My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Allen Reynolds

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

cage-the-songbirdThe mid-1980s found Crystal Gayle shifting record labels yet again. Elektra shuttered in 1982 during the chart reign of True Love, which Razor X reviewed earlier this week. Another significant shift was the addition of Jimmy Bowen, who shared a producer credit with Allen Reynolds.

By the time Cage The Songbird came along in October 1983, Gayle was recording for Warner Bros. exclusively with Bowen, who had officially taken over for Reynolds after ten albums. The resulting record was squarely within the trends of the era, following the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris by featuring a Rodney Crowell song, which by this time had become one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville. The album also featured cuts by Elton John and Hugh Prestwood among others, and while it maintained a glossy sheen, Cage The Songbird was loaded with well-chosen material.

The Prestwood cut, which opened the album, was issued as the lead single. “The Sound of Goodbye” is an excellent and bright uptempo contemporary number that ranks among my favorites of hers. It hit #1, as did the album’s third single, Tim Krekel’s lightweight rocker “Turning Away.” Gayle just missed the top spot with “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” an adult contemporary-leaning piano ballad by Joey Carbone. The fourth and final single, “Me Against The Night,” a nice mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #4.

Crowell, who was Gayle’s labelmate at the time, contributed “Victim or a Fool,” a ballad he recorded on his eponymous album two years earlier. Gayle brought an urgency to her version, courtesy of the electric guitars and driving tempo, that contrasted with the sadness Crowell highlighted with his interpretation. Both recordings are interesting although you can’t ignore Gayle’s commercial sheen – the lyric is all but buried beneath the noise.

John supplied the title track, a ballad he wrote with Bernie Taupin and Davey Johnstone. The lyric, which recounts a celebrity’s tragic life and death, was a reimagining of Édith Piaf’s passing as if she had committed suicide. The tone may be grim, but Gayle delivers a gorgeous performance of a spectacular song.

“Take Me Home” was lifted from the soundtrack of a Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name. The album consisted of duets and solo performances by Gayle and Tom Waits, who composed the songs himself. The ballad is stunning and excused from not being country at all, thanks to its origin.

Norman Saleet, another composer far outside the country realm, shows up on Cage The Songbird with “On Our Way To Love,” a ballad outside of my tastes. Saleet is best known for writing Air Supply’s “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and you can hear that influence in the melody here as well.

Of the prominent producers in country music through the years, I probably like Bowen’s work the least. He’s not distasteful to his artists, but his bland tendencies have marred his work significantly. His choices aren’t in the least bit country, either, which probably aids in my overall dissatisfaction. To that end, I really wanted to enjoy Cage The Songbird and I do find many of the album’s tracks, especially “The Sound of Goodbye” very appealing. But while I can mostly appreciate the crossover aspects, the majority of the ballads just don’t hold my attention.

Grade: B

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘True Love’

crystal_gayle_-_true_love1982 saw more changes for Crystal Gayle’s music as she transitioned to a new label and began working with a new producer. After releasing three albums for Columbia, she signed with Elektra Records, which at the time was trying to bolster its country roster. Her first assignment for her new label found her collaborating with Eddie Rabbitt. “You and I”, which does not appear on this album, was a major crossover smash that reached #1 on the Billboard country chart and #7 on the Hot 100. Shortly thereafter, Crystal made her solo debut on Elektra with the album True Love.

Although the majority of True Love was produced by Crystal’s longtime producer Allen Reynolds, Elektra apparently had some reservations about the album and wanted some changes made. Reynolds refused to cooperate, so label head Jimmy Bowen took over production duties for three additional tracks. Bowen would produce Crystal’s next album, making True Love the last time Gayle and Reynolds would work together for the remainder of the 1980s. They would reunite for 1990’s Ain’t Gonna Worry.

Bowen’s instincts proved to be correct. Among the three tracks he produced was the album’s lead single, an exquisite version of Rodney Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again”, on which Crowell provided the harmony vocals. Emmylou Harris had recorded the song in 1975, but Crystal took it to #1. Although it didn’t enjoy any crossover success, it represented a bit of a resurgence for Crystal, since none of the singles from her previous album Hollywood, Tennessee had reached the top spot.

Bowen was further vindicated when “Baby What About You”, another one the three tracks he produced also reached #1. The piano-led mid tempo number is one of my favorite Crystal Gayle songs. It provides a nice change of pace from an album that is otherwise country-rock in its leanings: Bowen’s initial complaints about the album reportedly was that “it rocked too much”. In between “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Baby What About You”, the Allen Reynolds-produced “Our Love Is On The Faultline” also became a #1 hit. The third Bowen-produced track was a remake of “Everything I Own” which had been a hit for the soft-rock group Bread in 1972. Crystal’s faithful-to-the-original reading was released as single in the United Kingdom. It topped out at #93 on the British charts in 1983. The lyrics suggest a lament for a lost love but I recently learned that David Gates composed the song about the death of his father. It’s not a country song, but it’s a very nice MOR number that Crystal sings beautifully.

The UK release of True Love includes an additional track, “Take Me to the Dance”, which I have not heard.

It’s a longstanding tradition in country music to conclude albums with a religious number. This custom is not generally followed in other genres of music, and on a pop/soft-rock leaning album like True Love, a number like “He Is Beautiful To Me” might seem slightly out of place. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful piece of music written by Bobby Wood (“Talking In Your Sleep”, “Half the Way”) and Clive Westlake. Crystal turns in a top-notch vocal performance. The song must be a particular favorite of hers, as it appears on a 2007 compilation of Crystal’s biggest hits (despite never being released as a single). A re-recorded version appears on a 1997 gospel album. A 2008 repackaging of that album is titled He Is Beautiful.

Crystal’s tenure with Elektra was to be an unusually brief one. Midway through the album’s chart run, and before the release of the second single, Elektra closed its Nashville office and its artists were transferred to the Warner Bros. Nashville roster. The singles “Our Love Is On The Faultline” and “Baby What About You” both bore the Warner Bros. imprint, as did all of Crystal’s subsequent work for the remainder of the decade.

Despite producing three #1 hits, I’m not sure how well remembered True Love is. “Til I Gain Control Again” is one of Crystal’s best-remembered hits, but I suspect the rest of the album has largely been forgotten. That is regrettable, because it’s a solid effort and better, I think, than any of her albums for Columbia. It finally saw a CD release in 2008 when it was released on a 2-for-1 disc along with her previous album Hollywood, Tennessee. That disc is currently out of print but can be purchased for premium prices.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘These Days’

41xt6655asl-_ac_us300_ql65_Released in August 1980, These Days was Crystal Gayle’s  second of three albums recorded for Columbia. Although very successful on Billboard’s Country Albums chart reaching #6 and being certified gold s also definitely NOT a country album. It is also my least favorite of her albums, although there are many redeeming moments. The album seems to run between 80’s lounge and classic pop standards.

The album opens up with “Too Many Lovers”, a #1 record written by Mark True, Ted Lindsay, Sam Hogin. This song is moderately up-tempo with a rock guitar break.  This is followed by “If You Ever Change Your Mind”, a nice ballad written by Parker McGee and Bob Gundry. The instrumentation is basically jazz piano with orchestration. This too reached #1.

“Ain’t No Love In the Heart of The City” is typical cocktail lounge pop. Crystal sings it well but the song itself leaves me cold. Written by Michael Price and Daniel Walsh, the song leans toward modern R&B, as does the next song “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)”, which I find disappointing as Will Jennings and Joe Sample have decent track records as country songsmiths. With a different arrangement, I might like “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)”, but the background vocals on the “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)” probably belong on a Patti Labelle record rather than anything recorded by Crystal Gayle, and the Kenny G style sax leaves me completely cold.

Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill usually crafted good songs, and “Help Yourselves to Each Other” is no exception. A slow ballad with flute and string accompaniment, I could see this song being released as a single to Adult Contemporary radio. Don Williams recorded the song as an album track but I think Crystal’s version is better, even exquisite.

What a time to turn your back on someone
What a day to be without a friend
What a shame when no-one seems to bother
Who will offer shelter to candles in the wind

And it follows we are only helpless children
Ever changing like sunlight through the trees
It’s a long road we must cling to one another
Help yourselves to each other, that’s the way it’s meant to be

The great Delbert McClinton wrote “Take It Easy’ which proved to be a minor hit for Crystal Gayle, reaching #17. Crystal handles it well but her version pales to the McClinton original, and I suspect grittier female country vocalists such as Gus Hardin, Lacy J Dalton, Gail Davies, Wilma Lee Cooper or Jean Shepard  could have done the song better (not that Wilma Lee or Jean could ever have been persuaded to record this song) .

“I Just Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” is another song by Sample and Jennings, this time a mid-tempo blues number , with a traditional jazz accompaniment including clarinet.

“You’ve Almost Got Me Believin'”, by Barbara Wyrick,  sounds like cocktail lounge pop. I really didn’t like this song at all, particularly after the Kenny G-styled sax kicks in. Crystal’s vocal is nice but the song is unworthy.

“Lover Man” is a pop standard classic by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. American listeners may recall Weill as the composer of “Mack The Knife”, but he penned many fine songs, including this one. While the song is often associated with Ella Fitzgerald, Crystal acquits herself well . The arrangement can be best describe as a very bluesy piece of piano jazz.

I don’t know why but I’m feeling so sad
I long to try something I never had
Never had no kissing
Oh, what I’ve been missing
Lover man, oh, where can you be

The night is cold and I’m so alone
I’d give my soul just to call you my own
Got a moon above me
But no one to love me
Lover man, oh, where can you be

The album reaches back to 1934 for its closing number “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, from the pen of Tin Pan Alley writer Harry M. Woods. Harry wrote a number of pop standard classics including “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover”,  “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye”, and “Try a Little Tenderness”.  The song is performed as an up-tempo traditional jazz number with honky-tonk piano similar to what Joanne Castle, Big Tiny Little or Joe “Fingers” Carr might have played, and a very nice clarinet solo.

Ooh, ooh, ooh
What a little moonlight can do
Ooh, ooh, ooh
What a little moonlight can do to you

You’re in love
Your heart’s fluttering
All day long
You only stutter
Cause your poor tone
Just will not utter the words
I love you

For me this is a mixed bag. I do like pop standards and traditional jazz balladry, but I don’t care for cocktail lounge jazz. There are some very nice song on this album and some songs about which I am utterly indifferent. There is nothing remotely country on this album. I think the first two and last two songs on this album, and “Help Yourselves to Each Other” are the best songs  on the album.

Grade: B

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Miss the Mississippi’

5174w-nuyal1979 saw a big shift in the direction of Crystal Gayle’s music when she switched record labels. Although she continued to work with producer Allen Reynolds, she delved even further into pop territory from the get go. Her first single for Columbia was “Half the Way”, which was her biggest hit for the label. Although it just missed the top spot on the Billboard country charts (peaking at #2), it landed at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (her final entry in the Top 20 of that chart) and #9 on the AC chart. The song is undeniably catchy, but does not sound even remotely country, although at least one its writers had solid country credentials. Ralph Murphy, a British born Canadian songwriter, penned the tune with Bobby Wood. The duo also wrote “He Got You” which was a hit for Ronnie Milsap the following year. Murphy had also written Jeannie C. Riley’s “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” and would go on to write hits for Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, Don Williams and others and would eventually be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. “Half the Way” was Crystal’s biggest hit on the pop charts after “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and set the tone for the sound of her music for the rest of her tenure with Columbia.

The second single from Miss the Mississippi was “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye”, an uptempo number with a lush string arrangement. It reached #1 on the country chart and #17 on the AC chart but only reached #63 on the Hot 100 chart. Like “Half the Way”, it is barely country but irresistibly catchy. The more stripped-down ballad “The Blue Side” was the final single, charting at #8 country, #16 AC and #81 Hot 100.

Another tune that most people old enough to remember this era will recognize is the mid tempo pop number “Don’t Go My Love” written by James Valentini and Frank Saulino. Crystal never released it as a single but I definitely remember hearing it played on MOR radio stations, although I don’t know who the artist was. My research — admittedly very limited — shows that the song was recorded by a Greek singer named Nana Mouskouri who enjoyed quite a few international hits. Again, the song is a bit of an ear worm, but there’s nothing country about it.

Balancing out all this pop are a handful of songs that are more country in nature, at least by late 70s standards. Crystal does a capable job on “Dancing the Night Away” which had been a Top 20 country hit for Tanya Tucker in 1977. “Room for One More” is another one with appeal for country fans, and the concluding track is an exquisite reading of “Miss the Missippi and You”, which is far more polished than anything Jimmie Rodgers probably ever imagined.

Miss the Mississippi is not an album for everyone. If you’re looking for hardcore country it’s best to give it a miss. However, it provides an interesting glimpse at the direction country music was taking in the late 70s — and why there was the eventual backlash known as the New Traditionalist movement in the 1980s. Even though it’s not very country, I enjoyed listening to it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘We Should Be Together’

we-should-be-togetherThe end of the 1970s saw Crystal Gayle in a point of transition as she left United Artists for Columbia. Her sixth and final album for longtime label, We Should Be Together, was released in mid-June.

The album, helmed as per usual by Allan Reynolds, produced two top ten hits. Lead single “Your Kisses Will” came from a recording session three years prior in November 1976. It peaked at #7 upon release. The song was written by Van Stephenson, a then unknown singer/songwriter who would go onto a solo career with MCA Records in the 1980s, while continuing to compose hits for other artists. In 1992 he joined Henry Paul and Dave Robbins in the formation of Blackhawk, his biggest success as an artist. He passed from Melanoma in 2001 at age 47. “Your Kisses Now” was the start of his career.

Another 1976 recording session produced “Your Old Cold Shoulder,” which peaked at #5. The track reunited her with Richard Leigh and was a rare instance where a single by the pair did not top the country singles chart. Leigh had another track on the album, “Too Deep For Tears,” a lovely piano ballad.

Harlan Howard provided “Time Will Prove That I’m Right,” a jaunty horn-drenched slice of ragtime complete with honky-tonk piano. Reynolds wrote the title track, an excellent up-tempo number. Gayle and Bill Gatzimos had two cuts on the album, the re-record of “Beyond You” and “Through Believing In Love Songs,” a lush ballad without much pep. “Sneakin’ Out The Back Door” is one of the records’ most uptempo numbers.

The album itself is very good, although a bit too pop-leaning for my tastes. I just couldn’t get into the AC balladry this time around. But this is a solid set from Gayle nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘When I Dream’

when-i-dreamBy 1978 Crystal was one of the biggest stars in country music, thanks to her massive crossover success. It was no surprise that the lead single from her new album, ‘Talking In Your Sleep’, raced to #1 on the country chart. A fine ballad with a beautiful melody and melancholy underpinning written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, it sets out a woman’s doubts of her man’s fidelity. The lush instrumentation and Crystal’s outstanding vocal helped it cross over, and it was her second biggest international hit. It was also top 20 US pop hit, and peaked at #3 on the AC chart.

It was followed by another chart topper, the handclapping ‘Why Have You Left The One You Left Me For’. Another strong emotional vocal and well-written song, albeit not as good as its predecessor, it was catchy and also crossed over, peaking at #22 on the AC chart.

It was still relatively rare to issue more than two singles from one album in the late 1970s, and it is a sign of Crystal’s stature that the third single from When I Dream, the title track, reached #3 on the country chart. The wistful ballad is a fine Sandy Mason song which Crystal re-recorded for this album, and which has become a standard.

‘Heart Mender, written by Richard Leigh and Milton Blackford, is another melodic AC ballad with a tune somewhat reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s ‘Here I Come Again’ and a delicately delivered vocal. It was released as a single in 1980 to promote Favorites, a compilation of non-hits from her time on United Artists, after she had jumped ship for Columbia; but competing with brand new material, it barely charted.

‘Hello I Love You’, written by Roger Cook and Charles Cochran, is rather boring MOR, and Dave Loggins’ ‘Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger’ is awkwardly paced and very pop sounding.

Much better is Bob McDill’s pretty love song about keeping a marriage going, ‘Too Good To Throw Away’. ‘Paintin’ This Old Town Blue’, written by W T Davidson, is also very good in a jazzy vein.

There are a handful of covers illustrating the range of Crystal’s influences. The standard ‘Cry Me A River’ also draws on her jazz leanings, and is given a sultry reading. Story song ‘The Wayward Wind’ is also beautifully sung in an AC style. Ian Tyson’s cowboy love story ‘Someday Soon’ gets a more stripped back arrangement, and is lovely. Best of all is Crystal’s gorgeous reading of Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’.

This album showcases Crystal Gayle at the peak of her powers. While it’s not the kind of country music I personally prefer, I can’t deny it’s an excellent record of its kind, well produced by Allen Reynolds, and i enjoyed listening to most of the tracks.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘We Must Believe In Magic’

818pkpdvl6l-_sx522_Released in June 1977, We Must Believe In Magic was Crystal’s fourth album for United Artists. Fueled by her massive crossover hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, it would prove to be her biggest selling album, reaching #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and #12 on the Billboard all-genres chart (her only top twenty entry on that chart). The album was certified platinum by the RIAA in 1978 and purportedly was the first platinum album recorded by a female country singer.

The album contains an eclectic mix of songs ranging from pop standards to rock ‘n’ roll hits to songs by contemporary country songsmiths.

The album opens with the first single and only single released from the album (and her biggest ever hit) “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”. Written by Richard Leigh, who had also supplied her three previous top ten hits, the sung justified the use of the word ‘magic’ in the album title by becoming a huge international hit as well as a hit in the United States and Canada. In the US the song reached #1 on the country charts, #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, #1 on the Cashbox Top 100, and #4 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It sweep the boards in Canada reaching #1 on the country, pop and AC charts and reached the top ten in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and New Zealand, and the top twenty in Australia

Don’t know when I’ve been so blue

Don’t know what’s come over you

You’ve found someone new and

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

I’ll be fine when you’re gone

I’ll just cry all night long

Say it isn’t true and

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

“I Want To Come Back To You” is a nice easy listening ballad with a flute weaving around the melody

The third song, “River Road” comes from the pen of Sylvia Fricker, an integral part of the 1960s folk movement, both as a songwriter and half of the Ian & Sylvia duo. I do not understand why this song was not released as a single.

Although my favorite pop standards songwriter was Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter comes a close second and Crystal shows her interpretive abilities with a fine recording of “It’s All Right With Me”, one of Cole Porter’s later songs, written for the 1953 musical CAN-CAN. The song has been recorded by many jazz and classic pop artists. My favorite rendition is by Ella Fitzgerald, but Crystal acquits herself well, giving a bit of a hoedown introduction to the song while still retaining the essence of the song

It’s the wrong time, and the wrong place
Though your face is charming, it’s the wrong face
It’s not his face, but such a charming face
That it’s all right with me

It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style
Though your smile is lovely, it’s the wrong smile
It’s not his smile, but such a lovely smile
That it’s all right with me

You can’t know how happy I am that we met
I’m strangely attracted to you
There’s someone I’m trying so hard to forget
Don’t you want to forget someone, too?

It’s the wrong game, with the wrong chips
Though your lips are tempting, they’re the wrong lips
They’re not his lips, but they’re such tempting lips
That, if some night, you are free
Dear, it’s all right, yes, it’s all right with me

“Going Down Slow is another easy listening ballad, nothing special but well sung by Crystal.

Producer Allen Reynolds takes a co-writing credit on “All I Want To Do In Life”. I’m not sure that the cowbell adds anything to the song, but Crystal turns in an impeccable vocal (“Cowboy” Jack Clement, by no means as good a singer as Crystal Gayle recorded a charming take on the song years later injecting far more personality into the song).

Larry Kingston’s “Make A Dream Come True” veers closer to actually being country than does most of the songs on this album, with effective use of steel guitar in the arrangement. Kingston wrote quite a few songs recorded by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush.

If I try as hard as I can

Maybe I can paint you again

In my mind, the way you were when you used to love me

Before you learned to think you were above me

Track eight “Green Door” was composed by Bob Davie and Marvin Moore, and was a huge pop hit in 1956 for Jim Lowe knocking Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” out of the #1 slot. The song did better still in the UK where the song was a hit single several times for various artists. I’m not sure I would be accurate in describing this as a rock ‘n’ roll, as the song’s primary instrumentation on Lowe’s version is that of a honky-tonk piano. The lyrics describe a mysterious private club forbidden to the singer. The club has a green entrance door, behind which apparently the crowds have a lot of fun. Crystal’s rendition is a little less rollicking than the Lowe version.

(Midnight, one more night without sleepin’)
(Watchin’ till the mornin’ comes creepin’)
(Green door, what’s that secret you’re keepin?)
There’s an old piano
And they play it hot behind the green door
Don’t know what they’re doin’
But they laugh a lot behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in
So I could find out what’s behind the green door

“Green Door” is a song which has aged well and I would suggest that the reader find Jim Lowe’s recording on You Tube. Lowe (May 7, 1923 – December 12, 2016) was a successful songwriter with some connections to country music, including Rusty Draper’s million-selling pop & country hit of 1953, “Gambler’s Guitar”

If I try as hard as I can

Maybe I can paint you again

In my mind, the way you were when you used to love me

Before you learned to think you were above me

“Funny” has the sound and feel of something from the 1920s. The author is listed as L. Anderson, but I really could not find out much about the song. It sounds like something Ted Lewis and his Orchestra would have performed during the vaudeville era and as such it makes a nice change of pace.

The album closes with the title track. “We Must Believe In Magic,” by Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill. The song opens with some odd SF sounds and special effects, which retreat to the background once the vocals commence. Johnny Cash would record the song on his The Adventures of Johnny Cash album, giving it a more of a folk feel.

Mad is the captain of Alpha Centauri
We must be out of our minds
Still we are shipmates bound for tomorrow
And everyone here’s flying blind

[Chorus]
Oh, we must believe in magic
We must believe in the guiding hand
If you believe in magic
You’ll have the universe at your command

I really like this album, although I don’t find it very country at all. It is well produced and well sung.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Somebody Loves You’

51jizvcqjml-_ss500After several years of struggling, Crystal Gayle finally enjoyed her breakthrough Top 10 hit with 1974’s “Wrong Road Again”. The two subsequent singles from her debut album both failed build on that success, however, which must have been cause for concern at the time. She rebounded nicely, however, with her sophomore album, which was released in 1975. “Somebody Loves You”, one of three tracks penned by producer Allen Reynolds, reached #8. The album’s second single, “I’ll Get Over You”, the first of several hits written for her by Richard Leigh, became her first chart-topper in early 1976. The simple melody and lyric, beautifully sung, has always been one of my favorites.

Somebody Loves You followed the same basic formula as Crystal’s prior album — more polished than the music that hardcore traditionalists like big sister Loretta were putting out — but still quite country in comparison to Crystal’s later work. Allen Reynolds’ songs are among the best in the collection: the traditional-leaning “Before I’m Over You” and the oft-recorded “Dreaming My Dreams With You” which was made famous by Waylon Jennings. Crystal branches out a bit with the bluesy “Sweet Baby On My Mind”, which sounds very similar to “Night Life”, a 1963 hit for Ray Price penned by Willie Nelson. “I Want To Lose Me In You” by Jim Rushing and Marshall Chapman is a pretty but lyrically light number. The same could be said about “High Time”, which is little more than catchy album filler, but Lloyd Green’s steel guitar gives it a little extra oomph. Crystal and her husband Bill Gatzimos wrote one track for the album, the pleasant but forgettable “Coming Closer”.

Somebody Loves You was an important album in Crystal Gayle’s discography. It finally set her on track for consistent commercial success; during the next decade only two of her singles missed the Top 10. The album is also notable for some of its session personnel: the aforementioned steel guitar great Lloyd Green and background vocalists Janie Fricke, who would go on to have a successful solo career of her own, and Garth Funds, who later became a famous producer for Keith Whitley and Trisha Yearwood, among others.

This is a good album for those who are interested in hearing Crystal’s music before she started enjoying crossover success.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Crystal Gayle’

crystalgaylecrystalgayleCrystal Gayle released her eponymous debut album in February 1975. The legendary Allen Reynolds produced the record, which was her first for United Artists. It peaked at #25.

The first single was “Wrong Road Again,” written by Reynolds. The short ballad is lyrically generic, but found significance sonically. The heavy orchestration was a sharp diversion from sounds typically associated with country music at the time. The gamble, which became a genre norm going forward, paid off – the song rose to #6.

She wouldn’t receive as a warm a reception with the album’s other two singles. “Beyond You,” which she co-wrote with Bill Gatzimos, is a gorgeous piano ballad that petered out at #27. The far more appealing, and a lot more country, “This Is My Year for Mexico” peaked at #21.

Reynolds also contributed “Loving You So Long Now,” an excellent guitar-driven mid-tempo number reminiscent of his work with Waylon Jennings. Gayle also shines on Paul Craft’s “Counterfeit Love (You Know I Got It),” a gentle uptempo number. Canadian Country Singer Ray Griff, who passed away earlier this year, wrote the jaunty and steel drenched “Gonna Lay Me Down Beside My Memories.” Singer/songwriter Marshall Chapman is behind the fantastic “A Woman’s Heart (Is A Handy Place To Be).”

I also love the ear-catching “Hands,” which may have a slightly cutesy lyric, boasts the strongest production work on the entire album. Crystal Gayle also features the first rendition of “When I Dream,” which Gayle would rerecord as the title track to her 1978 album. Issued as a single it would peak at #3. I much prefer the version found here, which finds the song in a more organic setting, with a nice cadence. Lush ballad “You,” written by Dolly Parton was the only song on the album not quite to my tastes.

As we know from Occasional Hope’s excellent review of I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out of My Eyes, these aren’t Gayle’s first recordings. Paul also pointed out United Artists issued three low-charting singles prior to the release of “Wrong Road Again,” her fourth single for the label. But these are the songs that saw Gayle as the artist she would become, her own woman, outside of her sister’s shadow. Reynolds has crafted an excellent showcase for her while simultaneously contributing to a changing landscape in country music (I always refer to as ‘slick country,’ although a more fitting moniker may exist) that wouldn’t be properly rectified for another decade. But it’s still a fabulous album, that nicely fits into the greater legacy of the genre.

Grade: A

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

Man_Against_Machine_coverExcluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

Miller, it’s worth noting, took over production duties from Brooks’ right hand man Allen Reynolds, who Brooks revealed has retired from the music business. His touch gives the album a fresher feel, but doesn’t hide the fact that Man Against Machine contains tracks far more country than anything released on a major label this year.

It’s no secret that western-themed songs are Brooks’ favorite as he includes at least one on every album. Man Against Machine has two that differ greatly on quality. “Rodeo and Juliet,” which Brooks co-wrote, has an underwritten lyric about a cowgirl on the racing circuit that comes off cutesy despite a pleasing western swing styled production. “Cowboys Forever” falls on the opposite end, standing up against anything he’s ever recorded on the subject. Dean Dillon’s co-written lyric is excellent, using a cowboy theme to relay a greater message about camaraderie.

The idea of a euphemism manifesting a larger message is also tackled in “Fish,” a conversation between a fisherman and a workaholic. The former teaches the latter about the importance of life; all while continuing to live the easy life he’s carved for himself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Fish” is the most sonically country song on whole album. “Wrong About You” follows close behind, with a jaunty banjo/dobro beat that roots the mid-paced number in an organic backbeat. “Midnight Train” comes off as the pop version of a country shuffle.

The majority of Man Against Machine is made up of songs that bring a bit of muscle into the conversation. A prime example is “Cold Like That,” a song that begins quietly but turns bombastic by the chorus. Brooks has the voice for it, but the production doesn’t offer any interesting flourishes to hook the listener. “Tired of Boys” is much better, with Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal coming in loud and clear. I do wish Miller had given it more of a 90s throwback vibe, which would’ve elevated the overall track just that much more. “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is more of the same, a ballad with light steel guitar that sill manages to use power to sell its story.

“All-American Kid,” a tune about a college-bound football star, is a very different song for Brooks both in subject matter and lyrical structure. I’m still debating whether I feel this kind of song is right for him or I’m just taken aback at him trying something new. Either way it isn’t a bad song and I like the ample use of fiddle.

“Tacoma” is Brooks’ bluesy moment, which he executes really well. I don’t usually go for this type of song, so that hinders my enjoyment of it, but people who enjoy these sorts of things will probably love it. The only truly puzzling song is the title track, which puts Brooks back in his faux-rock persona. It’s just too much power and muscle for me, no matter the quality of the lyrics.

Man Against Machine is a bizarre album. Brooks’ classic persona is undeniably present, but nothing here feels like essential listening. With the exception of “Mom” this whole album feels like filler to me, with too much eighties rock, not enough organic sounds, and very little passion on Brooks’ part. I expected more after thirteen years, from both Man Against Machine and his whole comeback extravaganza.

I also never dreamt mainstream country music would erode like it has, so I guess the joke may be on me. While the formula is here (cowboy songs, Yearwood on backing vocals, fiddles and steel) it just wasn’t executed with a timeless feel. Brooks, in his heyday, proved he is much, much better than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘In Pieces’

Garth In PiecesStarting with No Fences, Garth Brooks achieved a level of sales that had previously been unheard of in country music. It propelled him to international superstardom, and the pressure on him and producer Allen Reynolds to sustain that level of success must have been overhwhelming. Having reached a significant number of people outside the usual country music audience, it was perhaps inevitable that he would tailor his sound to accomodate them. As a result, his albums became increasingly eclectic — and inconsistent in quality. This trend began with 1992’s The Chase and continued with 1993’s In Pieces.

The album spawned five singles, two of which reached #1. The first was “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til The Sun Comes Up”, a Garth co-write with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams. Though it was more country than most of the singles from The Chase, it has more of a rock edge than his earlier work, and while I don’t intensely dislike the song, it’s not one of my favorites. It was followed by another #1 hit, “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”, which is aimed squarely at the country audience. It’s meant to be in the same vein as “Friends In Low Places”, but tries a little too hard and lacks the charm of that earlier hit. “Standing Outside the Fire” is better, though I still wouldn’t rank it among Garth’s best work.

“One Night A Day”, written by Gary Burr and Pete Wasner is one of Garth’s least country-sounding songs. Completely lacking in country instrumentation, the piano and saxophone-led track leans towards jazz and seems to have been an attempt at a crossover hit. It did not chart outside the country charts, where it peaked at #7. While some artists can successfully pull off an occasional venture beyond the confines of country music, Garth Brooks, to my mind, has never been one of them. He seems to have thought otherwise, as he tended to test the non-country waters fairly regularly. I’ve never thought that his voice or delivery were particularly suited to this type of song. He seems equally out of his comfort zone on the bluesy “Kickin’ and Screamin'”.

The album’s final and best single is a cover version of the Dennis Linde-penned “Callin’ Baton Rouge”. Originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys in 1978, it was later covered by New Grass Revival, who released it as a sigle in 1989. Their version peaked at #37, but Garth’s version, on which members of New Grass Revival sang and played, reached #2. It is one of the two great tracks on the album, the other being the album’s closing track, “The Cowboy Song”, a low-key number that is much more suited to Garth than some of the overblown power-ballads he seemed so fascinated with during this phase of his career.

“The Red Strokes”, while not released as a single in the US, became Garth’s biggest hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at #13 on the British pop charts. It’s not surprising that one of his more pop-leaning recordings was successful in a country not normally known for embracing country music, but artistically, the track is one of his poorer efforts.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with this album when it was first released, and was somewhat surprised to find that I like it a lot better now than I did then. However, that says more about the current state of country music than it does about the current state of country music than it does about the quality of this album. I’m tempted to say that it’s worth downloading “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “The Cowboy Song” and skipping the rest, but this is Garth Brooks we’re talking about, so single-track downloads aren’t an option. Pick up a cheap used copy if you haven’t heard this one.

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review: The Crowe Brothers – ‘Forty Years Old’

forty years old

Straddling the boundaries between traditional country and bluegrass, the close sibling Louvin-style harmonies of Josh and Wayne Crowe are always worth hearing, especially as the duo have a penchant for picking great songs. Their latest album is no exception.

A number of country classics given bluegrass instrumentation include the opening ‘Lost Highway’, written by Leon Payne but best known from Hank Williams’ recording. the Crowe Brothers’ version is excellent. I also enjoyed ‘Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache’, which is suitably plaintive, with soaring fiddle. The romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow’ is also nicely done, while a bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Let Our Love Die’ is beautiful. The pleasantly philosophical ‘Someday My Ship Will Sail’ is less well known, but the Allen Reynolds tune has been recorded in the past by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.

‘I’ve Got The Moon On My Side’ was written by Tom T Hall and wife Dixie with Troy Engle. It has been released as a single for bluegrass radio. It has a perky feel as the protagonist takes comfort in the country moonlight while his ex lives it up in town. The quirky ‘Livin’ In A Mobile Home’ was written by country songwriters Rory Michael Bourke and Ronny Scaife. It celebrates a life on the road in a Winnebago, and is entertaining and memorable.

‘Green Fields Of Erin’ is about the Irish emigrant experience and the longing for home.

The more-or-less title track ‘You Turned Forty Years Old’ is an old man’s fond tribute as his beloved son reaches a landmark age, written by Steve Watts. A charming lullaby rhythm and melody make this very memorable as the protagonist reminisces about his boy’s childhood.

‘Where Will You Be’ is a gospel tune written by Wayne Crowe and delivered with good cheer. ‘Angel Mother’ is an old fashioned (in a good way) pure bluegrass tribute to a mother. The set closes with the rapid-paced ‘Two Feet On The Floor’, which is typical up-tempo bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review – Alison Krauss – ‘Forget About It’

Forget+About+It++1After reuniting with Union Station for the back-to-basics So Long, So Wrong Alison Krauss went solo for her 1999 effort, choosing to record an eclectic pop flavored album blending choice covers with newer material. As a result, Forget About It is one of Krauss’ most vibrant albums containing some of the most exquisite vocal performances of her career.

The album’s lead single marked her first time Krauss recorded a Robert Lee Castleman song, a songwriter who would become a go-to with at least one cut on each album she (and Union Station) would cut from this point onward. This first instance was the title track, an excellent mandolin drenched number displaying an upbeat disposition rare for the usually downbeat Krauss. She proves a revelation digging her teeth into a number that has more substance then first meets the eye. It’s one of my favorite moments Krauss has ever put on record. Country radio took notice as well, helping the song peak at 67 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Larry Byrom and Allyson Taylor co-wrote album opener “Stay,” a gorgeous mandolin and dobro soaked ballad detailing two reunited lovers. “Love’s taken you far, away from my heart, and I’ve been here all alone” Krauss sings with pent up pain, while also observing “Have your eyes failed to find, what took you from mine, a vision that’s faded through time?” The pair is worlds apart, but through it all she knows there’s a way to keep him around, if only he would meet her demands (“Darlin don’t turn away, don’t doubt your heart and keep us apart, I’m right where you are”).

“Stay” is a fantastic song if not for the conviction Krauss brings to her vocal, then for Byrom and Taylor’s perfectly nuanced story. Third and final single “Maybe” serves as a sequel of sorts, with the woman finally realizing the relationship is over. This revelation has her psyche in a better place, confidently declaring, “Maybe it’s for the best, I can live alone, I guess. Maybe I can stand alone, Maybe I’m strong as stone.” Another winner, “Maybe” succeeds on Krauss’ soaring vocal, a brilliant homage to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” that has her delivering the verses in near whisper while displaying the fullness of her pitch-perfect range during the chorus. “Maybe” is one of Krauss’ greatest achievements as a contemporary vocalist.

As if Krauss had anything left to prove after “Maybe,” she also recorded Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House,” a #5 peaking single for Shenandoah in 1990. Krauss’ version is divine with minimal production giving her impeccably controlled vocal the space to shine. In lesser hands this could’ve been a slow sleep-inducing effort, but Krauss draws the listener in with her choice to open the track a cappella and keeps the listener hooked throughout.

Forget About It closes with another country cover; Allen Reynolds oft-recorded standard “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” The quiet nature of the song is perfect for Krauss’ voice, and the beautifully understated production helps the listener appreciate Krauss’ reading of the timeless story about a person mourning the loss of their true love, vowing never to forget what they had together.

Another of my favorite numbers is a cover of rock singer Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” which maintains the song’s steady beat but is given a somewhat classier feel that allowed me to get into the story contained in the lyrics. Like the rest of the project the track is striking, with well-placed dobro accents assisting the melody by keeping the track from coming off as sleepy.

The most overtly bluegrass leaning track is a cover of Union Station bandmate Ron Block’s “Could You Lie,” which stands in contrast from the rest of Forget About It in that it features the heaviest dose of dobro. Jerry Douglas is given a bigger showcase here, acting as a main player instead of an accent flowing through the melody. Like the singles, “Could You Lie” also features a very pronounced chorus with her Union Station bandmates turning in harmony vocals. The more polished nature of the song also helps it stand out as one of the sets most memorable. It’s another personal favorite of mine.

Aside from soul superstar Michael McDonald and Michael Johnson’s “Empty Hearts,” one of the slower ballads, I haven’t spent any time with the remaining tracks on Forget About It opting to single out my favorite numbers on repeated listenings. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, however. Danny O’Keefe’s “Never Got Off The Ground” is a wonderful mandolin and dobro ballad, just like McDonald’s “It Doesn’t Matter Now.” “That Kind of Love,” a third song co-written by McDonald is a slower ballad about the importance of love and it’s good. It was featured in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

Forget About It may not be a landmark album in Krauss’ discography but it’s easily one of her strongest overall recordings thanks to an expertly chosen collection of songs impeccably produced and sung by the singer herself. Krauss is smart enough to mostly stay within her comfort zone, keep the songs from sounding alike, and avoid sleep-inducing production choices. If you’ve never listened to this set, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘Old Yellow Moon’

harriscrowellAlthough the prospect of an Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell duets album seemed like an idea that was long overdue, I initially kept my hopes in check, having been disappointed, more often than not, by the recent output of both artists. However, Old Yellow Moon, which was released last week has more than exceeded my admittedly guarded expectations, and is in fact the best collection that either artist has released in quite a long time.

The album was produced by Emmylou’s ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced her best work from the 1970s and early 1980s, and the songwriting credits read like a Who’s Who in country music featuring names such as Hank DeVito, Roger Miller, Allen Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, Rodney Crowell himself. The first two tracks, DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and an excellent cover of Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues” sound as though they could have been left over from some of those 1970s recording sessions and recently discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” sounds like an old Everly Brothers tune, and I also quite like “Here We Are”, which Emmylou had previously recorded with George Jones.

I was initially less impressed with “Black Caffeine” a bluesy tribute to the dark bean; it has grown on me with repeated listenings, though I still would not rank it as one of my favorites. I found “Spanish Dancer” to be rather dull. It is closer in style to Emmylou’s post-mainstream music than anything else on the album and is my least favorite here. “Dreaming My Dreams”, the oft-covered Allen Reynolds song made famous by Waylon Jennings, is reworked as a duet. The wear and tear on both artists’ voices is quite apparent on this track, but the seasoned vocals somehow enhance the song rather than detract from it.

“Bluebird Wine” is a Crowell composition that Emmylou recorded for her debut album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. This time around it is given an acoustic treatment with Crowell singing lead. The album’s most polished track is Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, which is given a simple piano arrangement. The occasional cracks in Harris’ voice add credibility to the tale of an old woman reminiscing about her youth.

Only a little more than two months in, it’s a little premature to be making predictions about the best albums of the year, but it’s difficult to foresee any circumstances under which Old Yellow Moon would not be on my list of year-end picks. I hope that both Harris and Crowell will do more of this style of music in the future.

Grade: A

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walk The Way The Wind Blows’

1986’s Walk The Way The Wind Blows marked a turning point in Kathy Mattea’s recording career. Following two moderately successful albums for Mercury Records, it marked a major change in direction, both creatively and commercially. She cast aside the pop-country arrangements that had characterized her previous two albums and the stripped-down folk-flavored sound proved to be a good fit with radio during the then-fledgling New Traditionalist movement.

Mattea’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s first single, “Love at the Five and Dime”, which included harmony vocals by Don Williams. It is notable both for being her first Top 10 hit, peaking at #3, and for gaining recognition for its songwriter Nanci Griffith. Griffith’s own recording of the song appeared that same year. The song’s success stands as a testimony to the remarkable era in which it was released; nothing about the well written story tune is, on the surface, particularly radio friendly, and it is unlikely that would ever have been a hit during any other era in country music. It most certainly would not be given much attention in today’s environment.

The upbeat title track, written by Tim O’Brien was selected to be “Love at the Five and Dime’s” follow-up hit. This one seems to be more in line with what radio is typically looking for, but it did not perform quite as well as its predecessor, peaking at a still respectable #10. Mercury chose another ballad as the album’s third single, the lovely “You’re The Power” written by Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Though it reached #5, this one doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered today as some of Kathy’s other hits, but it is beautifully performed and is my favorite song on the album. The album’s final single was “Train of Memories”, which peaked at #6, but was ultimately overshadowed by the bigger hits that followed it from Kathy’s next album.

The introspective “Leaving West Virginia” gives us a rare glimpse at Kathy Mattea the songwriter. The protagonist is heading for California rather than Nashville, but it seems quite possible that the tune is semi-autobiographical. “You Plant Your Fields” and “Up Grinnin’ Again” are the album’s two weak spots. They are not bad songs, and if included on any number of other albums, they might not stand out as the weakest tracks, but they don’t quite rise to the level of most of the other songs on the album. The album does close on a high note, with a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song For The Life”, which would become a hit for Alan Jackson eight years later.

Like its predecessor From My Heart, Walk The Way The Wind Blows was produced Allen Reynolds, who was probably most famous up to that point for his work with Crystal Gayle. He would continue to be Kathy’s producer for the rest of the decade before going on to even greater fame producing hits for Garth Brooks.

Though it was released over 25 years ago, Walk The Way The Wind Blows has held up exceptionally well. The production does not sound dated and the only clue to the album’s age is the fact that this type of music would not be considered commercially viable today. It is available for download and used CD copies can be purchased at bargain prices. It’s worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A-