My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: June 2016

Classic Rewind: Tanya Tucker – ‘If It Don’t Come Easy’

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Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

CraigMorgan-AWholeLotMoretoMeFor his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs & The Whites – ‘I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could’

Album Review: Johnny Lee – ‘You Ain’t Never Been To Texas’

you aint never been to texasIt has been many years since Johnny Lee has released an entire album of new material. Born in 1946 in Texas City, Texas, Johnny was a good journeyman county singer playing the honky-tonks of his native Texas, with moderate recording success for GRT records between 1976- 1978 with five charting singles, with Johnny’s “Country Party” (a country cover of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party”) reaching #15. Along the way Johnny became friend with Mickey Gilley and worked Mickey Gilley, on tour and at Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas. The soundtrack from the 1980 hit movie Urban Cowboy, which was largely shot at Gilley’s, catapulted Lee to fame. The record spawned several hit singles, including Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love.”

In addition to “Lookin’ for Love”, Lee had five songs reach the top of the Billboard country singles chart: “One In A Million” (1980), “Bet Your Heart On Me” (1981), “The Yellow Rose” (1984), and “You Could Have Heard A Heartbreak” (1984). His other major hits include “Pickin’ Up Strangers” (1981), “Prisoner of Hope” (1981), “Cherokee Fiddle”, “Sounds Like Love”, “Hey Bartender” (1983), “Rollin’ Lonely”, and “Save The Last Chance” (1985).

The top twenty hits ceased at the end of 1985 but Johnny had some additional smaller hits through 1989, at which point he disappeared from the charts. Johnny continued to tour and as his hit recordings fell out of print, we occasionally released new recordings of his older hits with some newer material mixed in.

Johnny’s new album has a decidedly country album with a few songs having a distinct western swing feel to it, with Mike Johnson & Scotty Sanders on steel guitar and Brent Mason on lead guitar and an unacknowledged fiddle player.

“Lonesome Love List” is an up-tempo western swing number written by Wil Nance, Ted Hewitt and Jerry Kilgore, that I think would make a good single.

Next up is the Rafe Van Hoy composition” What’s Forever For”, a song that Michael Martin Murphey took to #1 in 1982. Johnny Lee’s version compares favorably to Murphey’s version.

“Who’s Left, Who’s Right” is country ballad written by Bill White and Allen Ross. It’s a bit moralistic but still a nice country ballad.

“Deep Water” is a classic western swing number, written by Bob Wills and successfully covered many times by such classic singers as Carl Smith and Gene Watson. Buddy Hyatt plays some classic swing piano.

“Never Been To Texas” was written by Roger Springer Tony Raymee & Jerry Lane. The song extols the virtues of Texas. The song has a solid seventies-eighties production.

“Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” was a 1973 hit for the great Ray Price, Ray’s last #1 record. Johnny is not Ray Price but his version holds up well. The song was written by Jim Weatherly and later poached by Gladys Knight & The Pips who took it to #1 on the R&B charts.

“Good Lovin’ Woman Bad” was written by Bill White, Mark Morton and Gary Lloyd – it sounds like a song that could have been a hit in the mid-1980s.

“Wish That I Could Love That Way Again” was co-written by Johnny Lee and Tony Raymee, Johnny’s only writing credit on the album. If Brooks & Dunn ever reunite to record another album they should cover this song.

“2 Steps From The Blues”, written by Don D. Robey & John Riley Brown, finds Johnny invading T. Graham Brown territory, complete with horns.

Mel Besher and Bobby Taylor teamed up to write the nice ballad “Who Did You Love”.

“Bullets First” by Kelly Kerning and Tony Raymee is an anti-gun control song (“if you’re coming for my guns, I’ll give them to you bullets first”).

“Worth Watching” by Tony Raymee and Trey Matthew, recounts the moments in a life worth watching.

I would like this album more if Johnny had spent more time exploring western swing, but all of the cuts are country, all of the songs are good, and Johnny Lee is in good voice throughout.

A-

Classic Rewind: Craig Morgan – ‘When I’m Gone’

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘Stoned To Death’

stoned to deathSix years ago, James Dupre parlayed some popular youtube covers into a fine Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas produced debut album. That record was then picked up by Warner Brothers, and it seemed as if he might make a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers failed to do anything with James and his music other than re-releasing his album. A stint on The Voice later, the Louisiana born singer is back with new music, mostly self-composed, whereas he only contributed two of the songs on his debut. It is an encouraging step forwards artistically, while continuing to showcase his attractive, warm vocals. The new album is produced by Jordan Lehning (son of Kyle); he doesn’t do a bad job overall but lacks his father’s light touch. Backing vocalists include former American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison, although she isn’t very audible.

James’s Louisiana roots, traditional country music and his big influences Randy Travis and folk rocker James Taylor all infuse his own country music. The upbeat ‘Green Light’, which James and Jordan wrote with Skylar Wilson and Andrew Combs, opens the album to good effect with its optimistic attitude.

James wrote four songs with Neal Coty and Brent Baxter, all reflective ballads about the aftermath of a relationship. The mellow sounding but sad ‘Forgiving Me’ is about regrets for the mistakes he made, and coming to peace with himself:

So I pack that pack
Light up some self destruction
Let it lay me back for the night that I got coming
Throwin’ rocks in a muddy river
One for each regret
And writin’ the past a goodbye letter
Sending it off with a match
Chipping away at a heavy stone that ain’t half what it used to be
Working on forgiving me

Even time takes time
That’s one more thing I’m learning
And peace of mind is what you spend a long night earning

‘Someday Today’ is about coping with the loss by returning home, and is full of New Orleans atmosphere. In ‘Lonesome Alone’ he calls on his ex, bearing alcohol as “an ice-cold olive branch if it needs to be”. ‘Whatever That Was’ reflects on a relationship which was “never quite lovers, more than friends”, and which may not be over yet. It’s a fine song with a catchy tune, marred by an arrangement which is too heavy on the electric guitar.

‘Sad Song’, a co-write with Jeremy Spillman, is a mellow song about the way music helps to heal melancholy, and is very good. In contrast, the upbeat ‘Till The Real Thing Comes’, which James wrote with Adam Wright, celebrates a bar room hookup and offers a rare up-tempo moment.

The quietly melodic ‘Perfect Time’, written by Neal Carpenter and Scooter Carusoe, fits nicely with James’ own songs, and although the production has some intrusive elements, it is restrained. The rather dull ‘Hurt Good, written by Mike Mobley, Jessi Alexander and Travis Meadows, has a contemporary arrangement which adds nothing of value.

Finally, the title track, contributed by Alexander with Jeff Hyde and Clint Daniels, is a compelling drama comparing being left to a prison sentence:

I plead guilty and I wear my regret like a number on my soul

This is an excellent song, although yet again the production does its best to overwhelm it.

James’s warm voice sounds great throughout on the set, and the song quality is high. Minor niggles with the production aside, this is a strong album worth hearing.

Grade: A-

For those interested, James also stars in a new straight-to-Netflix and video film in which he plays the son of Randy Travis.

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘From A Saint To A Sinner’

Review: new tracks from Craig Morgan – ‘The Journey – Living Hits’

the journeyCraig’s second release for Black River Entertainment was a reworking of some of his past hits so the new label could cash in, together with four completely new tracks.

Two of the new songs were released as singles, but as is commonplace in such cases they were considerably less successful than the previous singles had been. Top 20 hit ‘Wake Up Lovin’ You’, written by Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen, is about love outlasting the presence of its object, and while lyrically strong is rather boring melodically, notable only for its opening sounds of an alarm clock. A full blooded vocal does its best to give the song some life, struggling against somewhat cluttered, uninspired production. It was Craig’s last real radio hit to date.

‘We’ll Come Back Around’ a better song, did not crack the top 40. Written by Rosen again, with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, it is a mid paced tune about a couple who fight but always make up again. I could do without the na-na-na-nas, which always sound as if the writer ran out of inspiration, and the production is a bit muddy, but otherwise this is a solid song which was too adult for contemporary radio:

Put your fist through the wall
Say you’re through with it all
Baby I’m through too
Let’s throw a log on the fire of the heat of the moment
Put your key in the car
Jerk it right outta park
Flip a big F-you

You say you won’t come back
I say amen to that then I lock that door
But I know you got a key
And I’m gonna leave a light on

‘If Not Me’ is a beautifully written and sympathetically sung song about a young man taking the step of joining the military, which must have struck a chord with veteran Morgan, although the song is written (by Tom Douglas and Lee Thomas Miller) from the point of view of the boy’s parents. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single.

‘Party Girl, on the other hand, is a dreadful throwaway bro-country number complete with electronic distortion.

Grade for the new tracks: B-

RIP Ralph Stanley (1927-2016)

The legendary Ralph Stanley, reigning elder statesman of bluegrass and mountain music, died late last week aged 89. He worked with many country stars, including a very young Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs.

For a full obituary, see here.

Week ending 6/25/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

Ray_Price_publicity_portrait_cropped1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1966: Take Good Care of Her — Sonny James (Capitol)

1976: El Paso City — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1986: Mama’s Never Seen Those Eyes — The Forester Sisters (Warner Bros.)

1996: Time Marches On — Tracy Lawrence (Atlantic)

2006: Summertime — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: H.O.L.Y. — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2016 (Airplay): Humble and Kind — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

Classic Rewind: Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt – ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’

Classic Rewind: Craig Morgan – ‘This Ole Boy’

Single Review: Josh Turner – ‘Hometown Girl’

hometown girlJosh Turner is one of the few surviving traditionally inclined holdouts on a major label, but he has been struggling with radio in recent years, and as a result his label has been delaying releasing new music.

His new single does not boast the deepest of lyrics, but it is a pleasant enough, if rather cliche’d, paean to a woman who has spent time in the big city but returned to the humble small town she grew up in. The protagonist seems to have followed the same trajectory, searching “all over the world” for love, only to find it back home. There is an attractive melody and reasonably restrained though not very inspired modern production, which is. Josh’s voice is as good as ever, and the end result is quite a nice little record. To be perfectly honest in another era it would be regarded as inoffensive but forgettable filler, but set against most of the fare on today’s “country” radio it’s a blessed relief.

The song was written by Marc Beeson and Daniel Tashian.

Listen here.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Jack Greene – ‘The Last Letter’

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘This Ole Boy’

91fn7FvtfDL._SX522_Craig Morgan took a four-year hiatus from recording after leaving BNA Records. He re-emerged in 2012 via Black River Entertainment with This Ole Boy. In theory, signing with an indie label would give him more independence to record the kind of music he wanted. In practice, however, there is nothing to really distinguish the album from what the major labels were putting out.

As with his last few releases, Morgan shared production duties with Phil O’Donnell. Morgan co-wrote half of the album’s songs. This Ole Boy spawned three singles, the most successful of which was the title track which peaked at # 13. “Corn Star” reached #50, which is far more than it deserved, and “More Trucks Than Cars” topped out at #38. The album itself reached #5 on the albums chart.

In a nutshell, with one or two exceptions, This Ole Boy is a collection of songs that range from bad to mediocre. There is only two tracks that I truly enjoyed: the Monty Criswell/Tim Mensy composition “Country Boys Like Me” and the closing number “Summer Moon”, a Morgan co-write with Chris Wallin. The rest of the album falls into the trap of trying to offer something for everyone, a type of approach that usually leaves all unsatisfied. “This Ole Boy” is a not bad, faced paced number that had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. “More Trucks Than Cars” is a cliche-ridden laundry list of buzzwords that are typically associated with southern living — lazy songwriting at it worst. I can’t decide which of the two bro-country numbers is worse: “Corn Star” or “Show Me Your Tattoo”, but currently I am leaning towards the former. Morgan is a decent vocalist whose talent is wasted on garbage songs like those, and it’s particularly difficult to forgive these kinds of transgressions from more mature artists who surely ought to know better.

“The Whole World Needs a Kitchen” is not a bad song, but it lacks originality. The theme reminds me of Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch”, which was a much better song. “I Didn’t Drink” is an interesting number and one of the few moments of originality on the album: a man walks into a bar to drown his sorrows following a bad break-up but doesn’t know what to order because he is a teetotaler. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn’t quite work — mainly because it’s performed as a pop-tinged power ballad. This kind of theme needs a more traditional treatment.

With only two really good songs, I can’t really recommend this album. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Music, and presumably other streaming services as well for those who want to give it a listen before buying.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Ernest Tubb – ‘Try Me One More Time’

Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

imageIf there was ever a time for Dixie Chicks to mount a comeback tour in the United States, it would be now, while we’re in the midst of the most decisive presidential election in our nation’s history. Dixie Chicks are a political band, for better or worse, and not just because they register folks to vote in the concession area before, during and after each show.

The election does play a role, albeit a small one, in this latest production. The MMXVI Tour, as it’s being called, exists to commemorate the watershed moment Natalie Maines replaced Laura Lynch as lead singer twenty years ago. The success that followed forever changed the trajectory of mainstream country music, although this show, fierce country-tinged rock, spends more time ignoring that legacy than honoring it.

The balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Soldier” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incarcerated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

Classic Rewind: Craig Morgan – ‘Love Remembers’

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Out Of My Pocket’

out of my pocketAshton Shepherd’s major label career did not work out, despite a handful of top 20 singles, and now she is making music at home in Alabama. Her latest self-released album is now available. Her distinctively stretched out vocals aren’t to all tastes, but they work well on her new material, all of it self-penned, and better than the songs on her last album, It’s America, which I was a little disappointed by.

‘With Us Tellin’ The Truth’ is a poor working class woman’s lament against the state of the American economy. ‘I Just Need A Minute’ also successfully expresses the frustrations of a harried mother, although it collapses into melodrama at the end when she is reminded how much she loves them after a car accident. ‘Can’t Tell You No’ is about love carrying a couple through the hard times. This is the one misstep on the album, with some irritating oh-oh-oh sounds, although the song itself is a decent one.

One of my favourite tracks, ‘This Rainy Sunday’ is a dramatic song about a wife who returns from Sunday to discover her cheating husband in flagrante in what feels like the precursor to a murder ballad:

I thought I was walkin’ with God
But I guess now I’m not
Everything I did believe is erased
The man I love’s done more than I can take
And I’m losing my faith

The anguished ‘Glass And Nails’ sees the protagonist’s husband hiding from their troubles in a bottle:

I’m not walkin’ on pins and needles, baby,
I’m walkin’ through glass and nails

‘It’s You’ is a fine song about a woman struggling her way through life through a series of bar pickups and one night stands after a breakup:

That ain’t me
It ain’t who I ever was
Doesn’t anyone remember who I used to be
No, that ain’t me
I swear it’s the truth
That ain’t me
It’s you

‘I Don’t Know Why’ is another pained song about heartbreak following the end of a relationship.

The brash, confident honky tonker ‘I Like Bein’ Single’ is much more positive about a newly single status:

The bar’s open and I’m goin’ out tonight
No I ain’t worried about what’s wrong or what’s right
You thought I’d be cryin’ since you left me alone
But there ain’t been a tear shed here, hon, since you’ve been gone
I never knew I could be this happy without you around

The protagonist of ‘Take It Back Real Slow’ begs her husband to revert to the early romantic stages of their relationship. The tender ‘Come Here To Me’ has a lullaby feel, while ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ is a happy love song. ‘Baby Doll’ relates a girl’s relationship with her father, from a little child not wanting to go to school, to the final separation of death.

This is an encouraging return from a talented singer-songwriter.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: George Jones – ‘She Thinks I Still Care’