My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Retro Reviews

Classic Album Review: Roy Clark — ‘Roy Clark Live!’

Back in 2011, I wrote an article 25 GREATEST LIVE COUNTRY ALBUMS. In that article I had this album pegged as the ninth greatest album, an assessment I stand by today. At the time I said the following:

Roy Clark released a number of live albums over the years, but this one, released on Dot Records in 1972, is the one Roy Clark album. This album showcases Roy’s instrumental prowess and his innate sense of comedy – even when he’s not trying to be funny, Roy can be hilarious. The album is worth buying if only for the “Great Pretender medley” but there’s so much more to this album including his then-hit “The Lawrence Welk – Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka”, earlier hits such as “I Never Picked Cotton” and “Thank God and Greyhound” as well as some very flashy instrumentals plus his two biggest pop hits “Tips of My Fingers” and “Yesterday When I Was Young”. Parts of this album have been released on CD, but unfortunately, not the “Great Pretender medley”.    

Roy Clark is an all-around entertainer who became a superstar without being a big hit-maker on the charts. He had a few top ten hits scattered across a fifteen year period, but he was huge concert draw, a great instrumentalist, a frequent guest on many local and national television shows, and of course Hee Haw which he hosted for over twenty years. It is possible that for three decades Roy Clark was the most familiar face in country music.

This album is so much fun that I find myself pulling it out frequently (I digitized it about fifteen years ago so I could play it in my car – before that I had dubbed it to a cassette). The album was one of Roy’s more successful albums, reaching #4 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. While there was only one single issued from the album, local radio stations played several of the tracks from the album, especially the “Great Pretender” medley. The album was recorded at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas, so Clark is backed by a typical Vegas sage show orchestra. Fortunately, Clark is in the front and center of the sound mix.

The album opens with the introduction of Clark and Clark’s hyperkinetic guitar work (and vocals) on “Alabama Jubilee”. From here Clark moves into funky town with his take on Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City”.

“Thank God and Greyhound” was a top ten country single for Roy in 1970 and even crossed over onto the pop charts. The song starts off as a breakup ballad, but the chorus is a spirited up-temp kiss-off:

 I’ve made a small fortune and you squandered it all

You shamed me till I feel about one inch tall

But I thought I loved you and I hoped you would change

So I gritted my teeth and didn’t complain

 

Now you come to me with a simple goodbye

You tell me you’re leaving but you won’t tell me why

Now we’re here at the station and you’re getting on

And all I can think of is thank God and Greyhound you’re gone

 

Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone

I didn’t know how much longer I could go on

Watching you take the respect out of me

Watching you make a total wreck out of me

That big diesel motor is a-playing my song

Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone

 

Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone

That load on my mind got lighter when you got on

That shiny old bus is a beautiful sight

With the black smoke a-rolling up around the taillight

It may sound kind-a cruel but I’ve been silent too long

Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone

Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone

Roy closes out side one of the album with three instrumentals: “Under The Double Eagle” (guitar), “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (banjo) and “Orange Blossom Special” (fiddle). I always felt that Roy could play anything with strings and he proves it here.

Side two opens with Roy’s biggest hit “Yesterday When I Was Young”. Released in 1969 and written by France’s legendary singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, the song was both a country (#1 Cashbox & Record World, #9 Billboard) and pop hit (#19 USA – #7 Canada) and sold well over a million copies. While not released as a single in England, I heard the song many times on the BBC. For those who have never heard the song, I guess I would describe it as the ultimate self-recrimination ballad, easily one of the saddest and most intense songs I’ve ever heard:

Yesterday when I was young

The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue

I teased at life as if it were a foolish game

The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame

 

The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned

I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand

I lived by night and shunned the naked light of day

And only now I see how the years ran away

Yesterday when I was young

Roy Clark always had a knack for finding humor everywhere so there will be little more seriousness from this point forward. “Green Green Grass of Home was a recent hit for Johnny Darrell and for Tom Jones. Roy gives it almost a straight treatment. After that, he launches into the “Lawrence Welk-Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka about the actions of ABC and CBS in canceling the Lawrence Welk Show and Hee Haw despite excellent ratings (‘attracting the wrong demographic’). Both shows went into immediate syndication and were seen on more stations and larger audiences than they ever had been on the networks. This song was the only single released from the album and was a top ten hit As the chorus states “… they still play the polka in Milwaukee, still play the waltz in Tennessee…” – indeed they do!

They’re goin’ through a music revolution

The hippies say they’ll overcome us all

While they’re blowin’ smoke and air pollution

We’re hangin’ in with help from Geritol.

 

They’re rounding up the squares in California

They’re picking off our heroes in New York

But they’ll never take away our champagne music

As long as Lawrence Welk can pop his cork

 

And they still do the polka in Milwaukee

Still, do the waltz in Tennessee

Still pickin’ bluegrass in Kentucky

With old-fashioned country harmony

So give me some beer drinkin’ music

And play that double eagle march for me

For they still do the polka in Milwaukee

So let me hear that one ah two ah three

 

The big wheels at the network started spinnin’

The verdict was that Hee Haw had to go

Cause city slickers don’t believe in grinnin’

And who the hell needs jokes in Kokomo

 

So they canceled all the singin’ and the pickin’

But the stubborn little donkey wouldn’t leave

And that little fella’s still alive and kickin’

And Hee Haw is laughin’ up its sleeve = hee haw

 

And they still do the polka in Milwaukee

Still, do the waltz in Tennessee

Still pickin’ bluegrass in Kentucky

With old-fashioned country harmony

So give me some beer drinkin’ music

And let me hear that one or two or three

While we swing to that good old country music

For Hee Haw is good enough for me

Yes, Hee Haw is good enough for me

It is difficult to describe “The Great Pretender” medley. “The Great Pretender” was a huge hit (#1 Pop & R&B in 1955) for legendary 1950s R&B/Pop Vocal group the Platters   It starts off conventionally enough (sort of), with Roy doing all the vocal parts of all five of the Platters. As the song moves along, Clark starts kidding about, with most of the jokes being aimed at himself.

A couple of minutes into the track eleven minute track (and while near the end of the final verse) Roy launches into instrumental versions of “High Noon”, “Loch Lomond”, Turkey In The Straw”, “Lara’s Theme” (from the movie DR ZHIVAGO -a/k/a “Somewhere My Love”) and “Honky-Tonk” before returning to “The Great Pretender” – at the same point from which he had departed the song.

Roy had been sending up “The Great Pretender” for several years (without the medley interjections) prior to recording this album and you can check out the shorter version on YouTube

This album is hugely funny, with lots of interesting vocals, good musicianship, and lots of laughs. I wish I’d been there to see it – a definite A+ in my book.

Advertisements

Classic Album Review: Hank Locklin – ‘The Country Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by RCA Records (my copy is a German pressing on RCA/Telefunken), Hank’s tribute takes a different approach from Wanda Jackson’s album from two years earlier, being centered around the 1967 hit single “The Country Hall of Fame”.

Largely forgotten today, Hank had a substantial career as a songwriter, performer, and occasional hitmaker, although he never was headquartered in Nashville, so he didn’t get as much promotional push from his label, and he never really maintained his own band. He was a huge favorite in England and Ireland making many trips there.

His biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On”, was a top five county hit for Hank in 1957 (it had been a regional hit for him in the late 1940s on another label ) and earned him a boatload of money by being frequently covered by other artists such as Dean Martin and Johnny Tillotson both had top five easy listening/top twenty pop hits with the song. Tillotson’s recording also became a top ten or top twenty pop hit in a number of European countries.

As a singer, Locklin was a wobbly Irish tenor whose voice wasn’t a perfect match for every song, but when the right song reached him, he could deliver some really big hits. “Let Me Be The One” spent three weeks at #1 in 1953, and “Please Help Me I’m Falling” spent fourteen weeks at #1 in 1960. Hank had ten top ten hits through spring 1962, but after that Arnold, even the top twenty became nearly impossible for him, until the title song to this album.

When the earlier Wanda Jackson album was released the Country Music Hall of Fame was comprised of the following performers: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and Ernest Tubb. By the time Hank’s album arrived there had been multiple inductions (in 1966 and 1967), but of the eight new inductees, four were non-performers. The newly inducted performers were “Uncle” Dave Macon, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold and Red Foley.

In selecting songs for this album, Hank and his producers Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis selected songs by persons either in the Country Hall of Fame or assumed to be inducted in the upcoming years.

The album opens up with “High Noon”, a hit for Frankie Laine, but forever associated with Tex Ritter, who sang the song in the famous movie starring Gary Cooper. Hank’s voice is pitched much higher than that of Ritter, but the song, taken at a slightly faster tempo than Ritter’s version, works. The song has a straightforward country backing with a vocal chorus.

Do not forsake me oh my darling on this our wedding day
Do not forsake me oh my darling, wait wait along
I do not know what fate awaits me, I only know I must be brave
And I must face the man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave

Next up is “Four Walls”, a million seller for the then-recently departed Jim Reeves in 1957.

Track three is the title song, Hank’s last Billboard top thirty country hit, reaching #8. In concept, the song, written by Karl Davis is somewhat similar to an Eddie Dean composition, “I Dreamed of Hillbilly Heaven”, which Tex Ritter took to #5 in 1961, although “Hillbilly Heaven” is a dream sequence song about a mythical place, whereas Karl Davis was inspired by his visit to the actual Country Hall of Fame museum. This song features a full string arrangement by Bill Walker. Although the only song on this album to feature the full string arrangement, such arrangements would become increasingly common in the next few years:

I was roaming round in Nashville in the state of Tennessee
For I love that country music, it’s as soulful as can be
I have gathered there the records for I cherished every name
So I found myself a standing in the Country Hall of Fame

My heart beat somewhat faster as I walked in through the door
For I heard the sound of voices I had often heard before
A happy kind of sadness brought a teardrop to my eye
Now I’ll tell you what I saw there and I’m sure that you’ll see why

Jimmie Rodgers’ railroad lantern and his faithful old guitar
I could hear that old blue yodel coming from somewhere afar
Roy Acuff in bronze likeness with the great Fred Rose his friend
And I heard that Wabash Cannonball somewhere around the bend

The guitar of Eddy Arnold memories of Cattle Call
Chet Atkins will be with him when the work’s all done this fall
From the autoharp of Maybelle, Wildwood Flower seems to ring
Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner how they all could pick and sing

I could hear George Hay announcin’ as I stood there in the room
I could hear Tex Ritter singing his classic song High Noon
Minnie Pearl so glad to be there and Hank Snow keeps Movin’ On
May the Lord bless those still living and the ones who’s joined his throne

Cowboy Copas, Hankshaw Hawkins, Gentleman Jim and Patsy Cline
Rod Bradsfield, Ira Louvin, these stars will always shine
Ernest Tubb, the great Red Foley and Hank Williams bless his name
Though some are gone they’ll live forever in the Country Hall of Fame

“I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Until I Can Hold You In My Arms)” was a massive hit for Arnold, spending 21 weeks at #1 in 1947/1948. Hank acquits himself well on this song as he does on the next track, Ernest Tubb’s 1941 hit “Walking The Floor Over You”.

Side One closes out with Hank’s cover of the “Lovesick Blues”, written by Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Cliff Friend and Irving Mills back in 1922. Emmet Miller (1928) and Rex Griffin (1939) recorded the song, but Hank Williams had the biggest hit with the song in 1949. Countless others, including Patsy Cline, have recorded the song. To really do the song justice, a singer needs to be a good yodeler, and here Locklin yodels the chorus with ease.

Side Two opens up with a mid-tempo take on Roy Acuff’s “Night Train To Memphis” with a modern arrangement (no dobro, banjo or fiddles), but with a bit of the old tent revival show feeling to it.

This is followed by “Sign Sealed and Delivered”, a hit for Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas in 1948). I think the assumption was that Copas would be elected to the Country Hall of Fame eventually, although that has yet to happen. Of the three stars who died in the 1963 plane crash (Copas, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins) Copas was the most famous at the time of his death.

“No One Will Ever Know” was written by Fred Rose, inducted as an executive and songwriter. The biggest hit on the song was by Gene Watson, #11 RW in 1980, although many others have recorded the song, including Hank Williams and Jimmie Dickens. Hank Locklin takes the song at a slow tempo with guitar and piano dominating the arrangement. The vocal choruses are present but not misused. It is a great song and I don’t know why no one has ever had a monster hit with the song

No one will ever know my heart is breaking
Although a million teardrops start to flow
I’ll cry myself to sleep and wake up smiling
I’ll miss you but no one will ever know

I’ll tell them we grew tired of each other
And realized our dreams could never be
I’ll even make believe I never loved you
Then no one will ever know the truth but me

The Jimmie Rodgers classic brag “Blue Yodel #1 a/k/a ‘T’ for Texas” gives Hank a chance to again show off his skill as a yodeler. On this album, Hank one uses the “blue yodel” technique but he was quite capable of doing the “rolling” (or Swiss) technique such as used by Elton Britt, Kenny Roberts and Margo Smith

The album closes with the classic Louvin Brothers hit “When I Stop Dreaming” which finds Locklin at the top of his vocal range, and a nice cover of the Red Foley gospel favorite “Peace In The Valley”.

As was customary for albums of this vintage no musician credits are given, although PragueFrank’s website suggests that the following were present :

Pete Wade, Wayne Moss, Jerry Reed Hubbard and Ray Edenton – guitars
Roy M. “Junior” Huskey, Jr. – bass / Jerry Kerrigan – drums
Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Floyd Cramer – piano / The Jordanaires – background vocals

I know that Hank Locklin’s voice is not to everyone’s taste but I think most listeners would enjoy this album because of the variety and quality of the songs. Interestingly enough, there is no overlap in songs between this album and Wanda Jackson’s earlier tribute album. I would give this album a B+

Classic Album Review: Wanda Jackson ‘Salutes The Country Music Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by Capitol Records (my copy is a British pressing on Capitol / EMI), Wanda’s album may be the first album to expressly salute the recently established Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time the album was recorded only six persons had been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame:

1961 – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose
1962 – Roy Acuff
1964 – Tex Ritter
1965 – Ernest Tubb

Of the six above, Fred Rose was a publisher & songwriter but not a performer. The other five would today be described as very traditional performers, so this album gave Wanda, more commonly regarded as a rockabilly or rock ‘n roll performer (she is in both the Rockabilly and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) a chance to display her credentials as a country performer. Reaching #12 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, this album would prove to be Wanda’s second highest charting album.

While no singles were released from this album, I frequently heard tracks from the album played on the various county stations around the southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. This at a time that when Billboard did not chart album tracks.

Produced by Ken Nelson, no musician credits are given but I suspect that members of Buck Owen’s Buckaroos and Merle Haggard’s Strangers are in the mix somewhere.

The album opens up with the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya” taken at mid-tempo. The song has a standard 1960s country arrangement with steel guitar and piano feature in the arrangement and the lyrics clearly enunciated.

Next up is one of my favorite Ernest Tubb songs “Try Me One More Time”. This was Ernest’s first chart entry when Billboard started its County Charts in 1944. The song was a crossover pop hit. This song is taken at a medium slow tempo that could be described as plodding, but which fits the song perfectly.

Yes I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
Please have a mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time

If my darling you could see
Just what your leaving done to me
You’d know that love is still a tie that binds
And take me back and try me one more time

In my dreams I see your face
But it seems there’s someone in my place
Oh does she know you were once just mine
Take me back and try me one more time

“There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder” was a huge hit for cowboy actor Tex Ritter in 1944. Again, this is a slow ballad.

Wanda enters another dimension with her cover of the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers tune “Blue Yodel #6” with its bluesy arrangement (nearly acoustic) and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers style blue yodel

He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
I didn’t have no blues till my good man went away

Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
I wish a tornado would come and blow my blues away

Now one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
Yeah one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
‘Cause you trifling men really keep a good gal down

When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
But if she’s got money, she’s the sweetest gal in town

“Fireball Mail” was a beloved and oft-covered Roy Acuff song with writer credits to Floyd Jenkins, an alias of Fred Rose. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo with modern 1960s instrumentation (no dobro, fiddle or banjo).

Here she comes, look at her roll, there she goes eatin’ that coal
Watch her fly huggin’ the rails, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her go look at her steam, hear her blow, whistle and scream
Like a hound waggin’ his tail Dallas bound bound bound, the fireball mail

Engineer makin’ up time, tracks are clear, look at her climb
See that freight clearin’ the rail, bet she’s late late late, the fireball mail
Watch her swerve, look at her sway, get that curve out of the way
Watch her fly, look at her sail, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her by by by the fireball mail, let her by by by the fireball mail

Side one of the album closes out with another Ernest Tubb classic “Let’s Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello”, a 1948 hit for the redoubtable Tubb. The arrangement on this track plays direct tribute to Tubb retaining the three note guitar signature featured on nearly all of Ernest’s recordings. The song is taken at a medium slow tempo.

Side two opens up with “Jealous Heart” a 1944 ballad for Tex Ritter that reached #2 and was a top twenty pop hit. Wanda takes the song at a slightly faster tempo than did Tex (she also lacks Tex’s drawl).

Jealous heart, oh jealous heart, stop beating, can’t you see the damage you have done
You have driven him away forever jealous heart, now I’m the lonely one
I was part of everything he planned for and I know he loved me from the start
Now he hates the sight of all I stand for all because of you, oh jealous heart

Jealous heart, why did I let you rule me when I knew the end would bring me pain
Now he’s gone, he’s gone and found another, oh I’ll never see my love again
Through the years his memory will haunt me even though we’re many miles apart
It’s so hard to know he’ll never want me cause he heard your beating, jealous heart

Next up is “Great Speckled Bird”, a Roy Acuff classic from the 1930s. One of the all-time favorite religious songs of country audiences Wanda does a creditable job with the song but Roy Acuff she’s not.

“The Soldier’s Last Letter” was a huge Ernest Tubb hit from 1944 reaching #1 for four weeks. According to Billboard this was Ernest’s biggest chart hit (there were no country charts in 1941 when “I’m Walking The Floor Over You” was released, as one that was a big pop hit and sold (according to various sources) over a million copies. Merle Haggard would revive the song as a single taking it to #1 on Record World in 1971.

I think everyone has heard “The Wabash Cannonball” a song credited to A.P. Carter and popularized by Roy Acuff. Taken at a medium-fast tempo, and using a standard arrangement Wanda does a nice job with the song.

The final track is my favorite on the album, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”, one of Jimmie’s lesser known songs. Wanda opens the song with a rolling yodel and gets to demonstrate her yodeling skills on this song.

I’m always blue, feeling so blue, I wish I had someone I knew
Just to help me tuck away my blues, lonesome blues
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me, someone to kiss
Someone to scold me, someone to miss
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me.

None of these songs are taken at a really fast tempo, so the entire album gives Wanda to demonstrate her skill as a balladeer. This is my favorite Wanda Jackson album and I’m grateful that I got to see her on several Capitol package programs where she focused on country songs and stayed away from the rockabilly stuff.

I am not sure why Wanda’s career as a country artist never really caught fire – she had a good clear voice with character and personality, she could yodel and she could tackle anything. I think she took off some years in mid-career to raise a family, and perhaps she never got the push from Capital that she deserved. Regardless, she was a fine singer – I’d give this album an “A”.

Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘Parading In The Rain’

Chalee’s tenure with Asylum having come to an end, another label decided to give her a chance, and she moved to James Stroud’s Dreamworks. Artistically, it resulted in her finest work, largely inspired by her own most recent divorce; but commercially it was a disaster.

The lead single, ‘Lonesome Road’, was the only single to chart, and t peaked at #54. Written by Bryan Simpson, Ashley Gorley and Melissa Peirce, it has a Celtic country-rock feel, and is an energetically delivered song about surviving against the odds.

Chalee didn’t write her next single, Phillip and Amber Leigh White did, but it feels like a very personal one. ‘Easy Lovin’ You’ is a tender ballad addressed to her daughter, recalling the difficulties and sacrifices of teenage motherhood, and the rewards:

The best thing that I ever did
At the time was my worst mistake
17 and just a kid
I was 17 when I threw my childhood away
For a hazel eyed quarterback

Senior year and 8 months pregnant
I never felt so fat
Wishin’ I could go to prom
But they don’t make dresses for girls like that…

Looking back it was hard lovin’ me
But it’s easy lovin’ you

Chalee’s eldest daughter Tiffany provides harmony vocals on this deeply moving track, which regrettably failed to chart.

The last attempt at a single was the album’s title track, written by Kris Bergsnes and Bobby Pinson. It is an upbeat tune with an optimistic lyric about positivity and making the most of a situation. The lyric is a bit bland, but Chalee’s delivery is infectious on a song I could imagine as a hit for an artist like Jo Dee Messina.

Chalee co-wrote three songs on the record. ‘I Am Love’ (written with Kendall Marvel and Phil O’Donnell) is quite good. ‘Believe’, written with Kelly Garrett, is pleasant and optimistic, if a little clichéd and rather poppy. By far the best of Chalee’s songs is ‘The Mind Of This Woman’, a co-write with Dean Dillon. This is an excellent closely observed depiction of a woman stuck in an unsatisfactory life.

‘I Am Pretty’, written by Buffy Lawson and Eric Pittarelli, is a sensitive story song about a woman rediscovering her dignity and making the decision to leave an abusive husband. It is one of the strongest tracks on the record.

‘Cheater’s Road’, written by Jason Sellers and Sharon Rice, is another story song, about a rich man’s neglected wife finding passion in an extra-marital affair:

She’d rather have him than an empty bed and her self-respect

‘Me And Mexico’, written by Mark Narmore and Liz Rose, is an up-tempo song about adapting well to a breakup by going on vacation. ‘More To This Than That’, written by Gary Burr and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, is a fine ballad about the a couple dividing up their possessions as they split. The record closes with Leslie Satcher’s ‘Peace’, a thoughtful song about people in desperate need of God.

This album is definitely on the contemporary side of modern country, but it is very well performed. It’s a shame it did not do better, as it seems to have had commercial potential.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘This Woman’s Heart’

Chalee Tennison released her second album, This Woman’s Heart in October 2000. Her second and final record for Asylum, it was produced by Jerry Taylor, the man who helped her score her record deal.

The album produced two low-charting singles. “Makin’ Up With You” is a rocker, with a slightly controversial chorus:

Slam the door if you want to

Throw the telephone across the room

Kick everything up against the wall

Let’s make ourselves some room

Yeah, let’s fight it out baby

‘Cause I love making up with you

The song peaked at #56. It was followed by “Go Back,” a very strong story song typical of the era. Despite the ballad lacking bite, it matched her highest peak, #36.

Tennison had a hand in writing seven of the album’s songs. “Yes I Was” is an upbeat rocker about being a fool in love. The self-explanatory “Somebody Save Me” is a nice ballad I rather enjoyed. The title track is an excellent power ballad that would’ve worked well as a single. “Break It Even” also would’ve worked at radio, it’s an uptempo and very engaging rocker.

“We Don’t Have To Pray,” about a single mother dealing with the end of a relationship, is another truly excellent meaty ballad. “You Can’t Say That” continues the trend of wonderful ballads from the album. Her final co-written song, “I’m Healing” was written with Dean Dillon. It’s brimming with traditional ache, from a woman is slowly getting over the man who left her.

“What I Tell Myself” is a typical turn-of-the-century rocker, albeit one that’s perfectly executed. “I Ain’t,” has some promise but the rocker lacks finesse and a quality lyric to hold it together. “Under Your Skin” is more of the same.

Although it’s far from perfect, This Woman’s Heart excels wonderfully in places. Her songs are surprisingly above average to excellent and her voice brings to mind echoes of Reba, Linda Davis, and twangy Faith Hill. I liked this one a lot.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘Chalee Tennison’

Texas born Chalee Tennison was 29 years old by the time she signed her first record deal with Asylum Records in 1999, and she had plenty of life experiences to draw on. She had three failed marriages behind her, having first married at the age of 16, and was a single mother of three. Work experience included construction and prison guard. A penchant for emotional songs rooted in real life was allied to a smoky alto voice. Chalee’s debut album was produced by Jerry Taylor, who had discovered her.

Her debut single was cowritten by Chalee herself (her only writing credit on the record) with Jim Robinson. ‘Someone Else’s Turn To Cry’ was inspired by the recent breakup of her third marriage, and is a beautifully sung subdued ballad with a tasteful string arrangement, about regaining her self confidence. It peaked at #46.

The more generic modern country ‘Handful Of Water’ was less successful, faltering in the 60s. It was written by Allison Mellon, Jason Sellers and Austin Cunningham. The third single at last brought a top 40 country hit, with ‘Just Because She Lives There’ reaching #36. Written by Dale Dodson and Billy Lawson, it is one of the more traditional leaning cuts, and a fine ballad detailing the life of a woman whose marriage feels empty:

If she turns to another
She knows she’ll have to answer to the Lord
She wonders where the romance went
Why the man she fell in love with
Finds her so easy to ignore
Just because she lives there
Don’t mean she loves there anymore

One possible missed opportunity might be the failure to pick ‘A Stolen Car’ as a single. Written by Sam Hogin, Phil Barnhart and Bill LaBounty, it is a catchy if slightly too busily produced rocker with Chalee expressing just how much she loves her man and is committed to their relationship:

I’d rather drive across Texas in a stolen car
With the Rangers on my tail and no head start
I’d rather draw my last breath with a bullet in my heart
Than ever drive away from you

But Chalee’s greatest strength lies in the emotional ballads. ‘I Can Feel You Drifting’ is a lovely wistful song about a relationship gradually falling apart, with a pretty piano and strings backing. ‘There’s A War In Me’ is also a strong song about a troubled relationship, but this time the wife is the one more likely to leave. In ‘I’d Rather Miss You’, which has some nice fiddle, she doesn’t want to move on.

The reminder of the material is fairly generic, but not bad. ‘I Let Him Get Away with It’ is a decent mid-tempo song about accepting a loved one still carries a flame for his ex. The similar sounding ‘Leave It At That’ is just okay. ‘It Ain’t So Easy’ is a pretty good song addressed to Chalee’s ex. ‘Sometime’, written by Ed Bruce and his wife Robin Lee, is quite a good up-tempo tune.

This is generally on the more contemporary side, but so well done that it is worth checking out – think Trisha Yearwood, and if you like her music this is potentially for you.

Grade: B

Album Review: Julie Reeves – ‘It’s About Time’

Julie Reeves moved to Nashville in 1994, where she got jobs doing studio work and singing demos. She then found herself the guest vocalist on Bill Engvall’s “Should’ve Shut Up” and a recording artist for Virgin Records, where she released her lone studio record, It’s About Time in 1999.

The album, produced by Scott Hendricks, was a commercial flop, petering out at #70. It opens with it’s second single, “Trouble Is A Woman,” which peaked at #39. The song is an excellent  and instantly memorable honky-tonk rocker with a killer hook, ‘trouble is a woman with a man on her mind.’

I remember well when Melinda Doolittle chose the song for her country week performance on American Idol in 2007. Martina McBride was serving as the onguest mentor and freely admitted she had never heard of the song before. It was a surprising omission, especially coming from someone quite active in the industry at end of the century. Doolittle, I’m happy to report, did “Trouble Is A Woman” justice.

The album rolls on with “Do You Think About Me,” an infectious fiddle-drenched rocker in which Reeves plays a woman wondering if her ex has held onto any memories from their relationship. The track is very good, although the gospel-y backing vocals on the chorus are out of character, distracting and completely unnecessary.

“Party Down” (whatever that phrase even means) somewhat continues the woman’s liberation theme that had been brewing in mainstream country for the better half of a decade. She’s done with her ex, even helping throw him to the curb, and describing all the activities she’ll partake in without him — celebrate, paint the town, stay up late, etc. The track is silly and immature, but yet I don’t take issue with the lyrical content since it comes off so inoffensive.

“What I Need,” is the album’s third and highest charting single, reaching #38. It’s the album’s first ballad, which Reeves handles sensationally. She’s waiting for her man to know without any doubt she’s the one for him, with a vibrato that recalls Faith Hill circa 1995-1997.

“All or Nothing” sounds great, recalling Brooks & Dunn’s work with Don Cook, but the song itself is forgettable lightweight filler. “You Were A Mountain,” a steel-soaked ballad, isn’t any better and is also best forgotten.

Reeves’ debut single, the title track, comes next. “It’s About Time” is very weak lyrically, with little substance to hold it together. The song peaked at #51, a bit higher than I feel it deserved to in all honesty.

“If I’d Never Loved You” finds the album getting back on track with a ballad about a woman whose memories of her time with her ex are getting in the way of her new relationship. She just wishes she wasn’t comparing him to the one who came before him.

She’s seeing the forest through the trees on “Whatever,” an uptempo fiddle drenched rocker. The lyric could’ve been much stronger, but the well-worn premise is executed pretty well.

“He Keeps Me In One Piece” is the Dave Loggins song originally recorded by Gary Morris. It’s easily the most well-written song on the album thus far and Reeves handles it well. “What You Get Is What You See” isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either.

The album’s final track, “If Heartaches Had Wings” is probably best known from Rhonda Vincent’s recording from One Step Ahead in 2003. Reeves’ version is great and an example of how she handles songs with a bit more meat and thought to the lyric.

It’s About Time is clearly a commercial country album. Reeves feels almost like a puppet, being handed songs designed to turn her into a major recording star. The songs here are dressed and mixed beautifully, but there is a good share of clunkers throughout. It’s evident there wasn’t much care in finding truly great enduring songs, just ones that could potentially get her on the radio.

Although this is her only album to date, Reeves remains active within the industry. She married and had a daughter with Cledus T. Judd in 2004. They later divorced and she married bluegrass musician Chris Davis, with whom she has a son born in 2011.

Most interestingly, Reeves began a career in radio in 2013. She began with a stint hosting Julie Reeves Live, the morning show on 93.7 The DAWG in the Huntington, West Virginia / Ashland, Kentucky market. She currently handles the station’s overnights with her latest show, Up Late With Julie Reeves, which runs Monday-Saturday from Midnight-5am local time.

Grade: B

Album Review: Mandy Barnett – ‘I’ve Got A Right To Cry’

Mandy Barnett’s sophomore album, I’ve Got A Right To Cry, released in 1999, is the stuff of country legend. Her producer for the project was the iconic Owen Bradley, who Barnett had chosen to bath the project with his classic touches. Just four songs into the recording process, Bradley died suddenly and very unexpectedly at age 82.

As the story goes, Barnett didn’t know what to do, or how she could even go on to finish the album. Fortunately, Bradley’s equally iconic brother Harold stepped in and the album became a tribute of sorts to Owen’s indelible mark on country music during the 1960s. Remarkably, the album didn’t change much at all after Owen’s passing. He had already provided notes on the songs they were to record together, which Harold used when producing the remaining tracks.

The album itself failed to chart and didn’t launch any charting singles. None of this is surprising – there was little to no appeal in mainstream Nashville for the old classic sound of country music in 1999. The songs are mostly classics, taken from that golden era of country music Barnett loves so much.

The title track, a wonderful soaring torch ballad, comes courtesy of Joe Liggins, an R&B pianist during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s followed by Don Gibson’s 1958 top 5 hit “Give Myself A Party,” a steel-drenched ballad with a nice tempo.

The engaging ballad “Trademark” comes from the pen of Porter Wagoner. “Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings” is Barnett’s fine take on the Mickey Newbury classic that found a home with the likes of Gibson, Tom Jones, and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Two of the album’s songs have ties to Patti Page. “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” which she originally recorded in 1949, is exquisite. “Evertrue, Evermore” is of just as high a quality.

“I’m Gonna Change Everything” was a #2 hit for Jim Reeves two years prior to his death in 1962. Barnett’s take on the song is excellent. “Don’t Forget to Cry” is the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song made famous by The Everly Brothers. Barnett turns in a truly wonderful performance.

“Who (Who Will It Be)” is a newly recorded jazzy number that Barnett treats beautifully. “The Whispering Wind (Blows On By)” is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Mistakes” is another lovely torch ballad.

I highly recommend seeking this one out if you haven’t heard it or need to hear it again after all these years.

Grade: A

Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – Girl Of Your Dreams’

After the failure of her first album to make any waves, Bobbie left Epic. She was fortunate enough, however, to be picked up by Epic. Her second album, released in 1996 and produced by new label head Tony Brown, was a little more contemporary in sound than her debut, and thematically was influenced significantly by her recent divorce.

Regrettably, that did not make her any more successful with country radio. The lead single was ‘I Just Can’t Stand To Be Unhappy’, a moderately up-tempo kissoff song written by Hugh Prestwood and previously cut by Baillie And The Boys. The protagonist takes no nonsense from an unsatisfactory man:

You made this bed, you can lie in it
But you can do it without me

Love ain’t worth a wooden nickel
If you haven’t got the trust
The brightest fire burns to ashes and the sweet dreams bite the dust

Ain’t no point in being sorry
Ain’t no use in being nice
‘Cause I ain’t gonna hang around and let your lightning strike me twice

It is a pretty good song, and well performed, but perhaps not distinctive enough to be a hit. It peaked at #63.

The self-penned ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ would prove to be Bobbie’s closest to a hit, reaching #56. A cover by Lorrie Morgan was also a flop. It is a subtle song with complicated emotional layers as the protagonist fools herself into thinking she is in the right about her crumbling marriage.

One final single, ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’, was written by Bobbie with Kent Blazy and Sonny LeMaire. A contemporary ballad musing on coming to terms with a new life alone, it is a strong song with an empowering message.

She wrote a further three songs, all melancholy ballads about the end of her marriage, and all excellent songs. ‘Nobody Leaves’, which she wrote with David Stephenson, agonises about the dying days of the relationship. ‘The Girl Of Your Dreams’ looks back poignantly at the blissful early days of their love. ‘Vision Of Loneliness’ is about trying to hide her unhappiness by partying with friends.

‘Oh To Be The One’, written by Randy VanWarmer and Roger Murrah, is a wistful song about unrequited love, with a pretty melody. ‘Just Say So’ (by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski) is a seductive invitation to a loved one who may be wanting to leave. This is a lovely song with a sad undertone reflecting the mood of the album as a whole.

A couple of more uptempo covers are thrown in. A sultry and soulful ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is performed very well but feels a little out of place, with Bobbie channelling her namesake Bobbie Gentry. Bobbie’s version of Dottie West’s 1980 chart topping ‘A Lesson In Leaving’ may have acted as template for Jo Dee Messina’s 1999 hit.

I don’t love this album as much as Bobbie’s debut, but it still an excellent album which I recommend.

Grade: A

Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – ‘Bobbie Cryner’

The early 1990s saw all the major country labels scrambling to find new talent, and a number of fine artists got lost in the mix. Among them was Bobbie Cryner, a singer songwriter in her early 30s with a velvety voice and a bluesy edge, who was signed to Epic Records in 1993. Sadly, none of her three singles for the label peaked higher than the 60s on Billboard.

Her debut single, the self-written ‘Daddy Laid The Blues On Me’, was perhaps a little too bluesy for the neotraditional sounds in vogue, but it is a great record. The pacy tune, possibly autobiographical, relates the tale of a teenage lover turned walkaway father and the effects on his child:

Way back in their younger days, when they were running wild,
My Daddy had a dream, and Mama had a child
He said: “Girl you can’t be tying me down, I’m only
seventeen
And a man’s gotta get around, if you know what I
mean.”
Then my Mama said: “Go on” as she stood and cried
And my Daddy said:”I’m gone, I gotta live my life”

And I was born one summer night,
When the world loved Patsy Cline.
I was raised by the tracks
In a tar-paper shack
On the Georgia Alabama line
Mama taught me how to play and sing
And we headed up to Tennessee
Mama sold my soul on country, rock and roll
But Daddy laid the blues on me.

Well I signed that dotted line
I climbed my way to being a star
When I ran across my Daddy in a downtown Tallahassee bar
He said “Girl there ain’t no life on the road
You’d better come with me.”
I said “Dad, I gotta get around if you know what I
mean”
Well my Daddy said “Come on” with a tear in his eye
I said: “Sorry Daddy, I’m gone
I gotta live my life”

Some great piano and harmonica backs Bobbie’s strong vocals.

The follow up, ‘He Feels Guilty’ is a sultry mid-paced ballad written by Verlon Thompson and Tommy Polk about a relationship growing cold, and foundering under suspicion of infidelity.
The last single, my favorite of the three, is ‘You Could Steal Me’, an exquisitely beautiful ballad which Bobbie wrote with Jesse Hunter. A subtle cello backs Bobbie’s unhappy trophy wife longing for love.

She cowrote ‘I’m Through Waitin’ On You’ with Tim Nichols and Zack Turner, in which her character displays more agency and attitude telling an unsatisfactory spouse he needs to do his share:

We both work hard bringin’ home the bacon
You want me to cook it whileyou sit there waitin’
Well, those days are over
Round here things are gonna change
I still love you but I didn’t take you to raise

I’ve waited tables till I ain’t able
I’ve taken orders till I’ve turned blue
From now on baby
You can make your own gravy
Cause I’m through waitin’ on you

Give you an inch and you think you’re a ruler
My feet are hurtin’ and I won’t stand for what you’re doing

The other songs written by Bobbie are solo compositions. My favorite is the devastating ballad ‘I Think It’s Over Now’, in which she gently but firmly calls the bluff of the man who is juggling two loves:

You don’t have you say you love me
If you think there’s any doubt
But if you have to think it over
Well, I think it’s over now

Also excellent is the downbeat ‘Leavin’ Houston Blues’, a closely observed about a woman packing up her things and planning on leaving town post-divorce, with some lovely fiddle. A simple acoustic guitar leads into ‘This Heart Speaks For Itself’, a gently delivered ballad about heartbreak which betrays itself.

‘Too Many Tears Too Late’, written by Carl Jackson and Jim Weatherly, is a lovely sad country ballad in which the man who broke her heart is back again, but

There’s no way we can turn back time
I don’t want to hear you say how much you love me
Now that I’ve cried all my love for you away

Here is some gorgeous fiddle and steel on this.

Another outstanding traditional country ballad is ‘The One I Love The Most’, an agonised cheating song written by Gene Dobbins, Michael Huffman and Bob Morrison. The protagonist is torn between loyalty and passion, and we are left to wonder what her final choice will be:

There’s a letter in my pocket I don’t know where to send
Telling someone that I love I won’t be back again
But who will I address it to
Who’ll read these lines I wrote?
The one I’ve loved the longest
Or the one I love the most?

One has stood beside me in the good times and the bad
One has brought out feelings I never knew I had

One’s a burning ember, the other’s fire and smoke
One I’ve loved the longest and the one I love the most

You can’t stand at a crossroads
You’ve got to move along
I know either way I turn I’ll do someone wrong
So who do I hold on to and who do I let go?
The one I’ve loved the longest or the one I love the most?

Dwight Yoakam duets with Bobbie on a wonderfully authentic Bakersfield style cover of the Buck Owens classic ‘I Don’t Care’.

Beautiful vocals, excellent songwriting and tasteful production combine to make this a favorite album of mine, which I have loved for years. It is available on iTunes, and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘The More I Learn’

Ronna’s second album for Mercury was released in 1992. It was slightly more successful in gaining radio play, although there were still no bona fide hits.

The mid-paced title track, ‘The More I Learn (The Less I Understand About Love)’, was written by one of the most successful female songwriters of the era, Karen Staley, with Steve Dean, and it is radio friendly enough to have been a potential hit. Its #49 peak would make it the closest ever Ronna ever got to the charts.

Follow-up ‘What If You’re Wrong’, written by Austin Cunningham and Denise Davis, is a big ballad in which Ronna offers to set her a restless husband free:

If you think the magic is gone
I agree, maybe you should move on
If you’re sure that your love for me has really died
If there’s something still missing for you
Then there’s nothing more I’ll know to do
So I’ll have to go along with whatever you decide

But what if you’re wrong?

Some nice steel augments the song effectively. It peaked at a dismal #70, one place higher than the third and last single, the pacy ‘We Can Hold Our Own’, which is pleasant if unremarkable.

My favorite track is ‘Nobody Here To Love’, an excellent Bob Mc Dill ballad about the loss of love. There is a gentle Celtic feel to the fiddle arrangement on the verses behind Ronna’s vulnerable vocals, which then soar on the chorus:

I was living all alone
And though I had a heart of stone
You touched my hand and melted me
And I believed

It was you that made me see
What love could be
But I walked in today and no one was there
Now nothing matters after all

Funny how things work out
Can’t believe somehow
You could leave me now
Tell me, what were you thinkin’ of
‘Cause now that you taught me how
There’s nobody here to love

Another solid McDill tune, ‘Honky Tonk Hearts’, had been a minor hit for Dickey Lee in 1980, and was also recorded by John Anderson. Ronna’s version is pretty good. ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ is a sweet love song (written by Paul Kennerley) offering a second chance to someone who has been hurt by another. It was previously recorded by Don Williams. I also quite enjoyed the up-tempo ‘Heartbreak Shoes’.

‘Frontier Justice’, written by Bobby Fischer, Charlie Black and Austin Roberts, is a dramatic number in which Ronna seethes about being done wrong and lied to:

‘Cause you can’t hang ’em high
You can’t lay ’em low
The way you could a hundred years ago
When love and honor were the law of the land
If frontier justice prevailed today
My daddy and brothers would make you pay
That’s the kind of justice you’d understand

Ronna’s attitude is directed triumphantly at her lover’s ex in the upbeat ‘Bless Your Cheatin’ Heart’, an entertaining song written by Buddy Cannon and Jessica Boucher:

You know, it’s almost funny to see you standing there in tears
I just wanna thank you dear, because he no longer cares about you

You had everything you didn’t want but then somehow
He started looking good to you the minute he fell in my arms
And I’m obliged to you
And bless your cheatin’ heart

Sammy Kershaw duets with Ronna on ‘There’s Love On The Line’. Their voices work well together on this song (written by Jerry Fuller) about a separated couple laying phone tag as they try to make a connection again.

There was a lot of strong material on this album, and it’s one I enjoyed listening to.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘Only The Heart’

Big Spring, Texas native Ronna Reeves released her debut album on PolyGram/Mercury Records in 1991. Only The Heart was a commercial dud, with the album and all four of its singles failing to chart.

Reeves’ debut single, the excellent steel laced chugger “Sadly Mistaken” was co-written by Byron Gallimore. The would-be power ballad “The Letter,” which followed, wasn’t very good or well-written.

The third single, “That’s More About Love (Than I Wanted To Know)” came with pedigree — Dickey Lee and Bob McDill co-wrote the mid-tempo ballad, which was originally released as a low-charting single by Nicolette Larson in 1986. Reeves’ version is good but hasn’t aged well through the years.

“Ain’t No Future In The Past,” a nice up-tempo rocker, ending the label’s promotional run with this album. The title track, a wonderful ballad, was written solely by Karen Staley.

In addition to the Lee/McDill co-write, Only The Heart had one more notable moment. Reeves covered country legend Ernie Ashworth’s classic “Talk Back Trembling Lips.” Her version is spellbindingly good and easily one of the best songs on the albums.

“I Could Be Loving You” is a well-executed and engaging uptempo rocker. “Sayin’ You’re Wrong Don’t Make It Right” is a wonderful example of 1990s country at its best. “If I Were You” features an almost identical story to Terri Clark’s classic of the same name, which would appear four years later. Clark’s take on the theme is better and far more polished. “Same Old Story” is an excellent Tony Arata ballad.

Only The Heart is a mixed bag with some truly great songs, some that are just okay, and not enough to make me excited to see where Reeves will head as an artist. I can see why it failed. The album just isn’t distinctive enough to stand out from the pack. She’s a great singer in search of better material.

Grade B+

Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘Dawn Sears’

With a secure livelihood as Vince Gill’s backing singer, and husband Kenny playing fiddle for Vince, Dawn recorded a self-released album in 2002. This is a pure country album, full of great songs superlatively sung. Listening to it makes one regret that Dawn had not enjoyed mainstream success.

A few country classics are included, There is a super version of honky tonk classic ‘A-11’. Connie Smith duets on an vibrant and assertive version of the Mel Tillis kissoff tune ‘Unmitigated Gall’. Amore obscure revival is ‘My Ears Should Burn (When Fools Are Talked About)’, a minor hit in the 60s for Claude Gray and written by Roger Miller. It is a great country shuffle about regretting cheating on an ex. A more recent cover is the wonderful gospel-tinged ‘Fit For A King’, written by Carl Jackson and Jim Rushing in high lonesome bluegrass style and recorded by several artists including Garth Brooks. Dawn’s stunning version is one of the finest readings and my favorite track here.

As far as I know all the other material was new. ‘No Place To Fall’ is a regretful ballad about a young widow scared for the future alone with her baby. The steel-dominated ‘The Lonely In Me’ is another beautiful song filled with sadness over a troubled relationship as the wife decides to leave her cheating husband.

‘Love In The Making’ is a pretty love song with a soothing melody. ‘Right Here In Heaven’ is a sophisticated loungy ballad about a happy marriage, beautifully sung. ‘Don’t Take Your Hands Of My Heart’, another love song, sounds like a Marty Robbins western ballad.

‘Barbeque On My Birthday’ is a lighthearted western swing which offers a nice change of pace.

In ‘Talk To Me’, Dawn appeals to a husband who is not interested any more. The closing track, ‘Sweet Memories’ is another outstanding ballad with some gorgeous steel courtesy of John Hughey.

This is an excellent album which I would strongly recommend to traditional country fans who appreciate great vocals.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘Nothin’ But Good’

Mark Wright produced Dawn Sears’ second album, Nothin’ But Good, which arrived on Decca Records in August 1994. She was the first artist signed to the label’s newly revived country music branch.

The investment proved moderately successful from the onset. The rockin’ “Runaway Train,” which was co-written by fellow spotlight artist Kim Richey, peaked at #52. Sears’ fortunes would, unfortunately, reverse, as the mid-tempo title track, co-written by songwriter-of-the-moment Kostas, failed to chart.

“Close Up The Honky Tonks” is a clean and precise cover of the Buck Owens classic. “That’s Where I Wanna Take Our Love” is a classically styled torch song, written by Dean Dean Dillon and Harlan Howard and flawlessly executed by Sears.

“No Relief In Sight” is a contemporary ballad about the inability to move on from a past relationship. “Uh Oh (Here Comes Love)” is an excellent ditty, with an infectious melody, co-written by Carlene Carter.

“Planet of Love,” easily a standout track, is a spellbinding torch song co-written by Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal. “It was Too Late” returned Sears to the up-tempo stylings that comprise the majority of the album.

Around this time, Sears also became known for her collaborative work with her fellow contemporaries. She teamed with Tracy Byrd for the duet “Out of Control Raging Fire” (later covered by Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt) from his debut album and provided backing vocals for Vince Gill on I Still Believe in You.

The association with Gill would prove most fruitful as she would continue to guest on many of his albums, accompany him on tour, and join his Western Swing band The Time Jumpers along which her husband Kenny. Their friendship impacted this album with the brilliant traditional ballad “If I Didn’t Have You In My World,” which Gill co-wrote with Jim Weatherly.

The album’s centerpiece closed out the album. Sears would have just one writing credit on this album, “Little Orphan Annie,” which she wrote solo. She wrote the tune in tribute to her parents, who died far too soon. It’s as perfect and effective a country song as I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear:

I saw the love

In mama’s eyes

I saw the fear she tried to hide

She knew she’d never see the morning sun

She left this world so young

 

On a windy day

In my Sunday best

I watched them lay my dad to rest

After months of pain, I tried to help him through

But there was nothing I could do

 

I feel like

Little Orphan Annie

Left here all alone

Little Orphan Annie

Trying to be strong

Every night I kneel and pray

Lord help me through another day

Help me fill this empty heart

Please don’t let me fall apart

Give me the strength to be

Little Orphan Annie

 

I miss them more

Then I can say

It’s not supposed to be this way

All grown up I should understand

But the child in me

Can’t comprehend

There are moments of sheer brilliance on Nothin’ But Good that show why Sears was one of the best and most criminally underrated female artists to fly under the radar in the 1990s. Some of the uptempo material is aimed at commercial viability and is, therefore, filler, but the vast majority of the album is beyond excellent.

Sears would sadly exit Decca shortly after the release of this album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘What A Woman Wants To Hear’

Dawn Sears’ debut album on Warner Brothers Records was released in 1991. Barry Beckett acted as producer. ‘San Antone’, her very first single for Warner Brothers, having failed to chart the previous year, it was removed from consideration for the album, but if you want to hear this very retro Patsy Cline style ballad, you can check it out on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIAyvGo_-DQ

However, the label retained the second single, although it too had made no chart impact. ‘Till You Come Back To Me’ was another beautifully sung slow ballad, but slightly more contemporary in style, and was written by Mike Reid and Troy Seals. Dawn’s vocals soar on this big ballad.

Dawn showed she was as good with up-tempo material with a committed cover of Highway 101’s ‘Good Goodbye’ (a track on that band’s debut album a few years earlier and co-written by Paulette Carlson). Dawn’s version uses the same arrangement as the original, but she delivers the attitude believably. Warner Brothers’ last unsuccessful attempt at getting Dawn on the radio came with ‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, another Mike Reid tune (co-written this time with Rory Michael Bourke). This sophisticated loungy ballad is exquisitely performed, and was later covered in very similar style by Shelby Lynne.

‘Odds And Ends (Bits And Pieces)’ had most recently been recorded by Lynne on her own 1989 debut album, but was an older classic, written by Harlan Howard. It is another slow paced ballad which was ideally suited to both artists’ vocal ability.

A number of the other tracks were either covers or were later picked up by other artists. The classic Hank Williams hit is treated very authentically and highly enjoyable. ‘He’s In Dallas’ was recorded by Reba McEntire on her 1991 album For My Broken Heart, and was later covered by fellow Spotlight Artist Linda Davis. A mournful ballad about the failure of a relationship and the collapse off all the protagonist’s dreams for her future, as she returns home to her mother in Minnesota, disconsolate. Dawn’s vocal is exceptional.

The title track (coincidentally a song co-written by Davis) is another excellent ballad yearning to be treated well, which should have been a big hit for someone. This is another of the highlights on this album. ‘Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ is a great traditional country heartbreak ballad written by Donny Kees and Terri Sharp, is superb, and one of my favorite tracks here, assisted by some nice fiddle.

She delivers up some western swing on the assertive ‘No More Tears’, and sultry blues on ‘Could Be The Mississippi’, showing her range.

This was a very good album which slipped beneath the radar.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Shoot For The Moon’

Linda Davis released her third album Shoot To The Moon in the wake of the massive success of “Does He Love You.” It was her first of two releases for Arista Nashville.

The album employed the technique of maximizing exposure from a superstar collaboration, a ploy that honestly never works (just ask Ashley Monroe and Cassidee Pope). The album was a modest hit for Davis, though, peaking at #28.

I’ll be honest and say I only had access to have the album’s tracks courtesy of YouTube, which I’ll be using to assess the project. I dislike making that admission, but the record has yet to be made available digitally.

Lead single “Company Time” is an enjoyable uptempo number written and previously recorded by Mac McAnally. The song tells the story of an employee facing a reprimand by her boss. It’s good, but lacks punch and feels weak for a track so upbeat. t unsurprisingly stalled at #46.

The second and final single “Love Didn’t Do It” is a much stronger song and far more inviting than its predecessor. Going back and watching the video, it’s hilarious how much Arista was attempting to morph Davis into Reba McEntire, with the hair ‘jacked to Jesus’ performing to an arena crowd with one of those microphones on her head. The “live” video is entertaining but a bit presumptuous. The track stalled at #48.

Speaking of McEntire, Shoot for the Moon includes a cover of “He’s In Dallas,” which comes from For My Broken Heart. I’ve always loved Davis’ natural twang and she shines here perfectly.

“When You Took Your Love Away” is a nice rootsy surprise that breaks up the somewhat AC-leaning aspects of the album. I love the heavy dose of mandolin and dobro.

The final of the five songs, “In Pictures,” is best known as the title cut from Alabama’s 1995 release. They released as a pretty successful single. I’m not sure how many people know Davis’ version of it, but it was included as one of the seven previously released songs on her 1998 I’m Yours album, which is how I got to know it.

The track tells the story of a father estranged from the mother of his child. He does his best to support them from afar and as a reward has to watch his child grow up through photographs and thus miss all the important milestones:

He missed her first steps

Her first words

And “I love you daddy” is something he seldom heard.

Oh, it hurts him so…

To watch his girl grow…

Up in Pictures

Davis’ vocal on the song is a revelation. You can hear the ache in her throat as she sings the tune, especially the final verse. It’s a record for the ages.

From what I heard of Shoot On The Moon, this is a fabulous album. I can see why it didn’t make her a star — the songs just didn’t have that extra radio friendly punch Davis’ needed to push her over the top. But she always had the goods, that much is true.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Linda Davis’

In 1992, Linda released her second album. Like the first it was produced by label boss Jimmy Bowen, with Linda getting a co-production credit, but it was uninspiringly self-titled. Where her earlier singles had failed to make much impact, the singles from this record were resoundingly ignored by country radio.

The reason why is clear when you listen to ‘There’s Something ‘Bout Loving You’, an upbeat but thoroughly forgettable pop-country song which now sounds very dated. It was written by hitmakers Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, but was one of their poorest efforts, and a really bad choice for a single for an artist hoping to make her breakthrough. The follow-up, Dewayne Blackwell’s ‘He Isn’t My Affair Anymore’ is a much better song, an emotional ballad which Linda delivers with conviction, although it has a bit of a musical theater vibe.

The best song on the album is a cover of John Conlee’s 1982 hit, ‘Years After You’, which Linda manages to make her own with a lovely, emotionally invested vocal, although the production has not aged well, and the backing vocals are curiously old-fashioned for an album made in 1992. But the song itself is a great Thom Schuyler song about an enduring love which long survives a breakup:

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 hurtin’ within hasn’t yet given in
And it’s been over 2000 days
I still remember the taste of your kisses
And your eyes that were beautifully blue
I can still hear the sound of your voice
When you said we were through

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

‘LA To The Moon’, another emotional ballad, is a fine song written by Susan Longacre and Lonnie Wilson about a country star and the hometown sweetheart left behind:

You were always different
Had a big dream in your heart
This old cowtown couldn’t hold you down
Once you caught your spark
I stood out on the runway
And watched you taxi past
I would’ve gone anywhere with you
But you never asked

You went from Beaumont to LA
And LA to the moon
An overnight success
You put a lot of years into
You tell me nothing’s different
I’m just a call away from you
But it feels more like the distance
from LA to the moon

‘Isn’t That What You Told Her’ is another excellent song, written by Karen Staley and Karen Harrison, with a barbed lyric addressed to a man with a questionable past record in love by his new love interest, who is understandably dubious. It is very well sung, but once more with dated backings.

‘Tonight She’s Climbing The Walls’ is a story song about a neglected wife ready to make a break, written by Craig Bickhardt and very well sung by Linda. ‘The Boy Back Home’, written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, is another ballad, about nostalgia for a first love, and is quite nice in a more contemporary style.

Of the up-tempo material, ‘Just Enough Rope’ (later cut by Rick Trevino) is fun. ‘Love Happens’ and ‘Do I Do It To You To Too’ are both forgettable pieces of filler.

As a whole, this album is hampered by some of the production choices, but it did show Linda was a great singer given the right material, and some tracks are definitely worth downloading.

The commercial failure of this record was to lead to an unexpected second chapter in Linda’s career. Released by her label, she signed up as Reba McEntire’s backing vocalist, and the result would make country music history.

Grade: B

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘In A Different Light’

Released on Capitol-Nashville in February 1991, In A Different Light was Linda’s first major label album. Released nearly a decade after her moderately successful duets with Skip Eaton as “Skip & Linda”, this album was Linda’s first opportunity to shine as a solo act.

As it happened, the album itself failed to chart and none of the three singles released from the album make much of an impact on the country charts.

By my lights, this is not at all a country album. I think it should have been marketed to the easy listening/middle of the road. Don’t get me wrong, Linda Davis is a fine singer but the singles from this album received virtually no airplay on county stations around Central Florida.

The album opens with “In A Different Light,” an overwrought ballad from the pens of Ed Hill and Jonathan Yudkin. This song was released as the first single and died at #61.

Next up is “Some Kind of Woman” by Annette Cotter and David Leonard. This song was released as the second single from the album, and died only reached #68. I think this gritty up-tempo ballad was the best track on the album – similar to something Brooks & Dunn might have released, but I suspect that country radio was so disgusted with the previous single, that they simply did not give this song a chance

 Well, I guess you’re showing me a thing or two

Loving with a vengeance every night with someone new

And I got this funny feeling, it’s for my benefit

So I’m gonna take it as a kind of compliment

 

Oh, I must be some kinda woman

Look how many women you seem to need

To take the place of one good one

And give you what you had when you had me

Oh, I sure must be some kinda woman

 

Since you need a different girl each night

There must not be a one of them, knows how to do you right

So add them little numbers, try and equal me

Meanwhile I’ll just take it as a form of flattery

Next up is “Three Way Tie” (written by Mary Beth Anderson, Lisa Silver, and Carol Grace Anderson) was the third single released. Another overwrought ballad, this song failed to chart, and frankly, it sounds like something any cocktail lounge singer might tackle.

None of the remaining tracks were released as singles:

“From Him to Here” (Mark D. Sanders, Verlon Thompson) is a pretty good mid-tempo song, that actually sounds like a country song. I think this would have made a decent single

“If Your Greener Grass Turns Blue” (Cindy Greene, Marsha Spears) has a bit of that country cocktail lounge feel to the mid-tempo instrumentation but it is a decent song, that Linda sings well. This would have made a decent single.I had never even been outside the county line

Unless you count the million times I left inside my mind

In my day dreams, I could see

The way the luck would shine on me

When I finally found the wings to fly

As my mama helped me pack my suitcase

She said you know I love you and I’ll say it once more anyway

 

So you’ll know what to do if your greener grass turns blue

If your sunny sky turns gray

Sometimes you gotta run

To see just what you’re running from

Here at home there’ll always be place for you

If your greener grass turns blue

“There’s a Problem at the Office” (Annette Cotter, Kim Tribble) is a bland ballad …

He calls to tell me he’ll be late again

There’s a problem at the office

So don’t wait up for him

And I guess I shouldn’t worry but I do

Cause a woman senses changes

Her man is going through

 

He’s changed the way he’s worn his hair for years

And bought some shirts in colors

I’ve never seen him wear

And when we touch that old time feeling’s gone

There’s a problem at the office

And it’s hitting close to home

… whereas “Knowin’ We’ll Never Know” (Jim Rushing, James Dean Hicks) is a nice ballad of what might have been

What if we’d stayed together
What if we’d really tried
Would we still be in Tennessee
Would I have been your bride
Would we be blessed with children
Lovingly watching them grow
Oh the hardest part of seeing you now
Is knowing we’ll never know

We’ll never know
How much we missed
By not taking love all the way
If we held on just a little bit longer
Where would we be today

“White Collar Man” (Vernon Rust) is a slow semi-acoustic ballad, nicely sung about a husband who places all of his priorities on work and none on family.

“The Crash of 29” (Ron Moore, Billy Henderson) has a very folksy sound to it. The crash of 29 has nothing to do with the great Wall Street Crash of 1929, but rather the self-realization that time is marching on and she is getting bored. This a pretty good album track

“If I Could Only Be Like You” (Kendall Franceschi, Quentin Powers, Reba McEntire) is a slow piano ballad, nicely sung, but ultimately not very interesting.

Linda’s vocals on this album are very reminiscent of Reba McEntire, only not quite as powerful as Reba’s vocals – sort of a Reba-lite. I know Linda Davis can actually sing country music and do it well as I have heard her do it. I don’t dislike this album, but I am not very charged up about it. I regard two of the three singles released as mistakes, with several of the album tracks being more single-worthy.

This album has keyboards, synthesizers and, cello, but no fiddle, steel guitar, mandolin, banjo or anything else to lead you to think of this as a country album.

Grade: C+         

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘Count Me In’

Jann Browne had parted ways with Curb Records by the time her third album Count Me In was released in 1995. Seeing as it was her first independent record, no singles were released to country radio.

The twelve-track album includes four songs Browne co-wrote with Pat Gallagher. “Baby Goodbye” is a bluesy ballad accentuated with gorgeous lead guitar licks, while “When The Darkest Hours Pass” is mid-paced and delightful. “White Roses” is a mournful ballad brimming with dobro and “Dear Loretta” concerns a woman writing a letter after moving away and landing a job in New York City.

Browne co-wrote every track on the album, including writing two solo. “Hearts On The Blue Train” is an engaging slick rocker that opens the record with energy and gusto. “Red Moon over Lugano” is a western waltz complete with Spanish elements and ear-catching accordion work.

Lee Ann Womack found a lot to love on “Trouble’s Here,” a nice twangy shuffle she included as an album track on her eponymous album two years later. Both versions are equally excellent, which is saying a lot after Womack has lent her vocal to track. In another era, this song would’ve garnered the attention it so richly deserved.

It was one of six songs Browne co-wrote with Matthew Barnes, including the title track, which starts slowly before picking up the tempo with a percussion-heavy arrangement that nearly drowns out her vocal. “One Tired Man” is an album highlight, a sinister ballad about a man coming face-to-face with his many demons.

“Long Time Gone” is song of escape, an anthem for moving on with confidence. “Ain’t No Promise (In The Promise Land)” is a killer contemporary ballad, with strong production and a simply perfect lyric. “I Have No Witness” is even better and it’s shameful the song remained an album track.

Count Me In perfectly exemplifies why the female insurgence of the 1990s was so important to the vitality of country music. The women of country music during that era set the lyrical standard and influenced a generation of country music fans of which I’m proud to say I’m a part.

This album is a songwriting goldmine that should never have fallen through the cracks. It was clear by 1995 that Jann Browne did not have a place as an artist in mainstream country music. But, Womack and “Trouble’s Here” not withstanding, Count Me In should’ve made the rounds behind the scenes for cuts by Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and the like, who held (and continue to hold) Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters to the highest standard. Judging by this album alone, Browne should’ve stood right along side them.

I highly recommend seeking this one out if you’re able to come across a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘It Only Hurts When I Laugh’

The modest success achieved by the singles from Jann’s debut album was sadly not to be repeated, with neither of the two singles from its successor charting at all. ‘Better Love Next Time’, written by Gail Davies and Paul Kennerley, is a mid-paced song addressed to a departing lover, with pain filled vocals belying the generous lyrics. It’s a pretty decent song, but wasn’t really memorable enough to have an impact. It was followed by the title track, written by hitmaker Kostas and Marty Stuart, which on paper was made for radio and combines an upbeat tune with a heartbreak theme. Coincidentally it would be covered a couple of years later by another of our current spotlight artists. This really ought to have been a hit.

Jann cowrote a pair of songs with Pat Gallagher. ‘Blue Heart In Memphis’ is a country-blues-rocker with a solid groove. The ironic ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Next Love’ is another up-tempo tune but with a bluegrass feel.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘I Don’t Do Floors’, written by Don Cook and Chick Rains. This is a classic style country shuffle about being over someone and telling him so. The nights of walking the floor are over. The album closes with another outstanding track, ‘Where Nobody Knows My Name’, a ballad written by John Hiatt and Jimmy Tittle about moving on, which has a beautiful melody led by a simple acoustic guitar and a soothing vocal:

Even when the past comes calling
Looking for somebody to blame
I’ll be easing on down the road
Where nobody knows my name

When the burning sun surrenders
Will he still remember me?
I never told him I was going
Out where the wind is blowing free

If he thinks about me tonight
I know he won’t miss the pain
I’ll be taking it down the road
Where nobody knows my name

Almost as good is a lovely version of Nanci Griffith’s wistful ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, which acts as a lyrical counterpoint to the message of the Hiatt song:

Once I had a love from the Georgia pines who only cared for me
I wanna find that love at 22 here at 33
I’ve got a heart on my right and one on my left
And neither suits my needs
Oh, the one I love is a way out west and he never will need me

So I wish it would rain and wash my face clean
I wanna find some dark cloud to hide in here
Oh, love and a memory sparkle like diamonds
When the diamonds fall, they burn like tears …

I’m gonna pack up my two-step shoes and head for the Gulf Coast plains
I wanna walk the streets of my own home town where everybody knows my name
I want to ride the waves down in Galveston when the hurricanes blow in
Cause that Gulf Coast water tastes sweet as wine
When your heart’s rolling home in the wind

A folk-bluegrass arrangement with harmonies from Iris DeMent makes this a delight. Also great is ‘I Knew Enough To Fall In Love With You’, a lovely ballad written by Gary Nicholson and Hank DeVito about finding true love after a hard life, with a very pretty tune – a really sweet love song.

‘My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You’ is an old Bob Wills tune which became a country standard. Jann’s version is excellent and very traditional country, with some very nice fiddle and steel. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ (later cut by George Strait) is a Jim Lauderdale/John Leventhal song on which Lauderdale provides backing vocals.

It is a shame this album did not perform better for Jann, as it is excellent. You can download it from iTunes.

Grade: A