My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Sammy Kershaw

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Do You Know Me? A Tribute to George Jones’

Do You Know MeIt would be futile to attempt to quantify the number of male country singers over the past 40 years or so that have cited George Jones as a major influence on their careers, so it was inevitable that tribute albums would begin to appear following the Possum’s death last year. There is perhaps no one more suited to singing an album of Jones covers than Sammy Kershaw, who not only is among the more sincere of the self-proclaimed Jones proteges, he is also the one who sounds the most like Jones.

Do You Know Me? A Tribute To George Jones was produced by Kershaw himself and released last week on his own imprint Big Hit Records. It consists of twelve songs that span the most successful stretch of Jones’ long and distinguished career, from 1955’s “Why Baby Why” to 1985’s “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”. Casual fans of both Jones and Kershaw could easily and understandably be duped into thinking that Jones himself is the performer on these recordings. More serious fans won’t have any problem distinguishig the difference, but the comparison is a bit unfair, if only because Jones made most of these recordings when he was in his vocal prime, while Kershaw is at a point where the wear and tear on his vocal chords is beginning to show. He sounds the most like Jones on uptempo numbers such as “Why Baby Why”, “White Lightnin'” and “The Race Is On”. The ballads are well done and mostly faithful to the originals, but Kershaw can’t quite match the magic that Jones and Billy Sherrill achieved on numbers such as “The Grand Tour”, “Once You’ve Had The Best” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It should be pointed out, however, that nobody could and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more justice to these songs than Sammy does.

My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”, a song written by Don Chapel that Jones took to #2 in 1968. That same year Jones repaid the favor by running off with Chapel’s wife Tammy Wynette. Georgette Jones, the only child that resulted from George and Tammy’s six-year marriage joins Sammy on “Near You”, an old pop standard that dates back to 1947. It woas originally recorded by its composer Francis Craig, and later covered by the likes of The Andrews Sisters, Roger Williams, Andy Williams, and several others. George and Tammy recorded it in 1974 when their marriage was in the midst of crumbling. Released in 1977 after the couple had divorced, it reached #1 on the Billboard country singles chart. Georgette is not the singer her mother was, but she sounds enough like Tammy to make her an ideal duet partner for Kershaw. With a little background noise and if one doesn’t listen too closely, one could almost believe that it’s George and Tammy singing.

In addition to the covers of Jones’ classic material, Do You Know Me? contains two new songs, including the title track, which is biographical ballad written for Jones by Johnny Holland and Billy Lawson, which he never got around to recording. Nobody could sing this song as credibly as Kerhsaw does, and had he not recorded it for this album, it likely would never have seen the light of day, which would have been a shame. The album closes with another ballad “The Route That I TooK”, a “Choices” -like number written by Sammy himself which talks about the Possum’s tendency not to do things the easy way.

Nothing on this album is likely to ever find its way to mainstream country radio airwaves, but it is a labor of love that truly deserves to be heard and it’s a must-have for any George Jones or Sammy Kershaw fan.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Ten Rounds’

TenroundsTracy Byrd’s second album for RCA Nashville, Ten Rounds, saw a reversal of commercial fortunes that got Byrd back in the game at a time when he needed the support of country radio to remain relevant. Released in 2001, the album was once again co-produced by Billy Joe Walker, Jr.

A Rivers Rutherford co-written slice of terrible country rock entitled “Good Way To Get On My Bad Side,” a duet with Mark Chesnutt, was issued as the lead single. Hardly memorable and wholly generic, the track peaked at #21. While the track could be seen as an early indication of the genre’s future, Walker and Byrd get one thing right – the loudness, despite heavy electric guitars, is kept to a minimum.

The Spanish flavored “Just Let Me Be In Love” returned Byrd to the top ten for the first time in three years when it peaked at #9. Byrd returns to form here with a triple punch – memorable lyric, forceful vocal, and wonderfully listenable production.

The third and final single, “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuevro,” a lively honky-tonker, topped the charts giving Byrd his first number one single in eight years and his second chart topper to date. The ruckus nature of the track coupled with Byrd’s immersion into the character helped propel the single’s success at radio. While the novelty wears off after repeated listenings, the track isn’t without modest commercial charms.

The remainder of Ten Rounds balances tenderly produced ballads with rowdy up-tempo numbers. The latter group leaves much to be desired, especially “Summertime Fever” and “Somebody’s Dream,” which are pure dreck. Thankfully the other uptempo numbers are far more listenable and delicately produced.

The former provide moments where Ten Rounds shines as bright as it’s going to with tracks that are great, but nothing revelatory. Surprisingly, three of them are covers – “Wildfire” is the Michal Martin Murphy song from the 70s, “How Much Does The World Weigh” was previously recorded by Sammy Kershaw, and “Keeper of the Stars” is an updated version of his signature song. The covers are good, but he brings nothing new to them except for “Keeper of the Stars,” which comes off more country than the original. “Needed,” as close to neo-traditional as the record gets is good, too.

All and all Ten Rounds is a squarely commercial country album aimed at positioning Byrd as a major player for continued airplay on country radio. While that objective was achieved, Byrd and Walker could’ve amassed a far more memorable collection of songs that were stronger both sonically and lyrically. As it stands, Ten Rounds is nothing more than a mixed bag that gets more wrong than right.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Yard Sale’

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Under The Kudzu’

220px-Shenandoah_-_Under_The_KudzuShenandoah released their second album for RCA Records (and fifth overall) in the summer of 1993. Don Cook, known at the time for producing Brooks & Dunn, helmed Under The Kudzu. The hope was a little of the Brooks & Dunn magic would rub off on Marty Raybon and the boys, and while the album wasn’t successful at a superstar level, it did keep them in favor with country radio.

Legendary songwriter Dennis Linde penned the album’s first single, the decidedly upbeat “Janie Baker’s Love Slave.” While the drum heavy production was right in line with the trends twenty years ago, the song is an awful mess, and one of Shenandoah’s weaker single offerings. Radio somewhat agreed, and the track peaked at #15.

Sentimental piano ballad “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” a story song about a guy’s longing to enjoy a lengthy marriage to his true love, returned the band to the top 5, when the song peaked at #3 in late 1993. While the song is a marked improvement over “Janie Baker’s Love Slave,” and boasts nicely understated production behind Raybon’s sincere vocal, it’s a little too schmaltzy.

They return to form with “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can To),” my favorite of the album’s singles, and one of their strongest radio offerings (it was the band’s final #1, too). Raybon co-wrote the tune with Mike McGuire and Bob McDill after seeing line dance instructional videos advertized on TV, and while the concept is clearly dated, the whole things works because Cook backs Raybon’s vocal with twangy guitars that are as ear catching as the song’s hook.

“I’ll Go Down Loving You,” a contemporary piano balled composed by Chapin Hartford, Sam Hogin, and Monty Powell, was the album’s finale single and the first song of the band’s career to miss the top 40 since their debut. This track would’ve been a bigger hit apparently, and it was good enough that it deserved to be so, if the band hadn’t partied ways with RCA shortly after the single’s release.

Linde wrote the title track as well. “Under The Kudzu” references the kudzu plant, which is a vine-like weed from Asia that’s become invasive in the Southeastern United States. The mid-tempo drum driven number is actually much stronger then I expected, although the melody is very reminiscent to Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of my Double Wide Trailer.”

“Nickel In The Well” is another similar sounding uptempo number but Cook smartly helps it stand out thanks to the heavy dose of dobro heard throughout. “Say The Word,” a contemporary mid-tempo number is also good, even if it lacks the extra magic to help it stand out.

“The Blues Are Comin’ Over To Your House” is an excellent more traditionally styled number that Cook wrote with Kix Brooks. It’s one of the album’s stronger songs, and while it hasn’t held up perfectly with time, it should’ve been released to radio, where it would’ve likely been a big hit. “That’s The Kind of Woman I Like,” another up-tempo number co-written by Cook, packs on the charm but lacks a little in the lyric department. It’s darn catchy, though, which is more than enough to help it stand out. Raybon co-wrote “It Takes Every Rib I’ve Got,” and it’s just plain uptempo filler, nothing great, and kind of dumb lyrically.

Under the Kudzu is nothing more than a contemporary country album designed to attract maximum airplay thanks to abundance of uptempo numbers heavy on the drums and somewhat catchy hooks. Cook’s production was very ‘of the moment’ and thus lacked the universal appeal that would help this project age gracefully. There are still some wonderful songs in the mix that keeps the album listenable, but Under The Kudzu is little more than a product of its time.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘My Heart’

MyHeartLorrie Morgan’s 1997 release Shakin’ Things Up did not live up to its title, producing only one bona fide hit. She followed it up with a non-country vanity project, 1998’s Secret Love, a collection of covers of pre-rock-and-roll pop songs from the 1940s and 1950s. By the time she was ready to get back to business, she found herself struggling — like many other veteran artists — to remain commercially relevant in a drastically changed country music landscape that had embraced more crossover-minded artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

1999’s My Heart, which teamed Lorrie up with a new producer, Csaba Petocz, was an attempt to update her sound, with mixed results. The album only produced two singles, one of which was “Maybe Not Tonight”, her duet with Sammy Kershaw, which had already appeared on his album of the same title. The other was “Here I Go Again”, which was written by Kim Richey. These are two of the best songs on the album. The AC-leaning “Maybe Not Tonight” reached #17 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but “Here I Go Again” was a commercial flop that only made it to #72. Leslie Satcher’s “Between Midnight and Tomorrow” would have been a good choice for a third single, but BNA seemed to lose interest in further promoting the album.

The album contains two very nice ballads “Strong Enough To Cry”, written by Max D. Barnes and Rory Lee Feek, and “On This Bed” written by Lorrie’s then-husband Jon Randall. The album’s opening track “The Things That We Do”, which finds Lorrie and guest vocalist Jo Dee Messina, lamenting the monotony of life’s day to day tasks, is pleasant but about as interesting as the mundane chores it enumerates.

The album is less successful when Petocz and Morgan attempt to court the crossover audience. “Where Does That Leave Me?” is a tedious and overwrought AC ballad and “I Did” is a dull acoustic middle-of-the-road number. When I first heard “The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You”, my initial thought was that Lorrie was trying to channel Shania. I was unaware at the time that the song had been written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Bryan Adams.

My Heart contains a handful of decent songs, but overall it is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It would have benefited from a little more variety and tempo and less of a tendency on the part of Petocz and Morgan to play it safe. My Heart sold poorly and was Morgan’s last full-length album for BNA, marking the beginning of the end of the major label phase of her career. She released one more Greatest Hits collection for the label that included a few new tracks, and then collaborated with Sammy Kershaw for a one-off project for RCA, before moving on to the independent labels.

My Heart is not essential listening, but it can be obtained very cheaply and is worth getting for the handful of good songs it contains.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘War Paint’

warpaintBy 1994, with three platinum albums and ten Top 10 singles (including two #1s) under her belt, Lorrie Morgan appeared to be at her commercial peak when her career unexpectedly lost some of its momentum. War Paint produced three singles, all of which tanked at country radio at a time when Morgan was pretty much an automatic add at most stations. The first single, the rock-tinged “My Night To Howl”, which finds Lorrie preparing for a night on the town, is admittedly not one of her best and its #31 peak seems justified, but the failure of the follow-up single was rather surprising. She finally tackled the subject of Keith Whitley’s death head-on with deeply personal and soul-baring “If You Came Back From Heaven”, which she co-wrote with producer Richard Landis. It’s the song that many fans had expected from her immediately after Whitley’s passing, but when it finally arrived, it was met with a huge ho-hum from radio. Peaking at #51, it was her worst-performing single since her breakthrough. Country radio’s lack of interest was perhaps a result of how much the country music landscape had changed in the five years since Whitley’s death. The catchy, uptempo and pop-tinged “Heart Over Mind” seemed like a safe radio-friendly choice for a third single but it too failed gain a foothold at radio, and only reached #39.

After three misfires, BNA declined to release any further singles from the album, although there were a few worthy potential candidates, including “The Hard Part Was Easy” and “Exit 99″, which is one of my all-time favorite songs from Lorrie. Foreshadowing Sara Evans’ “Three Chords And The Truth”, which would be released three years later, the tune finds Morgan hopping into her car and driving off after a fight with her husband. The further she drives, the more her anger subsides and by the time she reaches Exit 99 near the end of the song, she’s reconsidered and ready to turn around and go home. “Exit 99″ was omitted from the cassette version of the album, as BMG was still engaging in its practice of including extra tracks on the CD versions of its releases, to entice buyers to purchase the more expensive format.

Lorrie has covered classic country songs on many of her albums, and on War Paint she takes on two revered numbers: “A Good Year For the Roses”, which George Jones had taken to #2 in 1970, and the Hank Cochran-penned “Don’t Touch Me”, which was a #2 hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1966. “A Good Year For The Roses” pairs Lorrie up for the first time on record with Sammy Kershaw, who she would eventually marry. Both songs are well-performed, particularly “Don’t Touch Me”, but neither was commercial enough in the mid-1990s to be considered for single release.

Despite containing many gems, War Paint is not without its missteps. I’m not particularly fond of the lead single “My Night To Howl” or the somewhat overproduced and lyrically unsubtle title track that Lorrie co-wrote with Tom Shapiro. Likewise, I could have done without the dull Angela Kaset number “Evening Up The Odds”, which serves as the album’s closing track. None of these songs is truly terrible, but their inclusion make this album a more uneven listening experience than Morgan’s earlier work.

Even though it failed to produce any hit singles, War Paint sold respectably and earned gold certification, suggesting that Lorrie had a fan base that would remain loyal to her even if radio was beginning to cool towards her. Although she did enjoy a few more big hits on subsequent albums, her performance on the singles chart became inconsistent from this point on.

Despite its flaws, there are enough solid tracks on War Paint to recommend it. Although it is out of print, inexpensive used copies are easy to find.

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Lorrie Morgan

lorrie-morgan-07During Monday night’s broadcast of An Intimate Evening with Eddy Stubbs featuring Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, Gill said:

“Our very earliest memories of why we love country music so deeply is because of when it hit us.” 

I’ll never forget hearing Lorrie Morgan sing “What Part of No” when I was five and being hooked. I was a fan of the Eagles before then, but Morgan’s 1993 #1 hit was my first exposure to country music and began a reverence for 1990s country that still holds strong today. From Morgan I discovered Alan Jackson, Collin Raye, and George Strait. Needless to say, the music seeped into my soul and became an integral part of who I am.

But Morgan was the artist who started it all. She was born, ironically, Loretta Lynn Morgan June 27, 1959 about a year before that other Loretta Lynn charted with “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl.” She was born in Nashville to country singer George Morgan, who’d taken his sole #1, and signature song, “Candy Kisses” to the top ten years earlier. I remember hearing Morgan say the similarities between their names were pure coincidence.

Morgan made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 13 singing “Paper Roses,” and her father passed away in 1975. She subsequently took over his band, only to leave two years later and join Little Roy Wiggins. Morgan then held a receptionist and songwriting job at Acuff-Rose Music before joining Ralph Emery’s morning television show as a featured vocalist.

Her music career began in 1978 when she charted a single with minor success. A similarly received and electronically dubbed duet with her dad followed, as did opening slots on tours featuring the likes of Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely. Morgan was also a regular singer on Nashville Now, part of the Opryland USA Bluegrass Show, and a touring duet partner of George Jones. She scored another minor hit in 1984, the same year she became the youngest person to ever join the Grand Ole Opry.

Morgan was already divorced from George Jones’ former bass player when she met and married up and coming country singer Keith Whitley in 1986. The couple had a son, her second child, a year later. Whitley was notoriously known for his drinking and Morgan was said to have handcuffed them together with a bathrobe tie while they slept, in order to keep him from getting up to drink. She hit the big time when, now under the care of RCA Nashville, her single “Trainwreck of Emotion” went top 20 in 1988. The follow-ups were more successful – “Dear Me” hit #9 and “Out of Your Shoes” went to #2.

She was in the middle of an international tour and on her way to Alaska when she received the call that Whitley had died May 9, 1989. Morgan rushed back to Nashville. Two days later, May 11, her debut record Leave The Light On was released. That week Morgan gave an emotional performance of her hit “Dear Me” on the Grand Ole Opry, and famously accepted his CMA Single of the Year Award for “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” that fall.

Morgan reached another milestone when her single “Five Minutes” became her first #1 in 1990. That same year she charted with “Till A Tear Becomes A Rose,” a duet with Whitley. They’d win the CMA Vocal Event of the Year Award for their record that same year. She also married a one-time truck driver for Clint Black, and released Something In Red in 1991. The title track, a top 15 hit, would become her signature song.

Her third album Watch Me dropped in 1992, featuring her second #1 “What Part of No.” She divorced her third husband the following year and took up with Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman. Watch Me became Morgan’s third consecutive platinum album, making her the first female artist to reach that feat.

Morgan was now a hit with the fans, as displayed in her win for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1994 TNN/Music City News Awards (a win she’d repeat several times), the fan voted award show that’s since morphed into the CMT Video Music Awards. Her fourth album War Paint, released that May, saw three singles tank on the charts. A Greatest Hits album and her final #1, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” followed a year later. She was also romantically involved with US Senator and Actor Fred Thompson.

A fourth marriage, to country singer Jon Randall, took place in 1996. A duet between the pair, “By My Side,” went top 20 and led Morgan’s Greater Need album, which also included the top 5 “Good As I Was To You.” Morgan embarked on a headlining tour with Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter that summer. Her final big hits came from Shakin’ Things Up in 1997 – “Go Away” went top 5, while “One Of These Nights Tonight” peaked top 15. She released her autobiography, Forever Yours, Faithfully that fall.

Her hits may’ve dwindled, but the spotlight was shining bright. A duet with Sammy Kershaw (1999’s “Maybe Not Tonight”) led to the pair’s wedding in the fall of 2001. They released a duets album and Morgan said she’d never get divorced again. Their tumultuous six-year marriage (Morgan’s fifth) was a mess – they constantly fought, he allegedly tried to kill her, and broke up only to make up numerous times. She released an independent album, Show Me How in 2004.

The past decade has been the tamest of Morgan’s career. She filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in 2008, and married her sixth husband beachside in 2010, the same year she was set to perform on Broadway in Pure Country, a part that never came to fruition. She’s currently touring as one half of the duo Grits and Glamour with Tillis. The pair released their long-awaited duets project Dos Divas late last month.

Hope you enjoy our (drama free) look back at Lorrie Morgan’s career throughout the month.

Album Review: Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw and Aaron Tippin – ‘All In The Same Boat’

all in the same boatAaron Tippin, our current Spotlight Artist and two fellow 90s stars we have highlighted in the past, Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw, have been touring together recently, and this inspired them to team up for a new album together.

It isn’t really a trio record, with most tracks featuring a single lead singer, with the others relegated to backing vocals. Each man also produces his own tracks, with Diffie assisted by regular collaborator, drummer Lonnie Wilson, and Kershaw taking over production duties on the three tracks on which vocals are shared. The album features a fairly eclectic mix of revivals of each of the guys’ hits, new songs, and a couple of unexpected covers.

The three share the lead vocals only occasionally, with the tracks which bookend the setsetting a buddyish mood. The first is the title track, penned by Wynn Varble, Jamey Johnson and Don Poythress. The humorous song, about a group of friends escaping their wives for a fishing trip, is being promoted as a single, complete with comedic video which nicely undercuts the masculine posturing, and is one of those clips which does add something to the song it illustrates. The closing track is a tribute to ‘Old Friends’ through thick and thin, written by Ben Hayslip and Jim Beavers. Both are decent songs if not particularly memorable ones, and they work well presenting the men as friends. The three also collaborate on a new Sammy Kershaw composition, ‘The Route That I Took’. This is a serious song about experiences and life’s choices.

Of the revivals, Aaron picks ‘Kiss This’ (one of his less subtle numbers but tackled here with undeniable enthusiasm which makes it palatable) and the inspirational tribute to his dad, ‘He Believed’. Sammy’s ‘She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful’ is pleasant enough but seems redundant. Honestly, though, all three of the revivals could have been omitted as none adds anything to the original.

More adventurously, Joe Diffie chooses to cover country rocker Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’; the arrangement is nice with a prominent harmonica but Joe’s voice sounds a bit rough. Aaron Tippin is not really suited vocally to a standard like ‘The Way You look Tonight’, but it was an interesting idea if ultimately unsuccessful, and it’s nice to see artists taking the occasional risk.

Sammy Kershaw sings ‘On And On’ well but it’s rather a boring song. His best vocal of the album comes on the sincere ‘I Love To Work’, avowing his dedication to family and job, which he wrote with Bradley Gaskin and Billy Lawson.

Joe Diffie delivers a great vocal on his own ‘I’m Hangin’ On’, which is a pretty good song about a relationship falling apart, which he wrote with Steve Pippin. I also enjoyed his vocal on the playful up-tempo ‘Misery Loves Country’, written by Josh Kerr, David Fraiser and Edward Hill. These two cuts, and the three trio songs, are the pick of the bunch, and the most individually download-worthy, followed by ‘I Love To Work’.

This is not a bad album by any means, and there are quite a few tracks I like, but it’s not going to rank high on the discographies of any of its participants or to be an essential purchase for most fans.

Grade: B-

Week ending 4/27/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

kershaw1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga – Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga – Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga – Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Still – Bill Anderson (Decca)

1973: Superman – Donna Fargo (Dot)

1983: American Made — The Oak Ridge Boys (MCA)

1993: She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful — Sammy Kershaw (Mercury)

2003: Have You Forgotten? — Darryl Worley (DreamWorks)

2013: Cruise – Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Downtown – Lady Antebellum (Capitol)

Album Review: The Oak Ridge Boys – ‘Christmas Time’s A-Coming’

We kicked off the Christmas season with Wednesday’s review of Spotlight Artist Sammy Kershaw’s A Sammy Klaus Christmas. Continuing the theme, veteran performers the Oak Ridge Boys also have a new Christmas album out. It’s their sixth since 1982, but perhaps surprisingly there isn’t much overlap of material even though most of the songs are pretty familiar.

A delightful ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ opens proceedings genially. Gene Autry’s ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ makes great use of Richard Sterban’s gravelly bass. Sterban slightly overdoes it, though, on an otherwise attractive ‘White Christmas’.

The muscular ‘Peterbilt Sleigh’, written by Lonestar’s Richie McDonald (who has recorded it himself) with Philip Douglas and Ron Harbin, is a silly but quite entertaining story of Santa needing to call on a trucker for help when his sleigh breaks down one Christmas Eve. In contrast, the Harlan Howard song ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is a sweet, understated seasonal love song, with Sterban on lead.

The group sadly bring little new to ‘Christmas Time’s A Coming’ (although it’s enjoyable enough) or the overused ‘The Christmas Song’. I didn’t like their ridiculously overblown version of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ at all, and could also have done without a dragging take on ‘I’ll be Home For Christmas’.

The bulk of the material (as with Kershaw’s album) offers secular cheer, but brace of religious numbers appears three-quarters through the set. The best of these is the delicately tender ‘Getting Ready For A Baby’, written by Jerry Salley, Sue C Smith and Lee Black, and which touchingly explores the emotions of Mary and Joseph. An intimate ‘Mary, Did You Know’ is also feelingly interpreted.

‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (not the nursery rhyme, but a new song about the baby Jesus) has a faint Celtic feel but drags a bit. ‘Glorious Impossible’ is okay but a little forgettable. The hymn ‘Joy To The World’ seems on paper perfect fare for the quartet’s four part gospel harmonies, but an arrangement with electric guitars bursting in is horribly misjudged.

Overall, this makes a pleasant if inessential addition to the ranks of Christmas albums.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Matches’

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘A Sammy Klaus Christmas’

The most interesting thing about Sammy Kershaw’s brand new Christmas record is the topping and tailing of the record with two narrations of the old poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’, both completely without any musical backing. The one at the start of the album is done quite straight, and makes an attractive opening as Sammy proves himself a fine readers of the recitation who really brings the story to life. Then at the end, Sammy tries a reworking in a strongly accented Cajun-English patois, which has a lot of charm.

This is an almost completely secular take on Christmas, with a strong emphasis on the figure of Santa Claus, who rather bizarrely gets a personal thank you in the liner notes. Sammy produced, and also designed the cheap looking cover. His road band provide the backings, with Melonie Cannon, John Wesley Ryles and Garnet Bowman guesting on backing vocals.

A playful ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is perky and enjoyable and gets you in the Christmas mood even in November. ‘Up On The Housetop’ (the only song repeated from Sammy’s previous Christmas album, 1994’s Christmas Time’s A Comin’) is bright and cheerful; I really enjoyed this and prefer it to his previous version because that had a child singing half of it, not particularly well.

‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ is quite pleasantly Christmassy, and old chestnut ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ is likeably done.  ‘Jingle Bells’ is addressed energetically but unconvincingly, although I like the arrangement with the tentative piano representing the sleigh bells. ‘Have A Holly Jolly Christmas’ isn’t bad, but not particularly exciting. The pedestrian take on ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’ is paint-by-numbers and the poorest track here.

‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ is a blues number once recorded by Elvis, and while not really to my tastes, is quite well done. However, I didn’t like Sammy’s version of Ray Charles’ ‘That Spirit Of Christmas’ at all. The languid bluesy ballad about the joys of family time at Christmas ends up just sounding depressed. It is one of only two songs to mention Jesus at all, with the only really religious number a solemn reading of ‘Silent Night’, the most beautiful of all Christmas carols.

This isn’t quite as good as Christmas Time’s A Comin’, but it’s still quite an enjoyable Christmas album with a jovial party atmosphere.

Grade: B

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 – Sammy Kershaw – ‘I Want My Money Back’

By the mid-2000s Sammy Kershaw had severed ties his with Mercury Nashville, a partnership that concluded with the release of Greatest Hits, Chapter 2 in 2001. Now recording for Audium/Koch, Kershaw released I Want My Money Back in 2003 under the direction of Richard Landis.

The two singles begin a problem that penetrates the album. I Want My Money Back attempts to position Kershaw as a pop-country singer, thus stripping him of any resemblance to the man who recorded “Yard Sale” and “Matches.” The title track, which reached #33, is an atrocious tale of a man wanting to return the memories of a horrible date laid out with clichéd lyrics and a generic melody. Not much better was the second single, “I’ve Never Been Anywhere,” something similar to a country-rap that’s suffers from being too progressive.

Elsewhere Kershaw misses the mark completely adding a drum machine and echoing effect to the horrible “Miss What’s Her Name.” I will admit I enjoy the beat of the song, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea that this is Sammy Kershaw singing this. Same goes for both “Sunday on Bourbon Street” and “Are You Having Fun Yet.” The former, complete with its upbeat piano is too cheeky to be taken seriously, while the latter is too loud and comes off kind of desperate.

Kershaw tries to rebound towards the middle of the album, showcasing attempts at recreating his former glory. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel the results are below his best efforts. “Stitches” is an okay neo-traditional story song but nothing close to the caliber of material from his heyday, “Beer, Bait, and Ammo” lays the steel and fiddles on so thick it almost feels like parody, and “28/83 (She Ain’t In It For The Love)” starts out like classic Alan Jackson but only manages to muster up an unintelligent and rather idiotic tale about a gold digger framed with more cheese then Brad Paisley at his least inspired.

There’s no point dancing around the fact that I Want My Money Back is a very appropriately named and terribly constructed mess. There isn’t an outstanding let alone good or great song to be found here, but worse, Kershaw sounds like he’s in the throws of an identity crisis. Listening to this, Kershaw’s Emotional Traffic and Incredible Machine, you’d never know he could ever be compared to George Jones let alone rip your heart out with a killer honky-tonk heartbreaker.

I’ll recommend listening to it (the album is on Spotify) simply on the fact you should form your own opinion. But I’ll guarantee you you’ll wish you had the time back you spent listening to it.

Grade: D 

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Fire And Rain’

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Sammy Kershaw – ‘I Finally Found Someone’

Sammy Kershaw and fellow country star Lorrie Morgan joined forces both personally and professionally in 2001. The pair married that year and also collaborated on a one-off project for RCA that was released shortly after the major label phase of both artists’ careers had ended. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together; both had been members of George Jones’ road band in the early 80s, and they’d made occasional guest appearances on each other’s albums. One of those efforts, “Maybe Not Tonight” was a minor hit in 1999.

On the surface, a joint album from two of the most underrated stars of the 1990s seemed like a good idea; however, they were under-served by mostly second-rate material and the overall result is a rather dull and lackluster affair. The album consists of 12 tracks overall, six duets and three solo performances from each, and yielded only one charting single — the Jimmy Buffet-esque “He Drinks Tequila”, one of the few uptempo numbers in a very ballad-heavy and surprisingly AC-leaning album. It peaked at #39. The interminably dull title track, a remake of a Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams duet, was released as the second single, followed by “Sad City”, a Kershaw solo effort.

Among the duet numbers, “I Can’t Think of Anything But You”, a very nice ballad co-written by Skip Ewing, David Feritta and Alan Rich, is a highlight, as is “That’s Where I’ll Be”, an original number penned by Kershaw and Morgan. As far as the solo efforts are concerned, Lorrie’s selections are far better than Sammy’s. Particularly good are two introspective numbers in which she reflects on her fading youth — “29 Again” and her own composition, the excellent “I Must Be Gettin’ Older.” Kerhsaw’s solo performances are mostly disappointing; the non-charting single “Sad City”, which is by no means a great song, is the best of the bunch. He does a decent job on the pop standard “What A Wonderful World”, but one wonders why he chose to cover this song that really didn’t need to be remade again, particularly when there were only three solo numbers allotted to him on the album. The self-penned “Sugar” is truly terrible and makes one grateful that most of Kershaw’s catalog was supplied by outside songwriters.

One of the big surprises is how middle-of-the-road the song selections are. Morgan had occasionally ventured into AC-territory and the country music had definitely moved in a more pop direction by 2001, but both artists were known for their traditional leanings. Morgan had recently ended her association with BNA Records, citing her frustration with label pushing her in a more pop direction as a primary reason.

I Finally Found Someone did manage to reach #13 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, despite a lack of interest from radio and the fading popularity of both Morgan and Kershaw, but it is largely forgotten today and is an album that only diehard fans will bother to seek out.

Grade: C+

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Covers The Hits’

Compilation albums have long been the ploy of record companies looking to squeeze that last dollar out of artists who’ve moved on to other pursuits. In 2000 Mercury Nashville wasn’t any different, releasing Covers The Hits a collection of cover tunes Sammy Kershaw recorded throughout his tenure on the label.

Not surprisingly, the album came and went with little notice and there weren’t any singles to push its existence at radio and retail. It also didn’t help matters much that most of these covers weren’t that inspired to begin with and often rank among the worst music in Kershaw’s catalog (namely “Chevy Van” and “Memphis, Tennessee” from Politics, Religion, and Her, although the latter is listenable).

Kershaw’s cover of the Leo Sayer pop hit “More Than I Can Say,” taken from his Maybe Not Tonight is adequate, but really nothing more than a note for note sound-alike performance to the original. He pulls off his Beatles cover (from the 1995 tribute album Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles) vocally, but the muffled arrangement dampens my overall enjoyment of the song.

There are tracks here I actually really like, however. Kershaw is surprisingly in top form on his cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (from Red Hot + Country) and he turns in a version as good as the original. I also adore his fabulously restrained version of The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” which comes from the equally magnificent Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones from 1998. Kershaw’s contribution is a standout cut from that project, one of my all-time favorite tribute albums. The other favorite cut of mine is the opener, and only radio hit amongst these tracks, his 1994 #2 “Third Rate Romance.”

Kershaw also pulls off a strong version of Dr. Hook’s “Little Bit More,” the only previously unreleased track on the project. I love the traditional production and his strong vocal on the track. Overall, Covers The Hits scores more than it fails, although its slightly below any of Kershaw’s strongest original work. Extremely cheap used copies are available online and individual tracks can be found on YouTube.

Grade: C+

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘You’re Still On My Mind’

Here’s a classic cover from Sammy, paying tribute to George Jones:

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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