My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Ty England – ‘Ty England’

Born in 1963, Ty England met Garth Brooks while attending Oklahoma State University and roomed with Garth while in college. Thereafter, he was a member of Garth’s band for a few years until signing with RCA in 1995.

Far more traditionalist than Garth, Ty’s eponymous debut album, released in August 1995, would prove to be his most successful album, reaching #13 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. The album would generate Ty’s only top twenty hit and two more charting singles, neither of which cracked the top forty.

First up is “Red Neck Son”. Released as the third single from the album, the song died at #55. It’s not a bad song but I doubt that I would have released it as a single.

“Smoke In Her Eyes” was the second single released on the album. Written by Hugh Prestwood, this tender ballad really should have done better than #44.

Her heart could tell at a glance
She would be falling for him
She knows she’s taking a chance
But still goes out on a limb

She knows he could be for real
Or he could be in disguise
Although she may have a heart on fire
She don’t have smoke in her eyes

“Should Have Asked Her Faster”, an Al Anderson-Bob DiPiero composition was the first and most successful single released from the album, reaching #3. The song is a mid-tempo tale about a guy whose courage is too slow:

In a little dance hall just outside of Dallas
I dropped my drink when she came walking by
By the time I got a grip she slipped through my fingertips
And left me with my big mouth open wide

I should’ve asked her faster but I waited too long
In a red hot minute like a flash she was gone
I didn’t get her number, I never got her name
A natural disaster, I should’ve asked her faster

“Her Only Bad Habit Is Me” (Don Cook, Harlan Howard) and “You’ll Find Somebody New” (Aaron Barker, Dean Dillon) are both slow ballads, competently sung.

“A Swing Like That” by Billy Lavelle and David L. Lewis is an up- tempo romp that I would have released as a single. The track features some neat fiddle by Aubrey Haynie and steel by Paul Franklin, and has a strong western swing feel to it.

The remaining songs (“New Faces in the Fields” written by Harley Allen, Denise Draper and Steve Hood; “The Blues Ain’t News to Me” from the pens of Wayland Holyfield and Verlon Thompson; “It’s Lonesome Everywhere” by Verlon Thompson, Reese Wilson and Billy Spencer; and Hugh Prestwood’s “Is That You”) are all slow ballads, competently sung by England.

In fact, I would have released “Is That You” as a single. The song is an outstanding ballad, and while I do not know how it would have done as a Ty England single, I’m dead certain that either Garth Brooks or George Strait would have had a monster hit with the song:

They had been together way too long
For him to start again
So he does most of his living in the past
Round the house he never says a word
Til something makes him ask
Is that you

Tappin’ my window pane
Is that you
Or just a draft movin’ that candle flame
Something round here keeps my heart
From breakin’ right in two
Is that you

In the dark he rises from a dream
And takes a look around
Makin’ sure there really isn’t someone there
He could swear he heard her call his name
Quiet as a prayer
Is that you

Therein lies the problem – Ty England is a very good and pleasant singer, but there is nothing distinctive about his voice. Produced by Garth Fundis, Ty England is a solid country album featuring songs by the cream of Nashville’s songwriting talent and the cream of Nashville’s session men:

Bobby All — acoustic guitar (tracks 2,3,5,6,7,9,10) / Eddie Bayers — drums (tracks 1,2,9)
Richard Bennett — acoustic guitar (tracks 4,8) / J. T. Corenflos — electric guitar (track 10)
Stuart Duncan — fiddle (track 3)/ Paul Franklin — steel guitar (all tracks except 4)
John Gardner — drums (tracks 4,8) / Aubrey Haynie — fiddle (track 2,5,6,7,9,10)
John Hobbs — piano (tracks 5,6,7,10), organ (track 10) / Paul Leim — drums (tracks 3,5,6,7,10)
Mark Luna — background vocals (tracks 2,10) / Brent Mason — electric guitar (all tracks except 10)
Weldon Myrick — steel guitar (track 4) / Dave Pomeroy — bass guitar (all tracks)
Steve Nathan — Wurlitzer electric piano (track 1), piano (tracks 2,4,8,9), keyboards
Hargus “Pig” Robbins — piano (track 3) John Wesley Ryles — background vocals (track 3)
Billy Joe Walker, Jr. — acoustic guitar (track 1) Dennis Wilson — background vocals (tracks 2,4,5,9)
Curtis “Mr. Harmony” Young — background vocals (track 1,6)

Good songs and competent singing – I like this album and would give it a B+, but Ty is only as good as his material, and this was his best album.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’

my heroes have always been countryA new album from Gene Watson always is cause for celebration, and My Heroes Have Always Been Country is no exception to the rule. What you get with this album is eleven excellent traditional country songs sung by one of the best male vocalists in the business. Although Gene is now seventy years old, his voice is still in fine shape although perhaps pitched a little lower than in his prime.

The album kicks off with Dottie West’s biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”. The song won Dottie a Grammy in 1965 and provided her with her first solo top ten record in 1964. Gene’s version is true to the spirit of the original recording although minus the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings of strings and choral accompaniment. I don’t know if the effect was intentional, but the female backing singer, Cindy Walker, sounds like Dottie West would in singing harmony on the choruses of this song. Producer Dirk Johnson’s work on keyboards is prominently featured in the arrangement as are the fiddle of Aubrey Haynie and the steel guitars of Mike Johnson and Sonny Garrish.

Here comes more tears to cry
Here comes more heartaches by
Here comes my baby, back again
Here comes more misery
Here comes old memories
Here comes my baby, back again

“Don’t You Believe Her” comes from the pen of Nat Stuckey. While never a hit single, both Ray Price and Conway Twitty had nice recordings of the song as album tracks

She can give you a reason to live if she wants to She can make you forget other loves that you have known She has two lips and two arms that thrill you as very few do And if you want her to give them to you, just ask and she will

Don’t you believe her – I did and soon she’ll be leaving me
Don’t you believe her – if you do then soon she’ll be leaving you too

It takes a brave man to cover Johnny Paycheck’s “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” (a number seven hit for Paycheck in 1977) but Gene is up to the task. In fact I actually like Gene’s version better than the original.

Gene has been featuring Hank Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” in recent performances, and why not? Although the song was a hit at least three times (Timi Yuro, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold) it is a great song well worth hearing again. Gene’s version is a little more straight-forward country than the Price or Arnold versions, but Gene is as skilled and nuanced a singer as either Ray or Eddy and delivers a memorable performance of the song.

“The Long Black Veil” receives a dramatic, but not melodramatic, reading from Gene Watson that burnishes the Danny Dill / Marijohn Wilkin classic with a new luster. I think Lefty Frizzell would approve of Gene’s version.

I suppose you can’t do an album of modern classic country without reaching into the Merle Haggard song bag. In this case Gene has pulled out a tune written by Glenn Martin and Hank Cochran titled “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. Gene has always been the master of the medium-slow ballad and this song is no exception.

No, it’s not love, not like ours was, it’s not love
But it keeps love from driving me mad
And I don’t have to wonder who she’s had
No, it’s not love but it’s not bad

Haggard took “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” to number one in November 1972.

Gene reached deep into the George Jones catalog and found the Sandra Seamans / Kay Savage-penned “Walk Through This World With Me”. The song spent two weeks at number one in 1967 and is one of the many great songs that George recorded for the Musicor label. For my money, the best George Jones recordings came from the United Artists and Musicor labels during the 1960s. I prefer George’s recording but just by a hair.

Walk through this world with me,
Go where I go
Share all my my dreams with me,
I need you so
In life we search and some of us find
I’ve looked for you a long, long time

And now that I’ve found you,
New horizons I see
Come take my hand
And walk through this world with me

Those of us over 60 remember “(Turn Out The Lights) The Party’s Over” as the song ‘Dandy Don’ Meredith sang on ABC Monday Night Football as soon as the game was out of hand and the winner inevitable. Younger folks may remember hearing the venerable songwriter Willie Nelson sing it in concert. After hearing Gene’s version, you’ll think of it as a Gene Watson classic.

“I Forget You Everyday” was written by Merle Haggard but was never issued as a single. The truth is that during his peak years Merle Haggard was writing more great songs than he could ever get around to issuing as singles. Consequently, this song languished as an album cut on one of Hag’s fine Capitol albums, unheard to any but those who purchased the album. I hope Gene issues this as a single, although I don’t expect radio will play the song.

Memory is a gift a man can’t live without
And in times we can’t control the things we think about
So sometimes I still remember you in every way
But for a little while I forget you every day

“Count Me Out” was written by Jeanne Pruett, a song that she recorded for RCA during the mid-1960s. It didn’t chart for her and Marty Robbins’ 1966 recording of the song only reached number fourteen but it’s a really good song and kudos to Gene for unearthing it.

Taking me for granted was your first mistake
And that was the beginning of my last heartache.
And then you added insult to my injury
When you started treating me just as you please.

Count me out of future plans you might be making.
No more foolish chances am I taking.
You played love’s game too rough.
As for me, I’ve had enough
‘Cause the going’s got too rough so count me out.

Gene closes out this album with a song commonly associated with Buck Owens. Although Buck never issued the record as a single, he did cut it as an album cut and kept it in his live shows for a decade. Orville Couch co-wrote “Hello Trouble” and took it to number five in 1962. In 1989 the Desert Rose Band took it to number eleven on both the US and Canadian country charts. The song is a short (1:55) up-tempo song that makes a perfect closing note for yet another fine album. While cheerful in its sound and feel, the narrator of the song knows that the cheer is but of short duration.

Gene Watson covers no new ground in this recording, instead doing what he does best, singing good and great songs as well as anyone ever will sing them.

Producer Dirk Johnson’s production is solidly modern traditional country with fiddle and steel featured prominently throughout. In lieu of the symphonic strings featured on the original versions of some of these songs, fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Gail Rudisill-Johnson have created some nice string arrangements that complement the songs without overwhelming them.

Although hardly an essential part of the Gene Watson canon (except to the extent that every Gene Watson album is essential), it will please all of his many fans and hopefully gain him some new fans.

Grade: A (or 4.5 Stars)

Abum Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘One Step Ahead’

One Step Ahead was Rhonda’s 2003 release for Rounder and the first of her albums to really showcase her skills as a songwriter. As always, Rhonda is accompanied by a fine cast of supporting musicians including such aces as Aubrey Haynie (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Ronnie Stewart (banjo), Stewart Duncan (fiddle) and brother Darrin Vincent (bass).

The album opens up with “Kentucky Borderline”, a fine breakdown composed by Ms Vincent and Terry Herd. You could describe this one as a train song in the finest tradition of Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. The great vocal harmonies on this track are supplied by Jamie Dailey and brother Darrin.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is a gentle ballad from the pens of Curtis Wright and T.J. Knight about a love possibly about to disintegrate slowly.

I’ll give you my love
For the rest of my life
But I want to make sure you know
You can’t take it with you when you go

This song was released as a single to radio, reaching #58.

“One Step Ahead of The Blues” is another Vincent & Herd composition, an up-tempo tune featuring Alison Krauss on harmony vocals. This song probably should have been released as a single. Instead it was the second song on a CD single of “If Heartaches Had Wings” (a song not on this album) released in 2004.

Another Vincent/Herd composition is “Caught In The Crossfire” a rather sad story of divorce as seen through the eyes of a child

I’m caught in the crossfire
Of a world that’s so unkind
I love ‘em both but I can’t choose
Which one to leave behind

“Ridin’ The Red Line” is the song of a truck driver’s homecoming. Another Vincent/Herd composition, the song is noteworthy for the fine mandolin work by Aubrey Haynie with augmented mandolin fills by Cody Kilby.

Webb Pierce, June Hazelwood and Wayne Walker share the songwriting credits on an oldie, “Pathway of Teardrops”. This song has been recorded by many artists, but this version is very reminiscent of the Osborne Brothers recording of the song some years earlier.

The great female vocalist Melba Montgomery supplied “An Old Memory Found Its Way Back”. While Montgomery wasn’t a bluegrass artist, I’ve found that her songs lead themselves to bluegrass interpretations. This is a great ballad sung to perfection by Rhonda Vincent.

I don’t know much about Jennifer Strickland but she sure can write a pretty ballad, this one titled “Missouri Moon” about a love that has come to its end.

Who ever thought I’d be so blue
As I cry beneath that old Missouri moon

As I asked in a prior review, what would a bluegrass album be without a religious song? Much poorer for its absence, so Rhonda has chosen the old Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee classic “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill. No version will ever replace the Stoney & Wilma Lee version in my heart, but Ms. Vincent’s version comes close, with Darrin Vincent contributing an excellent guitar solo and harmony vocals.

Another religious song follows, this one penned by Becky Buller, “Fishers Of Men”. This song is performed a cappella by Rhonda Vincent with Darrin Vincent, Mickey Harris and Eric Wilson providing the harmony vocals. This is my favorite track on the album.

Cast your nets aside
And join the battle tide
He will be your guide
To make you fishers of men

Molly Cherryholmes composed the instrumental “Frankie Belle”, the only tune on the album to feature Rhonda’s own mandolin playing.

The album closes with a short rendition of “The Martha White Theme”, a tune long associated with Flatt & Scruggs, whose portion of the Grand Ole Opry was sponsored by Martha White for decades.

One Step Ahead is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a fully realized artist. I’d give it an A. The strength of this album’s songs is demonstrated by the fact that six of these songs would be reprised in her very next album Ragin’ Live.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Old Things New’

Old Things NewA few years ago, Joe Nichols looked to be one of the brightest young country stars, with an interestingly textured voice and a sound with genuinely country roots which still worked on country radio, thanks to some very good songs. His career seems to have gone off track since them – no doubt not helped by a spell in rehab just after the release of his last album, Real Things, two years ago. That album produced a couple of top 20 singles, but no major hits. In some ways, then, this album is something of a comeback attempt. It is mainly produced by Joe’s longterm producer Brent Rowan, with three tracks courtesy of Mark Wright.

Leadoff single ‘Believers’ performed relatively poorly, peaking at #26 on Billboard, despite an obviously sincere vocal praising those with faith in something, whether that’s a matter of politics, love or religion, with some gospel-style backing vocals on the last chorus which fortunately do not overwhelm it, and are at least in keeping with the subject matter. The song might have more impact if it concentrated on one of the three stories it touches on. The current single, the oddly spelt ‘Gimmie That Girl’ (co-written by 90s chart artist Rhett Akins with Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip) is a warmhearted but over-produced love song lauding the narrator’s girlfriend au naturel. It is one of three tracks produced by Mark Wright, and is as close as the album gets to pop-country (with one glaring exception, of which more later).

‘The Shape I’m In’ is another Akins/Davidson/Hayslip song produced by Wright, but is much better than the single. The protagonist is suffering both a literal hangover and a metaphorical one, the after-effects of a failed relationship, but is starting to feel better, commenting:

I’m doing alright
For the shape I’m in

The third Wright-produced track is ‘Man, Woman’, written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, a midtempo song about a guy who realizes his heartbreak is worse than he had thought it would be, with some nice fiddle from Aubrey Haynie. Joe does have a engagingly warm and fairly distinctive voice with inflected edges which can make average material sound better than it is, and he does that on songs like this pleasant if undistinguished song. Similarly, ‘We All Go Home’, written by Jimmy Melton, Neal Coty and Michael Mobley, is quite a nice song about being reminded of one’s childhood home. It doesn’t break new ground, but is very well sung, which also features Mac McAnally on acoustic guitar,and is another possible single. Its main flaw is unnecessary and slightly overpowering gospelly backing vocals at the end.

‘This Bed’s Too Big’, written by Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw, is a tenderly sung love song about needing to stay really close to the protagonist’s loved one, but it sounds a little dull.

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Album Review: Vern Gosdin – Late & Great: The Voice

When the great Vern Gosdin died earlier this year, I wasn’t expecting any posthumous material to emerge. Obviously, I was mistaken, as this CD on obscure indie label Sims Records has been released. The material is of somewhat murky origin; there is no mention of it on the official Vern Gosdin website, the liner notes are minimal, and there is no date given for the sessions. Label owner Russell Sims and Frank Green are credited as producers. The lineup of musicians is almost identical to that on Vern’s 1997 release 24 Karat Heartache, the only differences being the drummer and the fact that this album has no backing vocalists, with Ron Oates, producer of that album, credited here for arrangements. Combined with the fact that Vern is in great vocal form here, and the overall similarity of this set, I am inclined to suspect these recordings date from approximately 1996-1997, although they do not appear to be from the same sessions as a different recording studio is named. How they came into the hands of Sims Records is unclear.

A possible clinching factor in determining the date is that one song, ‘Where Do We Take It From Here’, appears on both albums. It is an excellent song about a once-happy relationship coming to a close, which is certainly worth hearing again, and it is given a superb vocal performance. According to the credits on 24 Karat Heartache, it was co-written by Vern with Dennis Knutson and A. L. “Doodle” Owens, although here Vern alone is credited. The liner notes credit a further five songs on the album to Vern’s solo authorship, but the above evidence (and the fact that most of Vern’s songwriting involved collaboration) leads me to supect this is likely to be inaccurate.

One of the best of the songs credited to him is the sad ‘After Losing You’, which is classic Vern Gosdin, as he emotes:

Sometimes I want to drink until I drown
Sometimes I wish that I was not around
There ain’t no way to win if I can’t lose
These memories of things we used to do
Sometimes I hold your picture til it hurts
And wonder if my life is what love’s worth
Sometimes I wonder what I’m gonna do
With me, after losing you

This song is so good I’m surprised it has never previously surfaced.

‘Two Broken Hearts’ is also pretty good, with tasteful semi-Caribbean tinges, as the protagonist takes solace in the arms of another loser in love:

“I guess it takes a fool to know a fool …

‘Cause two broken hearts are better than one
It’s better than falling apart all alone
Maybe between the two of us
We’ll find a way to carry on
‘Cause two broken hearts are better than one”

This track has a couple of slightly disconcerting shifts in volume, which sound rather as if two vocal tracks have been spliced together electronically. This is also detectable on one of four songs written by one Jollie Hollie, ‘Not Back To Where I’ve Been’, a fine song in which the protagonist refuses to take back an erring ex, set to a beautiful tune:

Thanks but no thanks
I’ll not hurt this way again
I said yes to you each time before
But this time I’m saying no
To whatever it is you have to give
You can just pack up and go
Just save that line you’ve used each time
‘Cause it won’t work again
I don’t know where I’m going
But it’s not back to where I’ve been

In ‘The Ride’ (also written by Hollie), which opens the album, the protagonist is quite happy to settle for something less than true love. It has an arresting opening (“Loving me is something you don’t”) and good verses, but a repetitive chorus, making it the least good of the Hollie compositions here, despite a bright vocal from Vern. Much better is the classic-sounding ‘Lips Speak Up’ with its rather quirky admonition to the inarticulate protagonist’s own lips for not voicing his heartache. The best of the Hollie songs here is the closing track, ‘To Feel What I Once Felt’, a sad ballad which is perfect for Vern, as the protagnist just can’t help himself:

“The thrill is to touch you, but your feeling can sure kill a man
To feel what I once felt would be well worth dying again
Like a wino to his bottle I return to your hurt more and more …

To need you like I need you is the greatest of all my sins
To feel what I once felt would be well worth dying again”

I know Hollie wrote a couple of album tracks in the 1970s for Gene Watson (the beautiful ‘I’d Settle For Just Crossing Her Mind’ on Paper Rosie) and Conway Twitty (‘You Love The Best Out Of Me’ on This Time), but I know nothing else about her (I assume her to be female based on the name, plus something about her writing).

Of the lesser material, ‘Thank Your Mama’ is a warmly delivered love song from a trucker to his wife, wrapped up in a message of thanks to her mother for bringing her up so well. ‘The Biggest Little Arms’ was one of the previously unreleased tracks on last year’s box set 40 Years Of The Voice, and is a pleasant mid-tempo love song. The least successful track is ‘Yard Sale’, chronicling a couple’s sale of all their possessions (possibly thanks to bankruptcy, although the lyric isn’t entirely clear), which scans a little awkwardly and sounds too cheerful for the downbeat subject matter.

Whatever the origins of this album, it’s certainly worthwhile for Vern Gosdin fans. He was in great voice, and the material is all good, if not quite up to the standards of ‘Chiseled In Stone’, ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’ or ‘Alone’.

Grade: B+