My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kyle Lehning

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Fired Up’

One of the signs of an artist in trouble is when someone who has consistently written a fair proportion of his own material suddenly drops it in favor of (often inferior) material from outside. Another is moving to a hot new producer in search of the latest sound. It rarely works, and it didn’t work for Dan Seals in 1994. For Dan’s second and final release for Warner Brothers, he left Kyle Lehning in favor of Jerry Crutchfield and a punchier more contemporary sound which just didn’t suit Dan’s natural style.

The rocked up title track ‘All Fired Up’ was the only single to chart at all, peaking at a miserable #66. Previously recorded by rockabilly throwback Bobby Lee Springfield, who co-wrote it, on his 1987 album of the same title, it’s a bit poppy but quite entertaining with genuine energy, although his voice sounds a little thin. They were clearly trying to recapture the chart success of ‘L.O.A.’, but the very poor ‘Love Thing – boring repetitive lyric, very little melody as well as very pop-orientated production – understandably failed to make any impact at all, and with a whimper rather than a bang, Dan ended his major label career. ‘Call Me Up’ is another forgettable pop number entirely unsuited to Dan’s voice and style, while Jesse Winchester’s ‘Gentleman Of Leisure’ is a badly produced and not very interesting song about wanting to do nothing.

There are two decent ballads up to Dan’s usual standards, which are well worth downloading. ‘A Rose From Another Garden’, written by Joe Doyle and Glen Davies, has a very pretty melody which allows Dan’s voice to soar, allied to a brooding poetic lyric about a man suspicious of his wife’s interests elsewhere as their own love fades:

Is she tending to a rose from another garden
While ours slowly grows dry
Is she tending to a rose from another garden
Letting our love die on the vine

A beautifully subtle vocal is perfect for this song, by far the best on the record.

‘Still Reelin’ (From Those Rock ‘n Roll Days)’ is the only song Dan wrote (with Allen Shamblin), and it’s a fine song, a gently nostalgic look back at youth and memories of being inspired by seeing the young Elvis on television.

The up-tempo ‘Hillbilly Fever’ (written by Joe Doyle and Todd Wilkes) is actually quite good, but in the light of today’s massive overuse of the theme, feels a bit generic about being tired of city life. The quite catchy ‘When’ was written by Robert Ellis Orrall and Gilles Godard, and Ricky Skaggs recorded it the following year on his album Solid Ground.

‘Jayney’ is a pleasant pop-country ballad written by Johnny Nestor, a little more interesting than the frankly dull ‘A Good Place To Be’, a Rory Michael Bourke/Charlie Black ballad about satisfaction with one’s life, without much energy or passion.

It’s still easy to find, but I would recommend digitally cherrypicking the best tracks.

Grade: C

Album Review – Dan Seals – ‘On Arrival’

Released in February 1990, On Arrival was Dan Seals’ final studio album for Capitol Records, his label home since 1985. The album, produced yet again by Kyle Lehning, would extend Seals’ success into the 1990s, although it would be short lived.

The first two singles marked Seals’ final trips to the top of the charts. The title track, a Seals original, preceded the album. A honky-tonk charger, “Love on Arrival” features a committed vocal by Seals, but the drum and guitar centric arrangement hasn’t held up over the years.

More interesting was the second single, a cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit “Good Times.” Lehning frames Seals vocal in a pleasantly uncluttered arrangement, while the sing-a-long nature of the recording recalls vintage Eddie Rabbit. Unfortunately, the horns were dated, even for 1990, and give an unwelcoming campy vibe to the proceedings. But I quite appreciate what Seals was going for here, even though the polish was a bit too shiny.

The third and fourth singles, the Seals and Bob McDill co-write “Bordertown” and Bruce Burch and J.P. McMean’s “Water Under The Bridge” were the first of Seals career not to crack the top 40. The lack of airplay was surprising, seeing as both tunes were comfortably within Seals straightforward acoustic ballad wheelhouse, although neither proved as good, or memorable, as his classic hits in this vein.

The rest of On Arrival sounds like an album typical of its era, with a mixed bag of results. Roger Ferris’ “She Flew The Coupe” is a bloated (and forgettable) honky-tonk thumper, Charlie Black and Rory Michael Bourke’s “A Heart In Search Of Love” is overly sentimental and slightly predictable, while Paul Brady’s “Game Of Love” is too sugary sweet.

Slightly better is “Lonestar,” a Seals and J.D. Souther co-write about a girl who can’t get the affection of her desired man. Seals infuses the track with a wonderful vocal while the soaking of steel guitar keeps the accompaniment rather enjoyable on the ears.

Another good one is “Wood,” a Seals original finding him back in his “Everything That Glitters” vein. The track tells a sweet story about a relationship between a father and son, complete with life lessons:

I left a little taller

wiser, and free

I learned the use of tools

for the carpenter in me

I don’t have all the answers

but one thing I have have found

We are the choices that we make

when the chips are down, wood.

I also enjoy “Made For Lovin’ You” a Curly Putman and Sonny Throckmorton penned tune that went on to be a #6 peaking single for Doug Stone in 1993. Easily the best lyric, vocal, and musical track on the whole project, its hard to understand why the song was never a single for Seals, who easily has the superior version of the song.

Overall, On Arrival finds Seals up to his usual tricks while trying to stay relevant in the changing musical climate of the early 90s. The album is sentimental, marking the end of an era in which Seals topped the charts eleven times and turned out some of the best country music of its time.

On Arrival proves his previous solo singles were near impossible to match let alone top and he had somewhat mixed results in trying to do that here. But even though the results weren’t as consistent as in the past, he still managed to find (and sometimes write) a few great songs.

Grade: B

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rage On’

1988 saw Dan make a sideways move from EMI to its Capitol imprint. Rage On has tasteful Kyle Lehning production and excellent material which combines great melodies with interesting lyrics. Dan was at his commercial and artistic peak, and it continued his hot streak with country radio.

Lead single ‘Addicted’ was Dan’s eighth straight #1 hit. It was written by contemporary folk artist Cheryl Wheeler, but it fits Dan like a glove with its pretty melody and sensitive, insightful lyric. His empathetic vocal is perfect for this bleak third person portrait of a woman who can see her lover is drawing away from her, and her own heart breaking slowly:

She says she feels like she’s addicted to a real bad thing
Always sitting waiting wondering if the phone will ring
She knows she bounces like a yoyo when he pulls her string
It hurts to feel like such a fool
She wants to tell him not to call or come around again
He doesn’t need her at all now the way that she needs him
She’s on the edge about to fall from leaning out and in
And she don’t know which way to move, oh no

She wants to be fair, she couldn’t say
He was ever unkind
But if she could bear to walk away
She thinks he wouldn’t mind

Another fine song, ‘Big Wheels In The Moonlight’ followed it to the top of the charts, and has a much cheerier atmosphere. Set to a lively tune with occasional hand claps, it tells the story of a restless young boy bored with his hometown (“so small, look both ways you could see it all”) and dreaming of a truck driving life. There is an optimistic feel as Dan delivers the song with commitment, and Baillie & the Boys provide backing vocals. It was one of three songs on the album written by the regular partnership of Dan with Bob McDill.

Another McDill collaboration, the title track, ‘They Rage On’, broke Dan’s streak of #1 hits, peaking at #5. With a delicate vocal, Dan sympathetically portrays two sets of desperate lovers – a pair of restless teenagers (“like birds in a cage”) and an older couple having an illicit affair (“she’s lost her youth and he’s lost his dreams”) as they cling on to the one thing that makes them feel alive. The video interpreted the song by showing an interracial couple facing hostility, and perhaps it was this relatively controversial topic (not in the original song) that kept it off the top spot.

The final McDill co-write is one of relatively few country songs to have a New York setting. ‘Long Long Island Nights’ is the portrait a successful model who is just a small town girl at heart, in need of love.

Dan wrote two socially conscious songs alone. In ‘Factory Town’, he tackles a town dependent on one employer which is about to shut, playing the part of one factory worker, bewildered by the situation. ‘Those’ is an idealistic plea to help out one’s neighbours, in both material and emotional ways:

Then the world would be a better place for living
More forgiving every day
If those that have learned how to hold their own
Could help those who are slipping away

Those who have loved and lost everything
Could help those who have never loved at all
Those that are free now, no longer feel the pain,
Could help those who are still behind the wall

John Scott Sherrill’s superb ‘Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons’ is my equal favorite track with ‘Addicted’. The melancholy testament of a man whose childhood home is about to be lost to strip mining, Dan’s version is deeply affecting, channelling sadness rather than the outrage of John Anderson’s more forceful later cut, and he gives it a palpable sense of defeat which interprets the song effectively.

And I said “mMama forgive me but I’m almost glad
That you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody
Who’d actually blow it away”

The addition of a recorder in the instrumental section gives it a wistful old-fashioned air which works rather well.

‘Twenty Four Hour Love’ is a quietly catchy number Dan wrote with Mac MacAnally; a gentle love song from a working man who is not normally good at expressing his emotions. ‘Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice’ was written by K. T. Oslin, and is a solid song with a disillusioned Dan quietly determined to move on. A little more on the pop-country side, ‘A Heartache Just Around The Bend’ was written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball, and while pleasant, is the closest the record comes to filler.

Kimball wrote the downbeat ballad ‘Maybe I’m Missing You Now’ with Blackie Farrell, which has more of an impact. Here Dan ruefully regrets separating from his wife:

We made a promise for better or worse
Well, this is the worse that I’ve been
I’ve run out of reasons to hide anyhow
Maybe I’m missing you now

This is my personal favorite of Dan Seals’ albums, and is well worth adding to your collection. It’s easy to find used, or you could wait until the 2on1 with Dan’s country debut Rebel Heart appears in October.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘On The Front Line’

By the mid-80s, country music had moved decidedly in a more traditional direction, but Dan Seals’ albums continued to follow the same basic template of combining pop and AC-leaning songs with a handful of more traditional fare. It appears that Seals and producer Kyle Lehning were not fixing what wasn’t broken and with little wonder; 1985′s Won’t Be Blue Anymore had reached #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The following year’s On The Front Line didn’t sell quite as well, but it did produce three #1 singles, just as its predecessor had.

Seals had a hand in writing seven of the album’s ten songs, which are mostly ballads and mid-tempo numbers with typical 80s style pop-country production which may have seemed very cutting edge at the time but hasn’t aged very well. This is most evident on the title track (my least favorite in this collection) and “I Will Be There”, which was written by Jennifer Kimball (who had also co-written Seals’ smash it “Bop”) and Tom Snow. “I Will Be There” is a very good song, but I’d really like to hear it without the heavy-handed synthesizer. It was the album’s second #1 hit single, following the ballad “You Still Move Me”, a Seals original composition, to the top of the charts. Though it did not cross over to the adult contemporary charts, “You Still Move Me” sounds like Seals and Lehning might have had a crossover hit in mind when they recorded it. It’s a beautiful song that has held up better than some of the album’s other tracks. Dan also wrote the collection’s third #1 hit, “Three Time Loser”, one of the album’s few uptempo numbers. More rooted in traditional country, it’s my favorite of the album’s three singles.

As far as the album cuts are concerned, there are a number of gems, including “I’m Still Strung Out On You”, a simple traditional number that Dan co-wrote with Wendy Waldman, which seems like it would have been well received by country radio at the time. “Fewer Threads Than These” is a very nice ballad that Holly Dunn would cover the following year, and “Guitar Man Out of Control” is a rockabilly-flavored number that sounds like something that Travis Tritt would have — and should have — recorded. The album ends on a high note with “Lullaby”, written by Seals and Rafe VanHoy, on which Dan is brilliantly paired with Emmylou Harris. Their voices work very well together and it’s a shame that they didn’t collaborate more often.

On The Front Line was Dan Seals’ last album for EMI America before that imprint was folded into the larger Capitol label. CD copies are hard to come by and tend to be expensive; however, it is available for download and is worth a listen despite the sometimes dated-sounding production.

Grade: B

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘San Antone’

Dan’s second country album, released in 1984, saw him move to Liberty, but keep Kyle Lehning as his producer. The material largely comprises gentle, melodic, ballads perfect for his warm vocals. It is perhaps a little one paced, with not a lot of variation in tempo.

There were three top 10 singles, starting with ‘(You Bring Out) The Wild Side Of Me’, one of Dan’s own songs. A charming love song with a pretty tune and steel and fiddle making it one of the more traditional country songs on the album, the only flaw is that Dan’s naturally warm, gentle vocal could do with a bit more aggression to make it a bit less cosy. He’s entirely convincing as the “gentleman” of the first verse, but the passion doesn’t quite convince.

‘My Baby’s Got Good Timing’, the biggest hit, peaked at #2, but while it is a pleasant enough romantic pop-country song which Dan wrote with Bob McDill, the poppy production is now rather dated and it is understandably not well remembered today. Much better is the Thom Schuyler’s affectionate tribute to a beaten up old vehicle, ‘My Old Yellow Car’, which surprisingly only made it to #9. This is one of the best songs ever written about a car; of course that’s partly because it’s not really (or only partially) about the car itself. The car (“a dream that was made of American steel”) just symbolizes lost youth; it is all about nostalgia for what has been lost with time, and Dan was the perfect singer for it:

Somewhere in a pile of rubber and steel
There’s a rusty old shell of an automobile
And if engines could run on desires alone
That old yellow car would be driving me home

Take a look at me now throwing money around
I’m paying somebody to drive me downtown
Got a Mercedes Benz with a TV and bar
And God, I wish I was driving my old yellow car

The subdued title track, ‘In San Antone’ paints a nicely detailed picture of leaving home for a country music career. The protagonist is struggling “on Broadway” (presumably the one in Nashville rather than New York), but takes comfort in thoughts of the one waiting back home who remains his biggest fan.

There is a lovely, understated cover of the country standard ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, with some tasteful steel and fiddle from Doyle Grisham and Hoot Hester. Dan is no George Jones, but his plaintive interpretation works in its own right.

‘She’s Leaving’ is a pretty, sensitively sung ballad about an impending breakup, which Dan wrote with Bob McDill. The strings, synthesizer and vocoder betray the track’s age, but the vocal is beautiful. ‘Oh These Nights’, written by Dan with Rafe VanHoy, is another fine ballad, with a downcast Dan slowly getting over his heartbreak one day at a time. This one has a more sympathetic production, with some pretty fiddle. Less successfully, ‘Who’s Gonna Keep Me Warm’ has the emotion of the lyric, about a breakup, flattened out by too intrusive a choir and string arrangement.

An ode to long lasting true love, ‘The Loving Proof’ (written by Gary Nicholson) has a smooth pop country arrangement. The equally romantic ballad ‘Tonight Is For the Lover In You’, written by Bob McDill and Charlie Black, is more attractively arranged, as the protagonist tenderly encourages his wife to rekindle their romance after a hard day chasing career dreams.

The album closes with the very short (under two minutes) ‘One Friend’, an absolutely lovely and tenderly delivered declaration of love written by Dan and dedicated to his wife Andi:

Sometimes the world was on our side
Sometimes it wasn’t fair
Sometimes it gave a helping hand
Sometimes we didn’t care

Cause when we were together
It made the dream come true
If I had only one friend left
I’d want it to be you

Overall, this was a good record which has some of the limitations of a commercial country record of the mid-1980s, but the vocals, songs and Kyle Lehning’s relatively restrained hand at the helm all make it a good example of its kind.

Grade: B+

It is avilable digitally, although CDs are hard to find.

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rebel Heart’

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Dan Seals

Danny Wayland Seals was born in Texas in 1948 as a member of a very musical family. His father was not a professional musician, but had performed with Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. Elder brother Jim was a member of successful soft rock duo Seals & Crofts, who were big stars in the 1970s. Cousins included country star Johnny Duncan and songwriter Troy Seals, and a generation later, another cousin, Brady Seals was to become lead singer of the successful group Little Texas. Young Dan grew up exposed to both the country music his father loved, but as a teenager was influenced strongly by the music of the Beatles, which led to the nickname (and later stage name) ‘England Dan’.

The young Dan followed in his brother’s footsteps by teaming up with a high school classmate to form the duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. They released a number of albums together, with their greatest success coming with the single ‘I’d Really Love To see You Tonight’, a mellow ballad which topped the Adult Contemporary chart and reached #2 pop. Reba McEntire covered the song in 1978, as a B-side to one of her early singles, an early indicator of Dan’s potential as a country artist (although he did not write the song).

Going solo in 1980 was not an immediate success, and Dan lost his home and most of the money he had made as a pop star in a battle with the IRS over unpaid back taxes. It was then that he moved sideways into country music, signing to Capitol Records in 1983, and working with producer Kyle Lehning. His style retained many elements of his pop past, with an emphasis on gentle ballads, but either his own inclinations or Lehning’s meant that his music was generally less heavily produced than his pop-country contemporaries, and he maintained his success well into the period when the neotraditional movement was sweeping away the worst excesses of the 80s. Dan released some excellent singles through the 1980s, and was rewarded with a run of 16 successive top 10 country hits, including a particularly hot streak with nine straight #1s.

His career slowed down markedly in the 1990s. A move to Warner Brothers failed to reignite it, but he reinvented himself artistically by recording acoustic takes on some of his big hits, and continued to work touring. He died prematurely of cancer on March 25, 2009. In his last years he had been making music with his brother Jim, but a planned album was never completed.

We plan to cover the highlights of the career of a man whose crossover from pop to country respected the genre, and who created some timeless music.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Randy finds religion: the Christian albums of Randy Travis

Randy’s second and last effort for DreamWorks, the uninspired and over-produced A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, fell pretty flat both artistically and commercially. Perhaps in response to that, the new millennium saw a major change. He returned to the Warner group for his first religious album (released on Word/Warner Brothers/Curb), Inspirational Journey, in 2000. Surprisingly what appeared at the time to be a one-off detour turned into a whole new career for him.

Kyle Lehning returned to the producer’s chair, and this is basically Christian country music of a very high quality. Randy sounds very sincere and is in great voice throughout, and this is a fine collection which most country fans would enjoy if they can live with the subject matter.

‘Baptism’ (written by Mickey Cates is an atmospheric and affectionate picture of an east Texas river baptism, and is a highlight. Randy had previously guested on a duet version with Kenny Chesney on the latter’s Everywhere We Go; that version served principally to show how infinitely superior Randy’s voice was to Kenny’s. The solo version is better, with a gospel choir some way down in the mix. It was released as the album’s sole single, but barely charted.

My favorite is the traditional country plea to ‘Doctor Jesus’, laced with fiddle and steel, and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. Randy’s emotional vocal convincingly portrays a man at the bottom and in need of help from “the best healer around”.

Randy’s personal commitment to the project is reflected in the fact that he wrote three of the songs. The best of these is ‘The Carpenter’ (about Jesus) which he wrote with Chip Taylor and Ron Avis; the song features guest vocals from Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and is very likeable. His other two compositions (the slow, churchy ‘I Am Going’ and ‘Walk With Me’ work less well for me. But even the lesser material like these songs, the opening ‘Shallow Water’ and the subdued ‘See Myself In You’ sound good. ‘Feet On The Rock’ is up-tempo churchy gospel which is quite enjoyable.

The insistent Ron Block song ‘Which Way Will You Choose’ is very catchy with dancing fiddle and a very strong vocal. ‘Drive Another Nail’ is an effective story song about a retired carpenter who sees the light. ‘Don’t Ever Sell Your Saddle’ (from the pens of Kim Tribble and Brian Whiteside) has a warm, nuanced vocal, and could easily have fitted on one of Randy’s secular albums, with its comforting collection of life advice from a father – advice the man didn’t always take himself. The album closes with a very slow take on the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, recorded in memory of Randy’s late mother and his father in law, but I feel the arrangement drags a bit.

While not a best-seller, the album did sufficiently well for Randy to decide to follow it up with another, which was to do rather better. 2002’s gold-certified Rise And Shine is notable for the inclusion of Randy’s last solo hit, the outstanding story song ‘Three Wooden Crosses’. Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams and masterfully interpreted, it was Randy’s first #1 in nine years, and was named CMA Song of the Year. It was not the start of a career resurgence, though, as the follow-up single, ‘Pray For the Fish’, a lively but rather slight tale of a river baptism, failed to crack the top 40.

Also excellent is the tender ‘Raise Her Up’, written by Robb Royer and Rivers Rutherford, which might perhaps have built on the success of ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ if it had been sent to radio. This is the voice of a fatherless boy who grows up to become loving stepfather to a similar child, comparing their story to that of Joseph and Jesus.

The Rory Lee/Paul Overstreet song ‘When Mama Prayed’ is a tenderly sung tribute to the power of prayer; the heroine’s prayers bring her irreligious husband and drunk son to see the light. It’s a nice take on an oft-told tale, and one which resonated with Randy given his past. Similarly, the deathbed-set ‘If You Only Knew’ is an unexceptional lyric lifted to a new level by Randy’s vocal although the string arrangement and choir-like backing vocals are a bit stifling. ‘Valley Of Pain’, written by Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin, is a good depiction of someone holding on to their faith through a bad patch. ‘The Gift’, written by Phillip Moore and Ray Scott, is rather a nice Christmas song:

“On our Savior’s birthday
We got the gift”

Randy co-wrote six of the 13 songs. They are all perfectly listenable and clearly heartfelt, but not that memorable out of context. The best is the dark envisioning of the Second Coming in ‘Jerusalem’s Cry’, with Randy’s vocals at their most gravelly, although it is probably the least “country” track on the album.

There was also an accompanying DVD with a short (20 minute) documentary about Randy, who talks about horses, his wild youth and his religion, with Kyle Lehning also contributing. There are clips of Randy performing, in the studio, and a lot of him riding horses.

Worship & Faith in 2003 was a reverently sung collection of hymns, traditional spiritual songs and one or two modern worship songs, given an all-acoustic country production. I enjoy listening to it a great deal, but there isn’t anything here for the non-religious listener. One song which particularly stands out is ‘I’ll Fly Away’ thanks to Joy Lynn White’s distinctive harmonies, while John Anderson duets on a serious version of ‘Just A Closer Walk with Thee’. It did well, selling gold again.

Passing Through, released a year later, is actually not a religious record, and was billed as a return to secular music. However, it was still on Christian label Word in association with Curb and Warners, and had nothing on it likely to offend Christian music fans, and in fact won a Dove Award. Lead single ‘Four Walls’ is, unfortunately, not the country classic but an affectionate story of a rural family united in love. It is pleasant and well sung, but rather dull, and I can see why it didn’t spark at radio. It had been recorded back in 2001, together with several other songs included on the new album. ‘That Was Us’ (also recorded by Tracy Lawrence) fondly recalls a bunch of rural teenage delinquents who grow up to prove their hearts are in the right place, and might have gone down better at radio. ‘Pick Up The Oars And Row’, written by Jamie O’Hara, is a sympathetic song addressed to a woman let down by a lying man, which is very good. The subdued ‘My Daddy Never Was’ is an excellent slice of life written by Tony Lane, about a divorced man working hard to be “the daddy my daddy never was” and reflecting on his own failings; Randy’s voice cracks in places but this only suits the defeated mood of the song. Dennis Linde’s ‘Train Long Gone’ stands out with wailing harmonica and train sounds, but doesn’t quite work for me.

Of the newly recorded material, the overly sentimental and part-spoken ‘Angels’ (a tribute to mothers) was the second attempt at a single, and another mis-step. I much prefer ‘Running Blind’, written by Roger Ferris. At a truck stop in New Mexico, a cashier gives the narrator some salutary advice about heading back home to the girl left crying at home, set to a punchy rhythm and Charlie McCoy’s harmonica. The swingy ‘My Poor Old Heart’ (written by Shawn Camp and Gary Harrison) and the gently philosophical ‘Right On Time (from Al Anderson and Sharon Vaughn) are also pretty good. The album title comes from the fiddle-led ‘A Place To Hang My Hat’, written by Shawn Camp, Byron Hill and Brice Long, the only religious song. Randy wrote a couple of tender love ballads, ‘I’m Your Man’ with piano and steel in the foreground, and ‘I Can See It In Your Eyes’(a co-write with Matthew Hague), with heavenly harmony on the chorus from Liana Manis.

Sales of Passing Through were disappointing, and Randy turned to hardcore religious music with Glory Train. This is mainly religious numbers from a variety of American musical traditions, with a handful of contemporary church worship songs, and has the least country feel of any of Randy’s albums, although the fiddle is prominent on a number of tracks. His vocals still compel attention on the mainly up-tempo material (apart from a pointless version of ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ which has nothing to interest the listener). Highlights include the title track, a black gospel classic from the 1930s given a country makeover with swirling fiddle and harmonica; a warm version of ‘Precious Memories’, a slowed-down take on ‘Were You There’, the insistent gospel of ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Oh Death’, and ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’. The Blind Boys of Alabama guest on two gospel tracks, and contemporary Christian group the Crabb Family on another. The least effective track is a pointless sing along of ‘He’s Go the Whole World In His Hands’.

Randy’s religious detour produced some fine music, even if it was a little frustrating for fans of his secular music. All these albums are easy to get hold of.

Grades:

Inspirational Journey: A
Rise And Shine: B+
Worship And Faith: A-
Passing Through: B+
Glory Train: B

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘You And You Alone’

Partly due to the disappointing performance of 1996′s Full Circle, Randy Travis departed from Warner Bros. to become the flagship artist of the newly-formed DreamWorks Nashville in 1998. You And You Alone was his first collection for the fledgling label. Hoping to rejuvenate his flagging career, he put together a new production team consisting of himself, Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, marking only the second time in his career that he worked without Kyle Lehning. The result was a slightly more contemporary, definitely more radio-friendly but still true to the traditions of country music, collection of songs. The uptempo “Out Of My Bones” was released as the advance single in March 1998. It found Travis sounding more energetic than he had in quite some time, and it quickly re-established him at country radio. Returning to the Top 10 for the first time since 1995′s “The Box”, “Out Of My Bones” told the tale of a man’s vain attempts to rid himself of the memory of his ex. It peaked at #2.

DreamWorks decided to follow up this success with another uptempo number, the album’s opening track “The Hole”, which didn’t fare quite as well, but still managed to crack the Top 10, landing at #9. Next, they sent to radio the beautiful midtempo “Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man”, written by Trey Bruce and Glen Burtnik and previously recorded by Mark Collie. More contemporary than most of Randy’s singles, it may have been an acknowledgement of the changing tides at country radio, which had shifted back towards pop. Like “Out Of My Bones”, “Spirit of A Boy” just missed topping the chart, leveling out at #2.

The album’s fourth single was the decidedly more country — and possibly too country for country radio — “Stranger In My Mirror”, written by Kim Williams and the great Skip Ewing. The sound was a throwback to Randy’s Storms of Life days, but despite being the best track on the album, it stalled at #16 and unfortunately marked the beginning of Randy’s declining chart performance.

There is only one throwaway track in this collection — the Billy Livsey and Don Schlitz-penned “I Did My Part”, but the rest of the collection is first rate and holds its own with Randy’s better known earlier work. Particularly good are the bluegrass-tinged “I’m Still Here, You’re Still Gone” which features background vocals from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, and the superb title track, which features harmony vocals from two of its co-writers, Leslie Satcher and Melba Montgomery, along with Vince Gill. Melba, of course, is best known for her duet work with George Jones before he began recording with Tammy Wynette.

You And You Alone reversed Randy’s declining fortunes at country radio, albeit temporarily, but it failed to garner the impressive sales he’d enjoyed at the beginning of his major label career. Travis teamed up with Gallimore and Stroud one more time for 1999′s A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, which was a critical and commercial failure. Shortly thereafter, he was dropped from the DreamWorks Nashville roster and spent most of the next decade recording religious music, which resulted in one final #1 hit, 2000′s “Three Wooden Crosses.” He later rejoined Warner Bros. and returned to secular music with 2008′s Around The Bend.

Despite having produced three substantial hit singles, You And You Alone tends to be another overlooked gem in the Travis discography, and as a very small part of his catalog not controlled by Warner Bros., its singles rarely appear on hits compiliations. The album itself is still available at reasonable prices from third-party sellers at Amazon, and is highly recommended.

Grade: A

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: Randy Travis – ‘Wind In The Wire’

1993′s Wind In The Wire is probably the most overlooked album in Randy Travis’ discography. By the early 90s, Randy had begun to dabble in acting, somewhat to the detriment of his singing career. Wind In The Wire was something of a side project, intended to accompany a made-for-TV film of the same title, in which Travis appeared. It is, for the most part, a collection of cowboy and western-themed songs, totally non-commercial in its approach and as such, it was mostly shunned by country radio.

Wind In The Wire was the first Randy Travis album since his major label debut not to earn platinum or gold certification, and the first that failed to produce any Top 40 hits. It was also his first release without longtime producer Kyle Lehning. Instead, production duties were handled by Steve Gibson. The album is in large part, a tribute to the singing cowboys and one can easily imagine Gene Autry or Roy Rogers singing many of the songs. Most of the tunes have a traditional Western sound, though only one — “The Old Chisolm Trail” is actually a vintage song. Others such as the opening track “Down At The Old Corral”, “Blue Mesa” and “Roamin’ Wyoming” were written by the contemporary songwriting team of Roger Brown and Luke Reed, but all three songs sound as though they are much older. “Memories of Old Santa Fe” written by Roger Brown and Rick Peoples is in a similar vein, while Mark Shutte Jr’s “Paniolo Country” is a little more contemporary. “Hula Hands”, as the title implies, has a Hawaiian them, and though it is a very good song, it really doesn’t belong in this collection.

“Cowboy Boogie”, the album’s first single, is not a traditional cowboy song per se. It is more of a Western swing tune, but the lyrics deal with cowboys and the Old West. It was greeted at country radio with a big yawn and stalled at #46 on the charts. It fared much better in Canada, however, reaching #10 on the RPM Country Tracks chart there. The title track, which is the most contemporary song on the album, only reached #65 and no further singles were released.

Clearly, the album’s release was timed to coincide with the broadcast of the film, but the timing was not fortuitous for Randy’s music career. It followed two volumes of greatest hits, which were released simultaneously the preceding year. Those two volumes had produced the #1 hits “If I Didn’t Have You” and “Look Heart, No Hands”, but a third single, “An Old Pair Of Shoes” had peaked outside the Top 20. By the time Wind In The Wire was released, Travis had been absent from the radio airwaves for a while, and with Garthmania at its peak, a collection of cowboy tunes wasn’t what radio programmers wanted. Although Randy rebounded commercially with his next album, 1994′s This Is Me, he never again achieved the level of success that he’d enjoyed up to this point.

The commercial failure of Wind In The Wire notwithstanding, it is a solid album that was a nice antidote to the increasingly pop-oriented fare dominating the charts both now and at the time of its release. It holds up surprisingly well. Travis is in good voice and seems comfortable and at ease with the material. Though it’s not essential listening, it is worth seeking out, particularly since a lot of people may have missed out on this one at the time of its release. It is still in print, though it is a little expensive for a nearly 20-year-old commercial flop, but it is worth downloading, at least. It can be purchased from Amazon or iTunes, with the latter having the better price.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘High Lonesome’

Released in August 1991, High Lonesome was Randy’s first album not to reach #1 on the country albums chart, and his last platinum release. But if Randy’s commercial fortunes were starting to decline, this album is an artistic triumph. His voice is in great shape, and he also seems to have undergone something of an artistic rejuvenation, co-writing half the songs. The consistent quality of the material was the best he had had since Storms Of Life, and is more varied in tempo and mood than No Holdin’ Back, his last solo release.

Lead single ‘Point Of Light’, written by Don Schlitz and Thom Schuyler, was inspired by a phase in President George Bush’s inaugural address, and it was a mildly controversial choice as a single due to the political connotations, as Bush was then standing for re-election. That controversy did not prevent the song reaching #3 on the country chart. Taken on its own merits, 20 years later, it comes across as a deeply idealistic tribute to those performing good works rather than political, but is perhaps a little too earnest to stand among Randy’s classics, and while not at all bad, it is the weakest track on the album.

Randy had been touring with rising star Alan Jackson in the run-up to recording this album. They spent a lot of time on the road writing together. Alan recorded one of their collaborations (‘She’s Got the Rhythm (I’ve Got the Blues)’), and Randy included three on this album. Unexpectedly, all four songs ended up as singles. The ballad ‘Forever Together’ is a fairly straightforward declaration of renewal of love from a penitent man who has put his wife through some hard times, but has at last seen the error of his ways. It is put together quite beautifully and sensitively delivered. It was Randy’s first #1 since ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’, and is one of my favourite recordings of his.

The jaundiced mid-tempo ‘Better Class Of Losers’ then peaked at #2, with its preference for downhome living over city sophisticates like the protagonist’s now-ex girlfriend. ‘I’d Surrender All’, the third and best Jackson co-write, failed for some reason to impress radio programmers, just scraping into the top 20. A classic heartbreak ballad with acoustic guitar opening and sinuous steel winding through the song, this sees the protagonist devastated by his woman walking out:

I never thought I’d miss the early morning smell of hairspray in the air
All the little things I used to take for granted
Now I miss them most of all
Ain’t it funny how a woman walking out the door
Can bring a man to crawl?

Alan also donated the bouncy semi-novelty ‘Allergic To The Blues’, which he wrote with Jim McBride. One of the lesser moments, it is still fun with a light touch and ironic edge as the protagonist goes to all possible lengths to persuade his woman not to walk out.

The tenderly sung opening track ‘Let Me Try’ is a plea to a woman disillusioned by love, with the protagonist offering to restore her faith. Written by Allen Shamblin and Chuck Cannon, it is an excellent song and it is a shame it didn’t get the additional exposure of being a single. Yet another highlight is the gently wailing title track, written by Gretchen Peters, which features Marty Stuart on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on dobro, although Mark O’Connor’s mournful fiddle is the most effective part of the backing.

The playful ‘Oh What A Time To be Me’ written by Randy with Don Schlitz, has the protagonist slightly smugly reflecting on his good luck picking up his friend’s discarded lover and giving his old buddy the news. A brass section lends it a bright swingy Dixieland feel. The pacy ‘Heart Of Hearts’ written by Kevin Welch and Michael Henderson is also enjoyable, as the protagonist decides cheating just isn’t what he really wants to do deep down inside. The album closes on a high with Randy’s first gospel number, the lively acappella ‘I’m Gonna Have A Little Talk’, with backing vocals from Take 6.

This is one of my favorite Randy Travis albums, with the man at the top of his game. He is in great voice and sounds completely invested in every track, while Kyle Lehning oversees the production as tastefully as usual. It is easy to find now, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A+

Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Old 8 x 10′

Following up Always & Forever, which enjoyed at 43 week run at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Ablums chart and sold more than 5 million copies, must have seemed like a daunting task. 1988′s Old 8 x 10 was Randy Travis’ attempt to recreate the magic, and though it is an enjoyable album, it is slightly uneven and just misses the mark of equaling its predecessor’s artistic and commercial success.

Like Always & Forever, Old 8 x 10 was produced by Kyle Lehning and spawned four singles. Three of them reached the #1 spot. First up was the laid-back “Honky Tonk Moon”, written by Dennis O’Rourke, on which Travis sounds relaxed and at ease. Following “Honky Tonk Moon” to the top of the charts was the slightly fluffy “Deeper Than The Holler” by Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet. Unfortunately, this is one of the team’s weaker compositions, which can’t hold its own against their other classics such as “On The Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen”. Better is the whimsical “Is It Still Over”, which was the third single and my favorite song on the album. The Ken Bell and Larry Hendley tune became Randy’s seventh consecutive #1 hit, and his ninth #1 overall.

Up to this point, beginning with the re-release of “On The Other Hand”, all of Randy’s singles had reached #1 with the exception of “There’s No Place Like Home”, which peaked at #2. This winning streak was interrupted by “Promises”, which Randy wrote with John Lindley. Featuring only Randy’s voice and a single acoustic guitar, it reached #17 in early 1989. Some saw it as the beginning of the end of Randy’s reign at the top of the charts (wrongly, as it turned out), but in actuality, records like this one have always been a hard sell with radio, and the fact that it was played at all is a testament to the tremendous star power Randy wielded at the time. I found it somewhat dull at the time and was amazed at one critic in particular who referred to it as the best single release of Travis’ career up to that point. It is only in the past few years that I can truly appreciate this understated work of art for the masterpiece that it is. I’m still not sure that I consider it his very best performance, but it’s close and it stands as a textbook example of why quality can’t be assessed by chart performance alone.

Among the album cuts are a few gems, such as “The Blues In Black and White” and the excellent “We Ain’t Out Of Love Yet” which should have been released as a single. But unlike Randy’s first two albums, Old 8 x 10 includes a few missteps, such as “Written In Stone” and the title track, which is particularly weak in comparison to the rest of the album’s material.

Old 8 x 10 sold 2 million units, less than either Storms of Life or Always & Forever. However, in the pre-Garth and pre-Soundscan era, sales of 5 million units were virtually unheard of in country music, so it probably wasn’t realistic to expect Travis to maintain that level of success. The album’s double-platinum success was more than respectable, and it still holds up today as one of the stronger album’s in Randy’s catalog. It appears to be out of print in CD form but it can be purchased at a slight premium from third-party sellers at Amazon, or downloaded from Amazon or iTunes.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Always and Forever’

Striking while the iron was hot, Warner Brothers released Randy Travis’ second album just 10 months after Storms of Life hit stores. Four singles found their way to #1 while the album itself spent an incredible 43 weeks at the top of the Country Albums chart. Always and Forever would go on to sell more than 5 million copies, making it Travis’ most successful studio album. Kyle Lehning’s crisp traditional production is again the perfect showcase for Travis’ crooning baritone, but the song selection isn’t as top-notch this time out, probably due to the hurried release.

Leading off the album was the perennial wedding song and radio recurrent “Forever and Ever Amen”. The Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet tune features a talking steel guitar and infectious melody, plus some downright charming lyrics – “as long as old men sit and talk about the weather, as long as old women sit and talk about old men” – that all conspire to make it a lasting favorite. Likewise charming is the third single, the plucky “Too Gone Too Long”. It also benefits from some crack guitar picking, and its matter-of-fact message to a departed lover to stay gone.

“I Told You So”, the album’s final single, is my favorite Randy Travis hit. As the singer starts cold with a list of “suppose I’s” in the acoustic first verse, he ponders the response to his hypothetical questions in the soaring chorus. The cry of the steel guitar says he’s right in his assumptions of what she’ll say to him. After riding this self-penned hit to #1 in early 1988, Travis would make his last appearance to date in the country top 10 as a guest vocalist on Carrie Underwood’s cover of the song in 2009.

Sandwiched in between those three winning singles was the plodding and sloppy title track, also titled as “I Won’t Need You Anymore”. Here, the narrator is telling the woman he loves all the hell-freezes-over scenarios when he won’t love her anymore. The mournful sound of the fiddles and steel here belies its romantic message, and it all seems like a waste of radio promotion in my opinion. Promotion that should have went to the excellent Kent Robbins/Susan Longacre tune “The Truth Is Lying Next To You”, with a smooth easy melody and more substantial, if simple, lyrics that speak of proving one’s love by your actions, rather than pretty words. In this particular situation, this guy is out to prove all the fencepost gossips, who say he’ll return to his wild ways, wrong.

Like the singles, the album tracks here are hit and miss, but hit more often than not. Dennis Linde’s blithe take on a woman’s rebuffs after a one-night stand, “What’ll You Do About Me” make for a grin-inducing toe-tapper, while “Good Intentions”, co-written by Travis with Marvin Coe and Merle Haggard features very Haggard-esque overtones in both melody and lyrics. Themes of mama, regret, and looking back with clearer vision are prominent as a man looks back on his mistakes, set to another smooth country melody, and peppered with some great one-liners.

Because Randy Travis’ star was burning bright when it was released, and due to the staying power of the first and last singles, Always and Forever passed its predecessor in terms of commercial success, but doesn’t match it in terms of artistry. Still despite a couple of missteps, this is a very strong album overall, and certainly proved Randy Travis to be immune to the crippling sophomore jinx.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Storms of Life’

Country music enjoyed one of its cyclical popularity booms in the early 1980s, in large part thanks to the success of the film Urban Cowboy. At that time, most artists had crossover ambitions and the music became more and more pop-oriented, but there was a quiet backlash brewing. It started roughly around 1981 with the major label debuts of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait and it continued through 1984 with the release of Reba McEntire’s landmark My Kind of Country album, and The Judds’ commercial breakthrough hit “Mama He’s Crazy”. Still, these artists were very much the exception rather than the rule. By mid-decade, the Urban Cowboy craze was over, and country music was once again in the commercial doldrums. No one took much notice when an unknown singer named Randy Traywick was signed to a singles deal with Warner Bros in 1985, but within a year Traywick, rechristened Randy Travis by the label, would be the hottest commodity in country music.

Randy’s first release was the Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet composition “On The Other Hand”, a hardcore traditional ballad, which along with Randy’s nasal baritone, had no crossover appeal whatsoever and was not what radio wanted. Consequently, it died at #67 on the charts. Randy and producer Kyle Lehning were unrepentant. Fortunately, Warner Bros. allowed them to try again with the equally traditional “1982″. Written by Buddy Blackmon and Vip Vipperman, the song’s original title was “1962″, but the writers granted Randy permission to change the lyrics to something more age-appropriate. To everyone’s surprise, radio took notice this time and “1982″ managed to climb all the way to #6. Encouraged by this success, Warner Bros. made the unusual decision to re-release “On The Other Hand” in April 1986. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now that Randy had a legitimate hit under his belt, radio programmers were now willing to give “On The Other Hand” a listen, and it quickly shot to #1.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about Randy Travis, who quickly returned to the studio to record an album to capitalize on the success of “On The Other Hand.” When the album was near completion, he and Kyle Lehning expressed their hope that they could sell 50,000 to 60,000 copies so the label would allow them to record a second album. Clearly they didn’t realize that they were about to alter the course of country music for the next several years. Storms of Life was single-handedly responsible for country music’s return to its roots after decades of what seemed to be an inevitable drift towards pop. As a result, what would soon be known as the New Traditionalist movement was now firmly underway as other artists, old and new, including some of Nashville’s most pop-leaning acts, followed Randy’s example and began releasing more traditional-sounding music. Those who did not were unceremoniously purged from the radio airwaves.

The album reached store shelves in June 1986, nearly one year to the day after the initial release of “On The Other Hand.” It was produced by Kyle Lehning, with Keith Stegall co-producing on two tracks. It contained both “On The Other Hand” and “1982″, along with Randy’s own composition “Reasons I Cheat”, which had been the B-side to “1982″, as well as seven newly-recorded songs. The uptempo “Diggin’ Up Bones”, written by Paul Overstreet, Nat Stuckey and Al Gore (not the former US Vice President), was the next to be sent to radio and like its predecessor, it quickly rose to #1. By now Randy was now being interviewed by the mainstream press, who openly pondered the last time they’d heard the word “exhuming” used in a song. Yet another Paul Overstreet composition, “No Place Like Home” was selected for the album’s fourth and final single. This song is somewhat forgotten today, but it is one of Randy’s best ballad performances. It peaked at #2 in the spring of 1987.

Storms of Life is one of those rare albums that contains no filler, which is great from a fan’s point of view but it makes a critic’s job much more difficult because it isn’t possible to talk about an album’s flaws when there simply aren’t any. All ten tracks are strong enough to have been successful singles. It’s difficult to choose favorites, but if pressed I’d have to go with “My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)” and “Messin’ With My Mind”, both of which show the extent to which Lefty Frizzell influenced Randy’s music, as well as “Send My Body” and “Reasons I Cheat”, both of which allowed Randy to showcase his songwriting skills. “Send My Body” is a surprisingly upbeat sounding song about a condemned man, who despite his innocence, is determined to meet his fate with poise and grace, requesting that his body be returned to his hometown for burial. “Reasons I Cheat” is another beautifully performed ballad. As its title implies, it’s a cheating song, but one in which the protagonist expresses few feelings of guilt, but rather seeks to rationalize his actions and does so quite effectively, because, surprisingly, he comes across as a sympathetic figure.

It’s a gross understatement to call Storms of Life a landmark album, as its importance can not be overstated. I consider it to be one of the finest country albums of all time, and the most significant one released during my own lifetime. Far exceeding Travis’ and Lehning’s modest sales ambitions, it ultimately earned triple platinum certification at a time when even gold-level sales for country albums were rare. As a result, it caused a shake-up of the entire country genre, the likes of which had never seen before, and will probably never been seen again. Sadly, within a few years of its release, country music lapsed back towards pop, a trend that continues to the current day.

It is nothing short of a disgrace that Warner Bros. has allowed the 25th anniversary of Storms of Life’s release to pass without a remastered and expanded re-release; however the album is still in print in its original form and easy to find.

Grade: A+

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: George Jones – ‘And Along Came Jones’

Just as country music was beginning to explode into those boom years of the early to mid-1990s that everyone talks about, George Jones made a significant career move that would kick-start yet another era for him. After more than 35 studio albums, including 12 duets releases, mostly with Tammy Wynette, George Jones made the move to MCA Nashville in 1991, ending a three-decade run with Epic Records. And Along Came Jones, his first album for the powerhouse label was released only 7 months after his final Epic album, Friends In High Places, and charted considerably higher. Friends had peaked at only #72 on the albums chart. More telling was that his previous 3 singles had failed to chart, something that hadn’t happened to a single Jones release in his 35 years releasing singles to country radio. The move did place him with one of the hottest labels at the time on Music Row. Their high-powered promotion team managed to place this album, along with its debut single, inside the very competitive country charts in October of 1991.

Things are off to a good start with ‘Where The Tall Grass Grows’, which was also recorded by Ricky Van Shelton. The narrator in the song has painful memories of the family that once lived in the house that’s now going without care. It’s never revealed if it was the house where he once lived with his family and the couple separated, if the family passed away, or exactly why they don’t live there anymore or what the relationship was. It’s up to the listener to decide, but my opinion is that the narrator once lived in the house with his family, otherwise, he wouldn’t have the key.

‘Honky Tonk Myself To Death’, which tells of a man who’s fed up with life and is throwing away his responsibilities, is a bit of a barroom rocker, as the title might suggest. Jones ably supplies the vocal, but the lyric is rather weak. It’s another of those songs that I think probably sounded and worked a lot better as part of his live show than it came out on record. It also served as the album’s third and final single, reaching only #60 on the charts in 1992.

Stacked back to back in sequence are two of my favorites, in vintage George Jones-style. ‘Angels Don’t Fly’ is a clever heartbroke song, which concludes in the chorus that ‘angels don’t fly, they just walk out the door’. Likewise, ‘You Couldn’t Get The Picture’ finds a woman leaving her man, only this time she leaves several little reminders in the form of post-it notes stuck to numerous common household items, telling our narrator all about where he went wrong, and why she’s leaving. My personal favorite is ‘the on the mirror said, “Take a good look at yourself”. Both songs come complete with stone-country production.  The former served as the album’s lead single, and peaked at a very respectable #32, considering country radio had all but forgotten legends like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn, among many others, by 1991.

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