My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Garth Brooks – ‘The River’

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Fresh Horses’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Rewind: Johnny Cash – ‘Orleans Parish Prison’

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

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

Album Review: Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

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

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

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

Grade: A

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

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘In Pieces’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Once More’

Classic Rewind: Garth Brooks – ‘Shameless’

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice – ‘Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies’

Week ending 11/8/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

Mickey_Gilley1954 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

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

1954 (Disc Jockeys): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

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

1974: I Overlooked An Orchid — Mickey Gilley (Playboy)

1984: City of New Orleans — Willie Nelson (Columbia)

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

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

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

Classic Rewind: Kenny Chesney – ‘I Can’t Go There’

Classic Rewind: Garth Brooks – ‘Friends In Low Places’

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Ropin’ The Wind’

ropin the windGarth’s third album was released in September 1991, with the artist at the peak of his commercial success. The first single, Larry Bastian’s ‘Rodeo’ was a portrait of a rodeo rider’s obsession with his pursuit of excitement over love. Delivered with an intensity and drama hovering on the edge of too much, it is pretty good, and peaked at #3.

A cover of Billy Joel’s pop hit ‘Shameless’ was to become one of Garth’s biggest hits. Despite not sounding remotely like a country song, Garth’s passionate vocal (backed by Trisha Yearwood’s harmony) and star status pushed it to #1.

Much, much better is ‘What She’s Doing Now’ (one of seven Garth co-writes on the album, but the first of them to be sent to radio. A gently sad reflection on a failed relationship and its continuing hold on the protagonist, with a string arrangement which sweetens it, this is a very good song. It had been previously recorded by Crystal Gayle with a gender twist in 1989, when she was well past her peak, but Garth’s own version hit the top of the charts. The similarly paced ‘Burning Bridges’ is another understated ballad (written by Garth with Stephanie Brown) which might serve as a prequel to it. This is the confession of a serial leaver, and shows Garth can be subtle. The style is perhaps more James Taylor than honky tonk, but it’s very palatable.

Next to radio was the punchy drama of ‘Papa Loved Mama’, written by Garth with Kim Williams. Telling the story of a trucker who kills his faithless wife and her lover by driving his rig into the motel she is staying at, it peaked at #3.

Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Now Mama’s in the graveyard
Papa’s in the pen

The same songwriting partnership, with the addition of Kent Blazy, produced the best song on the album in ‘Cold Shoulder’, the story of a lonely trucker missing his wife while on the road. A tasteful production helps make this a standout:

I wish I could hold her
Instead of hugging this old cold shoulder

The fifth and last single was #1 hit ‘The River’. Written by Garth with Victoria Shaw, it is one of his well meaning but slightly preachy earnest declarations of the importance of taking risks and living life to the full. It is quite pleasant and likeable, with an attractive arrangement.

‘In Lonesome Dove’, which Garth wrote with Cynthia Limbaugh, is a Western story song which is back to the drama but with a relatively low key reading which makes it all the more effective. It may have been inspired by the Western novel and TV drama of the same name, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the same.

‘We Bury The Hatchet’, written with Wade Kimes about a tumultous relationship, is playful western swing and quite entertaining. The lively up-tempo rebellious attitude of ‘Against The Grain’ came from bluegrass singer-songwriters Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson with Bruce Bouton, but doesn’t quite convince.

Not on the original record, but added to subsequent re-releases is ‘Which One Of Them’, a pretty good song about a heartbroken man pretending his one night stands are his lost love, as he muses wearily,

I’ve forgotten what’s wrong
Given up on what’s right

Ropin’ The Wind has sold over 14 million copies in the US alone, and a further 3 million worldwide, making it his biggest ever seller. Is it his best work? Not quite, but it’s not at all bad.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: John Fogerty and Wynonna Judd – ‘Proud Mary’

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