My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tim Johnson

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘The Truth About Men’

truthaboutmenBy 2003, Tracy Byrd was struggling to remain commercially viable so he and co-producer Billy Joe Walker, Jr. took a three-pronged approach for his RCA swan song,The Truth About Men, which combines the neotraditional sounds for which he had become well known with more contemporary material and a pair of novelty songs that they hoped would allow them to further capitalize on the success of the prior year’s #1 hit “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”.

First out of the box was the tongue-in-cheek but blatantly honest title track that bravely declares how men (allegedy) really feel: “We ain’t wrong, we ain’t sorry, and it’s probably gonna happen again.” Written by Paul Overstreet with Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson, and with guest vocals provided by Andy Griggs, Blake Shelton and Montgomery Gentry, “The Truth About Men” didn’t reach the lofty heights of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, peaking at #13. And no doubt everyone involved had some explaining to do to their wives. Novelty tunes tend to wear thin after repeated listenings, but this is a fun song that I’ve always enjoyed. The follow-up single, “Drinkin’ Bone”, which is one part novelty tune and one part party song, fared much better. It landed at #7, marking the last time that Byrd would chart inside the Top 10. Playing it safe and pandering to radio’s growing interest in less substantive songs, RCA released the Carribbean-flavored “How’d I Wind Up In Jamaica”. The production is a bit cluttered on this one and by the time of its release, Byrd was on his way out at RCA, so the single received little promotion and stalled at #53. A missed opportunity was the Rodney Crowell composition “Making Memories of Us”, which should have been released as a single. Byrd’s version is much better than the version Keith Urban took to #1 two years later.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. The steamy “You Feel Good” is my least favorite song on the album. I admit to being put off by the reference to Byrd sleeping in the nude in the opening line, and that made me really not want to listen much to the rest of the song, but the real problem is that it requires a more soulful performance than Byrd delivers. Conway Twitty could probably have made this song work. “That’s What Keeps Her Getting By” and “When You Go” are attempts to move along with the musical times but both are forgettable filler, as is the power ballad “Somewhere I Wanna Go”. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the Keith Stegall-penned “Tiny Town” and “Baby Put Your Clothes On”, which was written by Paul Overstreet, Bill Anderson, and Buddy Cannon. Not surprisingly, Byrd is at his best when he’s singing more traditional songs.

The album closes with a live version of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, which not surprisingly works well in a concert setting.

The Truth About Men marks the end of the major-label phase of Tracy Byrd’s career. It was a modest success, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart but it failed to earn gold certification. It isn’t his very best work, but it contains enough worthwhile songs to warrant purchasing a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Joey + Rory: ‘Made To Last’

joeyandroryBarely three months after the release of a collection of inspirational songs, Joey + Rory are back with Made To Last, their fifth album overall and the first released on their own Farmhouse Recordings imprint. Like its predecessors, its songs are homespun tales of love and heartache with touch of nostalgia and the occasional more contemporary number, all simply yet elegantly produced.

To get things started, the duo dusts off the old Townes Van Zandt chestnut “If I Needed You”, which is a faithful reproduction of the Emmylou Harris and Don Williams recording that reached #3 in 1981. It is the first of the album’s two cover songs, which will be familiar to many country fans. The second is “Just A Cup Of Coffee”, which finds Joey trying to keep her expectations in check before a reunion with an old flame. The Stephanie Davis-penned tune was included as a bonus track on Trisha Yearwood’s Greatest Hits album in 2007. It’s an excellent song that deserves wider attention, but sadly isn’t considered commercially viable in the current environment.

Made To Last conatins no surprises — in fact most of the songs were already performed on the duo’s RFD television series — and no artistic stretches. Instead the duo gives their fans exactly what they have come to expect: typical Joey + Rory fare — quiet and mostly acoustic fare that makes the listener feel as though he or she is sitting around the living room with Joey and Rory. Among the highlights are two tear-jerkers: “50,000 Names”, a Jamie O’Hara composition that pays homage to the fallen heroes of the Vietnam War and “Now That She’s Gone”, a Rory Feek co-write with Morgane Hayes, which tells the sad story of a young widower who is unable to come to terms with his devasating loss. “Made To Last” is a lovely ballad written Austin Cunningham and Allen Shamblin number that talks about the increasingly rare enduring items in a throw-away society. Both “50,000 Names” and “Made To Last” feature Rory on lead vocals — the duo is sharing lead vocal duties as they did on His and Hers. I haven’t been a huge fan of his singing in the past, but I’ve come to appreciate his vocal abilities on this collection.

Two of the album’s most intimate numbers discuss the music business itself: Tim Johnson’s “To Do What I Do” expresses appreciation for the fans, whose support compensates for the dues-paying that comes with an entertainment career. In “I Sing For You”, the husband and wife duo address each other, vowing to continue singing for each other, even when the world is no longer listening.

The album’s weaker moments are on two of the uptempo numbers: “Good Truck”, a Rory co-write with Zac Brown, Coy Bowles and Nick Cowa and “I Love You Song”. The former isn’t a bad song per se, but like many country fans I’m suffering from truck song fatigue, although this one is admittedly a great deal better than any other truck song I’ve heard lately. “I Love You Song” is lyrically vapid filler.

I was slightly underwhelmed by last year’s His and Hers, so I was pleasantly surprised when the material turned out to be stronger this time around. It is quite possibly my favorite Joey + Rory album to date and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘The Rock’

the rockMany country artists recording a religious album tend to include a fair percentage of hymns and other wellworn gospel tunes. Tracy took the more adventurous path of picking all-new material. The range and quality of the songs, unfortunately, is less ambitious. He produced with Julian Lord, and released the record on his own label, Rocky Comfort Records.

Tracy wrote one song with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, the opening confessional ‘Dear Lord’, which is okay but comes across more than a little cozily self-satisfied. Tracy’s own past well-publicized misdemeanours would seem to provide him with the real-life experiences to make a convincing job of much meatier material touching on sinners’ salvation.

‘I’m Done’ (written by Steve Seskin and Mike Shamblin) is the closest the album comes to that kind of song, and is much more interesting as a result. Here a troubled narrator decides to change his life around by forgiving his enemies:

Life hit me when I wasn’t looking
It dealt me a hard hand to play
I felt betrayed and forsaken
But I’ve been making the wrong people pay
And I’m done
I’m done

I’ve spent my last night in that prison
Where anger and pride were the bars
Hey, I’m here to tell you
I’m making peace with the past
And I’m not ashamed of my scars
But I’m done

I’m done harbouring grudges and nursing old wounds
Not clinging to grudges and singing the blues
I’m done pointing fingers at everyone else
I’m taking a long hard look at myself
A new day has begun
And I’m done

The production is a bit busier than necessary, but this song has a weight and depth too often lacking elsewhere.

Even better is ‘Up To Him’, a somber song rooted in real life written by David Kent and Tim Johnson, about dealing with hard times and the fear of worse, which is my favourite track. The narrator hedges his bets a little by combining prayer with his own efforts to get a leg up.

Who knows what’s going to happen in the end?
I just work like it’s all up to me
And pray like it’s all up to Him

The song was released as a single, and although it didn’t crack the top 40 did fairly well for a religious song on an independent label, peaking at #47.

The less successful follow-up single, ‘Somebody Who Would Die For You’ briefly narrates the stories of a homeless veteran, a neglected old father, and the victim of a school shooting. It is movingly sung, although the stories are a little disjointed and the strings swamp the arrangement.

‘The Book You Never Read’ slows things down quite nicely, as Tracy takes the voice of the Bible addressing a troubled soul. The similarly anthropomorphic title track is the story of a Savannah church, set to an attractive tune, led into by the churchy strains of an organ; a choir comes in effectively and appropriately on the last chorus and this is nicely done. These are both pretty decent songs.

Of the less memorable material, ‘Jesus Come Talk To Your Children’ also has gospel backing vocals, but is a bit shouty and demanding. ‘Say A Prayer’ is about prayer in difficult situations (alcoholism, cancer) and is clearly sincere, but heavy-handed and sentimental rather than having a clear message. ‘I Know Where Heaven Is’ and ‘Every Prayer’ are pleasant but forgettable.

This isn’t the best religious album I’ve ever heard, but it’s not bad. Used copies are available quite cheaply, so it’s worth picking up if you like Tracy Lawrence and religious material.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘The Walls Came Down’

RayewallsIn the wake of the success of I Think About You, Epic Nashville released The Best of Colin Raye: Direct Hits in the spring of 1997. Lead single “What The Heart Wants,” a mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #2 while the Phil Vassar co-write “Little Red Rodeo” was a top 5 hit. Both are excellent songs, and the latter is still one of his biggest recurrent hits today.

Kim Tribble and Tammy Hyler’s “I Can Still Feel You” returned Raye to the top of the charts for the first time in three years and served as the lead single for The Walls Came Down, his fifth studio release for Epic. The single was a change in tone for Raye, with a decidedly slicker production marked by pronounced percussion and guitar work. I like it, but it’s far from a favorite.

Much better is the second single, Tim Johnson and Rory Lee Feek’s “Someone I Used To Know.” It’s an excellent lyric and the first major cut of Feek’s songwriting career (he bought his barn the year after this hit peaked – he and Joey now film their TV show there). Back in his signature ballad mode, Raye shines with this tale of a man’s anguish towards his malevolent ex:

Like a friend, like a fool

Like some guy you knew in school

Didn’t we love, didn’t we share

Or don’t you even care

I know we said we were through

But I never knew how quickly I would go

From someone you loved

To someone you used to know

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Classic Rewind: Daryle Singletary – ‘I Let Her Lie’

Country songwriter Tim Johnson died of cancer over the weekend. In memory of him, here’s an acoustic version of a song he wrote for Daryle Singletary in the 90s:

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘IV’

While riding high on the success of three gold and platinum albums, a consistent run of hit singles and shelves of industry awards, Diamond Rio issued their fourth Arista album, appropriately titled IV in 1996. It would continue their run at the top with 3 more top 5 hits and another hitting the top 20, and would quickly be certified gold.

Lead single ‘Walkin’ Away’ features an easy melody and implores lovers to hold it together, “baby don’t go there, love don’t get nowhere, walkin’ away“. Steel guitar flourishes propel the melody and Marty Roe’s vocal, and helped send it to #2 on the Country Singles chart. ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’ follows closely to the first single, so much that they mirror one another when played back to back. This track doesn’t follow a disagreement between lovers, but celebrates the pair’s union, and became Diamond Rio’s 11th top 10 hit when it peaked at #4.

The stand-out single was the cheeky ‘It’s All In Your Head’, penned by the great Reese Wilson with Tony Martin and Van Stephenson. With its swampy beat and masterful grasp on the idiosyncracies of the devoutly religious, it is my favorite song from Diamond Rio. It tells the story of a “sidewalk, soapbox preacher lookin’ forward to the end of the world” who marries a “messed up, dressed up waitress with a slightly tarnished heart of gold” from the point of view of the preacher’s caustic son. The preacher is finally felled by snake venom “stronger than his faith“, and he goes out of the world repeating his conspiracy-theory mantra. It was also the album’s least successful single, stopping at #15 on the charts in the Summer of 1996.

IV is characterized by the group’s tight harmonies as they wrap them around their trademark breezy melodies, which elevate even the lesser tracks like “She Sure Did Like To Run” and “Love Takes You There”. The album is not without a few clunkers either. “Is That Too Much To Ask” glides along smoothly with the electric guitar jamming throughout, but its repetitive chorus and mundane lyrics about “wanting it all” leave the entire effort a bore to listen to.

The best tracks come from a pair of ballads. Released as a single in Germany, “She Misses Him On Sunday The Most” tells the story of a widow and the grief she feels most on Sunday mornings, sitting alone in the church pew as a tinkling piano is complimented by an acoustic guitar. “Just Another Heart” makes good use of its card-playing analogies and is a well-written song all around, from the writing team of Skip Ewing and Tim Johnson.

While IV was less successful than its predecessor – it didn’t go platinum – and while it had some definite soft spots, it is still an essential addition to their discography, and a solid effort from the group.

Grade: B

Buy it from amazon.

Single Review: Terri Clark – ‘Girls Lie Too’

One of Terri’s biggest hit singles never appeared on a studio album, but was one of the new tracks included to persuade fans to purchase a Greatest Hits compilation in 2004. It can now also be downloaded individually. It was her second #1, but sadly her last really big hit single.

Answer songs have a long tradition in country music, but have fallen out of favor in the past 20 years. But at least thematically, this hit single was definitely an answer song to Tracy Byrd’s hilarious 2003 hit ‘The Truth About Men’ (written by Paul Overstreet, Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson), which revealed some of the white lies employed to keep gender relations on an even keel within a romantic relationship.

Written by Connie Harrington, Kelley Lovelace and Tim Nichols, this sardonic response putting the feminine point of view is a bit heavy-handed in comparison, and has a less interesting tune and rather loud production. Where the original didn’t take itself altogether seriously, but combined a self-deprecating sense of fun with a grain of truth which most men and women would recognise, this song feels as though it is trying a little too hard to prove a point. Terri’s energetic and committed vocal helps to sell the song, perhaps better than anyone else could have done, but despite being one of her biggest radio successes, it is not one of her best moments on record.

Byrd’s record recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to help out, and perhaps Terri’s song would have worked better with a similar playful chorus of female stars.

Grade: B

But the song at amazon.

Album Review: Cumberland Gap Connection – ‘A Whole Lotta Lonesome’

The Cumberland Gap Connection is a little-known bluegrass band, but one who has given me a very pleasant surprise with this album (on Kindred Records). I understand it is their fourth, although it’s the first I’ve come across (thanks to a link posted on The 9513 a few weeks ago). The members hail from Kentucky and Tennessee, and the record was recorded in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee.

Usual lead singer Mike Bentley has an attractive smooth tenor voice, laid back style, and natural understated sense of phrasing, and is also a fine songwriter who was responsible for five of the album’s twelve tracks. He also plays guitar, and his talents provide the band’s focus and the core of the record’s appeal. My favorite of these (and one of the album’s highlights) is the dejected ‘Waiting At the Harbor’, a very well written song with some interesting imagery. One of life’s lost souls, the protagonist of this song has no idea of what to do with his life:

How can you find a home when you can’t move on?
Feels like I’m waiting at the harbor for a train

On a similar theme and almost as good is the opening track ‘Travel All Alone’, which reflects thoughtfully on regret for past choices leading to the loss of a loving home.

The high lonesome sound of ‘Ode To The Mountain Man’ is about a father teaching the protagonist “how to be a good man”, in a way which shows all those country living anthems they might just be missing the point:

It ain’t about where you come from
It’s about where you stand
Just living in the mountains don’t make you a mountain man…

You might live in the city in a mansion doing well
Or you might own a two room shack on top of the hill
The almighty dollar don’t make you good or bad
It’s what’s inside that you let out that makes the mountain man

I assume this is specifically about, and inspired by, Bentley’s late father, who died in 2006 and to whom he dedicates his work on the record.

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Cowboy’s Back In Town’

Trace Adkins is one of the most frustrating artists in country music. He has a genuinely great voice, real interpretative ability and (when he chooses to exercise it), a sense of subtlety. When that natural talent is allied to great, or even good, songs, the result is close to sublime. Sadly, his musical taste is questionable, and he has recorded some of the worst songs released in the last ten years. His 2008 release, X, went a long way to restoring my faith in him as an artist, but regrettably, country radio was less enthused than it was for his worst efforts, like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’, an execrable song which managed to top the charts.

Everything I heard in advance of this project’s release led me to expect Trace would be back to his worst. Radio’s lack of support for the singles from X, the move from Capitol to Toby Keith’s label. It says a lot for my admiration of Trace at his best that I was prepared to buy this, despite my concerns about the project. The first single, the truly horrible shoutfest ‘Ala-Freakin-Bama’, was a particularly disturbing sign. When Trace announced his departure from Capitol soon after the release of that single, I had hoped it would never re-surface. Unfortunately, Trace secured the rights to the last recordings he made for Capitol, and chose to include it on his debut for Show Dog Universal. Luckily, there is only one other song as bad, aggressively tuneless closing track ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, whose title says it all.

The grunt in the preamble to opening track ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’, which is the first we hear from Trace, was not a good start either, although the song itself is not that bad – mediocre rather than awful, albeit too loud, one-note, and repetitive as it tells ths story of a farm couple who abandon their duties for a literal roll in the hay. Mostly, this record leans to the average rather than the overtly bad, with some pretty good songs.

Current single ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ is quite a nice ballad (if a little repetitive) which was one of the few promising signs before the record’s release. Another alarm signal was raised when I originally saw the tracklisting and saw Trailer Choir were guesting on one song, ‘Don’t Mind If I Don’t’, but this was unfair as the end result is only mildly irritating, with Trailer Choir themselves barely noticeable. The song is boring, but inoffensive.

There are a couple of attempts at humor. Much of ‘Hold My Beer’ is shouted rather than sung but the lyrics (about a drunken wedding party, courtesy of Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell and Ed Hill) are mildly amusing, although I think they will pall with repetition. I can see this as a single complete with over-the-top video. The ironic backseat driver ode ‘Hell I Can Do That’ is rather better in the lighthearted vein, written by Jim Collins, Tony Martin and Lee Miller, with an engaging everyman feel and playful use of instrumentation.

The title track is quite a pleasant midpaced story song about a city woman whose life improves whenever her cowboy boyfriend comes to visit. It is one of Trace’s rare compositions, alongside Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard. Also pretty good is the love song ‘A Little Bit Of Missing You’, written by Mickey Jack Cones (who co-produces this track), Jim McCormick and Tim Johnson. Although it feels a bit over produced, it provides one of the few really melodic moments on the album, and one of the few times Trace’s gravelly bass notes are used to good effect. Most of the songs here could literally be sung by anyone, and Trace’s great voice is simply under utilised.

The highlight is the string laden ‘Still Love You’, a tender ballad co-written by Jeff Bates, where again Trace shows us he really is a fine vocalist with sensitive interpretative ability. The song itself is still only average compared to some of the outstanding ballads Trace has given us in the past.

I also liked ‘Break Her Fall’, a story of a teenage romance between a “long haired country boy” and a rich man’s daughter, written by Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy, with a little too much electric guitar for my taste. It’s a familiar, even clichéd, story, but nicely done with some specific color which makes it convincing and a few memorable lines:

She used me like a razor blade
To cut the ties that bind
Freed herself from Daddy’s world
Got tangled up in mine

This isn’t quite as bad as I was fearing, or Trace’s worst album (a title I would award to Dangerous Man), but it is still a real waste of his talent.

Grade: C

Another shot for Blaine Larsen

blainelarsenOne of my favorite singers to come along in the past few years is Washington native Blaine Larsen.  In 2004, he released his first album on the small Giantslayer Records, under the wing of the label’s owners Tim Johnson and Rory Lee Feek, now of Joey + Rory fame.  The next year, the 19 year-old had an album out on BNA, the same tracks from his debut, with one single added.  It turned out to be the hit ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’, which was written by Rory Lee Feek and Jamie Teachenor and became Larsen’s only top 20 country hit to date, rising to #18.  He would release three more singles from his first 2 albums over the next couple years, with little success.

I first heard Blaine Larsen on the radio one day in 2005.  I remember thinking he was a great singer and also that it was nice to hear a mature voice on the radio.  His richly defined baritone and the powerful single ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’ definitely had my attention.  A couple days later the video was playing on CMT and I saw this skinny blonde kid, obviously younger than I am but sounding like a seasoned veteran.  I got over that initial juxtaposition and have been impressed with this guy ever since.  I kept expecting him to hit big with one of his singles, but despite some mild success – three top 40 hits – he hasn’t had that initial breakthrough yet.

Now Blaine Larsen has been signed as the flagship artist for the newly-founded Treehouse Records.  His first single ‘It Did’ is up on his MySpace page and is going to radio sometime this month.  Maybe this new deal with the label firmly behind him is just what Blaine Larsen needs.  Here’s wishing him good luck.

Also, check out this choice track from his sophomore album, ‘Lips of a Bottle’, featuring Gretchen Wilson.

Album Review: Joey Martin – ‘Strong Enough To Cry’

joeymartin1Joey + Rory were my favorite duo on last year’s Can You Duet, but I felt a little guilty about hoping they would win, because I couldn’t help feeling Joey was really a solo singer, with Rory just there to support her. I would have been perfectly happy if she had built on the exposure of the TV show to release a solo record, but of course the pair went on to record one of the best albums of 2008 in The Life Of A Song.

Before Can You Duet, though, Joey was indeed a solo singer. Before she married Rory, she was signed for a while to Sony Records, who dropped her without releasing any material, and in 2005 she recorded a solo album. It was originally released on the couple’s own Giantslayer Records; available as a digital download after Can You Duet was aired; and when Joey + Rory were signed to promote retailer Overstock, they cannily managed to persuade the store to stock the album in CD format.

I have just managed to get hold of a copy, and I’m not disappointed. The songs are not as good as those on the exceptional The Life Of A Song, but there is a pretty good selection, and overall this is a good album by one of the best female country singers to emerge in the last decade. Joey has one of those voices that could really only be country, with a distinctive timbre.

The album kicks off with a few bars from the classic ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’, sung by Joey’s mother June Martin (who has a pretty good, slightly old-fashioned voice) accompanied by her father Jack. Further snippets from this recording are inserted between a few of the other tracks. Technically, the album starts with Joey inviting her parents to play the song, and ends with them all chatting and giggling in the studio. This was probably intended to underscore the charming home-made feel of the project, but comes across as a little self-indulgent, and by the second listen I was distinctly irritated. This aside, there is a strong family element to the record. Although Rory does not sing on it, the harmony singers include June Martin and Rory’s daughter Heidi, and even Rufus, the family dog, gets in on the act. Rory produces (with one Bill McDermott), and of course contributes his songwriting talent.

The best songs are the title track and ‘See You There’, which are the first (real) track and the penultimate one. ‘Strong Enough To Cry’ is an excellent song co-written by Rory with veteran songwriter Max D. Barnes, and showcases Joey’s excellent voice; this cut could easily be a hit single. ‘See You There’ is almost too personal, and may be too much for some, as it tells the story of the early death of Joey’s brother; some of the detail feels rather like trespassing on someone else’s private grief, and some of the rhymes feel a little too obvious, but the song has a real emotional impact. Joey and Rory wrote this song together, as they did ‘Nothing To Remember’, a charming song with a pretty tune and a good hook (“I’d rather have something to forget than nothing to remember”).

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