My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ’11 Months 29 Days’

Johnny Paycheck released his first outlaw album, 11 Months 29 Days in 1976. He hadn’t yet caught on in this vein, proven by the fact the album spawned four low-charting singles and peaked at #40 upon release.

Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston wrote the lead single, “The Feminine Touch,” an odd critique on manhood. The dreary arrangement and Paycheck’s vocal are eerily reminiscent of George Jones, which I can’t tell is on purpose or not. The track itself just isn’t very good. It peaked at #56.

“Gone At Last,” the second single, is better although I could’ve done without the dated female voices on the chorus. I did enjoy the jaunty melody, which is brimming with flourishes of harmonica. The track stalled at #49.

The title track, which hit #44, was the album’s next radio offering. The prison-themed lyric, which Paycheck co-wrote with Billy Sherill, is very good. The track itself is dated beyond repair, with what sounds like an annoying horn throughout the proceedings.

The final single, “I Can See Me Loving You Again” was a Jerry Foster and Bill Rice co-write that reached #44. It’s nice ballad that makes good use of Paycheck’s honest and tender vocal performance. The production, complete with piano, is dated to modern ears, but the track is very good.

As for the remaining songs, the album finally kicks into high gear with “The Woman Who Put Me Here,” an excellent barroom anthem complete with a welcomed backing of steel guitar. “I Sleep With Her Memory Every Night” is another high point, a ballad, complete with nice touches of fiddle to accompany a lyric about a lost love. “I’ve Seen Better Days,” also another ballad, is slightly dreary but very good as well.

11 Months 29 Days is an average album at best, with songs that may be okay on their own but are taken down by dreary uninviting production trappings. While I didn’t like this one very much, it may appeal to Paycheck collectors’ more than average fans.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Shakin’ The Blues’

Bear Family Records issued Shakin’ The Blues in May 2006 as a collection comprised of recordings Johnny Paycheck made for Decca, Mercury, and Todd between 1958-1964. Much like the previous sets, the album leans heavily on hardcore honky-tonk and finds Paycheck echoing the styles of both Ray Price and Faron Young.

None of these recordings were ever issued as singles or reissued on LP or CD. What sets this compilation apart is the last nine songs, which are carbon copies of hits from the day meant to sound interchangeable with the hit recording. The chosen songs, which include “Hello Walls” and “Above and Beyond” are good, but they’re nothing special or essential.

The rest of these recordings, of which there are 20, are fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the jaunty “The Old Man and the River” and “Story Behind The Photograph,” which clearly demonstrates the influence of Young on his vocal style.

There are simply too many tracks to highlight them all, but Paycheck shines brightest on the honky-tonk numbers, which I found to be the most inviting of the bunch. There are a number of Nashville Sound era songs and while they’re good, there’s really nothing about that style that has held up to modern ears.

When I went back and read Razor X’s review from earlier this week, I took particular note of his comment regarding the sound quality of these Bear Family reissue recordings. It’s the latter part of this project, tracks 17-19, that stand out the most in this regard. That, unfortunately, contains the cover tunes, which truly sound awful. I, too, wish some delicate remastering had taken place, at least to aid in one’s enjoyment and appreciation of what Paycheck had recorded during this era.

To my ears, Shakin’ The Blues is a very uneven set of songs, diminished primarily in terms of sound quality and then Nashville Sound era trappings. The honky-tonk numbers, of which there are many, are fantastic and well-worth seeking out. They shine the brightest amongst the muck that surrounds them. This is still a worthy set, essential in the sense that it captures an icon in his formative years. These are important recordings, regardless of the quality.

Grade: B

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘One Good Well’

Don Williams released his first album on RCA Records, One Good Well, in April 1989. The album, produced as per usual by Garth Fundis, prolonged his career with a series of very successful radio offerings.

The title track, a mid-tempo love song composed by Mike Reid and Kent Robbins, was issued as the lead single. It was followed by Bob McDill’s “I’ve Been Loved By The Best,” a gently rolling ballad about a love for the ages. Both songs, of superior quality, peaked at #4.

The third single, “Just As Long as I Have You,” which covered similar ground both thematically and sonically, also peaked at #4. The song, written by Dave Loggins and J.D. Martin, had originally peaked at #72 when Loggins released his own version with Gus Hardin in 1985.

The fourth and final single, “Maybe That’s What It Takes,” was slightly slower and a bit more lush than its predecessors. It stalled at #22 despite a well-written lyric by Beth Nielsen Chapman.

“Learn To Let It Go” is a jaunty pace changer, written by Reid with Rory Bourke. The arrangement, accented with dobro and fiddle, feels so tailor made to Keith Whitley I had to double check he wasn’t one of the track’s co-writers. Williams, unsurprisingly, wears the style well.

He goes uptempo again on “Why Get Up,” co-written by Bill Carter and Ruth Ellsworth. The track, complete with honky-tonk piano and an ear-catching lyric, is reminiscent of “It Must Be Love.”

Williams himself contributed “Cryin’ Eyes,” a gorgeous ballad concerning the reasons couples drift apart. Another of his solely-written numbers, “We’re All The Way” is more optimistic, tackling the well-worn theme of commitment. “Broken Heartland,” by Gene Nelson, keeps the pace slow on a ballad about feeling deflated when love doesn’t work out.

McDill and Bucky Jones are responsible for the album’s final song, “Flowers Won’t Grow (In Gardens Of Stone).” The somber ballad is an excellent steel drenched number, one of the album’s best.

One Good Well is, like all of Williams’ albums, a masterful recording. There isn’t a flaw I can find among these ten songs. I don’t think I’ve encountered another artist who is truly this timeless. You can listen to a Williams recording of any era and feel like it was just recorded today. He is easily one of the most remarkable country singers I have ever heard.

But if I was going to nitpick, I would call out One Good Well for not being memorable enough to stand out. While every song is indeed excellent, there’s nothing truly transcendent among these ten tracks. It’s a slight criticism, which I won’t hold against him, that is worth noting. Only Williams could get away with not taking any chances.

Grade: A+

Single Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

Last year, I threw the William Michael Morgan’s single “Missing” into my year-end Top Ten. It had just been released as a single and had caught my year for its unapologetic nod to traditionalism. “Missing” is the kind of song that even seven years ago would’ve been a massive hit.

George Strait likely would’ve been the one to propel it up the charts, and it probably would’ve been a “B” single in his hands, against his catalog. But it’s a winner for Morgan, who turns in a performance that measures up to Strait and rightfully stands on its own.

To my ear there isn’t a negative thing I can say about this record. It’s currently my favorite song at country radio and one of the only bright spots going into this summer season.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Expressions’

Don Williams released his eighth album, Expressions, in August 1978. He co-produced the album, once again, with Garth Fundis.

Expressions contains three of Williams’ most iconic singles. “Tulsa Time,” written by Danny Flowers, is a honky-tonk barnburner that took Williams out of his signature sound with ease and sophistication. He was back in his comfort zone for the beautiful self-penned “Lay Down Beside Me,” one of his most beloved ballads. The final single, Bob McDill’s “It Must Be Love” was another gorgeous uptempo number. “Tulsa Time” and “It Must Be Love” hit #1 while “Lay Down Beside Me” peaked at #3.

The singles each have versions by other artists. Eric Clapton and Pistol Annies both have versions of “Tulsa Time” and Alan Jackson brought “It Must Be Love” back to #1 in 2000. Kenny Rogers lent his voice to “Lay Down Beside Me,” as did Alison Krauss, in an ill-advised duet with rock singer John Waite.

“I Would Like to See You Again” is a lovely mid-tempo ballad accented beautifully with gentle mandolin flourishes. “You’ve Got a Hold on Me,” about a love gone by, is an AC-leaning mid-tempo number with nice accents of steel.

“Tears of the Lonely” is a lush ballad with striking piano and ear-catching percussion. “All I’m Missing Is You” picks up the tempo nicely and tells the story of a guy who does the things he used to do with an old love, missing her all-the-while. “Give It to Me” is a nice, lush song about love. He showcases his exceptional talents as a vocalist on the masterful “When I’m With You,” one of the strongest of the album’s ten songs.

Expressions captures a master at the height of their prowess when the artistic and the commercial are in near perfect balance. He also won his only industry awards as a result of this album – CMA Male Vocalist of the Year (1978) and ACM Single Record of the Year (“Tulsa Time,” 1979).

Expressions is as close to a flawless album as I’ve ever heard, from an artist who has never hit a sour note in his career. It’s just an exceptional record through and through.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Volume Three’

Don Williams’ breakthrough album, appropriately titled Volume Three, arrived in 1974 under his new label Dot/ABC. The album, which he self-produced, helped hone the laid-back sound that defined his career.

The Al Turney-penned “I Wouldn’t Want To Live if You Didn’t Love Me” was Williams’ first of his seventeen #1 hits. The track is an excellent mid-tempo ballad accented with steel. Although the album is credited to Williams as the producer, Allen Reynolds oversaw this track. It marked his first #1 as a producer. The second and final single, “The Ties That Bind” is slower than its predecessor but no less lovely. It peaked at #4.

Williams solely penned four of the album’s songs. “Fly Away” is mid to uptempo dobro-laced number, which could pass for having a slight spiritual bent. The sonic touches are similar on “Goodbye Really Isn’t Good at All,” which makes wonderful use of his gorgeous baritone. “Such a Lovely Lady” is one of his signature love songs and a high-quality one at that. He continues in the same vein, yet again, on “Why Lord Goodbye,” which features an ear-catching steel solo.

As with every album by Williams, there isn’t a stinker in this bunch nor can I find any fault with this recording at all. Like the two previous volumes before it, Volume 3 is a brilliant early example of what makes Williams such a unique artist with a style virtually unmatched. I have to also give him credit for his production choices, which sound as fresh today as they did forty-three years ago.

Grade: A

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Six Days on the Road’

Sawyer Brown was nearing the end of their hitmaking days when Six Days on the Road dropped twenty years ago this month. The album was their second to last to be produced by Mac McAnally, who had significant influence over the project.

The lead single was the title track, a cover of the 1963 Dave Dudley classic. Their version, which I would regard as very good, peaked at #13. They rose to #6 with another cover, “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” previously a hit for both Bill LaBounty and Michael Johnson. I also really liked their version of this song, as well.

The final two singles weren’t as successful. The wonderful “Another Side,” a ballad solely penned by Miller petered out at #55. A fourth and final single, “Small Talk,” a Miller and McAnally co-written dud, hit #60.

McAnally had two solely written songs on the album. “With This Ring” is a tender love song while “Night and Day” is uptempo with generic rockish production. Neither song quite measures up to McAnally’s high standard with the group, which if we’re being honest is an impossible bar to reach.

Five more tracks were either written or co-written by Miller. “Transistor Rodeo,” “Half A Heart,” “A Love Like This” and “Every Twist and Turn” are unmistakable of their era and very catchy. “The Nebraska Song,” which Miller wrote alone, is a tribute to Bill Berringer, quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers who was killed in a 1996 plane crash. The track is a nice and tender acoustic ballad.

“Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” by Mark Alan Springer, is a wonderfully infectious mid-tempo ballad laced with nice flourishes of steel. “Between You and Paradise, which Springer co-wrote with Neal Coty, is a very strong traditional-leaning ballad.

Six Days on the Road is a nice, above average mid-1990s country album. The music is in no way traditional, yet it isn’t overwhelming poppy or rock either. There’s nothing to jump out of your skin over, though, with brings the album down a notch. But Six Days On The Road is a bit better than good.

Grade: B

Side Note: If you haven’t checked out Drive Me Wild, which hit in 1999, do so if only for “I’m In Love With Her.” The ballad, written by Chuck and Cannon and Allen Shamblin, is one of the band’s finest moments on record. As a single it peaked at #47. I have no doubt if it had come out at the height of the band’s popularity it would’ve been ranked among their most iconic singles (with different, less busy, production values). It’s just that strong.

Album Review: ‘Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band’

The tagline for Bruce Robison’s first solo in eight years reads, “recorded on analog tape with no digital shenanigans.” He goes on to say, “I will tell you one thing about this project…I wanted to leave in just enough mistakes so it sound live and, well, mission accomplished.”

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band came about as a result of the time he spent working on The Last Waltz, a multi-media website that acts as a “virtual social house” of music, videos, and interviews with the cream of the crop of today’s songwriters and musicians. As a result, Robison was inspired to form his own band to record a nine-track album featuring his own interpretation of originals, co-writes and covers.

Our first taste of the project, Joe Dickens’ “Rock and Roll Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man,” about a guy refusing to cave into society’s pressures for him to suppress his rebel spirit, is an excellent infectious mid-tempo number drenched in fiddle.

Another preview track, which Robison wrote solo, is the brilliant ballad “Sweet Dreams.” The song centers around the age old tale of a small-town boy who never got out into the world, despite watching all the girls he dated take off and fly. The theme may be well worn but it never sounded sweeter than in Robison’s hands, accented with lovely heapings of mandolin and steel guitar. He also solely composed the slow-burning “Long Shore,” which rests on the nakedness of his gravely vocal.  “Long Time Comin,’” a Robison co-write with Micky Braun, is a gorgeous folk-leaning ballad with an ear-catching lyric.

Braun co-wrote “Paid My Dues,” an ironic up-tempo about the dark side of making it in the music business, with the always fantastic Jason Eady. The song, which Robison presents as a duet with Jack Ingram, has a wit and infectious melody that drew me right in. If this truly is the dark side, then they’re having way too much binging on cocaine in a cheap motel room.

My favorite track on the album is Robison’s take on Christy Hays’ “Lake of Fire,” a stunning traditionally accented ballad. “The Years,” by Damon Bramblett, is a sweet and endearing waltz concerning the trajectory of love, beautifully framed with gentle percussion mixed with fiddle and steel. Michael Heeney and John Moffat’s “Still Doing Time (In a Honky Tonk Prison)” is a classic country weeper and a brilliant one at that.

The centerpiece of the album is its most famous song, Pete Townshend’s “Squeezebox,” which Robison considers “a great country song by some English dudes.” Robison’s version is great, if cluttered, and has a nice assist from his wife Kelly Willis.

As a whole, Bruce Robison and the Back Porch Band is a welcomed surprise and a nice follow-up to the two excellent duets records he did with Willis in the past few years. I wasn’t expecting so much slower material, but there truly isn’t a sour track in the bunch. Robison’s pen is as sharp as his keen sense of song. His liner notes may begin, “You’re not going to listen to this! It’s a goddamn record!” but to heed his premonition is to miss out on one of the year’s most uniquely satisfying offerings.

Grade: A

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Broken Halos’

Chris Stapleton has finally shared the first official taste of his highly-anticipated sophomore album, From A Room, Volume 1. He may have sung “Second One to Know” on the ACM Awards earlier this month, but “Broken Halos” is the first audio Stapleton and Mercury Records have shared with fans.

I must admit I haven’t been able to drink the Stapleton branded cool-aid. I’m not much of a fan of his style or voice, which do not excite me. My brain keeps wanting to compare him to Jamey Johnson, which for me is no contest. I love Johnson and adore That Lonesome Song. I still can’t get into Traveller no matter how many times I listen to it.

“Broken Halos” doesn’t change my perception. It’s a blues rocker, not a country song, a style that fits him well. I admire how structured the song sounds, there’s no wild abandon impeding on the listening experience. “Broken Halos” is probably as straight a reading as we’re ever going to get from Stapleton.

The song, though, is a good one. I really like the spiritual nature of the lyric, which offers a poignant message of redemption:

Angels come down from the heavens

Just to help us on our way

Come to teach us, then they leave us

And they find some other soul to save

 

Seen my share of broken halos

Folded wings that used to flysang

They’ve all gone wherever they go

Broken halos that used to shine

Broken halos that used to shine

 

Don’t go looking for the reasons

Don’t go asking Jesus why

We’re not meant to know the answers

They belong to the by and by

They belong to the by and by

My personal feelings don’t distract from how well he executes this record. The lyric could be flushed out a bit more, but the arrangement is tasteful and he uses his god-like voice to the fullness of its powers. “Broken Halos” is signature Chris Stapleton and a fine beginning to what promises to be one of the strongest artistic achievements for mainstream country this year.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘The Dirt Road’

Sawyer Brown was still riding the wave of “The Walk” when The Dirt Road hit in January 1992. The song is reprised here, as cut #11, partly to draw needed attention to the album and to increase album sales. This album would see two singles of its own and the start of the period when Sawyer Brown would see their most consistent success at radio.

The proper first single was the title track, co-written by Mark Miller and Gregg Hubbard. The song is a meditation on the choices by which we approach our lives:

Daddy worked hard for his dollar

He said some folks don’t

But that’s ok

They won’t know which road to follow

Because an easy street might lead you astray

 

I’ll take the dirt road

It’s all I know

I’ve been walking it for years

Its gone where I need to go

Oh it ain’t easy-it ain’t supposed to be

So I’ll take my time

And life won’t pass me by

Cause it’s right there to find, On the dirt road

 

I have lived life in the fast lane

You gotta watch your back and look both ways

When it’s said and done the time we have is borrowed

You better make real sure you’re headed the right way

The track, which is one of my favorites from them, peaked at #3. Miller solely composed the album’s second and final single, the excellent uptempo “Some Girls Do.” The #1 hit (their first in six years and second overall) finds Miller playing the bad boy, a guy attractive to just a select few women:

She turned up her nose as she walked by my Cadillac

From the corner of my eye I saw you and you laughed

You were sittin’ on the swing on your front porch

Paintn’ your nails like you were bored

And you yelled she was sure impressed with you

 

Well I ain’t first class

But I ain’t white trash

I’m wild and a little crazy too

Some girls don’t like boys like me

Aw but some girls do

 

I yelled and asked if you would like a ride

When we pulled out of your yard I bald a tire

You was laughing at me, I was doing James Dean

You was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen

When you rolled your eyes and twirled my pink fur dice

“Some Girls Do” is a prime example of the effortless cool of early 1990s country music, infectious without being obnoxious or pretentious. This song was actually my first exposure to the band, from the compilation album #1 Country Hit Mix. I really only knew Sawyer Brown as an uptempo act (add “Thank God For You” to this conversation as well) and kind of found it strange to hear Miller croon a ballad when videos for songs like “Treat Her Right” would come on CMT. I learned as I went as a kid and dealt with perceptions in my own way as I developed a taste for country music in that era.

Given the success of both “The Walk” and “Some Girls Do,” one would assume their label (a joint venture between Curb and Capitol Records) would’ve pushed for more songs written by Miller alone. While he co-wrote the majority of The Dirt Road only one other track was credited solely to him. “Burnin’ Bridges (On A Rocky Road)” is a mid-tempo ballad, loaded with steel, concerning a well-intended pearl of wisdom:

He said things have changed for the better

Things have changed in the weather

Well you got to go down easy when you go

So don’t go burnin’ bridges on a rocky road

While the message behind “Burnin’ Bridges (On A Rocky Road)” is good, the lyric leaves a lot to be desired. The core of The Dirt Road came from collaborations between Miller and Hubbard, which amount to five of the albums cuts (besides the title track). None of these offerings are very inspired, and if I was forced to pick a ‘best of the bunch’ I’d say “Another Trip To the Well,” although the song is unremarkable at best. The album’s remaining cuts, “Time and Love” and “Fire In The Rain” are album highlights and the strongest of the non-singles.

As I reflect upon Sawyer Brown from this period, I feel like they’re more a singles band than an albums artist. The two singles from The Dirt Road are easily some of the best music of the day, but the album tracks leave much to be desired. Plus, I have no idea why Cafe On The Corner would arrive just seven months later. If these two projects had been combined, I bet they’d be a stronger set as one unit since the singles from both records were killer.

Grade: B- 

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

BREAKING NEWS: Alan Jackson is the 2017 ‘Modern Era’ Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee

Jerry Reed (Veteran Era) and Don Schliltz (Songwriter) round out the class of 2017. Here’s the press conference:

 

Spotlight Artist: Sawyer Brown

Those only intimately familiar with Sawyer Brown’s output in the 1990s, may be surprised to learn the origins of the group are traceable back to the mid-1980s when Mark Miller and the boys competed on and won Star Search.  With the $100,000 prize in their pockets and a recording contract with Capitol/Curb Records, they entered the studio to record a self-titled album released in 1984. The album peaked at #2 and their second single, “Step That Step” was their first #1 hit.

Sawyer Brown would hit the top ten just four more times in their first decade, where big hits included “That Missing You Heart of Mine” and an iconic cover of the George Jones classic “The Race Is On.” Their fortunes changed in 1991 when they dropped the slick sound that had become their trademark with “The Walk,” a stunning ballad about the cycles of life solely written by Miller. The song returned them to #2 for the first time in four years.

The band’s greatest period of consistency followed, with their next eight singles reaching the top 5. “Some Girls Do” and “Thank God For You” were the band’s second and third number one hits, respectively. This uptick in their commercial fortunes is related to the addition of Mac McAnally, who wrote some of the hits and co-produced a number of the albums reasonable for changing perceptions and allowing both fans and critics to take the band seriously.

McAnally’s contributions include “Cafe on the Corner,” a masterwork in blue-collar oppression. “All These Years” tackles infidelity, with a husband confronting his wife while she’s in bed with her lover. He and Miller co-produced four of the band’s albums, beginning with Outskirts of Town in 1993 and ending with 1999’s Drive Me Wild. Sawyer Brown’s final major hit was the title track to the latter project, which hit #6 in 1999. Two years prior they took a cover of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” to #13 while their take on “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” a pop hit for Michael Johnson in 1979, hit #6.

While our spotlight of Sawyer Brown will conclude with their Six Days on the Road album, released in 1997, the band has been recording into the new millennium. Their aforementioned Drive Me Wild album was issued with Miller dancing courtesy of a hologram cover image in 1999. Just three more albums have followed in the years since all of which have yielded singles that either charted low or didn’t chart at all. The band’s most recent single, the failed “Walk Out of the Rain” was issued back in 2014.

As far as distinctions go Sawyer Brown was never able to walk away with the CMA Award for Vocal Group of the Year, despite seven consecutive nominations between 1992-1998. This feat has since been tied, by Zac Brown Band, who also has seven consecutive nominations (2010-2016) without a win. Like Sawyer Brown, Zac Brown Band has also won the CMA New Artist Award.

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Live From Cain’s Ballroom’

Jessi Colter released Live from Cain’s Ballroom in 2013. The album her first live set, taken from a concert she performed with aid from her son, Shooter Jennings.

The eighteen-track set actually features just eleven songs, interspersed between six interludes and an intro. I wasn’t deeply familiar with Colter’s back catalog before we spotlighted her this month, so I really didn’t know what to expect from her output. I liked what I heard and I’m glad to hear her here, still in fine voice, with vim and vigor.

“I’m Not Lisa” is as sublime as I expected it would be, sparse and a beautiful showcase for the power she still possesses vocally. Similarly great is “What Happened To Blue Eyes,” another of her earlier hits.

Jennings joins her on two songs, both of which are very good, although not my taste. Jennings really isn’t a ‘country’ singer, or at least he leans on his growl and bluesy sensibilities for these recordings.

The tracks with Jennings are indicative of the album as a whole, which I wouldn’t classify as country in any noticeable way. The bluesy stylings work well for Colter, who truly does shine throughout this set. “Rainy Day Women” is a revolution, with sly guitar work brilliantly framing Colter’s slinky twang. “Storms Never Last” is also another of the highlights.

As a whole, Live From Cain’s Ballroom does little for me musically. I’ve never truly been into the guitar and piano-heavy bluesy style Colter is performing for the audience at this show. I can’t fault anything with the album itself, and it’s nice to have a recording of Colter in concert. The band is as strong as Colter, which makes this a winning set for fans of this style.

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

Grade: A+

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls’

After detouring with religious and inspirational music on Miriam, Jessi Colter returned to originals for 1978’s That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls. Much like her previous releases, the album was co-produced by her husband Waylon Jennings.

The album arrived too late to capitalize on the success of either Wanted! The Outlaws or her #2 peaking duet with Jennings, “Suspicious Minds.” Thus, the two singles failed to gain any traction at radio. “Maybe You Should’ve Been Listening,” a gentle ballad, peaked at #45. The second and final single, “Love Me Back to Sleep” only reached #91. Jacky Ward would score a #7 hit with the title track, a beautiful steel-drenched mid-tempo number, in 1980.

The main problem with That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls is the album’s lack of commercial viability. The title track and opening number “Roll On” are the only two cuts that can pass as uptempo and either one would’ve been better choices for singles than what Capitol sent to radio. Colter also does well with “Black Haired Boy” and “My Cowboy’s Last Ride,” both very good story songs. The remainder of the album is good, but nothing terribly exciting.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson – ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends’

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘I’m Jessi Colter’

12776715_f496After her debut failed to gain traction, Jessi Colter went a full five years between albums. She switched labels, from RCA Victor to Capitol Records, and released I’m Jessi Colter in January 1975. The record was co-produced by her husband Waylon Jennings and record executive Ken Mansfield.

Colter composed the entire project herself, which included lead single “I’m Not Lisa,” her most remembered song and biggest hit. The stunning ballad details the anguish of a woman in love with a man who still harbors feelings for his ex:

I’m not Lisa, my name is Julie

Lisa left you years ago

My eyes are not blue

But mine won’t leave you

‘Til the sunlight has touched your face

Not only did “I’m Not Lisa” top the country singles chart, but it hit #4 of the Billboard Hot 100, two major accomplishments that wouldn’t come her way again. Colter would crack the top five just once more with “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes,” the steel-laced second and final single from this album.

The remainder of the album is hit-or-miss, with a diversion into Memphis Soul that detracts from a majority of the tracks. These songs are well-executed, especially “Is There Any Way (You’d Stay Forever),” but the rest (“You Ain’t Never Been Loved (Like I’m Gonna Love You), “Come On In,” and “Love’s The Only Chain”) just aren’t to my taste. I summarily disliked the arrangement on “I Hear A Song,” but the ballad itself is quite lovely. “Storms Never Last” had much the same effect on me.

Colter’s strongest moments on the album are, not surprising, the country ones. “For The First Time” is a glorious slice of honky-tonk, a very welcomed change of pace. She’s even better on the stunning “Who Walks Thru Your Memory (Billy Jo),” the best track by a mile. The steel guitar perfectly frames her gorgeous vocal.

I’m not trying to suggest that I’m Jessi Colter is a bad album, it’s just extremely dated to modern ears, a victim of its era and a project designed to appeal to the popular trends of the time. While she never enjoyed solo success like this again, she struck gold a year later with an appearance along side her husband, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser on Wanted! The Outlaws. The album not only solidified the outlaw movement in modern country, but it was the first country album to be certified platinum.

Grade: B

Album Review: Bryan White – ‘Between Now and Forever’

between-now-and-foreverBryan White was an established newcomer when Between Now and Forever dropped in March 1996. The final two singles from his self-titled debut had topped the charts and he was on his way to winning the ACM for Top Male Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award.

White teamed once again with Kyle Lehning and Billy Joe Walker, Jr for his sophomore set. They led with “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” an excellent power ballad written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees. The song tells of a man conflicted by thoughts of his former flame:

We agreed that it was over

Now the lines have all been drawn

The vows we made began to fade

But now they’re gone

Put your pictures in the shoebox

And my gold ring in the drawer

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Now Sherri says she’s jealous

Of this freedom that I’ve found

If she were me, she would be out on the town

And she says she can’t imagine

What on earth I’m waiting for

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Oh, I shouldn’t care or wonder where and how you are

But I can’t hide this hurt inside my broken heart

I’m fighting back emotions that I’ve never fought before

‘Cause I’m not supposed to love you anymore

Also admirable was the second single “So Much For Pretending,” a break-neck uptempo that became White’s third number one hit. The catchy guitar and drum driven arrangement coupled with the charming lyric make this one of my favorites of his.

White was back in ballad territory for the lowest charting single, the #15 peaking “That’s Another Song.” The ballad of lost love is lovely, with a beautiful steel-led instrumental break framing White’s passionate performance. I wanted to say this was my least favorite of the album’s singles, but I love it as much as anything he released from his first two albums.

The album’s fourth single, the uptempo “Sittin’ On Go” impacted country radio twenty years ago this week. It’s yet another worthy turn from White and a perfect slice of uptempo radio fodder. The song deservedly hit #1 and retained its impact for years, at least on my local country station here in Boston.

I’ve owned this album since its release; I was nine at the time, a point in my musical journey in which I primarily listened to the radio hits a record had to offer. But I distinctly remember being enamored with the title track, a mid-tempo ballad co-written by White. I still find the track appealing although it is a bit more thickly produced and less subtle than the ballads released as singles.

The remaining uptempo numbers – “Nickel in the Well” and “A Hundred and One” are typical mid-1990s album filler. White also co-wrote “Blindhearted,” a ballad with nice flourishes of steel and “On Any Given Night,” just more of the same steel-fueled pop balladry.

I hold anything Mac McAnally writes in the highest of regard, as he composed “Café On The Corner,” one of the strongest down-on-your-luck working man tunes of the 1990s, and the best of the sub-genre I’ve ever heard. To Between Now and Forever he contributes “Still Life,” a ballad I wouldn’t have given a second look but for he wrote it. The track begins shaky, and is not McAnally even close to his best lyrically, but hits its stride in the second verse when the story, about a man stuck without his woman, takes a memorable turn:

The chances were given to get on with livin’

The truth is that he never tried

And no one ever sees him most folks don’t even

Remember which one of ’em died

But he still denies it, he closes his eyes and

 

It’s still life without you and I still hold on

What it feels like you can’t go by that

It’s still life, still life without you

Oh, still life, still life without you

Between Now and Forever is above average as far as squarely mainstream releases go. The set is very solid and the singles were worthy of release. White would have success as a writer when Diamond Rio took his co-penned “Imagine That” into the Top 5 in 1997. He would score just two more notable hits, both coming the following year. He would hit #4 with his own “Love Is The Right Place” and #6 as Shania Twain’s duet partner on “From This Moment On,” which later abandoned his contributions in favor of a solo pop-focused rendition of the now-classic love song. He would fade away at dawn of the new millennium.

Between Now and Forever captures an artist at their artistic peak, a time when everything worked for hits and platinum level sales. White was never truly a hot comity in country music although those from this era will remember his music, especially “Sittin’ On Go.”

Grade: A