My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Single Reviews

Single Review: Trisha Yearwood — ‘Every Girl In This Town’

When I first heard the title of Trisha Yearwood’s new single I thought the “this town” she was referring to was Nashville and the song would be about the plight of making it in music city. There have been countless songs on that subject through the years, some of which have been fantastic.

“Every Girl In This Town” is actually about the complexities of living life and how our experiences aren’t mistakes or missteps, but rather pillars on our life journey:

Every girl in this town’s had a Friday night

That ended in tears in the yellow porch light

Thinkin’ it was love but it was just seventeen

 

And we dance and we laugh till we all fall down

We keep kissin’ boys tryin’ to figure it out

Stretchin’ for stars on our tip-toe hearts

Tryin’ to get our big dreams off the ground

Like every girl in this town

 

Every girl in this town is somebody’s daughter

An angel, a devil, no matter what they call her

If they try to hold you down under that water

Just come up baptized baby, let it make you stronger

“Every Girl In This Town” is an anthem for having the courage to dust ourselves off and get back up whenever we fall. Life is a journey, full of lessons. We just have to recognize them when they’re in our path and learn what they are there to teach us. But it’s important to remember none of this is unique. The most important lesson of all? we’re not alone and we’re all in this together.

As the lead single from Yearwood’s first country album in 12 years, “Every Girl In This Town” could be a much stronger song. The bar for new songs from Yearwood is impossibly high, so it would take something revelatory to measure up to the wealth of material she’s gifted us with over the last 28 years.

Revelatory this is not, but it’s also not trying to be. “Every Girl In This Town” is an anthem with a message, delivered by a woman with the necessary life experience to pull it off. I’m not a fan of the “tiptoe hearts” line, which feels a bit too girly coming from Yearwood, and the arrangement is uninteresting and a bit too loud.

But it’s just great to have her back in her element again. The album, by the way, is due this fall and is apparently titled Every Girl. She also confirmed it will contain 14 songs. Like everyone else I’m waiting with bated breath to see what she has in store for us this go around.

Grade: B

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Single Review: Randy Travis – ‘One In A Row’

Unexpectedly a hitherto unreleased track by Randy Travis has been released as a single. It is not the Willie Nelson song of the same name, but a beautiful anguished ballad previously recorded by Nashville Star’s first winner Buddy Jewell, and written by Jewell with Thom McHugh. I’m not sure when it was recorded, but it is classic vintage Randy Travis vocally, so I imagine it is an old recording which somehow got left on the shelf during sessions for one of Randy’s albums. I suspect it was released now to help promote Randy’s new autobiography.

Regardless of the background, this is an essential purchase for any Randy Travis fan. Randy’s vocals make the song an instant classic, and the arrangement is tasteful and swathed in steel guitar and fiddle.

The song is about a man struggling with even starting to cope getting over someone:

Am I dreaming
Or is that the morning sunlight shining in?
I can’t believe it
I was sure my world was coming to an end
I may never live to see
The day your memory lets me go
But I made it through the night
And that’s one in a row

My heart’s still beating
Even though it’s broken right in two
So the odds are even
There’s still some hope that I’ll get over you
Will I make it through the day?
Girl, it’s hard to say
I just don’t know
But I made it through the night
And that’s one in a row

One less endless night without you
Missin’ everything about you till dawn
One more sunrise to remind me
Leave yesterday behind me cause it’s gone
This is only the beginning
I’ve got a lifetime to go
But I made it through the night
And that’s one in a row

Randy Travis saved country music in the 80s. It may be too late to do it again, but this is a welcome reminder of the man at his very best.

Grade: A+

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

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

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

I never dreamed of wantin’ more

Than a small town, simple life

A little money in our pockets

You’re my husband, I’m your wife

 

But then I fell in icy water

Standing in the grocery line

I overheard my name and yours

And one I did not recognize

 

Now everything I thought I knew is walking out the door

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

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

There’s not a blade sharper than a lie

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

You got a brand new start with someone new

And there’s no whiskey stronger than the truth

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

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

The only thing I can do

Is pour a glass and pretend

That this pain’s gonna end

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

Grade: B+

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

Single Review: George Strait – ‘Every Little Honky Tonk Bar’

George Strait may have retired from touring but he is keeping his promise to keep on recording. This is the lead single for his upcoming new album, promisingly entitled Honky Tonk Time Machine. ‘Every Little Honky Tonk Bar’ is a cheerful up-tempo tribute to neighbourhood drinking spots, written by Strait with son Bubba and old friend Dean Dillon.

The first verse is actually a rather downbeat lyric , but the vibe is positive and bright:

Whiskey is the gasoline that lights the fire that burns the bridge
Ice creates the water that’s no longer runnin’ under it
Stool holds the fool that poured the whiskey on his broken heart
Cigarettes create the smoke that hides the lonesome in his eyes
The jukebox plays Hank “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
Dance floor holds the folks tryin’ to forget who they are
And that’s what happens in every little honky tonk bar

Set to a slower melody this might have been an entirely different, sadder song, but a toe-tapping tune and briskly cheery delivery creates a positive atmosphere as we then move into a chorus and second verse celebrating the weekend party scene. Clearly the drinks have taken the first song to sink in and the protagonist has consumed enough to forget all his troubles.

backed by solid country instrumentation, I don’t see this making much headway on a ‘country’ radio which has veered as far off course as it has in recent years. However, it is a great treat for country fans, and whets the appetite for the full album. Listen now and you can download the single and a couple of other new tracks in advance of the album’s release on March 29.

Grade: A+

Hidden gems of 2018

Here are my favorite album tracks of the year, omitting the albums which made my best albums of the year list.

10. Jay Bragg – ‘The Dreamer’ (from Honky Tonk Dream)
Honky tonker Bragg’s debut album may be only eight tracks, but it’s a strong collection. Best of the bunch is this pensive reflection on how strongly rooted a love is.

9. Kathy Mattea – ‘Mercy Now’ (from Pretty Bird)
A spare, tender version of Mary Gauthier’s song.

8. Jason Boland & The Stragglers – ‘Hard Times Are Relative’ (from Hard Times Are Relative)
A moving story song about a pair of young siblings supporting one another.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘The River And The Gum’ (from Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts)
Australia’s Catherine Britt retruned to her traditional roots for her latest album. This folk-country ballad is a delight.

6. Ashley McBryde – ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ (from Girl Going Nowhere)
An excellent, thoughtful song about the lif of a struggling musician and what makes it worthwhile. It should get some more attention this coming year, as the track has just been announced as Ashley’s new single.

5. Joshua Hedley – ‘Counting All My Tears’ (from Mr Jukebox)
Very retro, and very good. This sounds like a forgotten classic from the early 1960s.

4. Mandy Barnett – ‘Lock Stock And Teardrops’ (from Various Artists, King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller)
An exquisite version of a classic.

3. Cody Jinks – ‘Somewhere Between I Love You And I’m Leavin’’ (from Lifers)
A strong song about a relationship on the verge from a rather mixed album.

2. Pistol Annies – ‘When I Was His Wife’ (from Interstate Gospel)
The trio’s latest album didn’t qute make my top 10 of the year, but it is a strong and artistically ambitious collection. The barbed lyric of the best song on the album, set to a sweetly vulnerable country melody, reflects on an acrimonious divorce.

1. Oak Ridge Boys – ‘If I Die Drinking’ (from 17th Avenue Revival)
A magisterial gospel reading of a wonderful song previously recorded by its co-writer Vince Gill. (The other writer was Ashley Monroe.)

Single Review: Garth Brooks — ‘Stronger Than Me’

I have a confession to make. I’ve been falling for Garth Brooks’ marketing schemes for more than 20 years now. I’ve been smarter about avoiding his wicked games in recent years, but I have my share of his box sets and first addition albums with alternate covers in my expansive music collection. I also own the Chris Gaines album, mostly out of curiosity, which says way too much about my musical gullibility.

Brooks’ most recent marketing ploy occurred two weeks ago when he strong-armed the Country Music Association into letting him play what was then an unnamed new song he had recently recorded in tribute to Trisha Yearwood, live on the show. Neither Yearwood nor the audience had heard the song prior to the telecast.

As the story goes, Brooks approached the CMA with his idea for the performance. The producers turned him down, saying a ballad just wasn’t going to work for them the year. Unaccustomed to being told no, he did whatever he had to do to secure the slot.

I just wanted to hear the song and was honestly upset with the CMA for turning him away. I hate, more than anything, when producers and image consultants control what we see on screen. It’s become far more transparent in recent years on various awards shows.

I don’t believe the CMA corroborated his story, so who knows if it’s accurate, or just another ploy in his plan to drum up pre-buzz for this new song. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if the song itself is worth the hassle to be given such visible exposure. When all is said and done, a quality song is always worth celebrating.

“Stronger Than Me,” which was composed by Matt Rossi and Bobby Terry specifically for Brooks, depicts a man who is awestruck that his woman is always there for him when he needs her:

She always says that I’m the rock that she leans on

But it’s so hard to believe

Cause she is always there when I start losing faith, going crazy

She saves me

And every now and then she just wants me to hold her

But that don’t mean she’s weak

The way she’s unafraid to let her feelings show just means she’s stronger than me

 

She lifts the weight of this whole world off of my shoulders

With nothing but the touch of her hand

And every day and I wake up and she tells me that she loves me

I feel more like a man

I know I always thought I had to have the answer

Be her strength and take the lead

But when it comes to everything that really matters

She’s stronger than me

I really like how Rossi and Terry build up the woman in the relationship to be more than the spouse or girlfriend. The man actually recognizes her worth and admits his own flaws, all characteristics I can stand behind.

I just can’t forgive the execution. This idea that the guy is “saved” or “feels more like a man” simply because of his woman irks me. Those feelings and revelations have to come from within, not as a by-product of a romantic relationship. What happens if the relationship ends? What happens if she’s not there anymore to build him up? He’s defining his well-being based on the relationship instead of standing on his own two feet. He needs to know he can be okay without her, too, a lesson he clearly never learns:

I’d give her anything in life that’s mine to give her

Till the last breath that I breathe

And if I have a choice I pray God takes me first

Because she’s stronger than me

Sonically, the piano-centric arrangement is tasteful, but I don’t hear any ounce of passion in the finished record at all. The mixing is muffled and sounds like they recorded the song into a mobile phone or similar device. Brooks doesn’t display his usual emotion or sincerity vocally, two characteristics that drew me to his music in the first place.

“Stronger Than Me” is very similar to the formula he perfected on Fresh Horses, but comes off like a half-hearted attempt at regaining the glory of that album. “She’s Every Woman” this is not, and that’s a damn shame.

Grade: C

To listen to “Stronger Than Me” click here

Single Review: Brad Paisley — ‘Bucked Off’

Prior to the 52nd annual CMA Awards telecast last week, it was heavily buzzed about that co-host Brad Paisley was going to sing a new song, his first from a new album, of which he’s only recorded 3-5 songs so far. One review I read even heralded the song as a return to his traditional country roots, and let’s face it, Paisley has become so irrelevant in recent years, it’s about the only move he could make that would actually make sense.

“Bucked Off” starts out innocently enough. Paisley is on a bar stool having a conversation with his woman, who is clearly ending their relationship. He likens himself to a cowboy on a bull, about to be thrown off. So you don’t mistake his situation, he sets the mood:

And George Strait’s on the jukebox in the corner

Singing about cowboys riding away

Name-checking Strait and his #5 hit from 1985 is totally appropriate in this instance. Then he goes on, laying the rodeo/cowboy imagery on thick:

You can go to Houston, Vegas or San Antone

And watch a bull rider hit the dirt

Or head down to this bar for a little cover charge

You can watch me get thrown by her

George Strait’s on the jukebox again

Says if I leave now I can still make Cheyenne

By the time Strait came around for a second time, I knew exactly what was going on. “Bucked Off” isn’t just another song in Paisley’s catalog. It’s a dedicated tribute to Strait. This jukebox reference, which in any other song would’ve gone to a different country singer, is forced and cutesy. Paisley doubles down on the bridge:

I think about those nights in Marina Del Rey

As this beautiful cowgirl slips away

But pain only lasts so long

And when you get bucked off you get back on

Going into his CMA performance, I was expecting what I thought to be true — Paisley was releasing a honky-tonk song to country radio, in pure form, not the faux honky-tonk Garth Brooks tried to pull over our eyes with “All Day Long.” Sadly, this isn’t the case.

But I will give Paisley credit where it’s due. “Bucked Off” is the most traditional country song released to radio since the leaves turned colors and began to fall from the trees. There is a full dose of steel and fiddle very audible in the mix. It has good bones, a catchy melody, and a somewhat engaging story. Paisley also deserves a tremendous amount of praise for not selling out like Keith Urban and using “Bucked Off” as a desperate attempt at relevancy.

He just takes the Strait thing too far (even the lettering and font of his name on the cover art is a nod back to when Strait portrayed Dusty Chandler in Pure Country). The right way to honor a country legend isn’t to sample that artists’ classic melodies throughout, nor is it right to drown those melodies and traditional instruments in a haze of guitars, no matter how well they’re played. He made similar mistakes on the trepid “Old Alabama.”

My issue here is that Paisley knows better. He proved that seventeen years ago when he took “Wrapped Around” to #2, as the second single from Part II. It showed how Strait influenced him, while correctly moving the genre forward into the new Millennium. It’s a pipe dream to think he would go back there, but I can always hold out hope, no matter how thin a sliver it might be at this point.

Grade: B

Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘Cowboy Dreams’

Released in April 2003, Cowboy Dreams was Adam’s fifth album and the second to be certified gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association signifying sales of 35,000 albums.

The album opens up with the “Love Bug”, the Wayne Kemp-Curtis Wayne penned hit for George Jones in 1965 and George Strait in 1993, both top ten records. It’s a silly song but Adam handles it well.

Next up is “Call It Love” a nice ballad that I could see George Strait having a hit with in his prime

Just Lookin Back On The Life We’ve Made
The Things We’ve Lost The Words To Say
A Million Words Are Not Enough
Call It Love

I Know That Sometimes I Put You Through
More Than I Should Ask Of You
There Must Be A Reason You Don’t Give Up
Call It Love

I Don’t Know What Else To Call It
When All I Wanna Do
Is Grow Old With You
What Else On Earth Can It Be When Every Time You’re With Me
A Simple Touch Tears Me Up
Call It Love

“When Lonely Met Love” is a nice up-tempo dance floor number:

He was empty as a bottle on a Saturday night
She was sweet as a rose that grows in a garden getting good sunlight
As fate would have it, the unlikely happened
In a parking lot, two worlds collide

When lonely met love, they hit it off
Dancing on the ceiling, couldn’t peel them off
Now they’re real tight, it feels real nice
Lonely ain’t looking, lonely no more
Love started popping like a bag of popcorn
When they opened up, when lonely met love

Those good old ballads of booze, women and cheating have been largely banished from modern country music so “Hush”, so this mid-tempo ballad is a refreshing change of pace

He’s looking in the mirror checking out his hair, putting on his cologne
He ain’t shaved since Tuesday but tonight every little whisker’s gone
He’s going out with the perfect wife but she ain’t his own

Chorus:
Hush…can’t talk about it
Hush…dance all around it
Everybody’s doing it old and young
Don’t breath a word cats got your tongue
Huush

She makes the kids breakfast, packs their lunch, sends them on their way
Makes all the beds and cleans up the kitchen loads the TV tray
But that ain’t coffee in the coffee cup gets her through the day

“She Don’t Know It Yet” is a wistful ballad about a man who has not been able to convey to his woman just how much he really loves her

I really love western swing and “Cowboy For A Day” is a nice example with a subject matter similar to Conway Twitty’s “Don’t Call Him A Cowboy” but with a more upbeat message and taken at a much faster tempo. This would be a great dance number

Adam’s voice is in Trace Adkins / Josh Turner territory but the structure of the album reminds me of many of George Strait’s albums, with a nice mix of slow and up-tempo songs.

My digital copy of the album did not include any information concerning songwriting credits, but it is fair to assume that where I haven’t commented, that Adam had a hand in the writing. I really liked “A Little More To It Than That” and “Little Cowboy Dreams” which I assume are Adam’s compositions. The latter is a really cute song, a father’s words to his son:

Dust off your boots, take off your star
Whistle your rocking horse in from the yard
Take off your hat you’ve tamed the wild west
But son even heroes need to get rest

Close your eyes little man it’s been a long day
And your worn out from riding it seems
Let your work in the saddle
All drift away
Into sweet little cowboy dreams

Old-timer that I am my favorite song on the album goes way back to 1965 when Lefty Frizzell recorded the Hank Cochran-Chuck Howard song “A Little Unfair”. Adam doesn’t sound like Lefty and doesn’t try to sound like Lefty but doers a very effective job with the song:

You want me to love just you while you love your share
Ain’t that being a little unfair
It’s me stay home while you stay gone till you decide to care
Ain’t that being a little unfair

I can’t see how it can be anything for me
What’s mine is yours but what’s yours is yours
That’s how you wanted to be
You want me to wait for you till you decide to care
Ain’t that being a little unfair

I can’t see how it can be anything for me
What’s mine is yours but what’s yours is yours
That’s how you wanted to be
You want me to wait for you till you decide to care
Ain’t that being a little unfair

This is a very country album – fiddle, steel guitar, thoughtful lyrics and everything else you would want in a country album.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale and Roland White

We interrupt this program to present an album that was recorded before ANY of the albums we’ve reviewed up to this point. Lost for many years, the masters for this album were recently recovered and are now released for your listening pleasure by the good folks at Yep Roc.

It has always been the case that musicians and singers have been quicker to recognize Lauderdale’s talents than record executives, radio programmers and the general public.

Lauderdale arrived in Nashville and started hanging around with Roland White, brother of the legendary guitarist Clarence White, and then (as now) one of the great mandolin players. Roland was (and is) an astute judge of talent and saw in Lauderdale an up and comer. White arranged to cut an album with Lauderdale in Earl Scruggs’ home studio with a band that included Marty Stuart on guitar, Gene Wooten on Dobro, Johnny Warren (of current Earls of Leicester fame) on fiddle, and of course White on mandolin. For reasons I will never understand the album was never released and presumed lost.

The album is comprised of two Lauderdale originals and ten songs from the folk and bluegrass canon.

The album opens with a Lauderdale original “Forgive & Forget” that has the sound of a burnished country classic. The song is taken at a medium fast tempo with fine fiddle and Dobro solos and that country harmony.

“Gold and Silver” comes from the pen of Shirley “Milo” Legate. I don’t know much about him, but it is a fine song that was originally recorded by George Jones. Legate also wrote some songs for Sonny James and placed bass for Sonny as part of his Southern Gentlemen.

“(Stone Must Be) the Walls Built Around Your Heart” is an old classic Don-Reno & Red Smiley composition on which Jim sings the verses and Roland joins in on the chorus.

Clyde Moody is largely forgotten now, but he was a fine singer and songwriter whose “Six White Horses” is a song that fits in the cracks between folk and bluegrass. Dobro dominates the arrangement on this bluesy song, but there is also a nice walking bass line in the song.

L-Mack penned “I Might Take You Back Again”, a mid-tempo song about a fellow contemplating taking his wayward love back.

Donovan Leitch (a/k/a “Donovan), a Scottish folk singer, was a major pop star in the US, UK and Australia with his greatest success in the UK. “Catch The Wind” was top five in the UK and Australia but just missed the top twenty in the US. While not his biggest hit, it is probably his most covered tune, covered by nearly every folk act and many country and pop acts. Even Flatt & Scruggs covered the song

In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty, I want to be
In the warm hold of your loving mind
To feel you all around me
And to take your hand, along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

“Don’t Laugh” was a classic brother-style duet originally performed by Rebe Gosdin & Rabe Perkins.
Gosdin wrote the song which is definitely part of the bluegrass canon. I’ve heard recordings by the County Gentlemen, the Louvin Brothers and J. D. Crowe and have heard other acts perform the song in live concert . Rebe may have been a distant relative of country great Vern Gosdin.

If I cry when I kiss you when we say goodbye
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh
If I say I’ve always loved you and I will til I die
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh

I could never find another there’s no use for me to try
I beg of you my darling, please don’t laugh if I cry
If I say I’ve always loved you and I will til I die
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh

“Regrets and Mistakes” is the other Lauderdale original on the album. The song is a slow ballad with Lauderdale singing lead and White singing an echo and harmony. The song is nothing special but it definitely is not out of place on this album.

It is rather difficult to categorize Shel Silverstein as a songwriter – he was all over the place. On “February Snow” Shel serves as a straight-ahead ballad writer. Bobby Bare recorded the song on an album.

“That’s What You Get) For Loving Me” was written by Gordon Lightfoot, and covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul & Mary, Waylon Jennings and Ian & Sylvia. In fact, it was Waylon’s first top ten single.

That’s what you get for lovin’ me
That’s what you get for lovin’ me
Ev’ry thing you had is gone
As you can see
That’s what you get for lovin’ me

I ain’t the kind to hang around
With any new love that I found
‘Cause movin’ is my stock in trade
I’m movin’ on
I won’t think of you when I’m gone

The album closes with a pair of Alton Delmore compositions “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”and “Nashville Blues”. The Delmore Brothers were perhaps the quintessential brother act. Roland and Jim do them proud .

My only criticism of the album is that I would like for Roland’s mandolin to have been a little more forward in the mix. Lauderdale mostly sings the leads, and while he is a good guitar player, I think he left the pickin’ to the ace musicians that Roland collected for the project – when you look at the names below, you’ll see that leaving the pickin’ to them could never be a mistake.

im Lauderdale – vocals
Roland White – vocals, mandolin
Stan Brown – banjo
Terry Smith – bass
Marty Stuart – guitar
Johnny Warren – fiddle
Gene Wooten – dobro

To me this album is a very solid A.

Single Reviews: Earl Thomas Conley – ‘Nobody Falls Like A Fool’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’

By 1985 Earl Thomas Conley was one of the most consistent hitmakers in country music, with every single topping the charts. It was time for a Greatest Hits compilation. As well as eight of ETC’s hits, the set included two new songs, which were released as singles. The new songs were well chosen, as both reached #1.

‘Nobody Falls Like A Fool’, written by Peter McCann and Mark Wright. Slightly tinny keyboards typical of the period have dated, but ETC’s smoky vocal, at once vulnerable and optimistic, really sells the song. The protagonist and his new love interest have both been burned by love before, but the former at least is an undying romantic who believes this time it will work out:

After so many dreams have fallen through
It’s time that one came true

Nobody falls like a fool
Nobody loves like a believer

And I’m fallin’
‘Cause I believe in you

I know you’re afraid
Of the words that we’ve spoken
There’s been so many promises made
And so many broken
Oh but please don’t hold back
I’ve already opened the door
And this time I’m hoping for more
You’re making it easy

‘Once In A Blue Moon’ was written by Robert Byrne and Tom Brasfield. The beautiful melody and hushed vocal are allied to a tender lyric about a woman’s love for an unworthy but grateful man:

She’s starving for affection
So hungry for love’s touch
But she only hears “I love you”
When we’re making love
Lord, I’ll always wonder
Why she loves me so much
And the best I’ll ever do won’t be enough
So I’ll just thank my lucky stars above

But once in a blue moon
I’ll do something right
And once in a blue moon
I’ll make her feel so fine
‘Cause I can make her laugh
Oh, and make her cry
She hates the way she loves me sometimes

Again, the production is dated but it doesn’t intrude too badly, and the song and vocals are great.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Garth Brooks – ‘All Day Long’

If you regularly follow current events in the world of country music, then you likely know Garth Brooks would be releasing a new single this week entitled “All Day Long.” In the lead up to the song’s release, Brooks said country music needs a “good damn honky-tonk song” and promised “All Day Long” would bring the fiddle back to country music. To stir the pot further, Brooks described the song as a mix of “Two of a Kind (Workin’ on a Full House), “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til the Sun Comes Up),” and “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”

Brooks, like Taylor Swift, is a master marketer adapt at selling the listener and the fan whatever product he’s hawking at the current time. Right now that product is “All Night Long.” He got me through the door by stirring the pot of nostalgia by referencing three of his most enduring songs in the same breath as this new one. But just because he can get me through the door, doesn’t mean he can make me stay.

“All Day Long” does have fiddle and a heavy dose of steel. Brooks’ vocal is twangy and harkens back to his heyday in the 1990s. Heck, I can even hear Trisha Yearwood harmonizing with him throughout most of the evensong. I’ll give him credit for bringing all the right ingredients to the table. Each one is there, perfectly audible, and cannot be mistaken.

But “All Day Long” is not a honky-tonk song. I’ll repeat. “All Day Long” is not and never will be a honky-tonk song nor could it pass as one with even the most forgiving definition of the term. It’s faux southern rock with just enough token signifiers that it could pass as “country.” But he’s not fooling anyone. The majority of “All Night Long” is generic attitude with screaming guitars (if they’re not computer generated). The only place I ever hear anything remotely sounding like a fiddle is on the instrumental break on the bridge.

“All Day Long” is a product designed to keep Brooks in the public consciousness until he’s ready to announce his 2019 touring plans, which he’s already said will be his first ever stadium-only tour. It may work on that level, but as a song, it has very little to keep the listener engaged.

Grade: C-

You can hear the song HERE

Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘I Lived It’

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a Blake Shelton single I actually liked, but here comes this track from his current album Texoma Shore which is his newest radio single. Even more surprisingly, it’s co-written by Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip, Ashley Gorley and Ross Copperman.

A gentle understated melody and arrangement leads into a relective lyric about childhood memories. Things that seemed annoying at the time are seen in retrospect with love as things that made the protagonist who he is today.

There’s not a lot more to it, but the details are specific and lovingly recalled, painting a completely believable picture of a suburban Southern upbringing. Musically, it’s also recognisably country music with no extraneous elements.

This might not be a standout in past generations, but heard today it’s a real step in the right direction.

Grade: a slightly generous A-

Classic single spotlight: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Old Violin’

In a world of interesting individuals, there probably were none that were more interesting than Johnny Paycheck. Starting off as a young hellion, Paycheck got. progressively wilder as time went by. While his chaotic life was reflected in his music, at some point in his life even Paycheck realized that things had gotten completely out of control.

The torture in his soul and regrets in his life could never be better exemplified than in his masterpiece (from his 1987 Mercury album Modern Times)@

“Old Violin” as written and performed by Johnny Paycheck:

Well, I can’t recall, one time in my life,
I’ve felt as lonely as I do tonight.
I feel like I could lay down, and get up no more,
It’s the damndest feelin’; I never felt it before.

Tonight I feel like an old violin,
Soon to be put away and never played again.
Don’t ask me why I feel like this, hell, I can’t say.
I only wish this feelin’ would just go away.

I guess it’s ‘cos the truth,
Is the hardest thing I ever faced.
‘Cos you can’t change the truth,
In the slightest way. I tried.

So I asked myself,
I said: “John, where’d you go from here?”
Then like a damned fool,
I turned around and looked in the mirror.
And there I saw, an old violin.
Soon to be put away and never played again.
So one more time, just to be sure,
I said: “John, where in the hell do you go from here?”
You know that when a nickel’s worth of difference,
And I looked in the mirror, that’s when I knew.
That there I was seein’, an old violin.
Soon to be put away, and never played again.
And just like that, it hit me,
That old violin and I were just alike.
We’d give our all to music,
And soon, we’d give our life.

Single Review: Sugarland – ‘Still The Same’

Sugarland has reunited in an effort to reverse Jennifer Nettles’ commercial fortunes after her most recent solo album failed to produce any big hits. This is her last-ditched effort to remain a major piece of the mainstream conversation. The optimist in me was cautiously excited that this reunion would mean their return to quality music (and a reunion with their strongest writing partner Bobby Pinson) that would finally wash us clean of the bad taste The Incredible Machine left in our mouths.

The bad taste is as strong as ever. “Still The Same” is repetitive, dirty and completely devoid of personality. The production continues down their well-traveled road of borrowing heavily from the arena rock playbook (complete with muddled noise and computer-generated drum loops) written by U2. They make a half-hearted attempt at another “Stuck Like Glue” style “breakdown” and reduce the bridge to a bunch of oohs.

If anything this song does achieve its objective. They are “Still The Same.” Not much has changed in the seven years since The Incredible Machine. That might be comforting to some fans, but it isn’t to me. Now, I’m not going to write off the artistic credibility of their comeback on one song. It’s a right these days that artists will often release the worst song off their album as the lead single. I still have hope that an “Already Gone” or a “Stay” lurks around the corner. It isn’t high hope, but I still have it.

Grade: C-  

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘The Older I Get’

New Country Music Hall of Famer member Alan Jackson reminded current artists and fans of what country music actually sounds like, with his stellar performances of ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’ and ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ at the recent CMA awards. Now an elder stateman of the genre with no need to chase radio play which would probably not be forthcoming anyway, he is free to record great country music with more mature themes, and unlike some of his peers, he has chosen to do so.

His new single, heralding an album in the New Year, is another outstanding record. Opening with some lovely fiddle, and continuing the gentle melody with an understated arrangement behind Alan’s measured vocals, this is unapologetically country.

The song itself, written by Alan’s nephew Adam Wright with young singer-songwriters Hailey Whitters and Sarah Allison Turner, is a gem. A serene reflection on the lessons learned over time that it is love which really matters in life:

The older I get the truer it is
It’s the people you love
Not the money and stuff
That makes you rich

If they found a fountain of youth
I wouldn’t drink a drop and that’s the truth
Funny how it feels I’m just getting to my best years yet

The older I get
The better I am
At knowing when to give and when to just not give a damn

And if they found a fountain of youth
I wouldn’t drink a drop and that’s the truth
Funny how it feels I’m just getting to my best years yet

If you haven’t heard this lovely song yet I urge you to do so.

Grade: A+

Song Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Hollywood’

Ever since debuting “All The Trouble,” Lee Ann Womack has been busy preparing for the Oct. 27 release of her ninth album, The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone. She completed a mini acoustic tour with Patty Griffin and starred as the main attraction at AmericanaFest in Nashville, sponsored by The Americana Music Association. Events included the annual Lee Ann Womack & Friends concert and an intimate conversation and performance at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum moderated by Peter Cooper.

Womack also participated in the Build Series in New York City (The interview is on Facebook) and gave a wide-ranging interview with Noisey, a music brand created through Vice with the mission “to document new and exciting music across the globe — from pop’s heavy-hitters to tiny garage bands and everything in between.” Womack vented her frustrations with mainstream Nashville and revealed she had to constantly battle her traditional tendencies with the need to satisfy her major label’s bottom line.

Amongst these performances and interviews, she premiered “Hollywood,” which she also co-wrote with Waylon Payne and Adam Wright. The ethereal ballad finds Womack in familiar territory, as the wife in a disintegrating marriage with a less than forthcoming spouse. Like all her songs, the wife has every clue what’s happening before her eyes, so much so she routinely begs her husband to have a substantive conversation with her, both at the breakfast table:

Morning cup of coffee, not a single word

And if you do say something, it’s only about work

Every time I ask you, you just say we’re good

And in bed, where he admits his anticipation:

We say good night, I love you

We never miss our cue

I ask you if you mean it

You say yes I knew you would

The wife is clearly exhausted from fighting for everything he won’t give her, which Womack brings out in her performance, strong yet breathy. Like any woman who trusts her intuition, the wife only wants one thing out in the open — the truth:

Like the silver screen, its a technicolor dream

We pretend it’s real, but it’s only make-believe

But it’s the killer hook that drives everything home. The wife only doubts herself once, right after he fails to give her the answers she so desperately needs:

Either I’m a fool for askin’

Or you belong in Hollywood

I’ll freely admit it took me a minute when I first heard “Hollywood” to digest the presentation, from the dark production and background singers to Womack’s vocal, which goes in and out from her soprano to her falsetto. But on repeat listenings, I get what’s going on here. This song is so old Hollywood, so Mad Men-esque it’s almost scary. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it eventually finally got me.

Grade: A 

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘All the Trouble’

Although she is best known to the masses for her massive crossover hit “I Hope You Dance”, Lee Ann Womack has built a reputation as one of only a very select few female artists that adheres to country music’s traditions. John Rich once referred to her as this generation’s Tammy Wynette. I’m not sure I quite agree with that assessment; my first reaction was that she was more like a Patty Loveless, but I’ve come to realize that a case can be made that she is this generations’ Emmylou Harris, putting artistry and tradition ahead of commercial concerns and earning universal respect from her peers. Let’s just pretend that 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind never happened; she has more than redeemed herself for that misstep.

Lee Ann is releasing a new independent album in October and there have been rumors that she is moving in an Americana direction. It’s a little hard to say based on the advance single “All the Trouble,” which is different from her usual fare. I’d call it country blues with a touch of gospel rather than Americana; in fact, it sounds like something that The Judds might have had success with in their heyday.

Written by Lee Ann with her bandmates Adam Wright and Waylon Payne, “All the Trouble” begins with Lee Ann singing the chorus acapella at a the lower end of her register and slowly builds in intensity. During the first, mostly acoustic verse, she sounds beaten down:

The deck is stacked against you
Life’s a losing hand
Even when you think you’re up
You’re right back down again
Either way you play it
The house is gonna win.

By the second chorus, she kicks it up a notch, sounding more like the Lee Ann of old.

I’ve got all the trouble I’m ever gonna need
And I just don’t want no more.

By this point she’s singing more intensely, desperately searching for a happy ending. It’s about a full octave higher than the beginning of the song, which is quite effective in giving the listener a full sense of her emotions. The background vocalists provide a gospel feel which gives the whole song a sense of hope. Unfortunately, at this point the production becomes a lot busier and louder than it was at the beginning and I feel that this is a case where less would have been more.

“All the Trouble” is not perfect, but it’s everything that contemporary mainstream country is not: substantive, well-written, and well sung from the female point of view. I’m looking forward to hearing the full album.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Forever Loving You’

The Glen Campbell-Tanya Tucker relationship was the gift that kept on giving to tabloid publishers in the early 1980s. A middle-aged legend past his commercial peak hooked up with a rising starlet half his age. In a more cynical age, it might have been suggested that the entire affair was concocted by publicists to keep the singers in the headlines. Except it wasn’t and when it ended, it ended badly, with a violent drug-induced brawl that left the reputations of both Campbell and Tucker in tatters. Neither was ever able to completely live it down; the affair was considered by most to be Campbell’s midlife crisis and Tucker’s youthful indiscretion.

It’s not a period of their lives that one would expect either party to look back on fondly. However, recent events have suggested that there was more to the messy relationship than the tabloid headlines led us to believe. Last Tuesday, August 8th, Campbell died after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The next day, Tucker released a new single — her first in eight years — which is a tribute to her late partner. Written by Tanya with Michael Lynn Rogers and Rusty Crowe, “Forever Loving You” is probably the most deeply personal single of her career. A beautiful piano and pedal steel-led ballad, it is an expression of regret that things didn’t turn out differently, that lays to rest any lingering doubts that Tanya’s feelings for Glen were sincere, and that she never quite got over him:

I never stopped loving you even after all these years,
I still feel you next to me at night when you’re not here.
Oh, how your sweet songs stay with me even after all this time
Your memory’s right here in my heart, forever on my mind
.

Tanya is in good voice; the lyrics are deeply emotional and the melody is beautiful; this used to be a sure-fire formula for a monster hit. We all know that isn’t going to happen in today’s radio environment, but it’s a must-have for fans of both Glen and Tanya. A portion of the proceeds are going towards Alzheimer’s research, which is, of course, a cause well worth supporting. The track can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘You’re Drunk’

It’s about time I let you in on a little secret. I’m always clamoring for new releases from Brandy Clark. When my local record store didn’t carry Live From Los Angeles this past Record Store Day, I went online and was able to secure the final copy at Bull Moose Records in New Hampshire.

I’m also still finding additional nuances in Big Day In A Small Town more than a year since it was released. I only recently uncovered the brilliance of “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a track I had initially failed to understand in any concrete way. Brandy Clark isn’t just one of the strongest songwriters to come along this decade. She’s one of the greatest contemporary voices in country music, achieving an equal footing with the likes of Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg, Bobbi Cryner and Lori McKenna.

Clark is adding to her legacy with “You’re Drunk” a staple of her live show and an outtake from the sessions for Big Day In A Small Town. The story goes that she never took the song seriously until she cut it, the track didn’t fit the vibe of the album and she had to find a way to get it out.

While I’m glad it’s out there, I’m thrilled it didn’t make the album. “You’re Drunk” is an outtake for a reason – it’s shallow, far too contemporary and lacks Clark’s overall distinctiveness. “You’re Drunk” feels undeveloped in a “Girl Next Door” sort of way, trying to be clever without really packing any significant punch.

Her work with Shane McAnally (they co-wrote this with Josh Osborne) has been incredible – the pair wrote “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” together – but this feels like it’s dripping with McAnally’s influence and not in a good way. The production and overall vibe is far more “American Kids” than “Last Call” or “Follow Your Arrow.”

That being said, “You’re Drunk” isn’t terrible. It’s found a proper home as an outtake, where it belongs, and not the anchor to a new album, like the one consisting solely of drinking songs she wants to do at some point. I’ll give her a pass for this. It’s an outtake and nothing more. Even Brandy Clark doesn’t have to hit it out of the park every time she’s up at bat.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Shania Twain – ‘Life’s About To Get Good’

Twenty years ago, the ongoing and never-ending “is it country or is it pop” debate focused primarily on Shania Twain, who was the polarizing crossover artist of the day. My assessment was — and still is – that some of her earlier hits were country but most of her music starting with Come On Over was definitely pop. Even before she began crossing over to the pop charts, Shania was controversial for not living in Nashville, not relying on Nashville producers and songwriters, and for not touring to support her breakthrough album The Woman In Me. There is no question that Shania owed a great deal of her success to clever marketing and the savvy of her husband, producer and co-writer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. It is also true that much of the music they made together, regardless of the genre one categorized it under, wasn’t particularly substantive.

That being said, I always felt that Shania was more talented than many of her detractors gave her credit for. After an extended absence from the charts, she has a lot riding on her first full-length album since her divorce from Lange. Aside from the underwhelming 2011 single “Today is Your Day”, it’s been twelve years since she had a record on country radio and fifteen years since she released a full-length studio album. She needed to prove not only that she could still deliver the goods, but also to establish for once and for all that not all of the credit for her prior success was attributable to Lange. Unfortunately, “Life’s About to Get Good”, the advance single from her upcoming new album Now, fails on both counts.

Although the song directly tackles the subject of the adversities Shania has faced since she was a staple on country radio, “Life’s About to Get Good” doesn’t address those issues in a substantive manner. Instead, they are a springboard to the repetitive, Pollyanna-ish platitude that life will be all rainbows and unicorns from this day forward. In so many ways, the song is typical of what we’ve come to expect from Shania: a catchy earworm that doesn’t say a whole lot but provides three minutes or so of distraction from the banalities of day to day life.

It is not a great song, but I have heard far worse. Had Shania released this record during her commercial hey-day it probably would have been just another bit of inconsequential fluff. The real problems with this recording, however lie in the production, beginning with the annoying EDM in the intro, and continuing on with the extreme uses of autotune and the general over-processing of her vocals, which sap the song of any life or emotion that may have been there to begin with. It’s not terribly surprising since neither of the producers (Matthew Koma and Ron Aniello) has a background in country music. It’s not as though I was expecting anything particularly country or rootsy, but it is a bit disappointing that Twain is apparently OK with such heavy-handed and sloppy production that only reinforce the perception that she was just a pretty face that catapulted to stardom due to her ex-husband’s studio wizardry.

Grade: D