My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: August 2012

Classic Rewind: Jean Shepard – ‘You’re Calling Me Sweetheart Again’

Last hurrahs and late career resurgences

I became interested in country music at a time when many of the genre’s legends were still scoring hits. Within a few years however, the landscape changed dramatically as the New Traditionalist movement swept a lot of veterans off the charts. Though it was an exciting time with a lot of new talent emerging, it was also a bit sad to see a number of old favorites disappearing from the airwaves all at once. In their struggle to remain commercially relevant, many of these veterans produced some of their finest work. In some cases it resulted in one last big hit; in a few rare cases it resulted in a temporary halt in their slide down the charts, but above all, it usually resulted in some really great music. Here are a few examples of memorable late career moments from some of my favorite artists:

1. “Two Story House” — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (1980)
Though this duo continued to record together after their divorce, their collaborations became less frequent as Jones battled his personal demons. “Two Story House”, a tale of a marriage destroyed by materialism, was their last big hit, charting at #2. They scored one more Top 20 hit later the same year with “A Pair of Old Sneakers”. After that there were no more Jones/Wynette collaborations until 1994 when they remade their biggest hit, 1976’s “Golden Ring” for George’s Bradley Barn Sessions album, which led to one final album of duets, 1995’s One.

2. “Another Chance “– Tammy Wynette (1982)
This bouncy tune was Tammy’s last Top 10 hit as a solo artist, peaking at #8 in 1982. It’s largely forgotten today but it received a lot of airplay at the time and I’ve always thought it was one of her best singles. She would hit the Top 10 one more time in 1985 with “Sometimes When We Touch”, a duet with Mark Gray.

3. “I Lie” — Loretta Lynn (1982)
Loretta’s chart decline paralleled that of Tammy Wynette. This #9 hit from 1982 is one of her glossiest singles. It was her first Top 10 solo hit in three years, and her only appearance in the Top 10 as a soloist in the 1980s, though she did enjoy three more Top 10 duets with Conway Twitty.

4. “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” — Charley Pride (1987)
Charley Pride’s hits began to taper off in the mid-80s. He ended a twenty-year association with RCA Records in 1986 and signed with the independent 16th Avenue label. He scored one final Top 5 hit the following year.

5. “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” — Barbara Mandrell (1988)
Barbara was at the peak of her popularity in 1984 when she was seriously injured in a car accident. Her career never quite regained its momentum, which she partially blames on the bad publicity she received when she filed a lawsuit against the estate of the driver that struck her car — a requirement under Tennessee law in order for her to collect from her own insurance company. She ended a three-year dry spell in 1988 when she returned to a more traditional sound. I was unfamiliar with the Ray Price original, but I loved Barbara’s take on this song and consider it to be one of her very best recordings. By coincidence, my colleague Paul also gave this record a shout-out in the latest installment of his Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s series.

6. “Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me” — Ronnie Milsap (1989)
Ronnie had a voice tailor made for country music, but unfortunately much of his output during the 1980s leaned heavily towards pop and R&B. He was still enjoying chart success when he got on board with the New Traditionalist movement and covered this Hank Cochran tune.

7. “Wrong “– Waylon Jennings (1990)
This whimsical tune about a marriage that didn’t quite turn out as expected was Waylon’s first single released during a brief stint with Epic Records. It reached #5 and was the last hit of his career.

8. “Feed This Fire“– Anne Murray (1990)
Anne regularly scored hits in both pop and country throughout the 1970s, but during the 1980s her successes were primarily on the country charts. In 1986, in an attempt to regain her popularity outside of country, she deliberately moved in a more pop direction. Ironically, her first release under this new strategy, “Now and Forever (You and Me)” became a #1 country hit, even though it was not remotely country. After that she fell out of favor with both pop and country radio, and by the beginning of the 1990s, she was trying hard to get back on country radio. She succeeded with this excellent Hugh Prestwood tune, which she took to #5 in the US and #6 in Canada. It was her last Top 10 country hit in the US.

9. “Three Good Reasons” — Crystal Gayle (1992)
Loretta Lynn’s little sister managed to buck the commercial trend towards more traditional country and stay on the charts through most of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, however, the hits began to taper off. Like many others she eventually switched to a more traditional sound. This 1992 tune did not chart, although it did get a lot of airplay in the Philadelphia market because Crystal was one of the artists appearing at the local country radio station’s annual anniversary concert that year.

10. “Buy Me A Rose” — Kenny Rogers (1999)
Kenny Rogers hadn’t scored a Top 10 hit in a decade, but age 61 he defied the odds and became the oldest person in country music history to score a #1 hit when he took this tune to the top of the charts in 1999.

Classic Rewind: Dan Seals – ‘We Are One’

A plea for tolerance:

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell – ‘Truck Driving Man’

A young and almost unrecognizable Glen Campbell:

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Make It Home’

Following the commercial failure of his second Warner Bros. album Fired Up, Dan Seals was dropped from the label and concentrated on touring for the next several years. Though he released two volumes of re-recorded hits, it was eight years before he released a collection of brand new material. Released on the independent Lightyear label, Make It Home was to be his swan song.

Make It Home
is mostly a quiet and understated affair; Louie Shelton’s production is polished but tastefully restrained, with just enough fiddle and steel to appease Dan’s country fans. In many ways the album sounds like a throwback to the 90s, a welcome reprieve from the Faith Hill and Shania Twain style pop that was dominating country radio at the time. Perhaps realizing the futility of pursuing mainstream radio airplay, no singles were released from the project. The album gets off to a strong chart with the Matt Shelton composition “Angel Eyes”, which might have been a hit had it been released during Dan’s major label days. “Such A Sweet Night” is also quite good. It is one of three songs written by Nashville songwriter Rand Bishop. I also enjoyed the Bishop-penned “Only You”, but “Certain Circles”, a co-write with Kim Patton-Johnston that falls flat. It is, however, superior to Dan’s ill-advised remake of the Little River Band’s 1978 pop hit “Reminiscing”, which is one of the few times that Dan’s AC-leanings can be heard on this album.

Dan contributed three of his own compositions to the project; the title track, “It Don’t Matter Who You Love”, and “Saw You In My Dreams”. I found the first two a bit dull but “Saw You In My Dreams” is the album’s best song.

Dan is good vocal form throughout the album, and there aren’t any terrible songs here (though “Reminiscing” comes close), but there aren’t any real standout moments, either. The album suffers from a lack of variety in tempo and I found myself starting to lose interest about halfway through. It is an enjoyable album, but not terribly memorable, and as such, probably not of interest to casual fans.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today’

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, part 4

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

“Everybody Needs Love On A Saturday Night”– The Maines Brothers Band
This 1985 song was the biggest hit (#24) for a bunch of talented musicians, some of whom went on to bigger and better things. Lloyd Maines is a leading steel guitar whiz and record producer – his daughter is Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Three other brothers of Lloyd’s were in this band, as well.

I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” – Barbara Mandrell
This 1988 slightly re-titled cover of Warren Smith’s big hit  from 1960 was to be Barbara’s last top ten recording. It is one of my favorite Barbara Mandrell recordings.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

My First Country Song” – Dean Martin with Conway Twitty
Not really – Dean had recorded many country songs to great effect, although never with country accompaniment. The album from which this 1983 song was taken, was actually the last album the 66-year-old Dean would record after a hugely successful career as a pop singer, movie star , television star and stage performer. In his time very few performers were bigger stars than Dean Martin. Conway Twitty wrote this song and performed it with Dean. It wasn’t a huge hit (#35) but it was an interesting ending to one of the greatest careers in American entertainment history.

You Are My Music, You Are My Song”– Wayne Massey with Charly McClain
Wayne Massey was a soap opera heartthrob and his wife Charly was stunningly attractive. This 1986 hit was one of two top tens the duo would have, although Charly had a very successful career as a solo act.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘In A Quiet Room II’

In A Quiet Room was so much to the artist’s taste that Dan followed it a couple of years later with a sequel on yet another small independent label, featuring self-produced acoustic versions of most of his remaining hits and a few later non-hits, but no brand new songs.

I loathed the original of ‘L.O.A. (Love On Arrival)’. The acoustic arrangement is certainly more palatable aurally, but it can’t save the irritating, gimmicky lyrics. ‘Three Time Loser’ is significantly improved, and ‘My Old Yellow Car’ is lovely. The idealistic ‘We Are One’ is fine. ‘Wood’ and ‘Still Reelin’ (From Those Rock ‘n Roll Days)’ are very nicely done, but not obviously different from the original.

In most cases, though, I am afraid I actually prefer the originals. His first top 10 hit ‘God Must Be A Cowboy’ was always charming, and this particular remake feels unnecessary. The simple guitar accompaniment works well, but it’s not significantly less cluttered than the original instrumentation, and the vocals sound a little more clipped, even rushed. The same goes for the best song by far, ‘Addicted’.

A fingerpopping slightly jazzy ‘My Baby’s Got Good Timing’ (never a great song to start with) is pleasant but lifeless despite an attempt to enliven it with a saxophone solo. ‘Nights Are Forever Without You’ was England Dan and John Ford Coley’s slightly less successful follow-up to their monster pop hit ‘I’d Really like To See You Again’, and from the pen of the same writer, Parker McGee. It’s delicately sung, with some pretty harmonies from Pam Tillis and Alison Krauss, but ultimately a bit bland and passionless.

This is all pleasant enough, but probably for major fans only.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Paul Overstreet – ‘Living By The Book’

Week ending 8/25/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels — Kitty Wells (Decca)

1962: Wolverton Mountain — Claude King (Columbia)

1972: Bless Your Heart — Freddie Hart & The Heartbeats (Capitol)

1982: Nobody — Sylvia (RCA)

1992: Boot Scootin’ Boogie — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2002: The Good Stuff — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2012: Angel Eyes — Love and Theft (RCA)

Week ending 8/25/12: #1 albums this week in country music history

1967: Jack Greene – All The Time (Decca)

1972: Donna Fargo – Happiest Girl In The Whole U.S.A. (Dot)

1977: Waylon Jennings – Ol’ Waylon (RCA)

1982: Willie Nelson – Always On My Mind (Columbia)

1987: Randy Travis – Always & Forever (Warner Brothers)

1992: Billy Ray Cyrus – Some Gave All (Mercury)

1997: Tim McGraw – Everywhere (Curb)

2002: Toby Keith- Unleashed (Dreamworks)

2007: Taylor Swift – Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2012: Colt Ford – Declaration of Independence (Average Joe’s)

Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter – ‘The Sweetest Thing’

Classic Rewind: Cal Smith – ‘I Took Her For A Fool’

Album Review – Dan Seals – ‘In A Quiet Room’

I’ve never been a fan of artists re-recording their material, whither in a live setting, acoustically, or for a new label in cases where the singer’s previous label holds the rights to the hit recordings. Usually nothing new is brought to the songs, and it ends up feeling pointless.

Released in 1995, Dan Seals’ In A Quiet Room functions much the same way. His only recording for Intersound, an independent label, the album collects ten of Seals’ biggest hits, re-recorded in an acoustic setting.

Two singles were released from the project, although neither charted. “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight,” a cover of his 1976 pop hit (as part of England Dan and John Ford Coley) came first. While listenable, the track offers nothing new either vocally or stylistically to improve upon the original. “The Healing Kind,” meanwhile, is excellent and draws on a lush mandolin-centric production and beautiful harmony vocals from Alison Krauss

Too bad it’s the only shinning moment on the project. The songs featured on In A Quiet Room are Seals’ biggest hits and therefore so well known its hard not to remember the originals when listening to these acoustic renderings. More often than not, they just don’t sound as full and as a result lack the magic that made them great in the first place.

Songs like “Bop” just plain don’t work in this coffeehouse like setting, as without the drums and horns, the song comes off like Seals is playing sound check before a concert. The same is true for his masterpiece, “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” which sounds pleasant enough, but without the drums and steel guitar, it sounds too naked. Same goes for “Big Wheels In The Moonlight.”

The ballads are nice to listen to, but all sound the same thanks to similar production treatments that keep them difficult to distinguish between. The only notable exception is “One Friend,” which is extended in length from the original recording. But even though the original clocked in under two minutes, it’s still much warmer sonically.

Overall, In A Quiet Room is a miss because these versions very rarely improve upon the originals in any way, and therefore make the overall album feel pointless. I would much have preferred Seals rework the songs in some notable way, like Mary Chapin Carpenter did with “Quittin’ Time” on her Party Doll album.

Problem is, these songs were perfect originally, so there was no need to mess with them in the first place.

Grade: C+

Classic Rewind: Dan Seals – ‘Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)’

Random playlist: current album cuts edition

Here are five songs from five current albums I couldn’t help but take notice of when they were released. Have a listen, then share your own favorite tracks from current albums in the comments.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – “Lie Awake”
from Paper Angels, 2011

Written by Alison’s brother Viktor with Angel Snow, “Lie Awake” is set to an Appalachian folk song tempo usually reserved for yarns about murder, madness, and desolation.  In this brooding tale of long gone wrong, the intensity of the singer’s vocal, framed by the ominous dobro plucking and her own forlorn fiddling, speaks of torments untold if she doesn’t get out before dawn.

Zac Brown Band – “Sweet Annie”
from Uncaged, 2012

Like Zac Brown, I know what it’s like to have a ‘sweet Annie’. You probably do too. She’s the girl you put on the shelf for your career, another woman, or just because you’re not ready to commit. But her honeyed southern drawl and if-you-love-him-you’ll-forgive-him nature keeps drawing you back. She’s your go-to girl when the world falls in on you. And God bless her heart, she still hasn’t realized it’s only during those times of dire circumstance you come around.  To tell us about this Annie, the guys surround the verses’ breezy fiddles with the band’s airtight (and dig those repeating) harmonies.  Zac Brown has made this kind of apologetic tale of wanderlust his wheelhouse.

Miranda Lambert – “Nobody’s Fool”
from Four The Record, 2011

This is another song about two ex-lovers and their chance meeting out on the town, made memorable by its unforgettable hook: “When they ask I’ll just say he’s nobody/And me, well I’m nobody’s fool“. It follows the sonic template of last year’s “Heart Like Mine” where a lighter touch would have better served the sharp lyrics. Here, Lambert has a perfect vehicle for her pipes with Chris Stapleton’s bar-fly narrative.  The pain in her Texas drawl is apparent as she sings of eating her heart out while trying to ‘play it all cool’.  While she aches with regret for what she’s lost, there’s a doggedness in her delivery as she fires off the chorus with her chin firmly planted outward.

Kellie Pickler – “Where’s Tammy Wynette”
from 100 Proof, 2011

As the singer looks to country’s First Lady for guidance in life, this shuffling honky-tonk number features lines like “I’m gonna search that midnight radio/’Til I find something that hurts ” that show the romanticization of an icon/heroine as opposed to another hackneyed name dropping from the list of recommended honky-tonk heroes.

Alan Jackson – “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”
from Thirty Miles West, 2012

The hook is pure common horse sense, delivered with a knowing wink. The advice – “You may not get over some loves in your life/But as you get older, you’ll know wrong more than right” – coupled with Jackson’s seasoned wisdom, belies the profundity of the lesson learned.  It’s a perfect example of the classic Alan Jackson sound of sweeping medium tempo neotraditionalism and the wittiness demonstrated in his trademark self-effacing humor that makes me wonder who’s gonna fill his shoes.

Classic Rewind: Buck Owens – ‘Baltimore’

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Fired Up’

One of the signs of an artist in trouble is when someone who has consistently written a fair proportion of his own material suddenly drops it in favor of (often inferior) material from outside. Another is moving to a hot new producer in search of the latest sound. It rarely works, and it didn’t work for Dan Seals in 1994. For Dan’s second and final release for Warner Brothers, he left Kyle Lehning in favor of Jerry Crutchfield and a punchier more contemporary sound which just didn’t suit Dan’s natural style.

The rocked up title track ‘All Fired Up’ was the only single to chart at all, peaking at a miserable #66. Previously recorded by rockabilly throwback Bobby Lee Springfield, who co-wrote it, on his 1987 album of the same title, it’s a bit poppy but quite entertaining with genuine energy, although his voice sounds a little thin. They were clearly trying to recapture the chart success of ‘L.O.A.’, but the very poor ‘Love Thing – boring repetitive lyric, very little melody as well as very pop-orientated production – understandably failed to make any impact at all, and with a whimper rather than a bang, Dan ended his major label career. ‘Call Me Up’ is another forgettable pop number entirely unsuited to Dan’s voice and style, while Jesse Winchester’s ‘Gentleman Of Leisure’ is a badly produced and not very interesting song about wanting to do nothing.

There are two decent ballads up to Dan’s usual standards, which are well worth downloading. ‘A Rose From Another Garden’, written by Joe Doyle and Glen Davies, has a very pretty melody which allows Dan’s voice to soar, allied to a brooding poetic lyric about a man suspicious of his wife’s interests elsewhere as their own love fades:

Is she tending to a rose from another garden
While ours slowly grows dry
Is she tending to a rose from another garden
Letting our love die on the vine

A beautifully subtle vocal is perfect for this song, by far the best on the record.

‘Still Reelin’ (From Those Rock ‘n Roll Days)’ is the only song Dan wrote (with Allen Shamblin), and it’s a fine song, a gently nostalgic look back at youth and memories of being inspired by seeing the young Elvis on television.

The up-tempo ‘Hillbilly Fever’ (written by Joe Doyle and Todd Wilkes) is actually quite good, but in the light of today’s massive overuse of the theme, feels a bit generic about being tired of city life. The quite catchy ‘When’ was written by Robert Ellis Orrall and Gilles Godard, and Ricky Skaggs recorded it the following year on his album Solid Ground.

‘Jayney’ is a pleasant pop-country ballad written by Johnny Nestor, a little more interesting than the frankly dull ‘A Good Place To Be’, a Rory Michael Bourke/Charlie Black ballad about satisfaction with one’s life, without much energy or passion.

It’s still easy to find, but I would recommend digitally cherrypicking the best tracks.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind – Marie Osmond – ‘Paper Roses’

Her first #1 single from 1973: