My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bobby Braddock

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review – Doug Stone – ‘Make Up In Love’

DougmakeupIn the aftermath of his 1994 Greatest Hits, Volume One Doug Stone’s career began to slow as his neo-traditional style was out of favor with the changing tides in mainstream country music. Following Faith In Me, Faith In You he suffered both a heart attack and mild stroke that resulted in a three-year break from recording and touring. Stone finally resurfaced in the fall of 1999 with Make Up In Love, his first and only project on Atlantic Records.

Under the direction of Wally Wilson Make Up In Love was far poppier then Stone was known for, which isn’t surprising in the Shania Twain dominated climate of the era. The mid-tempo fiddle and drum led title track was the lead single, peaking at #19. It’s an above average song, not exceptional, yet not horrible (I love the strong use of fiddle). I remember the DJ on our local country station playing the song and commenting how great it was to have him back on the airwaves.

A cover of R.B. Greaves’ “Take A Letter Maria,” released next, stalled at #45. Stone does an adequate job on the track, which retains a contemporary country feel, but the horns only accentuate the cheese factor of the overall track. The similarly produced “Surprise,” a forgettable piece of fluff, was the third and final single, peaking at #64.

Written by Wilson, Tom Shapiro, and Sharon Vaughn, “Oh Moon” is a pleasant mid-tempo rocker that exists as nothing more then filler, just like “One Saturday,” written by Neil Thrasher and Ed Berghoff. Steel ballad “Not Me” is closer to Stone’s trademark sound, although the production is a bit vanilla.

From there Make Up In Love does get better. “Room Without A View” has a lovely dose of dobro weaved through the forlorn tale of a man looking to run away from his mistakes and “Deeper Than That” sounds like it could’ve been on one of Stone’s early albums, only with a far stronger chorus. “The Heart Holds On” is a duet with Lesley Satcher that’s just okay, her voice comes off like a less polished Faith Hill and the combination of the two makes for interesting results to say the least. Bobby Braddock wrote the album’s closing number “The Difference Between A Woman and A Man,” and it’s far and away the strongest track on the whole project thanks to Braddock’s keen talent and Wilson’s tasteful yet traditional projection.

While there’s no doubting how good it was to see Stone recording again, Make Up In Love is an effort aimed squarely at country radio and it shows. The songs are mostly forgettable with diluted arrangements that strip the album of anything remotely interesting. But this isn’t a terrible album, just a below average attempt from an artist who’s shown what he can do with far stronger material.

Grade: B- 

Album Review – Tracy Lawrence – ‘Time Marches On’

51ikhsAYYjL._SY300_It was business as usual when Tracy Lawrence brought Don Cook and Flip Anderson into the studio with him to record his fourth album Time Marches On. A mix of traditional ballads and uptempo shuffles, the album fit squarely within the popular trends of 1996 and thus scored four huge top five hits.

Lawrence followed the excellent “If The World Had A Front Porch,” with another equally wonderful tune “If You Love Me.” Written by Paul Nelson and Tom Shapiro, the piano-led ballad represents everything I love about country music from that era (“If You Love Me” hit radio in December 1995) – clean tasteful production and nice twangy vocals. Given that ballads are a tough sell I’m surprised the track peaked at #4, which is more than deserved.

Bobby Braddock’s classic “Time Marches On,” a multi-generational story of a family living through the 1960s and beyond, was the second single and Lawrence’s biggest hit yet, peaking at #1 for three weeks. It’s one of my favorite country singles of all-time, and a good representation of what country music means to me.

Lawrence was on fire, deservedly so, and could seemingly get anything up the charts. “Stars Over Texas,” a ballad he co-wrote with Nelson and Larry Boone, came next and soared to #2. He clearly knew what he was doing because “Stars Over Texas” is a fabulous song with a nice traditional arrangement. I’m not surprised radio would play it, just that it would catch on enough to hit #2. Like “If You Love Me” the track warranted all the airplay it received.

Fourth and final single was the upbeat “Is That A Tear,” which featured a wonderful dose of fiddle throughout. The track was perfect for country radio and peaked at #2. The music video was also a trip, featuring Lawrence in a caper complete with car chases (he in a stolen taxi cab) and a prominent role by his then wife who would later accuse him of, among other allegations, domestic battery.

If Atlantic Records wanted to stretch the project to five singles, which was unheard of in those days, “Speed of a Fool,” co-written by Boone and Nelson, was a good candidate. The upbeat rocker boasts a wonderful mid-90s arrangement complete with a good helping of fiddle and steel guitar. The track is a favorite, and fits right in my sweet spot.

“Excitable Boy” is a throwaway rocker reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s music at the time, but suffers from a spastic arrangement and weird half singing/half-whispering vocal from Lawrence. He’s clearly going for an effect here, but he doesn’t reach it. Boone, Nelson, and Lawrence teamed up for “What We Give” and like their other collaborations on the album, it’s excellent. The song’s another upbeat rocker, but I love the ribbons of steel thrown in to add some sunny touches to the arrangement.

The can-do-no-wrong team of Boone and Nelson teamed up with Anderson for “A Different Man,” another upbeat tune that makes for a wonderful album track. The production is far too loud, and could stand a lot more breathing room, but other than that, it’s a very good song. Lawrence joined Boone and Nelson again to write (can you see a pattern here?) yet another winning track, “Somewhere Between The Moon and You.” It’s excellent but lacks the commercial sheen of “Stars Over Texas” so I can easily see why the latter was the ballad chosen instead. “I Know That Hurt By Heart” is just okay.

Time Marches On is very similar to Pam Tillis’ 1994 release Sweetheart’s Dance in that it’s a very radio friendly effort that’s also an artistic powerhouse. Except for two songs (“Excitable Boy” and “I Know That Hurt By Heart”) the project is near flawless, and a fine representation of the mid-90s sound in country music. Although the album is out of print (I bought mine around it’s original release), cheap copies are available, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘I See It Now’

i see it nowIn 1994 Tracy enjoyed some success with a single from the soundtrack to the movie Maverick. ‘Renegades, Rebels And Rogues’, which was a top 10 hit for Tracy. That track gave him his first opportunity to produce (alongside band member Flip Anderson). This partnership was to prove a durable one, and was continued on Tracy’s third album, alongside tracks produced by James Stroud. The set is dominated by ballads, and contains some fine songs. None of the four singles peaked any lower on the Billboard country chart than #2.

The lead single and title track is a pretty song with a graceful melody and a resigned lyric about a man understanding too late just why his relationship has failed. The prominent fiddle in the arrangement is particularly pleasing. Written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Woody Lee, it peaked at # 2. Coincidentally, this was the same position achieved by its successor, ‘As Any Fool Can See‘, written by Nelson with Kenny Beard. The pace of this was a bit peppier, but it is on very similar theme to ‘I See It Now’, reading rather like a prequel to it.

The album’s sole chart-topper, and probably its best-remembered song,‘Texas Tornado’ was another ballad with a lovely tune. The Bobby Braddock tune is lovely to listen to, but the lyric seems to demand a more forceful pace than it gets. The nostalgic and idealistic ‘If The World Had A Front Porch’ is rather charming, and was another #2 hit.

Ireally liked the wistful ‘I’d Give Anything To Be Your Everything Again’, a sad ballad in which the protagonist revisits the home he once shared with his ex. ‘The Cards’ is also good, with a regretful Tracy rifling through a set of old birthday, anniversary and Valentine’s cards, poignant reminders of times past, while his ex has moved on. The mid-paced ‘I Got A Feelin’’ is pleasant but not very memorable.

The lively and colourful story song about a ‘Hillbilly With A Heartache’ is a duet with John Anderson. It is by far the best of the few up-tempo numbers. The title character, Hershel, sounds like a close relative of Mark Chesnutt’s hit from a couple of years earlier, ‘Bubba Shot The Jukebox’ (the melodies are pretty similar too). Of the other two, ‘Guilt Trip’ is rather forgettable lyrically and has the heaviest production on the album; it sounds like something designed with an eye on the linedancing market – bouncy and quite catchy but with no connection with the downbeat lyric. ‘God Made Woman On A Good Day’ is a rather lecherous bluesy number about hot women, which would fit right in on today’s radio.

The success of the singles helped it to sell well, and this was another platinum-seller for Tracy. Overall, this is a nice-sounding album but the material isn’t quite as strong as on its predecessors, and it does feel a little one-paced. However, it’s worth adding to your collection, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss & Chet Atkins – ‘Simpatico’

simpaticoChet Atkins’ contributions to country music are immeasurable; he was arguably the genre’s greatest guitarist ever, and as a producer and label executive at RCA, he paved the way for such legendary artists as Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Don Gibson, Skeeter Davis, Dolly Parton, Connie Smith, and many more. He was also an early champion of Suzy Bogguss, as anyone who has read the liner notes to her debut album can attest, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the two of them decided to release an album together. Simpatico, which was released in 1994, was one of the last albums in the Atkins’ discography and his last entry into the Billboard Country Albums chart.

The album was also a turning point in Bogguss’ career; she’d parted ways with longtime producer Jimmy Bowen, and produced Simpatico with John Guess. Interestingly, Atkins didn’t share production credits at all on this project. The project also marked the beginning of Suzy’s chart decline; it may be simply because her star was beginning to fade, or it could have been because the album was released at a time when Liberty Records was neglecting any artist on its roster not named Garth. However, it seems fairly certain that this is one album that not made with one eye on the charts; instead it is a labor of love that that is largely indifferent to commercial concerns.

As one might expect from a man who helped develop the Nashville Sound, and whose tastes ran from country to pop and jazz, Simpatico is not a collection of traditional country tunes. Instead it encompasses a variety of sounds, influenced by both country and pop, and occasionally including some Spanish and Latin influences. Chet’s trademark picking is heard prominently throughout the album. He does chime in vocally on occasion, but Chet was never much of a singer, so Suzy does the heavy lifting as far as the vocal duties are concerned.

Two singles were released; neither of which charted. The first was the uptempo “One More For The Road”, written by Atkins and Bogguss, along with Suzy’s husband Doug Crider. The second was a surprisingly good cover of Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” A better choice might have been “Forget About It”, one of the album’s more contemporary numbers. It is more in the vein of what country radio was looking for at the time, but given Liberty’s half-hearted support, it probably would not have been any more successful.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from beginning to end, without any missteps. my particular favorites are the covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now”, which opens the album, and a stunning version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”. I also quite like the whimsical “Wives Don’t Like Old Girlfriends.” At first glance “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” seems to be a little out of place, but the tasteful production, complete with a restrained string section, and the excellent singing and picking, makes the record work. Though it would probably never held much appeal for country radio, in another era it might have been an adult contemporary hit, but AC radio in the 90s was too R&B influenced to embrace a recording like this or “When She Smiled At Him”, which also sounds like a holdover from 1970s Top 40 AM radio. “Two Shades of Blue” is a lovely Spanish-sounding number written by Deborah Allen, Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy.

Nearly two decades after its release, Simpatico holds up well. Bogguss and Atkins succeeded in making an evergreen record, which does not sound dated at all. My only criticism is its brevity, but country albums rarely exceeded ten tracks in the nineties. Such a non-commercial album would probably not even be released by a major label today. Given its lack of chart success, a fair number of fans might have missed this album. Those who did miss it can pick it up from Amazon. Unlike a lot of older albums, expect to pay full price for this one, but it is worth every penny.

Grade: A+

Album Review – Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – ‘Cheater’s Game’

MI0003484229If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘The Way That I Am’

220px-Martina_McBride_-_The_Way_That_I_AmFollowing the commercial disappointment of The Time Has Come, RCA Records and producer Paul Worley led Martina McBride in a slightly slicker direction for her sophomore album The Way That I Am, released in the fall of 1993. With the neo-traditional movement in a decline, the record echoed the sounds of the time, increasing the prominence of drums and electric guitars without sacrificing the distinction of pedal steel heard throughout.

Gretchen Peters’ amped “My Baby Loves Me” was chosen as the lead single, and became McBride’s first top five hit. She followed with the equally upbeat and charming “Life #9,” which peaked at #6. Both are excellent and equally showcase McBride’s powerful voice in a contemporary enough setting to work within the confines of country radio at the time.

But just as she was taking off, McBride took a risk with Peters’ spousal abuse anthem “Independence Day,” which peaked at #12. The story of a girl orphaned when her sadistic father killed his wife and himself by setting their house on fire, was too controversial in a world dominated by the daily headlines of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. But nonetheless, McBride’s powerful performance and an equally memorable music video elevated the track into her signature tune, and to this day its one of her most popular recurrent songs heard on country radio.

RCA released two other singles from the project, the mid-tempo but rather fluffy “Heart Trouble” (which peaked at #21) and the decidedly slow ballad “Where I Used To Have A Heart” (which peaked at #49). Neither is particularly memorable, nor strong enough to score big at radio.

McBride herself stated in the liner notes of her Greatest Hits album that the label should’ve gone with Bobby Braddock’s masterful “Strangers” in the wake of “Independence Day,” a fact I wholeheartedly agree with. My personal favorite of all her recordings, “Strangers” takes a powerful full-circle look at a couple’s courtship, marriage, and divorce flanked by them beginning and ending as strangers. It’s easily the strongest non-“issue” relationship song McBride has ever tackled, and the most well written power ballad of her career.

Pam Tillis and Bill Lloyd co-wrote the intriguing “Goin’ To Work,” a feminist anthem celebrating strong women who are proud to be in the workforce. I love the track, although it does beat the concept half to death by repeating the “going to work/I’m good at my work/thank god for my work” refrain into the ground. But McBride sings it well and I quite enjoy the melody.

She does her best with Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy’s “That Wasn’t Me,” a popish piano ballad, but the track lacks anything to elevate it beyond its simple yet elegant confines. Far better is the stunning “She Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” a neo-traditional ballad concerning a wife in denial about her husband’s affair. She falters, though, on the gimmicky “Ashes,” a drives-home-its-point-too-hard relationship song comparing a couple’s love affair to fireplace embers.

Overall, The Way That I Am is a very strong collection of songs tackling somewhat surprisingly heavy themes for an artist looking to gain traction at radio and retail. I’ll never understand what RCA was thinking with the latter two singles – I would’ve released “Strangers” and “Goin’ To Work” instead – but she thankfully survived it. Copies are available very cheaply and it’s well worth adding to any music collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Red River Blue’

redriverblue2011′s Red River Blue marked Blake Shelton’s return to the full-length album format, following a pair of “Six Pak” EPs that were released the year before. Like Hillbilly Bone and All About Tonight, Red River Blue was produced by Scott Hendricks. It is more pop-leaning than his earlier work under Bobby Braddock’s guidance, but it has also been far more successful commercially. Shelton’s record sales have likely enjoyed a boost due to the exposure he has enjoyed as a judge on NBC’s The Voice.

The album’s first single was “Honey Bee”, which was written by Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip. It’s lyrically fluffy and not terribly country, despite name-checking Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, but nevertheless it’s a catchy, fun tune. It quickly shot to #1 and sold more than two million digital downloads. The second single is a cover version of “God Gave Me You”, which was written and originally recorded by contemporary Christian singer Dave Barnes. I like the song and Blake’s vocal performance, but Scott Hendricks’ production is borderline-bombastic, though one could argue it is restrained in comparison to some of the other songs on the album. It too reached the #1 spot, as did the two subsequent singles “Drink On It” and “Over.” “Drink On It” is a little closer in style to Blake’s earlier work, though the production is a bit too slick for my liking. “Over”, however, crosses the line with overwrought production on the chorus, which is a shame because the song itself is not bad and would have benefited from a more understated arrangement. Heavy-handed production similarly mars an otherwise very good cover of Dan Seals’ “Addicted”, which is one of two bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album.

As one might glean from the title, “Good Ole Boys” is the most country-sounding track on the album, with a beat that is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings. It laments the disappearance of the good ol’ boy and is one of the best tracks on the album, though I could have lived without the gratuitous reference to feminine hygiene products in the song’s final twenty seconds. Also quite enjoyable is the ballad “I’m Sorry” which features a guest harmony vocal performance by Martina McBride. The title track, on which Blake is joined by Miranda Lambert is one of the quieter tunes on the album. It is one of the album’s highlights and it concludes the main setlist. The deluxe version of the album contains two bonus tracks, the disposable “Chill” and the aforementioned “Addicted”. There is only one track on the album that I dislike: the grating “Hey” with its dumbed-down lyrics and irritating beat.

Red River Blue
isn’t Blake Shelton’s very best work but it does have its good moments and it is a lot better than most of what is on the country charts these days. Admittedly, that is setting the bar low, but the album is worth seeking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Pure BS’

purebsBlake Shelton’s unfortunately-titled fourth album finds him pushing the envelope just a bit, exploring new sounds and expanding his production team. Brent Rowan and Paul Worley joined Bobby Braddock, who had produced Blake’s previous three releases. Like his earlier albums, Pure BS achieved gold-level sales, but also continued his inconsistent pattern with country radio, missing the Top 10 on two of the album’s three singles.

The album opens with the somewhat overproduced “This Can’t Be Good”, which Blake co-wrote with Timothy DeArmitt. The track gets off to a good start, with a strong and energetic vocal performance, but the electric guitars become more and more intrusive as the song continues, and eventually overwhelm it. It is followed by the lead single “Don’t Make Me”, which sound radio-friendyl enough but surprisingly topped out at #12. The second single, “The More I Drink”, written by David Lee Murphy, Chris DuBois, and Dave Turnbull likewise underperformed on the singles chart, peaking at a disappointing #19. Perhaps alarmed by radio’s tepid response (or perhaps it was just typical major-label greed), Warner Bros. released a deluxe version of the album with three new tracks in early 2008. One of the new tracks was “Home”, a cover of the Michael Buble pop hit. The strategy worked, wince Blake’s version, which features backing vocals from his then girlfriend Miranda Lambert, became his fourth #1 country hit. Though I’m not usually a fan of pop songs remade for the country market, I do quite like this performance.

My favorite song on the album is “I Don’t Care”, written by Dean Dillon and Casey Breathard. It borrows a theme from the Victorian-era tune “After The Ball”, in which the narrator catches his sweetheart with another man, who later turns out to be her brother. “I Don’t Care” has a happier ending, however, as the misunderstanding is resolved more quickly and the couple presumably lives happily ever after.

Even before the Deluxe Edition release and the success of “Home”, Shelton appears to have had some crossover ambitions with this album, which contains more pop-leaning material than his earlier releases. It works in some cases better than others; his performance on “What I Wouldn’t Give” is a bit over the top and the entire track is a little too AC-leaning for my liking, but the more restrained “Back There Again” works pretty well. While much of the material showcases Blake the ballad singer, the uptempo “The Last Country Song”, which laments the demise of a popular roadhouse to suburban sprawl, is one of the album’s highlights. The closing track to the original album, it features cameo appearances by John Anderson and George Jones.

Pure BS is one of the stronger entries in the Shelton discography, allowing him to branch out a bit creatively, but before his song selection choices became too spotty. The album is still easy to find, but expect to pay close to full price, unless you’re looking to buy the original non-deluxe version.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill’

barnandgrillAlthough 2003′s The Dreamer achieved gold-level sales, its singles performed inconsistently at radio. After producing the #1 hit “The Baby”, the album’s subsequent singles all failed to crack the Top 20. This trend began to reverse itself with the release of Blake Shelton’s third album, Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill, which was released in the autumn of 2004. The Bobby Braddock-produced effort got off to an initial rocky start when the album’s first single, a very nice ballad called “When Somebody Knows You That Well” died at #37. Blake’s chart decline bottomed out with that release, however, and all of the album’s subsequent singles reached the Top 10.

The album’s second single, the catchy “Some Beach”, written by Paul Overstreet and Rory Lee Feek, returned Blake to the #1 spot and also became the first gold-selling single of his career. It was followed by an excellent cover version of Conway Twitty’s 1988 hit, “Goodbye Time.” Blake’s version didn’t chart quite as high, peaking at #10. I prefer the Conway Twitty version but Blake’s rendition is my favorite song on this album. Both artists knock the Roger Murrah & James Dean Hicks tune out of the park and both versions deserved to be monster hits. A bit of trivia: the song was originally pitched to Reba McEntire, who turned it down because she was going through her divorce at the time and the lyrics apparently hit a little too close to home. The album’s fourth and final single, “Nobody But Me” was a substantial hit, reaching #4.

The album cuts in this collection are unusually strong and most of them had hit single potential. Two of them had been previously recorded; the uptempo “Cotton Pickin’ Time” (another Paul Overstreet co-write) had been released by The Marcy Brothers in 1989 and “What’s On My Mind” had appeared on a 2001 Gary Allan album. To my knowledge, “Good Old Boy, Bad Old Boyfriend”, which was written by Shelton’s producer and mentor Bobby Braddock had not been recorded before but it sounds very much like something Waylon Jennings might have done during his heyday. But perhaps the most interesting track is the Harley Allen tune “The Bartender”, in which Blake observes a tavern’s patrons and listens to their problems from across the bar.

There aren’t any weak tracks in this collection; they are well written and performed and without the production excesses that are the hallmark of most of today’s chart hits. Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill serves as a model that demonstrates how much better the artist’s material — and indeed, country music in general — was, just slightly less than a decade ago. The album is easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘The Dreamer’

Blake’s second album, produced as before by Bobby Braddock and released in 2003, featured a state of the art commercial country sound which mirrored the state of country music of the period.

One of my favorite ever Blake Shelton recordings is his second #1 hit, which was the lead single from this album. ‘The Baby’, penned by Harley Allen and Michael White, is a story song with a tear-jerking emotional payoff. It is the frank confession of a spoilt youngest son, whose doting mother excuses all his failings, “because I was her baby”. He ends up missing his mother’s deathbed, even though she has been calling for her favorite:

She looked like she was sleepin’
And my family had been weepin’
By the time that I got to her side
And I knew that she’d been taken
And my heart it was breaking
I never got to say goodbye
I softly kissed that lady
And cried just like a baby

The ill-chosen second single ‘Heavy Liftin’’ is a not very interesting song in itself but its main flaw is the production. There is just too much going on in the arrangement with banjos fighting against the blaring electric guitars – it ends up sounding as it would if two separate tracks were recorded, they couldn’t decide which to go with and stuck them together. It didn’t make into the top 30, but would probably do rather better if released to today’s radio.

Much better is memorably quirky top 30 single ‘Playboys Of The Southwestern World’, written by Neal Coty and Randy Van Warmer. It tells the amusing story of two wild boys who get themselves into trouble, ending up in jail in Mexico.

There is a great cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1978 hit ‘Georgia In A Jug’, written by Blake’s producer Braddock. A jilted fiancé drinks away the money he had saved up for the exotic honeymoon:

I’m going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum
Goin’ out to Honolulu in a mai tai mug
Then I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug

The arrangement copies the original fairly closely (with some delicious added fiddle), but that’s no bad thing, and the result is entertaining.

Braddock also wrote ‘Someday’, which questions what may happen beyond death. Delivered dramatically with a gospel choir, it is quite effective. The idiosyncratic ‘In My Heaven’ was written by Rivers Rutherford and Bobby Pinson and offers a picture of a perfect world from their point of view. The message is a bit mixed – on the one hand “we hurt no one”, on the other they’re feeding lawyers to the lions; and there’s a strong emphasis on having fun and playing sports missed in with the idealistic inclusiveness.

Blake wrote the title track, which is quite good, with the protagonist realising the costs of achieving his dreams of material success, and finding it has not made him truly happy when the one he loved is not with him. The production is a little louder than necessary, but overall this is a decent track  ‘My Neck Of The Woods’ which he co-wrote with Billy Montana and Don Ellis celebrates both the natural beauties and the neighborliness of the countryside. It was partially inspired by Blake’s then Tennessee farm home, and acknowledges the very real difficulties of rural poverty more than the glut of rural pride songs we hear today. ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ is a modern trucking anthem, which is well sung and interpreted by Blake. John Rich co-write ‘Underneath The Same Moon’ is a somewhat overblown big ballad.

There are some great tracks here, but overall it isn’t as strong a set as Blake’s debut, with the production ramped up a bit too much at times. Cheap used copies are, however, easy to find. It was a reasonable success for him.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Blake Shelton – ‘Blake Shelton’

4194KBME25L._SL500_AA300_I remember distinctly the first time I heard “Austin,” sitting in my grandparent’s driveway. I loved the song instantly, and connected with the lyric, enough so I couldn’t wait to see how the song ended – did they get back together or not? Looking back, it’s still a great song and a wonderful introduction to Blake Shelton.

It seems light years since 2001 when Shelton released his self-titled debut, produced by legendary songwriter Bobby Braddock. A success out of the gate, it launched him with the aforementioned five weeks number one. “Austin” works because of the uniqueness of the lyric, the telephone call hook that makes you wonder, “who is that guy who sings the telephone song?” It also didn’t hurt that it was straight ahead country with no frills.

Second single “All Over Me,” a Shelton co-write with his hero Earl Thomas Conley and Mike Pyle, follows the same no-frills pattern but stalled at radio, hitting #18. Its lack of airplay isn’t surprising as it isn’t a great song, suffering from a plodding piano-led melody and Shelton’s weird chorus vocal.

He nicely rebounded with “’Ol Red,” the excellent southern-set third single which made use of his natural twang and storytelling prowess. Originally recorded by Kenny Rogers in 1993, the track has gone on to become Shelton’s signature tune, despite hitting #14 at radio.

The remaining album cuts combine standard debut album filler with some numbers that display Shelton’s promise. Both “Every Time I Look At You” and “She Don’t Know She’s Got It” come packed with muscular electric guitars and a left over 90s vibe, while “If I Was Your Man” ventures into reggae. He hits a snag on “I Thought There Was Time,” weirdly belting out the song’s title to fill up the chorus.

But Shelton hits a home run when he sticks to keeping the proceedings good and country. Braddock’s own “Same Old Song” becomes grating with repeated listens, but the lyric is memorable enough to stand out from the pack. I also enjoy “That’s What I Call Home” a fairly standard song about family, which Shelton co-wrote.  The melody is grounded in nice doses of fiddle and steel and that backing allows Shelton to give a rather tender and affecting vocal performance on the track.

Shelton’s third and final co-write, “Problems At Home” is far and away the album’s strongest song outside the singles and my favorite track overall. A plea to God to fix the world’s problems (all the while fixing his as well) is effective for Shelton’s tenderly emotional lyric and a winning chorus:

And I pray they’ll find the answer

That there’s a way to right the wrong

And Lord while you’re listening

Could I mention some troubles of my own?

I got problems right here at home

Overall, Shelton’s debut displays the promise he’s continued to hone on each album since. It’s clear he’s trying to be more than a flash in the pan although the song selection is mediocre at best and the listener can sense Shelton is still trying to find his voice. It’s okay, but could’ve been so much more.

Grade: B 

Spotlight Artist: Blake Shelton

The decision of the Country Music Association to name Blake Shelton as this year’s Entertainer of the Year (as well as a third successive Male Vocalist of the Year award) clearly came as something of a surprise to many – including Blake himself. However, since his emergence at the beginning of the millennium, he has enjoyed a dozen #1 country hits, several of which have sold well enough to be certified gold or platinum. Five of his six full length studio albums have also gained gold status.

Born in Oklahoma in 1976, Blake moved to Nashville aged just 17 to pursue his dreams of country stardom. It took a few years before he got noticed, but legendary songwriter Bobby Braddock heard him singing on a demo tape and helped him sign a development deal with Giant Records (part of Warner Brothers) in 1998. His debut single ‘Austin’ (produced by Braddock) was a monster hit for him in 2001. This proved very lucky for Blake, as the label folded as the single began its run, and sister label Warner Brothers picked him up.

While commercial success was good, he was slow to gain accolades from his peers. His first major award did not come until 2010, when he was named the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year, a title he has not lost since. He became a member of the Opry in the same year, and this year gained the ultimate accolade from his peers.

Since moving on from Braddock, his more recent material has been less traditional in style, and has varied in quality, but he has become one of the most popular of today’s artists. His record label picked Shelton to try out SixPaks, a renamed extended EP which they hoped would revolutionise the way music was packaged, but after two of a planned three Blake Shelton SixPaks, he reverted to the traditional full-length album.

He has enjoyed a sideline as judge on several TV talent shows, first taking that role on the fifth season of Nashville Star in 2007, then Clash Of The Choirs where he mentored an Oklahoma choir. For the past two years he has gained national visibility on The Voice, the third season of which is showing now.

He seems to get as much attention for non-musical matters like his TV work, his marriage to Miranda Lambert in 2011, and his sometimes controversial Tweets, but it’s the music we’ll be concentrating on here. A Christmas album is out now, making Blake the perfect choice for December’s Spotlight Artist. He also has a Christmas special airing on NBC tonight, repeated on December 7, featuirng guest performances by Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, and former American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson who was so controversially nominated for the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. We’ll be mixing up our look back at his career with our reflections on the past year in country music, so keep checking in through the month.

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Politics, Religion, and Her’

When Sammy Kershaw convened in the studio to follow up Feelin’ Good Train he stuck with his trusty production team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. In addition to his secular work, they’d teamed up for a holiday release, Christmas Time’s A-Comin’ (the title track being my favorite version of that fabulous song) in the winter of 1994, and Greatest Hits, Chapter 1 in 1995.  As a result, when Politics, Religion and Her was released in May 1996, it stuck true to the formula Kershaw had honed since his debut five years earlier.

Lead single “Meant To Be,” an uptempo ode to finding love in unexpected places, was the most successful at radio peaking at #5. He followed with the novelty song “Vidalia” which reached a #10 peak that summer. Both are very good although “Vidalia,” a song I remember distinctly from watching the video on CMT as a kid, isn’t the greatest lyric in Kershaw’s catalog.

Radio didn’t respond as kindly to the album’s title track and it only managed to squeak into the top the top 30. Thanks to a killer lyric by Bryon Hill and Tony Martin plus underpinnings of mournful steel, it’s my favorite of the four singles. Deflecting pain has rarely sounded so good as it does here:

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Spotlight Artists: Female Singer-songwriters

For our March spotlight, we’re taking a look at four distinct country songwriters who all, at one point or another, found themselves on the cusp of stardom when they scored major label deals. None would be superstars in their own right, but their songs would be turned into some of the greatest country records of the last thirty years by some of the best female (and sometimes male) voices the genre has to offer.

In celebration of the release of Gretchen Peters Hello Cruel World and Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields we’re taking a look at:


Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith’s life hasn’t been without its struggles. Born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953 in Seguin, Texas, she suffered a tragic loss when her boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident the night of their senior prom. His loss forever altered her life and became a big inspiration to her songwriting. Griffith has since survived both breast (1996) and Thyroid (1999) cancer.

As an artist, she released her debut album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978.  She would release four albums (none of which charted) before Kathy Mattea brought her fame after her version of Griffith’s “Love At The Five and Dime” peaked at #3 in 1986.

This success led to a deal with MCA Records. Lone Star State Of Mind was released in 1987. The title track would peak at #36 and the album would peak at #23. Tony Brown would also produce the follow-up, Little Love Affairs, released in 1988. It would also chart, although not as successfully. Griffith’s deal with MCA would span just three more albums, two (One Fair Summer Evening and Storms) of which charted quite low.

The 1990s would bring further success. Suzy Bogguss had a #9 peaking hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” a song Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. In 1994, Griffith won her first (and only) Grammy award, Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms; a collection of songs that inspired her.

Griffiths has a new album, her first since 2009’s The Loving Kind. Although not yet released in the United States, Intersection is available in the UK.

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Classic Rewind: Bobby Braddock – ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’

The songwriter inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame sings his best known song:

Random playlist 3

After all the mental inventory-taking of the end of the year lists was finally over, I began to cruise through my media library again. Ballads have been in higher rotation than anything else right now, and that’s partly because of that nostalgia feeling that comes from having a fresh snowfall each morning. But it’s also because ballads are usually my favorites anyway. Here’s a few I’ve really been enjoying lately.

Zac Brown Band – ‘Colder Weather’ … Wanderlust drives the narrator in the Zac Brown Band’s current single, and he readily admits it to this lady. ‘And I love you but I’ll leave you, I don’t want you but I need you‘, he confesses. Still, some relationships are too complicated to follow the rules. These two keep it together when he’s in town; otherwise, not so much. The swaying melody is brought to life here with the help of a gentle piano track and Alabama-ish harmonies from the group.

Sara Evans – ‘Three Chords And The Truth’ … Her first album was a lesson in 90s new traditionalism, and though none of the songs were hits, the title track to the set has taken on a life of its own. Evans’ Missouri drawl wrings out every ounce of emotion in this conflicted woman’s day of events, as she sings of the music doing just the same for the character in her own song.

Martina McBride – ‘Strangers’ … This track from Martina’s second album was included on her Greatest Hits album, listed as a fan favorite and concert staple; and for good reason. Songwriter Bobby Braddock penned a telling tale of two people and their journey from, and back to, being strangers to each other. Martina’s bigger-than-your-house voice hammers it home.

Mark McGuinn – ‘She Doesn’t Dance’ … This guy’s got the perfect gal at home. So what’s she doing in this smoky bar in that black dress, and in another man’s arms? But wait, that couldn’t be her. She doesn’t own a dress like that, and besides, she doesn’t even dance. Especially like that. McGuinn hit bigger with that infuriating ‘Mrs. Steven Rudy’ song. But not only was ‘She Doesn’t Dance’ tolerable, this 90s-style country ballad proved better at showcasing his dry wit without even trying.

Sunny Sweeney – ‘Amy’ … Just like her breakthrough single, Sweeney’s self-penned ‘Amy’ is a confessional from the other woman. This time it’s directed at the wife and she’s asking her to please stand aside, if that’s at all convenient. Tight and light, the acoustic-driven production is the perfect score for the story unfolding before us.

Johnny Cash – ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ … Maybe it’s Cash’s deadpan delivery of these scathing lyrics, or maybe it’s the Signature Cash dominating back beat. Either way, I can’t get enough of Johnny’s first single.

Alan Jackson – ‘I’ll Try’ … Warm, traditional sounds complimenting Jackson’s crooning vocals make the song a real pleasure to the ears, but it’s the no-frills message in this song I like best. No promises of forever or of good times to come, this guy takes a realistic approach. Sweetly optimistic in all he does, he’s aiming for the long haul. Here’s hoping.

So, what’s your pleasure these days?  Are you spinning the ballads in the colder weather?  Share your current favorites with us in the comments.

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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