My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – A Place In The World

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sixth album, A Place In The World, released in October of 1996, charted at #3 on the Country Albums chart and at #20 on Billboard’s 200 following two of her most successful albums, Come On Come On and Stones In The Road. Mary Chapin penned all the songs and co-produced the album with John Jennings as well. However, I wonder if its chart success wasn’t a direct result of the success of those previous two albums rather than the overall quality of the album itself. There are some good, and even great, songs on this album, but there are also some that don’t quite measure up to the standard Carpenter sets on her previous records.

Four singles made it onto the charts, though they are far from the best songs on the album. ‘Let Me Into Your Heart’ was the first one and almost broke the top ten in the U.S., coming in at #11. It made it all the way to #5 in Canada. Catchy, rhythmic, upbeat, with brass and back-up singers, it has a Motown soul feel to it instead of Country. But I found it unusual that none of the lyrics really grabbed me — one of the few MCC songs that I can say that about. The unremarkable last chorus is an example:

You’re like a sweet smile to these tired eyes
You’re like the last mile on a long ride
Oh I never believed in the arms of fate
But to be in yours darling, I believe I’d wait
‘Til the end of time for a chance to start
If you’d just let me into your heart

Second to chart was ‘I Want To Be Your Girlfriend’. It only made it to #35. It’s another up-tempo number but with somewhat better lyrics and a bit of humor about how a crush feels like a crush even when you’re no longer a teenager:

You used to be just this guy I knew from that same old scene
For all the time that I’ve known you, just now I’m noticing
That everything there is to feel, feels worse than any teenage crush
And all the times that I’ve been near you, now I can’t get near enough

Someone described it as “bubblegum pop” in a 60s style which fits that teenage crush mood. Fun song, but back-to-back, light, up-tempo numbers without a lot of meat to them must not have worked after the stellar hits of the previous couple years. Carpenter’s momentum on the charts began to wane.

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Coal Miner’s Daughter: Motion Picture and Soundtrack Review

With the recent explosion and deaths of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine just a few weeks ago, we’ve been reminded once again of the dangers and sacrificial hard lives of coal miners and their families. We heat our homes, light our streets and offices, and power our computers at the physical expense of those hard-working laborers. That’s the sturdy stock that Loretta Lynn comes from and the difficult beginnings that shaped her work ethic, family and music for the rest of her life.

Coal Miner’s Daughter, directed by British director, Michael Apted (Amazing Grace, Nell) and released in 1980, received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Sissy Spacek won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta in this film based on her autobiography of the same title.

Loretta hand-picked Spacek to play her based on a photo in a stack of 8×10 glossies and without having seen her films, according to Spacek in an interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio from 2002. Spacek didn’t really want to do the film, partly because Loretta was stating in various television appearances that Sissy Spacek would be playing her and Spacek thought, “I don’t even know you!”

Spacek tells of the time she and her husband drove home to Texas and planned to stop to see Loretta perform on the way in Louisiana somewhere. They missed the performance but arrived in time to watch the theater doors open and Loretta burst out in a red chiffon dress with her band behind her. She was so upset, Spacek says, and going on about, “Bam, bam, bam…Bam, Bam…I couldn’t hear nothin’ but them dad gum drums beatin’ in my ear!”  Spacek says, “I just was struck dumb! I thought, I have to play this woman!”

While working on the film, Loretta encouraged Spacek to sing her songs and helped her. They sang and played together, wrote songs together. Spacek tells of them staying in the Spence Manor in Nashville and pinning sheet music to the lampshades, turning on the lamps and then walking from lamp to lamp to follow the music as they practiced. They even stepped into the shower because the acoustics were so great to practice.

All of her time and practice with Loretta, both in person and with her voice on tape paid off in spades. Loretta says they’re almost like twin sisters. Spacek was the definitive actress to play the part, from her ability to portray Loretta first married at the young age of 15 all the way through her teens, young adult and middle-aged years, to her ability to adopt her spoken accent and do her own vocals so naturally on Loretta’s classic songs.

The film begins with young Loretta riding a mule through the woods of Kentucky, hauling one of her brothers on a wooden sled behind her on their way to town to meet their daddy who is just getting off his shift at the coal mine. While in town, they come across a handsome young soldier just arrived back home, showing off his new red jeep. He’s just sure his jeep can make it up a long, steep bank of dirt and people are betting on whether he’ll make it or not. Loretta can’t take her eyes off of him and he obviously has eyes for her.

Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, also known as Doo, makes it to the top of the hill to Loretta’s delight and the shaking of her daddy’s head.

It’s a great beginning to a great and amazing story of how these two literally climb what looks like an impossible hill out of the poverty of a mining town, moving to the west coast together and having four children by the time Loretta is 19, and then moving back after her father dies and starting her career from scratch.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Like Red On A Rose’

Reliable, consistent, neo-traditionalist, new traditionalist, self-penned tunes – that’s so often how Alan Jackson’s music is described. Like Red On A Rose stands out from the pack of Jackson albums then as a unique and beautiful album of ballads and love songs with a wonderful mix of thoughtful, tender and reflective interpretations of songs by several  writers.

After working with Keith Stegall as the producer on all of his previous albums, Jackson opted to try something different.  He approached Alison Krauss about possibly making a bluegrass album. Instead, Krauss’s song selection and production resulted in an album that lets Jackson’s vocal talent and skill come to the fore in a more acoustic style. This album truly features Alan’s warm, intimate, subtle and honest voice – arguably one of the best in country music. One phrase from ‘The Firefly’s Song’ sums up the overall production well: Sometimes less is more.

Like Red On A Rose was released in September of 2006, following Jackson’s Gospel album, Precious Memories.  Both albums were a departure from his reliable and a bit predictable style, though not a departure from Jackson’s personal history.  He grew up singing Gospel in church, and Jackson’s interpretation of the introspective songs on Rose give you the sense that he’s lived their stories in one way or another personally.

The overall mood of the album calls for a glass of your favorite full-bodied beverage and a quiet evening of reflecting on the richness of deep love, both kept and lost, and the blessings of life in general from the maturity of having lived a good portion of it already — thus, the album cover. But though the mood is fairly consistent throughout the album, the musical styles are somewhat varied.

‘Anywhere On Earth You Are’ sets the tone with a smokey road-weary ballad followed by the aptly titled and bluesy ‘Good Imitation Of The Blues’. Jimmy Holiday’s ‘Don’t Change On Me’ is a gospel-flavored number complete with choir-sounding back-up and gospel organ in the mix. John Pennell’s country waltz ballad ‘As Lovely As You’ has some lovely acoustic guitar.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Alright Guy’

Alright Guy, Gary Allan’s second album at MCA, is more than alright in many ways. It debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on its release in October 2001, and brought Gary his first No. 1 with the album opener ‘Man to Man’. Produced by Tony Brown & Mark Wright, it’s one of several of Allan’s albums to be certified platinum as well. I think the success of the album is reflected in the quality of the album’s unreleased tracks rather than the singles that charted.

The driving beat and rhythmic lyrics of the lead-off single ‘Man of Me’ (a George Teren and Rivers Rutherford song) weren’t enough to drive it beyond #18 on the charts. That seems fair given that though the lyrics describe how ‘lovin’ you made a man of me’, the music doesn’t get beyond a teen rock number, complete with a screaming ‘wow’ on the very paragraph proclaiming ‘goodbye to my blind immature days’.

‘The One’ came close to being the one that hit the top of the charts first for Allan. Coming in at #3, it’s a kind and loving gentleman’s ballad written by Karen Manno and Billy Lee. Allan isn’t going to rush his girl who has been hurt before, but instead promises,

I’ll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I’ll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you’re sure that I’m the one

It is a beautiful song, but the production is too heavy on the dreamy echo effects and background vocals for my taste. The interplay between Gary’s vocals and the melodic acoustic guitar line would have been enough.

Third time’s the charm, apparently. ‘Man to Man’, the third single off the album, was Allan’s first #1 on Billboard. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it’s sung by “the guy who got the girl” to “the guy who lost her”. It makes me think of a pool hall kind of scene in which the “loser” confronts the singer who turns and points out who’s really at fault and who’s really the better man. With lines like Were you ever there when she needed you, and Who cheated who/You’re the one to blame, he takes on the bully point for point.

The line that has always stood out to me, partly because of Allan’s great vocal on it, is She’s a real woman, not a doormat for you.

Again, the production is what gets in the way for me – the pop drums and background vocals don’t add to the character’s strength at all. And Allan’s cry-ee-eye-ee sends me back to 50s pop. However, it’s very sing-able and relatable with a catchy chorus and a recognizable intro – the stuff that often does well at radio.

The best songs on the album weren’t released to radio though. ‘Devil’s Candy’, one of 5 Harley Allen songs Gary has recorded, has a great hook and some great fiddle: I’ve always had a sweet tooth for the devil’s candy. Fiddles seem to exemplify that fiery battle with temptation, and this song’s no exception.

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Sweet Dreams – Motion Picture and Soundtrack Review

The Story of Legendary Country Singer Patsy ClineAnd I’m crazy for loving you.’ The closing line of her signature song sums up the main focus of the 1985 biopic “Sweet Dreams” based on Patsy Cline’s life from 1956 through 1963. Hollywood loves to explore the life stories behind great talents, usually offering a particular interpretation of what makes the artist tick. Screenwriter Robert Getchell, producer Bernard Schwartz and director Karel Reisz portray Patsy’s relationship with her second husband, Charlie Dick, as being a core element of what fueled her passion as an artist.

The film begins when Patsy (played by Jessica Lange who received an Oscar nomination for her performance) is married to her first husband, Gerald Cline, pictured as a guy who’s more interested in his own hobbies than in Patsy or her musical talent and career. In an early scene, the rigging on his model ship, for example, is more exciting to him than how Patsy’s performance had gone at a particular club that night.

On the other hand, a man she met at the club couldn’t take his eyes off of her. That man turns out to be Charlie Dick (Ed Harris) who gives her all the attention she’s been starved for, including attention for her music, and who has a passionate personality to match her own. It isn’t long before Patsy leaves Gerald.

As Patsy and Charlie fall head over heels, Patsy shares her dream of becoming a singer, making enough money to have the house she’d always wanted, having kids and then being able to retire to raise them. They are sweet dreams. Charlie proposes and they get married. They’re both crazy in love and off to set the world on fire.

However, where there’s fire, there’s beauty and power, and the danger of getting burned. The film depicts their marriage as both passionate and rocky, with flair ups due to their strong wills, and Charlie’s drinking, philandering and temper. In the midst of the tumultuous episodes, they share the joys of two children together and Patsy’s career successes – Charlie serving as one of her biggest fans.

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Year In Review: Megan Morrow’s Top 10 singles of 2009

Looking at my list it becomes very apparent that the best singles don’t always make it to country radio. There are songs on various albums that I like much more but that were never released. That said, here are some of the songs that I find myself humming and still enjoying at the end of 2009.

10. Welcome to the Future – Brad Paisley (June)
Musically, this one had to grow on me, even though it has some great licks between phrases. At the same time, the lyrics jumped out at me from the get-go. I’m probably going to be the only one with this one on my list for sure, but this is another one that spoke to me in the midst of the huge shifts in our country’s landscape. Watching the elections and the inauguration reminded me of watching the Berlin Wall come down – something I didn’t know I’d ever see in my lifetime. Welcome to the future.

9. A Little More Country Than That — Easton Corbin (July)
Our local station started playing this one right after its release last summer with the tag that it’s sung by Easton “I’m-Not-George-Strait” Corbin. If you weren’t paying attention though, you’d almost think it was George! And not only does Easton have a great laid-back easy country vocal, but it fits the song to a T with lyrics like:

Imagine a dirt road full of potholes
With a creek bank and some cane poles catchin’ channel cat
I’m a little more country than that
.

It’s a proposal that lets her know just who she’s getting “under this ol’ hat”. Just a great, simple, easy country song, that’s appropriately produced. Love it! Others must, too – it just rolled into the Top 20.

8. Big Green Tractor – Jason Aldean (May)
Yup. I’m going to admit I like this one. Not sure why, but it makes me smile. Not only does the tractor never break ground, but the song probably doesn’t either. Yet it’s a charming, catchy and sweet love song that paints a great picture that fits us Nebraska folks out here in corn country. It’s Jason’s second release from his 2009 album Wide Open and stayed at #1 for several weeks.

7. White Liar – Miranda Lambert (August)
Acoustic  and steel guitar on a cheating song with a burning lyric of a strong woman calling out the cheat himself and dropping her own bombshell. Doesn’t get much more country than that!

6. Cowgirls Don’t Cry – Brooks & Dunn f. Reba (Feb.)
The digital re-release of this one featuring Reba makes this a possibility for my 2009 list. With some great fiddle, a good story and Ronnie’s vocals, topped off by Reba’s heart-felt last verse, it just got to me. Granted the character in the song loses her dad, but having lost my mom in 2008 it struck a chord for me. That’s part of what I love about country music in general – its power to touch and heal.

5. Living For the Night – George Strait (May)
Love George’s interpretation of this one. He captures that absent, empty kind of feel that missing someone is all about. And then there’s the fact that he and his son wrote it together with Dean Dillon. The lyrics are straight forward yet speak volumes:

Everyday’s a lifetime without you
Hard to get through, since you’ve gone
So I do the only thing I know how to to get by
I’m living for the night.

4. People Are Crazy – Billy Currington (March)
Written by Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones, ‘People Are Crazy’ is Billy’s second single from his 2008 album, Little Bit Of Everything, and is nominated for a Grammy in two categories. It’s probably my favorite story song of the year due to its humorous way of making the point that we all share the most basic common denominators: God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.

3. Consider Me Gone – Reba McEntire (July)
Though I loved ‘Strange’, her first single from her first album with Valory (April 09), Reba’s second single has become even more of a favorite. Reba calls it a “strong woman’s song” and that it is. Like Sugarland’s ‘Settlin’’, Reba’s character isn’t going to settle either. She lets her lover know in those powerful Reba vocals that

If I’m not the one thing you can’t stand to lose
If I’m not that arrow to the heart of you
If you don’t get drunk on my kiss
If you think you can do better than this
Then I guess we’re done
Let’s not drag this on
Consider me gone.

This one went number one on the Billboard chart this week, making Reba’s 24th trip to the top.

2. Solitary Thinkin’ — Lee Ann Womack (April)
The second single from her Grammy nominated album, Call Me Crazy, and more bluesy jazz than straight country, ‘Solitary Thinkin’ stood out on radio this year as an example of less is more. Lee Ann’s vocals are subtle and embody that smoothness that everything takes on when you’re doing some solitary drinkin’ and thinkin’.

1. High Cost of Living – Jamey Johnson (March)
This one actually got released, but was a bit too dark, rough and long for much radio play. Earthy and honest, pointed and powerful, it’s the best country song of the year in my book.

Year In Review: Megan Morrow’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

It certainly wasn’t intentional, but my top ten albums of 2009 happen to come mostly from the great women recording country music these days. I think I’m drawn to them because there’s a depth to their stories and lyrics, their vocals and arrangements. It seems they’re taking more non-commercial risks than their male counterparts, and are less formula-driven. They’re more interesting and hold my attention for the long haul. These are the albums I’ve been playing over and over this year:

10. #1s…and Then Some – Brooks & Dunn (Sept.) What a ride! This two-disc set is a great romp through the hits of an amazing duo, and ‘Honky Tonk Stomp’ isn’t a bad way to go out.

9. Twang – George Strait (Aug.) Consistently good but stretching himself a bit at the same time (‘El Rey’ for example), George just keeps hitting home runs. ‘Living For the Night,’ ‘Where Have I Been All My Life’ and ‘Beautiful Day For Goodbye’ are highlights for me.

8. Gold and Green – Sugarland (Oct.) Christmas albums can be just another collection of the same old songs overdone again. Leave it to Sugarland to come out with one that’s anything but typical – maybe that’s why the title isn’t the usual Red and Green. I’m still putting this one on my list even though it was released later in the year, if only for ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ with its great dobro, vocals and humor, and their fresh take on ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ accompanied by simple banjo.

7. Live on the Inside — Sugarland (Aug.) Jennifer and Kristian are some of those incredible artists that are even better live! I love their “countrified” instrumentation on the covers! Who would have thought ‘Better Man’ by Pearl Jam would sound great with accordion!

6. The List – Rosanne Cash (Oct.) Not only is this a great covers album, but the story behind it is wonderful, too. Her father, Johnny Cash, gave her his list of the “100 essential country songs” when she was 18 in order to give her a good country music education. Thankfully, she says, she had the good sense to keep the list. Rosanne has one of those great, unpolished folk country voices – not unlike her dad. Love the more acoustic tracks on this one.

5. Dolly – Dolly Parton (Oct.) Perhaps this 4-disc set doesn’t count as a new release, but Dolly is…well…Dolly. Following her career over the years in this time-lapse kind of format is amazing, especially for those of us who weren’t following her as it happened. If you need a new release, though, then sub in her Dolly Live From London that just came out in November. Over 60 and still kickin’, and charmin’ and capturing life in her stories.

4. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sept.) I’m not sure that Revolution quite lives up to its name, but it’s still a great album with Miranda’s barbwire and roses lyrics, edgy arrangements of guitars and plenty of steel, like ‘White Liar’, mixed with some beautiful and thoughtful numbers like ‘The House That Built Me’ and ‘Virginia Bluebell.’ She’s got such a unique sound and her lyrics stand out and grab you – sometimes by the throat, but almost always by the heart.

3. Keep On Loving You – Reba McEntire (Aug.) As much as I love Mountain Soul II for the consistency of its acoustic mountain style, I love Reba’s album for its variety. It’s got classic gritty country story drama in ‘Maggie Creek Road’, as well as contemporary fun in ‘Pink Guitar’, ‘I Want a Cowboy’ and ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’, some solid country fare like ‘Nothing To Lose’ and ‘Consider Me Gone’, and songs that catch your heart in ‘Eight Crazy Hours’ and ‘She’s Turning 50 Today’.

2. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless (Sept.) Wow. From Patty’s clear yet soulful vocals to the simple acoustic production and classic instrumentation to the gems of the songs themselves, this album is a delight from start to finish! Just go get it!

1. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Sept.) See J.R. Journey’s spot-on review of this one. The word that sums up Terri’s offering for me is “real”. There isn’t a song on the album that doesn’t embody that word. The lyrics and Terri’s interpretation are the highlights. Thankfully, the production and arrangements really allow them to shine. I can tell The Long Way Home will be a long-time fave in my library.


Thank God For Believers

Joe Nichols

Joe Nichols

Sometimes world events or personal events pile up and the needle on my emotional dashboard veers into the red “overwhelm” zone.  Depending on the day and the circumstance, I might dial up my favorite “drown your sorrows” country songs in order to know I’m not alone in the “overwhelm” zone.

However, there are other days when I’ve wallowed enough and am ready to move forward.  I need a dose of optimism. I was having one of the latter this past week when I caught Joe Nichols’ latest, ‘Believers’, on the radio.

I like Joe’s voice. It always catches my attention for some reason – reminds me a bit of Randy Travis (he opens for Randy Travis this week at the Minnesota State Fair). He’s got that rich sound that can’t be anything but country. But in addition to Joe’s honest vocals, the lyrics kept my attention. The catchy chorus seemed to say what I needed to hear:

Believers
Believers
They got a little more faith than the world has doubt
The earth might shake, but they stand their ground
And God only knows where we’d be without
Believers

Corny? Maybe to some. But perhaps that’s the point. Believers often are the ones the world pokes fun at. They have faith and optimism when the cynics can’t see the forest for the trees.

The song has 3 verses – one about protestors advocating for change in the face of those solid courthouse walls (great image of how it feels to go up against the powers that be), one about a young couple that takes the leap of faith to get married, and the final verse about a mother praying for her son:

Eighty nine years old and a momma still prays
That her wayward son will find his way
There’s a telephone call that makes her cry
Its her son sayin’ momma I’ve seen the light
Aww, everybody told her she was wastin’ her time

Too much of a happy ending? Too formulaic? Maybe for some, but I’m a sucker for happy endings. I believe they happen – not all the time – but enough of the time to keep me believing.

In a world where people make a living on news talk shows out of negativity and what’s not possible, I’m thankful for the quiet (and not so quiet) believers that continue to move us forward “with a little more faith than the world has doubt.”

What songs give you hope during those days in the “overwhelm” zone?

Sirius XM video of his fan club party performance during CMA Fest. I like this acoustic version.

The Believers Challenge From Iraq video. Stories and clips from the soldiers on Joe’s tour in Iraq.

‘Belivers’ was written by Bill Luther.

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘For My Broken Heart’

Reba-ForMyBrokenHeartHeartbreak is at the heart of country music. Perhaps that’s because heartbreak is the common denominator for us all. No matter our lot or station in life, we’ve all lost someone or something at some point – a job to the economy, our innocence, a lover to another, a spouse to divorce or death, a child who grows up and away, or even our youth.

But how do you face multiple losses in the midst of tragedy? Alan Jackson’s ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning’ after 9/11 is this decade’s healing anthem grappling with that question. In the 90s, Reba’s album For My Broken Heart as a whole was a healing agent following the tragic loss of her band, tour manager and the flight crew in a fiery plane crash on March 16, 1991 after a tour stop in San Diego.

For Reba and her husband and manager, Narvel, their family, the victims’ families and friends, the fans and the country music community, the world did stop turning. Intense tragedy knocks the breath out of you. How do you go on after such a blow to your heart and spirit?

The album, summed up in the title track, attempts to answer that question: with stumbling steps forward. Though the song ‘For My Broken Heart’ is about a congenial break-up, it traces the beginnings of how one begins to breathe again after loss:

Clocks still tickin’ life goes on
Radio still plays a song as I try to put my scattered thoughts in place
And it takes all the strength I’ve got to stumble to the coffee pot
The first of many lonely mornings I’ll have to face
You called to see if I’m ok I look out the window and I just say:

Last night I prayed the Lord my soul to keep
Then I cried myself to sleep
So sure life wouldn’t go on without you
But oh this sun is blinding me
As it wakes me from the dark
I guess the world didn’t stop
For my broken heart

Not only are the lyrics by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer beautiful and honest, but so are Reba’s vocals backed by light guitar accompaniment on the verses. As others have said, the restraint in Reba’s voice on many of the tracks on this album is noticeable and adds to the overall sense of tentatively moving forward. This song is a perfect opener for this album, with that in mind, from its subtle quiet synthesizer beginning to the clock “still ticking” in the lyrics of the verse to its quiet ending.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Reba’

reba mcentire - rebaThis album is not even in my top ten Reba albums, though there are individual songs I dearly love on it. However, Reba’s 14th studio album was significant for Reba and her career for a number of reasons.

Reba reflected a time of important transition in her personal life. Her divorce became final in November of 1987, and as she says in her autobiography, Reba: My Story,

Something was shifting inside of me. Maybe the reason was my new freedom as an unmarried woman – for the first time in my life, not having to answer to anyone but myself; or maybe it was the sense of confidence that came from restructuring my organization and putting some of my long-held pet ideas into practice. Whatever the reason, in 1988, I found myself drawn to the old Aretha Franklin hit “Respect.” It just seemed to connect with my mental outlook at the time.

Reba talked with her producer, Jimmy Bowen, about using it to open the new 1988 show. Though he was a bit surprised she liked that one, Bowen suggested she record it as one of the needed up-tempo numbers for her next album. She did, along with others that were more R & B, jazz or pop.

Reba was released in April of 1988 and received more negative criticism from traditional country circles than any of her previous albums, though it stayed at #1 on Billboard’s Country chart for 8 weeks that summer and she continued to receive awards such as Favorite Female Country Artist (AMA), Favorite Female Vocalist (TNN), etc. She had previously been so outspoken about loving her country roots and recording traditional country music that it came as somewhat of a surprise she recorded an album with no fiddles and no steel, more keyboard and more synthesizer.

Her previous career-making album, “Whoever’s In New England,” had also had some numbers that many considered more cross-over songs. But Reba said about that one (again in her autobiography),

I never set out to record a “crossover” record. As I’ve said, I’ve always considered myself a country artist and never wanted to abandon my roots. I had simply come to the conclusion that it would be better for me just to do good material, and if it happened to reach across the pop charts – well, fine – that would be an unexpected little extra.

She similarly defended “Respect” on this album. In a segment on “Respect” in CMT’s “Reba McEntire: Greatest Stories,” Reba talks about the reaction she got when she performed it as a dance number on the CMAs that year. People asked her afterwards if she’d thought about the fact that she was doing a pop number on a country awards show and she said no, she really hadn’t. It was up-tempo and she loved the song and was a big fan of Aretha Franklin. Plus, she was excited to show people she could move after years of standing behind a microphone.

And “Respect” is certainly a great song. Rolling Stones rated Aretha’s version #5 on their 2004 list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time.  However, many of the other cuts on the album aren’t great and seem more like filler and actually detract from the other good songs in the set.

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Single Review: Darryl Worley – ‘Sounds Like Life To Me’

Darryl WorleyThere are those songs that just stick with you and gnaw at you sometimes. This is one of those songs for me. To be honest, I didn’t like it very much in the beginning, not so much because of the music or Worley’s interpretation, but because it just seemed so insensitive.

You probably know the story by now since the song recently entered the top 20 . A guy’s friend’s wife calls him up to tell him that his friend has fallen off the wagon and she doesn’t know what to do. The singer heads down to the local bar where, sure enough, there sits his friend drowning his sorrows. And he’s got a long list of sorrows – some of which are pretty serious.

From bills to pay, three kids and a wife, and a baby on the way to putting Mama in the nursing home, this friend has a lot on his plate. Instead of just nodding with understanding, though, and allowing him to vent, Worley’s character responds

Sounds like life to me, plain old destiny
Yeah, the only thing for certain is uncertainty
You gotta hold on tight, just enjoy the ride
Get used to all this unpredictability
Sounds like life

Man, I know it’s tough but you’ve gotta suck it up
To hear you talk, you’re caught up in some tragedy
Sounds like life to me

My initial reaction to the song mirrored that of the reaction of the friend. His face gets red and he disagrees and says, “You don’t understand.” Many of the reviews I’ve read on the song seem to side with the friend and think the song isn’t worth listening to because it’s insensitive.

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Album Review: Keith Whitley – ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes’

keithwhitley-sadsongsThere are very few that can sing a sad one like Keith Whitley. At least that’s what I’ve discovered in our recent Spotlight Artist feature on Keith in May. So it’s appropriate that one of the posthumous releases featuring Keith’s vocals is titled Sad Songs and Waltzes. As a relatively new fan of country music, I fell in love with this album on a number of levels.

First, there’s the story behind the album’s production. To be honest, I sometimes love the stories behind the songs as much as I love the songs themselves and this album has many.

Keith sang with several bands early in his career before striking out on his own. J.D. Crowe and the New South was the band that provided his launching pad into country as a solo artist, and their LP Somewhere Between was the ignition.

Keith joined the band in 1978 after singing and playing with the bluegrass band Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys along with his friend Ricky Skaggs during their teens.

According to Crowe, Keith didn’t realize when he joined The New South that Crowe was also into country having met Lefty Frizzell when he himself was in his teens. So when Keith eventually approached Crowe about the band doing a country album, Crowe was more than open to it. He offered to produce one and Somewhere Between got its start featuring some great classics like Frizzell’s ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors,’ Merle Haggard’s ‘Somewhere Between’ and ‘Long Black Limousine’ released in 1968 by Jody Miller.

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Retro Movie and Soundtrack Review: Steel Magnolias

Steel_Magnolias_t520Magnolias are an ancient flower that, though beautifully fragile and delicate looking, have stood the tests of time and the seasons of change over thousands of years. The women in this movie are all those things and more, well, except for the thousands of years old part.

“Laughter through tears is one of my favorite emotions,” exclaims Dolly Parton’s character, Truvy in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. It’s one of my favorite emotions, too. Perhaps that’s why this movie is on the top of my “cry pile”. Whenever I need a good cry and a good laugh, I reach for this one 9 times out of 10.  In its 20th anniversary year, the cast, story and soundtrack continue to embody the title: Steel Magnolias.

Set in small town Louisiana, the story revolves around the lives and friendships of six women and Truvy’s Beauty Spot, a carport-turned-beauty-shop which serves as a great metaphor for the way these women bring beauty and depth to ordinary small town life. Written by Robert Harling, directed by Herbert Ross and produced by Ray Stark, it brings together a powerhouse cast of strong, beautiful, funny and passionate women who are all “steel magnolias” themselves.

Daryl Hannah as Annelle

Daryl Hannah as Annelle

The story opens at Truvy’s where Truvy (whom Dolly plays as sincere, wise and beautiful, inside and out) is calling out to her husband Spud (Sam Shepherd) to finish dying the Easter eggs for the community egg hunt, and is hiring a mysterious new graduate from the College of Hair, Annelle. Truvy tells one of her regular customers, Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), the former mayor’s wife, that she thinks “there’s a story there” since Annelle is married but living by herself on the other side of town in a boarding house. Daryl Hannah masterfully plays this mousy, nervous newcomer as she promises Truvy, “My personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.”

Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton

Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton

M’Lynn (the emotional bedrock of her family, played by Sally Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts in an Oscar nominated performance for Best Supporting Actress) eventually make it to Truvy’s to get their hair done for Shelby’s wedding later that day and the Beauty Spot comes to life with the lively chatter of women sharing their excitement about the wedding. The new bride’s colors are Blush and Bashful, two different shades of pink that M’Lynn says make the church look like it’s been sprayed in Pepto-Bismol.

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Tributes to Keith Whitley

Statue of Keith in Eliot County Memory Garden, Kentucky

Statue of Keith in Eliot County Memory Garden, Kentucky

Twenty years ago today country music lost one of its own to an alcohol overdose. Singer/songwriter and talented player Keith Whitley died at age 33, May 9, 1989. Garth Fundis, one of Keith’s producers, says in a tribute blog post on CMT.com by Edward Morris,”Twenty years is a long time to miss someone, but I’ll never get past the ‘what might have been’ for my pal, Keith Whitley.”

Thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Keith’s friends and family.

Also check out our own tribute to Keith.

Let us know of other tributes you find.

Song power and lead

Reba performing at the 2009 ACM Awards in Las Vegas.   

Reba performing at the 2009 ACM Awards in Las Vegas.

They say confession is good for the soul, right? I have to confess that I’m a bit of a lead foot. It’s one of my few vices. I like to push it somewhere between 5 and 10 miles over the limit. You probably understand if you live in a state like Nebraska with a lot of wide open spaces, or you live in a smaller town or in the country and need to drive somewhere to get any place.

Fortunately, I seem to have a nice face and a clean driving record so I haven’t gotten an actual ticket in close to ten years. But lately, since I’ve started listening to mostly country music, I’ve gotten a lot of warnings. Just gets my toe tapping I guess.

I got stopped twice while playing Reba CDs all the way to a Reba concert in Minnesota (once in Nebraska and once only 30 minutes from the venue). It was understandable to be speeding toward that concert, right? I mean, it was Reba! I got stopped here in town coming off the interstate while listening to the “Fast Song Friday” request program on our local country station. They were playing my request, Reba again.

And just this week I got pulled over while listening to George Strait’s Beyond the Blue Neon CD going a bit too fast in a construction zone. I think it was ‘Angel, Angelina’ that got me in trouble. (Took the cruise control off for the construction zone and my speed crept up.)

I usually turn the radio down, but not off when talking to the officer. Perhaps that’s the real reason I only get warnings – they’re country fans, too – or at least Reba and George fans.

So, if you were caught speeding what might you be listening to? You can either speak from experience or hypothetically.

1989 Album Review: George Strait – ‘Beyond The Blue Neon’

beyondtheblueneonIf you’re looking for a solid classic George Strait album with some pleasant variety that’s cleanly country without all the over production, this one’s for you. Released the winter of 1989 in the year he received both the ACM and CMA Entertainer of the Year awards, Beyond The Blue Neon is King George’s 12th album and another #1 on Top Country Albums.

‘Neon’ produced a significant number of popular singles, 3 of which went to #1 themselves, and has been certified platinum. It’s got a mix of Western swing, ballads, tear-in-your-beer and dance tunes. It feels as though this one came straight out of a juke box somewhere, or better yet, you’ve picked up a recording of a live session in a honky tonk.

The title song sets that juke box, honky tonk, pool hall tone with a pleasant slow jazzy tune that features George at his best – crooning. This gem written by Larry Boone and Paul Nelson gives the album its cover image in the first verse:

‘Swingin’ doors
Sawdust floors
A heartache drowns as the whiskey pours
There’s a hole in the wall
From some free for all
The ringin’ crack of that old cue ball’

Larry recorded it first on his 1988 Swingin’ Doors, Sawdust Floors album.

Next up is the wonderful, dry humored ‘Hollywood Squares’. It’s a fun, pure-country novelty number featuring some great fiddle and a hook to make you smile: I got so many ex’s and owe so much/I ought to be on Hollywood squares. Though it was never released as a single, it charted at #67 and was included on a couple of later collections as a favorite.

The third song, and coincidently the third single, ‘Overnight Success’ reached #8 in 1990. Weeping steel highlights this traditional sad one’s hook: And if you planned on hurtin’ me/you’re an overnight success. What’s kept George at the top for so many years is his selection of songs, and this one’s a perfect example of a winning combination of a great song and his understated style.

‘Ace in the Hole’ is an upbeat swing tune with great instrumentation featuring the band and back up singers subtly doing their stuff to give George an awesome platform, but shining on a wonderful solo section. Appropriately, ‘Ace in the Hole’ features the band since it also bears the name of the band, and was one of George’s aces with a #1 on the charts. It’s one of my favorites – love the swing numbers on this album.

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Class of ’89 Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘State Of The Heart’

stateoftheheart1Singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s second album (her first album saw no singles released from it) and it’s four breakthrough top 20 singles gave her a solid place in the Class of ’89.  Originally released through Columbia Nashville, State Of The Heart rose to #28 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and has been certified gold.  

State of the Heart contains the beginnings of Carpenter’s transition from folk into country and features her signature rich lyrics in a mix of both styles. She wrote every song on the album with the exception of ‘Quittin Time’ and a bit of co-authoring from John Jennings on ‘Never Had It So Good.’ 

‘How Do’ kicks off the set with a high energy dance tune that’ll get your feet tapping and your heart pumpin’. It’s a country version of “How do you do” and one of those “I’d like to meet you” numbers, perfect for a Honky Tonk, summed up best in the line, ‘Here’s a local girl/Who wants to show you around’. There’s some great instrumental solo work on this one which made it to #19 on the Hot Country Singles chart.  I don’t know what its competition was on radio, but this one deserved to go higher. 

She slows it down, but only a bit, with the next one, ‘Something Of a Dreamer’. Its lilting acoustic guitar picking and her clear folksy voice give it that optimistic dreamer feel. For some reason I could hear Trisha Yearwood doing a great cover of this one. Carpenter’s lyrics paint a poetic picture of love from afar and the chorus is catchy:

    ‘She’s something of a dreamer 
    Something of a fool 
    Something of a heartbreak 
    When she gives her heart to you’

‘Dreamer’ rose to #14 and was her 4th top 20 from this album on the Hot Country Singles chart. 

Next up is ‘Never Had It So Good’ which has a great hook: ‘You never had it so good babe/I never had it so bad’. It made it to #8 on the chart as the second single released to radio, but personally I think the hook is the best part of it. It’s just not as interesting as the first two cuts which have much more to offer instrumentally and lyrically. And Mary doesn’t sound as invested in this one either. 

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What makes it country?

buckleEven after a good three years of listening to my local country station, rooting around on the internet and exploring country music blogs, I still often wonder to myself, “What makes country music, country?” There’s such a variety of artists with a diversity of sounds and looks these days. Is there a definitive element that makes them country?

While watching the ACMs this last weekend, a friend commented during Lee Ann Womack’s wonderful performance of  ‘Solitary Thinkin’, “Boy, she’s real country — not pop at all.” Another friend was trying to describe Jamey Johnson’s look and style, and summed it up by saying, “He’s just…country!” At the same time, Brooks and Dunn kicked off the show with their energetic ‘Play Something Country’ which features the line, Crank up the band, play the steel guitar. Yet what followed didn’t have too many obvious steel guitars: Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Sugarland and Rascal Flatts.

So what makes country, country?

Is it the instrumentation? Does it have to have fiddles and steel front and center to qualify? If so, that sure knocks out quite a bit of what is considered country these days. Some argue that the genre would be better off without these folks, but I’d miss Sugarland.

Is it the subject matter? Is that old joke true that if you play a country song backwards the guy gets his girl and his job back, finds whatever he’s lost, quits crying and leaves the bar sober? Or does a country song need to take place on gravel roads down south or out west driving a pick-up past Old Glory? If so, then you’d eliminate Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’, Reba’s huge early hit ‘Whoever’s In New England’ and so many songs that have more of an urban, northern setting or don’t have a setting at all. And if you played certain country songs backwards, the ending wouldn’t be happy anymore — country love songs or those finally-growing-up songs like Jack Ingram’s ‘Measure of a Man.’

Is it the artist’s accent, clothes, or life story? J.R. Journey wrote a great piece called ‘To twang or not to twang’ here on the blog not too long ago. If you take the twang out of the country does it become pop or rock? If you put boots and a buckle on the singer, or if they grew up in small-town Oklahoma, Texas or Tennessee ridin’, ropin’ and roughin’ it, does that figure in somehow?

Is it the melodies, harmonies and structures of the songs themselves?  Perhaps, but there’s so many styles of country influenced by every other musical genre — blues, blue grass, rock, folk, pop, the islands, swing, you name it.

Is it some combination of the above, or is there another characteristic that’s less stereotypical that defines country as country?

What is it that’s at the core of country music in your mind and heart? What’s YOUR kind of country?

Right there in black and white

jameyjohnsonI’m a newbie lover of Country music. There’s just something about it that’s drawn me in. I know it has a great deal to do with the stories – both in the songs and of the artists themselves. Similarly, I love it when the tune or the arrangement or the inflection in the singer’s voice nuances the story, and makes it come to life.

For example, I love Jamey Johnson’s ‘In Color’. It’s my pick in the Single Record and Song of the Year categories at Sunday’s ACM Awards. The whole song literally turns those black and white photos into color, from the lyrics to Jamey’s vocals to the arrangement and production.

The intro quietly starts with a little guitar and light keyboard, as though a couple of family members are improvising in one corner of the living room while a young man and his grandfather are sitting at the kitchen table flipping through an old photo album from the ‘30s and ‘40s. The young man points and asks if that’s Grandpa in one of the photos. Grandpa acknowledges that yes, he was 11, farming cotton in the depression. The instrumentation remains sparse and Jamey’s solo vocals are as dusty as that decade.

There’s a build on the chorus: ‘If it looks like we were scared to death like a couple of kids just trying to save each other, you shoulda seen it in color’. The instrumentation deepens with some additional guitars, the trap’s cymbals and some urgency in Jamey’s voice turning the black and white into color. The next shot is one of Grandpa and his gunner during the war sometime in the winter of 1943. The music includes the hint of military snare and the addition of a background vocal, but is sparse and transparent again, just like Grandpa’s breath on that winter day. As he remembers his friend, a teacher from New Orleans, the color develops in the drums. Some additional guitars playing melodic lines weave in and out with Jamey’s voice as it builds again to the next chorus with an added line – ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words but you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered. You shoulda seen it in color’. A single guitar solo brings the pace down for the last verse.

The next one is Grandpa’s favorite – he and Grandma’s wedding day. The acoustic guitar and keyboard are back with just a sigh of electric guitar and a partner background vocal as Jamey sings tenderly how the ‘rose was red and her eyes were blue’.  You can almost see Grandpa sit back looking at that last photo as Jamey thoughtfully pauses on the last line of the verse, and the melody and chording take a new turn, reflecting Grandpa’s new insight: ‘That’s the story of my life…right there in black and white’.

The full instrumentation and background vocals rhythmically drive to the final chorus: ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words but you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered. You shoulda seen it in color’. The song closes by peeling off the layers of “color” down to the “black and white” of the solo acoustic guitar.

For a country song, you just can’t get much better than that.