Reviews Zone

The Haley Sisters: Always By My Side (Comet Records) 20th March 2017



5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)



What is Yorkshire famous for? Tea? Beer? Cricket? Beautiful countryside? Yummy cholestrol-bashing Sunday lunch pudding? The largest county in England, often referred to by Yorkshire folk as “God’s own country”. Where “cock” is a term of affection, unless you are being a “mardy arse”.

So. What famous people come from Yorkshire? Sean Bean, David Hockney, Alan Bennett, Kevin Keegan, Geoffrey Boycott, Brian Blessed, Jarvis Cocker, the inventor of the modern lavatory;  Thomas Crapper. Yes, really. Native of Hull and MP for Yorkshire, William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade for 26 years, succeeding only 3 days before his death. He also created what became the RSPCA.

So, it’s not so ‘grim up North’, and the county has given us some very famous sons and daughters, including The Bronte Sisters, and another pair of siblings, The Haley Sisters. Jo-Ann and Becky Haley. This talented veteran country music duo have been doing their thang since they were teenagers, scooping up many awards over their long career – at least 14 since 1990 – touring across the UK, Ireland and Europe and recording professionally since 1989. Cutting their debut album in Nashville and garnering praise and national airplay from Bob Harris. Still in very, very fine voice, the pair have recorded a brand new album, their eighth, and ‘reet good it is too, thaa knows’. Champion!

Sounding as good as anything coming out of Nashville right now, but here there’s no mention of the current obsession with ‘trucks’ or ‘tractors’, their voices individually and collectively are world class. Their harmonies sublime. The material is top notch too, and the musicianship and production faultless. I am not getting a backhander to say this stuff either. Credit where credit is due.  

Unfortunately, if one says the words “British” and “country” in the same sentence, it may well provoke groans and loss of interest. Why? Because it has picked up a stigma and a reputation for being; how can I say this relatively politely; well, piss poor and a pale imitation of US country. More aimed at cowboy hat-wearing line-dancers, who only want to hear covers of songs they know. There are, of course exceptions for sure. But not many.

While that may be a justified criticism, I’ll make two points. 1. If people like that stuff and enjoy their weekly night out dressing up and dancing in a line, to covers from mainly solo artists and duos with backing tracks, that is up to them and nobody’s else’s business. Each to their own, and it keeps a lot of musicians in work, and sells a lot of beer. 2. Some British country music has evolved in recent years, and become much more sophisticated, if that is the right word. But if there has ever been the odd pocket of real original talent push through the UK country scene, they do not seem to last long in a very small market. With the purists slating them every chance they get, that they are not “tradiitonal” enough and are more “pop” than country. The same people who are on a bitching fest, who dance to covers of rock and pop stuff, done  (badly) country-style!

There’s another pair of British sisters out there singing country songs, who are packing big venues and appearing on TV and radio all over the place, and storming the mainstream music charts with their music –  grabbing the number one spot in the process. They are Ward Thomas. Two young ladies from Hampshire. Of course, there is also The Shires, the girl and boy duo, Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle, who have not only scored big here in the mainstream charts, but have been picked by a Nashville record label and look set to repeat their UK success over there. Making history in the process. There’s a new UK four-piece (two guys, two girls) who WILL make it too, soon….The Wandering Hearts. Recently signed to Decca Records. I predict a massive debut album later this year or early next year. Trust me on that one…

So, forget the boring cries of “yee haa,” and cracks about cowboy hats and horses. There are two sorts of British country. Some may shout, “yeah, bad and really bad.” That’s all down to personal taste. I mean, traditional and modern. The Haley Sisters belong more with the likes of the Shires and Ward Thomas, than they do with the hat wearing, line-dancing acts. But, they straddle the country of today with the country of yesterday, and they do that very well indeed. On their new album “Always By My Side,” we get 11 tracks. Eight originals – two written by Becky and six co-written by Becky and Brian Smith – and three covers. Produced and mixed by Becky. The sisters share lead vocal duties, and are joined by Becky’s husband Brian Smith on lead guitar.

In June 1993 Brian joined the duo, having previously worked in Nashville, on Crystal Gayle’s “Three Good Reasons” album. Jo-Ann, Becky and Brian are still performing as a trio today. Recently they have been touring extensively with international star Nathan Carter, who guests on this album on accordion on one track. They will open for him at the famed London Palladium on 28th May 2017.  

Circa 40 minutes of material here; opening with the title track, and some superb slide guitar. Mandolin low in the mix, sweet lead vocal and glorious harmonies from Becky, Jo-Ann and the wonderful Gail Davies, who sings the third harmony part across the album. A strong song and I could see a “name” artist covering this one. “Somewhere Along The Road” is a more traditional country song; a jolly, mid-tempo affair, where banjo flavours the stew. “I’m Looking For Someone (Just Like You)” a blues and country mix, with a Patsy or Loretta style vocal. A twangy groove to it.

Brian and Rebeca’s “Hello Dad” is bound to become a requested song to be played at funerals and memorial services. A touching, emotion-soaked ballad, written by Brian and Becky, asking how things are with Dad, now he is in heaven. The weeping pedal steel from top end Nashville session man Robby Turner (who also played on an album I produced on Music Row in Nashville, a few years ago, “in another life”), will tug at your heart strings.  

“Luckiest Girl” didn’t hold my attention. “Can’t Walk Away From The Blues”, an up-tempo, rootsy feel, featured banjo and would not be out of place on a Dixie Chicks album. But it was crying out for a twangy, Brent Mason/Albert Lee finger pickin’ 100 MPH solo, which never came. Larry Alderman’s gorgeous ballad, “Letter To My Heart” once again gives Robby Turner a chance to make the pedal steel cry, on this lovely county ballad. The Dixie Chicks did the ultimate version of Bruce Robison’s lovely song, “Travelin’ Soldier” on their 2002 album “Home”. The Haleys have come up with an equally superb version here. When those harmonies kick in, shivers down the spine time. A perfect song choice for them and one of the stand-out cuts of this collection.

A Cajun groove on “Song For Jim”, featuring Nathan Carter on accordion, which is a bit low in the mix for me and maybe would have added more value to have featured more of him. Great fun though. David Allan Coe’s “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)” is a real “Wow” moment, for the harmonies. A graceful, light of touch approach, and faultless vocals. Their voices sound so young across this reord. The closer, “If I Had My Time Over Again”, is a stripped back ballad, and at three minutes and eight seconds, it was one of the only two songs on the record that for me, could have been chopped and we’d then have had a totally flawless album in our hands. That said; it is down to personal taste, so what I do not find as enjoyable as most tracks, others may love. This is still an accomplished and truly excellent album. 

The assembled cast here really did the business and were the “A” Team. John Taylor on electric guitar, piano and drum programming, John Pettifer on lead acoustic guitar on two tracks, Tony Hornsby on bass, Robby Turner on pedal steel and dobro, Joe Dean on banjo, Tom Sheerin on mandolin and fiddle, Ronnie Brown on piano, Ricky Silvers on double bass, Brian Smith on slide, acoustic guitar and percussion, Becky Smith on acoustic guitar and percussion. Gail Davies on sublime harmony vocals.   

If you dig the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou, Natalie Maines and her Chicks, Beth Neilson Chapman, Dolly, Loretta and Maria Muldaur, this is for you. If sheer talent, quality and class – with vast and versatile experience thrown in for good measure – should by rights, be repaid with major commercial success, this record and these two siblings, really deserve to have a mainstream chart hit with this album. As singers and as songwriters.

If the current interest in British country and the mega-success that the Shires and Ward Thomas are having, could be back dated to say, the late 80s or 1990s, Becky and Jo-Ann would be right up there with them. Born too early? I blame the parents! 


By Simon Redley



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