My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Barry Dean

Single Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes’

Ronnie-DunnSince parting ways with Kix Brooks in 2010, Ronnie Dunn has struggled to remain commercially relevant in an era when veteran artists are under-appreciated. After one solid solo album, he also cut ties with his longtime label Arista Nashville and started his own label. To say that his first two self-released singles, “Country This” and “Kiss You There” were disappointments would an understatement on a massive scale. But just when I was about to write Dunn off, he has redeemed himself nicely with his latest effort “I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes”, a tune penned by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean.

Though the title suggests that Dunn is tempted to resume a long-conquered vice, he is actually waxing nostalgic for lost innocence and a time when life was less complicated. The lyrics evoke images of fast cars, carefree youth and dreams going up in smoke. Unlike Dunn’s previous two efforts, the production is tasteful; the electric guitar is the track’s dominant instrument, but it is not intrusive or overly loud, and it is accompanied by some gentle, understated pedal steel. It is a lyrical masterpiece, that sounds like something Brooks & Dunn might have done in their heyday. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dunn’s voice is showing no signs of deterioration. From a creative standpoint, Dunn seems to have found his niche; whether country radio is willing to embrace an independent record with politically incorrect references to smoking from a 60-year-old artist remains to be seen. I suspect it will be an uphill climb, but at this stage of his career, Dunn no longer needs to prove himself commercially. I hope that his upcoming album will contain more music like this song and less of the “Country This” and “Kiss You There” type.

Great songs seem to be rarer than hens’ teeth these days, so when one comes along, it is the duty of fans to support it. I strongly encourage everyone to visit iTunes and download this very worthwhile recording.

Grade: A

Album Review – Little Big Town – ‘Tornado’

You’d think the combination of irresistible four-part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town has had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite caught on with the fans or country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sang and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one hit. Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”  Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.  I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which is turned into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.  “On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped-up rock that’s well-presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on this album) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ’100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Songwriter’

Even at the height of his stardom, it was widely acknowledged that “Whispering” Bill Anderson wasn’t much of a singer. But he was, and remains, an excellent country songwriter, who continues to get cuts by some of today’s biggest stars. He has just recorded a dozen of his latest songs on an independently released record, co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul Schnelle, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, piano, and keyboards and sings backing vocals – basically every instrument but drums, bass and steel.

The songs are all co-writes, and I was struck by the generosity with which Bill puts his own name last in the credits each time. His vocals are no stronger than one might expect, but on most of these songs it doesn’t matter. Half the songs are comedic, and do not demand great singing; in some of the others the limitations of his voice is put to good use.

The stall is set out with the opening track ‘It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey’, co written with the album’s producer Rex Schnelle and Rivers Rutherford. It’s a very witty riposte to someone who’s never satisfied whether it’s because:

So the government’s crazy and the weather’s all wrong
The radio ain’t playing country songs
Grits won’t cook in the microwave
And you’re mad about the price of gas these days
You can’t get a signal on your mobile phone
Your dog ran off and your wife came home

Also laugh-out-loud funny is the episodic ‘That’s When The Fight Broke Out’ which recounts a hapless husband’s many ill-judged remarks in a series of one-liners. A sense of humor is not necessarily conducive to a happy marriage.

‘Good Time Gettin’ Here’ is a good-natured recital from the kind of guy who wastes most of his time having fun, declaring from high school graduation to his arrival at the gates of heaven:

I’m not sure where I’ve been or where I am or where I’m going
But I sure had a good time gettin’ here

Written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon, this entertaining song could easily be a hit single for someone like Brad Paisley.

Speaking of Brad, he co-wrote and plays electric guitar on the rather vulgar ‘If You Can’t Make Money’ with Jon Randall also co-writing. The advice for economic hard times is to make love instead of money:
We can’t get a break, can’t get a job
We need to get the opposite of laid off

This is one of the songs where the vocal limitations are a problem, making the song sound sleazy.

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