My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Shouldn’t A Told You That’

The departure of Robin Lynn Macy following Little Ol’ Cowgirl left the Dixie Chicks (billed here as “The Dixie Chicks Cowgirl Band”) as a trio when they released their third album, Shouldn’t A Told You That, in November 1993. It would feature the remaining members, The Erwin sisters and Laura Lynch, and stand as their final release before Natalie Maines replaced Lynch in 1995.

The ten-track album features an impressive lineup of songs by some of independent country’s top singer-songwriters. They open with Radney Foster’s co-written “Whistles and Bells,” an excellent traditional shuffle about a woman giving a stern warning to her ex about the woman he’s currently dating:

I see her running round this town in her fancy car
A girl who can’t afford your hopes and dreams
But darlin’ all those pretty toys won’t help your broken heart
When she’s through and sends you packin’ back to me

Whistles and bells won’t ever bring you love and happiness
She’s never gonna give her heart the way that I would give
She’s got you spinning round in circles, I can tell
With her lights, buzzers, whistles, and bells

Austin based singer-songwriter Walter Hyatt wrote the title track, a barnburner driven by Emily’s banjo that nicely foreshadowed their more mainstream sound in the years to come. “Desire,” which is bright, uptempo, and laced with fiddle and dobro, was co-written by Kim Richey. The gorgeous and affecting “There Goes My Dream,” about a woman watching her man walk away, was solely composed by Jamie O’Hara.

The album’s most recognizable song, at least to fans of alternative country, is Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal’s “Plant of Love,” which was the title track to Lauderdale’s debut album two years earlier. Their version is brilliant, with a sparsity that lets their exquisite harmonies shine. “Planet of Love” is paired with the shot hidden track “Boo Hoo,” which gives their harmonies another pleasing spin. It’s a weird little gem and it sounds me to me like they were playing spoons as their instruments.

Lynch has two writing credits on the album. The first, “I’m Falling Again,” is a beautiful ballad about new love she co-wrote with Martie, Emily, and Matthew Benjamin. The other song, “The Thrill is in the Chase” is mid-tempo and allows Martie’s fiddle work to take center stage.

Benjamin also appears as a co-writer on “One Heart Away,” a mid-tempo ballad anchored by fiddle and dobro. He wrote “I Wasn’t Looking for You,” a mid-paced ballad about falling accidentally in love, solo. “I’ve Only Got Myself To Blame” returns the album back to its uptempo leanings, with a heavy dose of fiddle and banjo.

This is without question the most polished of their independent albums and showcases their move towards a distinctly mainstream sound. The selection of songs, just like with every Dixie Chicks album, remains exquisite. I do disagree with Paul Dennis’ view that Lynch wasn’t a distinctive lead vocalist. Although she isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Maines, and honestly no one is really, if you think about it, she carries this album wonderfully.

While the Dixie Chicks were headed towards a mainstream sound, Shouldn’t A Told You That is still very much alt-country and keeps with the likes of Kelly Willis more than Trisha Yearwood or Pam Tillis. None of that matters in the end, though, as Shouldn’t A Told You That is a fine album on its own.

Grade: A

Week ending 4/6/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s 40 Below) — Johnny Horton (Columbia)

1969: Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass — Buck Owens and his Buckaroos (Capitol)

1979: I Just Fall in Love Again — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1989: I’m No Stranger To The Rain — Keith Whitley (RCA)

1999: How Forever Feels — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2009: It Won’t Be Like This for Long — Darius Rucker (Capitol)

2019: Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

Week ending 3/30/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass — Buck Owens and his Buckaroos (Capitol)

1979: I Just Fall in Love Again — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1989: Baby’s Gotten Good At Goodbye — George Strait (MCA)

1999: How Forever Feels — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2009: It Won’t Be Like This for Long — Darius Rucker (Capitol)

2019: Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

Week ending 3/23/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Only The Lonely — Sonny James (Capitol)

1979: I Just Fall in Love Again — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1989: New Fool At an Old Game — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1999: You Were Mine — Dixie Chicks (Monument) 

2009: Sweet Thing — Keith Urban (Capitol Nashville)

2019: Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

Jerry Bradley, Ray Stevens, and Brooks & Dunn to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame

The annual announcement ceremony took place this morning. It was supposed to be hosted by Reba McEntire, but what she had assumed was laryngitis is actually a strep infection. She’s also had to postpone a few concerts over the past week. Hopefully, she’ll still be able to host the ACM Awards on April 7.

The press conference begins at 32:23 minutes in:

Week ending 3/16/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Only The Lonely — Sonny James (Capitol)

1979: Golden Tears — Dave & Sugar (RCA Records)

1989: From a Jack to a King — Ricky Van Shelton (Columbia Nashville)

1999: You Were Mine — Dixie Chicks (Monument) 

2009: Sweet Thing — Keith Urban (Capitol Nashville)

2019: Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

Album Review: John Conlee — ‘Harmony’

When John Conlee released his eighth album, Harmony, in 1986, he was also making his transition from MCA to Columbia. Although he would only release two albums for the label, his hit-making streak continued.

Three singles were released from the album, including the mid-tempo title track, which hit #10. The other two came from prominent artists and had varying quality. Conlee’s seventh and final #1 came courtesy of Dobie Gray’s unspectacular “Got My Heart Set On You.” He much deserved to peak higher than #6 with Guy Clark’s “The Carpenter,” an excellent salute to an everyday working man:

Let us now praise the carpenter and the things that he made

And the way that he lived by the tools of the trade

I can still hear his hammer singing ten-penny time

Working by the hour till the day that he died

 

He was tough as a crowbar, he was quick as a chisel

Fair as a plane and true as a level

He was straight as a chalk line and right as a rule

He was square with the world he took good care of his tools

 

He worked his hands in wood from the crib to the coffin

With a care and a love that you don’t see too often

He built boats out of wood, big boats, he worked in a shipyard

Mansions on the hill and a birdhouse in the backyard

 

He said anything that’s worth cutting down a tree for

Is worth doing right don’t the lord love a two by four

If you asked him how to do something he said like Noah built the Arc

You’ve got to hold your mouth right son and never miss the mark

Piano and steel guitar is an effective backdrop for “Class Reunion,” about a man who finds his reunion notice between his stack of bills. The story is very relatable but the lyric could’ve been sharper. He continues in this territory on “Cars,” a love song between a guy and the “motors and wheels” that get him through life:

She was sittin’ on a car lot looking like a dream

Underneath a string of lights

A 49 model and I was sixteen

But I knew it was love at first sight

 

And the man said, son, I’ll make you a deal

And I knew I had to make her mine

I held my breath and slid behind the wheel

It was my very first time

 

Cars, just motors and wheels

Rubber and glass and steel

Still, I think back over the years

And it sounds strange, I suppose

But it’s cars I remember most

 

She was parked on the street by the First Baptist Church

As we ran down the steps hand in hand

My brand new Chevy waiting there at the curve

And we waved to the crowd and got in

 

Well, the miles went by and so did the years

And I thought that we were doing alright

Till she packed up the kids and picked up the keys

And just drove away one night

 

Well, the years have gone by and a lot of thing changed

I hardly see the kids any more

Took a new job and moved to LA

And bought me a two-seater Porsche

 

There’s lots of pretty girls out here and you know

I could be doing alright

But mostly at night I just drive up the cost

And look at the city lights

The album’s truest country moment comes courtesy of Bobby Braddock’s delightful “She Told Me So,” which seems like it was written for Keith Whitley. Also wonderful is “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which has a downbeat lyric about a guy kicking his woman to the curb set to a rather cheerful ear-catching melody.

“You’ve Got A Right” is pure filler but it is the album’s most uptempo song. Conlee takes us to Montego Bay, Jamaica on “For A Little While,” and while the setting may be tropical, the downbeat lyric is set to a very contemporary arrangement featuring steel guitars, not steel drums. He concludes the album with “The Day He Turns 65,” a portrait of a man who, on the brink of retirement, must figure out his new life.

Harmony is very much a contemporary country album with solid country production throughout. While there isn’t a truly terrible song to be found, some of the tracks are definitely stronger than others.

Grade: B

Week ending 3/9/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Only The Lonely — Sonny James (Capitol)

1979: Golden Tears — Dave & Sugar (RCA Records)

1989: Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me) — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1999: No Place That Far — Sara Evans (RCA Nashville)

2009: God Love Her — Toby Keith (Show Dog Nashville)

2019: Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

 

Album Review: John Conlee — ‘Friday Night Blues’

The title track was the first of three singles released off of John Conlee’s third album Friday Night Blues, which came out in May 1980. The excellent mid-tempo ballad tells the story of a lonely housewife desperate for the affection of her oft-absent husband:

He’s been working all week

he’s got mental fatigue

and that old couch sure looks fine

All week he’s been gone

she’s been sitting alone

slowly going out of her mind

As he kicks off his shoes for the six o’clock news

she’s getting all prettied up

Oh she’s wanting to boogie

he’s wanting to lay there

she’s got the Friday night blues

 

And the Friday night blues

they get in your shoes and

they work to get you down

Oh and there ain’t a lady that I ever knew

who didn’t need her a night on the town

But the hills and the bills and a week’s worth of deals

has got him feeling more than used

Oh, he’s kicking his shoes off she’s putting hers on

she’s got the Friday night blues

 

there once was a time she was top of the line

her nights like teenage dreams

Now it’s operas at noon,

dancing round with her broom

talking to the washing machine

Oh, the girl down the street

says her old man is neat and

she makes it sound so true

Now she’s feeling lonely thinks

she’s the only one

with the Friday night blues

It’s a great story song that deservedly peaked at #2. The follow-up single, “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” a ballad about a cheating man, matched it. The alluring, yet much slower, “What I Had With You” stalled at #12.

“Honky Tonk Toys” is the story of a mother, her daughter, and the bar they call home:

Annie Mae Johnson gave birth to a child

In a room, at the back of this bar

She named her Rainbow, cause she came at midnight

In the light of a blue neon star

 

Rainbow brought sunshine to Annie Mae’s life

While Annie served drinks to the boys

She’d sit on the floor, in the back of this bar

And play with her honky tonk toys

 

And there were honky toys, like beer tops and beer clocks

But her most favourite toys of all

Was a beer carton cradle and a table cloth blanket

And a little brown beer bottle doll

 

Rainbow turned eighteen, two summers ago

Old enough to go out on her own

She wanted to know, what her Daddy was like

So she left her honky tonk home

 

Annie Mae still loved the man she divorced

Til he became Rainbow’s first choice

Now all that’s left, of Annie Mae’s Rainbow

Are three little honky tonk toys

 

And there were honky toys, like beer tops and beer clocks

But her most favourite toys of all

Was a beer carton cradle and a table cloth blanket

And a little brown beer bottle doll

The song, which was later covered by Red Sovine in 1980, is typical of its era, complete with the horrid twist. It’s certainly memorable.

Conlee is quizzical on “Old Fashioned Love,” questioning whatever happened to the idea of making a life-long commitment to someone. He follows with the splendid “Misery Loves Company,” a classic barroom anthem for the down and depressed. Conlee’s hot streak continues on “Let’s Get Married Again,” which finds a couple headed towards the ultimate reconciliation.

A nice dose of fiddle and twang provide the backdrop on “When I’m Out of You.” A strong conviction from a man to his woman is at the heart of “We Belong in Love Tonight” and “Always True” is about a man’s steadfast loyalty to his lady.

Friday Night Blues is a splendid album from start to finish, without a single throwaway track in the bunch. Conlee’s sound was beginning to change by the end of the decade. He was still retaining the producing prowess of Bud Logan, but his album’s, especially this one, aren’t suffocated by heavy orchestration. The songs are given their rightful place and are allowed to shine, just like they richly deserve.

Grade: A+

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Forever’

Forever, John Conlee’s second album, and first for MCA, was released in 1979, produced by Bud Logan. The album’s excellent pop-leaning first single “Before My Time” is a ballad about a woman scared by a previous relationship, just like the guy in Trisha Yearwood’s equally wonderful “The Woman Before Me.” The song peaked at #2.

MCA sought fit to release just one more single from the album. “Baby, You’re Something” is a mostly unremarkable and dated heavily-orchestrated ballad. It reached #7.

“Let’s Keep It That Way” finds a man pleading with his would-be mistress to end things before the affair even starts. Devotion leads the way on the title track, which finds Conlee as a man declaring his loyalty to his woman.

“You Never Cross My Mind” finds him trying to convince himself he’s over his love, despite crying himself to sleep at night. The album’s first truly great song is “I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again,” which was recorded by Kenny Rogers on The Gambler a year earlier. Conlee’s version is excellent, despite the heavy orchestration.

The uptick in quality continues on the wonderful “No Relief In Sight,” which was also recorded by Conway Twitty and Dawn Sears. He doesn’t slow down on “The In Crowd,” which finds him coming home to his wife and kids at the end of a long work day.

Looking at the album’s track list I could only wonder if “Crazy” was indeed the song I thought it would be. I have no idea why MCA and/or Conlee would feel the need to include the country standard here, updated to fit within the trends of the late 1970s, except to introduce it to younger audiences who might not be familiar with it. He does handle it well.

Conlee concludes the album with “Somebody’s Leavin,’” which is a stereotypical breakup song, but very good nonetheless. Listening through Forever, I can say the same about the album. There are some excellent tracks, namely those also recorded by other artists, mixed in amongst some filler. In retrospect the singles are among the album’s weakest offerings, especially with more worthy candidates sprinkled throughout.

Forever is very pop-leaning, with heavy orchestration and little to no elements traditional to country music. At least the songs are good to great, which helps a lot.

Grade: B+

Week ending 3/2/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: To Make Love Sweeter For You — Jerry Lee Lewis (Smash)

1979: Golden Tears — Dave & Sugar (RCA Records)

1989: I Still Believe In You — The Desert Rose Band (MCA/Curb)

1999: I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing — Mark Chesnutt (Decca)

2009: Down The Road — Kenny Chesney & Mac McAnally (Blue Chair/BNA)

2019: Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Beautiful Crazy — Luke Combs (Columbia Nashville)

Classic Rewind: Eddie Rabbitt and Marty Robbins sing a medley of songs

From Marty Robbins Spotlight in 1978:

Single Review: Reba McEntire — ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

You’ll have to go back twenty years to find the last time Reba McEntire introduced a new studio album with a ballad. It’s exceedingly rare, and a welcomed change of pace, especially when it introduces a project McEntire is calling one of the most country of her career.

She’s introduced the album with the title track, which was co-written by former Eden’s Edge frontwoman Hannah Blaylock and her niece Autumn McEntire. The song finds Reba in the wake of learning her husband has taken up with someone new:

I never dreamed of wantin’ more

Than a small town, simple life

A little money in our pockets

You’re my husband, I’m your wife

 

But then I fell in icy water

Standing in the grocery line

I overheard my name and yours

And one I did not recognize

 

Now everything I thought I knew is walking out the door

There’s a bottle on the table tellin’ me the only thing I know for sure

Is there’s not a sound, a sound as loud as silence

There’s not a blade sharper than a lie

There’s not a low lower than being the last one to know

You got a brand new start with someone new

And there’s no whiskey stronger than the truth

“Stronger Than The Truth” comes just four years after McEntire and her manager husband Narvel Blackstock divorced after 25 years, a decision she has said, “wasn’t her idea.” It’s an excellent lyric and I love how the writers take us back to her eighties hits, by overtly name-checking “The Last One To Know” and placing her in a grocery store line, like she was in “What Am I Gonna Do About You.”

This time around, though, she has a plan, even if it’s a faulty one:

The only thing I can do

Is pour a glass and pretend

That this pain’s gonna end

“Stronger Than The Truth” isn’t as dynamic as her biggest heartbreakers nor is it as traditional as I would’ve liked. Pedal steel and fiddle are in the mix, but their presence is too subtle for a ballad with such a mournful lyric. But “Stronger Than The Truth” is a formidable first taste of McEntire’s new album, which comes out April 5, two days before she returns as host of the 54th annual Academy of Country Music Awards.

Grade: B+

NOTE: To wet our appetites further, McEntire will be releasing a new song from the album every Friday until April 5. Last week she evoked “Have I Got A Deal For You” with the charming “No U in Oklahoma,” which you can hear HERE. 

Week ending 2/23/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Until My Dreams Come True — Jack Greene (Decca)

1979: Every Which Way But Loose — Eddie Rabbitt (Elektra)

1989: I Sang Dixie — Dwight Yoakam (Reprise)

1999: I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing — Mark Chesnutt (Decca)

2009: Feel That Fire — Dierks Bentley (Capitol Nashville)

2019: Tequila — Dan + Shay (Warner Bros. Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): This Is It — Scotty McCreery (Triple Tigers)

In Memoriam: Fred Foster (1931-2019)

Fred Foster, left, president of Monument Record Corp. and honorary chairman of the Music City section of the United Givers Fund campaign, looks on approvingly as one of the industry’s leading citizens, Chet Atkins, manager of RCA-Victor’s Nashville office, singing the first pledge card in the section Aug. 18, 1967. Joe Rudis / The Tennessean

Fred Foster was a country music legend. Over the course of his 60-year career, he founded Monument Records and helped launch the careers of Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016. He died on Wednesday, Feb 20, age 87.

Those are just some brief highlights. I could never sum up his pioneering career as well as Dave Paulson and Cindy Watts from The Tennessean, so I’ve linked to their fantastic obituary HERE.

 

 

 

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Pictures’

The promotional cycle for John Michael Montgomery’s Brand New Me had come to an end when Atlantic Records closed their Nashville division in 2001. They weren’t ready to give up on him just yet, so Montgomery moved to their parent label Warner Bros. Nashville, where he reunited with Scott Hendricks for 2002’s Pictures.

The album charted three singles. “‘Till Nothin’ Comes Between Us” is a slick mid-tempo pop ballad, which features a smoothed over vocal from Montgomery. “Country Thang” is typical country-rock, beaming with southern pride. “Four-Wheel Drive” is the best of the bunch, with a nice steel and fiddle based melody, reminiscent of Brad Paisley’s work from the time period. The tracks peaked at #19, #45, and #52, respectively.

Harley Allen, who revived Montgomery’s career with “The Little Girl” appears here, as co-writer, along with Paul Overstreet, of “I Wanna Be There,” a contemporary ballad about a father’s prayer for his child as he or she goes through the phases of life — first words, first date, first heartbreak, etc. John Rich co-wrote “Believe In Me,” a mid-tempo promise of loyalty from a man to his woman.

Rivers Rutherford, a prominent songwriter during this era, was a co-writer of “Love and Alcohol,”  an uptempo cautionary tale where a man is warning a woman he’s been drinking so he’s not quite himself. “Love Changes Everything” is a charming but clichéd story of young love during the summer months on a farm. Montgomery is in a grateful mood on the upbeat “Got You To Thank For That,” which has a nice energy.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about the title track, which traces the love story of a couple through photographs and the memories they conjure up, all the while looking ahead to the memories yet to be made. “It Goes Like This,” which features Sixwire, a group that at the time had released their debut album, is an early sign of bro-country with the way it objectives the woman as nothing more than an object of desire.

I wouldn’t characterize Pictures as a bad album, but it is very generic and lacks even one song I could pull out as essential listening. It’s very typical of early-21st century commercial country music and I could hear shades of what Lonestar was cooking up during this time period. Pictures came on the back end of Montgomery’s career, where he was fighting to remain relevant ten years out from Life’s A Dance.

Radio had mostly moved on, actually to his brother and Troy Gentry, who were hitting their stride with “My Town” and “Hell Yeah.” No one was missing anything with Pictures, so this album’s lack of success was only a loss to his record label.

Grade: C

Week ending 2/16/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Billy Bayou — Jim Reeves (RCA Victor)

1969: Until My Dreams Come True — Jack Greene (Decca)

1979: Every Which Way But Loose — Eddie Rabbitt (Elektra)

1989: Big Wheels In The Moonlight — Dan Seals (Capitol)

1999: Stand Beside Me — Jo Dee Messina (Curb)

2009: She Wouldn’t Be Gone — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros)

2019: Tequila — Dan + Shay (Warner Bros. Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): This Is It — Scotty McCreery (Triple Tigers)

Album Review: Hayes Carll — ‘What It Is’

One listen to Hayes Carll’s What It Is and it becomes abundantly clear he’s using these twelve songs, his first new music in three years, to express himself fearlessly. The album is a split personality with one parts love, Carll is engaged to Allison Moorer, whom he plans to wed later this year, and one parts social commentary.

Not surprisingly, it’s the latter that wins the fight for dominance, and while it may seem repetitive to hear another artist use their music to vent their frustrations, or as Carll puts it “get off the sidelines,” few execute as uniquely and memorably as he does here.

The first of these songs is the solely written “Times Like These,” an effective rocker about our current political climate and how Carll desires “to do my labor, love my girl and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope in my dreams” which he says is “sure getting hard brother in times like these.” Less successful is the eccentric “Wild Pointy Finger,” which begins strong:

It points at the fever and the accomplishes of man

It points at all the problems it don’t understand

It points at Persians across the sea

It points at anybody who thinks differently than me

If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news

My wild pointy finger is probably pointing right at you

But dissolves into a bizarre rant weighted down by unwieldily symbolism. He rebounds nicely with the excellent “Fragile Men,” in which he talks directly to those who feel the world is undermining their ideals. Carll turns inward on “If I May Be So Bold,” the record’s thesis statement, where he sings about no longer standing in the shadows:

I’ll make my way if I should be so bold

Bold enough to make a difference

Bold enough to say I care

Bold enough to keep on trying

Even when the wills not there

There’s a whole world out there waiting

Full of stories to be told

And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all

If I may be so bold

“Jesus and Elvis,” the album’s best-known song thanks to Kenny Chesney, who included it on Cosmic Hallelujah in 2017, is one of those compositions. The title originated with co-writer Matraca Berg, but the story of the bar and its patrons, which is rich with the tiniest of details, from the “neon cross and the string of Christmas lights” to the camaraderie between “old friends,” is all Carll’s.

He bridges the gap between the album’s two halves on the gorgeous “American Dream,” where he uses everyday observances (summer sunshine, tumbleweeds, dresses on a clothesline waiting for Saturday night) to paint an idyllic picture of his life in Texas. The romantic side of the album, largely bolstered by his romance with Moorer, also his co-producer and frequent co-writer, finds him as relaxed as Johnny Cash in the presence of June Carter.

Carll is at his most tender on the sparse “I Will Stay,” the album’s masterpiece and the essence of true love, a relationship ballad where he vows to be there for Moorer through the good times and the bad. He goes back in time on “Beautiful Thing,” a shot of bluesy adrenaline that details the combustion he felt in the infancy of their courtship.

Although Moorer co-wrote “None’ya” with Carll, the song his tribute to her, his perspective on the woman he’ll soon call his wife. He shares intimate details of their lives together, like how she painted the ceiling of their front porch turquoise in order to keep out evil spirits because it’s “the way we do it the south,” and captures her essence in all its eccentricities with beauty and sensitivity.

Given the self-doubt he hints at in “I Will Stay,” it’s safe to assume Moorer is the one taking the lead on “Be There,” which paints a less than optimistic view of the couple’s relationship. The banjo-driven title track, in which she provides background vocals, serves as a reminder that “what it was is gone forever, what it could be god only knows, and what it is, is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go.”

Carll’s very character is at the heart of the cautionary “Things You Don’t Want To Know,” which is directed at Moorer and his fans and warns against asking questions that can lead to uncomfortable truths you might not be ready to hear.

What It Is may be a record of two halves, showcasing distinctly different sides of a fascinating and complicated man, but it works as a cohesive whole thanks to Moorer and co-producer Brad Jones, who infuse the album with an urgency that binds the songs together with a softness and aggression that reveal Carll’s unwavering assurance in his ideals.

What It Is is a journey worth taking from beginning to end, with not a single pit-stop along the way.

Grade: A 

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Leave A Mark’

By the late 1990s, John Michael Montgomery was still plugging away with solid radio singles. Atlantic followed What I Do Best with his first Greatest Hits package, which featured the single “Angel In My Eyes.” The ballad, which is in line with the sound of his most previous work, hit #4 in 1997.

Like most artists at the time, Montgomery had to adjust his sound to fit within the pop invasion that had overtaken the genre. He released his fifth album, Leave The Mark, in 1998, just as Shania Twain was beginning her dominance with Come On Over. To my ears, at least as far as the singles were concerned, the changes resulted in some of his most paired down work to date.

The album’s first single “Love Workin’ On You,” which stalled at #14, is a lightweight uptempo ditty. He would hit the artistic jackpot, at least as far as mainstream songs are concerned, with the album’s other two singles, both of which featured ample steel guitar and peaked inside the top 5. The mid-tempo “Cover You In Kisses” and the romantic “Hold On To Me” have aged beautifully, with the latter being among the strongest love songs of his career, easily eclipsing his signature hits.

As for the album tracks, “Little Cowboy Cries” details a broken home through the eyes of a boy who believes his daddy’s leaving is his fault. “I Don’t Want This Song to End” is Hallmark schmaltz, but tender and sincere. “I Couldn’t Dream” and “It Gets Me Every Time” are sexualized love songs on both ends of the spectrum. The former is a ac-leaning ballad, while the latter is horrid up-tempo pop.

The uptempo “You’re The Ticket” isn’t horrible, the arrangement has the redeeming qualities of ample fiddle and steel guitar, but the lyric leaves much to be desired.  A chance meeting between exes is at the heart of “I Never Stopped Loving You,” an above average ballad co-written by Mark Willis. Montgomery handles it was ease, committing a strong vocal to the track.

The album concludes with the title track, a reflective ballad doused in dobro. I was quite expecting a horrible uptempo rocker, but this one is actually very good. It would’ve worked well as a single.

Leave A Mark is a mixed bag of an album that misses more than it hits. I do like most of Csaba Petocz production choices throughout, he co-produced the album with Montgomery, although the lyrical content is lazy and weak at best on most of the songs. But Leave A Mark gave Montgomery two more top 5 hits, one of which is among his finest singles, and went gold, so all wasn’t a total loss.

Grade: B

Week ending 2/9/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Billy Bayou — Jim Reeves (RCA Victor)

1969: Daddy Sang Bass — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1979: Every Which Way But Loose — Eddie Rabbitt (Elektra)

1989: Song of the South — Alabama (RCA)

1999: Stand Beside Me — Jo Dee Messina (Curb)

2009: She Wouldn’t Be Gone — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros)

2019: Tequila — Dan + Shay (Warner Bros. Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Girl Like You — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)