My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘The First Word In Memory’

Janie Fricke’s ninth album, The First Word In Memory, was released in August 1984. In accordance with her previous efforts, the album was produced by Bob Montgomery.

The album produced two singles, both of which were ballads. The string heavy “Your Heart’s Not In It” was Fricke’s sixth #1 hit. The title track, which was bogged down by clunky backing voices, peaked at #7.

Sandwiched between them was the brilliant “A Place To Fall Apart,” her collaboration with Merle Haggard, the second single from his album It’s All In The Game. Fricke’s contributions to the chart-topping ballad are slight at best, she barely sings alone at all, which I find odd given her stature as a prominent hit maker at the time.

“Talkin’ Tough” opens the album strong, in mid-tempo. “One Way Ticket” kicks up the tempo even more, would’ve made an excellent choice for a single and likely would’ve done very well. “First Time Out of the Rain,” which puts the album back into string-heavy ballad territory, is also very good.

The rockish production of “A Love Like Ours” is dated to modern ears, but Fricke delivers the barnburner flawlessly. The same can easily be said for “In Between Heartaches,” another standout cut on the record. “Another Man Like That” is another ballad, but a welcomed change with muscular opposed to lush accompaniment. “Without Each Other” is an ear-catching uptemo duet with Benny Wilson while “Take It From The Top” is a striking piano ballad.

Listening through The First Word In Memory, I regard it as a missed opportunity on the part of Columbia. The album is peppered with very strong material and yet two of the record’s most mediocre ballads were released as singles. There was a chance here to showcase another side of Fricke’s artistry and they blew it.

Columbia’s mismanagement aside, Fricke and Montgomery crafted an excellent and engaging album that nicely holds up 33 years later. There’s a definite 1980s sheen, but it doesn’t distract from any of the material.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Love Lies’

I always regarded Janie Fricke as primarily a singles artist, and the market apparently agreed as Love Lies, Janie’s eighth album (ninth album if you include the Greatest Hits album released in October 1982) was the first of her albums to reach the top ten of Billboards Country Albums chart, punching in at #10. This would prove to be rarefied air for Janie as only one more album, Black and White, in 1986, would reach the top ten.

Released in late 1983 and produced by Bob Montgomery, Love Lies was the second album he produced for Janie. Love Lies would see three singles released, “Tell Me A Lie” (#1), “Let’s Stop Talking About It” (#1) and “If The Fall Don’t Get You” (#8). “If The Fall Don’t Get You” was the first single to not go top four after eight consecutive such successes.

In the past I had described Janie’s earlier singles as ‘lovey-dovey drivel’ but perhaps I was a bit harsh. Today I would describe her previous singles as ‘confections’. I would not describe any of the singles on this album using such terms. These are more mature songs.

The album opens with “If The Fall Don’t Get You”, a biting commentary on love, co-written by Van Stephenson, who later was a member of BlackHawk.

So you say you’re thinking of falling in love
Going way out on a limb
And it seems like push is coming to shove
Just look at the shape that I’m in

I have paid the price for love
And it ain’t cheap
Better take a long hard look
Before you leap

If the fall don’t get you, baby
And your fading heart is beating still
If the fall don’t get you
Baby, the heartache will

Next up is “Have I Got A Heart For You”, a mid-tempo song which sells the virtues of a heart on the rebound. Written by Keith Stegall, the song is a decent album track.

I would also describe track three “How Do You Fall Out of Love”, a slow ballad of heartbreak as a decent album track. The Nashville String Machine is a little obtrusive but Janie’s voice cuts through the clutter.

“Love Lies” was an early single for Mel McDaniel, reaching #33 in 1979. It would be a few more years before Mel’s career caught fire, but I though his performance of the song was excellent. For whatever reason, the song never made it to one of Mel’s albums, so I am glad that Janie covered the song; however, she should have released it as a single.

Side one of the original vinyl album closed with “Tell Me A Lie”, a song carried over from the previous album It Ain’t Easy. Columbia during the 1970s and 1980s had this annoying habit of pulling songs from an existing album, releasing it as a single, then adding it to the next album. Since albums during this period only had ten songs, this meant that if you purchased both albums, you would get only nineteen different songs at rough two and a half minutes per song. This cover of a Lynn Anderson album track (and later a top 20 pop hit for Sami Jo) reached #1 for Janie.

Tell me a lie
Say I look familiar
Even though I know
That you don’t even know my name

Tell me a lie
Say you just got into town
Even though I’ve seen you here before
Just hangin’ around

Umm, tell me a lie, say you’re not a married man
Cause you don’t know I saw you slip off your wedding band

Side two of the vinyl album opens up with “Let’s Stop Talking About It”, an up-tempo that reached #1. The song was written by the dynamic trio of Rory Bourke, Rafe Van Hoy & Deborah Allen, who collectively authored many hit singles. You can give your own interpretation to what the lyrics mean:

We’ve had a lot of conversations
We’ve analyzed our situation
There’s only so much that words can say
After awhile they just get in the way

So let’s stop talking about it
And start getting down to love
Let’s stop talking about it
We’ve already said enough

This is followed the Troy Seal-Mike Reid collaboration “Lonely People”, a quiet ballad that makes for a decent album track.

Written by Dennis Linde and Alan Rush, “Walkin’ A Broken Heart” would be released as a single by Don Williams in 1985, reaching #2. Janie does a really nice job with the song and I think the song could have been a big hit for her. I slightly prefer Don’s version but it’s a thin margin of preference.

Walkin’ down this midnight street
Just the sound of two lonely feet
Walkin’ a broken heart
Walkin’ a broken heart

Empty city, not a soul in sight
And a misty rain falls on a perfect night
To walk a broken heart
To walk a broken heart

And I know that you’re thinkin’
This couldn’t happen to you
But you’re a fool for believing
Dreams don’t fly away, cause they do.

Another slow ballad follows in “I’ve Had All The Love I Can Stand”. Janie sings it well, but the song to me is a bit overwrought and not of much interest. The Nashville String Machine is prominent in the arrangement.

The album closes with “Where’s The Fire”, a nice upbeat melody camouflaging a song of angst as the narrator asks her love why he’s in such a hurry to leave.

For me this album is a bit of a mixed bag. Janie is in good voice throughout, and I appreciated the more mature lyrics but I’d like to hear more fiddle and steel. That said, this album is quite worthwhile.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘It Ain’t Easy’

By 1982, Janie Fricke’s career was on the upswing. After several years of charting top ten and top five hits, she finally hit #1 with “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby,” the final single from Sleeping With Your Memory. Fricke’s next single, the spectacular “It Ain’t Easy Being Easy,” a commanding countrypolitan ballad, quickly followed suit. The success of the song led to the It Ain’t Easy album, which was released in September.

She would top out at #4 with “You Don’t Know Love,” a similarly styled ballad that was equally as strong. Fricke returned to the top, and provided a change of pace, with the excellent uptempo “He’s A Heartache (Looking For A Place To Happen).” I actually first heard this song a few months ago, when I was flipping through the radio dial and happened upon the faint signal of a college radio station that was playing it. I was too enthralled with what I was hearing to actually process what was happening. It was a cool moment.

The remainder of the album is a mixed bag, with varying degrees of quality. The ballads “Tell Me A Lie” and “A Little More Love” are very good and I like “Trying To Fool a Fool.” The rest of the tracks veer uptempo and just aren’t that strong, coming off as fluff. Songs like “Too Hard on my Heart” and “Heart To Heart Talk” aren’t bad, they’re just too lightweight for my taste. The same goes for “Love Have Mercy” while “Who Better Than an Angel” is just mediocre.

It Ain’t Easy isn’t a terrible album in the least, but there is too much padding and not enough meat. The singles are incredible, but the album tracks fail to elevate the record to a higher artistic level. At least the sound is great, which is a testament to Bob Montgomery and his countrypolitan stylings, which are always in good taste, even if they sound dated today.

Grade: B

 

Album Revew: Janie Fricke – ‘Sleeping With Your Memory’

1981 saw a change of producer for Janie, with Jim Ed Norman taking up the reins from Billy Sherrill for Sleeping With Your Memory. The result was incrased success for her on radio and with the industry – Janie would be named the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1982.

The lead single was ‘Do Me With Love’, written by John Schweers. A bright perky slice of pop-country, this rather charming song (featuring Ricky Skaggs on backing vocals although he is not very audible) was a well-deserved hit, peaking at #4. Its successor, ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby’, was Janie’s first chart topper. It was written by fellow country starlet Deborah Allen with rocker Bruce Channel and Kieran Kane (later half of the O’Kanes). It’s quite a well written song, but the pop-leaning production has dated quite badly, and Janie’s vocals sound like something from musical theater.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’ is given a folk-pop-country arrangement which is quite engaging (Ricky Skaggs multi-tasks on this song, contributing fiddle, mandolin and banjo as well as backing vocals), but I’m not quite sure I entirely buy Janie as the folk troubadour of the narrative. The Gibb brothers (the Bee Gees) had some impact on country music by dint of writing songs like ‘Islands In The Stream’ for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and their ‘Love Me’ is a very nice mid-paced ballad.

Janie sings Larry Gatlin’s sensitive ballad ‘The Heart’ beautifully; Larry and one of his brothers add backing vocals. The arrangement is swathed with strings, and the overall effect is fairly Adult Contemporary in style, but the track is a fine showcase for Janie’s lovely voice. The wistful ballads ‘Always’ and ‘If You Could See Me Now’ are also impeccably sung. The title track is a downbeat ballad about coping with a breakup, and is quite good, though not very country.

‘There’s No Future In The Past’, written by Chick Rains, is a very strong ballad about starting to move on, which I liked a lot despite the early 80s string arrangement. The closing ‘Midnight Words’ is fairly forgettable.

While this is not the more traditional side of country with heavy use of strings and electronic keyboards, it is a good example of its kind with some decent song choices, and Janie was starting to find her own voice.

Grade: B

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry’

Janie Fricke’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of her fourth LP in 1980. I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry found her working with a new producer, Jim Ed Norman, and recording stronger material. Although the Urban Cowboy pop-country trend was en vogue in Nashville at the time, Janie actually bucked the commercial trend and went in a more traditional direction. Although not eschewing string arrangements entirely, the songs on this album are much less slickly produced than her earlier work. There is audible steel and fiddle throughout — the latter instrument being played by up-and-comer Ricky Skaggs who also provided background vocals on the album’s first single and Janie’s breakthrough hit “Down To My Last Broken Heart”, which eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s second single, a remake of Ray Price’s 1962 hit “Pride”, didn’t fare quite as well, landing at #12. Although it missed the Top 10, it performed as respectably as a remake of an old traditional county dog could be expected to in the early 80s. Janie rebounded nicely when the album’s title track became the third single, which made it to #4 in the US and was a #1 hit in Canada. Written by Bob McDill and Wayland Holyfield, “I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me (When I Cry)”, with its simple lyric and stripped down-production was the song that caused me to take notice of Janie Fricke and it remains one of my favorites today.

The rest of the album is a little more pop-oriented. The best of the album cuts is Janie’s take on Churchill Kohlman’s “Cry”, which had been recorded numerous times by a variety of pop and country artists. Johnnie Ray had scored a #1 pop hit with it in 1951, it had been a #3 country hit for Lynn Anderson in 1972, and Crystal Gayle would take it to the top of the country charts in 1987. Janie’s version could have been a hit but it was rare in those days to release a fourth single from an album, and the fact that it would have been the second remake (after “Pride”) to become a single may be one of the reasons it was overlooked.

“Enough of Each Other”, about a couple falling in and out of love is also quite good. “Every Time a Teardrop Falls” is a piano and orchestra ballad that is a little bland and probably the album’s weakest track, although I can’t honestly say that any of the songs are bad. “Blue Sky Shining”, the closing track is quite pretty but also a bit on the bland side.

I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry was Janie’s first charting album and a huge step in the right direction. She was still yet to peak commercially, but this is the album that set her on the right path. With the exception of “Pride”, everything she released from this point forward reached the Top 10, until the New Traditionalist Movement finally stopped her momentum in 1986. The album is available on a double disc along with its three predecessors. While I wouldn’t necessarily run out and buy the other three, I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry makes the collection worth purchasing.

Grade: A –

EP Review: Justin Payne – ‘Coal Camp’

West Virginia native Justin Payne’s new release is a concept EP about life in coal mining country which is well worth hearing, although it focusses more on domestic aspects than on the industry itself. Payne, whose day job is as a coal mine electrician, is a strong singer and excellent songwriter who wrote every one of the six songs, and imbues them with his real life experiences.

The opening ‘Growing Old’ is a reminiscence of growing up in a loving and hard working but poverty stricken family, full of precise details and emotional underpinning, then counterpointed with harder times today with a drug blighted countryside. A wistful fiddle solo adds to the reflective mood.

The tender ‘Holler Home’ is about the return home to the “green rolling hills of West Virginia” and the protagonist’s wife after too long an absence. ‘Miner’s Soul’ soothes the fears of a miner’s wife.

The gentle sounding but incisive ‘Make A Little Time’ is about fatherhood in a coalmining family. ‘Piece Of My Life’ is a thoughtful consideration of the importance of family, and protecting the children from the harsh reality of the mines. Along the way is a resigned critique of the country music business:

My friends all call me crazy
And say to leave this place behind
“You need to pack ‘em songs to Nashville, son
And auction off a piece of your life”

But that town don’t understand me
No, they don’t like my kind
They don’t care about the truth down there
And they don’t deserve a piece of my life

This is possibly the highlight of an album with no weak points.

The record closes with the catchy ‘The Mines’, where a toe-tapping tune complete with accordion counterpoints a sometimes gloomy lyric.

Every song here is excellent, and this record is very highly recommended. I rarely call an album flawless, but I can’t find anything to criticise here.

All the album proceeds will go to food banks in West Virginia.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Janie Fricke and Johnny Duncan – ‘Nice ‘n Easy’

Nice ‘n’ Easy was released in October 1980, in response to significant demand for an album that collected the earlier Johnny Duncan recordings that prominently featured Janie Fricke, whether or not Janie was actually credited on the original recordings. It also served as a true duets album.

The album actually falls neatly into two categories: (1) new recordings made in order to have enough tracks to complete an album and give customers who already had the earlier tracks a reason to purchase this album, and (2) the earlier hit singles. The new recordings are on side one of the album, with the older tracks being on side two.

Billy Sherrill was the producer of the album. While albums of this era often did not provide musician credits, the album cover notes tell us that on side one the background singers were Lea Jane Berinati, Jackie Cusic, Larry Keith and Steve Pippin whereas on side two the Nashville Edition provided the background harmonies.

Side one opens with “He’s Out of My Life”, a song written by Tom Bahler. Pop artist Michael Jackson recorded the song on his 1979 album Off The Wall and released it as a top ten pop single. The original title was “She’s Out of My Life”, retitled for duet purposes with Duncan and Fricke swapping verses but most of the song told from the male perspective. I think it is a bit of an overwrought ballad (Bahler wrote it after breaking up with his girl friend) but it works. The song was a #20 country hit for Johnny & Janie in 1980.

He’s out of my life
He’s out of my life

And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry
I don’t know whether to live or die
And it cuts like a knife
He’s out of my life

It’s out of my hands
It’s out of my hands

To think the two years he was here
And I took him for granted, I was so cavalier
Now the way that it stands
He’s out of my hands

Track two is the title cut “Nice ‘n’ Easy” written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith and Lew Spence. The song is best known for Frank Sinatra’s 1960 recording. The Sinatra album Nice ‘n’ Easy was nominated for a Grammy in 1960 and Frank took the title track onto the pop charts that year. Charlie Rich had a minor pop hit with it in 1964, and in later years country radio sometimes played the track (or a later 1970 Epic re-recording of it). It would be blasphemy to suggest that any of the covers were better than Sinatra’s recording (they weren’t) although Rich’s recording was nearly as good.

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy
For us to fall in love

Hey baby what’s your hurry
Relax and don’t you worry
We’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance – that’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops along the way

The problem now of course is
To simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time.

Paul Anka is often thought of as a late50s-early 60s teen idol, but he was much more than that, providing a number of classic songs to other artists such as “My Way” to Frank Sinatra and “Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” to Buddy Holly. “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” is a song that Paul kept this song for himself, recording it as a solo (#15 pop / #3 AC) in 1975 and later as a duet with Odia Coates. It works fine as a duet.

I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
When I’m with you Baby
All my worries disappear

Troubles that surround me
Disappear when you are near
When you need my loving
I’ll be there

“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” is a 1960 song written by Clyde Otis, Murray Stein and Brook Benton. It was originally recorded as a duet by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, and reached #5 pop / #1 R&B. Later recordings include Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis, Charlie Louvin & Melba Montgomery, Michael Buble (with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings) and Kevin Mahogany. Obviously it works as a duet, and it works for Duncan and Fricke, although they do not bring the soulfulness to the song that Dinah & Brook achieved, nor the excitement of the Jerry Lee & Linda Gail recording. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Brook Benton and/or Dinah Washington, you really should check them out.

“Loving Arms” was written by Tom Jans and is a ballad of longing and loneliness that has been recorded many times, initially by Dobie Gray, then Elvis and many times since then including the great Etta James and acts such as the Dixie Chicks. To my knowledge no one has ever had a big hit with the song.

If you could see me now
The one who said that he’d rather roam
The one who said he’d rather be alone
If you could only see me now

If I could hold you now
Just for a moment if I could really make you mine
Just for a while turn back the hands of time
If I could only hold you now

I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
And lying in your loving arms again

This concludes side one of the album. You will note that none of these songs were initially country songs, although all were songs of a good pedigree. By 1980, for better or worse, the ‘Nashville Sound’ era had passed and none of the songs featured string arrangements. The production could best be described as pop-country with steel guitar used mostly as background shading.

Side two collects the Johnny Duncan hits that featured Janie Fricke. Since these songs have already been discussed earlier I will simply touch them lightly.

“Come A Little Bit Closer” was a cover of a Jay & The Americans hit that Johnny and Janie took to #4 in 1977. This song was billed to both of them.

“It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better” went to #1 for Johnny in 1977, his second #1. The string arrangements on this recording are by Bill McElhiney.

“Atlanta Georgia Stray” was not released as a single for Johnny Duncan. It appears on Johnny’s 1977 album Johnny Duncan.

The song was recorded by Kenny Price for RCA in 1969 and made the country charts. I was living in England in 1969, but when I returned to the USA in 1970, I recall the song receiving some airplay as an oldie. I really liked Kenny’s version, but Fricke and Duncan do a reasonable job with the song. Bergan White does the string arrangements

On the Greyhound bus trip home I was feelin’ all alone
When a long haired gal sat down next to me
She said she was Atlanta bound, kill some time, maybe kick around
Cause it sounded like a friendly place to be

From Chicago to Kentucky we just talked awhile
And somewhere in between I was captured by her smile
But why I left the bus in Nashville has been a mystery till today
Cause for two years I’ve been tracking down that Atlanta Georgia stray

“Thinkin’of A Rendezvous” was Johnny’s first #1 county hit in 1976. Bergan White did the string arrangements.

“Stranger”,also from 1976, was Johnny’s second top ten hit reaching #4 country.

I do not mean to downplay Janie Fricke’s contributions to the songs on side two, but they were released as Johnny Duncan records and Janie’s role was less prominent on some of them than on some of the others.

In retrospect, most of our readers will think that the success of these recordings was due to Janie Fricke, since Johnny Duncan dropped out of the music scene for family reasons during the 1980s and then died too young in 2006. He had a significant career and some big hits that did not feature Janie Fricke, including several of my favorites.

Janie, of course, went on to have a brilliant career and is still active today

This album has never been released on CD. The hit singles are available on several Johnny Duncan CDs and possibly some various artist collections. As best as I can tell, the tracks from side one are not available anywhere.

Johnny Duncan and Janie Fricke were both very polished performers and I think most listeners would find the tracks on side one very interesting indeed. This is a well produced album that I would give a B+

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Never Gets Old’

Joe Nichols, once one of the standard bearers for real country music, seemed to have lost his way of recent years – or to have been forced from it by record label politics. On losing his major deal, he signed to the big independent label Broken Bow, who proceeded to release a number of frankly bad tracks as singles which were largely ignored by radio. Those have been forgotten without trace, and find no place on Joe’s debut album for the label, heralded with talk of a return to more traditional sounds, which naturally caused me to have considerable expectations of the record.

The true lead single, the title track, is a delightful return to form for Joe. A gently midpaced love song, it may not make waves at radio, but will satisfy real country fans. The rather charming ‘I’d Sing About You’ is another attractive love song with some nice fiddle. I very much liked ‘This Side Of The River’, with the protagonist declaring he is very happy with his current life and in no rush to make it to the next world. Celtic pipes add a spiritual flavor. ‘Breathless’ is also quite nice though not as memorable. ‘So You’re Saying’ is a relaxed chat-up number with a nice tune.

‘Girl In The Song’ is another pleasant love song, although the production is unsympathetic. This is also a problem with the sexy ‘Hostage’, which Joe doesn’t really sell. Much worse is the awful bro-country ‘Tall Boys’, no doubt left over from the sessions which produced the jettisoned singles.

The best track is ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, an excellent love song repeated from Joe’s last album Crickets. Perhaps this revival is a sign to its being selected as a single. Another highlight, ‘We All Carry Something’, is a moving semi-story and partly religious song written by Westin Davis and Justin Weaver about the pain and scars of hard lives.

A likeable cover of the Dierks Bentley album cut ‘Diamonds Make Babies’ (a Chris Stapleton co-write) works really well for Joe, showcasing his playful side. Another cover, also with comic intent, is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard. ‘Baby Got Back’ was originally a controversial rap song in the early 90s. Joe somehow manages to make it sound like a (very) country song in terms of melody, vocal and instrumentation (although the lyrics are still somewhat offensive in a bro-country way). Southern comedian Darren Knight guests with some spoken interjections taking a different angle. I am left speechless by this track, but do give it points for at least sounding country.

So this album is still something of a mixed bag, but on the whole it is a step back in the right direction for Joe.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘From The Heart’

Janie Fricke’s third Columbia album (her last to be produced by Billy Sherrill) was only modestly successful. It bears all the hallmarks of its era, but on the best tracks Janie’s beautiful voice shines through. This makes the record’s shortcomings all the more frustrating, as it is so evident that she could have done so much better.

There were two top 30 singles. The first, the very poppy mid-tempo ‘But Love Me’, is marred by horribly intrusive production which makes an otherwise harmless peppy number unlistenable. Infinitely better is Janie’s version of the classic ‘Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)’, which is truly excellent.

Another highlight is the traditional country ballad ‘One Piece At A Time’ (surprisingly written by Randy Jackson). Addressed to the protagonist’s ex, the singer proudly explains how her true love has healed the hurt and banished the memory of her predecessor:

I built a brand new love with the pieces I found
I put him together one piece at a time
What was once yours and his is now his and mine
I’ve erased all those memories that you left behind

‘Some Fools Don’t Ever Learn’ is another very good song with a strong vocal, although some aspects of the production sound dated today.

Unfortunately most of the rest of the album is disposable pop- country, with Janie’s vocals all too frequently breathy and undersung, and songs like ‘Falling For You’ boring and with little or nothing about them one might describe as country.

The vocals are much stronger on ‘My World Begins And Ends With You’, but the song itself is syrupy and bland and the arrangement dated.

‘A Cool September’ (written by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton) is a heavily orchestrated loungy jazz number which Janie sings quite well, but not in a country style at all. The biggest disappointment is with Janie’s lackadaisical cooing treatment of the standard ‘When I Fall In Love’; she has the vocal chops to really deliver on this song, but she fails to dive it any oomph at all. She seems to be trying too hard to sound pretty to invest it with any real emotion. The same goes for . ‘This Ain’r Tennessee And He Ain’t You’ is a good song which sounds a little too much like something from musical theater – carefully and thoughtfully delivered, but a little detached from the song’s raw emotion.

Reba McEntire, another rising star but one who would soon surpass Janie, also recorded ‘Gonna Love Ya (Till The Cows Come Home)’. Janie’s version is pretty but forgettable and lacking in passion.

There were glimmers of potential in this album which pointed to something significantly better than the sum of the album.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Love Notes’

Despite enjoying success singing as a featured vocalist on songs by Johnny Duncan and Charlie Rich, Janie Fricke couldn’t launch a sustainable solo career in the late 1970s. None of her albums during this period charted, including her sophomore record Love Notes, which appeared in 1978.

She wasn’t exactly hitting it out of the park with country radio, either, although she wasn’t doing horribly. Three distinctly different ballads were released as singles. The theoretical “Playing Hard To Get” hit #22 while the MOR “Let’s Try Again” rose to #28. Sandwiched between them was the steel soaked “I’ll Love Your Troubles Away for Awhile,” which peaked at #14, her first trip into the top 20 as a solo artist.

Steel is heard amongst heavy orchestration on “Somewhere To Go When It Rains,” a ballad about a woman her friend turns to when his life is in turmoil. Fricke follows with the attractive ballad “River Blue” and the lush and pleading “Let Me Love You Goodbye.”

The theatrics continue on piano ballads “Love Is Worth It All” and “You’re The One,” which aren’t particularly country. “Stirrin’ Up Feelings” is a nice change of pace, with a bit more tempo and the welcomed inclusion of drums into the mix. “Got My Mojo Working” is a slow build, where sparse production gives way to thicker sounds as the track progresses.

While there is nothing wrong with the Billy Sherill produced Love Notes, it isn’t a particularly strong album by any means. Fricke sings gorgeously throughout, but she hadn’t found her identity yet as an artist. It would be a few more years until that would happen, which makes Love Notes an important stepping stone in her career projection. Without that context, there really isn’t anything essential here to grab the listeners‘ attention.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Singer Of Songs’

After nearly a decade as a background singer, and singer of television jingles, Janie Fricke finally emerged with her first ever album, released in May 1978. At the time Janie was six months past her 30th birthday, a rather late start for becoming a solo singer. This is not to say that Janie was an unknown quantity in Nashville, as she had sung background for many of Nashville’s elite such as Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, Lynn Anderson and Conway Twitty.

Ultimately, it was her work on several of Johnny Duncan’s hits “Jo and the Cowboy,” “Thinkin’ of a Rendezvous,” “It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better,” and “Stranger” that brought her talents to the forefront. Whereas she had not been given label credit on the earlier hits, Janie was given equal billing with Duncan on his recording of “Come a Little Bit Closer”.

While Singer of Songs is a bit generic and doesn’t give Janie much chance to show off her vocal prowess, it was a decent initial effort and did produce three decent singles.

The album opens with “I Loved You All The Way”, a bland easy listening ballad with full Nashville Sound treatment. This is followed by “We Could Have Been The Closest Of Friends”, another bland ballad, albeit with a bit more muscular vocal by Fricke.

This is followed by “You Changed My Life in A Moment”, a song I can envision the Carpenters singing – in other words yet another string-laden ballad.

The nights the sky was filled with clouds
My worried mind was filled with fears
I couldn’t count all the lonely hours
Spent with memories and tears

I never thought I would see the day
When I could throw all my sorrow away
But then you came and you showed me the way
You have made all those times disappear

You changed my life in a moment
And I’ll never be the same again
You changed my life in a moment
And it’s hard for me to understand
With a touch of your hand
In a moment of time
All my sorrow is gone

The fourth track “No One’s Ever Gonna Love You”, while not very country, at least has some grit to it and finds Janie giving a forceful R&B vocal that gives a hint as to the power behind her voice.

Track five (aka the last track on the A side of the vinyl release) is “I Believe In You” a nice easy listening ballad that is not the same song as the Don Williams hit.

Track six was the first track on Side Two of the vinyl album, Janie’s cover of Hank Locklin’s huge hit “Please Help Me I’m Falling”. Janie takes the song at a slower tempo than the original but acquits herself well. This is the first song on the album that I would actually describe as Country music, and it is the only track to feature steel guitar. This was the third single from the album and reached #12 – the Canadian country charts had it reach #4.

The first single, “What Are You Doing Tonight” reached #21 and got to #14 on the Canadian country charts. This is a nice pop county song written by Bob McDill.

Maybe I’m saying too much
After all, I just met you
But I’ve got to say just what I feel
I hope it won’t upset you

I think you’re the one I’ve been dreaming of
With a little time we might fall in love

So what’re you doing tonight
What’re you doing tonight
The wind is warm and the stars are bright
What’re you doing tonight

“Week-End Friend” was released by Con Hunley as a single reaching #13. Both Janie and Con gave this song a soulful R&B treatment which effectively showcased the song. This is the only track on the album to feature trumpet and sax.

Friday night don’t come soon enough
When I’ve been waitin’ all week for love
6:05 the train will arrive
He’ll be coming in

I’ve got a week-end friend
I’ve got a week-end friend

He’ll have that special look upon his face
And if it ain’t rainin’ we’ll go to my place
And when we close the door the feeling will pour
All over us again

I’ve got a week-end friend
I’ve got a week-end friend

Track nine is “Baby It’s You” was the second single, reaching #21 (and #19 in Canada). It’s a mid-tempo ballad, again with more of an R&B feel than country. This is not the same song that the Shirells, the Carpenters and Jody Miller took onto the charts.

The album closes with another Bob McDill song, “I Think I’m Falling In Love”. On this track Janie’s vocals give strong evidence as to what her vocals would sound like on future albums.

This is a very tentative album for a singer is struggling to find her voice and her muse. In my opinion tracks 6-10 are much stronger that tracks 1-5 in that the producers took more chances with the arrangements and material and smothered her less with string arrangements. I would give this album a C+ based on the strength of tracks 6-10.

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Sweet Country’

Charley Pride released his seventeenth album, Sweet Country, via RCA Victor in 1973. It was helmed, as per usual, by Jack Clement.

The album spawned two singles, both of which topped the charts. The honest, “A Shoulder To Cry On,” a ballad about a man taking advantage of a friend’s emotional support, was lovingly written by Merle Haggard (he recorded his own version, on It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) a year earlier). “Don’t Fight the Feelings of Love,” written by John Schweers, is an excellent country shuffle.

No less than three of the album’s ten tracks were penned by Ben Peters, who had given Pride his career hit (“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”) just two years earlier. “The Happiest Song on the Jukebox,” a bright traditional tune, is both a study in familiarity and contrast. This is Pride’s signature style, yet the lyric contradicts everything we’ve come to know about jukebox songs. Trading sad songs for happy ones isn’t something you hear every day. Peters also contributed “Just To Be Loved By You,” a pleasant string-laced ballad and “Tennessee Girl,” a mid-tempo ode to the woman and lifestyle left behind in hopes of greener pastures that never materialized.

Don Williams is responsible for “The Shelter of Your Eyes,” which he recorded the following year on his Volume One album. Pride does a surprisingly decent job with the dobro accented ballad, especially since he and Williams don’t have similar styles at all (in all fairness, no one captures the mellow conversational tone Williams brought to his music).

“I’m Learning to Love Her,” written by Johnny Duncan, is as honest and forthright a love song as I’ve ever heard. The protagonist is talking with his old love about his new flame, admitting that he’s simply “learning to love her in time.” George Strait knows “You Can’t Make A Heart Love Somebody,” but with a little patience, Duncan and Pride believe it’s possible to come around.

“Along the Mississippi,” an ode to happy memories along the titular river, is an engaging and ear-catching mid-tempo number. “Love Unending” is a sonically adventurous love song, with a man making promises to the woman he hopes will confess her love to him. “Pass Me By” is a piano and steel drenched ballad in which a guy wants something more, but if the woman can’t give it to him, he hopes she’ll just leave him alone.

Of the three albums I reviewed this month, Sweet Country shows the most progression in Pride’s development as an artist. The Nashville Sound era trappings are gone, due to the changing tides in mainstream country, and the music itself is less cheesy. This is the style of Pride’s music I prefer and thus Sweet Country is indeed excellent.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Songs Of Love’

Released in December 1972, Songs of Love By Charley Pride was Charley’s 13th studio album and his least successful album since 1967. The album did reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Album chart, but only reach #149 on Billboard’s all-genres album chart. As usual Jack Clement was the producer.

For whatever reason, the songs on this album and the arrangements seemed mostly derivative of Charley’s prior efforts. Make no mistake about it, this is a solid country album, with fiddle and guitar throughout; however, the overall production has a little more of an easy listening feel to it.

The opening track is “Too Weak To Let Go”, a mid-tempo ballad that is pleasant enough but not really worthy of consideration as a single. The song is about an affair that the narrator feels that he should end but really can’t bring himself to do.

I was on the rebound from a broken love affair
When I first caught a glimpse of her in you
And though you never measured up to what she meant to me
I couldn’t find the words to tell you so

Cause I’m not strong enough to leave you and too weak to let you go
You give me precious love to hold on to
But somehow deep inside I’ve got a feeling that you know
I’m not strong enough to leave you and too weak to let you go

The only single on the album was the Johnny Duncan composition “She’s Too Good To Be True”, a solid country song with fiddle and steel tandem work on the introduction and thereafter. The song spent three weeks at #1 and is what love should be about.

Sometimes late at night I wake up dreaming
I reach and feel for her she’s too good to be true
Then I touch the sleeping softness of my angel
And half asleep she turns to whisper I love you

Cause she’s just too good to be true but she is
And in my arms she reassures me with a kiss
She’s everything I ever looked for in a woman
She’s just too good to be true but she is

Ben Peters, who supplied Charley with “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” and “It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer”, also provided Charley with “She’s That Kind”, another positive love song. Some of the instrumental accompaniment harkens back to “It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer”.

She can take the morning rain falling on my window pane
And turn it into sunshine in my mind
And she can take the darkest night and brighten it with a love sweet light
And I’m satisfied just knowing she’s that kind

And I can feel so down and out but she knows what it’s all about
And she can help me leave it all behind
There’s someting in the way she smiles that seems to brighten all my trials
It’s good to know my woman is that kind

[Chorus]
She’s that kind that I’m thankful to the Lord above
For sending me that kind of woman for me to love
If I could live another life and I could choose another wife
I wouldn’t change a thing cause she’s that kind

“You Were All The Good In Me” is a slow ballad about what the narrator lost when he lost his woman. The melody reminds me of “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)”.

“Give A Lonely Heart A Home” has an upbeat arrangement that that seems overly familiar. It’s a nice song, a mid-tempo ballad, although the vocal chorus seems a bit obtrusive.

Well, just look close and you might find the saddest heart in town is mine
And should we give true love a try our hearts just might see eye to eye
So if you’re looking for a way to do your good deed for today
The one thing you could do and not go wrong is give a lonely heart a home
So just give a lonely heart a home…

If I need to give the history of “Good-Hearted Woman”, that means that you must have dropped in from another planet. Charley does a nice job with the song, but if released as a single by him, I suspect it would not have been a chart topper. Nice fiddle and piano on the chorus are the standout features on this recording.

“Love You More In Memory” is a chugging ballad about a lost love.

I heard “My Love Is Deep, My Love Is Wide” with some frequency on the radio, leading me to wonder if RCA considered releasing this upbeat Ben Peters song as a single. I think it would have made an excellent single.

My love is deep, my love is wide
You can’t see across to the other side
My love is deep my love is wide
I’ve got too much love for you for me too hard to hide

People say I’m not the man they used to know
Something made a change come over me
And when I feel such happiness I guess it’s gotta show
Cause I’m a happy man, that’s plain to see
Cause baby my love is deep…

Johnny Duncan’s “(Darlin’ Think of Me) Every Now and Then” is a really nice ballad that someone should have issued as a single. Duncan’s career as a performer would not hit high gear until 1976, but this song might have accelerated the process for him.

The album closes with “I’m Building Bridges”, a slow ballad about the protagonist’s efforts to win back his lost love:

I’ve been working every day since you’ve been gone
Mending the road that our love once traveled on
And I’ll have you back when I am through
Cause I’m building bridges that will take me back to you

Back in the day I would eagerly purchase every new Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Charley Pride albums as they were release, with other artists being purchased if I had any money left over. While I liked this album, it wasn’t as satisfactory as Charley’s previous albums and thereafter I skipped over some of Charley’s albums, either waiting his hits collections to be issued, or waiting until a used or cut-out copy could be obtained.

I’d give this album a B+

Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘A Sunshiny Day With Charley Pride’

A Sunshiny Day With Charley Pride was released in 1972, and produced as usual by Cowboy Jack Clement. The album’s sole single, sitting on top of the country charts for three weeks in the summer of 1972, was the Ben Peters song, ‘It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer’, set to a jaunty medium tempo, it proclaims the narrator’s enduring love despite his lady’s departure. It’s a highly likeable recording with a Cajun flavor, which still stands up very well today. Peters also contributed the title track, a suitably sunny tune about happiness which is pleasant to listen to but a little bland lyrically.

‘She’s Helping Me Get Over You’ is a classic country song, written by A L “Doodle” Owens and Hal Bynum about finding a new love and getting past an older, stronger but toxic one which still has a pull on him. This is my favorite song on the album. The same pair wrote ‘One More Year’, a powerful plea from a husband to his wife to last through some more hard times:

Sweetheart, I know I’ve never made one dream come true for you
If you’ll just walk through one more storm our sunshine may appear
But if we wake up tomorrow and you don’t see a rainbow
Sweetheart, why can’t we try it one more year?

Texan rockabilly artist Al Urban provided a couple of fine ballads. ‘When The Trains Come In’ is an excellent ballad about loneliness with a haunting whistle and harmonica accompaniment. Even better is the steel led ‘You’re Wanting Me To Stop Loving You’, a gentle but firm reproach to the wife who is leaving him.

Johnny Duncan’s ‘Nothin’ Left But Leavin’’ is another highlight, an excellent song with echoes of a more bitter version of the classic ‘My Elusive Dreams’:

Tonight it’s so cold, the rain is fallin’
But it’s still not as cold as your love for me
That’s why I’m walking down this highway
And a diesel going my way
Will take me far from you and you’ll be free

There was nothin’ left but leavin’ for us in Tulsa
But then again the same was true out in LA
Seems like trouble always finds us
So I broke the tie that binds us
There was nothin’ left but leavin’ anyway

We tried to find our dreams in New Mexico
But the answers just weren’t there in Santa Fe
And we could blame it all on Texas
But the problem now with us is
We never had what we thought anyway

There was nothin’ left but leavin’ any longer
And I finally found the strength to walk away
Tell the kids their daddy loves them
They’ll understand I’m thinkin’ of them

‘Put Back Your Ring On My Hand’, written by Glenn Ash, is another excellent track, a regretful song in which the protagonist is desperate for a second chance. Also good is the melodic ‘Seven Years With A Wonderful Woman’, a wedding anniversary paean optimistically hoping for another 70 years together. (Charley had actually been married to wife Rozene since 1956 and they are still happily married, so this one was clearly heartfelt.) It was written by the Reverend Roland W Davisand is set to a hymnlike tune.

‘Back To The Country Roads’, written by Richard Jarvis, is quite nice, but the most disposable track on the record.

Charley is in excellent voice throughout, and Jack Clement knew how to keep the Nashville Sound relatively restrained. This is a strong album which is worth hearing, and can be found now on one of those excellent value multiple-album CDs we have mentioned before.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lonesome River Band – ‘Mayhayley’s House’

The Lonesome River Band are a veteran band on paper, but have seen many changes of personnel over the years. As one expects from this band, the instrumental playing is brilliant but tasteful, with banjo star Sammy Shelor anchoring the sound. Both the current lead singers are outstanding too – the smoky characterful baritone of Brandon Rickman (one of my favorite singers across country and bluegrass) almost matched by the strong, if less distincive, tenor of Jesse Smathers.

A number of well known country songs get a bluegrass treatment . Crystal Gayle’s early hit ‘Wrong Road Again’ is delightful. The Don Williams hit ‘Old Coyote Town’ is given an absolutely beautiful reading by Brandon Rickman. Western Swing classic ‘Ida Red’ becomes a pacy bluegrass romp. A less well known cover, ‘Hickory Hollow Times & County News’ was on Charley Pride’s 2011 album Choices. Rickman’s warm vocals suit the song’s sweet nostalgia.

‘As The Crow Flies’, a plaintive Billy Yates/Melba Montgomery love song which Yates has recorded, has another lovely vocal from Rickman. The lyric refers to both the title bird and to blackbirds, both of which make a more ominous appearance in ‘Blackbirds And Crows’, an excellent murder ballad about a possesive husband and restless wife he just can’t bear to let go:

Blackbird sat on a fence line
Crow flew through the sky
I whispered low into Eva’s ear
Eva you’re gonna die

She’s a half a mile out, a quarter across
Beneath those wheatfield rows
And no one knows who put her there
But the blackbirds and the crows

Folks come by and we sit around
And I tell them how she’s gone
I tell them how she packed her bags
And wrecked our happy home
Lord I tell them she’s down in Atlanta
Doin’ cocaine and God only knows
But Eva’s not gone
She’s here with me
Right here where she’ll always be
With the blackbirds and the crows

It was written by Don Humphries.

The atmospheric title track, an Adam Wright song based on a true story, is about a rural Georgia psychic from the mid 20th century, to whom the album as a whole is dedicated.

‘Diggin’’ is a pretty good mid-tempo song about struggling to make ends meet that manages to sound bright despite the despairing lyric. The similarly upbeat ‘As Lonesome As I Am’, written by Matt Lindsey and Shawn Camp, is a more overtly optimistic song about expecting things can only get better. ‘I Think I’m Gonna Be Alright’ sees the protagonist coping well enough with a breakup.

Some fantastic fiddle (from Mike Hartgrove) leads the fast paced ‘Lonesome Bone’. ‘It Feels Real Good Goin’ Down’, written by Gary Nicholson and Shawn Camp, is a vibrant drinking-away-the-pain song. Thw album closes with a frenetic arrangement of the bluegrass standard ‘Fly Around y Pretty Little Miss’.

This is an excellent album which should appeal to country fans with an interest in bluegrass.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘I’m Just Me’

In many respects, Charley Pride was the George Strait of his day: a consistent hit maker who frequently hit #1, whose music rarely offered surprises but never disappointed his fans. 1971’s I’m Just Me was no exception. It reached #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and also produced two number one singles: “I’d Rather Love You” and the title track. The former spent three weeks at the top of the chart and was written by Johnny Duncan. It finds Pride speculating about how things might have turned out had he never met the live his life. The title track, written by Glen Martin, is a catchy, feel-good fiddle and steel number that is as unpretentious as the title suggests. It has a slight Bakersfield feel to it, despite the occasional chiming in by the Nashville Sound-style vocal chorus. In between these two singles, RCA released “Did You Think to Pray” from Pride’s gospel album, which broke his string of consecutive #1s.

In addition to “I’d Rather Love You”, Johnny Duncan contributed two other numbers. “(In My World) You Don’t Belong”, about a married man who struggles to come to terms with his infidelity. It includes a subtle string arrangement which is a bit of a departure for a Pride recording. “Instant Loneliness” is more traditional. I’m not sure why it wasn’t released a single; perhaps Duncan wanted to release the song himself, though he does not appear to have done so.

Unlike many albums of the era, I’m Just Me doesn’t rely too heavily on covers of recent hits by other artists. The one exception is a very nice rendition of “Hello Darlin'” which rivals Conway Twitty’s original version. The entire album is a solid effort, though it is slightly more heavily produced than Charley’s previous work. Thankfully these old albums are finally being re-released so they can be heard by fans of traditional country who are too young to remember when they were first released. I’m Just Me is available on an import collection with three other early Charley Pride albums.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Did You Think to Pray’

Produced by Jack Clement and released in 1971, Did You Think To Pray was Charley Pride’s first gospel album. The album, which emerged at the height of Pride’s popularity, hit #1 and was certified Gold.

Despite his goodwill with country radio, his previous six singles had been chart toppers,  Pride could only get the album’s sole single to #21. “Let Me Live” has a strong lyric about the guidance of God’s love, but a melody that leaves much to be desired. The song takes a bizarre and jarring turn halfway, turning from a simple ballad into a gospel rave and back again.

The title track, which opens the album, preaches about the power of prayer. The track is somewhat overwrought and brought down by the heaviness of the background vocalists and what appears to be a low humming throughout.

The album kicks into high gear with Pride’s spirited take on “I’ll Fly Away.” The fiddle is a perfect accompaniment for the backing vocalists who join Pride throughout. Also fantastic is his banjo-drenched take on “Angel Band,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Whispering Hope” is also fantastic, with Pride channeling Jim Reeves.

Pride gets back to preaching on “Take Time out for Jesus,” which is heavy-handed but otherwise excellent. The melody is inviting and draws you right in. The confessional “Jesus, Don’t Give Up On Me,” finds Pride hoping for redemption after failing to heed his own advice.

“The Highway Leads to Glory” is about the journey, and it’s glorious. His take on the oft-covered “The Church In The Wildwood” is of similarly high quality. The album closes with “Lord, Build Me a Cabin in Gloryland,” which retains the album’s winning ways.

Apart from a couple of moments that get the album off track, Did You Think To Pray is an excellent recording, gospel, secular or otherwise. It’s well worth checking out if you want to hear it again after many years or are just discovering it for the first time.

Grade: A

EP Review: Jake Worthington – ‘Hell Of A Highway’

Released 18 months after his debut, the young traditional country singer Jake Worthington’s second EP is a further step forward. His rich mature voice, which belies his youth (he is still only 21) is matched here by some excellent songs.

The energetic honky tonker ‘How Do You Honky Tonk’ opens proceedings, with a name drop for Mark Chesnutt, and is very reminiscent of Chesnut’s 90s work. The mid paced ‘Big Time Lonesome’ is about coping with a broken heart, and is another very good song.

The highlights are two sad ballads. ‘A Lot Of Room To Talk’ is an instant classic, a lovely sad ballad about a man discovering the loneliness of an empty house following his wife’s departure:

I should’ve listened more to her more
When she was still around
I guess I got what I deserved
I sure do hear her now
What good is pride now that she’s gone
When did our house stop being home
Now there’s too many what if opportunities I missed
And a lot of room to talk

Lots of steel guitar adds the final touches.

Also outstanding is the title track, which sees another woman leaving, and a man left behind:

Said I’d give you all the space that you wanted
Just didn’t know you want so much

So tonight I’m playing my guitar
And I’m crying like a country song
Sitting here staring out the window
Wondering how’d you ever get so gone
Must be one hell of a highway you’re on

The final track is a pleasant if inconsequential love song, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, sung well.

This is a highly enjoyable and solidly country EP. Add it to Jake’s previous, self-titled EP, and you have an album’s worth of material.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Sensational Charley Pride’

Produced by Jack Clement with Felton Jarvis (best known for his work with Elvis Presley), The Sensational Charley Pride was released in May 1969. The record is in the same style which fans had come to expect from Charley – solid country with a restrained version of the Nashville Sound.

It produced only one single, the #4 ‘Let The Chips Fall’. Written by Clement, it is a dramatic, slightly ponderous, ballad about a suspicious husband prepared to fond out the worst. It is not among my favorite Charley Pride hits, but Pride’s vocal is excellent. Another Clement tune, ‘She’s Still Got A Hold On You, is a nice song about not getting over an old love.

A song that perhaps should have been a single (and was by Mickey Gilley), ‘(It’s Just A Matter Of) Making Up My Mind’, is my personal favorite song on the album. A slow ballad about coping with a breakup, it is one of two Foster & Rice songs on the set. The other, ‘Even After Everything She’s Done’, serves as a kid of sequel to the former, and is also pretty good. Here the protagonist realises the day after a tumultuous goodbye that love endures despite all the angst:

I said I could despise her by the dawn of another day
But there’s the sun and I don’t hate her
Even after everything she’s done

I tried to make myself believe that I’m much better off
I’ve told myself she’s nothing special
And still I find that she’s the only one

‘Come On Home And Sing The Blues To Daddy’ is an enjoyable midpaced song, addressed to an ex whose new romance has faltered, with Charley once more playing the protagonist we met in ‘I Know One’, but sounding a little less rueful:

You’re like a child who’s found a brand new plaything
Each one is more fun than those before
But there’s a faithful one who’s always waiting
To be picked up and kicked around some more

It was also recorded by several the artists including Waylon Jennings, Faron Young and Bobby Bare.

Charley goes playfully Cajun for a pair of songs – a cheery cover of the classic ‘Louisiana Man’, and the less well remembered Jim Reeves hit ‘Billy Bayou’ (a Roger Miller penned tune). Both recordings are great fun, with Charley tackling them them with the same joie de vivre he showed in his live take on the Hank Williams song ‘Kaw Liga’, not included on this album but a #3 hit for him in 1969.

There are three songs written by Alex Zanetis, all quite good. ‘Never More Than I’ is a ballad with an attractive melody, comparing the poor man’s love to his richer rival. The steel-dominated ‘Let Me Live Again’ pleads a former love to take him back. In ‘Take Care Of The Little Things’ he regrets neglecting home and wife, versed as a message to the man who has taken his place.

The similarly titled ‘It’s The Little Things’ is a tender love song, paying tribute to a wife’s care. Lots of steel guitar ornaments the song beautifully. The album closes with ‘We Had All the Good Things Going’, a wistful look back at love. This song was a minor hit for Jan Howard in 1969, and also recorded by Dolly Parton.

This album is another strong offering from Charley Pride, and well worth finding. It is available individually or on a bargain 4-on-1 CD and has been certified gold.

Grade: A-