My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Clancy’s Tavern’

71PR-1ECj3L._SX522_Over the past decade or so, Toby Keith has become somewhat overexposed, often making headlines for the wrong reasons, whether it was his feud with Natalie Maines, his dispute with ABC over performing “American Soldier” in its entirety or for confrontational song lyrics. I began to tune out around 2010, after the release of Bullets In The Gun, and as a result missed Clancy’s Tavern, one of his better efforts of recent years.

Catching up with this 2011 release now has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It is a firmly contemporary country project, but is rootsy enough not alienate most country fans, and it also lacks any awkward attempts to push the stylistic boundaries of the genre. That’s not to say that there aren’t any missteps; by Keith’s own admission, “Red Solo Cup” is the stupidest song he’s ever heard in his life (although he also labeled it “freakin’ awesome”). The Jim Beavers-Brett Beavers-Warren Brothers composition (the only song on the album that Keith had no hand in writing), is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a catchy ditty and is mildly amusing, but becomes less so with repeated listenings. Songs like this have their place as album cuts or concert staples, but they typically aren’t considered single-worthy material. Nevertheless, it landed at #9 on the country chart and #15 pop — his best showing on the Hot 100. It also sold more than 2 million copies, making it the most successful single of his career, from a commercial standpoint — further evidence that quality and commercial success are often two divergent forces.

Prior to “Red Solo Cup”, Toby scored his most recent #1 hit with “Made In America”, about a salt-of-the-earth couple from the heartland, who lament that their traditional values that are no longer in vogue. It’s not a bad song, although it lacks subtlety. It would have packed a greater punch a decade or so earlier, but by 2011 this particular theme had been overdone by Keith and others, and was wearing a little thin. “Beers Ago” a reminiscence of his teenage years written with Bobby Pinson, is my favorite of the album’s three singles. It peaked at #6 but was somewhat overshadowed by the success of “Red Solo Cup”.

“I Need to Hear a Country Song” cries out for a “three-chord, stone cold country song”, even though it sounds nothing like one itself. The upbeat “Trying to Fall In Love” is the album’s most country-sounding track, with plenty of fiddle. I’d have picked this one for a single instead of “Red Solo Cup”, although it probably wouldn’t have sold nearly as well. Also quite good is a the title track, a homage to a neighborhood watering hole and the men and women who work there. Like “Honkytonk U” a few years earlier, “Clancy’s Tavern” was inspired by the Arkansas tavern owned by Keith’s grandmother.

The standard release consists of eleven tracks, all of which can be enjoyed, though “Red Solo Cup” is the clear weakest link. The album’s deluxe version contains four bonus tracks, which were all recorded live in concert in New York City. None of them are particularly memorable, with the possible exception of Keith’s take on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”.

When all is said and done, diehard Toby Keith fans are going to enjoy this album, and those who dislike his politics and personality will try their best to hate it. And those who try to keep an open mind will find it to be an enjoyable, though not perfect, album.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Jerry Reed – ‘Lord Mr Ford’

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfield last year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Classic Rewind: Trick Pony – ‘Pour Me’

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘American Ride’

american rideToby’s 2009 release is another mixed bag. He was personally responsible for bad and good alike, as producer, label owner and writer of most of the songs. Many of the songs were written with Bobby Pinson, whose own singing career sadly never quite took off, but who has turned into a successful songwriter.

The title track, a shouty rant about modern life which is the only tune Keith did not write, was the lead single and hit #1.

The second single was a sharp contrast in almost every way. ‘Crying For Me (Wayman’s Song)’ was a tribute to a late friend of Keith’s, a jazz musician. Appropriately, it features the saxophone of Dave Koz and other jazz musicians. The song itself is a beautiful ballad about the sorrow of being left behind when a dear friend dies. It peaked at #6 on Billboard.

The third and last single was one of Toby’s typical semi-comic numbers, and was written with Bobby Pinson and John Waples. In the energetic ‘Every Dog Has Its Day’ a clumsy attempt at picking up a girl is knocked back (literally – she ends up punching him in the face):

Some drunk tried to punk me, and asked my baby “do you dance”
She said “Yes I do, but not with you”

The chorus wanders off into irrelevant list territory, but it’s quite an entertaining track although it peaked at just #15.

Pinson also co-wrote most of the other songs on the album. ‘Gypsy Driftin’’, a solid song about the call of music which reminds me of some of the material on Pinson’s underrated 2005 album Man Like Me:

I learned quick my eighteenth summer
Diggin’ ditches for the man
You can’t be a guitar strummer
Cussin’ that shovel in your hand

Took my paycheck to a pawn shop
Bought a Silvertone guitar
Wrote a song about a beer joint
Went and played it in a bar

It’s hard as hell out on this highway
But I’m still addicted to the show
When that crazy crowd calls out it keeps me
A gypsy driftin’ down the road

‘Are You Feelin’ Me’ is a passionate contemporary-styled ballad addressed to an ex, a little over produced, but a strong song. ‘Woke Up On My Own’ is a well written song about seeing the light, but grievously over produced with screaming electric guitars entirely unsuited to the song’s emotional message, and oversung to boot. Celebrating drunken behavior, ‘Loaded’ is, perhaps appropriately, an unsubtle noisy mess.

The aggressive approach and gospel style backing vocals do work on the moralistic ‘If You’re Trying You Ain’t’. ‘If I Had One’ is good humoured and enjoyable, with Toby admitting he would behave the same way he criticises in others if he had the chance. ‘You Can’t Read My Mind’ is about unspoken lust for his date; the protagonist is drunk but not too drunk to know it’s best to keep his mouth shut. The solo composition ‘Tender As I Wanna Be’ is an emotional love song with a string arrangement, which isn’t bad.

The album ends with the martial and semi-comic ‘Ballad Of Balad’, about a high school dropout who joins the army. It is a convincing portrayal which would go down well performed for a military audience, although some may find it a little too aggressive with its celebration of killing the enemy.

“You’ll meet lots of new friends and you’re sure to get paid
We’ll show you the world and we’ll teach you a trade
It’s not a job, it’s an adventure”,
Oh, yes sir, I got that
Ah, but you never told me I’d get my ass shot at

This was Toby’s last independent release before his Show Dog label took over Universal South. It’s not his best work, but has enough bright spots to make it worth checking out.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Toby Keith – ‘I Love This Bar’

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘That Don’t Make Me A Bad Guy’

ThatDontMakeMeaBadGuyThat Don’t Make Me A Bad Guy, released in 2008, was the second consecutive self-produced album from Toby Keith. It produced three singles, topped the country albums chart, and reached Gold status.

Keith was still a heavy-hitter at country radio when the album came out. The Bobby Pinson co-written power ballad “She Never Cried In Front of Me” was issued as the lead single. He’s attending his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, where he finally learns a bitter truth:

How was I supposed to know?

She was slowly letting go

If I was putting her through hell

Hell, I couldn’t tell

She could’ve given me a sign

And opened up my eyes

How was I supposed to see?

She never cried in front of me

The track went #1, and while very good, the choral arrangement is too bombastic. The excellent high energy “God Love Her,” another Pinson co-write that deservedly hit #1, came next. Keith assumes the role of the bad boy stealing the heart of the rebel child, a preacher’s daughter. It’s my favorite of Keith’s more recent singles. The unremarkable ballad “Lost You Anyway” peaked at #10.

Keith and Pinson co-wrote the majority of the album together, with mixed results. My favorite of their collaborations is the title track, a wonderful steel-drenched shuffle that should’ve replaced “Lost You Anyway” as the album’s third single. I also quite enjoyed “You Already Loved Me,” a ballad with a nice dose of banjo. Another ballad, “I Got it for you Girl” leans heavy on power, but keeps the suffocating clutter in check.

“Creole Woman” is pure dreck, an electric guitar drenched mess without much appeal. Even worse is “Time That It Would Take,” an aggressive rocker smothered in electric guitars. “Hurt A Lot Worse When You Go” isn’t terrible but it is a paint-by-the-numbers Keith ballad, a little bit loud with a strong vocal, but nothing he hadn’t already done with far more intriguing results.

“Missing Me Some You” is a bluesy ballad Keith wrote solely. It doesn’t do much for me, but he turns in an astonishing vocal that showcases his goods. I quite expected to hate the album’s final track, the Eddy Raven assisted “Cabo San Lucas.” It has the steel drums you would expect, but the song is a tender ballad and not the cheesy island-y affair you would think judging by the title.

That Don’t Make Me A Bad Guy is a mixed bag at best, an album with two distinct personalities. Keith finds himself playing the game more often than not, which drags the project down. But he sprinkles in moments where he actually tries to up his standards and rise about the generic rockers he and label probably felt would appeal to the masses at the time. If he’d stuck in that vein, and offered the listener a few more surprises, this album would’ve been a slam-dunk.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘Where No One Stands Alone’

Week ending 10/24/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-Johnnie_Wright_19641955 (Sales): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): That Do Make It Nice/Just Call Me Lonesome — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Hello Vietnam — Johnnie Wright (Decca)

1975: Hope You’re Feelin’ Me (Like I’m Feelin’ You) — Charley Pride (RCA)

1985: You Make Me Want To Make You Mine — Juice Newton (RCA)

1995: She’s Every Woman — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2005: Better Life — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2015: Strip It Down — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Lose My Mind — Brett Eldredge (Atlantic)

Classic Rewind: Faron Young – ‘I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night’

Classic Rewind: The Carter Family – ‘Hearts Of Stone’

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Big Dog Daddy’

big dog daddyBig Dog Daddy represents a new step in Toby Keith’s career, being the first of his albums that Toby produced entirely on his own. Released on Toby’s Show Dog Nashville label, in June 2007, the album debuted at #1 on both Billboard’s Country and Top 200 (all genres) chart; however, the album only reached Gold sales status whereas nine of his eleven previous albums went at least Platinum.

This album featured Carter’s Chord (sisters Becky, Emily and Joanna Robertson) doing the harmony vocals. Sonically it’s a nice album, but I don’t regard any of the songs on the album as being among Toby’s strongest efforts.

The album opens up with the first single, the #3 hit “High Maintenance Woman”. Written by Toby with Tim Wilson and Danny Simpson, the song is typical Toby fare

I see you laying by the poolside every day
She ain’t got a lot on
She ain’t got a lot to say
She wouldn’t look my way
But buddy what’d you expect?
I’m just the fix-it-up boy at the apartment complex
And she’ll go out dancing ’bout 7:15
Climb into the back of a long limousine
I know where she’s going
She’s going downtown
I’m going downtown too
And take a look around

She’s my baby doll
She’s my beauty queen
She’s my movie star
Best I ever seen
I ain’t hooked it up yet
But I’m trying as hard as I can
It’s just a high maintenance woman
Don’t want no maintenance man

The second track, “Love Me If You Can” was also the second single and it deservedly went to #1 . One of only two songs not written by Keith (Craig Wiseman and Chris Wallin wrote it) this tender ballad is the best song on the album.

Sometimes I think that war is necessary
Every night I pray for peace on Earth
I hand out my dollars to the homeless
But believe that every able soul should work

My father gave me my shotgun
That I’ll hand down to my son
Try to teach him everything it means

I’m a man of my convictions
Call me wrong, call me right
But I bring my better angels to every fight
You may not like where I’m going
But you sure know where I stand
Hate me if you want to
Love me if you can

Fred Eaglesmith penned “White Rose”, a song that rides the line between folk music and country music. I like the song and appreciate that Toby recognized the merits of the song which is nostalgic about such diverse elements as full service gas stations and teenage angst. I think this song should have been a single.

Yeah the whole town came out to watch
The day they paved the parking lot
Somebody hung a ribbon up and then they cut it out
And that big white rose up on that sign put innocence in all our lives
We could see it’s neon light half a mile down
Gas was 50 cents a gallon and they put it in for you
They bumped your tires then checked your oil and wash your windows too
And we shined those cars bright as bright we go park
Underneath that light staring at the prairie skies there was nothing else to do

Track four is the final single from the album, “Get My Drink On”. The song topped out at #11 and while it is an up-tempo and catchy song it is also silly and trivial. Toby co-wrote this song with Scotty Emerick and Dean Dillon. It is probably the most country sounding song on the album.


‘m gonna get my drink on, I wanna hear me a sad song.
My baby just left home, I didn’t treat her right.
Right here’s where I belong, I’m gonna stay ’till the money’s gone.
If it takes me all night long, I’m gonna get my drink on.

Well I got some little problems and the only way to solve ’em is the sure-fire way I know.
And when the going gets tough, well the tough get going to the little bar down the road.

Toby had a hand in writing the remaining tracks on the album. Toby’s “Big Dog Daddy” really rocks but it is rather generic. Still I could see releasing it as a single:

Hey Daddy!
Oh yeah
Well I’m a big dog daddy you know my face
And the joint starts rockin’ when I walk in the place
The band starts stompin those rhythm guitar
And the dance floor is jumpin’ through the back of the bar
Everybody looks better in the neon lights
When a plan comes together on a Saturday night

Yeah, the parking lot is packed and that’s a pretty good sign
I take it right in the back I don’t stand in line
The boys all lookin’ and a hittin’ the spot
Sayin’ the girls start shaking everything that they got
When a little cat momma gets ready to ride
I got Lincoln continental waitin’ right outside

The remaining tunes with writers in ( ) are:

“Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya” (Keith, Emerick)
“I Know She Hung the Moon” (Keith, Emerick)
“Pump Jack” (Keith, Bobby Pinson)
“Burnin’ Moonlight” (Keith, Emerick, Dillon)
“Walk It Off” (Keith, Emerick)
“Hit It” (Keith, Wiseman)

I own most of Toby’s albums and this album is the one I pull out least. For some reason, this album feels like Toby was coasting a bit or perhaps distracted by the demands of establishing his record label. There are no duds but no real gems either, other than the two songs from outside writers. Toby is in good voice throughout. He would issue better albums and singles in the years to follow. As for this album, I’d give it a B.

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Me And Crippled Soldiers’

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘White Trash With Money’

white trash with money2006’s White Trash With Money marked a departure for Keith, as it was the first release on his own Show Dog label. Another change involved recruiting the female singer songwriter Lari White as his co-producer; this was the first time a woman had ever produced a male artist in mainstream country music. The title, at once self-deprecating and proud, was inspired by an insult offered to his daughter Krystal by a wealthy friend’s snobbish mother. Happily, it also marks a step back from the over-reliance on pandering patriotic material.

As usual Keith wrote or co-wrote all the material, but this time he had only two collaborators: Scotty Emerick on most of the songs, and quite frequently Dean Dillon. This works well, with a good set of songs all fitting well together.

The lead single was the brassy working man’s ode to the weekend when he can ‘Get Drunk And Be Somebody’, which reached #3 on the Billboard country chart. Follow-up ‘A Little Too Late reached #2. A ballad swathed with sweeping strings, it is a good song about the aftermath of a failed relationship.

The final single, ‘Crash Here Tonight’, peaked at #15. A sweet and tender ballad about being on the verge of falling in love with a friend and not wanting to scare her off, I like it a lot.

The ironic ‘Can’t Buy You Money’, which turns an old saw on its head, with money troubles not derailing the protagonist’s happy home life:

Yeah, we’d save it all up for a rainy day but it’s always sunny
Guess all the happiness in the world can’t buy you money

Now, I ain’t got no money, Lord
I’m knee deep in debt
We must be livin’ on love from above
We ain’t hit bottom yet

In the tongue-in-cheek ‘Grain Of Salt’ the protagonist defies a broken heart with the help of several tequilas, and seems to be too hungover to care when she comes back again:

I took your leavin’ with a grain of salt,
Tequila and a slice of lime,
Yeah the minute you left
Me and the boys went out and had a real good time,
It’s nice of you to check up on me,
Just to see how I was gettin’ along
But I’d already gotten over it baby,
Before you were even gone

By now you’ve observed
I was a little over-served last night,
I need to catch a few Z’s
Baby please
Turn off that bedroom light

The self-deprecating ‘Note To Self’ sees the collapse of a marriage thanks to bad decisions and things left undone. ‘Hell No’ is on similar lines:

Oh, she didn’t say no
But in her eyes I could see
Ah, this wouldn’t turn out to be
The fairytale ending I thought it might be
I sure found out
I got a long way to go
She didn’t say no
She said
“Hell no”

‘I Ain’t Already There’ is about a booty call which is part of a long term on-off relationship, and in which anticipation trumps the reality.

More seriously, the subdued ‘Too Far This Time’ is a downbeat ballad in which the protagonist faces the fact that his wife is cheating.

The somber ‘Ain’t No Right Way’ ponders moral choices: a teenage girl facing motherhood or giving up the baby for adoption, a father who beats his children in the name of discipline, and the controversy over prayer in schools. It’s a little muddled in places, with the three stories not quite hanging together with each other or the chorus, but the gentle melody and Toby’s obvious sincerity make it work.

The fluffy happy birthday wish of ‘Brand New Bow’ sounds like a personal gift for Toby’s wife, but has less resonance for other listeners.

This album is one of Keith’s more solid efforts. Almost every song would have been an effective single. It’s no real surprise that this was Toby at his commercial peak. Unfortunately, he can’t leave things there, and includes the gratuitously offensive ‘Runnin’ Block’, about a double date with a pair of overweight women. This aside, the album is recommended to all Toby Keith casual fans.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Bobby Bare – ‘Some Days Are Diamonds’

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Honkytonk University’

81C7OI6WDuL._SX522_2005’s Honkytonk University was Toby Keith’s last album for DreamWorks Nashville. It performed respectably, reaching platinum status, but sold considerably less than its two immediate predecessors’ 4 million units, possibly because the label was about to fold. It’s unfortunate because it is a much better — and certainly less confrontational — collection than either Shockin’ Y’all or Unleashed. Nevertheless, a million copies sold is hardly a failure and the album’s three singles all performed well at radio, with all of them reaching the Top 10.

The autobiographical “Honkytonk U” was the first track sent to radio. It recounts Toby’s summers at his grandmother’s supper club in Arkansas, his days of playing football, working in the oil industry, and his early days in Nashville. It deserved to rise a little higher than its peak of #8. The follow-up was the excellent “As Good As I Once Was”, with Toby playing the part of an aging but not quite ready to be put out to pasture good ol’ boy. A co-write with Scotty Emerick, it spent six weeks at #1, matching the success of “Beer For My Horses”. “Big Blue Note”, another Emerick co-write, was the album’s final single. It peaked at #5, and although I don’t actively dislike it, it’s never been one of my favorites. I much prefer the album’s other song that casts Toby in the role of abandoned spouse — the tongue-in-cheek “You Ain’t Leavin’ (Thank God Are Ya)”, which finds him glad to see the back of his departing wife. Dean Dillon shares the songwriting credit with Keith and Emerick on this one, as he does on the ballad “Knock Yourself Out”. Toby gets dumped again in “She Left Me”, another humorous number that states the obvious: “We’d still be together but she left me”. Once again he seems to be taking things in stride.

Honkytonk University is one of Keith’s more solid and consistent efforts; there are no bad tracks, and certainly no cringe-inducing moments like Shockin’ Y’all’s “Sweet”, but if pressed to name a highlight, the honor would go to the Merle Haggard duet “She Ain’t Hooked On Me No More”. It’s a pity it wasn’t released as the album’s fourth single. Perhaps it would have been had DreamWorks been in better financial shape at the time, but it remains a hidden gem in the Toby Keith discography. Lacking any obnoxious moments and more consistently country than some of Keith’s work, I highly recommend this album.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Toby Keith and Willie Nelson – ‘Beer For My Horses’

Classic Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian’ (1964)

bitter tearsRegardless of when he actually started wearing black, the legend of the ‘Man In Black’ starts here with this album.

By the time Bitter Tears was released, Cash had issued seven albums on Sun Records and eleven studio albums (including a Christmas album) on Columbia. This album, his eighteenth, although not the first album built around a theme, was the first album built around a cause.

Released in October 1964, the tracks on the album focus exclusively on the history and plight of Native Americans, with a strong focus the uncaring and unfair treatment of the original peoples of North America. Although the album only contains eight songs, the album itself ran the usual thirty minutes expected of an album during the 1960s.

It says much about the stature Cash already had as an artist that Columbia allowed him to release as noncommercial an album as Bitter Tears.

The album opens up with “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”, by Native American Peter La Farge. The song is about the loss of Seneca land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s.

As long as the moon shall rise as long as the rivers flow
As long as the sun will shine as long as the grass shall grow
The Senecas are an Indian tribe of the Iroquios nation
Down on the New York Pennsylvania Line you’ll find their reservation
After the US revolution corn planter was a chief
He told the tribe these men they could trust that was his true belief
He went down to Independence Hall and there was a treaty signed
That promised peace with the USA and Indian rights combined
George Washington gave his signature the Government gave its hand
They said that now and forever more that this was Indian land
As long as the moon shall rise…

On the Seneca reservation there is much sadness now
Washington’s treaty has been broken and there is no hope no how
Across the Allegheny River they’re throwing up a dam
It will flood the Indian country a proud day for Uncle Sam
It has broke the ancient treaty with a politician’s grin
It will drown the Indians graveyards corn planter can you swim
The earth is mother to the the Senecas they’re trampling sacred ground
Change the mint green earth to black mud flats as honor hobbles down
As long as the moon shall rise.

Johnny Cash penned “Apache Tears”, a bitter song about the mistreatment of the Apaches.

“Custer” by Peter La Farge is a Native American take on what happened at Little Big Horn. While conventional folklore often features General George Armstrong Custer as a heroic commander and victim, this song shows him as a vain and pompous individual as viewed from the Native American perspective:

Now I will tell you `busters`
I`m not a fan of Custer`s;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.
To some he was a hero,
But to me his score was zero;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Now George, he`d had victories,
But never massacres;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Old George had done his fightin`
Without too much excitin`
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

When the men were away at huntin`
Old Custer would come in pumpin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

He`d kill children, dogs and women,
With victories he was swimmin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

My favorite song on the album, “The Talking Leaves” was penned by Johnny Cash and tells the story of Sequoia (or Sequoyah), the Native American who developed written version of the Cherokee language, previously only an oral language.

Sequoia’s winters were sixteen
Silent tongue spirit clean
He walked at his father’s side
Across the smoking battle ground
Where red and white men lay all around
So many here had died
The wind had scattered around
Snow white leaves upon the ground
Not leaves like leaves from trees
Sequoia said, “What can this be?”
“What’s the strange thing here I see?”
“From where come leaves like these?”
Sequoia turned to his father’s eyes
And he said, “Father you’re wise
From where come such snow white leaves
With such strange marks upon these squares
Not even the wise owl could put them there
So strange these snow white leaves”
His father shielding his concern
Resenting the knowledge Sequoia yearned
Crumbled the snow white leaves
He said, “When I explain then it’s done
These are talking leaves, my son
The white men’s talking leaves”
The white man takes a berry of black and red
And an eagle’s feather from the eagle’s bed
And he makes bird track marks
And the marks on the leaves they say
Carry messages to his brother far away
And his brother knows what’s in his heart

The only single released from the album was another La Farge composition, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. The song tells the story of the life and death of Ira Hayes, a young US Marine of Pima descent, who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but died drunk and broke on the reservation a few short years later. The song made it to #3 on Billboard’s country singles chart

Ira Hayes…
Ira Hayes…
Call him drunken Ira Hayes,
He won’t answer anymore,
Not the whiskey drinking Indian,
Or the marine that went to war.

“Drums” is yet another La Farge composition, this song a bitter about the US government’s efforts to suppress Native American culture:

From the Indian reservation to the governmental school
Well, they’re goin’ to educate me to the white men’s Golden Rule
And I’m learning very quickly for I’ve learned to be ashamed
And I come when they call Billy though I’ve got an Indian name

And there are drums beyond the mountain
Indian drums that you can’t hear
There are drums beyond the mountain
And they’re getting mighty near

And when they think that they’d changed me
C ut my hair to meet their needs
Will they think, I’m white or Indian
Quarter blood or just half breed

Let me tell you, Mr. Teacher
When you say, you’ll make me right
In five hundred years of fighting
Not one Indian turned white and there are drums

“White Girl” is a La Farge song about the ill-fated love between a white girl and a Native American man. The girl declined to marry him because he was a Native American. The song also addresses the problems of alcohol among the Native Americans.

The album closes with “The Vanishing Race”, a song credited to Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton. Horton, Cash’s best friend and fishing buddy had died in a car crash four years before the release of this album. The song tells of a Native American viewing the future of his people

Oh, wagon trains rollin’ along
They fade from my visions and in time will be gone
I, I see an eagle in space
And my people will follow a vanishing race

Oh, now great spirits on high
Please spare them the sorrow you show to my eye
Now my blankets are roll
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
A vanishing Navajo

Bitter Tears reached #2 on Billboard’s country album charts and reached #47 on Bllboard’s all genres album chart. Although Columbia Records didn’t give either the album or single much promotional support, Cash promoted both ceaselessly, and would continue to support Native American causes throughout his life. Although Cash had no Native American blood in him (at one time he thought he might be part Cherokee), in 1966 Cash was adopted by the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan.

There are no up-tempo songs on this album and, other than “The Talking Leaves”, there are no really happy songs either. Despite that, this is my favorite Johnny Cash album, a thoroughly thoughtful and important endeavor on the part of Johnny Cash and his usual crew of the Carter Family and the Tennessee Three, augmented by ace musicians Norman Blake and Bob Johnson.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Shockin’ Y’all’

61Jj7XLa1lLAlthough Shocking’ Y’all is widely considered an in-your-face follow-up to Unleashed, it is decidedly less aggressive than its predecessor. The by-now trademark Keith humor and bravado are there, but the album itself is one of his more disjointed efforts.

The album produced three #1 singles, beginning with “I Love This Bar”, a simple, catchy and non-controversial ode to Toby’s favorite watering hole, and ending with the relatively tame “Whiskey Girl”. In between was “American Soldier” which was derided by many critics and those against the Iraq war. It admittedly sounds like a public service announcement for the US Army, but in truth it is simply an expresssion of appreciation for our armed forces, before songs in this vein became a cliche. I have no reason to doubt its sincerity and now that there is some distance from the politics of the time, I hope that those who dismissed it may give it another chance.

The rest of the album is hit or miss. “If I Was Jesus” puts an interesting spin on some of the Bible’s better known moments, but the protagonist’s comparison of himself to the Son of God made me a bit uncomfortable. “Time For Me To Ride” and “Sweet” are over-the-top bombastic messes that have nothing to do with country music. “Don’t Leave, I Think I Love You” is quite good but sonically similar to “Who’s Your Daddy?”, which may be why the label passed on it as a single. I also enjoyed “Nights I Can’t Remember, Friends I Can’t Forget”. “The Critic”, Toby’s swipe at music critics, is an interesting creative stretch that makes the case that critics are mean-spirited, frustrated musicians trying to get some attention by tearing down big name stars. It’s meant to be humorous, but ultimately it doesn’t quite work. It has a “King of the Road” type beat, and in the hands of a Roger Miller, the results might have been quite different, but Toby Keith is no Roger Miller.

The album concludes with two stripped-down live-in-concert tracks, performed with Scotty Emerick, who co-wrote most of the album’s songs with Toby. Both are tongue-in-cheek, although there are definite political undertones in “The Taliban Song”, a number that the PC crowd would undoubtedly label as culturally insensitive. “Weed With Willie”, supposedly inspired by the songwriting sessions that produced “Beer For My Horses”, is a humorous reference to the Red Headed Stranger’s well-documented love for a certain herb.

Shockin’ Y’all is one of those albums that I’m tempted to recommend that folks just download a few selected tracks, but on balance the good songs outweigh the bad, so it probably makes sense to buy it in its entirety, though I’d definitely recommend skipping “Time For Me To Ride” and “Sweet”.

Grade: B


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