My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Allen Shamblin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

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Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Life’s A Dance’

John Michael Montgomery’s debut album was released in October 1992. It sold 3 million copies, launching him as a bona fide star, although it does not sound particularly distinctive. At the time I personally was not blown away, and to be perfectly honest it still sounds rather generic to me, but since that era of country music was a strong one, Montgomery has a decent voice and there are some good songs, it sounds much better set against today’s music.

The title track and lead single, ‘Life’s A Dance’ was a promising start for the newcomer, launching him to a #4 hit. Written by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, it is a simple mid paced tune about finding your path In life by accepting whatever comes. It is agreeable listening but not all that memorable.

The follow up, ‘I Love The Way you Love Me’, written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, was JMM’s first chart topper. It played to his greatest strengths vocally as a smoothly crooned romantic ballad, leaning in the AC direction, with instrumentation which sounds a bit dated now. A pop cover of the song by Irish boyband Boyzone was a big hit in Europe in 1998.

Finally, ‘Beer And Bones’ was less successful, peaking just outside the top 20. Written by country songwriting legend Sanger D Shafer and Lonnie Williams, it is the most hardcore honky tonk song on the album, with raw vocals.

The singles, and three other tracks, were produced by Doug Johnson. ‘When Your Baby Ain’t Around’ is pleasant mid-tempo filler. ‘Line On Love’ is quite a nice if rather generic song about life lessons learnt from growing up in the country. ‘Dream On Texas Ladies’ is a very pretty waltz which is a cover of a minor hit for Rex Allen Jr in 1984.

The remaining four tracks were produced by Wyatt Easterling. ‘A Great Memory’ is an excellent Dean Dillon/Trey Bruce song on which JMM sounds like fellow-Kentuckian Keith Whitley. Whitley’s influence is also evident on ‘Nickels And Dimes And Love’, a tender memoir of love in poverty which was later cut by Vern Gosdin. It was written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark, who also contributed ‘Every Time I Fall (It Breaks Her Heart)’, a tribute to a woman standing by a flawed man.

Finally, ‘Taking Off The Edge’, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, is an enjoyable and rather sexy up-tempo number.

John Michael Montgomery had not quite found his own voice on this album, but it is a generally enjoyable record.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’

Kenny Rogers released his most recent album, You Can’t Make Old Friends, in October 2013. It was his inaugural release for Warner Bros. Nashville and first record of all new material in seven years.

The title track, co-written by Don Schlitz with Caitlyn Smith and Ryan Hanna King, reunited Rogers with Dolly Parton. The mostly acoustic ballad is a masterful look at two singers contemplating their advancing age, wondering how they’ll go on one day without each other. The song peaked at #57 as the album’s only single.

You Can’t Make Old Friends is peppered with contributions from some of the finest writers to emerge out of Nashville in the past thirty years. Schlitz appears again, alongside his longtime co-collaborator Paul Overstreet, on “Don’t Leave Me in the Nighttime,” which features accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco. The track is good but would’ve been a lot stronger had it been given a 1990s styled arrangement.

Allen Shamblin also has two cuts. He wrote the contented “All I Need Is One” with Marc Beeson and the reflective “Look At You” with Mike Reid. The latter is the stronger song by a mile, but pails in comparison to “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which is the pair’s masterpiece.

The album closes with Dan Seals’ “It’s Gonna Be Easy Now,” which he recorded on On The Front Line in 1986. Rogers’ version is a terrible mix of raspy vocals and an overbearing arrangement that drowns the song in faux-rock.

“When You Love Someone” comes from the pen of Gretchen Peters and composer Michael Kaman. Peters originally recorded the tune as a duet with Bryan Adams for the animated film Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron in 2002. The track, a tasteful ballad, is very good although it does get list-oriented.

Dave Loggins co-wrote “Neon Horses” with Ronnie Samoset. The song has good bones but flies off the rails when Rogers begins cooing “la la la” throughout. “Dreams of the San Joaquin,” co-written by Randy Sharp and Jack Wesley Roth is one of the album’s most well-written and strongest offerings.

A pair of tunes come from the minds of more contemporary songwriters. Casey Beathard co-wrote “You Had To Be There,” a dark ballad relaying a phone call between an absentee father visiting his son in prison. Power rocker “Turn This World Around,” which comes from Eric Paslay, Andrew Dorff and Jason Reeves, casts Rogers in a modern light that renders him unrecognizable. “‘Merica” is a national pride anthem that I found unappealing.

You Can’t Make Old Friends is far from a terrible album, but it is Rogers’ usual mixed bag of styles and sonic textures. He doesn’t make any wide sweeps but he does choose material that runs the gamut from great to good to awful. In other words, this is a typical Kenny Rogers album.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘She Rides Wild Horses’

When She Rides Wild Horses was released in 1999, his first release on Dreamcatcher, it had been a decade since Kenny had a top ten country album or a top ten country song, and fifteen years since a Kenny Rogers song had hit the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, so it is hard to believe that expectations were that high for this album, especially since Kenny had turned 61 years old, an antique as far as the increasingly youth oriented music world was concerned.

Dreamcatcher was Kenny’s own label and perhaps his proprietary interest in the label sparked renewed life in his recording career. While not a great album, the album did feature some very interesting songs that led to a mild resurgence in Kenny’s career, reaching #6 on the Country albums chart, and selling platinum, the last Kenny Rogers album to do so (and the first one in fifteen years).

The album opens with “Slow Dance More”, a nice mid-tempo homily to the virtues of appreciating one’s family. The song was the second single released from the album, reaching #67 on the country chart. This is the most country sounding song on the album with Russ Pahl on steel guitar, Jonathan Yudkin on fiddle and Richard Bailey on banjo (the only appearance for any of them on these instruments – Bruce Bouton would do the rest of the steel guitar on the album.

Grady Johnson was a common man
Four children and some bottom land
Early to bed, he said, “well that ain’t me
I gotta spend some time with my family
Left to its own device, May becomes June
But children grow up way too soon

[Chorus]
So love your neighbor as yourself
Don’t use money to measure wealth
Trust in God but lock your door
Buy low, sell high and slow dance more”

This is followed by “Buy Me A Rose”, the third single and a surprise #1 country hit that also cracked the top forty on the Hot 100 chart. This was Kenny’s first #1 on any chart since 1987. “Buy Me a Rose” is a ballad, the story of a husband who attempts to please his wife with material objects, such as a “three-car garage and her own credit cards“, before realizing that it is the little things and gestures that truly matter.

The song features Billy Dean and Alison Krauss singing background.

He works hard to give her all he thinks she wants
A three car garage, her own credit cards
He pulls in late to wake her up with a kiss good night
If he could only read her mind, she’d say:

“Buy me a rose, call me from work
Open a door for me, what would it hurt
Show me you love me by the look in your eyes
These are the little things I need the most in my life”

Now the days have grown to years of feeling all alone
And she can’t help but wonder what she’s doing wrong
Cause lately she’d try anything to turn his head
Would it make a difference if she said:

“Buy me a rose, call me from work
Open a door for me, what would it hurt
Show me you love me by the look in your eyes
These are the little things I need the most in my life”

Next up is “I Will Remember You” written by Irish balladeer and musician Seamus Egan. This song is a very slow ballad that Kenny sings well.

Eric Kaz and Linda Thompson-Jenner penned “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, a slow ballad of breakup and heartache.

The title track “She Rides Wild Horses” written by Bob Corbin and Ted Hewitt, was not released as a single. Although laden with keyboards and strings, I think that the song would have made a good single if pushed toward Adult Contemporary market.

It’s just her and the band and the clean up man
She’s countin’ up her tips, she did alright
She says goodnight
She drives home to a three room flat
Checks her machine and she feeds the cat
She’s almost asleep
Before she turns out the light

In her dreams, she rides wild horses
And they carry her away on the wind
And they never make a sound
As they fly above the ground
Tonight she rides wild horses again

“The Kind of Fool That Love Makes” was written by Brenda Lee (yes, that Brenda Lee), Michael McDonald and Dave Powelson

Anyone can read the signs
Or the writing on the wall
It’s all right there to see
Except someone like me
Who can’t see the truth at all.

It takes a special kind of fool
To stand out in the rain
Somewhere in between
Nothing left to lose
And nothing to be gained.

What kind of fool does it take?
To go on loving alone
Like there’s some answer in the ruins
Some silver lining to be found.

An even bigger fool might think
You would care if my arm breaks
Before the time that I admit
I’m just the kind of fool love makes.

Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms” was already an oldie, having been recorded many times since released by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge in 1973. Dobie Gray had the biggest pop hit with the song in 1974 and Elvis hit the county top ten with his posthumous 1981 release. Kenny’s version is okay, but the slow tempo is too similar to the rest of the album.

If you could see me now
The one who said that he’d rather roam
The one who said he’d rather be alone
If you could only see me now

If I could hold you now
Just for a moment if I could really make you mine
Just for a while turn back the hands of time
If I could only hold you now

I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
And lying in your loving arms again

“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” was co-written by Allen Shamblin and Mike Reid and was a hit for Bonnie Raitt in 1981. The song is yet another slow ballad and is given a bland cocktail lounge arrangement that strips the song of any character.

Kenny recorded “Let It Be Me” with Dottie West for their album Classics. Tammy Fry sings the female harmony on this stringy ballad. This version does not compare well with his earlier rendition, and it is just another slow ballad.

The album closes with the fabulous Don Schlitz composition “The Greatest”. Although the song only reached #26 on the country singles chart, I suspect that the song reverberated with many male listeners and led them to seek out the album when it was released. I know that many times I was that little boy in the song, and I purchased the CD on the strength of this song alone without really caring about what was on the rest of the album.

Little boy, in a baseball hat
Stands in the field with his ball and bat
Says “I am the greatest player of them all”
Puts his bat on his shoulder and he tosses up his ball

And the ball goes up and the ball comes down
Swings his bat all the way around
The world’s so still you can hear the sound
The baseball falls to the ground

Now the little boy doesn’t say a word
Picks up his ball, he is undeterred
Says “I am the greatest there has ever been”
And he grits his teeth and he tries it again

And the ball goes up and the ball comes down
Swings his bat all the way around
The world’s so still you can hear the sound
The baseball falls to the ground

He makes no excuses, he shows no fears
He just closes his eyes and listens to the cheers

After a series of mediocre disappointing recordings, It was nice to see Kenny release a decent album. This isn’t a great album, and it isn’t very country, but it is good. Kenny is in good voice throughout, and several of the songs, especially the three released singles and the title track are outstanding. The album could stand some more variation in tempos, but as is, the album is worth a B

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Six Days on the Road’

Sawyer Brown was nearing the end of their hitmaking days when Six Days on the Road dropped twenty years ago this month. The album was their second to last to be produced by Mac McAnally, who had significant influence over the project.

The lead single was the title track, a cover of the 1963 Dave Dudley classic. Their version, which I would regard as very good, peaked at #13. They rose to #6 with another cover, “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” previously a hit for both Bill LaBounty and Michael Johnson. I also really liked their version of this song, as well.

The final two singles weren’t as successful. The wonderful “Another Side,” a ballad solely penned by Miller petered out at #55. A fourth and final single, “Small Talk,” a Miller and McAnally co-written dud, hit #60.

McAnally had two solely written songs on the album. “With This Ring” is a tender love song while “Night and Day” is uptempo with generic rockish production. Neither song quite measures up to McAnally’s high standard with the group, which if we’re being honest is an impossible bar to reach.

Five more tracks were either written or co-written by Miller. “Transistor Rodeo,” “Half A Heart,” “A Love Like This” and “Every Twist and Turn” are unmistakable of their era and very catchy. “The Nebraska Song,” which Miller wrote alone, is a tribute to Bill Berringer, quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers who was killed in a 1996 plane crash. The track is a nice and tender acoustic ballad.

“Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” by Mark Alan Springer, is a wonderfully infectious mid-tempo ballad laced with nice flourishes of steel. “Between You and Paradise, which Springer co-wrote with Neal Coty, is a very strong traditional-leaning ballad.

Six Days on the Road is a nice, above average mid-1990s country album. The music is in no way traditional, yet it isn’t overwhelming poppy or rock either. There’s nothing to jump out of your skin over, though, with brings the album down a notch. But Six Days On The Road is a bit better than good.

Grade: B

Side Note: If you haven’t checked out Drive Me Wild, which hit in 1999, do so if only for “I’m In Love With Her.” The ballad, written by Chuck and Cannon and Allen Shamblin, is one of the band’s finest moments on record. As a single it peaked at #47. I have no doubt if it had come out at the height of the band’s popularity it would’ve been ranked among their most iconic singles (with different, less busy, production values). It’s just that strong.

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘Little Texas’

little-texasThe sands of time ran out quickly for Little Texas as their eponymous fourth album, their last for Warner Brothers, barely charted reaching #47. By this time lead singer Brady Seals had departed the band leaving Tim Rushlow in charge of lead vocals.

Little Texas
hit the marketplace thirty-one months after their third album, a delay that probably didn’t help their chances in the ever changing market. The three singles released from the album all tanked at radio with none reaching the top forty. Despite this, I regard this as possibly their best album, with tighter vocal harmonies and a nice array of songs.

The album opens with “Loud and Proud”, written in part by band member Porter Howell. This is one of the weaker songs on the album, sounding more rock than country, but it is not bad:

Show me a mountain
Tell me it can’t be climbed
I’ll find my way through any shadow of doubt
And I’ll meet you on the other side

I love a good challenge
Send them all my way
I’ll rise to any occasion
I am not afraid

To be loud and proud
And givin’ in to nothin’
Livin’ and a lovin’
I’ll never get enough
And all the ups and downs
I take ’em as they come
And I’ll be right here standing my ground
Loud and proud

“Bad for Us” from the pens of Porter Howell, Dwayne O’Brien and Tom Shapiro) was the first and most successful single, reaching #45. The song is a nice ballad about a relationship that seems to be on the rocks. Several radio stations featured this song as their pick of the week, but the song never did generate any momentum, not surprisingly since more than a year had passed since the band’s last single.

You really got a good one in
You hit me where it hurts
Just so you wouldn’t get the best of me
I fired back somethin’ worse

I put you down
You show me up
Good for you
Good for me
Bad for us

We keep goin’ around and ’round
When’s it gonna stop
Real love’s not a matter of
Who comes out on top

“Ain’t No Time to Be Afraid” by Porter Howell and Allen Shamblin is another nice ballad, this one rather philosophical in nature. I would have picked this song for single release:

I was scared half to death
I couldn’t catch my breath
‘Cause that old tree down by the river
Was thirty feet high

That’s when I heard my daddy’s voice
He said, Son you’ve got a choice
You can climb down now
Or you can fly

This ain’t no time to be afraid
Or look the other way
If your prayers have all been prayed
Then you just let it come what may

If you’re not brave enough to try
Then life will pass you by
All we have is today
There ain’t no time to be afraid

“Long Way Down” sounds more like up-tempo 60s pop than anything else. Nashville songsmith Bob DiPiero co-wrote this with Porter Howell and O’Brien.

The second single off the album was “Your Mama Won’t Let Me”, which died at #64 on the charts. It is pretty generic, pleasant but not all that memorable. Del Gray, Thom McHugh and Keith Follesé composed this song

Like to take you to the movies on a Saturday night
But your mama won’t let me
Steal you away for a Sunday drive
But your mama won’t let me

She’s one step ahead of me every time
When I get too close she draws that line
Thinks I’m trouble but I’m not that kind
Your mama won’t let me make you mine

“All In The Line of Love” from Porter Howell, Dwayne O’Brien and Stephen Allen Davis is yet another pleasant but fairly generic ballad

I think the label missed a bet in not releasing the Bob DiPiero-Walt Aldridge song “Living in a Bullseye” as a single. I don’t think it would have been a huge hit but I suspect it would have at least cracked the top thirty. The song is a mid-tempo ballad with clever lyrics that would resonate with any blue collar worker:

I heard the whistle blowing as I pulled in the gate
I knew without looking, I was already late
Praying the boss wouldn’t catch me again
Sweating bullets while I was sneaking in

I’m living in a bullseye, ground zero
It’s kinda scary when the arrows fly
I ain’t trying to be no superhero
I duck and cover just to stay alive
Living in a bullseye

Eight hours later, at a half past five
I’m listening to my radio and pulling in the drive
The music telling me a thing that’s good
So I’m crossing all my fingers and I’m knocking on wood

“The Call” by Walt Aldridge and Tim Rushlow was the final single released from the album, peaking at #71. It’s a nice ballad with sleek vocal harmonies. I heard it quit a bit here in Central Florida, but it apparently tanked elsewhere:

You can run but you can’t hide
You can keep it all inside
Take it from a fool who’s tried it all
Pay attention to a friend
Who swore he’d never fall again
You’re gonna answer
When you get the call

“Yesterday’s Gone Forever” (Dwayne O’Brien, Jim Rushing) has the feel and sound of eighties country minus the annoying synthesizers. When released it really had no singles potential, but I can recall times when this introspective ballad would have done very well with radio:

For all of my good intentions
Heartfelt every one
I’ve left so much love unspoken
So much of life I’ve left undone

I could’ve made a difference
I just never made the time
Now yesterday’s gone forever
And today ain’t far behind

Should’ve taken that job in Dallas
Or the one in San Antone
Should’ve left that girl in the city
And married the one back home

I’d love to run back through the years
To tell her I was blind
But yesterday’s gone forever
And today ain’t far behind

The album closes with the Porter Howell – Chuck Jones rocker “If I Don’t Get Enough of You”.

If I don’t get enough of you
I can’t think, I can’t sleep
If I don’t get enough of you
I can’t eat, I get weak

Without you there to hold me tight
Well, I can’t make it through the night
I don’t know what I’m gonna do
If I don’t get enough of you

If I don’t get enough of you
I don’t act like I should
If I don’t get enough of you
It’s a fact, I’m no good

I think this is a better album than their first three efforts – good production, decent songs (none of the Texas chauvinism that marred earlier albums) and a really tight band augmented by Jeff Huskins on fiddle and piano, and Dan Dugmore & Sonny Garrish on pedal steel guitar, plus really good harmony vocals.

Why then did this album tank ?

I think the answer is three-fold:

1) There apparently some element of dissension in the band. Both Brady Seals and Tim Rushlow thought that they could become big solo stars, something that neither achieved.

2) A long lapse between the release of the third and fourth albums – to put it bluntly, radio forgot about them.

3) Changes in the country music market place which ultimately led to the domination of faux country acts like Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean.

I would give this album an A-

Album Review: Faith Hill – The previously unreleased material on ‘Deep Tracks’

faith-hill-deep-tracks-cover-artWhen Faith Hill emerged after an eight-year hiatus to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary, announce a Soul2Soul revival tour and mentor contestants on The Voice, I figured she was banking on nostalgia to propel this new era of her career. Hill has smartly been riding on Tim McGraw’s coattails since 2006, knowing she can’t fill arenas, or Vegas casinos, to (near) capacity without him.

She also couldn’t launch a comeback with Illusion, a record Warner Bros. likely shelved after two embarrassing singles – “Come Home” and “American Heart” bombed at country radio when she desperately needed a hit to regain momentum within the industry. That was never going to happen anyways, as age and changing trends saw Carrie Underwood filling the space she once occupied.

With those statistics in mind, I was surprised when she quietly announced a new album to end the record contract she signed in 1993. But I was disheartened to learn it would exist as Deep Tracks, a project comprised of previously released album cuts the label probably wisely never saw fit to release as singles. The project is nothing more than a cash grab and an insult to Hill’s tenure with the label. I’m glad to see Hill on board, though, which is more than I can say for the umpteenth Greatest Hits projects Curb released to extend McGraw’s contract. If the marketing is to be believed, it seems she actually selected these songs herself.

Tagged onto the end of the album are three previously unreleased songs, of which I was anxious to hear. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since I began listening to country music in the mid-90s and always welcome anything new she chooses to give her fans. And with the infrequency of her releases, I haven’t cast Hill aside as I’ve done to Martina McBride.

The new material begins with the recently recorded “Boy,” written by Lee Brice, Rob Hatch and Lance Miller. The track is classic Hill, a love song, she freely admits reminds her of her man. While it doesn’t break any new ground, the plucky ballad deviates from her typical sonic playbook just enough to keep the feel of the song fresh.

Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin’s “Why” follows. Hill recorded the track in 2004 for Fireflies and when it failed to make the cut, Dann Huff brought the song to Rascal Flatts, who brought it to #18 in 2009. The song explores a woman’s anguish in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy:

Oh why, that’s what I keep askin’

Was there anything I could have said or done

Oh I, had no clue you were masking a troubled soul, God only knows

What went wrong, and why you’d leave the stage in the middle of a song

 

Oh why there’s no comprehending

And who am I to try to judge or explain

Oh, but I do have one burning question

Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight

They were wrong

They lied

And now you’re gone

And we cried

‘Cause It’s not like you, to walk away in the middle of a song

The execution is extremely heavy-handed with Huff’s production and Hill’s vocal leaning far too piano-ballad pop for my tastes. The lyric itself is somewhat powerful, but it lacks the subtlety that made “Can’t Be Really Gone” and “On A Bus To St. Cloud” so magical.

In context, the final cut is arguably the saddest. Hill’s mother had long wished her daughter would record a gospel album, the only type of music she wanted to hear her sing. Such a project never came to fruition, so “Come to Jesus” is the closest Hill’s come to carrying out her mother’s wishes. Hill’s mom passed away just three weeks ago, right before the CMA Awards, but was able to hear this song in time.

Hill could obviously still make a gospel album, which could be a treat, if it sounds nothing like she does on this Mindy Smith tune. I appreciate and wholeheartedly welcome the use of fiddle throughout, but there’s just nothing delicate or interesting to hold my attention. This is not the soaring moment (think “There Will Come A Day”) I was hoping for.

With this new material Hill deserves full credit for covering her bases. “Boy” fits perfectly within her penchant for love songs while “Why” displays her knack for age-appropriate material tackling emotional subjects. “Come to Jesus” is the type of song she was teasing when gearing up for the ill-fated Illusion that supposedly nixed her country sound for ‘southern soul.’

While I didn’t find much here to be excited about (“Boy” is the best of the new stuff and worth checking out), I don’t want to suggest the ‘deep tracks’ themselves are of poor quality. If you’ve never heard her take on Lori McKenna’s stunning “If You Ask,” do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’m just upset that after twenty-three years of enormous success, Hill and her fans aren’t being treated to a more heartfelt sendoff than Deep Tracks. Everyone involved deserves so much more than this.

Grades: 

Deep Tracks: D 

Boy:’ B+ 

Why:’ C 

Come To Jesus:’ C 

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Live, Laugh, Love’

live laugh loveAs the 90s drew to an end, Clay stopped working with former producer James Stroud. His blandly titled 1999 album was co-produced by the artist with Doug Johnson, and saw the artist moving in a more R&B direction.

Lead single ‘She’s Always Right’ (written by Lonestar’s Richie McDonald with Ed Hill and Phil Barnhart) is a rather bland contemporary ballad about a happy marriage. Clay sings it soulfully, but the song isn’t at all memorable. It reached #16 on the Billboard country chart. The theme is repeated later on the album with the very similar ‘Woman Thing’, written by Larry Boone, Tracy Lawrence and Paul Nelson.

The beachy title track was a little more successful, peaking just outside the top 10. Written by Gary Nicholson and Allen Shamblin, it has Caribbean instrumentation and a syncopated vocal which haven’t worn well.

The album’s biggest hit at #3, ‘The Chain Of Love’, written by Rory Lee Feek and Jonnie Barnett, marked returned to more conventional country territory. The warm hearted story song offers a sweet tale of kindness from strangers.

The self penned big ballad ‘Once In A Lifetime Love’ wasn’t really a country song, and although Clay sings it well, at the turn of the millennium that was still enough to deny it any chart action when it was the album’s last single. Clay and his co-writer Jason Greene also contributed the pleasant but dull ‘Lose Some Sleep Tonight’ and the disastrously ill-judged ‘Cold Hearted’, a feeble attempt at an R&B song which falls completely flat.

‘This Time Love’ is a soul-drenched ballad which is okay on its own terms, but has nothing to do with country music.

‘If A Man Ain’t Thinking (‘Bout His Woman)’, written by Buddy Brock, Debi Cochran and Jerry Kilgore, on the other hand, is a country song, and very good. The mid-paced ‘It Ain’t Called Heartland (For Nothin’)’ is also quite enjoyable.

The best song is a cover of Earl Thomas Conley’s ‘Holding Her And Loving You’. Clay doesn’t bring anything new, but he sings it with emotion.

Clay sings with great commitment and enthusiasm on this album, but not much of it can really be classified as country. Listeners with more eclectic tastes may like this better than I did.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘What The World Needs Now’

what the world needs nowReleased in 2003, What the World Needs Now was Wynonna’s debut for Curb/Asylum after cutting ties with Mercury. Wynonna produced most of it with Dann Huff, and there is an overarching theme of vaguely uplifting spiritual encouragement, but with little in the way of country music. She had reportedly been planning on making a straight soul record, but decided, perhaps at the promptings of her record label, to at least pay lip service to still being a country artist.

The bluesy title track with a touch of gospel is competently performed but not country at all (apart from the rustic banjo introduction, which seems to belong to another song, and is soon swallowed up by all the other instrumentation). Country radio treated it with some scepticism, and it peaked at #14, marking Wynonna’s last top 20 hit. The follow-up, ‘Heaven Help Me’, is a classy AC ballad, with a spiritual edge, and beautifully interpreted with a tender vocal. It just crept into the top 40, but is much better than its predecessor, although the orchestral arrangement is a bit too much.

A dramatic cover of the rock ballad ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, produced by R&B producer Narada Michael Walden and featuring rock guitar hero Jeff Beck, has absolutely no country elements, and perhaps represents the original plan for the album. Unsurprisingly, it won no country airplay, but it was a top 20 hit on both Adult Contemporary and Dance charts. The dance remix is tacked on as a ‘bonus’ track; it is quite unlistenable for me, but makes the other version sound much better in comparison. The only other track surviving from these sessions, ‘Who Am I Supposed To Love’, is a decent soul ballad, but a long way from country.

The final single ‘Rescue Me’, promoted to AC and Christian radio, failed to chart anywhere, and falls somewhere between gospel and Christian Contemporary. It was written by Katie Darnell, a terminally ill 17 year old, and had previously been recorded, but not released, by John Rich.

Most vaunted at the time of the record’s release was Wy’s reunion with mother Naomi on ‘Flies On The Butter (You Can’t Go Back)’. The third single, and Wynonna’s last solo top 40 country hit, it is charmingly nostalgic. The song was written by Chuck Cannon, Allen Shamblin, and Austin Cunningham, and is the album’s most convincingly country moment. Although it is billed as a duet, Naomi really only contributes harmonies on some lines.

‘Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis’, written by Derek George, Neil Thrasher, and Bryan White, is about longing for love rather than all the meaningless material goods remaining after a failed marriage, and the lyric is interesting although the melody and arrangement are pedestrian. It leads into a strong cover of the real Elvis’s ‘Burnin’ Love’ which was previously released on the soundtracks of the animated movie Lilo And Stitch. This is highly enjoyable.

‘I Will Be’ is a powerfully sung big ballad which isn’t a bad song underneath, but is heavily over-produced and pop rather than country. ‘Your Day Will Come’ is more contemporary country, and quite well done but a touch bland. The rocker ‘(No One’s Gonna) Break Me Down’ is rather busy with everything imaginable thrown in, including some nice honky tonk piano but too much in the way of electric guitar on top.

The black gospel-influenced ‘It All Comes Down To Love’ is partly spoken and too loud for my taste, but would appeal to fans of that style of music as it is powerfully performed. ‘It’s Only Love’ is in the same vein.

‘You Are’ had appeared on the soundtrack of one of her sister Ashley’s films a few years earlier. It’s rather bland and forgettable with some odd effects in the arrangement.

I like the album better than Revelations, which didn’t do anything for me, but not as much as he first two solo efforts. Wynonna is a great singer, and sings with conviction throughout, but her musical spectrum is wider than mine. This is not a bad album by any means – in fact it is rather a good one. It just has very little for country fans. Diehard Wynonna fans will love it regardless.

Grade: B

Occasional Hope’s top 10 singles of 2015

law 2015Country radio may be going from bad to worse with the arrival of the likes of the obviously non-country Sam Hunt, but there have been some superb singles released this year, particularly from female artists. A few of them have even made an impact on radio, proving there is still hope. Among the singles that just missed the cut for my top 10 were the charming first two singles from Kacey Musgraves’ second Mercury album – ‘Biscuits’ and ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’; Sunny Sweeney’s dead-marriage duet with Will Hoge, ‘My Bed’; and Chris Young’s sexy ‘I’m Comin’ Over’.

10. Jon Pardi – ‘Head Over Boots’
Sunny and catchy – this is country rock done exactly right. It’s currently working its way into the top 40.

9. Chris Stapleton‘Nobody To Blame’

Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s unexpected triple victory at this year’s CMA Awards was the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at an awards ceremony in years. Showing why he deserved it, his November single release is an excellent song imbued with his bluesy soulful brand of country music.

burning house8. Cam – Burning House
I hear Camaron Ochs as more folky pop rather than a country singer at heart, but I’ve really liked her two 2015 singles, the upbeat ‘My Mistake’ (about embarking on a one night stand with no regrets), and the gentle melancholy of ‘Burning House’. The haunting melody makes this my favourite of the two, and for a change radio agrees with me, as this has proved to be her breakthrough, with the track at #11 on the country radio chart as of early November. Her debut album is due this month.

shut up and fish7. Maddie & Tae – ‘Shut Up And Fish’
An irresistibly catchy tune from the effervescent duo, which uses its comic trappings to dress up a serious message about sexual harassment.

6. Jason James‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’
Perhaps the most obscure of my top 10 singles is this solid barroom shuffle, which sounds like a forgotten county classic:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

5. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got the Boy’
Disappointingly the album it heralded turned out to be otherwise terrible, but I still like Jana Kramer’s mature reflection on the passing of teenage romance, written by Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols and former child TV star Jamie Lynn Spears. Her vocal ability may not stand up to the other women who made my top 10 this year, but on this song at least, she has an appealing warmth. It was another genuine hit, and is still rising.

4. Trisha Yearwood‘I Remember You’
The second single from Trisha Yearwood’s 2014 mixture of hits and fine new songs, Prize Fighter, is an impeccable song, written by Canadians Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. My review said it was “as close to perfect as it gets”, and it is an exemplary example of understated subtlety in both the vocal and the production.

jamey johnson3. Jamey Johnson‘Alabama Pines’
Jamey Johnson has not been very forthcoming with new music even now that he has launched his own label. But he did share this single with us earlier this year, even initially allowing it to be downloaded free. A beautiful, steel laced melody, it looks back on his southern childhood and the dreams of a life in music who took him away.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
For most of this year, the title track of Ashley’s latest album has been the song I’ve returned to over and over again. When I reviewed that set I called this a truly outstanding song, and my feelings have not changed. Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, and sung by the delicately vulnerable Ashley Monroe, this is a beautiful depiction of the pain of love which lasts longer on one side than the other:

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t
For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

It wasn’t a hit of course – it was far too good for country radio: too country, too subtle, and too female.

1. Lee Ann Womack‘Chances Are’
I thought Ashley Monroe’s single was going to make #1 on my list until I heard late in October that Lee Ann Womack had issued the best song on her critically acclaimed 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’ as its third single. A world-wearied and desperately lonely soul still has hope for love and happiness:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to take
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every chance I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
As I watch you ‘cross the barroom, I wonder
What my chances are

Well, I know you’ve been around
And you’ve seen what you needed to see
And at night when you’re dreamin’
You’re probably not dreamin’ ‘bout me
Oh, it’s safe to say I’ve stumbled
But I’ve managed to make it through this far
As I take one step and then another
I wonder what my chances are

I have watched the world go by
Hand in hand and wondered why
I’m still so alone
Could I lay down my foolish pride
Maybe finally find my heart a home

The band has started playing
A simple song I used to know
I take your hand and walk you out
Dance to the rhythm way down low
Every heart has got a story
Mine just has a few scars
But they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are
Well, they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are

I first heard this excellent song sung by its writer Hayes Carll a few years ago, but LAW’s version of this excellent Hayes Carll song is quite exquisitely beautiful: beautifully sung and interpreted like a masterclass in country music, and tastefully produced with lovely steel guitar dominating the mix. Her unexpected but well deserved nomination as the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year probably won’t gain her airplay for this stunning record, but it’s unmissable.

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade’

the bladeAshley Monroe’s second Warner Brothers release has been among my most-anticipated albums this year. While it lacks the immediate charm of the wonderful Like A Rose, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-helmed set has substance and beauty which grows on repeated exposure to reward the listener. Ashley’s delicately pretty voice is perfect for the vulnerable emotions expressed in many of the songs.

Ashley co-wrote every song but one. That outside contribution is the title track, written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin. It is a truly outstanding song about the disillusonment of finding one has always loved more than one’s partner, and is now left high and dry:

I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t

For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

Gill and Niebank’s understated production perfectly backs up Ashley’s hushed vocal. The whole thing is quite stunning.

The exquisite ballad ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ (written with Tyler Cain) is a charming love song supported with lovely steel guitar.

Another highlight is one of two songs written by Ashley with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander, the traditional country lament ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, in which a broken heart fails to find comfort anywhere:

I’ve heard stories ’bout honky tonk angels
Pickin’ up pieces of broken strangers
I’m at rock bottom with a smoke and a sin
When the party is over, then I’m lonely again

If the devil don’t want me
Where the hell do I go?
If I can’t see the light
In the neon glow
If there ain’t enough whiskey
To kill the fire in my soul

This writing partnership also produced the rapid paced bluesy rock ‘Winning Streak’, backed with wild honky tonk piano, on a similar theme, down and out with not even the devil interested. This is less to my taste musically than the other song, but well written and performed.

Alexander also co-wrote the contemporary ballad ‘If Love Was Fair’ with Ashley and with Steve Moakler. Miranda Lambert joined Ashley and Jessi to write the closing track, ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, another excellent country tune, this time about an unapologetic rambling soul and free spirit, given a Celtic style arrangement.

Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann of the dup Striking Matches joined Ashley to write two songs. The gently pretty ‘From Time To Time’ has a tender lullabyish mood, while the memorable up-tempo ‘Dixie’ has a retro feel and a dramatic southern Gothic storyline:

It was the mines that killed my daddy
It was the law that killed my man
It was the Bible Belt that whipped me
When I broke the Fifth Command
I don’t hate the weather
I don’t hate the land
But if I had it my way I’d never see this place again

When I cross that line, man I’ll sing a brand new song
Instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistlin’ Dixie all day long
And I’m so tired of paying, praying for my sins
Lord get me out of Dixie Land
Jesus’ name, Amen

When I tread out of these parts
Look me up on the other side
Cause I’ll be damned if I go down in Dixie when I die

‘Bombshell’, written with Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson, is about facing the guilty decision to tell a lover she is leaving, and knowing there is never going to be a good time to do it. Very good indeed.

Producer Gill co-wrote ‘Weight Of The Load’, a nice song about sharing the burdens of doubt and fear. Ashley’s friend Brendan Benson of the rock band The Raconteurs helped her with the pretty folky ballad ‘Mayflowers’. The first single, the upbeat and catchy ‘On To Something Good’ is agreeable listening if one of the lighter tracks.

The one track I didn’t much care for was the repetitive minor-keyed moody ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ (a co-write with Matraca Berg), and even this grew on me a bit.

Overall, this is a great album which should raise Ashley Monroe’s profile.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Backroads’

backroadsRicky’s fourth studio album was released in 1991, and certified platinum before the end of the year. As usual, it was dominated by beautifully sung ballads and a pure country production.

The first three singles continued his admirable chart record by hitting #1. First came ‘Rockin’ Years’, a melodic duet with Dolly Parton (also included on her then-current album Eagle When She Flies). It is a gently melodic ballad about growing old with the one one loves – pretty and delicate with a lovely steel intro. However, I find the rocking ‘I Am A Simple Man’ rather dull. The third chart topper was the gentle tearjerking tribute to a father-son relationship, ‘Keep It Between The Lines’.

A nice, steel-dominated cover of Warner Mack’s downbeat ballad ‘After The Lights Go Out’ only reached an unlucky 13, but deserved better. The pleasant but not that memorable uptempo title track then made it back to #2.

My favorite of the non-singles is ‘Some Things Are Better Left Alone’, a fabulous ballad written by Roger Murrah and Larry Shell about the enduring power of an old flame endangering present happiness:

Every time I stir the ashes
That old fire begins to burn
When I wake those sleepin’ memories
Those old feelings still return

Oh, I shouldn’t think about you
But my heart keeps hangin’ on…

All the smoke from burnin’ bridges
Makes it hard to catch my breath
But the precious love I’m missin’
Is chokin’ me to death

Oh you’re still my strongest weakness
And I’ll love you ’til I’m gone
But I’ll have to remember
Some things are better left alone

Almost as good is the lesser-known classic ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights’, a solid country Wayne Kemp/Mack Vickery song previously recorded by George Jones, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap and Mel Street among others. Ricky’s version is great. ‘If You’re Ever In My Arms Again’ is a nice wistful ballad written by Bobby Braddock.

‘Call Me Up’ was the obligatory rockabilly number. More to my taste, ‘Oh Heart of Mine’ is a likeable uptempo tune with a bluegrass feel, which was written by Allen Shamblin and Bernie Nelson.

The cute little terrier shown on the album cover was the Sheltons’ own pet, Lucky, who they found starving and abandoned while househunting on first moving to Nashville. She also appeared in the video for ‘Keep It between The Lines’.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind – Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Today we officially sold my childhood home, which my parents bought in the late 1970s. I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster, especially this past weekend, when we cleaned the last of our belongings out of the garage.

Last week a close friend came over to help us say goodbye to the house, and I shared this song with her to mark the occasion. When she arrived she said she had been fine (she’s also in the process of selling her childhood home) until she pressed play. I had a feeling she hadn’t heard Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas’s  masterful lyrics or Miranda Lambert’s perfect delivery.

There isn’t a better piece of music to sum up exactly what I’ve been feeling as we’ve led up to this day. This is also my favorite performance of the song, the singular highlight of the 2010 ACM telecast.

Album Review – Radney Foster – ‘Everything I Should’ve Said’

RF.EISHS-11To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Joey + Rory: ‘Made To Last’

joeyandroryBarely three months after the release of a collection of inspirational songs, Joey + Rory are back with Made To Last, their fifth album overall and the first released on their own Farmhouse Recordings imprint. Like its predecessors, its songs are homespun tales of love and heartache with touch of nostalgia and the occasional more contemporary number, all simply yet elegantly produced.

To get things started, the duo dusts off the old Townes Van Zandt chestnut “If I Needed You”, which is a faithful reproduction of the Emmylou Harris and Don Williams recording that reached #3 in 1981. It is the first of the album’s two cover songs, which will be familiar to many country fans. The second is “Just A Cup Of Coffee”, which finds Joey trying to keep her expectations in check before a reunion with an old flame. The Stephanie Davis-penned tune was included as a bonus track on Trisha Yearwood’s Greatest Hits album in 2007. It’s an excellent song that deserves wider attention, but sadly isn’t considered commercially viable in the current environment.

Made To Last conatins no surprises — in fact most of the songs were already performed on the duo’s RFD television series — and no artistic stretches. Instead the duo gives their fans exactly what they have come to expect: typical Joey + Rory fare — quiet and mostly acoustic fare that makes the listener feel as though he or she is sitting around the living room with Joey and Rory. Among the highlights are two tear-jerkers: “50,000 Names”, a Jamie O’Hara composition that pays homage to the fallen heroes of the Vietnam War and “Now That She’s Gone”, a Rory Feek co-write with Morgane Hayes, which tells the sad story of a young widower who is unable to come to terms with his devasating loss. “Made To Last” is a lovely ballad written Austin Cunningham and Allen Shamblin number that talks about the increasingly rare enduring items in a throw-away society. Both “50,000 Names” and “Made To Last” feature Rory on lead vocals — the duo is sharing lead vocal duties as they did on His and Hers. I haven’t been a huge fan of his singing in the past, but I’ve come to appreciate his vocal abilities on this collection.

Two of the album’s most intimate numbers discuss the music business itself: Tim Johnson’s “To Do What I Do” expresses appreciation for the fans, whose support compensates for the dues-paying that comes with an entertainment career. In “I Sing For You”, the husband and wife duo address each other, vowing to continue singing for each other, even when the world is no longer listening.

The album’s weaker moments are on two of the uptempo numbers: “Good Truck”, a Rory co-write with Zac Brown, Coy Bowles and Nick Cowa and “I Love You Song”. The former isn’t a bad song per se, but like many country fans I’m suffering from truck song fatigue, although this one is admittedly a great deal better than any other truck song I’ve heard lately. “I Love You Song” is lyrically vapid filler.

I was slightly underwhelmed by last year’s His and Hers, so I was pleasantly surprised when the material turned out to be stronger this time around. It is quite possibly my favorite Joey + Rory album to date and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Extremes’

extremesMainstay John Hobbs was joined by Ed Seay and Paul Worley to produce Collin’s third album, extremes. There was a concerted effort to expand Collin’s range with more rocking material, an artistic mistake in my opinion, but it was rewarded with commercial success, with five top 10 hits and platinum sales.

Collin screams out the first single, Lee Roy Parnell’s ‘That’s My Story’, a husband’s attempts to brazen out blatant lies to his wife. The amusing tale would have worked well for Parnell (and the arrangement and production are very much in his style, but it really doesn’t suit Collin’s voice, even though it was a #6 hit for him. The album’s only chart-topper, the fourth single, ‘My Kind of Girl’ is also a screamer, but a lyrically boring one.

Happily, the album also contains some beautiful ballads more in Collin’s style. Although it peaked just short of the top slot on the charts, ‘Little Rock’ may be the most important song ever recorded by Collin Raye, with its abashed, clear sighted depiction of a recovering alcoholic doing his best to cope with the loss of his wife as well as maintaining his sobriety. Written by Tom Douglas, perhaps it could do without the swelling strings, although the song’s strength is undiminished.

My favorite track is the melancholy lost love ‘Man Of My Word’, which peaked at #8. Written by Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr, it is a beautiful song in which the protagonist’s fidelity outlasts her loss (perhaps her death), gently paced and set to a lovely melody, with a subtle interpretation by Raye.

I’ll go to my grave with this torch held high
But just once I wish I’d told you a lie

When I said my love would last for all time
And no one would take your place
Well, if that promise was the last sound you heard
Well, you know I kept it
I’m a man of my word

The final single, #4 hit ‘If I Were You’ is a big ballad written by Hobbs with Chris Farren with a heavily strung arrangement. It’s quite prettily done, but not very memorable.

The best of the up-tempos is the fast story song ‘To The Border And Beyond’, which Collin wrote. Some wildly sawing fiddle backs up a frenetic vocal as Collin spits out the story of the outlaw Dugan. ‘Nothin’ A Little Love Won’t Cure’ is another rocker, and is an okay song written by the curious partnership of Rick Bowles, Don Cook and Larry Boone.

Written by Craig Wiseman and James Dean Hicks, the warm-hearted tale of a mother’s farewell gift of ‘A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home’ to a teenager leaving home with Nashville dreams, is tenderly sung and a definite highlight.

A cover of the classic ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ sounds very pretty, while ‘Angel Of No Mercy’ is another love song with a lovely melody, both ideally suited to Collin’s voice.

Despite some missteps Extremes is still a worthwhile purchase, especially as it can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘In This Life’

inthislifeCollin Raye’s sophomore disc is slightly more polished and less neotraditional than his debut effort. John Hobbs returned to co-produce the album, this time with Garth Fundis, who replaced All I Can Be’s co-producer Jerry Fuller. The title track and lead single was an obvious — and successful — attempt to capitalize on the success of “Love, Me” and cement Raye’s reputation as a ballad singer. “In This Life”, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin spent two weeks at #1 in the autumn of 1992. It also reached #21 on the Adult Contemporary chart and might have been considered Raye’s career record had he not already recorded “Love, Me”.

If “In This Life” helped solidify Collin’s credentials as a balladeer, the next single “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” was meant to ensure that he didn’t get pigeonholed. The uptempo number has just a bit of a rock edge, but the vocal is a little shouty and it doesn’t quite work for me. It is my least favorite track on the album and possibly my least favorite of all of Raye’s singles. While it did not chart as high as the three records that preceded it, it managed to peak at a respectable #7. “Somebody Else’s Moon”, another ballad, saw him return to the Top 5, as did “That Was A River”, yet another ballad which is just a little too syrupy and one of the weakest tracks on the album.

It will come as no surprise to longtime readers that my favorite song on the disc is also its most traditional. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a suprisingly upbeat number about an unraveling relationship; Collin tells his soon-to-be ex:

When I gave you my heart, I gave it forever
But you can’t take it with you when you go.

The Texas two-step number was written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Chick Rains and features some excellent fiddling by Rob Hajacos. Stylistically, it would have been more at home on Collin’s first album. It should have been released as a single, and so should Hugh Prestwood’s “Latter Day Cowboy”, another one of my favorites from this collection.

The collection also includes a pair of remakes. Collin covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, which is a decent effort, but Raye is no Man In Black. His rendition of the pop standard “Let It Be Me”, which closes the album, is more suited to his voice.

Like its predecessor, In This Life earned platinum certification in the US and gold status in Canada. While not quite as good as his debut album, it is one of the stronger entries in his discography. Cheap copies are readily available and worth purchasing.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Fired Up’

One of the signs of an artist in trouble is when someone who has consistently written a fair proportion of his own material suddenly drops it in favor of (often inferior) material from outside. Another is moving to a hot new producer in search of the latest sound. It rarely works, and it didn’t work for Dan Seals in 1994. For Dan’s second and final release for Warner Brothers, he left Kyle Lehning in favor of Jerry Crutchfield and a punchier more contemporary sound which just didn’t suit Dan’s natural style.

The rocked up title track ‘All Fired Up’ was the only single to chart at all, peaking at a miserable #66. Previously recorded by rockabilly throwback Bobby Lee Springfield, who co-wrote it, on his 1987 album of the same title, it’s a bit poppy but quite entertaining with genuine energy, although his voice sounds a little thin. They were clearly trying to recapture the chart success of ‘L.O.A.’, but the very poor ‘Love Thing – boring repetitive lyric, very little melody as well as very pop-orientated production – understandably failed to make any impact at all, and with a whimper rather than a bang, Dan ended his major label career. ‘Call Me Up’ is another forgettable pop number entirely unsuited to Dan’s voice and style, while Jesse Winchester’s ‘Gentleman Of Leisure’ is a badly produced and not very interesting song about wanting to do nothing.

There are two decent ballads up to Dan’s usual standards, which are well worth downloading. ‘A Rose From Another Garden’, written by Joe Doyle and Glen Davies, has a very pretty melody which allows Dan’s voice to soar, allied to a brooding poetic lyric about a man suspicious of his wife’s interests elsewhere as their own love fades:

Is she tending to a rose from another garden
While ours slowly grows dry
Is she tending to a rose from another garden
Letting our love die on the vine

A beautifully subtle vocal is perfect for this song, by far the best on the record.

‘Still Reelin’ (From Those Rock ‘n Roll Days)’ is the only song Dan wrote (with Allen Shamblin), and it’s a fine song, a gently nostalgic look back at youth and memories of being inspired by seeing the young Elvis on television.

The up-tempo ‘Hillbilly Fever’ (written by Joe Doyle and Todd Wilkes) is actually quite good, but in the light of today’s massive overuse of the theme, feels a bit generic about being tired of city life. The quite catchy ‘When’ was written by Robert Ellis Orrall and Gilles Godard, and Ricky Skaggs recorded it the following year on his album Solid Ground.

‘Jayney’ is a pleasant pop-country ballad written by Johnny Nestor, a little more interesting than the frankly dull ‘A Good Place To Be’, a Rory Michael Bourke/Charlie Black ballad about satisfaction with one’s life, without much energy or passion.

It’s still easy to find, but I would recommend digitally cherrypicking the best tracks.

Grade: C

Album Review – Marty Stuart – ‘This One’s Gonna Hurt You’

By the summer of 1992, Stuart was finally in favor with mainstream country music. Released in late 1991, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin,” the inaugural duet between him and Travis Tritt, peaked at #2, the highest peak Stuart would ever see. The duo would also go on to win a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration that same year, marking Stuart’s first such win.

Capitalizing on his recent success, Stuart released “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For A Long, Long Time),” another duet with Tritt in June. The title track for his third album with MCA Records, it would prove successful as well peaking at #7. Written by Stuart, it’s just as good, if not better, than their previous collaboration. The tale of love gone wrong is framed in a stone cold arrangement complete with steel and piano that helps accentuate the mournful and clever lyrics.  I love how she’s the one who’s going to hurt, not him.

Released next, the bluesy “Now That’s Country,” written solely by Stuart, would peak at #18. A honky-tonker complete with electric guitar and steel flourishes, it depicts the ways in which Stuart was raised:

Well, that’s country,

I was born, yes, a country child

Now that’s country, but baby that’s my style

The almost dirty production is very good and helps elevate the song. But with very little to hold onto lyrically, the tune isn’t particularly memorable.

“High On A Mountain Top” came next, peaking at #24. Written by Alex Campbell and Ola Belle Reed, it isn’t to be confused with the Loretta Lynn song of the same name. This “High On A Mountain Top” is a rocker complete with accents of mandolin that details the story of a man reflecting on the journey that led to the current moment:

High on a mountaintop, standing all alone

Wondering where the years of my life have flown

High on a mountaintop, wind-blowing free

Thinking about the days that used to be

It’s too bad producer Tony Brown saw fit to create such a cluttered arrangement, as this could’ve been a wonderful song. The screaming guitars hinder Stuart’s vocal and nearly drown it out.

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Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+