My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Craig Wiseman

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘We All Get Lucky Sometimes’

we all get lucky sometimesLee Roy Parnell’s fourth album saw him repeating the pattern of the records which had seen him enjoy commercial success. There was one backroom change, though: a sideways move from Arista proper to the subsidiary imprint Career Records.

The lead single ‘A Little Bit Of You’ is a mid-tempo love song with a radio-friendly tune, written by hitmakers Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman. It just missed the top spot on the charts, peaking at #2. ‘When A Woman Loves A Man peaked ten spots lower, at #12, but I think it’s a better song. A classy soulful ballad, it features Trisha Yearwood’s backing vocals, although they’re quite low in the mix.

‘Heart’s Desire’ was another big hit, reaching #3. It’s an excellent example of one of Parnell’s slower numbers, rhythmic and blusey but not overwhelmingly so, with a mellow feel. ‘Givin’ Water To A Drownin’ Man’ proved to be Parnell’s last top 20 hit. It’s another strong track in Parnell’s wheelhouse, although the Merle Haggard namedrop seems rather random. The title track also got some airplay but didn’t make the top 40. It’s a mid-to-up-tempo chugger, stronger on groove than substance, but enjoyable enough.

‘Saved By The Grace Of Your Love’ is a gentle ballad written by Parnell with Mike Reid, which is very pretty. ‘I Had To Let It Go’ is a pretty good story song involving losing a loved one and giving up booze.

The Delbert McClinton/Gary Nicholson song ‘Squeeze Me In’ is best known to country fans from Trisha Yearwood’s version. Parnell’s take is okay (and there’s some great piano), but I like Trisha’s better.

‘Knock Yourself Out’ has a blues groove which is quite catchy with call-and-response vocals and is quite enjoyable without being very memorable. It would have worked well live. ‘If The House Is Rockin’ is a straightforward slice of rock ‘n roll with exuberant honky tonk piano.

The album closes out with an instrumental; featuring accordion great Flaco Jiminez. Not my thing, but impressive playing.

Overall, a solid album which should appeal to anyone who likes the singles.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Getting It Dunn’

HollyDunnGettingItDunnA year after releasing her first retrospective, Holly Dunn returned with the album that would serve as closure to the commercial phase of her career. Getting It Dunn was released in June 1992 and spawned four singles, none of which cracked the top 40 on the charts.

Mel Tillis’ mid-tempo honky-tonker “No Love Have I,” served as the first single, peaking at #67. Despite a generous helping of steel, and Dunn’s impeccable vocal, the track didn’t chart higher although it deserved to. The Dunn/Chris Waters/Tom Shapiro penned “As Long As You Belong To Me” charted next, peaking at #68. The mid-tempo rocker had a confident vocal from Dunn, although it just wasn’t commercial enough to pop in the current radio climate. “Golden Years,” the third and final single, did slightly better, peaking at #51. A co-write by Gretchen Peters and Sam Hogin, the track is wonderful despite the somewhat sappy string section heard throughout.

The album’s other notable track is “You Say You Will,” composed by Verlon Thompson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Dunn’s version of the bluesy Dobro infused number appeared just two months before Trisha Yearwood’s take on her own Hearts in Armor album. Both versions are remarkably similar and equally as good, although Yearwood turned in a slightly more polished take, which helped the pensive tune reach #12 in early 1993. Warner Brothers didn’t release Dunn’s version as a single.

Dunn’s usual co-writers Waters and Shapiro helped her write a few other tunes for the project. “Let Go” is somewhat light, with an engaging drumbeat and muscular electric guitar heard throughout. Steel and synth ballad “I’ve Heard It All” is a revelation, with Dunn playing the part of a jilted lover done with excuses. “You Can Have Him,” marks similar territory and is the best of three, with an engaging beat, and polish that had it ripe to be a single.

Shapiro teamed up with Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones to write “I Laughed Until I Cried,” a fabulous break-up power ballad with one of Dunn’s most emotion filled vocals on the whole album. Craig Wiseman co-wrote “If Your Heart Can’t Do The Talking” with Lynn Langham. The steel and dobro infused mid-tempo number is excellent and wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Yearwood’s early albums. Wally Wilson and Mike Henderson composed “Half A Million Teardrops,” another mid-tempo number and one more example of the excellent recordings found on Getting It Dunn. Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp’s “A Simple I Love You” rounds out the album, and Dunn provides the project’s standout vocal. I love the steel on this, too, although the rest of the production is a touch heavy-handed.

Holly Dunn will always be a quandary to me. Her vocal and songwriting abilities are outstanding, but the production on her records was always lacking in that little bit of extra polish that would’ve sent her over the top to the leagues of say a Trisha Yearwood or a Kathy Mattea. But that isn’t to suggest her music was lacking in any particular way to be less than excellent, it just wasn’t always embraceable by country radio and their standards at the time. But, thankfully, commercial prospects aren’t everything, and Getting It Dunn is another glorious addition to her already wonderful discography.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001′s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

Grade: B

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Thunder & Roses’

35224855The most significant musical moment of Pam Tillis’ 2001 Thunder & Roses is “Waiting In The Wind,” which marks the first time in the span of six studio albums that she properly duets with her father Mel. The track, about a dad’s reaction to his daughter leaving the nest, conveys the emotion perfectly, but is bogged down by a poppish string section and phrases like ‘rise to every challenge’ and ‘catch your dreams’ that are generic and overwrought.

With Thunder & Roses Tillis also returns to the multi-producer format and forgoes a producing credit of her own for the first time since Homeward Looking Angel. The production change stems from the disappointing commercial success of Every Time, which yielded one top 15 hit in two singles. The move towards a more mainstream sound didn’t reverse Tillis’ dwindling relationship with country radio, but she gained her final chart hit in the leadoff single.

“Please,” written by John Hobbs, Michael Dulaney, and Jeffery Steele tells the story of an anxious single mother getting ready for a date hoping he’ll “be the dad, the friend, the man” and cherish her for “who I am.” Tillis, a twice married single mother herself, brings her own life experiences to her brilliant vocal, half talking, half singing at just the right moments to perfectly articulate the woman’s own doubts and fears. The title track, a pop/country confection, was the first single of Tillis’ career that failed to chart.

The album itself leans in a more mainstream direction, forgoing the fiddle, steel, and dobro flourishes that peppered Tillis’ music until this point. The move is an answer to the trends that were popular at country radio in the early 2000s, but the pandering didn’t reignite Tillis’ career. At the time I’d chalked it up to behavior – Tillis seemed to be acting kind of weird (I remember when she presented Brooks & Dunn with a Vocal Duo CMA award as though the other four acts in the category didn’t exist) and the music followed suit.

Songs like “Space” and “Be A Man” just don’t fit Tillis’ musical persona. She almost seems uncomfortable vocally, with breathy phrasing that go against the way she usually sings. There’s nothing innately wrong with “I Smile” lyrically, but the in-your-face production swallows any attempts at subtly in Tillis’ voice. Same goes for “If I Didn’t Love You,” which is bombast turned up to eleven. Brett James and Troy Verges’ “Tryin’” is a lot better, but I could do without the unnecessary background singers that clutter up the track with unnecessary noise.

The album isn’t a dud by any means as Tillis thankfully saves the day with some quality tracks thrown in to balance out the more sonically progressive numbers. Though the song would’ve been stellar with a far more traditional arrangement, “It Isn’t Just Raining” works because of Tillis’ confident voice throughout. Even better is “Which Five Years,” a Craig Wiseman and Lisa Drew composition about a woman’s insecurities towards growing older in which she wonders “So which five years would I lose/Which lessons would I choose to have to learn again/I wonder/Just to seem a little younger?” I also adore Stephanie Bentley and Chris Lindsey’s “Jagged Hearts,” a wonderful torch ballad and Tillis’ shinning moment.

Thunder & Roses is Tillis’ Strong Heart – an attempt at going mainstream that lessens the traditional strings, but doesn’t completely forgo the artist’s ability at picking some truly great songs. So I can forgive Tillis for pandering to radio since she didn’t loose her identity in the process. Thunder & Roses may be her most uneven effort to date, but I’ve certainly heard a lot worse (and far more desperate) attempts at fitting in with the cool kids.

Grade: B

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘All of This Love’

PamTillisAllofThisLoveIn the wake of the success of Sweetheart’s Dance – a platinum selling album that nabbed her the coveted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1994 – Pam Tillis decided to produce the follow-up record by herself, and became the first woman on a major label to do so. The stakes were high when All of This Love hit with a bang in November 1995.

The main reason I enjoy the women of 90s country so much is their dedication to their music. Most were often too smart for mainstream radio, thus enjoying relatively short commercial careers while reaping the rewards artistically. Tillis is one of these artists and she proved it with All of This Love, an album that had little to do with the bouncy sound of its predecessor. Instead the project was somber, moody, and alienated the casual fans that loved hits like “Mi Via Loca.”

Well, it was their loss because All of This Love produced some brilliant singles. “Deep Down,” a mournful fiddle drenched tune, peaked at #6. The song is the rare record where the juxtaposition of mournful lyric and upbeat melody comes together to create magic. Tillis co-wrote another tour de force, “It’s Lonely Out There,” with her now ex-husband Bob DiPiero. It’s a ferocious lyric, with a woman letting her man go, only to warn him “Go on and get your share/But believe me baby/It’s lonely out there.” The song may’ve only hit #16, but of all her singles, it’s left the biggest impression on me. One of my all-time favorite songs from the moment I first heard it all those years ago.

In between them, Tillis sent the album’s centerpiece to #8. “The River and the Highway,” written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz, is a poetic masterwork about two people trying to find comfort in each other. That Tillis could get such a left of center ballad into the top 10 speaks to her strong relationship with country radio at the time.

She wasn’t so fortunate on the final single, which became her first for Arista to miss the top 40. Despite or may be even in spite of its innate stupidity, I’ve always liked “Betty’s Got A Bass Boat.” The lyric is generic and the production has aged horribly, but the Bernie Nelson and Craig Wiseman-penned tune got me to purchase this album in the first place. Much like Julie Roberts’ misguided cover of Saving Jane’s “Girl Next Door,” it’s Tillis’ attempt at scoring a big hit with ripe radio fodder. In both cases the experiment failed, proving that trying to fit in just isn’t worth the embarrassing effort.

Tillis is much better when she’s not being guided by radio, and she proves it with a stellar cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain,” which features Marty Stuart playing the bluegrass staple. The collaboration is a gorgeous marriage of my favorite musical instrument and Tillis’ otherwordly voice. She’s similarly excellent on the mandolin, fiddle, and steel guitar soaked country shuffle title track, a Chapin Hartford song about a woman saving all her love for the man she has yet to meet. “Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” is an underappreciated Kim Richey number about budding love that’s as effervescent and sunny as the vivacious fiddle throughout suggests.

It’s easy to compare All of This Love with its predecessor, given all eyes were on Tillis (a budding superstar) at the time of its release. Most will refer to it as a lesser album given how it isn’t as radio friendly nor as appealing for casual fans (the songs could be looked at as not being ‘instantly catchy’ enough) but it’s certainly just as good but in many ways better than Sweetheart’s Dance. This is where Tillis came into her own as a powerhouse selector of material and while the two albums that followed weren’t nearly as strong, she’s bounced back in the last decade.

Grade: A

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Extremes’

extremesMainstay John Hobbs was joined by Ed Seay and Paul Worley to produce Collin’s third album, extremes. There was a concerted effort to expand Collin’s range with more rocking material, an artistic mistake in my opinion, but it was rewarded with commercial success, with five top 10 hits and platinum sales.

Collin screams out the first single, Lee Roy Parnell’s ‘That’s My Story’, a husband’s attempts to brazen out blatant lies to his wife. The amusing tale would have worked well for Parnell (and the arrangement and production are very much in his style, but it really doesn’t suit Collin’s voice, even though it was a #6 hit for him. The album’s only chart-topper, the fourth single, ‘My Kind of Girl’ is also a screamer, but a lyrically boring one.

Happily, the album also contains some beautiful ballads more in Collin’s style. Although it peaked just short of the top slot on the charts, ‘Little Rock’ may be the most important song ever recorded by Collin Raye, with its abashed, clear sighted depiction of a recovering alcoholic doing his best to cope with the loss of his wife as well as maintaining his sobriety. Written by Tom Douglas, perhaps it could do without the swelling strings, although the song’s strength is undiminished.

My favorite track is the melancholy lost love ‘Man Of My Word’, which peaked at #8. Written by Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr, it is a beautiful song in which the protagonist’s fidelity outlasts her loss (perhaps her death), gently paced and set to a lovely melody, with a subtle interpretation by Raye.

I’ll go to my grave with this torch held high
But just once I wish I’d told you a lie

When I said my love would last for all time
And no one would take your place
Well, if that promise was the last sound you heard
Well, you know I kept it
I’m a man of my word

The final single, #4 hit ‘If I Were You’ is a big ballad written by Hobbs with Chris Farren with a heavily strung arrangement. It’s quite prettily done, but not very memorable.

The best of the up-tempos is the fast story song ‘To The Border And Beyond’, which Collin wrote. Some wildly sawing fiddle backs up a frenetic vocal as Collin spits out the story of the outlaw Dugan. ‘Nothin’ A Little Love Won’t Cure’ is another rocker, and is an okay song written by the curious partnership of Rick Bowles, Don Cook and Larry Boone.

Written by Craig Wiseman and James Dean Hicks, the warm-hearted tale of a mother’s farewell gift of ‘A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home’ to a teenager leaving home with Nashville dreams, is tenderly sung and a definite highlight.

A cover of the classic ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ sounds very pretty, while ‘Angel Of No Mercy’ is another love song with a lovely melody, both ideally suited to Collin’s voice.

Despite some missteps Extremes is still a worthwhile purchase, especially as it can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘No More Looking Over My Shoulder’

TNomorelookingovermyshoulderravis Tritt changed producers once again, replacing Don Was with Billy Joe Walker, Jr for 1998’s No More Looking Over My Shoulder. His sixth studio album, it was his least successful release to date spawning three singles that didn’t peak any higher than #29 on the charts.

The #29 peaking single was the first, “If I Lost You,” which Tritt co-wrote with Stewart Harris. The beautiful piano led ballad is a charming story about a man’s undying love for a woman and his feelings if he should loose this person. The record is near perfection; from the tasteful production to Tritt’s sensitive vocal. Even the video was excellent as it served as the conclusion to his Mac Singleton trilogy, a fitting tribute to the five year old daughter Mac shares with now deceased wife Annie.

I also thoroughly enjoy the Craig Wiseman and Michael Peterson penned title track, which served as the second single, peaking at #38. An excellent sing-a-long mid-tempo rocker, the song has an engaging energy and I love the acoustic guitar riffs throughout.

Unlike the majority of Tritt’s rockin’ anthems, third and final single “Start The Car” doesn’t have many overly dated elements within the production track, and Tritt adds a strong, confident vocal performance to the mix. The rock elements don’t bother me either at all but the whole thing comes off very underwhelming thanks to Jude Cole’s inability to add anything memorable to the lyrics. It’s the type of song you forget the second you’ve heard it, which likely accounts for its poor chart performance (it peaked at #52).

The rest of the project isn’t as bland as I was expecting, but as a whole the album doesn’t really get off the ground. There just isn’t that standout track needed to raise the album above just okay. It’s solid, but nothing really special.

The best album cut is probably the weakest lyric, saved only by the production, which feels heavy influenced by Patty Loveless’ seminal When Fallen Angles Fly. “Girls Like That” boasts a nice, rollicking dobro that recalls “Half Way Down” and “Handful of Dust.” It’s too bad the lyric is beyond inane, as Tritt could’ve had a showstopper here. You’d think he and co-writer Bruce Ray Brown could’ve tried to put in some effort, and not resorted to a three-minute list of attributes talking about “Girls Like That.”

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EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Honky Tonk Boots’

Released in June 2006, Honky Tonk Boots reunited Sammy Kershaw with Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, the duo who had produced his early albums for Mercury. But instead of being a back to basics project, the album unfortunately stands as an example of how artists past their commercial peak — particularly those who tend not to write their own material — have difficulty accessing quality songs. Honky Tonk Boots has its good moments but it relies too heavily on novelty songs and second-rate material.

Things get off to a rocky start with the opening track and lead single “Tennessee Girl”, in which Sammy is at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get vanity license plates in order to impress his latest love interest. It’s a fluffy number with repetitious lyrics, clearly not meant to be taken too seriously. It would probably be nitpicking to point out that “Tennessee Girl” is too long to fit on a license plate. The Bob DiPiero and Craig Wiseman tune was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #43.

I like the title track a little better (but just a little). It’s another beat-driven boot-scootin’ boogie style song with lightweight lyrics and sounds like a throwback to the line-dancing craze of the 90s. Things pick up considerably with the third track “One Step At A Time”, which while not quite in the same league as “Yard Sale”, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” or “Politics, Religion and Her”, is the best song on the album.

Among the better tracks on the album are two faithful-to-the-original cover songs, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” and “The Battle”. The former had been a #1 hit for Mel McDaniel in 1985. Sammy’s version was released as a single but did not chart. The latter had been an under-performing single for George Jones in 1976, peaking at #16. Jones is the singer to which Kershaw is most frequently compared and the influence is apparent here, but good though Sammy’s performance is, even he can’t out-possum the Possum.

The remainder of the album is dominated by either filler or silly novelty tunes such as “Mama’s Got a Tattoo”, which attempts to use humor to stir up feelings of patriotism, and “Cantaloupes on Mars”, which is a series of “when hell freezes over” type cliches about the end of a relationship.

His only release for the independent Category 5 label, Honky Tonk Boots is decidedly a mixed bag. It does have its moments but is badly marred by inferior material. It’s not a terrible album, but it is definitely not essential listening. Inexpensive copies are easy to find should you decide to seek it out.

Grade: B-

Album Review: ‘Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors’

Nearly a decade into his recording career, Tim McGraw broke with the usual Music City practice of using studio musicians for his eighth album. Instead, he opted to get of town and took his road band to a studio in upstate New York where Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors was created. On the relatively rare occasions when country artists do use their road bands in the studio, it usually results in a reasonable replication of how the artist and musicians sound in concert. In this case, however, the production on most tracks is very layered and wall-of-sound-like, making it difficult to assess the actual contributions of the Dancehall Doctors. There’s nothing really distinctive about their sound or style of playing, so I’m not really sure what the purpose of using them was, except as a marketing tool or perhaps a vanity indulgence on Tim’s part.

Tim and co–producers Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith use the album as an occasion to branch out a bit stylistically, opting for a more soft-rock or AC rather than country sound for the most part, a move that I suspect was prompted by the tremendous success his wife Faith Hill was having on the pop charts at the time. While he deserves credit for his willingness to try something different, the experiment largely falls flat and serves to highlight his shortcomings as a vocalist, rather than present him as a versatile artist. To be fair, this isn’t a 100% pop album, as Tim does make a number of concessions to his country fans.

The first single to be sent to radio was one of the more country-sounding numbers, “Red Rag Top”, a song that I have never been able to enjoy partially because because I find the subject matter to be repugnant, but mostly because of the dismissive attitude of the narrator in the aftermath of the termination of his girlfriend’s unwanted pregnancy. It was a gutsy move to release a song about abortion to conservative country radio. I don’t recall much of a backlash at the time, but enough stations refused to play it that it broke McGraw’s string of consecutive #1 hits. Still, it peaked at a very respectable #5.
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Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Set This Circus Down’

Our first taste of Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album came when he sang “Things Change” at the CMA Awards in 2000. A poignant tale, the song dealt with changing attitudes over time within the music industry. While it wasn’t an official single, the song ended up charting via unsolicited airplay peaking at #31.

“Things Change” resonated with fans and spoke candidly about the growing frustration between traditional country and pop country:

Now some say it’s too country

Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll

But it’s just good music

If you can feel it in your soul

And it doesn’t really matter

It’s always been the same

Life goes on, Things Change

I always thought McGraw was singing that verse about the controversy surrounding his wife Faith Hill’s more pop-heavy Breathe album. There was a growing dissatisfaction with her attempts to reach a wider audience and many who felt she was leaving country music.  Nonetheless I love the song and the pop/rock heavy production for being a little slice of commentary without coming off too bitter or preachy.

The first official single, “Grown Men Don’t Cry” was released in March 2001 and topped the chart in June.  A moody piano ballad, it stuck me the first time I heard it as it marked a distinct departure for McGraw – his first real foray into pop ballad territory. It took a while for me to warm up to since I wasn’t used to this kind of song from him, but Tom Douglas and Steve Seskin pinned one of the finest singles of McGraw’s career. I also thought the twist in the title (grown men really do cry) was very clever.

A cover of Bruce Robinson’s “Angry All The Time,” a song he originally recorded with his wife Kelly Willis on his Wrapped album in 1998, followed. This tale of a crumbling marriage marked another step in McGraw’s evolution as an artist and the background vocals from Hill only add more nuance to the track. The song works on every level – Robinson has crafted a brilliant lyric that allows listeners to feel the pain of a strained union and Bryon Gallimore brought it over the top with the tasteful acoustic production. Another number one, it topped the charts in November 2001.

Third single, “The Cowboy In Me” would continue McGraw’s hot streak on the charts, hitting number one in March 2002. The song opened the album with soft acoustic guitar riffs over steel guitar and fiddle before morphing into a rock ballad on the chorus. The change in production did cause McGraw to shout on the chorus, but it was the opening verses that resonated with me most clearly. I’ve always felt like Al Anderson, Craig Wiseman, and Jeffery Steele were writing my story:

I don’t know why I act the way I do

Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

I got a life that most would love to have

But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad

At where this road I’m heading down might lead

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

McGraw would see the top of the charts again when fourth and final single “Unbroken” hit number one in September 2002. Easily the most forgotten single from this album, it paled in comparison both lyrically and sonically to the ones that proceeded it. But that wasn’t for lack of trying, as “Unbroken” was perfect radio fodder and catchy enough to stick in your head, at least during its chart run.

Set This Circus Down is widely considered the strongest album of McGraw’s career and it’s easy to see why. In a rare feat, all of the singles topped the charts. But what sets it apart from his previous work is the stellar album cuts. Continuing the trend from A Place In The Sun, he left out disposable filler and found some truly stellar songs.

The rock heavy “Angel Boy,” written by Danny Orton, was given the music video treatment although it wasn’t a single. A story about a man who had dealings with the devil, it was always a favorite track of mine, despite the heavy production and somewhat muddy vocal. It was something cool and different and stuck out to me because of that.

My other favorite songs are the Spanish influenced “Let Me Love You,” which McGraw sang with Hill during the Soul 2 Soul tour in 2000, and the journeyman’s anthem “Telluride.” Both are lyrically strong and could’ve easily been radio singles. The latter was indeed a single, for Josh Gracin, and peaked at #34 in 2008. Another highlight is the steel guitar heavy “When You Get Used To Somebody” which shows off a more traditional country sounding McGraw and the title track, a fiddle-laced country rocker.

Overall, Set This Circus Down is another highpoint from McGraw and my second favorite album of his career. It was nice to see, in 2001, he was finally making albums and not just singles. This is another strong set and if you don’t have it, it’s easily found on Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Everywhere’

By the time Everywhere saw the light of day in June 1997, Tim McGraw was an established hit maker but not a superstar. His music was mostly cast aside as nothing more than novelty and he had yet to prove he was more than just another 90s hat act. That all would change here as Everywhere would go on to sell four million copies and win McGraw the respect of the industry. He was finally a force to be reckoned with at both country radio and on the road.

Lead single “It’s Your Love,” a massively successful duet with his wife Faith Hill, would take on a life of its own spending six weeks at #1 and winning boatloads of awards from the ACMs and CMAs. It would also be named Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1997.

The romantic ballad, pinned by Stephony Smith, worked because the chemistry between McGraw and Hill was enough to sell the song. The nicely restrained arrangement, complete with the light acoustic guitar and organ flourishes, is also a stunning moment for commercial country in those days.

The title track would follow also peaking at #1. While not as massive a hit, “Everywhere” was even more important – it proved McGraw could sell subtlety and emotional depth through further developing the promise he showed with “Can’t Be Really Gone.” Written by Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman, “Everywhere” is easily my favorite song on the whole album and sounds as fresh today as it did back then.

I love the story here – a man’s regretting the end of a relationship and sees his ex wherever he goes – and the brilliance of the songwriting. Reid and Wiseman spend much of the song focused on the man’s travels, but smartly take a second to ground his journey with the line:

Cause you and I made our choices

All those years ago

Still I know I’ll hear your voice

And see you down the road

I can’t even begin to imagine how poorly “Everywhere” would be written by today’s standards (especially by the Peach Pickers). In conjunction with the lyrics, the soaring arrangement complete with fiddle, steel guitar, and gorgeous acoustic guitars nicely compliment the vastness of the many places this man has been.

The third single, the irresistibly catchy “Just To See You Smile” would match the success of “It’s Your Love” by spending six weeks at #1 and becoming Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1998. The banjo driven arrangement complete with pedal steel and acoustic guitar make it one of those sunny songs you have to turn up when it comes on the radio. I love this one as well and can’t believe how good it sounds all these years later.

Fourth Single “One Of These Days” may be the best ballad of McGraw’s career. Written by Marcus Hummond, Monty Powell, and Kip Raines, it would peak at #2 in the spring of 1998. I always regarded it as a love song until writing this review – I never saw the whole picture (a man’s journey towards self-forgiveness for bullying a boy who “was different/he wasn’t cool like me”) until listening to it again this week. It’s a stunning lyric and just may be the best thing McGraw has ever recorded, let alone his best ballad.

Following the “One of These Days” juggernaut was another McGraw standard and multi-week #1 “Where The Green Grass Grows.” Written by Jess Leary and Craig Wiseman, it may be the most lyrically dumb of any of the singles from Everywhere but the fiddle and drum heavy melody are so infectious, you cannot help but sing along.

But “Where The Green Grass Grows” is actually more insightful than meets the eye. A entry into the “couturier than thou” linage, it succeeds by taking the protagonist back to small town living without hitting us over the head with grass is better than concrete imagery. His move out of city life finds him naturally following his heart.

The sixth and final single, “For A Little While” would peak at #2 in spring 1999. Composed by Steve Mandie and Jerry Vandiver along with country singer Phil Vassar, it was a simple love song about a romance not able to last more than a few months:

And I laugh every time I start to think about us

We sent that summer out in style

And she’s gone but she let me with a smile

‘Cause she was mine for a little while

She wasn’t one to be tied down – which he wasn’t looking for anyway – but he’ll always have the memories of their times together. The execution is flawless here; the fiddle, drum, and piano laced production work perfectly to frame the love story contained within.

Of the non-singles on the album, the majority are typical album filler you would’ve expected to populate a country album in the late-90s. There isn’t much there to grasp onto except for “I Do But I Don’t” written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, the team behind “Just To See You Smile.” The fiddle and steel guitar laced ballad is quite strong and wouldn’t have been out of place on Mark Wills’ Wish You Were Here album.

Taking another listen, it’s easy to see why Everywhere won the 1998 CMA Album of the Year award and put McGraw’s career into overdrive. The singles are some of the strongest of his career to date with not a bad one in the bunch.

I have very found memories of this project as well. Each of these songs displays a little piece of my third and fourth grade childhood. So listening to them again brings back fond memories of those years. And it’s also nice to see how well the songs have held up after fifteen years time, even if they display how sharply commercial country music has declined since.

If you don’t have a copy they can be easily found on both iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Full Circle’

This Is Me, the follow-up to Wind In the Wire, revived Randy’s career after that side-project, with four top 10 hits including the chart-topping ‘Whisper My Name’. Surprisingly, though, his next album was a commercial disappointment, with none of the singles doing at all well. Released in August 1996, Full Circle was produced as usual by Kyle Lehning, but the sound is a little fuller than on their previous work together. Randy’s resonant baritone is at its best, and the material is generally high quality.

The first two singles, ‘Are We In Trouble Now’ and ‘Would I’ both faltered in the 20s. The former is a well-written ballad about falling in love which was rather surprisingly written by British rock guitarist Mark Knopfler. (Knofler has had a longstanding interest in country music, and has recorded albums with Emmylou Harris and Chet Atkins.) Randy gives it a sensitive, tender delivery worthy of a much bigger hit. The up-tempo ‘Would I’, on the other hand, is pleasant but forgettable, and frankly makes me think of the songs criticised in Alan Jackson’s ‘Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song’ from a few years later.

‘If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another’ is a much more entertaining, personality-infused up-tempo number, co-written by Joe Stampley (best known for his Moe & Joe duets with Moe Bandy), and not picking this as a single feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. It could have made the basis of an amusing video too.

The excellent ‘Price To Pay’ (written by Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman) was perhaps just a little too downbeat to succeed in a period when pop influences were once more gaining ground on country radio. A cheating song, the remorseful protagonist regrets having ever let it start, when it would have been so much easier to call a halt:

Your heart wasn’t mine to take
Mine wasn’t mine to give
And love wasn’t ours to say
I shoulda let you go when I could
When the memories weren’t so many or so good
And one night was such a small price to pay

It barely charted despite being the best of the three singles, and that signalled the end of Randy’s time with Warner Brothers, at least for a while.

The atmospheric opener ‘Highway Junkie’, written by blue-collar singer-songwriter Chris Knight with Sam and Annie Tate, sets the portrait of a trucker using his focus on life on the road to get over heartbreak against a muscular beat. The song namechecks Roger Miller and his classic ‘King Of The Road’, and quite fittingly later in the record there is a loping cover of that very song, which also appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Traveller.

Another very good song is ‘Long On Lonely (Short On Pride)’, written by venerable songwriting team of Bob McDill, Dickey Lee, and Bucky Jones. The weary protagonist appeals to his former lover:

I won’t say I love you, don’t know if it’s true
I will say I need you, God knows I do

Randy revived an old song he had written (with John Lindley) and recorded back in the Randy Ray days, ‘The Future Mister Me’. This mournful response to a failed relationship was well worth revisiting, and is quite beautifully sung by a defeated sounding narrator, who has obviously caused his share of problems for his ex wife but is now wishing her luck with her new man. He also wrote two more songs for the album. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ (written with Ron Avis, the driver of Randy’s tour bus) is excellent. In this intense ballad, the protagonist is desperate for his chance-met ex not to see him crying at the sight of her with her new love. The tender love song ‘I Can Almost Hear Her Wings’ was written with Buck Moore and Eddie Lee, and is lovely.

The beaty ‘Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me’ is enjoyable enough, but lacks much of a melody and is one of the weaker moments. The album closes with the philosophical and relaxed sounding ‘Ants On A Log’, written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees.

Full Circle is easy to find cheap. Although it was not a commercial success for Randy, it is underrated and worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘The Reason’

Country music has always happily mixed the sacred with the secular, and country musicians have often included religious songs on their records, or released fully fledged Christian albums. With their secular country career floundering in the new millennium and having lost their deal with Arista, Diamond Rio moved to Christian label Word. Although they had previously recorded some religious material in their own style, rather than making a Christian country record for Word, they chose instead to follow the template of Christian radio with 2009’s The Reason. The end result is far from satisfactory, and deeply disappointing.

It is, in fact, extremely disappointing musically, with the band’s trademark harmonies replaced by anonymous praise and worship band unison singing buried some way back in the mix, although lead singer Marty Roe is in good voice and sounds invested in the material. The band’s sparkling instrumental playing is also absent, sounding flat and generic, while the songs themselves are all rather the same.

Band members did at least contribute to the album by co-writing most of the material assisted by some names which are unfamiliar to me but who are, I presume, Contemporary Christian songwriters. Marty Roe and Jimmy Olander co-wrote six of the songs with their new friends. The single ‘God Is There’ is a little over-dramatic, and the production is heavy-handed and has too much echo. When I originally heard this I was very disappointed with their new direction; but it is, sadly, actually one of the better tracks, as Marty tells us God is present even in the hardest moments of life.

The title track has a nice low-key piano intro, passionate lyric about a penitent sinner who has turned to God, and a heartfelt lead vocal from Roe, but by the chorus it develops into something more like a church modern praise song. The very pop-oriented and over-produced ‘This Is My Life’ (the second single) is almost unlistenable thanks to the technological production tricks. ‘Wherever I Am’ and ‘Into Your Hands’ are decent songs of their kind with likeable vocal performances from Roe, but, once more, the overall mix is far too heavily processed, especially on the latter. ‘Just Love’ is even less listenable.

‘Moments Of Heaven On Earth’ (written by the band’s piano/keyboard player Dan Truman with Don Pfrimmer) is a pleasant pop song about marital love with a bit of religion tacked on in the second verse. Bassist Dana Williams co-wrote the idealistic ‘What Are We Gonna Do Now’, which is not bad.

Worship song ‘Reaching For Me’ is boring, but the other outside songs are better. ‘My God Does’, written by Sarah Buxton, Craig Wiseman and Bob DiPiero, is the only track to sound anything the band’s earlier work, and, while not their best work, is pretty good, and the most listenable track here. ‘In God We Still Trust’ (written by Bud Lee and Bill and Kim Nash) adds a little patriotism by affirming the US to be a Christian nation at heart. They had previously recorded this on their Greatest Hits Vol 2.

Bizarrely, this fundamentally misjudged project, won the band their first ever Grammy (for Best Southern Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album, although I certainly can’t detect much country or bluegrass). If you love the quintessential sound of Diamond Rio, you’ll barely recognize them here, with everything that made the group’s music distinctive missing.

Grade: D

If you’re still interested, used copies are available exceptionally cheaply for such a recent release.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood: – ‘The Song Remembers When’

The abundance of talent, especially on the female side of the genre, in the early 1990s made it easy to forget an artist quickly. By the time Trisha Yearwood released her third album in late 1993, she had already made her mark as an everywoman singer with her still-signature debut single, and also as once-in-a-lifetime vocalist. Like its predecessor, The Song Remembers When was a collection of mostly melancholy tales of love lost and heartbreak. The album was also a marvelous showcase for Yearwood’s skills as a selector of songs well-tailored for her voice. She may not write very many songs – commenter Bob pointed to 4 in her ASCAP catalog – but she’s certainly one of the best there is at wringing out the emotion in others’ tunes.

Leading off the album is Hugh Prestwood’s stunning ‘The Song Remembers When’, which served as the title track and lead single. Standing at a store counter, the singer is immediately propelled back into a supposedly forgotten memory of a love long gone. With remarkable detail, she tells of the time they spent together before concluding that ‘that’s just a lot of water underneath a bridge I burned/And there’s no use in backtracking around corners I have turned’, and the subtle fierceness in her voice at that point lets you know she was serious about letting go, and this was the kind of memory only a song can set in motion. Sailing into the top 10 to a #2 peak, it remains of the best country singles of the 1990s.

Perhaps trying to recapture the success of ‘Wrong Side of Memphis’, the bluesy-rocker ‘Better Your Heart Than Mine’ changed the pace as the second single.  A little too edgy for country radio to embrace, it stalled at #21 on the charts, and no other singles were released from the album.  The strength of the title track, and Yearwood’s continuing career momentum, allowed the album to debut at its #6 peak on the Country Albums chart, and it quickly went gold and then platinum.

The Song Remembers When is also a showcase for some of the best writers Nashville has ever known as songs by Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Matraca Berg, Craig Wiseman, and others appear here. Rodney Crowell contributes harmony to his own composition ‘I Don’t Fall In Love So Easy’, which is given the same bluesy treatment with a walking bass-line that Rodney later used on his 1994 recording, and he also got Trisha to sing harmony on his own recording. Willie Nelson had recorded ‘One In A Row’ in 1965 and though he doesn’t sing here, he can be heard playing guitar on Trisha’s sublte take on this biting lyric.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Twice Upon A Time’

Though he did release a handful of great ballads to country radio, some of which became bonafide hits, Joe Diffie was always more successful with fun, up-tempo numbers.  By the latter half of the 90s – nearly a decade into his hit-making career – country radio had begun to cool toward even Joe’s brand of humor meets neotraditional sound.  Like the last 2 singles from Life’s So Funny, the single releases from Twice Upon A Time continued Joe’s downward spiral from the limelight at country radio. There are no top-ten hits here, and the highest showing comes from the insidious ‘This Is Your Brain’s #25 peak.  Without much support from radio, it was also Joe Diffie’s first album since his debut not to be certified by the RIAA.  Its lack of radio and retail success notwithstanding, Twice Upon A Time doesn’t deserve its status as the end-note for Joe’s short-lived glory days, and is a step above some of his other, more commercially successful albums.

‘This Is Your Brain’ is a fast-paced, partly spoken, mostly amped up romp narrated by, you guessed it, your brain. Taking the hook from the pop-culture favorite drug resistance ads ‘this is your brain on drugs’ that featured an egg sizzling in a frying pan, among other scenarios, the brain is cautioning this guy about his lack of resistance for the opposite sex. Even with repeated warnings from the body’s control center, he still falls in love and loses more than a few I.Q. points every time. The Kelly Garrett and Craig Wiseman-penned tune has its clever moments, but it’s earworm melody will cool you on those before long.

My favorite on the album, and another missed single opportunity for Joe, was the album’s superb title track. Songwriters Skip Ewing and Kim Williams paint a picture of a couple at a crossroads. Tough times have clouded both their minds with doubt, and the idea of leaving has occurred to both of them, ‘The choice is ours, the pen’s still in our hands/We can right the wrong, or we can write the end‘, Joe sings with heartbroken conviction.

‘The Promised Land’ finds a man nostalgic for the place where his roots began. The strong religious undertones between the real-life memories should have played nicely on late 90s country radio (think: ‘Holes In The Floor of Heaven’), but as the final single it barely registered at #61 on the charts.

‘Show Me A Woman’ chugs along at breakneck speed, but doesn’t offer much more than the opportunity to jam with the band. Likewise, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’ features guitar solos that would make Brad Paisley envious, but is basically the product of a buzz-word mentality, taking the catch-phrase from the Apollo movies and attempting to build a song around it.

Joe contributed only one of his own songs this time out – a co-write with frequent collaborator Lonnie Wilson, ‘I Got A Feelin’, which was was first recorded by Tracy Lawrence  - though he did draw from the usual suspects found on his previous albums.  In addition to the title track, Craig Wiseman contributes the Bob DiPiero collaboration ‘Zero’, a much better song in the novelty format, wherein a man is counting down reasons, rights, and wrongs that lead to him being single, all to an infectious melody.  Dennis Linde’s ‘Call Me John Doe’ is a honky-tonking tale of a man who did his woman wrong one too many times.  Now he’s shivering in her freezer. Better than just album filler, any of these would were worth sending out to radio, some more than what was shipped to radio.

‘One More Breath’, written by Leslie Satcher, closes the set on a high note.  The mostly-piano lead ballad is a tender expression of gratitude coupled with a promise of never-ending devotion.  Perhaps a bit saccharine at times, it’s a well-written song that Joe delivers beautifully.  Though Joe continued to fill his albums with more schtick than substantial songs, Twice Upon A Time is an album that is more balanced between the two sides of Joe Diffie – the balladeer and the novelty-song singer – but it also offers other glimpses to a more contemporary artist with tracks like ‘Zero’ and the album closer.

Grade: B-

Twice Upon A Time is still widely available, on CD and digitally from amazon.

When is a singer-songwriter not really a singer-songwriter?

These days we often see singers signed to a major label getting credit on a high proportion of songs they record, usually credited alongside one or more full-time songwriters. While some of these are no doubt genuine contributions, it appears that in some cases the artist’s contribution is minimal.

In a fascinating recent article (linked to on Wednesday by the 9513) on the decline of solo-written songs in Nashville, the songwriter Craig Wiseman is quoted saying:

“There are a lot of artists co-writing now with professional writers, and in some ways I applaud that. Sometimes, though, the motivations aren’t quite so pristine. As the business has been decimated, money and how to get money has permeated every aspect of it. Most of the time — not all of the time — when you have three people or more in a room, one of them is an artist who is there to ensure the cut.”

Peter Cooper, author of the article in question, goes on to say,

There are times in Nashville when an artist sits in such a room, says, “I had a bad date last week” or “I get sad when it rains,” and then watches as the two professionals do the bulk of the work on a song that will, when released, be credited to all three.

I am sure this pernicious practice does not apply to all artists who write, and I am cautious about casting suspicion publicly on named individuals for the reasons stated above. It is certainly not new for songs’ true authorship to be concealed. In the 50s it was not uncommon for songs to be bought and sold outright. The unscrupulous publisher and label boss Bill McCall got his name (or, rather, that of a pseudonym) on a number of the songs he published – and then made his artists record them. As we saw during our coverage of Patsy Cline in January, that could be damaging to an artist’s career.

Frank Liddell, Miranda Lambert’s producer and Lee Ann Womack’s husband, is quoted in a follow-up piece saying,

I think perhaps the real problem we face today is the quality of the writing abilities of some of the people out there in these co-writes. There have always been politics in this business and there has always been bad music and marginal songwriting. This is nothing really new. But it does seem that there are a lot of great writers out there whose work is being overlooked because they really don’t know how to play the game. I also think a lot of artists are encouraged to write for financial reasons that would be better off recording outside songs.

Meanwhile another recent comment on the same lines came from veteran songwriter Bobby Braddock, noting,

“A lot of times when people co-write, one will often write more than the other”

It would be unfair to name names suspected of coasting on their “co-writers”’ coat tails (and depriving them of their full compensation) simply because if you aren’t there in the room, you don’t know what’s actually gone on. It would be wrong simply to tar all artists with the brush of suspicion, as many do actually turn out to be good songwriters. All those singer who turned to a songwriting career after putting their own dreams of stardom aside, who we looked at last week, obviously had the skills required, and the same must be the case for some of those still successfully performing.

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