My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Andy Griggs

Single Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’

500x500The message behind Aaron Watson’s latest single release is that everyone should take time to live in and enjoy the moment, because life is short we never know when it might unexpectedly end. It’s a tried-and-true theme in country music, but it is especially poignant here when one takes into account that “Bluebonnets” was inspired by the loss of Watson’s daughter Julia, who died in infancy in 2011.

The first verse is a nostalgic look back at Watson’s childhood memories of his grandparents and reminds me somewhat of the opening lines of Andy Griggs’ “If Heaven” — a bittersweet look back at a happier and more carefree time. The chorus uses the imagery of now-faded bluebonnets in the spring to convey the message that Watson’s grandparents are now deceased. It is the second verse, however, that packs the big emotional punch. This is the verse that deals with Julia’s death — Watson “kisses his angel girl goodbye” but expresses faith and hope of one day being reunited with her. That he is able to get his message across without becoming maudlin is a testament to his skill as a songwriter.

The track, like the album from whence it came, was produced by Keith Stegall. It’s considered Texas country, despite the use of a Nashville producer and some well-known Nashville musicians, including the great Paul Franklin on pedal steel. There is absolutely nothing about it that would not have been considered solidly mainstream just a few years ago before the “Bro Show” got underway. The production is restraint, tasteful and traditional. Like the previous singles from The Underdog, this one is unlikely to chart but traditional country fans who seek it out are bound to enjoy it.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘The Truth About Men’

truthaboutmenBy 2003, Tracy Byrd was struggling to remain commercially viable so he and co-producer Billy Joe Walker, Jr. took a three-pronged approach for his RCA swan song,The Truth About Men, which combines the neotraditional sounds for which he had become well known with more contemporary material and a pair of novelty songs that they hoped would allow them to further capitalize on the success of the prior year’s #1 hit “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”.

First out of the box was the tongue-in-cheek but blatantly honest title track that bravely declares how men (allegedy) really feel: “We ain’t wrong, we ain’t sorry, and it’s probably gonna happen again.” Written by Paul Overstreet with Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson, and with guest vocals provided by Andy Griggs, Blake Shelton and Montgomery Gentry, “The Truth About Men” didn’t reach the lofty heights of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, peaking at #13. And no doubt everyone involved had some explaining to do to their wives. Novelty tunes tend to wear thin after repeated listenings, but this is a fun song that I’ve always enjoyed. The follow-up single, “Drinkin’ Bone”, which is one part novelty tune and one part party song, fared much better. It landed at #7, marking the last time that Byrd would chart inside the Top 10. Playing it safe and pandering to radio’s growing interest in less substantive songs, RCA released the Carribbean-flavored “How’d I Wind Up In Jamaica”. The production is a bit cluttered on this one and by the time of its release, Byrd was on his way out at RCA, so the single received little promotion and stalled at #53. A missed opportunity was the Rodney Crowell composition “Making Memories of Us”, which should have been released as a single. Byrd’s version is much better than the version Keith Urban took to #1 two years later.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. The steamy “You Feel Good” is my least favorite song on the album. I admit to being put off by the reference to Byrd sleeping in the nude in the opening line, and that made me really not want to listen much to the rest of the song, but the real problem is that it requires a more soulful performance than Byrd delivers. Conway Twitty could probably have made this song work. “That’s What Keeps Her Getting By” and “When You Go” are attempts to move along with the musical times but both are forgettable filler, as is the power ballad “Somewhere I Wanna Go”. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the Keith Stegall-penned “Tiny Town” and “Baby Put Your Clothes On”, which was written by Paul Overstreet, Bill Anderson, and Buddy Cannon. Not surprisingly, Byrd is at his best when he’s singing more traditional songs.

The album closes with a live version of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, which not surprisingly works well in a concert setting.

The Truth About Men marks the end of the major-label phase of Tracy Byrd’s career. It was a modest success, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart but it failed to earn gold certification. It isn’t his very best work, but it contains enough worthwhile songs to warrant purchasing a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Andy Griggs – ‘If Heaven’

Album Review: Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘UnCovered’

UnCoveredBeth Nielsen Chapman was one of the finest songwriters in Nashville in the 1990s, getting a lot of high-profile cuts (and hits), particularly among female artists. More of a genreless singer-songwriter than a purely country one, she enjoyed several hits herself on Adult Contemporary radio in the 90s. Her writing style nonetheless fitted in well with the diversity of 1990s country radio, with her songs running the gamut from sensitive ballads to commercial pop-country. Here she revisits a number of her songs recorded by country artists, focussing on those she never recorded herself.

My favourite song here is the excellent ‘Five Minutes’, a one-last-chance ultimatum delivered by a wife about to leave. Back in the late 80s this was recorded separately by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, becoming a big hit for the latter, and in a nice touch, both women help out on backing vocals on Beth’s version. Her lead vocals are great and the intimate arrangement works perfectly.

I also really enjoyed her version of ‘Nothin’’ I Can Do About It Now’ (Willie Nelson’s last chart-topper). Beth’s version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Strong Enough To Bend’ is also attractively done, mixing vulnerability and strength.

She recruits occasional tour partners Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg to provide call-and-response backing vocals on ‘Almost Home’ , which she wrote with and for Mary Chapin Carpenter. The sunnily positive mid-tempo ‘Here We Are’ was a #2 country hit for Alabama in 1991. I hadn’t realised Beth wrote this one with Vince Gill, but so it appears. Vince makes an appearance to sing the high harmony on this version. Beth wrote the moody ‘Sweet Love Shine’ with the late Waylon Jennings, and it was originally recorded as a duet between Jennings and Andy Griggs. Jessi Colter and Duane Eddy guest on Beth’s cover.

The pretty good piano led mid-tempo ‘Simple Things’ was an AC hit for pianist Jim Brickman with country artist Rebecca Lynn Howard on vocals, and it could have easily been covered in a mainstream country version. The sensitive Maybe That’s All It Takes’ (a late minor hit for Don Williams) is tastefully performed in an AC style with Darrell Scott on harmony. ‘Pray’ is a beautifully sung contemporary Christian song with an ethereal Celtic arrangement and backing vocals from co-writer Muriel Anderson and Amy Grant.

But while Chapman is a fine songwriter, she has some less stellar copyrights to her credit. I always hated Faith Hill’s monster hit version of ‘This Kiss’, and I don’t care for this one much more. The bluesy ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (written for Bonnie Raitt) is a bit bland. She wrote ‘One In A Million’ for the ill-fated Mindy McCready, and it too is poppy and lacking in depth.

I always enjoy hearing songwriters reveal their own take on songs they have written for other artists, and while this is not particularly country, the arrangements are generally tasteful while Chapman’s rich, warm vocals work well on most of the songs included.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Terri Clark – ‘Girls Lie Too’

One of Terri’s biggest hit singles never appeared on a studio album, but was one of the new tracks included to persuade fans to purchase a Greatest Hits compilation in 2004. It can now also be downloaded individually. It was her second #1, but sadly her last really big hit single.

Answer songs have a long tradition in country music, but have fallen out of favor in the past 20 years. But at least thematically, this hit single was definitely an answer song to Tracy Byrd’s hilarious 2003 hit ‘The Truth About Men’ (written by Paul Overstreet, Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson), which revealed some of the white lies employed to keep gender relations on an even keel within a romantic relationship.

Written by Connie Harrington, Kelley Lovelace and Tim Nichols, this sardonic response putting the feminine point of view is a bit heavy-handed in comparison, and has a less interesting tune and rather loud production. Where the original didn’t take itself altogether seriously, but combined a self-deprecating sense of fun with a grain of truth which most men and women would recognise, this song feels as though it is trying a little too hard to prove a point. Terri’s energetic and committed vocal helps to sell the song, perhaps better than anyone else could have done, but despite being one of her biggest radio successes, it is not one of her best moments on record.

Byrd’s record recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to help out, and perhaps Terri’s song would have worked better with a similar playful chorus of female stars.

Grade: B

But the song at amazon.

Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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Single Review: Andy Griggs – ‘Cutthroat, Montana’

The single Cover

The Single Cover

I opened my e-mail the other day, and I found this song waiting for me in my inbox! Now, I vaguely recognized the name Andy Griggs, but I couldn’t think of any of his songs. After a quick trip to his Wikipedia discography, I saw nothing that even sparked any recognition at all, so I listened to this new single, and let’s say I got a good impression.

Now this may sound weird, but “Cutthroat, Montana” reminds me of Sugarland’s “Stay”  Let me explain myself. First of all, it’s even more sparse, just Andy and his acoustic guitar playing (“Stay” has an organ plus a guitar). His voice shines through, and he gives a great performance; although not as good as Jennifer’s respective performance on “Stay”, it’s still impressive. It’s hard to find these rough performances in modern singles, so I was surprised.

Second, “Cutthroat, Montana” and “Stay” both revisit classic country stories that have been sorely lacking from most mainstream country today. While “Stay” is a great spin on a cheating song, “Cutthroat, Montana” is a song that involves fighting and some death, something rare in the sterile radio feel-good stories of today’s mainstream country.

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