Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.
The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:
I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark
The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark
I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark
This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.
His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.
The third and last single, however, the pleasant ‘Right Where I Need To Be’, was Gary’s biggest single to date, reaching #5, although it has not worn as well over time as ‘Smoke Rings’. It is however enough of a fan favorite that a live version is included on the deluxe version of Gary’s upcoming release Get Off On The Pain. Casey Beathard and Kendell Marvel’s song was like most of Gary’s earlier hits, a love song, but a relatively conventional one, as the protagonist eventually decides his relationship is worth more than his high-flying career prospects.
Much more traditional, and a better song, is the seriously delivered ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, written by Kim Williams, Buddy Brock and Jerry Laseter, and previously recorded by Ty Herndon. This is a cautionary and irony-free tale of a drunk driver who asks the narrator, who finds him dying with an empty bottle beside him:
Don’t tell Mama I was drinkin’
Lord knows her soul would never rest
I can’t leave this world with Mama thinkin’
I met the Lord with whiskey on my breath
This is the kind of potentially melodramatic song some singers would overdo, but Gary makes it convincing with his sincere vocal.
‘Bourbon Borderline’ is another very good song with a nice fiddle line, written by Harley Allen, John Wiggins and Jennifer Bibeau, a pained slow ballad about a man who can’t bear to talk about his ex until he’s drunk enough whiskey. Harley Allen was also responsible (with Gary Burr) for the gently resigned ‘Learning To Live With Me’ about accepting one’s limitations:
You could be the moon
And still be jealous of the stars
You gotta learn to swim
If you can’t walk upon the sea
So I’m learning to live with me
I also like Gary’s own ‘I’m The One’, which he wrote with Jamie O’Hara. Although it is a fairly straightforward love song addressed to a woman who has been hurt by a previous man in her life, it is Gary who sounds vulnerable. The slow and regretful closing track, ‘Greenfields (written by Shawn Camp and Frank Dycus), has a post-breakup Gary looking back wistfully at better times.
Also in his new sexy groove were the ‘Sorry’ (ironic with an angry undercurrent), written by Shawn Camp, Brice Long and Wynn Varble) and Kevin Welch’s ‘Cryin’ For Nothin’. Both are decent songs bout failed relationships with strong vocals from Gary, but tend to the over-produced with intrusive backing vocals (but nice piano) on the former, and heavy strings on the latter. My least favorite track is a rocked-up cover of Del Shannon’s 60s pop hit ‘Runaway’, although it certainly has energy, while ‘Cowboy Blues’ is a drifter’s country blues lament with distinctive whistled accompaniment.
The production gives the record as a whole a very consistent feel, and it was both a real commercial advance for Gary, and showed artistic development, albeit moving away from the slightly more traditionally-inspired style of his first two albums. There is some fine material on this record, but it is not as strong overall as its immediate predecessor, with the exception of the title track. Finally, a comment on the CD liner notes: some sections, including the page with musician credits and acknowledgments, are virtually unreadable thanks to a very pale font against a not-much darker background.
You can listen to most of the album (everything but the two big singles) on last.fm.