My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: September 2013

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Find Out Who Your Friends Are’

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Album Review – Tracy Lawrence – ‘The Singer’

tracylawrence_singerFive years after scoring a comeback #1 in “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” and two years after a detour into Christian music, Tracy Lawrence returned with an album of all new material, The Singer. His third release for Independent label Rocky Comfort; it was Lawrence’s first album not to produce any hits.

The album was preceded by the title track, a semi-autobiographical fiddle heavy tune about the hardships in Lawrence’s life:

There’s a few things they might say

At the mention of my name

The saint, the sinner, the hopeless dreamer

Lord I just hope they don’t forget

The singer

The second and final single was the somewhat dumb “Pills,” that had a solid production by inane lyrics about different uses for the titular substance. Neither single charted.

I fully expected to hear Lawrence pander to radio trends on The Singer but surprisingly he kept the proceedings clean and country. Mid-tempo shuffle “Roswell and Monroe” tells the story of a woman’s alluring beauty, and it’s quite good. “Saving Savannah,” an “Independence Day” like number about a brother and sister is perfectly sinister and has an appropriately dark production to match.

Mandolin ballad “Tender Enough” is an example of how Lawrence’s sound has evolved. The track borrows heavily from Rascal Flatts tunes like “I Melt” and “My Wish,” and while Lawrence’s twang is a bit grating, the song works well. “Hard Times” is Lawrence’s attempt at being timely, and he fails because the subject matter sounds a bit dated even two years later. A Merle Haggard protest song this is not.

“Whole Lotta Me” opens like a hybrid of “Is That A Tear” and Rick Trevino’s excellent “Learning As You Go,” and it’s a good song, but nothing truly great. He rebounds on “Jealousy,” a neo-traditional ballad that proves he’s still got it twenty years after his debut. The album closes with new versions of “Paint Me A Birmingham” and “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” that are solid, but bring nothing new to either track.

Overall The Singer is a much better album than I expected it to be. The nasally aspects of Lawrence’s voice are still an issue for me and at times he seems like he’s trying too hard to be a country singer. But the material is solid although a tad underwhelming. If you’re a die-hard Tracy Lawrence fan than this album will appeal, for the rest of us it isn’t essential listening, but worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Ed Bruce – ‘Jesus Loved The Hell Out Of Me’

Week ending 9/28/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

crystal1953 (Sales): A Dear John Letter — Jean Shepard & Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1953 (Jukebox): Hey Joe!— Carl Smith (Columbia)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Hey Joe!— Carl Smith (Columbia)

1963: Abilene — George Hamilton IV (RCA)

1973: You’ve Never Been This Far Before — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1983: Baby What About You — Crystal Gayle (Elektra)

1993: Holdin’ Heaven — Tracy Byrd (MCA)

2003: What Was I Thinkin’ — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2013: That’s My Kind Of Night — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2013 (Airplay): Round Here — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence – ‘If I Don’t Make It Back’

Classic Rewind: Johnny Rodriguez – ‘Riding My Thumb To Mexico’

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘The Rock’

the rockMany country artists recording a religious album tend to include a fair percentage of hymns and other wellworn gospel tunes. Tracy took the more adventurous path of picking all-new material. The range and quality of the songs, unfortunately, is less ambitious. He produced with Julian Lord, and released the record on his own label, Rocky Comfort Records.

Tracy wrote one song with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, the opening confessional ‘Dear Lord’, which is okay but comes across more than a little cozily self-satisfied. Tracy’s own past well-publicized misdemeanours would seem to provide him with the real-life experiences to make a convincing job of much meatier material touching on sinners’ salvation.

‘I’m Done’ (written by Steve Seskin and Mike Shamblin) is the closest the album comes to that kind of song, and is much more interesting as a result. Here a troubled narrator decides to change his life around by forgiving his enemies:

Life hit me when I wasn’t looking
It dealt me a hard hand to play
I felt betrayed and forsaken
But I’ve been making the wrong people pay
And I’m done
I’m done

I’ve spent my last night in that prison
Where anger and pride were the bars
Hey, I’m here to tell you
I’m making peace with the past
And I’m not ashamed of my scars
But I’m done

I’m done harbouring grudges and nursing old wounds
Not clinging to grudges and singing the blues
I’m done pointing fingers at everyone else
I’m taking a long hard look at myself
A new day has begun
And I’m done

The production is a bit busier than necessary, but this song has a weight and depth too often lacking elsewhere.

Even better is ‘Up To Him’, a somber song rooted in real life written by David Kent and Tim Johnson, about dealing with hard times and the fear of worse, which is my favourite track. The narrator hedges his bets a little by combining prayer with his own efforts to get a leg up.

Who knows what’s going to happen in the end?
I just work like it’s all up to me
And pray like it’s all up to Him

The song was released as a single, and although it didn’t crack the top 40 did fairly well for a religious song on an independent label, peaking at #47.

The less successful follow-up single, ‘Somebody Who Would Die For You’ briefly narrates the stories of a homeless veteran, a neglected old father, and the victim of a school shooting. It is movingly sung, although the stories are a little disjointed and the strings swamp the arrangement.

‘The Book You Never Read’ slows things down quite nicely, as Tracy takes the voice of the Bible addressing a troubled soul. The similarly anthropomorphic title track is the story of a Savannah church, set to an attractive tune, led into by the churchy strains of an organ; a choir comes in effectively and appropriately on the last chorus and this is nicely done. These are both pretty decent songs.

Of the less memorable material, ‘Jesus Come Talk To Your Children’ also has gospel backing vocals, but is a bit shouty and demanding. ‘Say A Prayer’ is about prayer in difficult situations (alcoholism, cancer) and is clearly sincere, but heavy-handed and sentimental rather than having a clear message. ‘I Know Where Heaven Is’ and ‘Every Prayer’ are pleasant but forgettable.

This isn’t the best religious album I’ve ever heard, but it’s not bad. Used copies are available quite cheaply, so it’s worth picking up if you like Tracy Lawrence and religious material.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind – Tracy Lawrence – ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’

RIP Buck Moore, one of the writers of this song, who died recently.

Single Review – Little Big Town – ‘Sober’

kimberlyschlapman_simplysouthern_hWhen Little Big Town had their coming out last year with “Pontoon,” there was a collective sense of dread that the quasi-bluegrass band who’d built a solid reputation with excellent faire like “Little White Church,” “Boondocks,” and “Fine Line” had givin in to the pressures of modern Nashville and sacrificed their artistic integrity in favor of commercial viability. When The Reasons Why bombed they had to do something drastic or risk fading into oblivion, a fate worse then death for a group with their level of talent.

They’ve mostly gotten it right although Capitol has been leaning too heavily on Karen Fairchild, positioning her as the lead vocalist in a quartet where each member adds their own distinct richness to a song when they step out front. Thankfully they’ve finally regulated her to the background, allowing the criminally underappreciated Kimberly Schlapman to step out front for the first time.

When Tornado hit a year ago, critics and fans alike singled out “Sober” as the record’s highlight, a blend of their classic sound with Jay Joyce’s modern touches. At the time, I said (and still believe):

“Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.”

“Sober” has gotten even better with age, showcasing the band at their best. Schlapman gives a pure country vocal that’s a delight, and the choral harmonies are intoxicating. I just hope country radio has room for a song this overtly country, one that oozes so much class. They’ve let me down before; let’s hope they rise to the occasion this time. “Sober” is one of the best singles of the fall season and needs to be heard.

Grade: A

Listen

Classic Rewind – Tracy Lawrence, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan – ‘Time Marches On’

A rare moment of good taste from two modern superstars:

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘For The Love’

forthelove2004’s Strong was Tracy Lawrence’s one and only album for DreamWorks Nashville, which shut down operations in 2005, leaving Tracy and several other artists without a record deal. Two years later Tracy returned with For The Love, released on his own Rocky Comfort Records imprint. Though it was not quite up to the standard of his early work for Atlantic, For The Love was a marked improvement over his more recent releases. He teamed up with a new co-producer, Julian King, although his old friend Flip Anderson shared production credits on a couple of tracks.

The first single “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” was originally released in late 2006, where it struggled to crack the Top 40. An alternate version featuring guest vocals from Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney was released the following January, and their star power helped to propel the record to #1. It was Lawrence’s first chart-topper since “Time Marches On” reached #1 more than a decade earlier. The record is noteworthy as the slowest-climbing #1 in the history of the Billboard country singles chart. Both the original solo version and the remixed version featuring McGraw and Chesney are included on the album.

Regrettably, Tracy’s chart resurgence was short-lived, as he was unable to come up with a blockbuster follow-up to “Find Out Who Your Friends Are”. The Hallmark-esque ballad “Til I Was A Daddy Too” was released as the second single, only reached #32, and the rather enjoyable don’t-get-above-your-raising tune “You Can’t Hide Redneck” petered out at #56.

The rest of the album is hit-or-miss. The title track is a true dud that is reminsicent of the type of barely-country drivel Kenny Chesney regularly serves up. Brad Arnold of the rock band 3 Doors Down is a guest vocalist. Both the lyrics and Tracy’s voice sound forced on “Just Like Her” and the well-meaning (and also Hallmarky) “As Easy As Our Blessings” is rather dull. For the most part, these songs make up the first half of the album. By the time the fifth track was over, I was really feeling disappointed, but fortunately things improve significantly beginnining with the sixth track, “Speed of Flight” which was written by Tracy and is reminiscent of his early 90s work. The Western swing flavored “You’re Why God Made Me” sounds like something George Strait might have released in the 80s, and along with the Texas dance hall number “Just Like That”, is one of the two best tracks on the album.

A mixed bag overall, For The Love is a better album than I was expecting, marred only by a few mediocre songs. The good songs outnumber the weaker ones, however, so it’s worth the modest cash outlay to get a used copy.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind – The Forester Sisters – ‘I Fell In Love Again Last Night’

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Strong’

strongHaving left his label after the latest downturn in his fortunes, Tracy signed to Dreamworks where he was reunited with old producer James Stroud (and new label head) for 2004’s Strong. He didn’t write any of the material himself, but the result was a much better record than his last couple of efforts, and rather more successful commercially, at least to start with.

The wistfully beautiful ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’, previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons, was a comeback hit for Tracy, reaching #4. The cheerfully philosophical ‘It’s All How You Look At It’ was less successful, although it did sneak into the top 40; it is pleasant enough but a bit bland. The fun honky tonker ‘Sawdust On Her Halo’ is pretty good, but was sadly not a big hit with radio.

The title track is a paean to a single mother’s hard work, and comes across as a bit pandering because the woman in it is a cipher; she doesn’t really live as an individual character rather than a stereotype. The more downbeat and much more interesting (at least in its first half) ‘Bobby Darwin’s Daughter’ is a sensitive story song about a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory life, and longing for the innocence of her own childhood, when

She’d ask where God came from
Instead of wondering where He’s been

The second half of the song is a little more predictable, when she regains her faith when she is nearly killed in an accident and her remorseful and formerly neglectful husband remembers he loves her after all. It was written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson, and Rick Huckaby. The nostalgic ‘When Daddy Was A Strong Man’ also tenderly recalls childhood.

The thoughtful ‘Stones’ has a pretty, delicate melody and sensitive vocal interpretation of its lyric about the passing of time. ‘Everywhere But Hollywood’ is quite a good song contrasting reality with fantasy, written by Bobby Pinson, Jimmy Ritchey and Jason Sellers.

The leaving song ‘A Far Cry From You’ is one of the album’s few heartbreak numbers, and is very good. Also sad, but in more dramatic fashion, the protagonist of ‘The Questionnaire’ discovers the true state of his marriage when he finds an old women’s magazine where his wife has filled in a questionnaire on the subject remorselessly ranging over his various failings and her unhappiness, and ending with the devastating answer to “Do you still love him?”. We can guess the answer isn’t yes by his petulant “damn that questionnaire”. It is slightly over-produced but is a neatly crafted song.

‘What The Flames Feel Like’ brings more of a Southern rock edge, and is convincingly performed, while the mid-tempo ‘Think Of Me’ reminds the listener of the role of those who keep them safe by willingly going into danger themselves.

As Tracy was not able to sustain the success of the initial single, sales faltered, and Dreamworks dropped him after the record had run its course. However this was definitely a return to form, and is worth picking up. Subsequently, Tracy moved to Mercury (his last major-label deal), but they released only a hits package with the two new songs not doing well enough as singles to keep him on the label.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence – ‘If The World Had A Front Porch’

Album Review: Chris Young – ‘A.M.’

AMChris Young has the best voice in contemporary country music. His problem for me has always been a too-often mediocre choice of songs, but at least his traditional instincts meant it sounded good (and there have been some outstanding highlights like ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Drinking Me Lonely’, and his super Voices EP of three classic covers). Unfortunately, the demands of country radio have struck again, and this album comes across as a determined and probably successful effort to get airplay. In other words, it’s over-produced (by James Stroud), and the largely generic songs (many of them co-written by Chris) aren’t much good either, with a couple of exceptions.

The barely-bearable lead single ‘Aw Naw’ (written by Chris with Ashley Gorley and Chris DiStefano) features partying lyric, depressingly shallow attitude towards women, loud production, not much melodic range, and irritating spelling, the only semi-redeeming factor being Chris’s muscular vocal which is actually pretty good. This had already steeled me for the possibility that this album (Chris’s fourth) would be a complete sellout, and sadly those fears were realized, although nothing else is quite as bad.

The same trio responsible for ‘Aw Naw’ also wrote the title track (a very similar loud high-energy track about late nights out) and ‘Goodbye’. The latter, product of the same writing session, is a much better song, a ballad about an unexpected call from a lover planning on breaking up. Although the production is cluttered and insensitive after a misleadingly pretty piano opening, the vocal is fine, as Chris embarks on a convincingly impassioned appeal to her that their relationship is “too good for goodbye”.

The two Chrises (Young and Di Stefano) teamed up with Rhett Akins for ‘We’re Gonna Find It Tonight’, another pretty generic partying song, delivered efficiently. Unexpectedly Akins also co-wrote the best song on the album, ‘Text Me Texas’ (alongside Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne). A nicely understated ballad about a man angsting over what his girlfriend may be doing in Houston, and with whom. He begs her to make contact – even a texted lie if she’s not willing to talk would be better than nothing. An excellent vocal is married to sympathetic production, making this a real standout.

‘Forgiveness’, written by Casey Beathard and Scooter Carusoe, is also very good, a reflective confession of the protagonist’s failings as he yearns for the peace of mind he can only get from one person’s forgiveness, which is nicely produced and arranged, with Chris using the deepest part of his vocal range with magisterial effect:

It ain’t hidin’ in a bottle on a shelf
Or lying in the bed with someone else
I can’t feel it on some Sunday morning pew
But one sleepless night it dawned on me
The peace I need so desperately
Is buried in the one place I can’t get to
Girl, it’s got to come from you

McAnally and Osborne wrote ‘Hold You To It’ with Chris Young, which is a return to the generic with a medium-tempo bar pick-up number, although it does have quite a catchy melody. Young’ s final writing credit is for the closing track ‘Lighters In The Air’, another with a pleasant tune but plodding production and not very memorable lyrics. More interesting than either song is the fact that both refer to music but not apparently to country; the former refers to the girl’s favorite song as having a “pumping” bass-line and “grooving” backbeat, while the latter is “summertime rock ‘n roll”.

‘Nothin’ But The Cooler Left’ is cluttered, loud, pandering and exceptionally boring and quite likely to be a successful single next summer. ‘Lonely Eyes’is set in a bar again, but with a darker feel which makes it more interesting, but the production is too loud in places. ‘Who I Am With You’ is a decent positive love song (written by Marv Green, Jason Sellers and Paul Jenkins), with a sincere vocal but too heavy a hand on the production.

Download ‘Text Me Texas’ and ’Forgiveness’, and perhaps also ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Who I Am With You’, but pass on the rest.

While I’ve been critical of the production choices, it’s only fair to say that it’s not as bad as much of what’s getting radio play these days – faint praise, perhaps, but worth mentioning. And Chris Young still has a great, great voice. Hopefully at some point he can make a great album too.

Grade: C

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

Week ending 9/21/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

garth-brooks1953 (Sales): Hey Joe!— Carl Smith (Columbia)

1953 (Jukebox): Hey Joe!— Carl Smith (Columbia)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Abilene — George Hamilton IV (RCA)

1973: You’ve Never Been This Far Before — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1983: Night Games — Charley Pride (RCA)

1993: Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up) — Garth Brooks (Liberty)

2003: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere — Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett (Arista)

2013: That’s My Kind Of Night — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2013 (Airplay): Round Here — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Texas Tornado’

Classic Rewind: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Modern Day Romance’

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001’s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

Grade: B