My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Barbra Streisand

Fellow Travelers: Neil Diamond

neil-diamond-01Neil Diamond has had an almost continuous presence on the various Billboard charts since 1965. Possessed of an excellent voice that covers the entire tenor-baritone continuum, Neil has been a titan of the pop and adult contemporary charts with some scattered play on jazz, R&B and country stations along the way.

Who Was He?

Neil Diamond started out as a songwriter, part of the legendary ‘Brill Building’ cadre of songwriters. Success for Neil came slowly until November 1965, when “Sunday and Me,” became a #18 hit for Jay and The Americans. Shortly thereafter the producers for the pre-fab four (a/k/a the Monkees) took interest in Neil’s music, recording several of his tunes including “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” and “Love to Love “. The radio and television exposure generated by the Monkees did wonders for Neil’s checkbook. “I’m A Believer” spent seven weeks at #1 and sold over 10 million copies for the Monkees.

Neil’s own hits started soon thereafter, with “Solitary Man” becoming a modest success in 1966 (but a top ten record in several regional markets. The next single “Cherry, Cherry” sealed the deal reaching #6 on the pop charts. While not every subsequent single would become a top ten record, for the next twenty five years nearly every single charted on one of Billboard’s charts, and many charted globally. He ranks behind only Sir Elton John and Barbra Streisand on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts.

What Was His Connection to Country Music?

The first Neil Diamond single I can recall hearing was “Kentucky Woman”, a #22 pop hit in 1967. At the time I heard the song, I thought it was a country song, and that Neil should be performing country music. Indeed, Neil’s record received some airplay on WCMS-AM and WTID-AM in Norfolk, VA and it wasn’t long before some of his songs were being covered on country albums.

Waylon Jennings had a great terrific version of “Kentucky Woman” on his Only The Greatest album area, Roy Drusky had a top twenty county hit in 1972 with “Red Red Wine”, and T.G. Sheppard had a top 15 country hit in 1976 with “Solitary Man”. “I’m A Believer” showed up as an album track on many country albums.

In 1978-1979 Neil had a pair of songs chart in the lower reaches of the country charts in “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (billed as Neil & Barbra) and “Forever In Blue Jeans”. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” was , of course, a huge pop hit but Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius covered it in the country market for a #1 record.

In 1996 Neil targeted the album Tennessee Moon at the country market and it reached #3 on the Billboard Country albums chart, although it generated no hit singles for the fifty-five year old Diamond. The album featured duets with Raul Malo , Hal Ketcham and Waylon Jennings. This would be the only time that Neil Diamond would target an album at the country music market, although many of his albums featured songs that would fit easily into the county format at the time the album was recorded.

Neil Diamond Today

Neil is still alive and recording, his most recent album being the 2014 release Melody Road. His website does not show any current tour dates, but he has not announced his retirement from touring, and he toured in 2015 so I presume he will be back touring shortly.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘I Walk Alone’

walkaloneLorrie Morgan’s most recent solo album I Walk Alone was released without much fanfare in December 2010, a mere fourteen months after the disappointing covers album A Moment In Time. She played a bigger role in the creation of this album than she had with any of the collections that preceded it; not only was she the album’s co-producer, she co-wrote each of album’s thirteen tracks. Rather than catering to the youth market with a mutton-dressed-as-lamb product, she confronts the age issue head on, with a collection of songs sung from the point of view of a middle-aged woman. She addresses topics that are of interest to female listeners in the same age bracket – the independence and loneliness that occur after failed relationships come to an end , and the need to pick up the pieces and try again with somebody new. In theory there is no one better suited than Lorrie Morgan to tackle these subjects; unfortunately, the execution of the idea doesn’t always quite work.

I Walk Alone is one of the least country efforts in the Morgan discography and seems to be aimed squarely at middle-of-the-road listeners, which is odd considering that near the end of her stint with BNA, Lorrie publicly complained that she wanted to get back to recording more country-sounding material, but she was being pressured to go with a more radio-friendly sound instead. Her voice has deteriorated noticeably since her major label days, although the vocal problems are not as apparent as they were on A Moment In Time.

As someone who is outside the demographic that the album is intended to target, I am perhaps not in the best position to judge its effectiveness, but I was mostly bored with this collection of mostly AC-leaning ballads and midtempo numbers, although there are a few chestnuts among them. The album’s best moments are the more uptempo numbers where Morgan asserts her independence, such as the title track (the album’s best song), “Woman Thing”, and to a lesser extent, the opening track “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, which finds Morgan getting rid of both physical and emotional baggage after a break-up. Although it’s one of the more interesting songs, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is also, unfortunately, one of her poorer vocal efforts.

The campy and very pop-sounding “Very Marilyn” sounds like something Madonna might have recorded in the 80s and evokes images of the “Material Girl” video. It’s not to my taste, but it is at least more interesting than the remaining songs on the album, which I found quite tedious to listen to, with the spacy-sounding “Dangerously Blue” being the worst example. I didn’t enjoy the Kenny G-like saxophone on “”How Does It Feel”. The ballad “Mirror, Mirror” is not a bad song per se, but it sounds like it would be better suited to Barbra Streisand than Lorrie Morgan. “Take You Down”, on which Lorrie plays a Mrs. Robinson-type older woman seducing a much younger and less experienced man is downright embarrassing.

I Walk Alone didn’t receive much publicity when it was released, so it may have slipped below the radar of some fans, but it is hardly essential listening. CD copies are available through Lorrie’s website, but frankly are not worth the $20 asking price. The album is available for more reasonable prices through Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Grade: C

Fellow Travelers: Gordon Lightfoot (1938-)

gordon lightfootThis is the sixth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE?

Gordon Lightfoot arguably is Canada’s most successful folk performer with a long string of pop successes in the United States and Canada and some hits in Australia and the UK as well. Gordon had many hits in Canada before breaking through as a singer in the US, but many of his compositions were made hits by American artists including songs such as “Ribbon of Darkness” (Marty Robbins) and “Early Morning Rain” (Peter, Paul & Mary, George Hamilton IV) . Among the other artists who have recorded Lightfoot’s songs are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., The Kingston Trio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Viola Wills, Richie Havens, The Dandy Warhols, Harry Belafonte, Tony Rice, Sandy Denny (with Fotheringay), The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Scott Walker, Sarah McLachlan, John Mellencamp, Toby Keith, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, The Irish Rovers and Olivia Newton-John.

As a singer, Gordon’s most successful records were “Sundown”, “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, the first two reaching #1 in the US and Canada and the latter (a Canadian #1) reaching #2 in the US despite its six-minute length.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?

Although Gordon Lightfoot charted eight times on Billboard’s Country charts, only “Sundown” cracked the top fifteen. His real importance to country music is in the huge number of country artists who recorded his songs. George Hamiliton IV recorded many of his songs on various albums scoring hits with “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain”. As noted above, Marty Robbins scored a #1 hit with “Ribbon of Darkness, a song also recorded by Connie Smith, Jack Greene and countless others. Glen Campbell had a hit with “Wherefore and Why”. Legendary bluegrass artists Mac Wiseman and Tony Rice each recorded entire albums of nothing but Gordon Lightfoot songs. Country albums of the late 1960s and the 1970s frequently included a Gordon Lightfoot song.

Gordon doesn’t seem to have an official website but there is a fan site. The site is a bit disjointed but contains much information about Lightfoot, including tour dates.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Sammy Kershaw – ‘I Finally Found Someone’

Sammy Kershaw and fellow country star Lorrie Morgan joined forces both personally and professionally in 2001. The pair married that year and also collaborated on a one-off project for RCA that was released shortly after the major label phase of both artists’ careers had ended. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together; both had been members of George Jones’ road band in the early 80s, and they’d made occasional guest appearances on each other’s albums. One of those efforts, “Maybe Not Tonight” was a minor hit in 1999.

On the surface, a joint album from two of the most underrated stars of the 1990s seemed like a good idea; however, they were under-served by mostly second-rate material and the overall result is a rather dull and lackluster affair. The album consists of 12 tracks overall, six duets and three solo performances from each, and yielded only one charting single — the Jimmy Buffet-esque “He Drinks Tequila”, one of the few uptempo numbers in a very ballad-heavy and surprisingly AC-leaning album. It peaked at #39. The interminably dull title track, a remake of a Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams duet, was released as the second single, followed by “Sad City”, a Kershaw solo effort.

Among the duet numbers, “I Can’t Think of Anything But You”, a very nice ballad co-written by Skip Ewing, David Feritta and Alan Rich, is a highlight, as is “That’s Where I’ll Be”, an original number penned by Kershaw and Morgan. As far as the solo efforts are concerned, Lorrie’s selections are far better than Sammy’s. Particularly good are two introspective numbers in which she reflects on her fading youth — “29 Again” and her own composition, the excellent “I Must Be Gettin’ Older.” Kerhsaw’s solo performances are mostly disappointing; the non-charting single “Sad City”, which is by no means a great song, is the best of the bunch. He does a decent job on the pop standard “What A Wonderful World”, but one wonders why he chose to cover this song that really didn’t need to be remade again, particularly when there were only three solo numbers allotted to him on the album. The self-penned “Sugar” is truly terrible and makes one grateful that most of Kershaw’s catalog was supplied by outside songwriters.

One of the big surprises is how middle-of-the-road the song selections are. Morgan had occasionally ventured into AC-territory and the country music had definitely moved in a more pop direction by 2001, but both artists were known for their traditional leanings. Morgan had recently ended her association with BNA Records, citing her frustration with label pushing her in a more pop direction as a primary reason.

I Finally Found Someone did manage to reach #13 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, despite a lack of interest from radio and the fading popularity of both Morgan and Kershaw, but it is largely forgotten today and is an album that only diehard fans will bother to seek out.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Long Line of Heartaches’

When I interviewed Connie Smith in March 2009, we both lamented the current state of country music, particularly the fact that an entire generation of fans — and performers — are unaware of the genre’s rich heritage. “It’s not their fault,” she commented, “because no one taught them.” With Long Line of Heartaches, her first studio album in 13 years, she undertakes the task of finally showing the younger generation how it’s done. The 12-track collection is both a homage to tradition and a sampling of what country music might once again (hopefully) become.

Comparisons to Smith’s husband Marty Stuart’s recent Ghost Train are inevitable. Both albums were produced by Stuart and feature a generous sampling of the couple’s original compositions. In addition, both albums seek to recreate the traditional sound, while maintaining a contemporary feel, and both albums were recorded in RCA’s legendary Studio B, where most of Connie’s 1960s classics were created.

Long Line of Heartaches makes no concessions to the latest radio trends, perhaps in acknowledgement that it is unlikely to receive much mainstream airplay. As such, no singles have been released. Instead, Stuart and Smith concentrate on creating a collection that sounds right at home with Connie’s 60s hits; the steel guitar is up front and center, as it should be, throughout the album. And as with Ghost Train, they’ve managed to recreate that sound without sounding dated or retro.

The couple contributed five original songs to the album, including the title track, which opens the set. It’s a traditional country shuffle that sets the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this isn’t going to be the typical Nashvegas pop fare. “The Pain of a Broken Heart” was written by Stuart and Smith several years ago, on the same day they wrote “Farmer’s Blues” which Marty recorded with Merle Haggard. The uptempo waltz has a melody that is reminiscent of “The Long Black Veil”, albeit at a faster pace. Connie steps outside of her comfort zone just a bit for “Blue Heartaches”, which proves that she’s as comfortable tinging her country wtih blues as she is at singing straight honky-tonk. Of all the songs she and Marty have written, Connie says this is one of the ones of which she is most proud. My favorite of the Stuart-Smith compositions, however, is “I’m Not Blue”, which they co-wrote with the famed songwriter Kostas. It’s a little more contemporary than the other songs they wrote for the album, and I can’t help but think that somebody could have a big hit on their hands if they covered this song.

In addition to their own compositions, Stuart and Smith armed themselves with stellar material from an impressive line-up of outside songwriters. Harlan Howard and Kostas’ “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel” has been recorded many times; Tanya Tucker included it on her 1997 disc Complicated. It’s usually given a Tex-Mex feel complete with mariachi horns, which Connie and Marty omitted on this version. The legendary Dallas Frazier makes a contribution with “A Heart Like You”. Written after a 30-year hiatus from songwriting, it contains one of country music’s all-time great lines — “what’s a heart like you, doing in a fool like me?”, which one wonders why someone didn’t think of before. “My Part of Forever” is another beautiful ballad, which, surprisingly, was originally recorded by Johnny Paycheck. But my favorite song on the album by far is “That Makes Two of Us” which was written by Kostas along with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr. This is a beautiful number, impeccably sung, and in a sane world it would be a monster hit. The album closes with a stripped-down, acoustic hymn “Take My Hand”, on which Connie is joined in harmony by her three daughters.

Dolly Parton once named Connie Smith as country music’s greatest female singer in her now famous quote, “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” That may have been an exaggeration, but only a slight one and as strong a case can be made for Smith’s greatness today as when Dolly first spoke those words many years ago. There isn’t a single dud among the twelve tracks on this album. It’s great to have new music from Connie Smith; hopefully she can be persuaded to record more frequently. I don’t want to have wait another 13 years for her next record.

Long Line of Heartaches
can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+