My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Renegades, Rebels And Rogues’

Classic Rewind: Jim Ed Brown – ‘Country Girl’

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘Numbered Doors’

lm_albumEver since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005, Lori McKenna has been one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters and a delightful artist in her own right. She’s scored major radio cuts by the likes of Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town and even secured a major label deal that resulted in a single collection far more upbeat than her usual fare.

Most songwriters in her enviable position would focus on the big time, but McKenna has maintained her small-town Massachusetts roots all the while continuing to keep one foot in music city. Her music, as a result, has maintained its uniqueness; no one is as astute in crafting such simple lyrics about the eccentricities of small town life. Her “Grocery Store,” an Angaleena Presley co-write from her American Middle Class focuses on the act of standing in a checkout line, but reveals its brilliance in the quiet pondering of both fellow customers and the checkout clerk’s life story.

In September, McKenna returned the focus to herself with her eighth LP, the experimental Numbered Doors. This time around she wrote with an outsider’s perspective, crafting songs from other people’s stories instead of self-absorbed personal narratives. It doesn’t mean she detours from her comfort zone too much sonically. The tracks are still clothed in the trademark lush instrumentation she’s famous for leading to few surprises but still providing a delightfully ear catching experience for the listener.

The extraordinary title track, a mandolin soaked manifesto on quite desperation, served as the promotional single. Few paint extreme hopelessness as vividly as McKenna who gives voice to women paralyzed by the rabbit hole they can’t dig themselves out of. These women are often the byproduct of long marriages where, as the lady in “All A Woman Wants” can attest, longs to take away the breath of the husband who renders her sexually and emotionally starved. They’re also painfully self-aware, able to recognize the lack of life in their years, lamenting over “All The Time I’ve Wasted” on a relationship that couldn’t be saved. Their inwardly reflective pity-party only serves to make the situation worse, and without an exit, makes their prognosis seem pretty grim.

McKenna sings from the other side, too, turning “Livin’ On Love” on its side with “Good Marriage,” a tune about life’s daily struggles dissolving into a fight where the couple “take back every word that’s said” before heading to bed. Hope continues with “God Never Made One of Us To Be Alone,” a track about how the daily struggles will always be there but we’re not meant to face them without companionship and love. Said company isn’t always a significant other, as the woman with “Three Kids No Husband” can confirm with a ‘broken home [that] ain’t no fairytale.’

The ever present brokenness seeps back in with “Starlight,” which uses the old rhyme “starlight star bright” to convey a woman’s inner desire to wish for a life consisting of more than ‘kitchen tiles [that] used to be white.’ McKenna has long danced around the subject of extramarital affairs from “Stealing Kisses” to “If You Ask,” but she’s never tackled the subject head on like she does while playing a woman confronting the best friend who’s “The Stranger In His Kiss.” Erin Enderlin passively sat next to the forthright woman screwing her man, saying nothing, but McKenna drives said mistress to tears during a late-night rendezvous. When she reveals ‘you were standing right there beside me when he said, “till the day he dies,”’ the listener feels the true intensity of the woman’s pain. “The Stranger In His Kiss” is the crown jewel of an album beaming with specifically crafted studies of emotional depth.

If I can fault McKenna for anything, it’s her ability to craft albums basking in lyrical and sonic repetition. There’s no denying her masterful ability to craft material from the perspective of a woman living a small-town life. But a whole album worth of these type songs, typically immaculately produced ballads, is too weighted down and begins to get old very quickly. As individual compositions each of the ten tracks are truly incredible. I just wish she’d give a little thought to diversifying each project to ramp up the overall listening experience. That doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend Numbered Doors because I do. There’s hardly a stronger collection from a prominent female singer-songwriter released this year. It just doesn’t come without a one slight flaw, an issue with a very easy fix.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: John Cowan – ‘Calllin’ Baton Rouge’

Cowan’s 1980s band New Grass Revival had the first hit with this song, later a chart topper for Garth Brooks.

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool)’

Album Review: Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time – ‘All Star Duets’

all star duetsOne of my favorite songwriters, Larry Cordle’s latest album has been a long time in the making. he has teamed up with a selection of stars to recreate some of his big hits as a songwriter in a tasteful bluegrass setting, backed by Larry’s bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time and a few added guests. Recording sessions have taken place at intervals over the past decade, and the album was first announced for release a couple of years ago. But the wait was worth it, because this is a truly lovely record filled with great songs.

Alison Krauss recorded Cordle’s ‘Two Highways’ as a teenager; revisiting the song as a mature adult she brings a fuller vocal, and the result is shimmeringly lovely. It’s actually the oldest composition here, having been written in 1977 when the young Larry Cordle was stuck in a job he hated and dreaming of music. Ricky Skaggs was Cordle’s earliest big supporter, and his recording of ‘Highway 40 Blues’ (also written in the late 70s) was his breakthrough as a songwriter. Skaggs revisits the song (one of many great Cordle songs he has recorded over the years) here, playing his mandolin as well as sharing the vocals. Skaggs’ 1983 #1 hit version made Cordle a name to be reckoned with, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “changed his life”.

I was a bit dismissive of Garth Brooks’ recording of ‘Against The Grain’ when I reviewed ‘Ropin’ The Wind’ recently, but the breezier bluegrass version he guests on here is much more enjoyable, although it’s still one of my less favourite tracks here. Much better is the beautiful high lonesome ‘Lonesome Dove’, which like ‘Against The Grain’ was written with Carl Jackson. Trisha Yearwood, who recorded it on her debut album, and is at her glorious best singing it here.

Dierks Bentley is an engaging guest on a version of the wry ‘You Can’t Take It With You When You Go’, which was a single for the great Gene Watson towards the end of his major label career. It is one of Cordle’s many collaborations with his friend Larry Shell. They wrote several songs here, including the most recently written song, the modern classic ‘Murder On Music Row’, which seems more topical every year. The guest vocalists are minor 90s star Daryle Singletary and the very underrated Kevin Denney, both of whom were regarded as “too country” for country music. Daryle is one of the best traditional country singers out there, and I’ve long regretted that Denney hasn’t recorded again since his one and only album in 2002. They do a great, heartfelt job, on this version. It is, incidentally, unfortunate that Denney’s name is mis-spelled on the cover. The liner notes (also available digitally) are otherwise excellent and informative, with a little discussion of how each song was written and picked up for recording.

Diamond Rio contribute duet and harmony vocals on Cordle and Shell’s ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’, which was one of my favorite of the band’s hit songs, and is another real highlight here. The gently melancholy tune is perfect for the emotional yet stoic lyric about the strains of life on the road, and the arrangement is beautiful. Less well known, but a very beautiful song written by the pair which deserves to be known better is the wistful ‘The Fields of Home’, which Ricky Skaggs recorded on Kentucky Thunder in 1989, and which feels like a sequel to ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’. Kenny Chesney appears as the duet partner here, and does a superb job exuding understated regret; I really wish he would return to this style of music.

Bluegrass giant Del McCoury guests on the playful ‘The Bigger The Fool’ (The Harder The Fall)’, which Chesney recorded on his first album (when he was a neotraditional youngster and had not yet gained fame and fortune or discovered the beach). The charming tune is one of two co-writes with Jim Rushing, the other being ‘Lonesome Standard Time’, which gave its name to Cordle’s band. Kathy Mattea, who had a hit with it, duets with Cordle here.

He teamed up with two great female songwriters, Leslie Satcher and the veteran Melba Montgomery, to write ‘Cure For The Common Heartache’. Terri Clark recorded it in the late 90s, and sounds great duetting with Cordle – it’s much better than anything on her current solo release. Cordle wrote ‘Rough Around The Edges’ for Travis Tritt with J P Pennington and Les Taylor from country-rockers Exile; it sounds much better in this energised bluegrass version, featuring Tritt.

This is a superb album, collecting an excellent set of songs and performing them with taste and heart.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Pure Prairie League ft Vince Gill – ‘Let Me Love You Tonight’

Fellow Travelers: Pure Prairie League

pure prairie leagueThere were many rock groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s that straddled the line between rock and country music. Most of them (Poco, The Byrds – but only for one album, Matthews Southern Comfort, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills & Nash) were definitely more rock than country.

My favorite of these rock-country/country rock groups was Pure Prairie League. The fact that they were my personal favorite probably explains their relative lack of commercial success.

Who Were They?

Pure Prairie League (“PPL”) was formed in the mid-1960s by Craig Fuller with the band carrying a number of names before then-band member Tommy McGrail came up with Pure Prairie League, named after a fictitious temperance union featured in the 1939 movie DODGE CITY starring Errol Flynn. From 1970 onward (and occasionally before), the band lineup featured a steel guitar.

During the early 1970s Pure Prairie League never received the country airplay they deserved, although many country stations would play an occasional track or two, but their success at college radio stations kept them in the public eye and in 1975 caused their initial label RCA for whom they had cut two albums in 1972 (PURE PRAIRIE LEAGUE and BUSTIN’ OUT) to track them down and re-sign them to the label to do some more recording. The single released by RCA from BUSTIN’OUT benefited from the additional promotion from RCA and charted in 1975 reaching #27 on Billboard’s Pop chart and making a bigger impact in Canada reaching #40 on the Canadian Pop chart and # 19 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart. Although “Amie”, with Craig Fuller on lead vocals, did not chart on the country charts, it did become a staple as a country ‘oldie’ on country stations everywhere. One single, their 1976 cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” did creep into the lower reaches of the Country chart.

Over the years PPL recorded for a number of record labels and had various musicians flowing in and out of the band. PPL has disbanded and reunited at several points along the way. Although “Amie” is the best remembered of their songs, 1980’s “Let Me Love You Tonight” was their biggest hit reaching #10 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary. From 1975-1981 the band charted eight pop singles. As of 2014, the band is still intact and performing about 100 dates annually. PPL also charted nine albums from 1972 to 1981 with TWO LANE HIGHWAY reaching #24 on Billboard’s POP album chart.

What Was Their Connection to County Music?

PPL’s importance to country music can be summarized as follows:

1) “Amie

2) Vince Gill – vocalist from 1978-1981 and lead vocalist on “Let Me Love You Tonight”

3) “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle” – track on 1975 album TWO LANE HIGHWAY, a track which does more than simply name-check the greatest singer in country music history

4) TAKIN’ THE STAGE – really fine two album live set from 1977 that shows that PPL wasn’t a studio creation as the bad nearly replicates the sound of their studio albums. I didn’t list this in my list of the greatest live country albums a few years back because I regard PPL as not quite country, but I sure was tempted to list it

Classic Rewind: Garth Brooks – ‘The River’

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Fresh Horses’

220px-FreshhorsesGarth Brooks’ sixth album Fresh Horses came in November of 1995, just as he was on the cusp of a three-year tour that would earn him multiple CMA Entertainer of the Year honors. The main criticism of Brooks at the time where rumors he was going pop after the massive success he’d had in the previous few years. That turned out false, as Brooks instead issued an album featuring more of his songwriting than anything up to this point and thus more of him and the topics he most enjoyed singing about. Seven Million copies have been sold to date.

The first single was an effortless love song entitled “She’s Every Woman.” His 14th number one, he co-wrote the tune with Victoria Shaw, who he teamed up with for “The River” three years earlier. “She’s Every Woman” is one of Brooks’ most delicate love songs, with a lush production, and tender vocal. It’s one of my favorite things he’s ever done.

The album’s second single is a prime example of how Brooks’ ego can get the best of him, leading to lapses in judgment. “The Fever” is a cover of the Aerosmith song and horrible country-rock. It worked in concert, with Brooks shaking open water bottles into the crowd, but didn’t translate to a studio recording. Country Radio gave it a deserved lukewarm reception resulting in a #23 chart peak.

Brooks rebounded with the third single, his 15th number one “The Beaches Of Cheyenne” a tune about a woman going crazy after too many years putting up with her rodeo cowboy husband. She would tear apart their home and eventually drown off the California coast, all while he ‘rode a bull no man should ride.’ It’s an excellent tune about tolerance, and with ample steel guitar, one of his more country leaning efforts.

The fourth single was another ‘statement’ song from Brooks, a ballad given a hard-to-watch video with heartbreaking footage of the Oklahoma City Bombings. C-written by Tony Arata and Wayne Tester and peaking at #19, “The Change” is another of his powerful singles, although I can see where some may find it heavy handed. On 9/11, when I got home from eighth grade, this was the first song I ran to my room to play. Brooks’ powerful vocal sells me on the track every time.

Easily one of Brooks’ most idiotic singles was released next. “It’s Midnight Cinderella,” co-written by Brooks with Kim Williams and Kent Blazy, is direct pandering to the line-dance craze that had reached its peak by 1996. I do love the honky-tonk production, but the lyrics are trepid at best. Country Radio, though, loved it as the song peaked at #5.

I love vivid story songs so the final single is right up my alley. The track is a co-write between Brooks and Leigh Reynolds, and reached a peak of #4. “That ‘Ol Wind” details the story of a young mother who reunites with an old musician fling when he’s ‘back in town for one last show.’ Not much is said between the pair, least of which the money he hid or the fact her song is actually his. The track is excellently crafted and a testament to Brooks’ power at country radio that it would even peak inside the top 10, when most songs of its ilk have a very difficult time of gaining serious traction.

The singles from Fresh Horses are wildly uneven at best, with attempts at trying different sonic textures at the hope of diversifying Brooks’ appeal. When bad they were horrible, but a few gems managed to sneak in there. As for the album tracks, they proved somewhat more enjoyable, although a couple of generic songs sneaked in. “Rollin’” is a generic slice of unmemorable bluesy country rock, while “Cowboys and Angels” is just another cowboy song to add to Brooks’ repertoire. He co-wrote “The Good Stuff,” which he used to open each date on his massive 1996-1999 World Tour.

“Ireland” is probably my favorite of the album cuts, an anthem to the emerald isle that may seem puzzling coming from Brooks’ pen, but just works really well as a song. The other excellent inclusion is his version of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love.” The track, which he recorded for the Hope Floats soundtrack in 1998, was added to Fresh Horses during The Limited Series re-release. The sparse piano ballad is an excellent showcase for Brooks’ tender voice and was a complete 180 from everything he was doing at the time. The track works really well, even if it’s more a slice of pop than anything resembling traditional-leaning country music.

As a whole, Fresh Horses is a solid Brooks album that features some fantastic songs mixed with a lot of filler. Even though “The Change” gained notoriety, “The Beaches of Cheyenne” is the album’s only essential track and the one Brooks includes in his concerts to this day. I’ve always enjoyed the tender side of Brooks’ persona, one that’s often overlooked, which tracks like “She’s Every Woman” and “That ‘Ol Wind” show off (as does Sevens’ “She’s Gonna Make It” and “You Move Me”) perfectly. As compared to some of Brooks’ earlier recordings, a lot of Fresh Horses has held up well overtime, too, which is saying something. This isn’t Brooks’ finest work by any means, but the aforementioned numbers are among his most underrated.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘God’s Coloring Book’

Week ending 11/15/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

johnschneider1954 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Love Is Like A Butterfly — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1984: I’ve Been Around Enough To Know — John Schneider (MCA)

1994: Livin’ On Love — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: In A Real Love — Phil Vassar (Arista)

2014: Leave The Night On — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2014 (Airplay): Leave The Night On — Sam Hunt (MCA)

Classic Rewind: Johnny Cash – ‘Orleans Parish Prison’

Classic Rewind: Linda Ronstadt – ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)

A classic Hank Williams song, with Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals:

Album Review: Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

belafleckI have always liked the banjo, though during most of my lifetime it has been treated as primarily a bluegrass instrument and relegated to red-headed stepchild status as far as mainstream country was concerned. It made something of a comeback in the early 2000s when bluegrass enjoyed a surge in popularity. In recent years, it’s been given a higher profile than it used to, but it’s mainly been used to lend some credibility to music that otherwise does not sound country. However, husband and wife team Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have taken banjo playing to a whole new level with their new collection of banjo tunes. No other instruments are used on the self-titled album, which is not a really a bluegrass album as I’d originally thought, relying more on Appalachian folk with a bit of gospel, blues and country thrown into the mix.

Both Fleck and Washburn are considered banjo virtuosos but they have divergent styles; Fleck is known for his intricate picking while Washburn plays clawhammer style. The two styles mesh very well with each other and with Washburn’s crystalline vocals. The final product is suprisingly eclectic, considering that only one type of instrument and one lead vocalist are featured. The twelve tracks consist of a number of traditional and contemporary songs, ranging from murder ballads and folk tunes to some of the duo’s original compositions. It opens with “Railroad”, an updated version of “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”, with the familiar lyrics and somewhat different melody and arrangement from what we’re accustomed to hearing. The grim “Pretty Polly”, in which a young woman is led to her death by her jilted would-be lover, is one of the album’s standout tracks, as is “Shotgun Blues”, a Celtic-flavored Washburn original which takes the opposite approach — this time the woman is the wronged party and she’s hell-bent on revenge. Two songs from the Bible belt — “And Am I Born To Die” and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today”, showcase Washburn’s voice nicely. In between these numbers are the occasional instrumental pieces such as “Banjo, Banjo” and “New South Africa”, both written by Fleck. The latter is a remake of a recording he made with his former band The Flecktones.

A stripped-down, banjo-only album such as this is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is one of the most creative and innovative works I’ve heard in quite some time. I highly recommend it and hope that Fleck and Washburn will release more albums like this in the future.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Scotty McCreery covers Garth Brooks – ‘Papa Loved Mama’

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘In Pieces’

Garth In PiecesStarting with No Fences, Garth Brooks achieved a level of sales that had previously been unheard of in country music. It propelled him to international superstardom, and the pressure on him and producer Allen Reynolds to sustain that level of success must have been overhwhelming. Having reached a significant number of people outside the usual country music audience, it was perhaps inevitable that he would tailor his sound to accomodate them. As a result, his albums became increasingly eclectic — and inconsistent in quality. This trend began with 1992′s The Chase and continued with 1993′s In Pieces.

The album spawned five singles, two of which reached #1. The first was “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til The Sun Comes Up”, a Garth co-write with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams. Though it was more country than most of the singles from The Chase, it has more of a rock edge than his earlier work, and while I don’t intensely dislike the song, it’s not one of my favorites. It was followed by another #1 hit, “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”, which is aimed squarely at the country audience. It’s meant to be in the same vein as “Friends In Low Places”, but tries a little too hard and lacks the charm of that earlier hit. “Standing Outside the Fire” is better, though I still wouldn’t rank it among Garth’s best work.

“One Night A Day”, written by Gary Burr and Pete Wasner is one of Garth’s least country-sounding songs. Completely lacking in country instrumentation, the piano and saxophone-led track leans towards jazz and seems to have been an attempt at a crossover hit. It did not chart outside the country charts, where it peaked at #7. While some artists can successfully pull off an occasional venture beyond the confines of country music, Garth Brooks, to my mind, has never been one of them. He seems to have thought otherwise, as he tended to test the non-country waters fairly regularly. I’ve never thought that his voice or delivery were particularly suited to this type of song. He seems equally out of his comfort zone on the bluesy “Kickin’ and Screamin’”.

The album’s final and best single is a cover version of the Dennis Linde-penned “Callin’ Baton Rouge”. Originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys in 1978, it was later covered by New Grass Revival, who released it as a sigle in 1989. Their version peaked at #37, but Garth’s version, on which members of New Grass Revival sang and played, reached #2. It is one of the two great tracks on the album, the other being the album’s closing track, “The Cowboy Song”, a low-key number that is much more suited to Garth than some of the overblown power-ballads he seemed so fascinated with during this phase of his career.

“The Red Strokes”, while not released as a single in the US, became Garth’s biggest hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at #13 on the British pop charts. It’s not surprising that one of his more pop-leaning recordings was successful in a country not normally known for embracing country music, but artistically, the track is one of his poorer efforts.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with this album when it was first released, and was somewhat surprised to find that I like it a lot better now than I did then. However, that says more about the current state of country music than it does about the current state of country music than it does about the quality of this album. I’m tempted to say that it’s worth downloading “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “The Cowboy Song” and skipping the rest, but this is Garth Brooks we’re talking about, so single-track downloads aren’t an option. Pick up a cheap used copy if you haven’t heard this one.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Tracy Byrd – ‘Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo’

Single Review: Miranda Lambert Featuring Little Big Town – ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’

LBT-MirandaBack in 2009, I remember lamenting over the fact Miranda Lambert hadn’t won a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award. She had just released “White Liar” and while the momentum was just beginning to swing in her direction, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t yet been given her due.

I most certainly couldn’t have predicted what would come next, the erosion of pure female talent within the mainstream sector of the genre and a recording breaking five consecutive wins. She’s now won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy every year since Taylor Swift emerged victorious in 2009.

It’s not surprising that as Lambert’s career has reached incredible heights, her output of singles has grown increasingly spotty. Flashes of her brilliance are almost the exception now, whereas they seemed liked the rule when she was making a consistent home for herself in the top fifteen.

Despite a lyric co-written by newly minted CMA Song of the Year recipient Shane McAnally and Lambert favorites Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t much of a song. The lyrics rely on repetitiveness; a repetition of the chorus to stretch the thin tune well past the five minute mark.

But even more puzzling is the final recording, which pairs Lambert with Little Big Town. A collaboration between these two should be a cause for celebration, but the listener is left with an indistinguishably watered down version of both artists. If Karen Fairchild hadn’t interjected a few vocal kickbacks at the end, I probably wouldn’t have known Little Big Town were featured on the recording if I didn’t already know going in.

“Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t a terrible song at all. The gorgeously relaxed bluesy production pairs nicely with the blending of vocals, which are perfectly understated for a tune seeking heavy rotation airplay in 2014. Even the message of the song, which condones alcohol and cigarettes (or cigars) as a worthy weekend pursuit, doesn’t turn me off.

I just can’t shake how bland everyone sounds together. A showcase for either the five-time CMA Female Vocalist or three-time CMA Vocal Group this is not. Which is a shame.

Grade: B

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