My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: August 2010

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘House Of Cards’

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down’

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions’

After exploring the various aspects of American roots music, including southern gospel, delta blues, bluegrass, and a concept album exploring the plight of Native Americans, Marty Stuart is back with Ghost Train, his most mainstream album in years. This time around he’s offering unadulterated traditional country music with a generous helping of rockabilly and a touch of bluegrass. Stuart chose to record the self-produced project in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, where many timeless classics were captured on tape, and where Stuart himself took part in his first recording session at age 13 when he was playing mandolin for Lester Flatt. Those expecting a retro-sounding album are in for a surprise; Stuart has successfully accomplished his goal of “writing a new chapter” in traditional country music, and produced an album that is unquestionably traditional, yet sounds fresh and contemporary rather than a nostalgic tribute to days gone by.

The opening track and lead single, “Branded” is one of eleven tracks on the album in which Marty had a hand in writing. It has drawn comparisons to Merle Haggard, and the lyrics do bring to mind such classics as “Branded Man” and “The Fugitive”, but the arrangement and production are solidly in the vein of Stuart’s own classics such as “Hillbilly Rock” and “Tempted.” In a sane and rational world, “Branded” would be in heavy rotation at country radio stations from coast to coast. “Country Boy Rock and Roll”, as the title suggests, delves further into rockabilly territory. Though Stuart is in fine vocal form, it is his guitar picking and that of Kenny Vaughan, a member of Stuart’s band The Fabulous Superlatives, that compels the listener to stop and take notice. The lack of this kind of picking is what has contributed to the blandness of most of today’s country music.

The three finest songs on the album are “Drifting Apart”, “A World Without You” and “I Run To You”, all of which Stuart co-wrote with his wife Connie Smith. Not to be confused with the recent Lady Antebellum hit of the same title, “I Run To You”, the best song on the album, is a declaration of undying love that is beautifully sung by Stuart and Smith. The tasteful production is enhanced by a prominent steel guitar and an understated string section.

“Hangman” is a somber affair of self-examination and soul-searching by an executioner trying to come to terms with the unpleasantries of his grim profession. Though too dark and brooding for country radio’s tastes, the song will be remembered as one of the last, if not the last, written by Johnny Cash. Cash penned the tune with Stuart a mere four days before The Man In Black died.

Stuart draws on personal experience with “Hard Working Man”, which tells the tale of Marty’s father who was relieved of his duties as a factory worker after many years of service. Very much in the vein of songs written by both Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson, it is eerily relevant in today’s economic climate:

What will become of the working man
With honest sweat on his brow?
Is the nation that raised him to build it
Gonna turn its back on him now?
Take away his pride and dignity,
Give his job to some foreign land?
Here’s a question that needs a straight answer:
What will become of the hard working man?

Ghost Train also pays homage to the past by reviving the once common practice of including a few instrumental tracks on the album. The most noteworthy of the three instrumentals is “Crazy Arms”, which is performed by its composer, the legendary steel guitar virtuoso Ralph Mooney, who also plays steel on several other of the album’s tracks.

Following “Crazy Arms” is “Porter Wagoner’s Grave”, which tells the story of a lost soul who is saved after an encounter in a cemetery with the late country legend’s spirit. And just when it appears that the album is winding down, the pace picks up again with “Little Heartbreaker (The Likes Of You)”, a co-write with Ralph Mooney, that like “Branded”, is reminiscent of Stuart’s hit-making days. The instrumental bluegrass number “Mississippi Railroad Blues” closes the album, and allows Stuart to showcase his mastery of the mandolin.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an album this much, but suffice it to say, it’s been a long time. If you’re only going to buy one country album this year, make it this one. My feelings about this collection can be summed up in two words: More, please.

Grade: A+


Ghost Train
is widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Classic Rewind: Bill Anderson and Roy Acuff – ‘I Wonder If God Likes Country Music’

Week ending 8/28/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: Goodnight Irene — Red Foley & Ernest Tubb (Decca)

1960: Alabam — Cowboy Copas (Starday)

1970: Don’t Keep Me Hangin’ On — Sonny James (Capitol)

1980: Drivin’ My Life Away — Eddie Rabbitt (Elektra)

1990: Next To You, Next To Me — Shenandoah (Columbia)

2000: What About Now — Lonestar (BNA)

2010: All About Tonight — Blake Shelton (Reprise)

Week ending 8/28/10: #1 albums this week in country music history

1965: Eddy Arnold – The Easy Way (RCA)

1970: Charley Pride – Charley Pride’s 10th Album (RCA)

1975: Charlie Rich – Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High)(Epic)

1980: Various Artists – Urban Cowboy: Original Soundtrack (Asylum)

1985: Hank Williams Jr. – Five-O (Warner/Curb)

1990: Clint Black – Killin’ Time (RCA)

1995: Shania Twain – The Woman In Me (Mercury)

2000: Various Artists – Coyote Ugly: Original Soundtrack (Curb)

2005: Faith Hill – Fireflies (Warner Brothers)

2010: Blake Shelton – All About Tonight (Warner Brothers)

Classic Rewind: Jo Dee Messina – ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’

A song co-written by this month’s Spotlight Artist Joe Diffie:

Classic Rewind: Linda Ronstadt – ‘Tumbling Dice’

Mining the archives

Mainstream country music has been in the doldrums for the past few years, which makes it difficult for longtime fans to find interesting new music. Precious little has caught my fancy, since most of my favorite artists are either no longer recording on a regular basis, or have compromised their music considerably in order to remain relevant as far as country radio is concerned. Unable to find much that is both new and to my liking, I’ve been concentrating on older music that I haven’t heard before, either because I overlooked it when it was new, or because it has only recently been made available for purchase again.

I’ve lost track of how many CDs are in my collection, but the last time I counted several years ago, it was around the 500 mark. The bulk of them were purchased between 1988 and 2000. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy every new release that I liked during the 90s, so I had a core group of artists for whom I kept up with every new release, and others for whom I only bought hits compilations and occasional studio albums. Trisha Yearwood fell into the latter category, so when Nashville’s creative well began to run dry a few years ago, I began to collect some of her albums that I hadn’t bothered with when they were first released. From there I moved on to collecting the catalogs of Pam Tillis and Emmylou Harris.

Many of my favorite artists peaked commercially before I was old enough to earn my own pocket money to buy their music, and most of their studio albums didn’t make it to CD until recent years, so I’ve spent a lot of time filling in the gaps in my collection. Thanks to Germany’s Bear Family Records, I’ve managed to acquire a decade’s worth of George Jones’ music, encompassing three boxed sets, as well as a boxed set covering Connie Smith’s first nine LPs for RCA. I’m looking forward to a second Smith boxed set, which reportedly is in the works, but won’t be released this year as originally announced.

More recently I’ve begun to purchase some of Merle Haggard’s early albums for Capitol, and I’m just beginning to tackle the daunting task of familiarizing myself with Johnny Cash’s catalog. Cash had fallen out of favor with country radio by the time I started listening to it, and I didn’t fully appreciate this musical genius when I was younger. About two years ago I downloaded Cash’s The Definitive Collection, not realizing at first that the well-known titles it contained were re-recordings that he’d made for Mercury Records after ending a 27-year association with CBS. Many critics consider his Mercury recordings to be his weakest, but I quite enjoyed both the remakes and newer material on The Definitive Collection, which led me to purchase the albums from which the tracks were culled. In doing so, I discovered 1988’s excellent Water From the Wells of Home, which is truly an understated gem.

Digging into the back catalogs of these great artists has underscored for me how cheated today’s country music fans are — and that is not just an indictment of the quality of today’s country music. Artists like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Connie Smith, Waylon Jennings, and Loretta Lynn have left behind sizable bodies of work, whereas contemporary artists, releasing only one album every two or three years, will not. Shania Twain’s legacy will rest primarily on the strength of three successful albums. While not every cut in the catalogs of Cash, Jones, Smith, Jennings, and Lynn is a gem, I’m extremely grateful for their large catalogs which are helping me get through these meager times.

Who are some of the artists whose catalogs you feel you need to examine more closely?

Classic Rewind: Marty Stuart – ‘Hillbilly Rock’

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.

Classic Rewind: Joe Diffie – ‘It’s Always Something’

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

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins and Terri Clark pay tribute to Conway and Loretta – ‘After The Fire Is Gone’

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Night To Remember’

Joe had followed up the disappointing sales of Twice Upon A Time with a Greatest Hits set, and in 1999 released what was to be his final effort for Epic. Produced by Don Cook with Joe’s old friend and collaborator Lonnie Wilson, it was a real return to form artistically, with not a novelty song in sight, and although it did not do as well commercially as it deserved to, he sustained his profile on radio.

The title track, written by Max D. Barnes and T. W. Hale, is a tenderly sung ballad focussing on a protagonist surrounding wallowing in tangible memories of a past relationship. It is a really good song, and was deservedly a sizeable hit, peaking at #6 on the country chart and even getting some crossover radio play. ‘The Quittin’ Kind’ is a solid enough mid-tempo love song with a slightly cluttered production. It was a poor choice as the follow-up single as it is perhaps the least interesting song here, and understandably it failed to crack the top 20. The efficiently poppy mid-tempo ‘It’s Always Somethin’’ (written by Aimee Mayo and Marv Green) isn’t much to my taste, but it appealed to country radio and gave Joe another top 5 hit.

Four of Joe’s own songs are included, three of them co-writes with Lonnie, including a couple of the highlights. One of these is ‘I’m The Only Thing I’ll Hold Against You’, written some years earlier by the pair with Kim Williams. It was originally recorded by Conway Twitty on his final album in 1993, but Joe’s version is even better. His voice really soars in the chorus as he swears unconditional love and forgiveness as he reconciles with his wife:

Sometimes things go wrong between a woman and a man
I know we’ll make it work
All we need’s a second chance
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Let my lovin’ arms show you the truth
There’ll be no “I told you so”s
No matter how much heartache we go through
I love you (I’ll always love you)
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Joe and Lonnie were joined by Zack Turner to express the opposing point of view in the anguished ‘Are We Even Yet’, another dramatic and beautifully sung ballad. This bitter-tinged look at a couple destroying themselves by keeping score of hurt is my overall favorite track:

My words hurt and cause you pain
Teardrops fall like pouring rain
You cry and cry
Love dies and dies some more
Revenge is sweet when you don’t talk
I’m afraid you’re gonna walk
What will it take to take back the things we’ve said?
Are we even yet?

Are we even yet?
Do we even know
If we’re holdin’ on or lettin’ go?
Nobody wins when we can’t forgive and forget
Are we even yet?

It is a shame this remained buried as an album track on one of Joe’s lower selling albums.

This trio also wrote the bittersweet midtempo ‘You Can’t Go Home’ as Joe returns to a former old marital home:

I came looking for a feeling but the feeling’s gone
You can go back but you can’t go home

Zack and Lonnie wrote the downbeat ‘Better Off Gone’ together, about a man struggling to come to terms with his decision to leave; it’s another fine song with an impassioned vocal as Joe admits he isn’t really happier sitting alone in the dark.

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Classic Rewind: Charlie Louvin and Emmylou Harris – ‘You’re Running Wild’

Album Review: Brennen Leigh – ‘The Box’

Minnesota born but now Austin based, Brennen Leigh was once a semi-finalist on Nashville Star, but her music is a long way removed from the commercial impetus of modern country media. She has released a string of interesting, low-key albums in the past decade, most recently a set of retro cover duets with Jesse Dayton in 2007. This most recent album consists of mostly melodic mid-paced folky country material with a melancholy tinge, almost all self-penned. She has a real gift for writing attractive melodies allied to thoughtful lyrics, deeply rooted in the traditions of country music. She plays mandolin and/or acoustic guitar throughout the record, with her brother Seth Hulbert on guitar and Tommy Detamore, with whom she produced the record, contributing lovely steel guitar and occasional dobro. Her voice is plaintive and delicately emotional if not very forceful.

She opens with a pensive look at her attitude to the ‘Rolling Green Hills’ of her home, which has turned to restlessness and the need to break away. A happier domestic and pastoral image comes in the Carolina-set ‘Just To Hear My Little Bluebird Sing’.

The love song ‘Distracted’ is an almost loungy ballad with a pretty tune and the steel high in the mix. But the emotions tend more often to the sad and betrayed. ‘You Made A Fool Out Of Me’ is a traditional honky tonk country song about drinking away a heartache with a memorable (and somewhat familiar) tune which I really like, and some tasteful fiddle from Bobby Flores. Addressing the heartbreaker, she declares through the wine,

Well I hope you despise me if you cannot love
Hate is better than nothing at all…

My old childhood friend Depression
Made plans to come and visit today
And I’ll have a new darling companion
There’s no telling how long he might stay

Cause you made a fool out of me
And you can’t even tell me goodbye
You left me here crying and walking the floor
I won’t bother you anymore

My favorite track is the plaintive Louvin Brothers styled ballad ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, with Seth providing close harmony, as Brennen questions the sincerity of the lover who may have abandoned her, and admits,

I could wait forever if you asked me to
But I’ll never let you know for fear I’d really have to

Brennen’s publishing company Footprints In The Snow takes its name from a line in this song.

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Classic Rewind: Hank Snow – ‘A Fool Such As I’

Week ending 8/21/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: I’m Movin’ On — Hank Snow (RCA)

1960: Please Help Me, I’m Falling — Hank Locklin (RCA)

1970: Don’t Keep Me Hangin’ On — Sonny James (Capitol)

1980: Tennessee River — Alabama (RCA)

1990: Next To You, Next To Me — Shenandoah (Columbia)

2000: What About Now — Lonestar (BNA)

2010: Free — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)