, that might be true.
But this is country music,
And we do.

Already, some signature traits of country music have been identified. For one thing, it’s heavily rooted in the story-song. It tells stories about family and sometimes the heartbreak of losing a loved one. But right up front, something else is stated quite plainly—the recognition and affirmation of Christianity. Country music goes places other genres aren’t interested in, and that includes “tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer.” Paisley himself claims to be a Christian, and you can find Christian themes in more than one of his songs, which goes for many other country singers as well.

So far, so good. But some may balk at the next stanza:

Do you like to drink a cold one on the weekends,
And get a little loud?
Do you wanna say, “I’m sorry” or “I love you”
But you don’t know how?
And do you wish somebody had the nerve
To tell that stupid boss o’yours
To shove it next time he yells at you?
Well, this is country music,
And we do.

All right. Now, I’m sure many people would be shocked and offended by this, but for some reason it just makes me suppress a grin. Let me hasten to assure my readers that I do not like to “drink a cold one” and party over the weekend. But I’m trying to look at the overall message that’s being conveyed here, and to me, it’s appealing. Who hasn’t tried to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you,” but found the words sticking in his throat? Who hasn’t worked a job where you really do wish the boss would get what was coming to him? (Note: If you sing in a southern gospel group, consider this non-applicable to that particular job, because I’m hoping/assuming that you get along with your boss!!) The point is that country music relates to people wherever they are at, and it offers companionship:

Chorus

So turn it on,
And turn it up.
And sing along.
This is real.
This is your life
In a song.
Yeah, this is country music.

“This is your life in a song.” That’s fascinating to ponder, because it can mean so many things, both good and bad. When you look in a mirror, you might not like what you see…but it’s the honest truth. That’s the key word here: Honesty.

This is where a certain kind of southern gospel fan might say, “But if country music is talking about us all the time, then how can that have any connection to God?” Well, first of all, this song states early on that Jesus is the answer, so it would be incorrect to say that country is a godless genre. Nevertheless, there can be a tendency in country to focus on the problems without providing any kind of hope to answer them. And some country music seems to revel in a self-pleasing lifestyle where God is out of the picture. That’s the bad side of it. It’s real, and it’s out there, and I don’t just want to make fun of the people who point it  out.

But there’s a good side too, and I think you hear that in my favorite verse:

Are you haunted by the echo of your mother
On the phone,
Cryin’ as she tells you that your brother
Is not comin’ home?
Well, if there’s anyone that still has pride
In the memory of those that died
Defending the ol’ red, white and blue,
This is country music,
And we do.

Just to preempt potential rabbit trails, this is not the place to debate over whether Christians can be patriotic. I trust that most of us love our country (while readily admitting she has many flaws) and would agree that this verse is saying something valuable and important. We instinctively feel a rush of emotions when we think about the sacrifices that have been made to preserve this nation, and we feel an ache in our hearts when we hear stories of fallen soldiers. I believe that these instincts are God-given. We can see and feel God in something beautiful and true. The pride we feel in this nation and in the memory of our soldiers’ sacrifice is really gratitude for something beautiful that God has given to us.

This is where a kind of music that tells real-life stories can have value to it. It has value when it re-connects us with our humanity and helps us find God in the process, even when God’s name is not specifically mentioned. I see God in a cross and an empty tomb, but I also see God standing by the woman dying from cancer, the farmer toiling and sweating to harvest his crop, and the mother weeping for a son who will never come home.

So the next time you hear “gospel” and “country” in the same sentence, consider that the association might not be all bad after all.


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Come on in…it’s Kenny Rogers!

A while back, I acquired the vintage Cathedrals album Prestigious Cathedral Quartet. It’s probably best-known for containing Danny Funderburk’s sugar stick “Somebody Touched Me” and the oft-covered “An Old Convention Song.” Other highlights include a sweet Roger Bennett song (“When the World Looks At Me”), and a subtly haunting closing number called “Next Time We Meet.”

But there was one song on the album that immediately caught my ear, because when I first heard it I had the nagging feeling that I had heard it somewhere before. It was track four, a Prodigal Son re-telling entitled “Come On In.” It didn’t take me long to realize how I knew the melody: It was identical to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler!” All you nerdy collectors out there can break out the record for yourself and give the song a spin, and if you compare you’ll see that I’m right. If you don’t have the record, you can hear it on Youtube here (somewhat sped up from the original).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with “The Gambler” (though you don’t exactly have to be a country buff to have heard of it), I present a delightful performance of the classic from that immortal television series, The Muppet Show.

(Warning: Contains drinking, smoking, gambling metaphors, and a singing ghost. Proceed with caution.)

You know, it’s funny…the melody fits an awful lot better with “The Gambler” than it does with that Cathedrals song. ;-)

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