I’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy hearing songwriters’ own interpretations of songs which they have written for other artists. The latest example comes from Kim Williams, a name you should recognize if you pay attention to the songwriting credits. Kim has been responsible for no fewer than 16 number 1 hits, and many more hit singles and album tracks over the past 20 years. Now he has released an album containing his versions of many of his big hits, together with some less familiar material.
The album is sub-titled Country Hits Bluegrass Style, although the overall feel of the record is more acoustic country with bluegrass instrumentation provided by some of the best bluegrass musicians around: Tim Stafford (who produces the set) on guitar, Ron Stewart on fiddle and banjo, Adam Steffey on mndolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass, with Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford providing harmony vocals. Kim’s voice is gruff but tuneful, and while he cannot compare vocally to most of those who have taken his songs to chart success, he does have a warmth and sincerity which really does add something to the songs he has picked on this album.
Kim includes three of the songs he has written for and with Garth Brooks, all from the first few years of the latter’s career. ‘Ain’t Going Down (Til The Sun Comes Up’), a #1 for Garth in 1993, provides a lively opening to the album, although it is one of the less successful tracks, lacking the original’s hyperactivity while not being a compelling or very melodic song in its own right. ‘Papa Loved Mama’ is taken at a slightly brisker pace than the hit version, and is less melodramatic as a result – neither better nor worse, but refreshingly different. ‘New Way To Fly’, which was recorded by Garth on No Fences, also feels more down to earth and less intense than the original, again with a very pleasing effect.
The other artist whose repertoire is represented more than once here is Joe Diffie. The lively western swing of ‘If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets’ (written with Ken Spooner) with its newly topical theme of being well and truly broke is fun. Although ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (from the 1992 album Regular Joe) was never released as a single, this tender ballad about separation from a loved one has always been one of my favorite Joe Diffie recordings. Kim’s low-key, intimate version wisely avoids competing vocally, but succeeds in its own way.
One of my favorite hit singles this decade was ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 2002, which Kim wrote with Doug Johnson. A movie based on the story is apparently in development. I still love Randy’s version, but while Kim is far from the vocalist Randy is, this recording stands up on its own terms, with an emotional honesty in Kim’s delivery which brings new life to the story.
The song which sounds most different from its hit incarnation is ‘My Blue Angel’, a top 10 hit for (and co-write with) Aaron Tippin in 1993, where Kim omits the falsetto Aaron used. It works well as a straightforward sad country cheating song. One of the highlights is ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, written with Buddy Brock and Jerry Lassiter, which Gary Allan included on Smoke Rings In The Dark, and has also been recorded by Doug Stone. Kim’s version is very seriously delivered, almost solemn, and is one of his best vocal performances.
A cut I hadn’t heard is ‘The Rocking Of The Cradle’, another collaboration with the excellent Doug Johnson, which is on Rodney Atkins’s new album It’s America. This rather exuberant guide to life, “from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of that long black limousine”, has a bit more lyrical weight, and much more charm, than many songs of the kind:
“I came in this world with nothing, that’s how I’ll leave someday
And all I’ll take with me is the love I gave away
Love’s the only difference between a pauper and a king.”
Another I hadn’t heard before was ‘God Save Us All From Religion’, written with Doug Johnson and Charlie Daniels and recorded by Daniels a couple of years ago. Kim has written a number of Christian hits as well as country ones, so it should come as no surprise that this is not quite what you might expect from the title. A bar-room philosopher spouts the phrase to the protagonist, shocking him, and talking about religious wars and preachers, but the song draws a contrast between the failings of human beings, even those professing religious beliefs, and the grace of God:
“Ain’t it a shame how the world’s gone insane
How we hate and we hurt and we kill in God’s name
Heaven above knows the answer is love
But it’s sure hard to find it down here…
If it were up to religion, I’d go right to Hell
But with mercy and faith and God’s saving grace
I know I am forgiven
God save us all from religion.”
Another fine philosophical song about the search for faith and peace of mind is ‘The Seeker’, which Kim wrote with Austin Cunningham and one-time Warner Brothers recording artist Lance Miller:
“I know you don’t know me, I don’t even know myself…
I ain’t found the road to heaven but I’ve paved the one to Hell
Fools, saints and wise men, we all meet the same end
I learned enough to know that I don’t know
I’m a searcher, I’m a seeker, a doubter and believer
I’ve been lost and found out on life’s road
Met the Devil, met an angel, but I never met a stranger
Just a lot of lonely people I don’t know…
I don’t want to die still wrestling with God.”
‘The Last Suit You Wear’ is a fine, if melancholy, song about death and what really matters in life, written with Larry Shell and Kim’s brother Larry Williams, which was a bluegrass hit for a third Larry, Larry Sparks. Larry Williams tragically committed suicide in 2004, and Kim wrote ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’ with friends Larry Shell and Jeff Silvey as a tribute to his brother. The song is beautiful but deeply sad, if not outright depressing, as the narrator reflects first on the “old friend” who took his own life, and then a woman who has left:
“He’s on my mind tonight
We all know why he took his life
God, I miss my old friend….
Precious memories flooding in
Wonder will I sink or swim
Here comes the rain again…
I’ve had a lot of sunshine in my life
Sure could use a ray or two tonight.”
The album closes with a much more positive personal song, the more-or-less title track, ‘You’re The Reason That I Sing’, written once more with Doug Johnson, which is a heartfelt and genuinely touching tribute to Kim’s wife Phyllis as the inspiration for his music and, indeed his whole life. He pays further tribute to her in the CD liner notes, particularly to the years supporting him through pain and reconstructive surgery following a serious accident.
This charming record is available digitally or in CD format from CDBaby or from Kim’s website.