My Kind of Country

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

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Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin’” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn, Cissy Lynn and Crystal Gayle – ‘Wings Of A Dove’

After the song there is a chat with this month’s Spotlight Artist Aaron Tippn.

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Brothers Of the Highway’

brothers of the highwayAfter a detour with their Statler Brothers tribute and two gospel releases, the duo who burst onto the bluegrass scene in 2008-2009 are back on Rounder with an exceptional album mixing old and new material. The duo is in fine form vocally, with Jamie Dailey generally taking the lead and Darrin Vincent providing a close harmony, but they vary the arrangements as best suits each song. The band is augmented by the brilliant fiddler Andy Leftwich and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others.

The sometimes frenetic pace and constantly changing rhythms of the opening ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’ make for an arresting start, and the music never let’s go. It is one of two Jamie Dailey compositions, and may be the first country or bluegrass song to be inspired by reading a Wikipedia article. The subject may have been garnered at second-hand, but the story sounds as authentic as if it were a traditional number, while the lengthy instrumental passages allow the band to show off their musical chops. Dailey’s other song here, ‘Back To Jackson County’, is pleasantly nostalgic about a childhood in the country. The similarly titled ‘Back To Hancock County’, written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, has a little more substance with its wistful consciousness of change. It is one of a few songs where Darrin shares the lead vocals with Jamie evenly, as they do on the playful Porter Wagoner top 20 country hit ‘Howdy Neighbor Howdy’, another opportunity for an instrumental showcase.

Dailey & Vincent are challenged only by the Gibson Brothers among current proponents of close bluegrass harmony, and their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is simply perfect. Darrin takes the lead vocal, and does an excellent job, with Jamie’s harmony vocal twining around it on the chorus to create a magical sound. Darrin also sings lead, and band members Jeff Parker and Christian Davis add a full spectrum of voices to the harmony on the well-played and sung but otherwise unremarkable ‘Big River’.

Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Close By’ gets Jamie’s highest high lonesome vocal with no harmony and more superb playing. ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone’ is a Wilma Lee Cooper song which has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists including Monroe; Dailey & Vincent’s version is as excellent as one would expect.

A gentle laid back take on ‘Brothers Of The Highway’, the ode to truckers recorded by George Strait on his Troubadour set, is an unexpected inclusion, but a very welcome one. Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers adds a third harmony voice. Gospel tune ‘It Will Be Wonderful Over There’ gets a Statlers-style gospel quartet arrangement.

Vince Gill’s ‘Hills Of Caroline’ gets a stripped down arrangement and spare lead vocal very reminiscent of Gill’s version, with a delicate harmony – simple and beautiful, and another outstanding moment. Kathy Mattea’s 80s chart-topper ‘Where’ve You Been’, with its sensitive portrayal of a couple divided by Alzheimers but united in love, has a full-scale string section backing Jamie’s vocal, making it the one song not to adhere to traditional bluegrass stylings. It works quite well, but is slightly out-of-place.

This is the best bluegrass album I’ve heard in a couple of years – and my favorite record so far this year.

Grade: A+

Get it at amazon.

Classic Rewind: Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Charley Pride, Bill Anderson and more – ‘I’ll Fly Away’

Country Heritage: Jeannie C. Riley

Jeannie C Riley

I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
She said mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA

– Tom T. Hall – 1967

Starting out at the top may not be a good thing. After all, there is no place to go but down. For 23 year-old Jeannie C. Riley, the top of the mountain was reached in August 1968, when “Harper Valley PTA” jumped from No. 81 to No. 1 on the Billboard (all-genres) singles chart. It subsequently reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart and charted in a number of countries around the world (reaching No. 12 in the UK). Jeannie became the first female country singer to simultaneously top the pop and country charts and she won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Single of the Year award.

Born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson in Stamford, Texas, to Oscar Stephenson, an auto mechanic, and Nora Stephenson, a nurse, and raised in Anson, Texas, Jeannie developed a strong love for country music as a young girl. As a teenager, she made her first public performances, appearing with her uncle Johnny Moore at Jones County Jamboree in nearby Truby, Texas. On December 20, 1962, shortly after high school graduation, she married childhood sweetheart Mickey Riley. Uncle Johnny took Jeannie and Mickey with him on one of his trips to Nashville, which intensified her desire to be a star in Nashville. Along the way she received encouragement from Weldon Myrick, a one-time member of the Jones County Jamboree, who had since become one of the Nashville’s leading steel guitar players.

Mickey and Jeannie had their first child, Kim Michelle Riley, on January 11, 1966. In August of that year, she and Mickey packed their belongings and moved to Nashville, where she worked as a secretary at Passkey Music. She made a few demo records along the way (under the name Jean Riley) and issued a single, “What About Them,” which failed to chart. Among the unreleased recordings, were some demos that were recorded for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ records.

Enter “Harper Valley PTA”. Veteran country singer Margie Singleton, ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (previously associated with Mercury Records), asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to “Ode To Billie Joe,” which she had recorded the previous year. Ever observant, Tom T. noted the name of Harpeth Valley Elementary School while driving through Bellevue, TN. In short order, he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” about a fictional confrontation between a young widow, Stella Johnson, and a local PTA group who objected to her clothing, social drinking and friendliness with the town’s gentlemen. Tom T. Hall’s “talking blues man” demo was not quite geared to Margie Singleton’s style, but what Shelby Singleton saw in the song wasn’t quite up Margie’s alley, either.

Meanwhile, Jeannie had cut a demo of a song written by Royce Clark called “The Old Town Drunk” about a town drunk whose coat had washed up on the banks of the river and watched his own funeral service, then mocked the townsfolk at the end of the service. Remembering the demo and the singer, Shelby rushed the apprehensive Jeannie into the recording studio to record the song on his newly formed Plantation Records. “Harper Valley PTA” was the only the third single ever released on the new label (the Harper Valley PTA album was the first album issued by the label, as well). Jeannie had significant misgivings about recording the song, which she felt was not country enough to establish her as a country singer. She also had misgivings about being paraded about in miniskirts, and apparently hasn’t worn one since leaving Plantation.

Jeannie continued to have success after “Harper Valley PTA,” although nothing ever approached the heights of Tom T. Hall’s classic song. Jeannie made her Opry debut later in 1968 and the immediate follow up, “The Girl Most Likely,” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Country charts (it reached No. 1 on the Cashbox Country chart). Virtually all of her Plantation recordings attempted to capitalize on the feisty Harper Valley PTA persona – a persona which was actually alien to her true personality. Through 1971, she continued to record for Plantation records, scoring a number of minor hits, as well as five other Top Ten singles, including “Country Girl,” “Oh, Singer” and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife.” The sudden fame took a toll on her marriage and she and Mickey Riley divorced in 1970.

She left Plantation in 1971 to record for MGM where she was promised more artistic freedom. The four albums she recorded for MGM found her cast as a more traditional country singer. While her chart success was minimal, much of this material was excellent. The two biggest hits at MGM, both from 1972, were “Give Myself A Party” at No. 12 (No. 5 Cashbox) and “Good Morning Country Rain” at No. 30, the latter of which was her last top 40 single.

In 1974, Jeannie found religion and turned her attention more toward gospel music, although she recorded some secular music for MCA/Dot thereafter. Jeannie and Mickey remarried and Jeannie’s autobiography, From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top, was published in 1980, with a gospel album of the same name issued at that time.

The years after 1980 were difficult for Ms Riley, who was reported as suffering from long-term clinical depression. In 1994, Jeannie’s family had her committed to a hospital for evaluation after she fell into a deep depression. She and husband Mickey again divorced. At some point she received the appropriate treatment and pulled her life back together.
There is an active website for Jeannie C. Riley but it does not list any tour dates so I am not sure if she is actively performing. Her daughter, Kim Michelle Riley, recorded an album under the name Riley Coyle in 1993 which featured the song “Country In My Genes,” which Loretta Lynn had some success with a few years later. Jeannie sang with her daughter on one of the tracks on the album. Jeannie also appeared as a guest on the Tommy Cash album Let An Old Racehorse Run in 1994. Both albums were on the Playback label. Read more of this post

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘His Love Remains’

hisloveremainsReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are often eschewed because they all tend to rely on largely the same set of songs. Collin Raye managed to avoid falling into this trap with 2011′s His Love Remains, a tastefully produced collection of traditional hymns and contemporary Christian songs that are largely a reflection of his Roman Catholic upbringing.

The opening track, the 18th century hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is the first of two duets with newcomer Andrea Thomas. Collin holds his own nicely with his much younger duet partner on this number, but his voice sounds strained on their second collaboration, the contemporary “How Beautiful”. His voice also sound a bit worn on the on the Eucharistic prayer, “O Lord, I Am Not Worthy”, a duet with Nashville-based Christian artist Marie Bellet. The rest of the album, however, finds him in good vocal form.

I’ve always been a huge fan of traditional Southern Gospel. While there are no Southern Gospel songs per se in this collection, my two favorite hymns “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace” are both represented. I’ve never heard a bad version of “How Great Thou Art”, though no one’s version can match The Statler Brothers’ definitive 1975 version. “Amazing Grace” is a bit lifeless in the beginning, but the production slowly builds with each verse to great effect. The third verse is one I’d never heard before:

Did Jesus bear his cross alone
And let the rest go free?
No, there’s a cross for all of us
And there’s one for you and me.

Not having been raised in the Southern Protestant tradition, I’ve rarely come across religious albums by country artists that contained songs I’d actually heard in church. By and large I haven’t had a problem with that, since I find most Catholic hymns to be rather boring. Raye, however, has included a handful of songs that are among my favorites, including “Here I Am, Lord”, “I Am The Bread Of Life”, and “Were You There?”, a spiritual of African-American origin that became popular in Catholic circles beginning in the 1970s. Also included is one of the Church of Rome’s most traditional and revered songs, “Ave Maria”, which has English language lyrics I’d never heard before, along with the traditional Latin. On “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” Raye avoids the temptation to use bombastic production and instead gives the hymn a simple but effective piano arrangement.

Among the more contemporary fare are two remakes from Collin’s major label days, “I Get What I Need”, and “Love Remains”, and the brand new “Undefeated”, all of which are worthwhile and enjoyable. I am somewhat less enthralled with the choir-led “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” which seems a bit out of place with the rest of the album.

Said to have been inspired by the loss of Collin’s young granddaughter, who died from a rare neurological disorder, His Love Remains will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy religious music and are looking for something a bit different from the usual fare will find it quite enjoyable.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Johnny Rodriguez – ‘How Could I Love Her So Much/North Of The Border’

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘The Walls Came Down’

RayewallsIn the wake of the success of I Think About You, Epic Nashville released The Best of Colin Raye: Direct Hits in the spring of 1997. Lead single “What The Heart Wants,” a mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #2 while the Phil Vassar co-write “Little Red Rodeo” was a top 5 hit. Both are excellent songs, and the latter is still one of his biggest recurrent hits today.

Kim Tribble and Tammy Hyler’s “I Can Still Feel You” returned Raye to the top of the charts for the first time in three years and served as the lead single for The Walls Came Down, his fifth studio release for Epic. The single was a change in tone for Raye, with a decidedly slicker production marked by pronounced percussion and guitar work. I like it, but it’s far from a favorite.

Much better is the second single, Tim Johnson and Rory Lee Feek’s “Someone I Used To Know.” It’s an excellent lyric and the first major cut of Feek’s songwriting career (he bought his barn the year after this hit peaked – he and Joey now film their TV show there). Back in his signature ballad mode, Raye shines with this tale of a man’s anguish towards his malevolent ex:

Like a friend, like a fool

Like some guy you knew in school

Didn’t we love, didn’t we share

Or don’t you even care

I know we said we were through

But I never knew how quickly I would go

From someone you loved

To someone you used to know

Read more of this post

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Set You Free’

set you freeGary Allan’s career seemed to be on a bit of slowdown, with his last top 10 single coming in 2007. Gary has responded by turning to a variety of producers, often a ploy of the artist in decline and desperate to get another hit, but on the whole it seems to have worked. The result is probably the artist’s most sonically adventurous album to date, which is a mixed blessing, but after an initial sense of disappointment on my first hearing, I’ve warmed to the record more than I was expecting.

His biggest hit single in years, the resigned ‘Every Storm Runs Out Of Rain’, is a good song in a contemporary vein. The production (overseen by Gary with Greg Droman) is adventurous and a long way from Gary’s earliest traditional leanings, but not unattractive (apart from an echo which I could do without but is only used a couple of times). It places Gary’s best plaintive vocal at the heart of the track, supported by an effective harmony from co-writer Hillary Lindsey. This is the song which give the album its title.

Gary and Droman also produced ‘You Without Me’, a weary reflection on dealing with having split from someone the protagonist still loves, which Gary wrote with John Lancaster and Rachel Proctor, with another fine vocal. ‘Sand In My Soul’, their third collaboration, on the other hand, is a boring Warren Brothers song about depression on the beach, with a weird echoey sound. The bluesy rocker ‘Bones’, written by Keith Gattis, has an interesting lyric but it sounds like a loud tuneless mess. Disappointingly it is one of the songs flagged on the CD packaging as a likely single.

Gary turned to Mark Wright to help with a further three tracks. The best of these is ‘Hungover Heart’ which is a solid number despite a sometimes heavy hand with the electric guitars. Gary’s vulnerable vocal is perfect for the song, written by Matt Warren and James Leblanc. Gary’s own ‘No Worries’ is bland and boring reggae-lite which sounds like a Kenny Chesney reject, with irritatingly whispery, echoey production. ‘Good As New’ closes the album with an air of philosophical resignation, and is okay but a little over-produced.

The producer with the biggest role is Jay Joyce, best known for his work with Eric Church, and although I was concerned that I wouldn’t care for his work with Gary, it turns out to be better then expected. The best track on the album is one of his production efforts, is the downbeat ‘It Ain’t The Whiskey’, which showcases Gary’s grainy voice and is reminiscent of his best work, and where the production choices are inventive in a mostly good way (although the last instrumental break is pointlessly loud). An unusual opening with the faint sound of an organ leads into the body of the song, in which Gary declares to an AA meeting “in the church of the broken people” that depression is the root of his addiction, and

It ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me

The song was written by Greg Barnhill, Jim Daddario and Cole Degges.

Joyce also does a good job with the chugging ‘Tough Goodbye’, about a commitment-phobe with some qualms about breaking up with his latest victim. Penned by Josh Thompson and Tony Martin, the song is pretty good and gets a committed delivery from Gary, with an interesting ending where he suddenly sounds more vulnerable and even regretful. It might make a good single.

‘Drop’, another likely single does have a compelling, sexy vocal, but the song is just okay and the instrumental arrangement and production don’t really appeal to me, although it might work on radio. The mid-tempo ‘Pieces’ (written by Gary with Odie Blackmon and Sarah Burton) isn’t bad but is a bit loud, while ‘One More Time’, written by Gary with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren, is inoffensive but boring.

Overall, I think this album is a distinct improvement over his last couple of albums, although the quality of the material is not up to his classic work.

Grade: B

Joey + Rory – ‘Where Jesus Is’

So what is a music chart actually for?

In the past couple of weeks the decision by Billboard magazine to introduce a new country singles chart encompassing radio airplay (of ‘country’ singles on all genres of radio), sales and Internet streaming has aroused a lot of debate among fans, most whom are fervently against the new chart. Some have even started petitions for the move to be reversed. The existing chart based on country radio airplay remains alongside the new chart, but the latter is to be the premier chart for Billboard.

It is only in the past 20-odd years that sales have not been included in the singles charts, and they were dropped only because singles sales were in sharp decline. In the 90s, most hit singles were not even available for purchase but were solely promotional for radio. In many countries, airplay has never been considered a factor and only sales have been allowed to count, even when the single seemed to be a dying format. The decline of the single as a commercial product in its own right came to an end with the rise of digital music. Nowadays it is not uncommon for a bona fide country single to be registered platinum based on its downloads.

The existing airplay chart is not a complete record of what is played on country radio in any case. It is based on a sample set of radio stations who report to Billboard, with the results then weighted by audience of the stations involved. Rival charts like Mediabase use a similar formula, but based on different stations, and with different calculations, which explains why there is sometimes a discrepancy between the differing charts. Paul Dennis’s fascinating article “The case of the ‘Groovy Grubworm’ (and other chart confusion)” told us about the battles between Billboard and Cashbox and some of the shenanigans which went on in the past. Manipulation of the charts is nothing new, and for many years all the major labels and some independent ones have employed teams of promotion staff to encourage radio stations to play their records. A new trend appears in recent deals by which Clear Channel affiliated stations have agreed to give massive airplay boosts for new releases, allowing them a high chart debut inevitably followed by a slump as soon as the deal ends.

Almost worse, singles are automatically dropped from being recorded on the charts after they have been out for a certain length of time, just a couple of weeks after they cease making active increases in airplay. The reason this practice was introduced was that many stations are notably conservative and only want to play proven hits, making it exceptionally hard for new songs to break in, and making the charts look very stagnant week to week. However, this means that what the audience is actually exposed to in a given week, is not what is being measured by the chart. Furthermore, it has not solved the problem – the very slow progress of singles up the charts has only got worse in recent years.

So the existing airplay charts are far from pure or perfect in the first place, and changing the things they measure is not a betrayal of a lost Eden. One may question some aspects of the new formula; the inclusion of non-country airplay seems to be the most controversial. Yet if a genuinely country song was to cross over, why not acknowledge that as part of its success as a country record – particularly as it is impossible to divide up sales by classifying the purchaser’s tastes in music?

The basic problem this move highlights is not, it seems to me, a problem with chart methodology at all, but rather the way Nashville has allowed country music to be taken over by acts appealing largely to crossover artists. If the new methodology omitted pop-leaning songs, there might not be very many left. Outrage over Taylor Swift’s pop song ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, which was played fairly well on country radio but peaked outside the top 10 and has now disappeared from the airplay charts nonetheless topping the new chart thanks to sales and pop airplay must be muted when one considers that Carrie Underwood’s ‘Blown Away’, which fans thought was the most “robbed” by the move is also pop rather than country in its melodic and rhythmic structure. It’s a bit like saying spinach has less meat in it than cheese. If the records played on country radio, and released by major labels, were less pop-leaning as a whole, then the differentiation of genres would be a non-issue. However, I might suggest that remixes of records should be regarded as different records, so that where someone like Taylor Swift has “country” and “pop” versions of a song, only sales and airplay of the “country” mix should be recorded on the country chart.

While Billboard has been generally regarded as the most reliable chart, Mediabase is the source for today’s popular syndicated radio countdowns, so the Billboard changes will not have a direct effect on the average country listener’s perceptions of what is doing well. We will have to wait and see if the existence of the new chart has any effect on radio playlists but pending evidence to the contrary I am skeptical – the existing sales charts do not appear to do so to an appreciable degree, so it will only be if the new chart being given the prominence of Billboard’s premier country chart impresses programmers as a big deal.

What is the chart actually for? It is a measurement of how successful country records are, and the actual placement on the chart is not in itself that significant. What really matters is the underlying figures – the chart numbers are based on those but are comparing songs to others getting airplay/sales at the same time. Comparisons over long periods are not really fair – how can you say a single which was a multi-week #1 in an era when the chart encourages several such long running singles a year be truly compared to one which managed two weeks in an era when there was change at the top almost every week? Even in a shorter timeframe, a #5 hit, say, one week may have received more or less airplay (or sales) than one at the same rank another week. A slow-moving single which never makes it to the top can end up with more airplay over the course of the year than a fast burning one which debuts high due to its performer’s star power, races to #1, then drops off the chart. In addition, from the record labels’ point of view, airplay is important only insofar as it leads to sales. Songwriters are recompensed for their songs being played on the radio, but the benefit to the artist and their label is by getting the record exposure so that listeners are inspired to buy it, or better still the full length album.

Whether an artist is credited with a #1, or “robbed” because other factors are taken into account makes no difference to the amount of airplay received, or to the number of fans inspired to buy a record. It’s all just a way of keeping score.

What do you think? All opinions are welcome.

Album Review: Jerry Salley – ‘Showing My Age’

You may well recognise the name of Jerry Salley from his many credits as a songwriter. If you do, you will know what a fine writer he is, but may not be aware he is also an accomplished singer in a bluegrass vein with an attractive light tenor, who occasionally releases an excellent record. His latest album is largely acoustic country with a strong bluegrass influence. He produced it himself, and recruited some excellent musicians and harmony singers to help out.

The outstanding song is the tragic tale told in ‘Paper And Pen, which has been recorded by Alecia Nugent, who sings harmony here. It relates the story of two hearts broken when a man writes to his sweetheart, and she misunderstands his meaning when he writes at length about how hard it is for a man to commit – tearing it up before reading his proposal on the last page:

Her soul was bleeding
So she chose her weapon
And went for his heart
With paper and pen
She got her last words in
“I never loved you”
Was the lie she wrote him

He couldn’t believe
The reply he received
What a sad tragedy
For good love to end
Who needs a knife
When you can take someone’s life
With paper and pen

Another classic-sounding heartbreaker comes with the Jim McBride co-write ‘He Carried Her Mem’ry’, about a man who can’t get over a lost love. He gives up by degrees on everything else in life , falling into drunken despair before eventually killing himself “the night that he carried her memory too far”. Bradley Walker recorded it in 2006 on his outstanding country/bluegrass album Highway Of Dreams, which really needs a successor.

A couple of songs included here may be familiar from cuts by major country stars. ‘The Best Thing That I Had Goin’’ which Brad Paisley recorded some years ago, is the plaintive reflection on a lost relationship despite the protagonist’s success in other areas of life; the writer’s own version is very good, with delightful close harmonies from Brandon Rickman and a very bluegrassy feel. Reba McEntire has recorded the very fine ‘Close To Crazy’ written with Melba Montgomery, a regretful first person song about struggling to get over someone and finding,
This close to crazy is far from over you

‘The Broken Ones’ paints the portrait of Maggie, a compassionate young woman who works helping the hopeless:

If you call her an angel she’ll be quick to say to you
She’s just doing what the one who died for her would do

Love the broken ones
The ones that need a little patching up
Look for diamonds in the rough
And make them shine like new
It really doesn’t take that much
A willing heart and a tender touch
If everybody loved like He does
There’d a be a lot less broken ones

Opening track ‘Comin’ Home To You’, written with Chris Stapleton, is one of the less memorable songs, but sets a promising tone with its prominent banjo and relaxed happy mood as the protagonist changes his mind about leaving his loved one. ‘That’s Just Me Loving You’ is a pleasant love song performed as a duet with co-writer Lisa Shaffer.

The title track is a mature reflection on “staring 50 in the eye”. It was written with Brandon Rickman and feels like a 20-years-on sequel to the latter’s similarly themed ‘So Long 20s’, which was on his excellent 2009 release Young Man, Old Soul. I really like this with its comfortable acceptance of age – and the growing confidence maturity brings.

‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Back Then’ look back (mostly fondly) on the lessons learned from growing up in the south in a previous generation. The good-humored and perky ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’ also looks back to teenage years, and the gift of an old car at the age of 16. The fiddle-led ‘Five O’Shadow’ talks sweetly about fatherhood and a little boy who wants to be with daddy whenever he is home.

The first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’, performed with careful reverence by the Isaacs, leads into the equally sincere testimonial of ‘That’s All That Matters To Me’.

You can hear samples of several of the songs on Jerry’s website – which is also offering a deal to get both this album and its equally good predecessor, 2007’s New Songs, Old Friends, which features collaborations with Vince Gill, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rhonda Vincent, our current Spotlight Artist Ricky Skaggs and many others.

Grade: A

Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Paycheck

A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct 9513 weblog. Because the series in which it appeared was titled ‘Forgotten Artists’, I referred to the subject of the article as either Donald Lytle (his real name) or Donnie Young (his original sobriquet) so that I could get into his background without giving away his more famous sobriquet, that of Johnny Paycheck. Thanks to one monster song, “Take This Job And Shove It”, Johnny Paycheck’s name will be remembered for a long time; however, that song was hardly typical of the artistry of Johnny Paycheck. For this article we will refer to him as Johnny Paycheck.

Very few artists have been as successful at reinventing themselves as Johnny Paycheck (May 31, 1938-February 19, 2003). Born Donald Eugene Lytle, and later known as Donnie Young, Johnny Paycheck, John Austin Paycheck and perhaps a few other names that have slipped by me, Paycheck was possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist, but not as much talent at keeping himself in check. As a result, he continually found himself in hot water.
Johnny Paycheck was born in the small rural town of Greenfield, Ohio. Greenfield, located about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is a typical Midwest small town, the sort of place Hal Ketchum sang about in his song “Small Town Saturday Night”, It’s the kind of town people either remain in forever or can’t wait to leave. For a restless spirit like Paycheck, leaving was first and foremost in his thoughts.

He hit the road in 1953 with his clothing and his guitar, eventually winding up at a Navy recruiting center where he lied about his age and signed up for a tour of duty. Needless to say, restless spirits such as Johnny Paycheck rarely function well under the yoke of military discipline. While in the Navy, he got into a fight with an officer. Paycheck was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig. Released after approximately three years, Johnny headed to Nashville to see if he could put his musical talent to good use. Since he had been playing the bars, skull orchards and juke-joints for side money ever since leaving Greenfield, it seemed like a logical thing to do.

Nashville during the late 1950s was not the cosmopolitan city that it is today. Nashville, in those days, was a boisterous town, a hangout for country musicians and a place where hard-working (and hard drinking) country boys came to blow off steam and have a good time. Paycheck fit right in, and before too long, his songwriting and instrumental abilities – and his unique vocals – came to the attention of the country music community. Soon, he was working as a sideman in the bands of some of the biggest stars in Nashville, including Ray Price (who recorded Johnny’s composition “Touch My Heart”), Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, and, later, George Jones.
His tempestuous nature led to him changing employers with some frequency. Difficulties with the likes of Faron Young and George Jones, both notorious carousers, were destined to occur.

Paycheck cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ´50s under the moniker Donnie Young, before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960. Interestingly enough, Paycheck/Young´s first single, “On This Mountain Top” was billed as a duet with another restless soul – Roger Miller (although Miller functions basically as a background singer). The single gave Johnny his first chart success as the single reached #31 on Cashbox´s country chart. While this was a promising start, it would be more than a decade before he achieved sustained success as a recording artist.
During this period, Paycheck was in demand as a high tenor harmony singer, appearing on recordings with Faron Young, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and countless others. His appearances with George Jones are often claimed to have influenced Jones´ vocals, and listening to Jones´ recordings of the 1960s, it is easy to discern a stylistic shift from those of the Starday/Mercury years. Whether or not this shift was as a result of Johnny Paycheck’s influence will forever be subject to debate.

In 1964, the Beatles´ music finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean (they had been big in Great Britain for about 18 months) and had some influence on the landscape of pop music. Of even greater importance in 1964 was another event – the convergence of the vocal stylings of Johnny Paycheck with the production genius of Aubrey Mayhew, a maverick Nashville record producer. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

Kathleen Alice (Kathy) Mattea was born June 21, 1959, in South Charleston, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and steeped in the lore and culture of the coal mines. While some think of her as a country singer and others regard her as folk, bluegrass or neo-Celtic, I prefer to think of Kathy Mattea as a quintessentially American singer and just leave it at that.

While Kathy had an extended run of top-twenty chart success running from 1986 to early 1993, Kathy’s records became increasingly more interesting once the focus on chart success subsided and she focused more on music she found interesting. With Coal, Kathy reached her career apogee, at least as far as artistic success is concerned.

Coal has always been a subject of great interest, whether to folklorists, economists or politicians. Coal is one of America’s greatest natural resources and the source of heated debate on how to mine it, how to utilize it and indeed whether or not to mine and utilize it all. While I have always been either an urban or suburban dweller, my grandfather, Otto Jetzork, was a coal miner who died at the young age of forty-three from “black lung” disease, so at a young age I started reading about coal miners and coal miners.

Ms. Mattea selected an excellent group of songs for her album and an excellent group of pickers including Marty Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Byron House (acoustic bass).

The lead-off track is “The L&N Don’t Stop Here In Anymore”, a Jean Ritchie composition that some may remember as the title track of a New Coon Creek Girls album from 1994. Quite a few artists have recorded the song including Johnny Cash. Kathy does an excellent job with the song which, with slightly modified lyrics, could apply to the fate of many company towns, whatever the industry

I was born and raised at the mouth of Hazard Hollow
The coal cars rolled and rumbled past my door
But now they stand in a rusty row all empty
Because the L & N don’t stop here anymore

This is followed by another Jean Ritchie song, “Blue Diamond Mines”. I think I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do this song on the radio but I wasn’t very familiar with the song; since I find Jean Ritchie’s voice rather annoying I’ve tended to avoid her recordings. Given the quality of these two songs, I may reconsider and seek out some of her recordings. Kathy, as always, is excellent. This track features vocal harmony by another Kentucky girl, Patty Loveless:

You old black gold you’ve taken my lung
Your dust has darkened my home
And now I am old and you’ve turned your back
Where else can an old miner go

Read more of this post

You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rebel Heart’

Rebel Heart was not Dan Seals’ first solo album but it was his first to enjoy any level of commercial success. His two prior solo albums for Atlantic Records had produced five non-charting singles (actually two of them did reach the lower rungs of the pop charts), but the tide began to change when he made the move to Liberty Records in 1983. Like its two predecessors, Rebel Heart was produced by Kyle Lehning. Dan wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s ten songs, including the first single “Everybody’s Dream Girl”, which became his first Top 20 country hit, peaking at #18.

For the most part, the songs on Rebel Heart are not that different from the music Seals had released as a pop artist; it would not be inaccurate to describe much of it as adult contemporary or soft rock with a dose of steel guitar, which is typical of the era. In fact, the production is quite restrained by 1983 standards, though with its synthesizers, drum machines and reverb it often sounds dated to modern ears. That is not to say, though, that it is not enjoyable. “After You” reminds me a lot of the music that Vince Gill was making at the time. The Paul Battle/Bucky Jones/Chris Waters tune was released as the album’s second single. It peaked at a disappointing #28, and the next single “You Really Go For The Heart” performed even worse, stalling at #37.

Just when it appeared that the project would be another commercial disappointment, Liberty released a fourth single — an unusual move in those days, particularly since none of the three previous releases had made a big impact at radio. But that all changed with the self-penned “God Must Be a Cowboy”, which jump-started Dan’s country career and landed him inside the Top 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart for the first time. A simple ode to the cowboy’s way of life, it is one of the few songs on the album with no pop overtones. It’s the best song on the album, and in fact, one of the best of Seals’ career. It was the breakthrough hit he had been waiting for; it was the first in a series of Top 10 singles that continued until 1990.

“On A Night Like This” is my second favorite song in the collection that seems like it would have been a better choice for a single release than some of the cuts that were actually sent to radio. “The Banker” is a very good but non-commercial ballad about a down-on-his-luck farmer whose property is about to enter foreclosure when he suddenly strikes oil. Dan wrote both of these songs as well as two rather bland numbers — “Up On A Hill” and “Candle In The Rain” — that sound like they might have been been written back during his England Dan and John Ford Coley days. “Down the Hall” is a decent pop-country number written by Dan’s cousin Troy Seals with Mike Reid. The song also appeared on The Oak Ridge Boys’ American Made album, which was also released in 1983.

Rebel Heart is a pleasant, though not essential, listen. It is currently only available as digital download , unless you’re willing to shell out nearly $200 for an imported CD copy. However, it is scheduled to be re-released in October on a 2-for-1 CD along with Dan’s 1988 album Rage On, and this appears to be the most economical way to purchase it.

Grade: B

Abum Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘One Step Ahead’

One Step Ahead was Rhonda’s 2003 release for Rounder and the first of her albums to really showcase her skills as a songwriter. As always, Rhonda is accompanied by a fine cast of supporting musicians including such aces as Aubrey Haynie (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Ronnie Stewart (banjo), Stewart Duncan (fiddle) and brother Darrin Vincent (bass).

The album opens up with “Kentucky Borderline”, a fine breakdown composed by Ms Vincent and Terry Herd. You could describe this one as a train song in the finest tradition of Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. The great vocal harmonies on this track are supplied by Jamie Dailey and brother Darrin.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is a gentle ballad from the pens of Curtis Wright and T.J. Knight about a love possibly about to disintegrate slowly.

I’ll give you my love
For the rest of my life
But I want to make sure you know
You can’t take it with you when you go

This song was released as a single to radio, reaching #58.

“One Step Ahead of The Blues” is another Vincent & Herd composition, an up-tempo tune featuring Alison Krauss on harmony vocals. This song probably should have been released as a single. Instead it was the second song on a CD single of “If Heartaches Had Wings” (a song not on this album) released in 2004.

Another Vincent/Herd composition is “Caught In The Crossfire” a rather sad story of divorce as seen through the eyes of a child

I’m caught in the crossfire
Of a world that’s so unkind
I love ‘em both but I can’t choose
Which one to leave behind

“Ridin’ The Red Line” is the song of a truck driver’s homecoming. Another Vincent/Herd composition, the song is noteworthy for the fine mandolin work by Aubrey Haynie with augmented mandolin fills by Cody Kilby.

Webb Pierce, June Hazelwood and Wayne Walker share the songwriting credits on an oldie, “Pathway of Teardrops”. This song has been recorded by many artists, but this version is very reminiscent of the Osborne Brothers recording of the song some years earlier.

The great female vocalist Melba Montgomery supplied “An Old Memory Found Its Way Back”. While Montgomery wasn’t a bluegrass artist, I’ve found that her songs lead themselves to bluegrass interpretations. This is a great ballad sung to perfection by Rhonda Vincent.

I don’t know much about Jennifer Strickland but she sure can write a pretty ballad, this one titled “Missouri Moon” about a love that has come to its end.

Who ever thought I’d be so blue
As I cry beneath that old Missouri moon

As I asked in a prior review, what would a bluegrass album be without a religious song? Much poorer for its absence, so Rhonda has chosen the old Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee classic “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill. No version will ever replace the Stoney & Wilma Lee version in my heart, but Ms. Vincent’s version comes close, with Darrin Vincent contributing an excellent guitar solo and harmony vocals.

Another religious song follows, this one penned by Becky Buller, “Fishers Of Men”. This song is performed a cappella by Rhonda Vincent with Darrin Vincent, Mickey Harris and Eric Wilson providing the harmony vocals. This is my favorite track on the album.

Cast your nets aside
And join the battle tide
He will be your guide
To make you fishers of men

Molly Cherryholmes composed the instrumental “Frankie Belle”, the only tune on the album to feature Rhonda’s own mandolin playing.

The album closes with a short rendition of “The Martha White Theme”, a tune long associated with Flatt & Scruggs, whose portion of the Grand Ole Opry was sponsored by Martha White for decades.

One Step Ahead is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a fully realized artist. I’d give it an A. The strength of this album’s songs is demonstrated by the fact that six of these songs would be reprised in her very next album Ragin’ Live.

Back to the seasons (and songs) of my youth

None of my relatives on either side were musicians. I have a cousin who plays piano in his church, but that’s about it. Music in my family came from the radio. In the late 1980s when compact discs were first becoming more popular, my Grandma Journey – always a one-step-ahead kinda woman – began amassing the first CD collection I ever saw, back when the CDs came packaged in cardboard boxes three times the height of the plastic jewel case, for record store display purposes I later deduced. Anyway, grandma’s favorites were tongue-in-cheek classic country songs. Weekends with her, we’d sit at the table in her dining room, playing rummy while a string of tunes from Buck Owens and George Jones played from that huge black player with the dancing orange lights. Songs like “Act Naturally” and “Under Your Spell Again” were regulars, but the one we heard most was Jones singing about the girl he loved in “Saginaw, Michigan”. Grandma was always quick to point out the song’s payoff line to me, in case I missed it this time. “See, he didn’t really find any gold in Alaska”, she would explain. “He lied to that guy so he could marry the daughter and go off and be happy.” She was a big fan of the underdog, my grandma. I knew back then that she and her songs were cool, and I still think so.

When I was five years old my dad bought a tow truck and began a towing service. Going along with him on a run was all I wanted out of life back then. Afternoons and weekends, I spent a lot of my youthful existence in that old blue Chevrolet tow truck while the tape deck schooled me on classic albums from Hank Williams Jr, Randy Travis, and others. But the one I remember best was the old white cassette – if you remember cassette tapes, you’ll remember they were white before record labels decided translucent plastic was more stylish – of Alabama’s Roll On. Released just months after I was born in January 1984 when Alabama was arguably the hottest band in the U.S., the set housed 4 consecutive #1 singles. I couldn’t get enough of the title track back then, but two album cuts stand out to me most now. The band’s southern rock influence is evident on the flick-your-bic-worthy “I’m Not That Way Anymore”. It’s a tale of road-weary musicians grown tame and leaving behind their wild and crazy ways, told behind hushed electric guitar solos with the guys’ airtight harmonies and written by the four band members. Even though I didn’t understand the lyrics, I was taken with slow-burning feel of the song. What you hear on the album was recorded live in Dallas and so was the accompanying music video, though it was never released as a single. The other song that made the biggest impression on me was closing track “Food On The Table”, a simplistic espousing of the staples in life. Its outlaw country-inspired back beat is coupled with an ’80s pop melody that crawls into your brain and stays there. I barely play it anymore, but hardly a week goes by that I don’t find myself tapping a foot and singing “we had food on the table and shoes on our feet…”

My timeline for these memories begins sometime in 1989. I know that because I also have a clear memory of George Strait’s “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye”, making its chart run at the time, being played several times a day. These days, with a niece and nephew both five years old this Summer, knowing that the songs they hear today could be the ones that stay with them until they’re grown, I find myself resisting the urge to only play the top 40 stations and songs for them when either one is with me. Sure, they can and do sing a long with Katy Perry’s big, catchy choruses and know every word to Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” – it’s edited in my market to remove the words “bullet” and “gun”. But I also want them to hear about a Cajun’s temper when he’s ‘really got trouble like a daughter gone bad’ and the story of Tommy proposing to Katie outside the Tastee Freez. Like me, maybe they’ll wonder if those boys ever make it to the church on Cumberland Road, and they may well have those ‘big old wheels keep rolling through their mind’ too. I wonder if they will relegate the songs I play for them as old-people-music, and find their own way into country music’s past and present. It is a family tradition. Or will they come to appreciate the songs I played them are boss, or whatever slang term the kids are using for great and awesome when that day comes.

Share your first recollections of music and the people who shared it with you in the comments.

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