My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind – Kevin Sharp – ‘She’s Sure Taking It Well’

90s country star Kevin Sharp, who rose to fame in 1996, died today at age 43. His cover of The Tony Rich Project’s “Nobody Knows” was a four-week chart topper that propelled his debut album, Measure of a Man, to Gold status. Two more top five hits followed including this one, which peaked at #3 in 1997. He released two more albums to little fanfare.

Week ending 4/19/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

kendalls41954 (Sales): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Understand Your Man — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1974: A Very Special Love Song — Charlie Rich (Epic)

1984: Thank God For The Radio — The Kendalls (Mercury)

1994: If The Good Die Young — Tracy Lawrence (Atlantic)

2004: When The Sun Goes Down — Kenny Chesney with Uncle Kracker (BNA)

2014: This Is How We Roll — Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Doin’ What She Likes — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Classic Rewind: The Desert Rose Band – ‘One Step Forward’

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Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘Ten Thousand Angels’

For Good Friday:

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘True Love’

true loveAfter just three albums, the band released a Greatest Hits compilations (A Dozen Roses). Alongside the hits were a couple of new songs, minor hit ‘Will This Be The Day’ and the less successful ‘Come A Little Closer’. Changes were on the way. Steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness left in 1990, replaced by former Buckaroo Tom Brumley, while Tony Brown took up the producer’s role for the groups’s fourth studio album. The result was a mellower, more low key album than their first three, but although its pleasures are more subtle than the joyful country rock of their commercial heyday, this is a fine album.

Neither of the two singles selected did well. The first of them ‘You Can Go Home’ (written by Hillman with Jack Tempchin, best known for writing the Eagles’ ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’), is actually an excellent song about the impossibility of going back again to a former life. ‘Twilight Is Gone’ (one of four songs written with Steve Hill) is also good, a reflective mid-tempo song about loneliness and regret over a failed relationship. It may have been too low key for radio play.

The title track (another of Hill’s co-writes) is a warmhearted celebration of love. The urgent ‘Glory And Power’ is about the central importance of love in one’s life, in the context of a man who finds it hard to communicate his feelings. ‘Shades Of Blue’ is a tasteful ballad.

The best of the other songs is the pretty ‘Undying Love’, the only non-Hillman tune (it was written by Peter Rowan), which is a duet with Alison Krauss. Krauss’s angelic tones work well responding to, and harmonising with Chris. She was not yet well known in country music circles, or perhaps this would have been a single.

The philosophical and optimistic ‘It Takes A Believer’, co-written with Michael Woody, is pleasantly melodic. Woody also co-wrote the more downbeat ‘Behind These Walls’.

Herb Pedersen sang lead on the brisk ‘No One Else’, which he wrote with Chris, and which is perhaps the most reminiscent of the band’s earlier work. ‘A Matter Of Time’ has a solid country rock groove although it isn’t that memorable lyrically.

The album lacked the bright tone and sparkle of the group’ s first three albums, and I can see why it slowed down their career. Tony Brown had a reputation as a hitmaking producer, but it may have been a mistake to call on him this time. But the album has a lot to offer the more thoughtful listener.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Patty Loveless – ‘Timber, I’m Falling In Love’

Album Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘Peace, Love And Country Music’

peace love and counry musicRonnie Dunn’s solo album for Arista failed to make the waves he and the label had been hoping for, and now the voice of Brooks & Dunn is going it alone in every sense.

Unfortunately, although he is now on his own label, Ronnie is still chasing mainstream success, and seems to think the best way to do this is by copying the over-produced sound popular with younger artists. ‘Kiss You There’ (a failed single last year) is dreadful, but sadly not the worst thing on the album. ‘Cowgirls Rock ‘n Roll’ and ‘Country This’ both suffer from loud and unsubtle rock-laden production with the electric guitars ramped up high, equally unsubtle cliche’d lyrics, and worst of all, unnatural processing of Dunn’s vocals in places. I got a headache listening to them; Ronnie Dunn is a great singer and this treatment does him no favors. ‘Thou Shalt Not’ is in more familiar Brooks & Dunn style territory, but with some bizarre and pointless sound effects added in.

It’s not quite as bad but the production on ‘You Should See You Now’ is too cluttered; the song’s regretful response to an encounter with an ex-lover would sound better stripped back with Dunn’s excellent vocal allowed to shine. ‘Let’s Get The Beer Joint Rockin’’ is typical Brooks & Dunn filler album cut, apart from the spots of vocal processing. A somewhat unsubtle cover of the classic ‘You Don’t Know Me’ is sung with yearning and passion but is influenced by the Ray Charles R&B version rather than country. I was disappointed by this, although some listeners may like it better.

But there are some genuine bright spots here as well. While still a little on the loud side, the current single ‘Grown Damn Man’ recalls the heyday of Brooks & Dunn musically. A confidently delivered mid-tempo song about maturing with age, I enjoyed this track very much indeed. The upbeat ‘Cadillac Bound’ is pretty good too, with its optimism about better times to come. ‘Romeo And Juliet’ is also pretty good despite some odd production choices, with a well-written and convincingly sung plea to rekindle a relationship.

‘Heart Letting Go’ is an understated but emotional ballad with prominent steel guitar and an excellent vocal, which is the best track on the album. Also outstanding is ‘I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes’, an excellent single which sadly failed to chart, is a wistful look back at the reckless freedom and innocence of youth. If only there was more like that here.

He covers his bets with ‘They Still Play Country Music In Texas’. It’s more than a little ironic (if not outright hypocrisy) given some of his musical choices on this album that he complains about “mixing heavy metal with twang”. If you ignore that, it’s a decent song which articulates the feelings many older country fans have about mainstream “country” these days. I also liked the earnest title track with its appeal for a return to the good things of the title.

Albums like this are always hard to assign a grade to; how does one balance the great elements against the appalling? But I’m feeling generous, so:

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Desert Rose Band – ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’

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Album Review – The Desert Rose Band – ‘Pages of Life’

PagesofLifeIn early 1990 The Desert Rose Band released their third album, Pages of Life, produced once again by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The band’s third album, it was their most commercially successful, and their final charting release.

Chris Hillman and Steve Hill wrote the album’s three singles. Synth heavy ballad “Start All Over Again” peaked at #6, mid-tempo electric guitar and drum led “In Another Lifetime” peaked at #13 (their third single to peak outside the top 10), and steel laced “Story of Love” peaked at #10. All three of the singles are horribly dated by today’s standards, but the Byrds-era steel riffs on “Story Of Love” help it stand slightly above the pack.

At the time of its release, Pages of Life was distinguished for being a harder hitting album, even more so than the band’s two previous releases. Listening to it now, it isn’t terribly overly rock, although the drums are prominent. The album’s main shortcoming with regards to the arrangements is the synthesizers and use of late 80s production techniques that haven’t aged well at all in the last 24 years.

Beyond the three singles, Hillman co-write six more of the album’s tracks, three with Hill, and three more with other writers. Hillman and Hill co-wrote “God’s Plan,” another ballad heavy on synth that utilizes the band’s harmonies framed in a horrible 80s sheen that mixes grossly with the flourishes of steel guitar in the musical bed. “Time Passes Me By” is far more tasteful, with the steel allowed room to breathe, but it’s still not a home run. “Darkness on the Playground” is even better still, livelier, and has a nice sinister production to match its ‘social cause’ story about troubled youth.

Hillman co-wrote “Missing You” with Tom Russell and Richard Sellers. With glorious mandolin and the band’s tight harmonies, its easily one of the more country sounding tracks on Pages of Life, and a nice organic escape from the 80s sheen that suffocates most of the album. John Jorgenson co-wrote “Just A Memory” with Hillman and while track retains the awful 80s sheen, I don’t hate it, mostly because it also has a sunny vibe that keeps it somewhat engaging.

“Everybody’s Hero,” which Hillman co-wrote with Michael Woody, is another of the album’s better tracks. I like the drum work and overly uptempo vibe but Hillman’s lead vocal sounds a little listless given the energy of the backing track. Hillman’s final co-write is courtesy of “Desert Rose,” co-written with Bill Wildes. It sounds like something Emmylou Harris would record, and was originally done by Hillman on his solo album of the same name. It’s a fabulous number and I love how its decidedly country.

Overall Pages of Life is a shoddy album, thanks mostly to bad 80s style production that, as I aforementioned, hasn’t held up in the last 24 years. The songs themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re made less enjoyable by the production.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘(You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie’

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Tarpaper Sky’

TarpaperSkyAfter a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album. Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.

At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.  

“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.

He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.

Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.

Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.

The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.

Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.

“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.

Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.

When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Desert Rose Band – ‘Ashes Of Love’

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Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Running’

desertrosebandLike The Desert Rose Band’s eponymous debut album, 1988′s Running is heavily-influenced by the Bakersfield sound. Paul Worley was back on board as producer, this time joined by Ed Seay. Chris Hillman was involved in writing most of the ablum’s songs, joined by his songwriting partner Steve Hill for seven of the album’s ten tracks. The previous album’s final single “He’s Back and I’m Blue” had become the band’s first chart-topper. Their chart success continued with the new album. The first single, the mid-tempo “Summer Wind”, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2. It was followed by another Hill-Hillman collaboration, “I Still Believe In You”, which did reach #1. Although it is a very good song, it hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the album. The heavy emphasis on the drum machine gives it a somewhat dated feel.

Interestingly, the album’s two best tracks were written by outside songwriters. “She Don’t Love Nobody”, which peaked at #3 in early 1989 is a John Hiatt composition. The song had previously been recorded by Nick Lowe, but it was adapted for country music with very little tinkering and is much more mainstream-sounding that much of Hiatt’s work. It is one of my very favorite Desert Rose Band recordings. The fourth and final single was “Hello Trouble”, an Orville Couch and Eddie McDuff number that had originally been recorded by Couch in 1962. A cover version appeared on a 1964 Buck Owens album. The Desert Rose Band’s version just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11. It deserved to chart higher.

The rest of the album’s tracks are very much in a country-rock vein, with plenty of steel guitar to appease purists, and not enough rock to alienate anyone. The band touches on some social issues with with a few tracks, but avoids doing so in a heavy-handed way. “For The Rich Man” examines some of the ways in which life is different for the haves and have nots; “Homeless”, which examines the plight of a former rodeo queen who is abandoned by her unemployed and alcoholic husband, comes a little closer to preaching –

“In this land of milk and honey we share with all who need
Except the ones outside our door, the ones we cannot see”

– but still manages to avoid sending the listener on a gratuitous guilt trip. The album closer “Our Songs”, meanwhile, is a semi-autobiographical look at some aging baby boomers, who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, and contrasts that era with the relatively more stable (and then contemporary) 1980s.

Along with the band’s debut album, Running is representative of The Desert Rose Band’s very best work and an interesting look back at how country and rock used to be melded together — with solid, well-written songs that avoided cliches and obnoxious, overloud production. Hardcore, traditional country it is not, but it is type of music that I would really like to see Nashville embrace again.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell – ‘Amazing Grace’

New interview with Chris Hillman

An excellent new interview with our current Spotlight Artist Chris Hillman, about his music past and present, has just been posted at The Bluegrass Situation.

Week ending 4/12/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

LIttle Texas1954 (Sales): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Understand Your Man — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1974: A Very Special Love Song — Charlie Rich (Epic)

1984: Don’t Make It Easy For Me — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1994: My Love — Little Texas (Warner Bros.)

2004: When The Sun Goes Down — Kenny Chesney with Uncle Kracker (BNA)

2014: This Is How We Roll — Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Doin’ What She Likes — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘Only A Lonely Heart Knows’

Classic Rewind: Desert Rose Band – ‘Glass Hearts’

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Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘The Desert Rose Band’

desert rose bandThe Desert Rose Band was Chris Hillman’s biggest success in mainstream country music. The initial acoustic lineup, which crystallised on a tour with Dan Fogelburg, comprised Chris, Herb Pedersen, lead guitarist John Jorgensen, and bass player Bill Bryson. Drummer Steve Duncan and steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness were then added to the band, and a fresh yet mainstream sound emerged. They signed a deal with MCA/Curb and launched with their self-titled debut album in 1987, produced by Paul Worley. Their country-rock and traditional country influences combined to make an infectious and irresistible sound which was very radio-friendly.

A sturdy cover of ‘Ashes Of Love’, which Chris had recorded on his solo Desert Rose album, was the group’s first single, and peaked at #26. It was followed by the band’s first top 10 hit, ‘Love Reunited’, which was written by Chris with Steve Hill. The steel-laced song advises a couple not to separate but to work at their relationship. A second Hillman/Hill co-write here is ‘Glass Hearts’, a great up-tempo song about the conflicting emotions of a new relationship, with the fear of getting hurt if it doesn’t last.

Only love can set you free
I’ll open up so she can see
My glass heart will break
Cause it’s made of sand

‘One Step Forward’ almost made it to the top of the Billboard country chart, peaking at #2. A catchy and punchy number about the frustration of a relationship not going anywhere, it was one of three songs Hillman wrote for the record with Bill Wildes, with whom he had written ‘Desert Rose’ (although that song was never actually recorded by the band it gave its name to). The other Wildes co-writes here are both fine songs: the optimistic insistence that ‘Hard Times’ will pass, and the downbeat ‘Leave This Town’, which is about the disappointment of a failed relationship, with the protagonist complaining,

If she’s the one in trouble why’s it me that has to go?

Finally, the album’s fourth and last single topped the charts. ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’, a sad ballad about being the rebound guy who is out of the picture when the ex returns.

Underlining the fact that the Desert Rose Band was a real group and not just a solo Hillman effort, Herb Pedersen sang lead on the country classic ‘Once More’. The wistful thoughts of the ‘One Who Got Away’ are (a Hillman co-write with Peter Knobler) are set to a sweet melody. The band revived Chris Hillman’s song ‘Time Between’, previously recorded by the Byrds, which is actually one of the less interesting songs.

Great harmonies, great musicianship and great songs make this a classic and irresistible record.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Tanya Tucker and T Graham Brown – ‘Don’t Go Out With Him/Her’

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