My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Dixie Chicks – ‘Taking The Long Way’

The storm of protest and counter-protest which followed the incident in London completely derailed the Chicks’ country music stardom. We can only wonder what might have been musically had they remained accepted by genre fans and the industry. As it was, there was a hiatus in recorded music.

The album (produced by Rick Rubin) marked a sea change in their musical style, a deliberate focus on their own compositions and very personal subject matter, and a defiant unwillingness to kowtow to country radio expectations. Every song is credited to the three women together with an assortment of non-Nashville co-writers, most frequently rock songwriter Dan Wilson.

The first shot was actually conciliatory lyrically, with ‘I Hope’, a gospel-infused song written with bluesman Keb’ Mo’ as a charity single to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina in the South in 2005. It is definitely not a country song, but it is pretty good, and has an optimistic message:

It’s okay for us to disagree
We can work it out lovingly

But this was not the path taken by the Chick’s new album, finally released in 2006.

The lead radio single was explosive, stating their refusal to bow down. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ was uncompromising and undoubtedly powerful as it angrily recounts the aftermath:

Forgive – sounds good
Forget – I’m not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I’m still waiting
I’m through with doubt
There’s nothing left for me to figure out
I’ve paid a price
And I’ll keep paying

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time
To go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do
What it is you think I should
I know you said
“Can’t you just get over it?”
It turned my whole world around
And I kinda like it

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Saying that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over?

The single’s reception reflected the riven nature of contemporary debate, with those who had agreed with Natalie’s original statement acclaiming it, and those offended unimpressed. It received tepid airplay, peaking at #36 on the country chart, but sold exceptionally well, better than any previous single. This was reflected in responses to the album as a whole – decent sales, albeit lower than their previous albums since recruiting Natalie, but losing much of their country fanbase. They would never again make the top 40 on country radio. Going back to the single a decade on, and trying to view it divorced from the controversy it remains a very strong piece of work with the raw emotion still alive.

The next single, ‘Everybody Knows’, written with Gary Louris of alt-country group the Jayhawks, was not a good choice as it was rather dull and forgettable. The semi-title track, ‘The Long Way Around’ is better, again reflecting fiercely and unrepentantly on choice and consequence with nods to some of their past music:

It’s been two long years now
Since the top of the world came crashing down
And I’m gettin’ it back on the road now
But I’m taking the long way
Taking the long way around

I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard [or hurt?] myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself
But I – I could never follow

‘Voice Inside My Head’, the album’s last theoretical attempt at a single, was a rock ballad written with Wilson and Linda Perry. I can’t imagine it ever succeeding as a single even in better times for the band, as although not completely explicit the subject matter appears to be the controversial one of a past, and perhaps regretted, abortion:

I was only a kid when I said goodbye to you
Ten summers ago
But it feels like yesterday
Lost, scared and alone
Nothing I could give to you
I tried, I really did
But I couldn’t find another way
And I want – I need somehow to believe
In the choice I made
Am I better off this way?

I can hear the voice inside my head
Saying you should be with me instead
Every time I’m feeling down
I wonder what would it be like with you around


I’m forever changed
By someone I never knew
Now I’ve got a place
I’ve got a husband and a child
But I’ll never forget
What I’ve given up in you

It’s not a subject I’m comfortable with myself and it seems like a deliberate provocation to choose as a single, especially after all the prior issues.

Motherhood is also the subject of ‘So Hard’, which bewails problems trying to conceive and the toll taken on the marital relationship. ‘Lullaby’ is a delicately pretty song cooing love for, I think, a new baby, surely the happiest and least contentious song on the album, with some lovely fiddle.

‘Bitter End’, written with Louris, is about the end of a fair weather friendship and has a pleasant Celtic feel.

‘Lubbock Or Leave It’ is Natalie’s vicious diss of the hypocrisy of her conservative home town, and features some echoey autotune.

‘Silent House’ is about Natalie’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and is clearly heartfelt but musically dreary. ‘Favorite Year’, written with Sheryl Crow, is quite mellow but not very memorable. ‘I Like It’ is poorly written and boring, and ‘Baby Hold On’ is pedestrian. ‘Easy Silence’ is a tribute to a husband offering respite from the turmoil outside (perhaps ironic given that all three of the marriages in existence at the time have now ended).

Even a dozen years on, the shadows of The Incident hang heavily over this album. To my ears it doesn’t really stand up on its own merits. With the exception of ‘Lullaby’, the strongest moments (e.g. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’, ‘The Long Way Around’) are entirely rooted in their time and place. The production and songwriting both mostly fall outside country music, and on the whole only the group’s most devoted fans will truly enjoy this record.

Grade: C+

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Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Home’

It is difficult to assess the merits of this album, partially because of the changes in the reference points by which albums are evaluated and partially because of the firestorm that the Dixie Chicks generated by their future comments while playing a small venue in England.

Many commentators regard this album as the Dixie Chicks masterpiece, and while I am not among them, I do regard this as an excellent album that draws the group closer to a roots sound than their previous major label recordings.

At the time of the album’s release in 2002, the world of country music was in turmoil. Slick pop acts like Shania Twain, Martine Mc Bride and Faith Hill were still near their commercial peak, while the neo-traditionalist had lost steam, slowly being replaced by the vapid bro-country that plagued the genre until recently. Conversely, there was a brief resurgence in bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic string band music fuels by the runaway success of the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Symptomatic of the cross purposes to which the fan base and the radio stations worked, radio barely played anything from the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Dixie Chicks chose to ignore this divide, releasing an album that in places would have fit into a roots classification, but in other places was something else entirely.

Five songs received airplay from Home:

“Long Time Gone”                                     #2 country / #7 pop

“Landslide”                                                       #2 country / #7 pop / #1 adult contemporary

“Travelin’ Soldier”                                     #1 country / #26 pop

“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”     #48 country

“Top of The World”                                     did not chart

“Top of The World” was too long for radio to play it, moreover, it was released after the unfortunate comments about President Bush turned many thoughtful Americans, whether or not supporters of Bush.

This album is mostly covers of material written by others. In that vein, the album opens up with “Long Time Gone”. The song, written by Darrell Scott, was originally recorded by Scott on his 2000 album Real Time and tells the story about a young man who left his family and went to Nashville to become a musician. Eventually, he treks back home and settles down to raise a family. The song’s last verse criticizes contemporary country music as being shallow, and despite the upbeat melody, the song’s lyrics are very pessimistic indeed.

Next up is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”. There is something terribly appropriate about this cover because the Fleetwood Mac story closely parallels that of the Dixie Chicks in that Fleetwood Mac started out as one thing (a brilliant blues-rock group), changed members and form into a basic pop-rock group, and pretended that the prior version of the group never existed. The song was written by Stevie Nicks, who was not a member of the group’s original lineup,

Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” is probably the best song on the album, a sad song about the correspondence between a soldier and his girlfriend, and his eventual death in combat. The song was first recorded by the writer and later, in altered form by Ty England, but the Dixie Chicks rendition is by far the best version of the song. At the time the group recorded the song Bruce Robinson was the brother-in-law of Emily Robison.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag of covers and originals a bunch of good songs well performed and thoroughly country in sound and instrumentation. Both Martie and Emily are excellent musicians and the supporting cast includes Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and bluegrass wizards Brian Sutton (guitar) Adam Steffey (mandolin), Chris Thile (mandolin solos) plus Emmylou Harris on vocal harmonies. You couldn’t ask for better.

Of the remaining tracks, my favorite is the humorous “White Trash Wedding”. Written by the three members of the group, the song depicts a scenario that has played itself out many times over the years, but does so with humor:

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

You finally took my hand

You finally took my hand

It took a nip of gin

But you finally took my hand

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Mama don’t approve

Mama don’t approve

Daddy says he’s the best in town

And mama don’t approve

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Baby’s on its way

Baby’s on its way

Say I do and kiss me quick

‘Cause baby’s on its way

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

There are a few misfires on the album (“Godspeed and “I Believe in Love” are pretty pedestrian and rather uninteresting) but even the misfires are not terrible and the net impression is of an album that contains both serious and amusing material performed with great flair.

A-

EP Review: Ray Scott – ‘Honky Tonk Heart’

Ray Scott has self-released a series of full length albums since his departure from Warner Brothers over a decade ago. This year he has instead produced a five-track EP, produced by Michael Hughes, with all the songs being written or co-written by Ray. Such a short set means no room for fillers.

He opens with the energetic country rock title track which celebrates his life choices as a musician:

I worked my ass off on Music Row
Tryin’ to get on the radio
Like Alan said those wheels turn slow
And I had to tell ’em all where to go
When they tried to make me a pop star
I got me a honky tonk heart

Yeah, I ain’t no fake-ass country star
I got me a honky tonk heart
Yeah and I love a steel guitar

He spits out the words pop star with noticeable hatred.

Next is the highlight, ‘It Is What It Is’, a regretful ballad in which a husband stays out at the bar with little idea as to where his wife might be:

She’d give me that look
When we laid down at night
Now she just looks away
And turns out the light
I don’t think she hates me
But she ain’t in love

It is what it is
Cause it ain’t what it was

There’s a blonde here tonight
And she’s givin’ me the eye
And she’s smilin’
Sittin’ right over there
If I left with that lady
If I called her baby
I wonder
Would mine even care?
(Oh, would you care?)

I’ve got an old friend
That lives in Des Moines
He’s got a spare bedroom
It’s reached the point
Where it’s harder to stay
Than it would be to run

‘Trainwreck’ picks the pace back up, with Ray repelling a sexy woman not in it for the long run:

You want a husband but you don’t want one
Unless he already belongs to someone
Your kind of woman lives for the drama
So just wiggle that sweet caboose on down the line

Hey trainwreck
This ain’t your station
These lovin’ arms ain’t your destination
Some fool’s gonna fall for your temptation
But hey trainwreck
This ain’t your station

In the gently sad ‘Leave This Town’, Ray wants to head to his home state of Carolina to get over a broken heart and “hit reset on my life”.

The all-too-short set closes with ‘Thank You Baby’, a sincerely delivered tribute to Ray’s wife.

This is a very good collection, which I recommend strongly.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Fly’

NOTE: This is the second time we’ve done a feature on Fly. Check out Chris’ take on the album from March 2009, which was formed as a discussion around whether or not the album deserved to be legendary, by clicking HERE. Also, his post promoted a 27 comment discussion well worth reading. 

Dixie Chicks built on the phenomenal success of Wide Open Spaces with Fly, their second album for Monument Records. It was released in late August 1999 and established them as the foremost superstars of the era, on par with Shania Twain.

The ambitious set redefined how a country album could sound both melodically and lyrically. This is when they began courting controversy, painting outside the lines, and rewriting the rules of Nashville. There wasn’t a single artist at the time or since that has perfected or improved upon the formula they perfected with Fly — a solid foundation of traditional country mixed with a pop sensibility with a collection, and this is the key, of intelligent well-written songs. Fly is an album of talent and substance absent of fluff or filler.

A sign that the Dixie Chicks were heading places came in June 1999 when the album’s lead single “Ready To Run” was subsequently featured as a single from the soundtrack to the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere RomCom Runaway Bride. The Celtic flavored tune, co-written by Martie Seidel and Marcus Hummon, hit #2.

They shot back to the top of the charts with the album’s instantly iconic second single “Cowboy Take Me Away,” also co-written by the pair. The title was inspired by the slogan used in commercials for Calgon and the lyric was in tribute to Emily’s marriage to Charlie Robison. It’s a brilliant record from start to finish, with Sediel’s gorgeous fiddle riffs and Robison’s banjo licks proving the perfect backdrop for Natalie Maines’ passionate vocal. It’s one of the band’s signature songs and rightfully so.

What followed was a black comedy detailing the saga of Marianne and Wanda, the latter of who met and married a man named Earl, who physically abused her. The song, written by Dennis Linde, brings the women’s fight for justice to the forefront as they murder Earl and bury him in a shallow grave. The subject matter of “Goodbye Earl” proved a tough pill for country radio to swallow and the track stalled at #13.

They rebounded with their version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which was originally recorded (separately) by Suzy Bogguss and Joy Lynne White in 1992. Commenters on country blogs have favored the other women’s versions more, but since I’m only intimately familiar with the trio’s take on the song, which hit #4, and it’s the version I heard first, it’s the one I’ll always prefer.

“Without You,” the album’s second #1, is purely pop with country instrumentation. Maines co-wrote it about the demise of her first marriage, and while it isn’t as sharp as “You Were Mine,” it still soars with heartache. Maines’ vocal, which allows her stretch and use her lower register, is a revelation.

You’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten any of the remaining singles released from the album. Although it hit #3, their take on Matraca Berg’s “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” isn’t terribly memorable. The album’s eighth and final single, “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” has a nice groove and works well live, but falls into the same territory. It hit #7.

Sandwiched between them is arguably one of the strongest songs they ever sent to country radio. “Heartbreak Town” is Darrell Scott’s take on making it in music city and tells the story of a couple and their baby heading to Nashville and getting rejected by the industry. The record, which hit #23, is a masterpiece:

Hugged your friends

Kissed your mama goodbye

Baby in your arms and a tear in your eye

Twelve hundred miles and you never asked why

From me

 

Me and the baby and you side by side

We all knew we was in for a long hard ride

Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide it seemed

We honked the horn when we crossed the

State line

Woke up the baby and she started to cry

She must’ve known

What we were going to find

 

This ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

Square people in a world that’s round

And they watch you dancin’ without the sound

It ain’t nothin’ no nothin’

You take your number and you stand in line

And they watch to see how high you’re gonna climb

Pat on the back and better luck next time

It ain’t nothin’ no it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

 

Stardust well it’s a funny thing

It can make you cuss

It can make you sing

And the need to touch it gets hard to explain some days

 

I’ve seen ’em rise

I’ve seen ’em fall

Some get nothin’

And lord some get it all

Some just run

While others crawled away

 

Hold my hand baby don’t let go

I’ve got some front money

And I’ve got a next show

And I’m, I’m gonna need you

Down this yellow brick road

The album tracks are almost as iconic as the singles, especially “Sin Wagon,” which got its origins from the movie Grease. The film is one of Maines’ favorites, and she co-wrote the bluegrass barnburner with Emily Erwin and Stephony Smith. The lyric caught the attention of the trio’s record label, who objected their use of the term ‘mattress dacin’ in the second verse. Maines doubled down and repeated the line for emphasis, a sign that as far back as 1999 she wasn’t going to make nice with anyone.

“Hello Mr. Heartache” is the album’s most traditional number and another masterful record. “Let Him Fly” is their first association with Patty Griffin, Maines’ favorite singer-songwriter of all time. “Hole In My Head” was written by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller and showed off their Americana leanings.

Fly is simply one of the greatest contemporary commercial country records ever made. It rightfully won them both the Grammy for Best Country Album and the CMA for Album of the Year. It’s gone on to sell more than ten million copies and inspired their first headlining trek in 2000, the year they were crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year. They richly deserved every accolade that came their way.

Grade: A+ 

 

Album Review: George Strait — ‘Honky Tonk Time Machine’

Late last month, George Strait released his 30th studio album, his first collection of all-new music in four years. The record, entitled Honky Tonk Time Machine, is a thirteen-track set co-produced by Strait and Chuck Ainlay.

Strait wrote six of the album’s tracks along with his most frequent co-writers — his son Bubba and Dean Dillion. The strongest of the songs is the affecting ballad “The Weight of the Badge,” a beautiful tribute to our everyday law enforcement officers. Also excellent is lead single “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” which Occasional Hope reviewed last month.

The trio’s remaining co-writes are very good. “Blue Water” is about longing for escapism from our modern world. He sings about a “Sometimes Love” he can’t seem to forget and shows his woman he’ll always be there on “Take Me Away.” The outlier is “Código,” which serves as little more than a commercial for a brand of tequila Strait has an investment in.

“What Goes Up,” a nice spiritual ballad about leaning on God, was co-written by father and son and Jeff Hyde. They branched out even further, bringing in Willie Nelson and Buddy Cannon for “Sing One with Willie,” a duet with Nelson. The track is pure honky-tonk and while the melody is delightful, the lyric boards on cutesy.

Bubba also has some co-writes of his own. “Some Nights” is a mid-paced ballad about getting over a lost love. The title track is a barnburner in the same vein as “Heartland.”

The remaining tracks were penned by outside writers. The spiritual “God and Country Music,” which laments about the only things worth saving, was co-written by Luke Laird, Barry Dean, and Lori McKenna. “Two More Wishes” reunites him with Jim Lauderdale. The results are just as you would expect. The final track is a fine cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” on which you can hear off of Strait’s life experience coming out in his vocal.

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a fine addition to Strait’s catalog. It’s refreshing to hear his voice and perspective again.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Dixie Chicks – Wide Open Spaces’

It was the recruitment of Natalie Maines as the Chicks’ new lead singer which transformed their fortunes. The band signed to Monument Records, a subsidiary of Sony. Their debut major label album, released in January 1998, was produced by Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, who were able to meld the group’s organic roots with a commercial sound, showcasing both Natalie’s strikingly distinctive voice and the other women’s accomplished musicianship. With the help of five top 10 singles, it would prove an enormous crossover success, eventually selling 12 million copies.

The first single, the infectious ‘I Can Love You Better’, was written by one of the top Nashville songwriters of the era, Kostas, with Pamela Brown Hayes. A plea to a love interest who is hung up on an ex, it is utterly charming with Natalie’s vocals exuding a mixture of confidence and wistfulness as she offers herself as a better romantic partner than her rival. It was very radio-friendly, and reached #7 on the Billboard country charts.

Follow-up ‘There’s Your Trouble’, written by Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, Is based on a similar theme. The single became their first chart-topper, and also won the girls a Grammy.

The title track made it back-to-back #1s. It was written by Texan singer-songwriter Susan Gibson, who had recorded the song with her alt-country band The Groobees on an album produced by Natalie Maines’ father Lloyd, who then pitched the song to his daughter. An airy melody and bluegrassy instrumentation with sweet harmonies back an optimistic lyric about a young woman leaving home and making her start as an independent adult. It was named the CMA Single of The Year.

The pace slowed for the next single, yet another #1. ‘You Were Mine’ is an exquisitely sad lost love ballad which showed Natalie Maines was capable of subtlety as well as attack. It was the only song on the album to be written by any of the band members, namely Martie and Emily Erwin, and was inspired by the disintegration of their parents’ marriage when they were children:

Sometimes I wake up cryin’ at night
And sometimes I scream out your name
What right does she have to take your heart away
When for so long you were mine

I can give you two good reasons
To show you love’s not blind
He’s two and she’s four and you know they adore you
So how can I tell them you changed your mind?

A rare fifth single, ‘Tonight The Heartache’s on me, is a super honky tonker which had previously been cut by Joy Lynn White in a very similar arrangement. It was not quite as successful as its predecessors, peaking at #6.

Another recent cover was Radney Foster’s ‘Never Say Die’, a nice love song. ‘Let ‘Er Rip’ is a rocker which allows Natalie to let loose vocally. ‘Once You’ve Loved Somebody’ is a wistful ballad about struggling to movie on after a breakup.

One of my favorite tracks is a cover of ‘Loving Arms’, penned by 70s folkie Tom Jans and previously recorded by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Elvis Presley, and others. Natalie’s compelling vocal, imbued with intense regret, makes this the best version ever of the song in my opinion.

J D Souther’s ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ is tender and has another fine vocal. Maria McKee’s ‘Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)’ is a rock ballad, again very well sung, while Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Give It Up Or Let Me Go’ is a raucous blues number.

The album’s eclectic mix of material is all very well sung and played, and although its massive success has been somewhat overshadowed by later events (both greater success and more fractious times) it still stands up very well.

Grade: A

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

Back in the 1980s Reba McEntire was the leading female neo-traditionalists as well as the best selling female artist of her generation. Then around the time of her second marriage, to music industry executive Narvel Blackstock, her music began to take a more contemporary turn, one which became more pronounced as the 90s wore on. It brought her a new fanbase and enormous sales, but many of her older or more traditional-leaning fans regretted her choices.

Then a couple of years ago, after Reba’s marriage came to an end she chose to make a wonderful album of religious material, much of which harked back to older times. Now her first studio album is=n several years shows a definite return to traditional country sounds. It has been vaunted her her most country album ever, which I would disagree with – 1984’s My Kind Of Country, whose name inspired this very blog, and 1987’s The Last One To Know, would both fit that description better. But it is undoubtedly a country album, and a very good one, produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon.

For a start, Reba calls on her Oklahoma roots with two fabulous Western Swing number. Opening track ‘Swing All Night With You’ was written by Jon Randall and Sidney Cox, and is a true dancefloor delight. She wrote the equally charming ‘No U In Oklahoma’ herself with Ronnie Dunn and Donna McSpadden.

Many of the songs are slow sad ones. Jonathan has already reviewed the lead single and title track, a subtle song about heartbreak written by Reba’s nice Autumn McEntire and Hannah Blaylock. ‘Tammy Wynette Kind Of Pain’ was written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore and Shelley Skidmore, and is another devastating depiction of a broken heart set to a traditional country soundtrack:

‘Standing by your man’
That’s a broken plan
When he breaks your heart and all your trust
With his two cheatin’ hands
So it’s ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’
And you don’t want him to see you cryin’
So you’re ‘crying in the rain’
And this is Tammy Wynette
We’re talkin’ Tammy Wynette kind of pain

There’s a sky full of tears in every single note
And every single word is wine and whiskey soaked
So I guess it’s me and her together in this alone
‘Til I can make it on my own’

Also reflecting on a failed marriage, but from the point of view of the husband, is ‘In His Mind’, which was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James based on Reba’s idea.

In ‘The Bar’s Getting Lower’, written by Kellys Collins, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Alex Kline, the unhappy protagonist settles for a one night stand when old dreams of marriage and family haven’t been realised:

Her dreams are disappearin’ like smoke from his cigarette
She hasn’t said yes but she’s thinkin’ she might
The closer it gets to closing time
A lonely heart will take a pick-up line
Anything to get her through the night

‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’ is a heartwrenching story song written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, and previously recorded by Jerry Kilgore and Melonie Cannon. Reba’s version is superb, and the arrangement has a mournful feel as we hear the story of a young woman who has been reunited with the drug addict and prostitute mother who gave her up at birth, just before the latter’s death. This might be the highlight of an excellent group of songs.

Another ballad, but a little more sophisticated AC in its feel, ‘The Clown’ is a beautifully detailed story about the horrifying moment of finding out her marriage is over in public, and having to keep a brave face on it. It was written by Dallas Davidson, Hillary Lindsey and James Slater.

The minor-keyed ‘Your Heart’, written by Kellys Collins, has a classical Spanish guitar accompaniment and is atmospheric and moody. Reba sings it beautifully, but it isn’t really a country song.

A couple of more commercial contemporary up-tempo songs are well performed if less to my personal taste, and may be included to appeal to Reba’s younger fans and possibly with an eye on radio play. ‘Storm In A Shot Glass’ is quite catchy in a 90s pop country way. ‘Freedom’ is more of a rock ballad rejoicing over finding love.

The album closes with the gentle piano-led ‘You Never Gave Up On Me’, dedicated to Reba’s late mother.

While not quite as traditional as one might have been led to believe from the publicity, this is definitely the best thing Reba has released in decades. It is highly recommended, and a strong contender already for album of the year.

Grade: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Little Ol’ Cowgirl’

The Dixie Chicks’ second album was Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Released in 1992, the album found the original lineup of Robin Lynn Macy, Laura Lynch, Martie & Emily Erwin working through an assortment of original material and covers.

The album opens up with the title track, a spritely western swing number penned by John Ims. Laura Lynch sings the lead with really nice trio harmonizing by Macy and Emily Erwin. We should note that Martie Lynch mostly plays fiddle on this album but whenever the harmony is a trio, she is not singing.

She’s a little ol’ cowgirl from out Texas way

Countin’ the nights ’til the fiddler plays

Workin’ all week just doin’ her thing

 

She likes punchin’ doggies but she loves to swing

And when she hears that backbeat rhythm driftin’ through the door

She can’t talk, she can’t sit still, she can’t stay off of that floor

Kickin’ her heels up lordy look at her twirl

Everybody wants to boogie on down

With the little ol’ cowgirl

Robin Lynn Macy takes the lead on “A Road Is Just A Road”, a cover of a song written by Mary Chapin Carpenter & John Jennings. The song is a med-tempo with ballad, with trio harmony.

“She’ll Find Better Things To Do” comes from the pen of Bob Millard. Macy takes the lead vocal on this mid-tempo modern country ballad about a relationship that has come unraveled. The songs has quartet harmony.

She don’t see no way around it It

He shows every sign of leavin’ her behind

After three days stayin’ out late

It don’t look like he’ll be comin’ home tonight

She wants to cry but pride won’t let her

She’ll find better things to do

 

Leaves her key inside the mailbox

With a note that tells that cowboy where to go …

This is followed by “An Irish Medley” (comprised of “Handsome Molly”, “Little Beggerman” and “Mist On The Moor”). Macy sings the lead with Lynch on harmony on the first two parts with the last tune being an instrumental . Bruce Singleton guests on penny whistle and bagpipes, with J.D. Brown also on bagpipes and Olga Arseniev on accordion.

“You Send Me” was a #1 Pop & #1 R&B hit in 1957 for its writer the legendary Sam Cooke. The song is a dreamy ballad with Laura Lynch handling the lead vocals with the rest joining in on harmonies. Lloyd Maines plays steel guitar on this number.

Darling, you send me

I know you send me

Darling, you send me

Honest you do, honest you do

Honest you do, whoa

 

You thrill me

I know you, you, you thrill me

Darling, you, you, you, you thrill me

Honest you do

 

At first I thought it was infatuation

But, woo, it’s lasted so long

Now I find myself wanting

To marry you and take you home, whoa

“Just A Bit Like Me” is treated as straight-ahead bluegrass. Written by Robin Lynn Macy, this is a really nice song that deserves to be more widely covered. Robin sings the lead with the others joining in on harmony, Dave Peters plays mandolin on this track.

It’s six o’clock in the morning

The sun was ready to rise

And as she closes his lunchbox

She spies the sun in his eyes

She stays at home with the baby

She’s got a dream in her heart

Somewhere her sister is singing

A night is ready to start

 

One’s choosing, one’s cruising

Down the highway of their dreams

While songs are sung her dream’s begun

And she thinks of what it means

To live through her voice, she made a choice

But neither one is free

Am I a lot like her or is she just a bit like me?

“A Heart That Can” was written by Patti Dixon with Laura Lynch singing lead and the rest on harmony vocals. Lloyd Maines plays steel guitar on this track. This track is performed as contemporary Nashville pop-country. Had the song been released on a major label, it likely would have received considerable airplay.

You say I’ve done a lot of good

You’re glad I found you when I did

But I wonder why you keep

Those questions in your head

Oh I think you’re afraid to fall

Someone went and blew the call

 

All I can say is my heart tries hard

Try as hard as I can

You’ll never find that my love falls short

One day you’ll understand

That I’ve got a heart that can

The next track is a cover of Hal Ketcham’s recent hit “Past The Point of Rescue”. Robin sings the lead with trio harmonies. Olga Arseniev plays the accordion. The song is taken at the same tempo as Ketcham’s hit but with different instrumentation, resulting in a very nice recording.

Martie Erwin and Matthew Benjamin composed the mid-tempo swing instrumental “Beatin’ Around The Bush”. David Peters joins in on mandolin and Matthew Benjamin plays guitar.

“Two Of A Kind” was written by John Ims. Laura Lynch sings the vocal (no vocal harmonies) on this lovely medium -slow ballad. Dave Peters and Lloyd Maines appear on this track.

On the road without a friend

Can make you feel life’s loneliness

In a voice that rides the wind

Streaming ‘cross the airwaves

In a simple country song

The one that you don’t hear

Until the moon is full

It was Texas once again

The one about the good old boy

Who’s caught remembering

Images of childhood

And the places that he’d been

Caught up in his questions

Wondering where it would end

 

Another midnight on the highway

Dallas in the distance

Seems I’m always leaving love behind

Singing along with someone

Who’s soul is on the radio

Sounds like me and the good old boy

Are two of a kind

“Standing By The Bedside was written by I. Tucker with Laura Lynch on lead vocals and the rest doing harmonies. Jeff Hellmer guests on piano. The song is a medium temp western swing number. The lyric is religious in nature about a sister who is at death’s door.

The best song on the album is “Aunt Mattie’s Quilt, co-written by Robin Lynn Macy and Lisa Brandenburg. Robin sings the lead with trio harmonies. The song is more of a folksong story-ballad, but

it fits the album nicely. Larry Seyer guests on piano and Dave Peters is back on mandolin.

Aunt Mattie bent a thousand times down the long black rows

Then battled with the angry weeds so little seeds could grow

Come summer Mattie pulled the snow from cruel and cutting bolls

She was patient pale and slender and was only eight years old

Round and round the spinning wheel beneath Aunt Mattie’s boot

She recalled the soil and cotton seeds and summer’s hopeful shoots

Two winters spun out summer’s threads in rich and creamy folds

And she had a bolt of cotton cloth when she turned ten years old

Many acts, in many different genres, have covered the Ray Charles classic “Hallelejah I Love Him (Her) So”. The Chicks take on the song is novel with bass and drums basically carrying the song instrumentally.

Robin Lynn Macy sings lead with the rest joining in on subdued harmony.

The album closes with a Laura Lynch- Martie Erwin composition titled “Pink Toenails”. Laura Lynch lead vocals with the rest on vocal harmonies. Larry Spencer plays trumpet and Jeff Hellmer tinkles the ivories on the jazzy torch song.

Pink toenails, why don’t I have time to paint pink toenails?

I’ve got my pink foam curlers and my pony-tail

My girlfriends have time for their pink toenails

Come nightfall, you’ll be waltzing through my door

When you hear me call and I love the way you say

“I’m your baby doll” and you’ll find me sitting there

In my pink toenails

This is an outstanding album and I am torn as to whether or not I prefer this album or Thank Heavens For Dale Evans.

I originally purchased both albums on cassette and upgraded to CD after wearing out the cassettes. I would give both albums a solid A. On this album Laura Lynch occasionally plays bass but mostly just sings, Robin Lynn Macy is on guitar, Emily Erwin plays bass, guitjo, banjo and Martie Erwin plays fiddle and viola. The Erwin sisters are the stronger instrumentalists and Martie’s instrumental contributions are outstanding. Tom Van Schalk plays percussion/ drums.

 

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Live At Billy Bob’s Texas’

Released by Smith Music in 1999 (it was recorded January 2, 1999), long after the end of Conlee’s years as a hit-maker (his last chart record having occurred nine years earlier), Live At Billy Bob’s Texas serves as a useful recap of Conlee’s career and as an exemplar of John Conlee in live performance.

While the sound quality of the recordings is slightly below that of the studio recordings and Conlee’s voice, at least on this evening, sounded a bit shopworn, the set still shows Conlee for the masterful showman that he is. Moreover, John gives the audience complete versions of his hits, neither the truncated versions often found on live recordings and nor the vapid hits medleys that often plague live recordings. There is one medley among the seventeen song selections but that medley is of the Willie Nelson standard “Night Life” and the Percy Mayfield classic “Please Send Me Someone To Love”, neither song a John Conlee hit.

The remainder of the record is essentially John Conlee’s fifteen biggest hits. Crowd noise is sufficient to let the listener know that this is a live recording, but not so loud as to be intrusive. The band is Billy Bob’s house band augmented by the great Weldon Myrick on steel guitar. My biggest complaint about the band is the somewhat cheesy keyboards of Micky G, but that is but a minor annoyance.

The album opens up with “Common Man” and closes with “I’m Only In It ForThe Love”. All told this album sees John performing his fifteen biggest hits, the medley noted above and Conlee’s last chart hit from 1990, “Doghouse”. In fact until recently, this album was the only place to find “Doghouse”, a much underrated record that would have been a bigger hit had it been released earlier in Conlee’s career.

The man’s in the moon, the cats in the cradle and I’m in the dog house
It never would have happened if my best friend wasn’t such a loud mouth
She’s heard things that she don’t like about my nights out
Now she’s on me like old cheap suit, I’m in the dog house

The dogs eating good and he don’t care
I’m chewing bones in the cold night air
The whole thing seems just a little unfair
There he sits in my favorite chair

I do prefer the studio versions, but for a live album, this is a good representation of John Conlee’s talent and his performance persona. I only had the opportunity to see him in live performance one time, early in his career when he was still largely doing other peoples’ hits, so it is nice to have a live show that is a good career retrospective. Here we have a confident professional putting on a really good show.

Grade: B+

Track List

1. Introduction
2. Common Man
3. Busted
4. Domestic Life
5. Old School
6. Lady Lay Down
7. Dog House
8. Miss Emily’s Picture
9. I Don’t Remember Loving You
10. The Carpenter
11. Backside Of Thirty
12. As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You
13. Friday Night Blues
14. Lay Around And Love On You
15. Rose Colored Glasses
16. Night Life / Please Send Me Someone To Love
17. Got My Heart Set On You
18. I’m Only In It For The Love

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus’

John Conlee’s only studio album of wholly new material since 1989 was a religious album released in 2004. It is impeccably sung and produced throughout.

Much of the material is familiar, but a few new songs were included. ‘They Also Serve’, written by Tony Seibert and drawing of the words of the poet John Milton, is a tribute to the sacrifices of military wives and families,

That unsung corps of warriors who stay behind and wait

Prayin’ by the phone to learn their loved one’s fate
But they’re still in the war, let there be no mistake
They also serve, those who stand and wait

‘What Else Does He Have To Do’ is an emotional piano-led ballad about Jesus.

‘Pass It On’, written by Harley Allen, is a strong song about the influence we all have on those around us:

Grandfather smoked and had a taste for booze
Next thing you know granddaddy’s son did too
And when that boy had children of his own
Addiction was the only seed he’d sow

Pass it on
Pass it down
We all leave more than a headstone in the ground
Pass it on
At the end will you leave them all your love or all your sin
You can make it right or wrong
Pass it on

He had a special name for every man
For any one that wasn’t just like him
His children used the words they heard from Dad
“If they’re not just like we are we don’t like that”

The third verse brings in Jesus and the transmission of Christian witness.

The Sonny Throckmorton song ‘Safely In The Arms Of Jesus’ is a nice cheerful number set to an upbeat hymnlike tune. Dickey Lee’s ‘Peace Within’ has a lovely soothing melody.

The hymns chosen are all treated with understated reverence. A medley of ‘Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus’ and ‘Softly And Tenderly’ opens proceedings, and another of
‘Amazing Grace’ is set to the strains of an organ backing, and ‘Peace In The Valley’ is piano-led. A tasteful string arrangement backs ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. Conlee’s takes on ‘I Know Who Holds Tomorrow’, ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’, ’Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ and ’Farther Along’ are lovely too.

The pace picks up for the urgent ‘This Old House’ and for a closing medley of ‘I Saw The Light’ and ‘I’ll Fly Awy’.

This album really feels like a labor of love.

Grade: A

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Fellow Travelers/Country Heart’

John Conlee’s career was one of the casualties of the wave of young stars emerging in the late 80s swept away the old guard. Columbia having dispensed with his services, he signed a deal with prominent independent label Sixteenth Avenue, which had also recently picked up superstar Charley Pride.

He decided to ‘Hit The Ground Runnin’’, a nice upbeat tune about moving on with some cheerful accordion. Next up was the reflective ‘River Of Time’, written by Larry Cordle and Jim Rushing (although iTunes miscredits it having confused it with the Judds’ song of the same name). This song looks at the changes in attitude brought as one grows up and older:

I was 16 and strong as a horse
I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’
But I knew everything of course
I turned 21 totin’ a gun
And losing some good friends of mine
I was crossing my first dreams of sorrow
On the way down the river of time

This river rolls like a rocket
It don’t meander and wind
Ain’t a power on earth that can stop it
We’re all swept up in the grind
So find your companion
The one that will love you
All the way till the end of the line
It’s the dearest of dreams
In the great scheme of things
Goin’ down the river of time

I woke up at 30 and started to worry
About the glaring mistakes of my past
I still had high aspirations
But I knew that I’d better move fast
Now I’m starin’ at 40 and oh Lordy Lordy
I’m still a long way from the top
I’ve still got the heart but I’m fallin’ apart
Reachin’ the hands of the clock

Both tracks received enough airplay to chart in the 40s.

The third single was ‘Hopelessly Yours’ written by Keith Whitley, Don Cook and Curly Putman. It had been cut a few years earlier by George Jones, and was a bona fide hit a few years later for Lee Greenwood and Suzy Bogguss. Conlee’s version is melancholy and very effective, but despite its quality it got little attention from country radio. The final, non-charting, single was even better. ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ is an emotional ballad written by Hugh Prestwood which portrays the lasting sadness of lost love:

Well, thank you for askin’
I know you mean well
But friend, that’s a story I’d rather not tell
To even begin it would take all night long
And I’d still be right here and she’d still be gone

So don’t get me started
I might never stop
She’s just not a subject that’s easy to drop
There’s dozens of other stories I’ll swap
But don’t get me started on Her
I might never stop

You see, deep in my heart is a dam I have built
For a river of tears over love I have spilled
And the way I make certain that dam will not break
Is to never look back when I’ve made a mistake

Prestwood contributed a number of other tunes to the set. ‘Almost Free’ is about a relationship on the brink:

Last night you pushed me a little too far
I was not coming back when I left in the car
There was a time, an hour or two
I was feeling so free – from you
I picked up a bottle and drove to the Heights
Parked on the ridge and I looked at the lights
The engine was off and the radio on
And the singer sang and I sang along

And I was almost free
There almost wasn’t any you-and-me
I was almost free
Whole new life ahead of me
Almost free

Sunrise rising over the wheel
Bottle’s empty and so is the feel
This car knows it’s the wrong thing to do
But it’s driving me home – to you
Maybe I’m too much in love to be strong
Maybe you knew I’d be back all along
If I could be who you wanted, I would
If I could forget I’d be gone for good

It’s just too hard to walk your line
Maybe baby I’ll cross it next time

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Album Review: John Conlee – ‘American Faces’

American Faces was John Conlee’s ninth studio album, and second for Columbia. Released in February 1987, the album reached #16 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, his last top twenty-five album, all of his previous albums having reached at least #22. Three singles were released from the album in “Domestic Life” (#4), “Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” (#11) and “Living Like There’s No Tomorrow” (#55). After “Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” no John Conlee single would ever again reach the top forty.

Although by this time Conlee had established himself as a major country artist with a long string of hits, the country music market was becoming increasingly youth-oriented and at forty-one years of age, Conlee didn’t fit the “handsome hunks and sweet young things” profile that Nashville was marketing at the time. Too bad, as the quality of Conlee’s recorded output remained high.

The album opens with “Domestic Life”, Conlee’s last top ten hit. That song, with its saxophone riffs and lyrics addressing typical Conlee concerns like everyday life and dreams, is a worthy addition to his canon of hits.

Cruising in my Station Wagon
Trying to keep my muffler from dragging
Sometimes it seems so defeating
As I’m hustling to make it to the Cub Scout meeting

I dream about Mexico
Where all the pretty people go
But we’re on a budget that just won’t budge
Not much money but a whole lot of love

Living that domestic life
Happy children and a pretty wife
Our Cocker Spaniel’s always having puppies
How could anybody be so lucky?

“Slow Passin’ Time” is a quiet ballad about the passage of time with a mildly Caribbean feel to the arrangement. The song would have made a good single, as evidenced by Anne Murray’s Top 40 success with the song a few years later

We both had our dreams when we left that sleepy little town behind
Things have gotten so mixed up, I tell you I’ve forgotten mine
It all had something to do with money and a better way of life
When that old alarm goes off it’s getting hard to open our eyes

Oh, but somewhere in my mem’ry the afternoon sun’s hangin’ in the trees
And the sun is comin’ up from the gulf coast on a sultry breeze
You and me, we’re together in a porch-swing state of mind
Lovin’ each other to the rhythm of slow-passin’ time

“Love Crazy Love” features some nice saxophone lines in the accompaniment

“American Faces” is one of those nostalgic songs that would have likely been a hit if released as a single after 9/11. The song is a medium slow ballad. “American Faces” might have seemed like a cynical flag-waver in the hands of a less capable vocalist, but Conlee sings it confidently and comfortably giving the song a finely nuanced performance.

Met a black man down in Memphis with lines on his face that looked like the Mississippi
He was the son of a slave, the father of a PhD
He’d squint his eyes at the new day sun, spit tobacco from a toothless gum
And say “Boys, it’s a good day to be free”

American faces I have seen, American voices I have listened to
They’re a lot like me and you
They’re all red, white or blue
American faces I have seen

Saw a veteran in a halfway house, a monkey on his back and the whole world on his shoulder
On his dresser was a medal and a picture of a long lost friend
He’d won a purple heart when he lost his mind but he’s kept his dreams since 69
That one day he’ll be coming home again

“Faded Brown Eyes” is a very slow ballad that I regard as filler. It is an okay song about a life of disappointment and a faded relationship.

“Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” is one in a long list of “mother songs” and stalled just shy of the Top Ten. It is deserved a better fate. It describes a trip many of us remember taking

When I think of my childhood days
Growing up in the small town USA
The fondest of my many memories
Is that a front porch rocking chair

And all of us children gathered there
Waiting our turn to climb up on Mama’s knee
With her imagination
Around the world she’d take us
With the stories of the places she knew we’d never see

In Mama’s rocking chair
She could a take us anywhere
To a tropical island
Or a snow covered mountain
Or a desert caravan

“It’s Not Easy Being Fifteen” is an interesting song about the difficulties in the passage of the teen years. The song is a slow ballad bears repeated listening.

“I Can Sail To China” is a slow ballad about a man experiencing a breakup. The catch line is ‘I can sail to China on the tears I’ve cried for you’. I like the song as an album cut.

I do not know why “Living Like There’s No Tomorrow (Finally Got to Me Tonight)” was chosen as the album’s third single as I regard it as one of the weaker songs on the album in terms of commercial appeal, as it just wasn’t what radio was playing at the time, although five or six years earlier (think Con Hunley) it would have fit in better. The arrangement is good (nice saxophone work), the song has a strong blues feel to it and Conlee sings it well. The song died at #55, a harbinger of things to come for Conlee.

The album closes with “Right Down To The Memories”, another nostalgic ballad, this one of a man looking back with great fondness at this life with his partner.

Time turns the ashes into diamonds
And then the diamonds into dust
But even time can’t steal the magic
That’s here between the two of us

‘Cause I love you right down to the memories
And I need you right now in my arms
You’ll always be the greatest gift that God has ever given me
Right down to the memories

This album wasn’t Conlee’s strongest album, but John Conlee is always an effective singer and always treats his songs with respect. I would give this album a B+

Track List & Songwriters
Domestic Life (Martin/Harrison)
Slow Passin’ Time (Rocco / Burke / Black)
Love Crazy Love (Deborah Allen / Rafe Van Hoy)
American Faces (Nelson / Nelson / Boone)
Faded Brown Eyes (Reid / Martin)
Mama’s Rockin’ Chair (MacRae / Menzies)
It’s Not Easy Being Fifteen (Curtis)
I Can Sail To China (Grazier)
Living Like There’s No Tomorrow (McBride / Murrah)
Right Down To The Memories (Bogard / Giles)

Album Review: John Conlee — ‘Harmony’

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

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

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

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

I can still hear his hammer singing ten-penny time

Working by the hour till the day that he died

 

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

Fair as a plane and true as a level

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

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

 

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

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

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

Mansions on the hill and a birdhouse in the backyard

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underneath a string of lights

A 49 model and I was sixteen

But I knew it was love at first sight

 

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

And I knew I had to make her mine

I held my breath and slid behind the wheel

It was my very first time

 

Cars, just motors and wheels

Rubber and glass and steel

Still, I think back over the years

And it sounds strange, I suppose

But it’s cars I remember most

 

She was parked on the street by the First Baptist Church

As we ran down the steps hand in hand

My brand new Chevy waiting there at the curve

And we waved to the crowd and got in

 

Well, the miles went by and so did the years

And I thought that we were doing alright

Till she packed up the kids and picked up the keys

And just drove away one night

 

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

I hardly see the kids any more

Took a new job and moved to LA

And bought me a two-seater Porsche

 

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

I could be doing alright

But mostly at night I just drive up the cost

And look at the city lights

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Blue Highway’

What was to be John Conlee’s last studio album for MCA, 1984’s Blue Highway saw him making some adjustments to his sound in the light of the pop-leaning music which was dominating comntry radio at the time.

The lead single, however, ‘Years After You’, was vintage Conlee – an emotional lost love ballad written by Thom Schuyler with strings and a lovely melody. The backing vocals have dated, but the song itself is gorgeous and Conlee’s vocals excellent; it did well on radio, just missing the top spot:

I don’t know if I can explain it
‘Cause there’s really nothing different at all
The sun still burns
And the earth still turns
And the winter still follows the fall
I knew that it wouldn’t be easy
For my heart to find somebody new
But I never thought it still would be broken in two
These years after you

They tell me time is a natural healer
It kinda smooths the pain away
But this hurting within hasn’t yet given in
And it’s been over two thousand days
I still remember the taste of your kisses
And your eyes that were beautifully blue
And I can still hear the sound of your voice
When you said we were through
These years after you

Years after, years after you
I’m still cryin’
Tears after, years after you
I’m still tryin’ to make it through
These years after you

There’ve been mornings when I couldn’t wake up
There’ve been evenings when I couldn’t sleep
My life will be fine
For months at a time
Then I’ll break down and cry for a week
‘Cause when I told you I’d love you forever
I know you didn’t think it was true
But forever is nothing
Compared to some nights I’ve been through
These years after you

The next single, ‘Working Man’, peaked at #7. It is a well observed and sympathetic song about coping with everyday life and a difficult boss in a blue collar job. The title track served as the album’s third and last single, and was another top 20 hit. It is a melancholy ballad about having to work away from home and his loved one, with a slightly more AC vibe.

A possible missed opportunity arose with the memorable ‘Radio Lover’, an ironic and dramatic story song about a radio DJ who ends up killing his cheating wife and her lover. Written by Curly Putman, Ron Hellard, and Bucky Jones, it had been recorded by George Jones the previous year; neither man released it as a single at this time, but Jones re-released it in 1989. Few singers can compete with George Jones, and Conlee (although a great vocalist in his own right) is no exception, so the Jones version is obviously better, but it is still an excellent record with Conlee bringing the story to life.

The best of the other tracks (despite intrusive production) is Bobby Braddock’s tender portrait of elderly couple ‘Arthur And Alice’:

Poor Arthur, he’s got a bad heart and she’s nearly blind
At least that’s what doctors say
But his heart’s full of love and she reads his mind
Arthur and Alice, Arthur and Alice are doin’ OK

These are by far the best tracks and the ones worth hunting down.

Although it doesn’t sound very country with the steel pan drum accompaniment, ‘De Island’ is quite interesting lyrically – a story song about a man who starts a new life in the Caribbean with, it emerges, money stolen from his business.

‘Down To Me’ is a pretty loungy AC ballad with a rather busily orchestrated arrangement including saxophone. ‘A Little Bit Of Lovin’’ is quite a nice mid-tempo song, with more (and more intrusive) brass. ‘But She Love Me’ pays tribute to a wife and mother who has sacrificed her own dreams for her man, but is a little dull. Even more dreary musically is the closing ‘Is There Anything I Can Do’.

The album is not widely available at present. Beware: the title has been used for a compilation which is on CD and iTunes but with only a few songs from the original album release.

Grade: B-

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘In My Eyes’

Released in 1983, In My Eyes, Conlee’s sixth album, would prove to be John’s most successful album, reaching #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, The album would feature three #1 singles in “I’m Only In It for the Love”, “In My Eyes” and “As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You” , as well as a fourth single “Way Back” that reached #4.

The album opens up with “I’m Only in It for the Love”, a song written by Kix Brooks, Deborah Allen and Rafe Van Hoy, The song was released in June 1983 as the first single and proved to be John’s fourth number one on the country chart. The song is up-tempo and upbeat,

I want you to know you got my full attention
And every move is with my best intention
Before we go on, I thought I ought to mention
I’m only in it for the love

I’m only in it for the love and affection
I think I’m heading in the right direction
I guess the question that I’m really asking
Is do you want a love that’s everlasting?

Next up is a love song, the somewhat pensive “As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You”. This song was the third single from the album. The song was written by Bruce ‘Hey ! Baby’ Channel and Kieran Kane.

Wherever I’m goin’, wherever I’m stayin’
It doesn’t matter, long as I’m stayin’ with you, stayin’ with you
I’m always happy, whatever I’m doin’
It doesn’t matter, long as I do it with you, do it with you

I may never have much silver and gold
But, I’ve got something more precious and warmer to hold
And that old rockin’ chair don’t scare me, like it used to
It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m rockin’ with you

“Together Alone” is filler about a marriage that seems to be unraveling, but nicely sung by John.

It wasn’t like Conway Twitty to miss a hit, but Conley pulled “In My Eyes” from Conway’s 1982 Dream Maker album. It is a really nice ballad:

She just a woman a hundred pounds of flesh and blood
Quick with a smile warm with a touch for me
she’s just a woman and not the least or the most desired
But she’s set one man’s heart of fire and it’s me that she wants to please

And in my eyes god never made a more beautiful girl
In my eyes there’s no one more lovely in all of the world
And she looks at me at times with such surprise
When she sees how special she is in my eyes

“Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine” was the title track of Ricky Skaggs’ 1981 album for Epic. The song was written by Sonny Throckmorton and while Ricky did not release it as a single, the song received quite a bit of airplay. Ricky’s version is better but John acquits himself well on the song:

I been standing underneath this dark old cloud
Waiting for the sun to shine
Waiting for the sun to shine in my heart again

I been throwing a lot of good love away
Waiting for the sun to shine
Waiting for the sun to shine in my heart again

Oh, I’m just waiting for the sun to shine
I’m just waiting for the sun to shine
I know it will be sometime
But I’m just waiting for the sun to shine

“Lay Down Sally” is an Eric Clapton song that has been covered by numerous pop and country artists . Conley’s version is a nice change of pace for the album.

“Way Back” was the fourth single pulled from the album – it reached #4 but perhaps could have done better with a little different arrangement. The song is a nostalgic look back at a relationship that has changed over time, and not for the better.

“New Way Out” was a Randy Sharp tune that was a single for Karen Brooks in 1982. The song would prove to be her biggest hit, reaching #17. It is a good song and John does a credible job of covering it.

I know how hard she’ll take it
When she finds out I can’t stay
So I don’t want to have to tell her
If there’s any other way.

Is there any new way out?
Where hearts are never broken
(Is there any new way out)
Where no one’s ever hurt in anger
(Is there any new way out?)
And harsh words are never spoken
(Is there any new way out?)

“Don’t Count The Rainy Days” is a song more associated with Michael Martin Murphey, who released the song in August 1983 and had a top ten hit with it.

The album closes with Mickey Newberry’s “American Trilogy”, today used as patriotic flag-waver, but far less over-exposed at the time this album was issued. John’s version is perhaps my favorite of all the versions I’ve heard.

As time went on John Conlee’s sound became more solidly country. This is a very good album which I would give an A.

Album Review: John Conlee — ‘Friday Night Blues’

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

He’s been working all week

he’s got mental fatigue

and that old couch sure looks fine

All week he’s been gone

she’s been sitting alone

slowly going out of her mind

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

she’s getting all prettied up

Oh she’s wanting to boogie

he’s wanting to lay there

she’s got the Friday night blues

 

And the Friday night blues

they get in your shoes and

they work to get you down

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

who didn’t need her a night on the town

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

has got him feeling more than used

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

she’s got the Friday night blues

 

there once was a time she was top of the line

her nights like teenage dreams

Now it’s operas at noon,

dancing round with her broom

talking to the washing machine

Oh, the girl down the street

says her old man is neat and

she makes it sound so true

Now she’s feeling lonely thinks

she’s the only one

with the Friday night blues

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

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

Annie Mae Johnson gave birth to a child

In a room, at the back of this bar

She named her Rainbow, cause she came at midnight

In the light of a blue neon star

 

Rainbow brought sunshine to Annie Mae’s life

While Annie served drinks to the boys

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

And play with her honky tonk toys

 

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

But her most favourite toys of all

Was a beer carton cradle and a table cloth blanket

And a little brown beer bottle doll

 

Rainbow turned eighteen, two summers ago

Old enough to go out on her own

She wanted to know, what her Daddy was like

So she left her honky tonk home

 

Annie Mae still loved the man she divorced

Til he became Rainbow’s first choice

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

Are three little honky tonk toys

 

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

But her most favourite toys of all

Was a beer carton cradle and a table cloth blanket

And a little brown beer bottle doll

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Forever’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Rose Colored Glasses’

The title track was a surprise hit for John Conlee, and a career-defining hit. Swathed in strings, but allowing his powerful voice to cut through, the insightful lyrics are about a man who is almost fooling himself about a woman who is obviously over their relationship. It was written by Conlee with George Baber. The single peaked at #5 on Billboard, but its influence outweighed that by far.

The album elicited two even more successful hits, now that John Conlee was a known quantity. ‘Lady Lay Down’, written by Rafe VanHoy and Don Cook, is an emotional ballad in which the protagonist begs the woman who is threatening to leave to sleep with him again, to make up for all his past neglect. This and the final single made it all the way to #1.

The last single, ‘Backside Of Thirty’, is another self-penned tune about a successful man whose life ‘all comes undone’ when his wife leaves him and feels he no long has anything to look forward to:

Makin’ money at thirty with a wife and a son
Then a short five years later it all comes undone
She’s gone back to mama with the boy by her side
Now I’m wine-drunk and running with them on my mind

I’m on the backside of thirty and back on my own
An empty apartment don’t feel like a home
On the backside of thirty,
The short side of time
Back on the bottom with no will to climb

It’s dawn Monday morning and I just called in sick
I skipped work last Friday to drink this much red
And when my friends ask me, Lord, I’ll tell them I’m fine
But my eyes tell a story that my lies can’t hide

Conlee wrote another couple of songs on the album, but they fall into the filler category. ‘I’ll Be Easy’ is addressed to a woman who wants to take things more slowly than he does. ‘Hold On’
‘Something Special’ is a nice mid-paced love song written by Dave Loggins. ‘Let Your Love Fall Back On Me’ is a very good song addressed to an ex who has found new love:

I hear you’ve put your happiness
In the hands of someone new
That’s alright I guess
I want the best for you

If all I hear is true
There’ll soon be wedding bells
I guess you’ve set the date
I guess I wish you well

If you find the road you’re on
Hard to travel any way at all
If you should stumble and fall
Let your love fall back on me

Max D Barnes and Rayburn Anthony wrote ‘She Loves My Troubles Away’, a cheerily positive love song about making it through the hard times:

Lost my job down at the docks
My old Chevy’s up on blocks
I got holes in both my socks
But she loves me
Her ol’ washing machine still squeaks
Our hot water heater leaks
I ain’t worked in 14 weeks
But she loves me

And she loves my troubles away
Every night she makes my day
Troubles get me down
But they never stay
Cause she loves my troubles away

I can’t give her fancy things
Pretty clothes or diamond rings
Nor the pleasure money brings
But she loves me
Late at night she takes my hand
Says “you know I understand
You just do the best you can”
Then she loves me

The legendary “Doodle” Owen contributed two songs. ‘Just Let It Slide’ urges reconciliation and tolerance within a relationship:

I don’t even know what started the fight we just had
One minute we’re happy
Next minute we’re both fighting mad
And what does it get us
Outside of this hurting inside?
Cause we’re not forgiving,
We’re never willing
To listen and just let it slide.

Wild accusations lead us to a quarrel every time.
And then comes that game of
Who’s right and who’s wrong in our minds.
When the trigger of temper is pulled by the finger of pride.
Baby lets be forgiving and try to be willing
To listen and just let it slide

Just think of the time we’ve already wasted on hate
And count out the hours when love had to stand back and wait
Then the next time our anger puts us on opposite sides
Baby let’s be forgiving and try to be willing
To listen and just let it slide

‘Some Old California Memory’ is an excellent song written by Owens with Warren Robb, which had been a minor hit (#28) for Henson Cargill in 1973. It sees a loved one leaving by plane.

The production, courtesy of Bud Logan, bears all the hallmarks of its era, with a string section adding sophistication, but it is just subtle enough laid over a country basis to allow Conlee’s voice and the strong material to shine. It is available digitally.

Grade: A-

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Time Flies’

After he was dropped by Warner Brothers. JMM released one further album, 2008’s Time Flies, on independent label Stringtown Records. Recorded in his brother Eddie’s home studio, it was produced by Byron Gallimore with, for the most part, his trademark sheen and lack of subtlety.

The lead single (or at least the first song released, as it did not chart), ‘Mad Cowboy Disease’, is a tongue in cheek country rocker written by Jamey Johnson, Jon Maddox and Jeremy Popoff. JMM sings it with a commitment which carries off a sometimes silly lyric, and there’s even a fun nod to Mel Tillis in the song. Next up was ‘If You Ever Went Away’, an emotional ballad written by Randy Houser and Daryl Burgess. It is a nice song which JMM sings well, but a bit over-produced. ‘Forever’, which was an actual radio single and made it into the top 30, is a very boring AC song.

Jamey Johnson contributed another pair of songs. ‘What Did I Do?’ (written with George Teren) is a rocking love song – not bad but over-produced. ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is quite a pleasant ballad which Johnson wrote with Arlis Albritton and Jeremy Popoff.

‘Loving And Letting Go’, written by Greg Barnhill and Gary Hannan, is a rather dull AC ballad. ‘Fly On’ is better, a wistful ballad about loss.

Luke Bryan’s own career has led to considerable (and often justified) disdain from more traditional country fans, but his cowrite with Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller included here, ‘With My Shirt On’ is actually rather good, with a wryly amusing lyric about noticing the ravages of middle age:

Remember Key West spring break
We were 21, in perfect shape
We stayed oiled up and half naked all week long
But that was 10 years and 20 pounds ago
Girl, you’re still a 10 but I’m somewhere below
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on?

Now you say our love has grown beyond the physical
And you tell me that you think I’m irresistible
Today I had a salad but I gave in and ate a roll
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on

The best tracks all cluster at the end of the set, with Gallimore reining it back a bit. The best is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, a powerful Chris Stapleton song which Stapleton himself finally recorded in 2017. JMM’s vocal is much less intense but it is a pretty good performance of a great song which feels believable, and there is a tasteful steel-laced arrangement.

‘All In A Day’ is a warmly sung song about the passage of time as a beloved grandfather comes to the end of his life, set to a soothing melody. Written by Daryl Burgess and Dan Denny, it provides he album’s title.

JMM co-wrote the charming autobiographical ‘Brothers Til The End’, about growing up playing country music in a family band with his parents and brother Eddie, and thein their rival country music careers, “chasing each other up and down the charts”.

Grade: B