My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: November 2009

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘Making Believe’

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Cowboy Town’

For what would be their final studio album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the duo turned in a near carbon copy of their previous releases from this decade.  And in what appears to be a split-down-the-middle approach, Ronnie Dunn dominates the first half of the disc with both his lead vocals taking on the first five songs as well as them coming from his own pen.  Kix Brooks gets his chance to shine on the second half.  And while both members turn in a few solid performances to winning lyrics, they seem to have either went out of their way to separate their contributions, or were just getting sloppy at this point, and stacked Ronnie’s studio performances next to Kix’s to make the disc’s eventual song order.  I’d think it was a bit of both, but more of the latter.

For his half, Ronnie Dunn would obviously account for the singles.  Kix had become a full-time sideman by this point, having not sang lead on a Brooks & Dunn single since 1999.  The title track kicks off the disc, written by Ronnie with Paul Nelson and Larry Boone.  It’s another declaration of affection for the small town life, only this time it’s a ‘cowboy town’ though sentiments like ‘sweat of our brow’ and wearing your boots to church have been used to describe more than the ranching lifestyle lately, so the lyric is a bit generalized.   The same writing team also gave us ‘Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)’, which finds Dunn singing the praises of his heroes.  The lead single, ‘Proud of the House We Built’, a mid-tempo Marv Green and Ronnie Dunn composition.  This testament to the power of lasting love sailed to a #4 peak on the Country Singles chart.

Citing Reba McEntire as the inspiration behind ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’, the pair performed the song on the 2008 CMA Awards show with Reba, before adding her to the single version, and crediting the song on the charts to Brooks & Dunn with Reba McEntire. Peaking at #2 on the charts, it became the second top 10 pairing of the two acts.  The concept of a tough cowgirl, set to a three-act country story song, is akin to ‘Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma’, which Ronnie Dunn wrote with Reba for her 2007 Duets project.  I’ve always said I don’t think McEntire added much to the single, but the more I listen to it (thanks, radio), the more I understand and appreciate her contribution.

The rocked up ‘Put A Girl In It’ was third to radio, and it’s a tribute to the duo’s hits of the past if nothing else.  One of few outside written songs, this one was penned by one time ’90s hit-maker Rhett Atkins with Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson. Complete with rodeo-style yells from Ronnie, it fits in neatly with their similar-sounding hits and works just as well in concert with their mega-size inflatable cowgirls.  It went to #3 on the charts.  So ends the Ronnie Dunn-styled half of Cowboy Town, though he still has a few more vocal performances to give before the disc ends.

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Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Misery and Gin’

Week ending 11/28/09: #1 singles this week in country music history

1949: Slippin’ Around — Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely (Capitol)

1959: Country Girl — Faron Young (Capitol)

1969: Okie From Muskogee — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1979: Broken Hearted Me — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1989: Yellow Roses — Dolly Parton (Columbia)

1999: I Love You — Martina McBride (RCA)

2009: Need You Now — Lady Antebellum (Capitol)

Week ending 11/28/09: #1 albums this week in country music history

1984: Willie Nelson – City of New Orleans (Sony)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: George Strait – Lead On (MCA)

1999: Faith Hill – Breathe (Warner Brothers)

2004: Shania Twain – Greatest Hits (Mercury)

2009: Carrie Underwood- Play On (19/Arista)

Classic Rewind: Brooks & Dunn – ‘South of Santa Fe’

I’ve made it a point not to use music videos for this feature, but I decided to make an exception for this.  Enjoy.

Classic Rewind: Skeeter Davis – ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Thanks Again’

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Classic Rewind: George Jones & Tammy Wynette – ‘We Loved It Away’

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Red Dirt Road’

Following the momentum-reviving Steers & Stripes album, Brooks & Dunn released Red Dirt Road in 2003.  This album would continue the evolution of the sound of the duo, with more pop-leaning tracks and fewer of the high-octane honky tonk that defined their 1990s work.

Another generous helping of music from the duo – the 15 tracks total just under an hour’s worth of music – it would also continue in the success of its predecessor, hitting #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and housing three top 10 singles.

The title track was the lead single, and quickly shot to the top.  With a basic concept that could easily become cringe-worthy, writers Kix and Ronnie keep the lyrics simple enough for everyman, yet original enough to please the tough-sell critics.  And lines like ‘I learned the path to heaven, Is full of sinners and believers’ aren’t really ground-breaking, they’re definitely worth repeating.  The catchy melody didn’t hurt it any with radio either.

Backsliding a little into old habits, ‘You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out of The Girl’ tells the story of Connie, a jet-setting honky tonk lady who shows up barefoot at her cousin’s wedding reception before eventually running off with the groom to Mexico. This classy gem went to #3 on the charts.

The final single – which peaked at #6 – is the romantic ‘That’s What She Gets For Loving Me’, not to be confused with Diamond Rio’s ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’. The swaying number, complete with fiddle and steel, is a great listen, and Ronnie turns in a stellar vocal performance.

Other memorable moments include the bluesy plea for mercy ‘Caroline’, which finds Ronnie reaching for falsetto a little more often than is really necessary.  ‘Feels Good Don’t It’, written by Ronnie Dunn with Terry McBride, is a classic rock inspired ode to true love.

‘I Used To Know This Song By Heart’ is one of my favorites from the album.  My favorite Brooks & Dunn songs are the great ballads Ronnie Dunn’s blistering tenor bring to life, and this is great example of that.  The Jerry Lynn Williams-penned tune features nearly 2 minutes work of electric guitar solos in between Ronnie’s vocal, and the choir in the background gives the song a vintage vibe.

Again stepping outside their comfort zone, the calypso-inspired ‘Till My Dying Day’ is a fun listen.  A swampy guitar kicks off the swinging ‘My Baby’s Everything I Love’, which sounds like something that would feat neatly on a George Strait album.

Meandering through every topic and emotion imaginable, this album seems like it has more of Kix and Ronnie’s personal stamp on it than any other album of their career, and for that, it’s also the most varied, yet cohesive set in their catalog.  Listening to the songs in order, you get a sense the two were trying to tell their stories, one by one, and succeeded on almost every level.  Co-produced with Mark Bright, Red Dirt Road would be another platinum-selling album to add to the duo’s collection, and further cemented their place as the reigning duo in country music for the next few years.

Grade: A-

Red Dirt Road is in print, and is widely available at all retailers, including Amazon.

Classic Rewind: Reba McEntire – ‘Somebody Should Leave’

Single Review: Brad Paisley – ‘American Saturday Night’

As I stated in my review from way back in June of the album that’s named after this song, I’ve always just been a casual fan of Brad Paisley. That’s why I was so surprised by American Saturday Night– it just clicked with me, not to mention it was a surprising quality album from a mainstream country act.

Brad Paisley has recently used his wit to perform random tick-checks on girls, lambast any potential feminine traits in guys everywhere and ruthlessly tear apart any geeks: but now he uses his wit for the forces of good! In “American Saturday Night” he casually observes the melting pot characteristic of America. It’s not pushy and stupid like recent hit “It’s America”, but rather just honest and well-written. Whether he comments on spanish moss or toga parties, it’s interesting to see how many foreign things really do make up an American Saturday night.

While I’m a little sad his streak of #1’s ended with “Welcome To The Future”, Brad won’t be slowing down any time soon. This song is fast, catchy and filled with nice electric guitar work that’s interspersed with just enough fiddle and steel guitar to keep it on the country side of country-pop radio. With guitar solos aplenty, it’s not a song for purists, but it’s so enjoyable it doesn’t really matter.

I’ll still hope for a release of “Everybody’s Here”, but this song is just as good in my book- and it’s the Brad Paisley that everyone expects and enjoys. I like this Brad way better than the Brad on “I’m Still A Guy”…

Grade: A

Written by: Brad Paisley, Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace

Listen to “American Saturday Night” here on Last FM

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘I’m Doing This For Your Sake’

I’d forgotten about this song when Occasional Hope blogged about adoption a few days ago:

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Steers & Stripes’

1999’s Tight Rope was a commercial failure by Brooks & Dunn’s standards; it yielded no major radio hits and became the duo’s first studio album not to be certified platinum. Not surprisingly, they made some some changes for their next project, in their attempts to break out of the artistic and commercial rut in which they had found themselves. Mark Wright came on board as co-producer for 2001’s Steers & Stripes, which proved to be one of Brooks & Dunn’s more consistent and satisfying albums. Though it does have its flaws, they are more easily forgiven, thanks to a generous offering of fourteen tracks. Steers & Stripes finds the duo updating their sound, moving away from the beat-driven, barn-burning sound that had been the hallmark of many of their 90s hits, and moving towards more pop-oriented music.

“Ain’t Nothin’ About You”, the first single, was released two months in advance of the album and returned the duo to the top of the Billboard singles chart, becoming their first #1 hit since 1998’s “Husbands and Wives”. It also reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, the duo’s best showing ever on that all-genre chart. The patriotic anthem “Only In America”, which opens the album, was chosen as the second single. Released in mid-2001, it predated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but in their aftermath, it quickly became a rallying cry for a nation struggling to come to terms with what had happened. It reached the #1 spot in Billboard in October of 2001 and was later featured prominently as a theme song for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. In the spirit of bipartisanship, it was also played four years later at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The next single, “The Long Goodbye”, was somewhat of a departure for Brooks & Dunn. Composed by Irish songwriters Paul Brady and Ronan Keating, it had originally appeared on Brady’s 2000 album and was subsequently covered by Keating, whose version became a Top 5 hit in the United Kingdom in 2003. Though wildly successful – providing yet another #1 hit for the duo – Brooks & Dunn’s version is marred by overproduction, a problem that occasionally plagues other tracks on the album, namely “When She’s Gone, She’s Gone” and “I Fall”, both of which feature Kix on lead vocals, and especially “Unloved” – the most purely pop Brooks & Dunn song to date. All of these songs feature a more slick and polished sound than the duo’s previous work, and on “Unloved” in particular, the strings and synthesizers tend to overwhelm the song. Fortunately, Ronnie Dunn’s vocal performance is restrained, and he wisely resists the temptation to turn the song into an 80s-style power ballad.

More to my taste is “Every River”, the fifth and final single released from this set. It is one of the album’s more traditional-leaning songs and its least successful single, peaking at #12. “Lucky Me, Lonely You”, my favorite song on the album, is the sole purely traditional number. Also providing a nice change of pace from the strings, synthesizers and rock guitar licks that characterize most of the album, are the two Latin-flavored songs, “My Heart Is Lost To You” and “Deny, Deny, Deny”. “My Heart Is Lost To You” was the album’s fourth single, released between “The Long Goodbye” and “Every River”. It reached #5 in Billboard. The remaining tracks are largely forgettable, with the exception of “See Jane Dance”, which closes the album. This song is a throwback to the line-dancing songs of the 90s, and one I could have lived without.

In addition to a new co-producer and a change in musical styles, Steers & Stripes marks the beginning of a shift towards a little less Brooks and a little more Dunn. Whereas previous albums had the two members sharing lead vocalist duties more or less equally, Steers & Stripes is about one-third Brooks and two-thirds Dunn, with Kix taking the lead on only five of the album’s fourteen tracks. The changes paid off; Steers & Stripes marked a commercial recovery, reaching #1 on the albums chart and earning platinum certification. More importantly, it helped the duo break out of their creative rut. Despite the prevalence of more pop-leaning songs, Steers & Stripes is one of the stronger albums in the Brooks & Dunn catalog, and is worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

It is still widely available from both Amazon and iTunes.

Classic Rewind: Kenny Rogers & Dottie West – ‘Every Time Two Fools Collide’

Week ending 11/21/09: #1 singles this week in country music history

1949: Slippin’ Around — Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely (Capitol)

1959: Country Girl — Faron Young (Capitol)

1969: Okie From Muskogee — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1979: Come With Me — Waylon Jennings (RCA)

1989: Bayou Boys — Eddy Raven (Capitol)

1999: I Love You — Martina McBride (RCA)

2009: Cowboy Casanova — Carrie Underwood (19/Arista)

Week ending 11/21/09: #1 albums this week in country music history

1984: Willie Nelson – City of New Orleans (Sony)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: Mary Chapin Carpenter – Stones In The Road (Columbia)

1999: LeAnn Rimes – LeAnn Rimes (Curb)

2004: George Strait – 50 Number Ones (MCA)

2009: Carrie Underwood- Play On (19/Arista)

Classic Rewind: Shania Twain – ‘You’re Still the One’

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘Farewell Party’