My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Austin Cunningham

Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘Chalee Tennison’

Texas born Chalee Tennison was 29 years old by the time she signed her first record deal with Asylum Records in 1999, and she had plenty of life experiences to draw on. She had three failed marriages behind her, having first married at the age of 16, and was a single mother of three. Work experience included construction and prison guard. A penchant for emotional songs rooted in real life was allied to a smoky alto voice. Chalee’s debut album was produced by Jerry Taylor, who had discovered her.

Her debut single was cowritten by Chalee herself (her only writing credit on the record) with Jim Robinson. ‘Someone Else’s Turn To Cry’ was inspired by the recent breakup of her third marriage, and is a beautifully sung subdued ballad with a tasteful string arrangement, about regaining her self confidence. It peaked at #46.

The more generic modern country ‘Handful Of Water’ was less successful, faltering in the 60s. It was written by Allison Mellon, Jason Sellers and Austin Cunningham. The third single at last brought a top 40 country hit, with ‘Just Because She Lives There’ reaching #36. Written by Dale Dodson and Billy Lawson, it is one of the more traditional leaning cuts, and a fine ballad detailing the life of a woman whose marriage feels empty:

If she turns to another
She knows she’ll have to answer to the Lord
She wonders where the romance went
Why the man she fell in love with
Finds her so easy to ignore
Just because she lives there
Don’t mean she loves there anymore

One possible missed opportunity might be the failure to pick ‘A Stolen Car’ as a single. Written by Sam Hogin, Phil Barnhart and Bill LaBounty, it is a catchy if slightly too busily produced rocker with Chalee expressing just how much she loves her man and is committed to their relationship:

I’d rather drive across Texas in a stolen car
With the Rangers on my tail and no head start
I’d rather draw my last breath with a bullet in my heart
Than ever drive away from you

But Chalee’s greatest strength lies in the emotional ballads. ‘I Can Feel You Drifting’ is a lovely wistful song about a relationship gradually falling apart, with a pretty piano and strings backing. ‘There’s A War In Me’ is also a strong song about a troubled relationship, but this time the wife is the one more likely to leave. In ‘I’d Rather Miss You’, which has some nice fiddle, she doesn’t want to move on.

The reminder of the material is fairly generic, but not bad. ‘I Let Him Get Away with It’ is a decent mid-tempo song about accepting a loved one still carries a flame for his ex. The similar sounding ‘Leave It At That’ is just okay. ‘It Ain’t So Easy’ is a pretty good song addressed to Chalee’s ex. ‘Sometime’, written by Ed Bruce and his wife Robin Lee, is quite a good up-tempo tune.

This is generally on the more contemporary side, but so well done that it is worth checking out – think Trisha Yearwood, and if you like her music this is potentially for you.

Grade: B

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘The More I Learn’

Ronna’s second album for Mercury was released in 1992. It was slightly more successful in gaining radio play, although there were still no bona fide hits.

The mid-paced title track, ‘The More I Learn (The Less I Understand About Love)’, was written by one of the most successful female songwriters of the era, Karen Staley, with Steve Dean, and it is radio friendly enough to have been a potential hit. Its #49 peak would make it the closest ever Ronna ever got to the charts.

Follow-up ‘What If You’re Wrong’, written by Austin Cunningham and Denise Davis, is a big ballad in which Ronna offers to set her a restless husband free:

If you think the magic is gone
I agree, maybe you should move on
If you’re sure that your love for me has really died
If there’s something still missing for you
Then there’s nothing more I’ll know to do
So I’ll have to go along with whatever you decide

But what if you’re wrong?

Some nice steel augments the song effectively. It peaked at a dismal #70, one place higher than the third and last single, the pacy ‘We Can Hold Our Own’, which is pleasant if unremarkable.

My favorite track is ‘Nobody Here To Love’, an excellent Bob Mc Dill ballad about the loss of love. There is a gentle Celtic feel to the fiddle arrangement on the verses behind Ronna’s vulnerable vocals, which then soar on the chorus:

I was living all alone
And though I had a heart of stone
You touched my hand and melted me
And I believed

It was you that made me see
What love could be
But I walked in today and no one was there
Now nothing matters after all

Funny how things work out
Can’t believe somehow
You could leave me now
Tell me, what were you thinkin’ of
‘Cause now that you taught me how
There’s nobody here to love

Another solid McDill tune, ‘Honky Tonk Hearts’, had been a minor hit for Dickey Lee in 1980, and was also recorded by John Anderson. Ronna’s version is pretty good. ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ is a sweet love song (written by Paul Kennerley) offering a second chance to someone who has been hurt by another. It was previously recorded by Don Williams. I also quite enjoyed the up-tempo ‘Heartbreak Shoes’.

‘Frontier Justice’, written by Bobby Fischer, Charlie Black and Austin Roberts, is a dramatic number in which Ronna seethes about being done wrong and lied to:

‘Cause you can’t hang ’em high
You can’t lay ’em low
The way you could a hundred years ago
When love and honor were the law of the land
If frontier justice prevailed today
My daddy and brothers would make you pay
That’s the kind of justice you’d understand

Ronna’s attitude is directed triumphantly at her lover’s ex in the upbeat ‘Bless Your Cheatin’ Heart’, an entertaining song written by Buddy Cannon and Jessica Boucher:

You know, it’s almost funny to see you standing there in tears
I just wanna thank you dear, because he no longer cares about you

You had everything you didn’t want but then somehow
He started looking good to you the minute he fell in my arms
And I’m obliged to you
And bless your cheatin’ heart

Sammy Kershaw duets with Ronna on ‘There’s Love On The Line’. Their voices work well together on this song (written by Jerry Fuller) about a separated couple laying phone tag as they try to make a connection again.

There was a lot of strong material on this album, and it’s one I enjoyed listening to.

Grade: B+

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

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: Pam Tillis – ‘Every Time’

every timePam’s last 1990s release (in 1998) was co-produced by the arist with Billy Joe Walker Jr. It was her first Arista album not to be certified gold, marking a commercial downturn for her. It may also mark a period of personal turmoil following her divorce from songwriter Bob DiPiero, it is also noticeable that she did not contribute to the songwriting on this album. Her vocals are (as usual) excellent throughout.

There were only two modestly performing singles. ‘I Said A Prayer’, an upbeat Leslie Satcher song given rather poppy production which was Pam’s last top 20 hit, peaked at #12. I personally prefer the prettily melodic title track (penned by Tommy Lee James and Jennifer Kimball), but this one only just squeezed into the top 40.

Leslie Satcher got two more cuts on this album. ‘You Put The Lonely On Me’ is another up-tempo number with an assertive approach and some nice honky tonk piano, which isn’t bad. The best of Satcher’s songs (and one of the two best tracks on the album) is ‘Whiskey On The Wound’, a sad story song about a man whose tangled love life leads him into the deep waters of alcoholism.

The other standout is the magnificent pain-filled steel-led ballad ‘Hurt Myself’, written by Savannah Snow. The protagonist compares her relationship with a toxic ex with other forms of self-destructiveness. ‘A Great Disguise’ is another very good song about hiding the pain of a breakup, which had previously been recorded by Martina McBride. Pam’s interpretation is more subtle than Martina’s powerful belting, but both versions are good.

‘A Whisper And A Scream’, written by Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham, is a fine song about striking the right balance in life, which is much better than the title sounds. The insistent mid-tempo ‘Lay The Heartache Down’ written by Jamie O’Hara is also pretty good, with harmonica fills.

‘We Must Be Thinking Alike’ is quite pleasant but ultimately forgettable, while ‘Not Me’ is boring pop filler. ‘After Hours’ is also rather dull.

There are a couple of great tracks and several good ones, but this album as a whole fails to reach the heights of Pam’s best work, and it’s not entirely surprising that it failed to make much of a mark. It’s certainly worth cherrypicking the best tracks on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be obtained very cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review: Collin Raye -‘Never Going Back’

never going backIn 2006 Collin released a Europe-only release to coincide with a tour; the US didn’t miss anything because Fearless is frankly pretty awful. Three years later, he teamed up with Saguaro Road, a Time Life imprint, and produced his most recent secular effort to date. Never Going Back is better than Fearless, but overall proved to be another disappointment with a few bright spots.

The screamed out rock of the title track, written by Collin with the album’s producer Michael A Curtis, is an over-produced, too-loud error of judgment, entirely unsuited to Collin’s strength as an artist. At five minutes, it is also far too long.

There are a couple of outright pop covers, neither successful. Pop classic ‘Without You’, performed as a duet with Christian music artist Susan Ashton has nicely understated verses but gets completely overblown on the chorus, both vocally and instrumentally. Collin’s version of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ is just boring karaoke which seems pointless.

Collin’s voice is a bit strained at times on the over-produced mid-tempo ‘Mid Life Chrysler’, a barbed portrait of a middle aged man trying to hold on to his youth with the aid of hair dye and a hot car while jettisoning a longstanding marriage. It is the most interesting of four songs written by Neil Thrasher, this one with Wendell Mobley and Tony Martin. Thrasher and Mobley’s ‘You Get Me’ and ‘Take Care of You’ (written by Thrasher and Mobley with Aimee Mayo) are bland pop-leaning love songs. The sugary piano ballad ‘I Love You This Much’, written by Thrasher with Austin Cunningham, is not the Jimmy Wayne hit but uses the same “open arms” imagery and shift to Jesus in the last verse, to significantly less effect.

Things improve with Curtis’s beautiful ‘The Cross’, a touching story song about a widow celebrating her love at a roadside cross she visits to remember him, I presume at the site of his death:

I don’t come to mourn his dying
But to celebrate his life
Death can never stop love
Between a husband and a wife
There’s something about coming here
When I’m feeling lost
When I need to find my peace of mind
I just come to the cross

‘The Only Jesus’, written by Raye with Curtis, is also pretty good, with its inspiring story of behaving in a Christlike manner towards a drunk, because

I might be the only Jesus he will ever see

Oh, and who am I to judge him?
Don’t know what he’s been through
If I read the Bible right there’s only something God can do
If I can help him out of darkness
Let him see the light in me
I might be the only Jesus he will ever see

The heartfelt ‘She’s With Me’ was written by Collin about other people’s reactions to his disabled granddaughter.

‘Where It Leads’ is quite catchy Southern rock with bouncy piano, which works much better than most of Raye’s forays into rockier material, because there is both an actual melody and a lyric that tells a story. The soothingly melodic ‘Don’t Tell Me You’re Not In Love’ (also recorded by George Strait on The Road Less Travelled) is prettily done and one of the few tracks I thoroughly enjoyed, although I prefer Strait’s cut.

While not Collin’s best work, the good tracks are worth hearing. This is definitely a case of selective downloading.

Grade: C

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’ plus later recordings

Released in September 1990, Love Can Build A Bridge saw the duo continuing their success into the new decade. A bittersweet project, it would be the last during their hit making years and was followed by the famed farewell tour in 1991. It was also the first Judds album not to feature a #1 hit.

Lead single “Born To Be Blue” opens soft with Wynonna’s distinctive twang coupled with piano accompaniment until the track kicks into high gear on the chorus. Producer Brent Maher was smart to showcase Wynonna’s bluesy vocals as they elevate this otherwise boring song and foreshadow what was to come in her solo work.

The spiritual title track, co-written by Naomi with John Barlow Jarvis and Paul Overstreet is the highlight of the album and like “Born To Be Blue” only reached a chart peak of #5. The soft and tasteful production heightens the overall message connecting us with God.

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Album Review: Kim Williams – ‘The Reason That I Sing’

williamskimI’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy hearing songwriters’ own interpretations of songs which they have written for other artists. The latest example comes from Kim Williams, a name you should recognize if you pay attention to the songwriting credits. Kim has been responsible for no fewer than 16 number 1 hits, and many more hit singles and album tracks over the past 20 years. Now he has released an album containing his versions of many of his big hits, together with some less familiar material.

The album is sub-titled Country Hits Bluegrass Style, although the overall feel of the record is more acoustic country with bluegrass instrumentation provided by some of the best bluegrass musicians around: Tim Stafford (who produces the set) on guitar, Ron Stewart on fiddle and banjo, Adam Steffey on mndolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass, with Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford providing harmony vocals. Kim’s voice is gruff but tuneful, and while he cannot compare vocally to most of those who have taken his songs to chart success, he does have a warmth and sincerity which really does add something to the songs he has picked on this album.

Kim includes three of the songs he has written for and with Garth Brooks, all from the first few years of the latter’s career. ‘Ain’t Going Down (Til The Sun Comes Up’), a #1 for Garth in 1993, provides a lively opening to the album, although it is one of the less successful tracks, lacking the original’s hyperactivity while not being a compelling or very melodic song in its own right. ‘Papa Loved Mama’ is taken at a slightly brisker pace than the hit version, and is less melodramatic as a result – neither better nor worse, but refreshingly different. ‘New Way To Fly’, which was recorded by Garth on No Fences, also feels more down to earth and less intense than the original, again with a very pleasing effect.

The other artist whose repertoire is represented more than once here is Joe Diffie. The lively western swing of ‘If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets’ (written with Ken Spooner) with its newly topical theme of being well and truly broke is fun. Although ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (from the 1992 album Regular Joe) was never released as a single, this tender ballad about separation from a loved one has always been one of my favorite Joe Diffie recordings. Kim’s low-key, intimate version wisely avoids competing vocally, but succeeds in its own way.

One of my favorite hit singles this decade was ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 2002, which Kim wrote with Doug Johnson. A movie based on the story is apparently in development. I still love Randy’s version, but while Kim is far from the vocalist Randy is, this recording stands up on its own terms, with an emotional honesty in Kim’s delivery which brings new life to the story.

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