My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Michael White – ‘Familiar Ground’

4187bvloazlAs the composer of such songs as Blake Shelton’s “The Baby”, Mark Wills’ “Loving Every Minute” and Michael Ray’s “Kiss You in the Morning”, Michael White has been more successful as a songwriter than as a performer, but he did record briefly for Reprise Records in the early 1990s. Familiar Ground, his sole album for Reprise (or anyone else as far as I can determine) was released in 1992. It produced three chart singles, one of which reached the Top 40, but failed to establish him as recording artist.

Timing is everything. If Familiar Ground were being released today, we’d all be talking about Michael White as a new standard bearer for traditional country music, much in the way that Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan are. But 25 years ago when the music still usually sounded country and there was no shortage of talent, Michael White simply did not stand out from the pack. It’s regrettable because he has a very fine voice, that is reminiscent of Tracy Lawrence, with occasional touches of Aaron Tippin and Keith Whitley.

The lead single “Professional Fool” was the album’s biggest hit and one of the best songs on the album. It peaked at a very respectable-for-a-first-release #32. A more uptempo number may have been a better choice to introduce a new act to radio. Reprise tried that strategy with the next two singles: the title track which was penned by White and “She Likes to Dance”, which peaked at #43 and #63 respectively. “Familiar Ground” is a decent small-town homage, but it’s barely distinguishable from dozens of other similar songs. “She Likes to Dance” is a bit of lightweight fluff.

All of the songs are good, but my favorites are the ballads: “Back to Texarkana”, “If I Had a Mind To”, and “The Boy Next Door” who is overlooked by the object of his affections. I also enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek swing number “One of My Near Mrs.” I can imagine Tracy Lawrence singing this one.

I’d never heard of Michael White prior to preparing for this month’s spotlight feature. I’m very pleased and pleasantly surprised to have come across this overlooked gem. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Grade: A

Week ending 2/18/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

mark-620x4001957 (Sales):Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1967: Where Does The Good Times Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977: Near You — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1987: How Do I Turn You On — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1997: It’s a Little Too Late — Mark Chesnutt (Decca)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Star of the Show — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Album Review: Jeannie Seely – ‘Written In Song’

61wcxdrzxl-_ss500Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, best known for her 1966 hit “Don’t Touch Me”, enjoyed only moderate success as a recording artist, but many do not realize that she is also an accomplished songwriter. Written In Song, her latest collection, was released last month. It consists of 14 tracks, all of which were written or co-written by Seely. Twelve of the songs were previously recorded by other artists, while two were newly written for this project. None of them, however, had ever been recorded by Jeannie herself, until now.

In the 1960s, Monument Records had marketed Seely as “Miss Country Soul”, which was likely in part an acknowledgement that her initial success had occurred outside the realm of country music. “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”, the oldest song on this album had been a 1964 R&B hit for Irma Thomas. The other 13 selections are strictly country. At age 76, Seely’s voice is a little rough around the ages at times, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the album.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously familiar with any of the songs on this album. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” was a Top 10 hit for Faron Young in 1971 and had also been recorded by The Time Jumpers. Kenny and Tessa Sears, widower and daughter of the late Dawn Sears, join Jeannie on this track, which is one of the album’s standouts. Aside from that, none of the others seem to have been major hits that are well remembered today. I suspect that most of them were album cuts that were never released as singles. Nevertheless, they are all worthy of another listen. My favorite tracks are “Senses”, a co-write with Glen Campbell that features local harmonies by Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, “Sometimes I Do”, which had been recorded by Ernest Tubb, and “Enough to Lie”, which had been recorded by Ray Price. On a number that had been recorded by her old duet partner Jack Greene, Seely promises “You don’t need me, but you will.”

The album’s two new numbers allow Jeannie’s sense of humor to shine through. “Who Needs You” casts her in the role of a jilted lover, who is comforting herself with alcohol and shopping — standard operating procedure for a country song. Then comes the song’s final verse which discloses that she’s been enjoying a little marijuana as well. It’s hardly a shocking revelation in this day in age — and as Seely points out in her spoken disclaimer before starting the final verse, it’s legal now in many states — but it sure wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this album. The closing number is “We’re Still Hanging In There, Ain’t We Jessi”, which name drops the names of many famous women of country music — from Audrey Williams and Jan Howard to Tammy Wynette and Jessi Colter — who survived difficult relationships with some of country music’s famous men. Her own failed marriage to Hank Cochran is also referenced, all in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek manner. Jan Howard and Jessi Colter both lend their voices to the track.

Written In Song is a surprisingly fresh-sounding album. It’s mostly traditional country, with plenty of fiddle and some fine steel guitar work, but it manages to avoid sounding retro despite the fact that many of the songs are fifty or more years old. I’m sure that many listeners, like me, will be hearing these songs for the first time. If it is something you don’t want to spend money on, it is available on streaming services such as Amazon Unlimited and is worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Week ending 2/11/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

morris10-21957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1967: Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind) — Loretta Lynn (Decca)

1977: Near You — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1987: Leave Me Lonely — Gary Morris (Warner Bros.)

1997: It’s a Little Too Late — Mark Chesnutt (Decca)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Guy With A Girl — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

Week ending 2/4/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-danseals-21957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1967: There Goes My Everything — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977: Let My Love Be Your Pillow — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1987: You Still Move Me — Dan Seals (EMI America)

1997: Nobody Knows — Kevin Sharp (Asylum)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Guy With A Girl — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Classic Rewind (Bonus Edition): Crystal Gayle – ‘Three Good Reasons’

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Three Good Reasons’

51qlwdksrjl1992’s Three Good Reasons was Crystal Gayle’s final major label album, released during the time that Capitol Nashville was known as Liberty Records. It was a last-ditch effort to get back on the radio. It appeared two years after her last album and six years after her last Top 10 record. Despite exceptionally strong material that was tailor made to appeal to the then-current trends at radio, it was a case of too little, too late. Radio had moved on to younger artists, and Liberty Records at that time neglected everyone on its roster who was not Garth Brooks. As a result, the album received only half-hearted promotion from the label. Only one single — the title track — was released and it did not chart.

The album was produced by Buzz Stone, who had previously produced an album for Riders In The Sky as well as Nanci Griffith’s live album a few years earlier. Whereas Ain’t Gonna Worry had largely been a throwback to Crystal’s early 70s sound, Three Good Reasons was an attempt to modernize her sound. With the possible exception of I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out of My Eyes, which was a compilation of her early work for Decca, it is her most country-sounding album. The fiddle and pedal steel can be heard prominently throughout the album and unlike its ballad-heavy predecessor, it contains plenty of upbeat material.

The title track did receive a fair amount of airplay on my local country radio station. It is an uptempo number about a young mother escaping from a bad marriage, citing “three good reasons to survive” — namely, her two children and herself. It was written by Don Schlitz and David Wingo and probably would have been a big hit if it had been released by a younger artist — or by Crystal herself a few years earlier. The album’s other divorce song, “A Rose Between Two Thorns” is a heartbreaking ballad about a child that feels caught between her feuding parents. “Living In Tears” is another very nice ballad.

Most of the other songs are uptempo numbers from Jackson Leap’s “Why Cry” and Mark Wright and B James Lowry’s “Love To, Can’t Do” to “The Trouble With Me (Is You)” a swing number written by L. Davis Lewis and Kim Williams. Despite the album’s traditional feel, Crystal had not totally abandoned her pop leanings: the mid-tempo “If The Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” had been a minor country and AC hit for Jimmy Buffett in 1985, and “One Less Set of Footsteps” had been a pop hit for its author Jim Croce in 1973. Crystal’s versions of both songs are well within the bounds of what was considered country in the early 90s.

Three Good Reasons is a perfect example of why commercial success should never be used to evaluate the quality of music. From an artistic standpoint, it is one of her strongest albums and as was pointed out in one of our prior discussions, if she’d changed musical direction a little earlier, she might have extended her chart tenure by a few more years. It’s a shame that this album didn’t succeed because I would have liked to have heard more in this vein from her.

Although Three Good Reasons marked the end of Crystal’s major label career, she did continue to record after she exited Liberty. She recorded a few religious albums, a few albums of traditional pop standards (one of which wa a very worthwhile tribute to Hoagy Carmichael), and a children’s album. An album of classic country covers is reportedly supposed to be released later this year.

Three Good Reasons probably escaped the notice of many fans. It is well worth seeking out. The tracks can be streamed on YouTube, and used copies are available for purchase.

Grade: A

Week ending 1/28/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

rodney_atkins-21957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1967: There Goes My Everything — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977: I Can’t Believe She Gives It All To Me – Conway Twitty (MCA)

1987: Cry Myself To Sleep — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1997: Nobody Knows — Kevin Sharp (Asylum)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Guy With A Girl — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Classic Rewind (Bonus Edition): Crystal Gayle – ‘Let Me Be There’

Crystal Gayle’s Grand Ole Opry induction

Last Saturday night, our spotlight artist Crystal Gayle was formally inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry by her sister Loretta Lynn, nearly 50 years after she made her Opry debut:

Classic Rewind (Bonus Edition): Crystal Gayle – ‘Snowbird’

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘True Love’

crystal_gayle_-_true_love1982 saw more changes for Crystal Gayle’s music as she transitioned to a new label and began working with a new producer. After releasing three albums for Columbia, she signed with Elektra Records, which at the time was trying to bolster its country roster. Her first assignment for her new label found her collaborating with Eddie Rabbitt. “You and I”, which does not appear on this album, was a major crossover smash that reached #1 on the Billboard country chart and #7 on the Hot 100. Shortly thereafter, Crystal made her solo debut on Elektra with the album True Love.

Although the majority of True Love was produced by Crystal’s longtime producer Allen Reynolds, Elektra apparently had some reservations about the album and wanted some changes made. Reynolds refused to cooperate, so label head Jimmy Bowen took over production duties for three additional tracks. Bowen would produce Crystal’s next album, making True Love the last time Gayle and Reynolds would work together for the remainder of the 1980s. They would reunite for 1990’s Ain’t Gonna Worry.

Bowen’s instincts proved to be correct. Among the three tracks he produced was the album’s lead single, an exquisite version of Rodney Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again”, on which Crowell provided the harmony vocals. Emmylou Harris had recorded the song in 1975, but Crystal took it to #1. Although it didn’t enjoy any crossover success, it represented a bit of a resurgence for Crystal, since none of the singles from her previous album Hollywood, Tennessee had reached the top spot.

Bowen was further vindicated when “Baby What About You”, another one the three tracks he produced also reached #1. The piano-led mid tempo number is one of my favorite Crystal Gayle songs. It provides a nice change of pace from an album that is otherwise country-rock in its leanings: Bowen’s initial complaints about the album reportedly was that “it rocked too much”. In between “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Baby What About You”, the Allen Reynolds-produced “Our Love Is On The Faultline” also became a #1 hit. The third Bowen-produced track was a remake of “Everything I Own” which had been a hit for the soft-rock group Bread in 1972. Crystal’s faithful-to-the-original reading was released as single in the United Kingdom. It topped out at #93 on the British charts in 1983. The lyrics suggest a lament for a lost love but I recently learned that David Gates composed the song about the death of his father. It’s not a country song, but it’s a very nice MOR number that Crystal sings beautifully.

The UK release of True Love includes an additional track, “Take Me to the Dance”, which I have not heard.

It’s a longstanding tradition in country music to conclude albums with a religious number. This custom is not generally followed in other genres of music, and on a pop/soft-rock leaning album like True Love, a number like “He Is Beautiful To Me” might seem slightly out of place. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful piece of music written by Bobby Wood (“Talking In Your Sleep”, “Half the Way”) and Clive Westlake. Crystal turns in a top-notch vocal performance. The song must be a particular favorite of hers, as it appears on a 2007 compilation of Crystal’s biggest hits (despite never being released as a single). A re-recorded version appears on a 1997 gospel album. A 2008 repackaging of that album is titled He Is Beautiful.

Crystal’s tenure with Elektra was to be an unusually brief one. Midway through the album’s chart run, and before the release of the second single, Elektra closed its Nashville office and its artists were transferred to the Warner Bros. Nashville roster. The singles “Our Love Is On The Faultline” and “Baby What About You” both bore the Warner Bros. imprint, as did all of Crystal’s subsequent work for the remainder of the decade.

Despite producing three #1 hits, I’m not sure how well remembered True Love is. “Til I Gain Control Again” is one of Crystal’s best-remembered hits, but I suspect the rest of the album has largely been forgotten. That is regrettable, because it’s a solid effort and better, I think, than any of her albums for Columbia. It finally saw a CD release in 2008 when it was released on a 2-for-1 disc along with her previous album Hollywood, Tennessee. That disc is currently out of print but can be purchased for premium prices.

Grade: A-

Week ending 1/21/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

7137e5hgb2l-_sl290_1957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1967: There Goes My Everything — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977: You Never Miss a Real Good Thing (Till He Says Goodbye) — Crystal Gayle (United Artists)

1987: What Am I Gonna Do About You — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1997: Nobody Knows — Kevin Sharp (Asylum)

2007: She’s Everything — Brad Paisley (Arista)

2017: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

Classic Rewind (Bonus Edition): Crystal Gayle & The Muppets – ‘River Road’

Album Review: Dale Watson & Ray Benson – ‘Dale & Ray’

61mjexmhfpl-_ac_us400_ql65_Duos have been a staple of country music almost from the very beginning. At one time it was fairly common for successful solo artists (usually one male and one female signed to the same label) to regularly collaborate for duet albums in addition to their solo projects. In more recent years it’s been more common for artists to collaborate on one-off or occasional projects rather than working together on a regular basis. Thus, such collaborations became regarded to be “events”.

The coming together of Dale Watson and Ray Benson – like-minded individuals who have fought hard to preserve the genre’s integrity, against the prevailing commercial trends of the day – seems on the surface as though it would be just such an event, but unfortunately it’s a project that never quite comes together. It’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly; it’s just that Watson and Benson don’t complement each other very well vocally, with Benson being the stronger vocalist of the two. The songs themselves are strong, and the backing musicians are superb but Dale & Ray never quite exceeds the sum of its parts.

The album gets off on the wrong foot with the opening track “The Ballad of Dale & Ray”, a tongue-in-cheek number that they first performed at the Ameripolitan Awards. The humor falls a bit flat; however. It may have worked onstage but it probably wasn’t worthy of being memorialized on record. Things improve considerably with the second track, “Feelin’ Haggard”, a tribute to Merle, who of course, passed away last year. They also play homage to Merle’s Bakersfield mentor Buck Owens on “Cryin’ For Cryin’ Time Again”. They also cover “Write Your Own Songs” which lacks the punch of Willie’s original. Their version of “I Wish You Knew” isn’t bad but a Louvin Brothers cover really needs vocalists who can harmonize better together to truly do it justice.

This is an album that I really wanted to like — and I do like it. I just don’t love it the way I thought I would. It’s the kind of music I love but given a choice I’d rather listen to Asleep at the Wheel or Watson’s solo albums. Together Watson and Benson lack chemistry and the album definitely suffers from a lack of synergy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Miss the Mississippi’

5174w-nuyal1979 saw a big shift in the direction of Crystal Gayle’s music when she switched record labels. Although she continued to work with producer Allen Reynolds, she delved even further into pop territory from the get go. Her first single for Columbia was “Half the Way”, which was her biggest hit for the label. Although it just missed the top spot on the Billboard country charts (peaking at #2), it landed at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (her final entry in the Top 20 of that chart) and #9 on the AC chart. The song is undeniably catchy, but does not sound even remotely country, although at least one its writers had solid country credentials. Ralph Murphy, a British born Canadian songwriter, penned the tune with Bobby Wood. The duo also wrote “He Got You” which was a hit for Ronnie Milsap the following year. Murphy had also written Jeannie C. Riley’s “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” and would go on to write hits for Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, Don Williams and others and would eventually be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. “Half the Way” was Crystal’s biggest hit on the pop charts after “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and set the tone for the sound of her music for the rest of her tenure with Columbia.

The second single from Miss the Mississippi was “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye”, an uptempo number with a lush string arrangement. It reached #1 on the country chart and #17 on the AC chart but only reached #63 on the Hot 100 chart. Like “Half the Way”, it is barely country but irresistibly catchy. The more stripped-down ballad “The Blue Side” was the final single, charting at #8 country, #16 AC and #81 Hot 100.

Another tune that most people old enough to remember this era will recognize is the mid tempo pop number “Don’t Go My Love” written by James Valentini and Frank Saulino. Crystal never released it as a single but I definitely remember hearing it played on MOR radio stations, although I don’t know who the artist was. My research — admittedly very limited — shows that the song was recorded by a Greek singer named Nana Mouskouri who enjoyed quite a few international hits. Again, the song is a bit of an ear worm, but there’s nothing country about it.

Balancing out all this pop are a handful of songs that are more country in nature, at least by late 70s standards. Crystal does a capable job on “Dancing the Night Away” which had been a Top 20 country hit for Tanya Tucker in 1977. “Room for One More” is another one with appeal for country fans, and the concluding track is an exquisite reading of “Miss the Missippi and You”, which is far more polished than anything Jimmie Rodgers probably ever imagined.

Miss the Mississippi is not an album for everyone. If you’re looking for hardcore country it’s best to give it a miss. However, it provides an interesting glimpse at the direction country music was taking in the late 70s — and why there was the eventual backlash known as the New Traditionalist movement in the 1980s. Even though it’s not very country, I enjoyed listening to it.

Grade: B+

Week ending 1/14/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

6783f6fc5a09f16f8986e4aeb6f3c5781957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1967: There Goes My Everything — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977: Broken Down In Tiny Pieces — Billy “Crash” Craddock (ABC/Dot)

1987: Give Me Wings — Michael Johnson (RCA)

1997: Nobody Knows — Kevin Sharp (Asylum)

2007: She’s Everything — Brad Paisley (Arista)

2017: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)