Around the middle of the 1990s Mark Chesnutt’s career began to wind down commercially. Wings, released in 1995, was his first album not to be certified at least gold, but it marks a return to form after the disappointing What A Way To Live, his first for MCA’s sister label Decca. There was a new producer at the helm, Mark Wright being replaced by label boss Tony Brown, and he did a good job with a sympathetic production.
Sadly, however, Mark was beginning to outwear his welcome at radio. It probably didn’t help that some of the less memorable tracks on this album were selected as singles. ‘Trouble’, with its bluesy and apparently radio-friendly groove, performed extremely disappointingly (especially as the lead single for a new release), barely cracking the top 20. The song lacks much melody, and it’s not one of my favourite Chesnutt recordings; but it is mildly notable as an early country cut for its writer, Americana singer-songwriter Todd Snider.
There must have been a sigh of relief all around when ‘It Wouldn’t Hurt To Have Wings’, a sprightly take on the difficulty of getting over someone, which lends the album its title, reached #7 on Billboard. I like this song although it is relatively lightweight. The third and last single, though, the semi-comic tale of an ill-fated night out in the ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, penned by Jimmy Alan Stewart and Scott Miller, was Mark’s biggest flop to date, only just squeezing into the top 40. It changes the pace both in terms of tempo and mood, and is enjoyable enough, but is not really funny enough to work as a comic song.
It was lucky for Mark that ‘It’s a Little Too Late’ (from a hasty Greatest Hits release) brought him back to the top of the charts in 1997 – but he would never again enjoy the consistent streak he had had at the beginning of the 90s. No career lasts forever, but I think the label may have made the wrong choices for singles to promote this album, as there are far stronger songs on the set.
Opening track ‘As The Honky Tonk Turns’ is a rare songwriting credit for Mark, alongside Roger Springer and Tommy Nixon. It’s a pretty good honky tonker about the habituees of a certain bar, which effectively sets the mood and tone for the album. On a similar theme, but much better, is a cover of Mack Vickery’s ‘Settlin’ For What They Get’ (originally written in 1978), which is the middle of three outstanding tracks sequenced at the end of the album. Tribute is paid to:
All those lonely hearts and honky tonks searching for happiness
Tryin’ to find what they want and settlin’ for what they get
‘Pride’s Not Hard To Swallow’ is a great song written by Jerry Chesnut about a man crawling back to the woman he left, which was a #3 hit for Hank Williams Jr back in 1972, and Mark’s vocal is perfectly judged:
It took a lot of lonely nights to ever change my mind
It took a lot of missing you and things I left behind
Intending to keep goin’, oh but the going got too rough
And pride’s not hard to swallow once you chew it long enough
Mark gets another co-writing credit alongside Roger Springer again, this time with Aimee Mayo, on the hard country ‘Strangers’, my favorite of the new songs here. This honest tale of a one night stand talks of:
Pretending it’s love even though we both know
We’ll be strangers come morning again
And realize we’re not even friends
Cause daylight will take us from a world of pretend
Another great song, and one which will be familiar to country fans, is Jim Lauderdale’s ‘The King Of Broken Hearts’, which had previously been recorded by George Strait on the Pure Country soundtrack and has been more recently revived by Lee Ann Womack. Mark’s version is very good, even against such stellar competition. A lesser known but very good Jim Lauderdale song (co-written with Clay Blaker) is the doom-laden minor-keyed country soul of ‘I May Be A Fool’, as with unhappy determination the protagonist declares to the woman who has hurt him:
I may be a fool for thinking that your love was true
I may be a fool for thinking I’ll get over you
Even though it hurts admitting that it has to end
I may be a fool – but never yours again
Another very fine track is the great rueful ballad ‘I’ve Finally Broken Mine’ (written by Johnny McCrae and Steve Clark) is given a beautiful reading imbued with understated emotion, as the narrator’s sins come home to haunt him and the woman whose heart he has broken too many times finally give up on him.
This album is much better than its commercial fortunes would suggest, and is something of a hidden gem in Mark’s catalog. It is still easy to find copies.