My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ben Hayslip

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Easton Corbin -‘About To Get Real’

about to get realRather optimistically heralded as a new George Strait on his debut in 2009, my enthusaism for Easto Corbin has somewhat waned since his run of gold-selling singles. I always felt that while he had potential, his material was not quite good enough for that smooth voice and Carson Chamberlain’s steel-laden production. I am sorry to say that his long-delayed third album was not worth waiting for. Chamberlain has modernised the sound a little, but that’s not the main problem. The real disappointment of this album is that the songs are all so lackluster and forgettable, with just a few exceptions.

The pleasant sounding but forgettable lead single ‘Clockwork’ performed unimpressively last year, not quite reaching the top30. The song isn’t bad apart from the unnecessary and irritating repetition of the word ‘girl’, but Corbin’s vocal lacks force or emotion. He just doesn’t sound as if he really cares about the emotional trap of a repeat pattern his character has fallen into.

It is one of five songs co-written by producer Chamberlain. ‘Kiss Me One More Time’ (by Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Phil O’Donnell) is just okay. The remaining three Chamberlain songs include Corbin as a co-writer. I enjoyed the bouncy ‘Diggin’ On You’ even though it is pure fluff. ‘Damn, Girl’ suffers from rather too facile rhymes but isn’t too bad. The best of these collaborations, however, is the best song on the album. ‘Like A Song’, written by the pair with Stephen Allen Davis, is a beautiful ballad which shows just how good Corbin could be given worthwhile material.

Current single ‘Baby Be My Love Song, written by Brett James and Jim Collins, is a poorly written boring love song relying on bro-country clichés and a busy production, but it seems to be more palatable to country radio than its predecessor, and made it into the top 10.

‘Are You With Me’ from his last album was subjected to an unspeakably horrible dance remix last year and the result was a hit single in France and Belgium, and perhaps because of that he has recut the song straight here. The reclaimed version is quite a pretty sounding mellow ballad which Easton sings with a genuine warmth, and which is one of the few songs I like on this album. It was written by Shane MacAnally, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride.

The enjoyable ‘Wild Women and Whiskey’ written by McBride with Ronnie Dunn is a pretty good song which sounds like a Brooks & Dunn offcut, while sunny beach tune ‘Just Add Water’ would fit perfectly on a Kenny Chesney record.

The title track, written by Jeremy Stover, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins is, while mellow and melodic, bland and forgettable, while ‘Guys And Girls’ lacks both melody and lyrical depth and ‘Yup’ is both boring and cliche’d.

This record is not offensive to listen to – it’s just rather bland and wanting lyrically, with just a few bright spots.

Grade: C+

Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Going Out Like That’

reba-going-out-like-that-coverWhen the announcement was made that Reba McEntire had signed with Scott Borchetta’s Nash Icon label, I ran across an article where she said she thought she’d already made her final album (2010’s The Woman I Am). Brochetta, who’s Valory Music Co. label released that project, had apparently been courting McEntire for years, trying to convince her to return to the studio. The results of that begging should be out this spring.

My hopes are high for the project. Ever since she made her comeback in 2009 I’ve longed for McEntire to revisit the magic of What If  It’s You, her 1996 return to form after years of dabbling in a brand of theatrical country that turned her into a cartoon character. Save a song here and there, that obviously hasn’t happened. If this first taste of the new music is any indication, the long wait continues.

“Going Out Like That” is nothing more than a product aimed at gaining maximum airplay, a business decision where quality is the last thing on everyone’s minds. McEntire and Borchetta have forgone the grand artistic statement in favor of positioning the 60 year old for history making success by playing the mainstream game.

That being said, “Going Out Like That” isn’t without its charms. McEntire has never been one to show her age and with her trademark voice still in top form, that isn’t happening now. And while the indistinctive arrangement, produced by Tony Brown, relies too heavily on layers of electric guitars and sounds as though it was created by a computer, it does have a brightness to it that I kind of enjoy. It also doesn’t hurt that the song feels far more structured than “Turn on the Radio.”

In addition, it’s far from the worst country radio has to offer. Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip, and Jason Sellers have crafted a lyric that steers clear of positioning McEntire as a ‘female bro’ obsessed with trucks, dirt roads, and drinking. And I still have hope for the album, which will probably have some good songs, as her weakest recordings usually do.

That doesn’t excuse the fact McEntire and Borchetta are banking on emotion manipulation by taking advantage of the fans hoping for the return of substance on their radio. Even worse, the track continues McEntire’s trend of tarnishing her groundbreaking legacy by her refusal to act her age at a time when she should be showing the younger generations how it’s done.

“Going Out Like That” also doesn’t bode well for the Nash Icon brand, which has Martina McBride and Ronnie Dunn on board as well, because it positions the label as a shameless mainstream entity and not the platform for genuine artistic expression everyone hoped it would be.

No matter how you look it, McEntire’s long awaited comeback single is a colossal waste of everyone’s time and energy. I’m so done giving artists a pass when they’ve released a product in place of a song. We’ve been taken advantage of for far too long by an industry’s mainstream sector being more concerned with numbers and profits than artistic integrity. There is a way to meet both objectives simultaneously, but “Going Out Like That” obviously isn’t it.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Crickets’

crickets joe nicholsJoe Nichols’s career never quite recovered from his break to tackle his substance abuse problem in 2007, notwithstanding 2010’s chart topping single ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has since lost his deal with Show Dog Universal, and his new album is released on the independent Red Bow. Independent labels tend to have fewer resources available for promotion, making radio hits harder to come by, and as if to compensate, Joe has followed the example of Chris Young by including a large proportion of lyrically unambitious commercial material. Luckily, a total of 16 tracks leaves enough room for good songs as well as bad, including three essential downloads.

The very best track on the album is a heartfelt, beautifully sung cover of Haggard’s ‘Footlights’. Joe is also at his neotraditional best with the Josh Turner-styled ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, a lovely ballad which dresses up a love song into a discussion of destiny, with the protagonist comparing himself transformed by his love to the titular Bible, and to Willie Nelson’s guitar:

The good Lord had a plan for them
The moment they were made
In the right hands they come alive
You understand the reason why

Some things wind up where they’re meant to be
Like Billy Graham’s Bible
Willie’s old guitar
And me

It was written by Chris Dubois, Jimmy Melton and Neal Coty, and is outstanding.

Also excellent is ‘Old School Country Song’, written by Rivers Rutherford and Jim Collins, which pays tribute to the lasting power of real country music even in a changing world:

In a chat room out in cyberspace
They might not be face to face
They both know they’re up to something wrong
They say we’ve come a long, long way
Talkin’ bout the world today
Still sounds like an old school country song

Folks still love and folks still leave
Drunks get drunk and cheaters cheat
And there’s just something lonesome ‘bout a midnight train
Someone done somebody wrong
We’ll miss Mama when she’s gone
And trust me
That ain’t never gonna change

Breakin’ up is still a mess
It don’t make a heart hurt less
‘Cause you text it from a mobile phone
All you’ve really done, you see
Is modernize the melody
This still feels like an old school country song

You can take it off that ol’ jukebox
Burn it on your new Ipod
The three chords and the truth are just as strong
You can say we’ve come a long long way
Play what you want to play
But there’s nothing like an old school country song

‘Better Than Beautiful’ is a pretty love song delivered with palpable sincerity, which is the best of the rest. Opener ‘Just Let Me Fall In Love With You’ is quite an attractive mid-tempo tune, although the lyric is filled with clichés. ‘Love Has A Way’ is another pretty ballad spoiled in its second half by an insensitive and echoey production. ‘Baby You’re In Love With Me’ opens attractively, but has a cliche’d lyric about driving around in the country with a girlfriend. ‘Gotta Love It’ is nicely sung but the production is too loud and the song not very interesting.

‘Smile On Mine’ is, amazingly, a Peach Pickers’ song I actually like (despite the obligatory truck reference, it has a pleasant melody and decent lyric trying to get a girl interested). Dallas Davidson also co-wrote ‘Open Up A Can’ with Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace, a relaxed number about taking a break from the stresses of life which isn’t bad but doesn’t need the party crowd sound effects.

The cliché-ridden ‘Yeah’, written by Gorley with his regular writing partner Bryan Simpson, adds nothing new or interesting. ‘Hard To Be Cool’ is boring but could be worse. The title track is also pleasant-sounding but not very interesting. The lead single ‘Sunny And 75’ is rather forgettable, but less objectionable than 95% of current hits, and has rewarded Joe for his compromises by rising up the charts and is now on the brink of the top 10.

But while the majority of the tracklisting is mediocre rather than terrible, there are a pair of really awful songs tucked in the middle of the album: ‘Y’ant To’ and ‘Hee Haw’. The latter is not a tribute to the TV show, but a tacky, crude double entendre which is heavily over-produced.

Overall, a real mixed bag, with some genuine highlights.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw and Aaron Tippin – ‘All In The Same Boat’

all in the same boatAaron Tippin, our current Spotlight Artist and two fellow 90s stars we have highlighted in the past, Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw, have been touring together recently, and this inspired them to team up for a new album together.

It isn’t really a trio record, with most tracks featuring a single lead singer, with the others relegated to backing vocals. Each man also produces his own tracks, with Diffie assisted by regular collaborator, drummer Lonnie Wilson, and Kershaw taking over production duties on the three tracks on which vocals are shared. The album features a fairly eclectic mix of revivals of each of the guys’ hits, new songs, and a couple of unexpected covers.

The three share the lead vocals only occasionally, with the tracks which bookend the setsetting a buddyish mood. The first is the title track, penned by Wynn Varble, Jamey Johnson and Don Poythress. The humorous song, about a group of friends escaping their wives for a fishing trip, is being promoted as a single, complete with comedic video which nicely undercuts the masculine posturing, and is one of those clips which does add something to the song it illustrates. The closing track is a tribute to ‘Old Friends’ through thick and thin, written by Ben Hayslip and Jim Beavers. Both are decent songs if not particularly memorable ones, and they work well presenting the men as friends. The three also collaborate on a new Sammy Kershaw composition, ‘The Route That I Took’. This is a serious song about experiences and life’s choices.

Of the revivals, Aaron picks ‘Kiss This’ (one of his less subtle numbers but tackled here with undeniable enthusiasm which makes it palatable) and the inspirational tribute to his dad, ‘He Believed’. Sammy’s ‘She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful’ is pleasant enough but seems redundant. Honestly, though, all three of the revivals could have been omitted as none adds anything to the original.

More adventurously, Joe Diffie chooses to cover country rocker Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’; the arrangement is nice with a prominent harmonica but Joe’s voice sounds a bit rough. Aaron Tippin is not really suited vocally to a standard like ‘The Way You look Tonight’, but it was an interesting idea if ultimately unsuccessful, and it’s nice to see artists taking the occasional risk.

Sammy Kershaw sings ‘On And On’ well but it’s rather a boring song. His best vocal of the album comes on the sincere ‘I Love To Work’, avowing his dedication to family and job, which he wrote with Bradley Gaskin and Billy Lawson.

Joe Diffie delivers a great vocal on his own ‘I’m Hangin’ On’, which is a pretty good song about a relationship falling apart, which he wrote with Steve Pippin. I also enjoyed his vocal on the playful up-tempo ‘Misery Loves Country’, written by Josh Kerr, David Fraiser and Edward Hill. These two cuts, and the three trio songs, are the pick of the bunch, and the most individually download-worthy, followed by ‘I Love To Work’.

This is not a bad album by any means, and there are quite a few tracks I like, but it’s not going to rank high on the discographies of any of its participants or to be an essential purchase for most fans.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice – ‘The Story Of The Day That I Died’

the story of the day that i diedOne of my favorite current bluegrass acts is Virginia-based Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice. Excellent musicianship sparkles throughout the set, and they have a knack for picking interesting material. On their fourth album, everything comes together perfectly.

The outstanding title track is a witty story song written by Ashby Frank about a man who fakes his own suicide in order to make a new life in Mexico (paid for with his cheating wife’s IRA investments and credit cards):

I guess that sorry girl will never cheat again
After the way I did me in

I hope that you never learn the truth
You’re dead to me and now I’m dead to you

This is a sheer delight.

There is more misery on offer in the classically high lonesome ‘A House Where A Home Used To Be’, another fine song, written by Daniel Salyer. ‘Another Lonely Day’ is another Salyer-penned hurting song, with the band’s bass player Jason Tomlin given the chance to sing lead. While his vocals are a little uncertain, the song itself is pretty good. Another faithless wife leaving her man for a lover causes the moonshining protagonist to flee ‘High In The Mountains’, a fast paced number allowing the band to show off their instrumental chops.

‘Lover’s Quarrel’ is a sad traditional third-person story song once recorded by the Stanley Brothers, and with that pure mountain music style, about a couple who argue and separate for petty reasons. The young man begs his sweetheart to make things up, but she refuses, and after a while he dies.

The protagonist of the presumably tongue-in-cheek ‘Old Bicycle Chain’ complains about his wife’s (mostly rather minor) bad behaviour and threatens her with violence:

You trashed my trailer last Sunday
While I was at church singing hymns
I’ve had enough of your bad ways
So hold this anchor and take a swim

It’s never too late to change your ways, dear
Face your mistakes and take the blame
And don’t come back messing round here
Or I’ll whoop you with an old bicycle chain

On a more serious note, the excellent ‘If The Bottle Was A Bible’ takes a thoughtful look at a man taking refuge from the misery of bereavement in “the haze of neon lights and tortured souls” rather than God. The song was written by Ronnie Bowman, Clint Daniels and Billy Ryan. Sisk, whose vocals are at their best here, plays the part of a sympathetic bartender watching the man staring at the labels from his bottle of gin:

Imagine what he’d know
If the bottle was a Bible

I bet he’s drank the River Jordan
The flesh is weaker than what they’re pourin’
And right there in that bar we’d have revival
If that bottle was a bible

‘Walking In Good Company’, written by Sisk with his father, offers up some traditional bluegrass gospel. ‘Prayers Go Up’ is sung by mandolin player Chris Davis, and he has a warm voice well-showcased on a pleasant song celebrating homespun philosophy, written by three country songwriters, Ben Hayslip, Patrick Matthews and Bryan Simpson. The lyric is a little cliche’d, but the sincere spirit of the vocal sells the song. The title of the cheerfully pacy ‘Good To See The Home Place Once Again’ tells you all you need know about the song.

The record closes out with a cheerful Larry Sparks song praising the comradeship found at a local bar, ‘Drinking At the Water Hole’.

This album is an example of bluegrass at its best.

Grade: A

Buy the album at amazon.

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Red River Blue’

redriverblue2011’s Red River Blue marked Blake Shelton’s return to the full-length album format, following a pair of “Six Pak” EPs that were released the year before. Like Hillbilly Bone and All About Tonight, Red River Blue was produced by Scott Hendricks. It is more pop-leaning than his earlier work under Bobby Braddock’s guidance, but it has also been far more successful commercially. Shelton’s record sales have likely enjoyed a boost due to the exposure he has enjoyed as a judge on NBC’s The Voice.

The album’s first single was “Honey Bee”, which was written by Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip. It’s lyrically fluffy and not terribly country, despite name-checking Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, but nevertheless it’s a catchy, fun tune. It quickly shot to #1 and sold more than two million digital downloads. The second single is a cover version of “God Gave Me You”, which was written and originally recorded by contemporary Christian singer Dave Barnes. I like the song and Blake’s vocal performance, but Scott Hendricks’ production is borderline-bombastic, though one could argue it is restrained in comparison to some of the other songs on the album. It too reached the #1 spot, as did the two subsequent singles “Drink On It” and “Over.” “Drink On It” is a little closer in style to Blake’s earlier work, though the production is a bit too slick for my liking. “Over”, however, crosses the line with overwrought production on the chorus, which is a shame because the song itself is not bad and would have benefited from a more understated arrangement. Heavy-handed production similarly mars an otherwise very good cover of Dan Seals’ “Addicted”, which is one of two bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album.

As one might glean from the title, “Good Ole Boys” is the most country-sounding track on the album, with a beat that is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings. It laments the disappearance of the good ol’ boy and is one of the best tracks on the album, though I could have lived without the gratuitous reference to feminine hygiene products in the song’s final twenty seconds. Also quite enjoyable is the ballad “I’m Sorry” which features a guest harmony vocal performance by Martina McBride. The title track, on which Blake is joined by Miranda Lambert is one of the quieter tunes on the album. It is one of the album’s highlights and it concludes the main setlist. The deluxe version of the album contains two bonus tracks, the disposable “Chill” and the aforementioned “Addicted”. There is only one track on the album that I dislike: the grating “Hey” with its dumbed-down lyrics and irritating beat.

Red River Blue
isn’t Blake Shelton’s very best work but it does have its good moments and it is a lot better than most of what is on the country charts these days. Admittedly, that is setting the bar low, but the album is worth seeking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Punching Bag’

Josh Turner’s deep burnished baritone is one of the most distinctive on today’s country radio, but his choice of songs has sometimes let him down.  Happily, this time he has found a better selection of material than on his last effort, the disappointingly pedestrian Haywire, much of it written or co-written by the artist.  Frank Rogers’ attractive production puts the vocals at the heart of the record, in a restrained but firmly country setting.

A silly novelty spoken introduction on a boxing match theme by real-life ring announcer Michael Buffer leads into the title track, written by Josh with Pat McLaughlin.  The song itself is thankfully much better, a well-written driving up-tempo number which uses boxing effectively as a metaphor about dealing with difficulties in life, specifically heartbreak:

She broke her promise and now she’s gonna leave me
She floated like a butterfly, it stung me like a bee
She took off the gloves and took a cheap shot
And she left me hanging in a pretty tough spot
I’m a punching bag

This is great fun and it could be a good single choice with obvious video possibilities.  It is certainly more interesting than Josh’s current top 20 hit, the unexciting ‘Time Is Love’, which is pleasant listening but nothing more.

Josh teamed up with Mark Narmore to write two songs.  The better of these is the very good ‘Cold Shoulder’, the plaint of a bewildered man struggling to understand why his wife is freezing him out when he has done nothing wrong.  Some lovely steel guitar from Steve Hinson dominates the backing, while the vocal is excellent.  ‘Good Problem’ is less memorable but still a pretty good song about a man getting ready to settle down to married life and give up his freedom with no regret, with an interesting arrangement.

‘Find Me A Baby’, written by Josh with Frank Rogers, is another good-sounding take on finding true love, but this time clearly autobiographical drawing its details from Josh’s real life and featuring his wife Jennifer and their small children on faintly embarrassing “na-na-na”s, something I normally hate, but the good humor of the song as a whole just about carries it off.

Ben Hayslip is not a bad writer when separated from his Peach Picker friends, and he helped Josh with ‘Left Hand Man’ (yet another take on committing to getting married but one which benefits from a playfully charming arrangement) and the lyrically slight but catchily melodic ‘Whatcha Reckon’.

Josh alone wrote the album’s standout track, the mournful ‘Pallbearer’.  Iris DeMent adds a harmony vocal and Marty Stuart plays mandolin on this take on love lost for good:

She don’t call and she don’t try to
And my prayin’ can’t bring her back
My eyes are wide open watchin’ my future
My eyes are wide open watching my future fade to black
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer
Walkin’ down the aisle
Travelin’ to the graveyard counting down the miles
With every earth filled shovel they dig that eternal bed
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer carrying the dead

I’ve pondered trading places with the man layin’ in that hearse
I try to hold my head up but her leavin’ is like a curse

Josh’s deep bass-baritone has a natural gravitas showcased at its best on serious songs like this with emotional weight rather than the more frivolous fare radio prefers.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the religious ‘For The Love Of God’, contributing mandolin, an instrument described as a cello banjo and harmonies to the bright acoustic treatment of a heartfelt if slightly moralistic song about living the right way and for the right reasons.  This was another solo composition by Josh.

Also very well done is the album’s other religious song, ‘I Was There’, written by Tim Menzies and Monty Criswell, where Josh reverently portrays the voice of God.

‘Deeper Than My Love’ is a nice love song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller with some great growly bass vocals from Josh and cool banked backing vocals which give the track a life and individuality perhaps missing in the relatively obvious lyrics.

The redundant deluxe version  just adds live versions of ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Time Is Love’ and some of Josh’s bigger past hits, which add little to the recorded versions.

Overall this is an enjoyable album which is a definite step back in the right direction after Haywire.  Some of the material is still lacking in lyrical depth, with the melodies generally stronger, but the whole package is solid.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Emotional Traffic’

Were I unaware of the longstanding feud between Tim McGraw and Curb Records, and the resulting lawsuit surrounding the release of Emotional Traffic, I would likely be asking myself what on earth Tim was thinking when he recorded this collection. It’s difficult to imagine that he thought his fans were clamoring for an album of overproduced junk that, with only a few exceptions, is far removed from the realm of country music. One possible explanation is that it is an act of deliberate sabotage on Tim’s part, a parting shot at an unscrupulous company that went to great lengths to extend his contract term. It seems like a stretch at first, but the more I listened to the album, the more plausible the theory seems. While I do think that Curb treated McGraw shabbily, I’m slightly more sympathetic towards them after giving Emotional Traffic several spins. While Curb’s legal objections to Emotional Traffic were concerned with the timeframe in which the album was recorded, a more meritorious argument would have been that it doesn’t meet the standards of McGraw’s earlier work and that it provides them with very little usable material to promote to country radio. Make no mistake, this is one hot mess of a record.

Emotional Traffic was co-produced by Tim and Byron Gallimore, who has had a hand in producing Tim’s records since the very beginning of his career. Originally recorded in 2010, the album was shelved in favor of a redundant hits compilation and was then further delayed by the court case. One track, “Felt Good on My Lips” was released as a single in September 2010 and made it to #1. Though I’m not overly fond of the song, it does have a catchy melody, and despite its throwaway, fluffy lyrics, it’s one of three songs on the album that is at least tolerable. It was written by the Warren Brothers — who contributed four songs to the album — along with Brett Beavers and Jim Beavers. This foursome also collaborated on the rather annoying and sing-songy “Hey Now.” Tim himself shares songwriting credits along with Brett and Brad Warren and Martina McBride on “I Will Not Fall Down”, an introspective song about getting older that aims to be inspirational (“I will not fall down without getting up”), which ultimately falls flat due to the constant repetition of the title line, over-processed vocals and too-busy production.

“Touchdown Jesus”, written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip is not a great song but it’s infinitely superior to most of the other offerings here. It has the potential to be a hit single, and I think I could get to like it more with repeated listenings, although it does degenerate into a bombastic gospel-like song towards the end.

Of the twelve tracks on this album, only one — the current single “Better Than I Used To Be” — is truly good — although, as Occasional Hope recently pointed out, it cannot compete with Sammy Kershaw’s far superior version. Nevertheless, I’m glad that someone who is still getting radio airplay decided to give it a chance. The only truly country-sounding song on the album, it is currently on the verge of cracking the Top 20 and will likely reach the higher rungs of the chart.

With the exceptions of “Better Than I Used To Be”, “Touchdown Jesus” and the mediocre “Felt Good On My Lips”, I’m afraid that I found Emotional Traffic to be quite unlistenable, and I imagine that all but the most dedicated McGraw fans will be disappointed in it. While Tim has never been one of my favorite artists, he has had a knack for picking some very good material in the past. Hopefully he has some better songs on hold for his next project once the remaining legal issues play out.

Grade: D

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Chris Young – ‘Neon’

Chris Young’s second album moved him from former Nashville Star winner to bona fide country star. His eagerly anticipated third, Neon, is a self-assured neotraditional record with just enough radio gloss to keep him at the top, produced by the experienced James Stroud.

He has one of the great classic country voices, a rich burnished baritone with phrasing and interpretative ability, which is improving with time. His material has up to now been patchy, with a few highlights rising out of a mediocre mass lifted only by Chris’s exceptional voice, and on the whole this album is a step in the right direction with his most consistent selection of material to date.

Chris co-wrote seven of the ten songs, including the excellent lead single and current big hit, ‘Tomorrow’ (with Frank Myers and Anthony Smith), which showcases his mastery of the classic heartbreak ballad. The vocals are better than the song itself, although that is very good, with the protagonist clinging on to the remnants of a relationship he knows is about to fall apart:

We’re like fire and gasoline
I’m no good for you
You’re no good for me
We only bring each other tears and sorrow
But tonight I’m gonna love you like there’s no tomorrow

The second best song is ‘Flashlight’, with its fond memories of a father’s love, shown by his teaching his son how to fix cars – but really, of course, lessons are in how to live and love rather than car maintenance. Just as well, because the son here never does quite grasp the latter, but has got the point of the former:

To this day I still can’t make ‘em run right
But I sure did learn a lot
Just holding the flashlight

In other words, it’s basically a teenage boy version of Trace Adkins’ current hit ‘Just Fishing’.

Great voice aside, Chris has gained success by capitalizing on the clean-cut sexiness on songs like his breakthrough hit ‘Gettin’ You Home’, and there is a focus on love songs here, but with a fairly varied feel. The good-humored opener ‘I Can Take It From There’ is a mid-tempo come-on written with Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip, referencing Conway Twitty with rather more reason than most recent namechecks of country stars. ‘Lost’, written by Chris with Chris Dubois and Ashley Gorley, is a mellow (and potentially commercial) invitation to a girl to get ‘lost’ on purpose together, and while I prefer the former, I could see either of these do well on radio. The tender ‘Old Love Feels New’ (written with Tim Nichols and Brett James) is my favourite of the love songs, with its tribute to a long-lasting relationship. The tender ballad ‘She’s Got This Thing About Her’, which Chris wrote with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten has a string arrangement, and while it is well sung, it sounds a bit out-of-place aurally on this record.

The Luke Laird co-write ‘You’ and Monty Criswell and Shane Minor’s ‘When She’s On’ are the only dull moments. The rowdy ‘Save Water, Drink Beer’ is not as amusing as it seems to think it is, but successfully raises the energy levels, could well be a successful single and would probably go down well live with its obvious singalong possibilities. The traditional sounding title track, with a wistful-sounding vocal comparing the beauties of nature in the American southwest to the joys of the honky-tonk, with Chris declaring neon to be his favourite color.

iTunes has a couple of exclusive bonus tracks. ‘I’m Gonna Change That’ is a pretty solid but slightly too loud mid-tempo with muscular vocals. ‘Don’t Leave Her (If You Can’t Let Her Go’ is very good indeed, a melancholy tinged proffering of advice to a friend planning to break up with his sweetheart, which is all too obviously based on the protagonist’s biter experience. It’s a shame this one didn’t make the cut for the standard release, and even more so that the label didn’t consider adding as bonus tracks the three classic covers he released as an EP last year. Overall, though, this is a fine release from one of the brightest young stars in Nashville.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Josh Turner – ‘All Over Me’

The title of Josh Turner’s latest single suggests that it is a ballad about someone lamenting over an ex-lover who has moved on, but judging a song by its title proves to be a mistake, at least as far as this rollicking, upbeat tune is concerned. In the opening line, we are told that the weather forecast is “for a hot one”, so Turner decides that a day on the water is called for. He instructs his girlfriend to grab her shades, string bikini and Coppertone 45 and join him for a day of boating and an evening by the campfire. Though the destination is a spot down by the river underneath a sycamore tree, the imagery of sunglasses, swimsuits and sunscreen conjures up associations with the beach,. This is entirely appropriate, since this release was clearly timed to be ascending the charts by summertime.

The second single from Turner’s Haywire album was produced by Fred Rogers and written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip. It opens with some honkytonk-style piano and drums, which set it apart from much of the bland fare that will be surrounding it on the radio airwaves. The piano and drums are quickly joined by the electric guitar with some banjo thrown into the mix much later in the song. The intent seems to be to make the record sound contemporary without sacrificing its country identity. In that respect it works, but the guitar riffs are somewhat overbearing. Instead of gradually building up in intensity, which is the usual practice, the listener is hit over the head with them near the beginning of the song.

In the long term, ‘All Over Me’ is unlikely to be remembered as a standout entry in Turner’s catalog, but in the short term, it’s a fun, lighthearted summer song that is enjoyable to listen to, despite the slightly heavy-handed production.

Grade: B

‘All Over Me’ is available for download at iTunes and Amazon.

Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘All About Tonight’

So after just one single, the #1 duet with Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton’s label is abandoning support of his only-just-released ‘SixPak’ Hillbilly Bone in favor of the lead single from the second installment, due in August. The most interesting thing about this release is, sadly, not the song itself, although this is perfectly adequate and better than much of what makes playlists these days, but what it means for the marketing of Blake’s work. It really cannot be designed to sustain the sales of Hillbilly Bone, unless the label plans to return to the latter later on, switching between the two SixPaks.

Blake’s new single, a paean to partying with no thought for the consequences, is a cheerful mid-tempo number which I do at least like better than ‘Hillbilly Bone’, and I believe is written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip.

The protagonist is wilfully ignoring the prospects of a hangover, as he opens the song with the frank admission:

Don’t bother telling me what I got comin’ in the morning
I already know
I got some feel-good pills and a red Gatorade by my bed ready to go

Right now he only cares about the fun he intends to have right now, drinking and dancing until the bar shuts down, then moving on to wherever else in open.

It has a similar superficially good-humored feel masking some slightly unsavory attitudes. What could be more romantic than this drunken approach to a woman?

Hey pretty thing, I’ve been looking at you since the moment that you walked in
I’ve got some wild ass buddies that love spending money
And I see you brought a couple of friends
Just tell me your name, I don’t need your number or a date next Saturday

It is only thanks to Blake’s charm that this comes across as good-humored rather than offensive.

Blake’s voice sounds really good and the production is not overdone, so this is perfectly listenable, apart from a very slightly irritating a-ha interjected in the middle. If more substantial material was on offer alongside it, either on the radio, or on the second SixPak, it might even be a refreshingly fun change of pace. But Blake’s recent output has not offered enough variety, and this doesn’t change anything. It is disappointing when he proved earlier in his career that he was capable of better things.

Ultimately this is a song which unintentionally embodies its message – it is fun for the moment but will be forgotten tomorrow, metaphorically speaking.

Grade: B

Listen to the song.

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Cowboy Town’

For what would be their final studio album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the duo turned in a near carbon copy of their previous releases from this decade.  And in what appears to be a split-down-the-middle approach, Ronnie Dunn dominates the first half of the disc with both his lead vocals taking on the first five songs as well as them coming from his own pen.  Kix Brooks gets his chance to shine on the second half.  And while both members turn in a few solid performances to winning lyrics, they seem to have either went out of their way to separate their contributions, or were just getting sloppy at this point, and stacked Ronnie’s studio performances next to Kix’s to make the disc’s eventual song order.  I’d think it was a bit of both, but more of the latter.

For his half, Ronnie Dunn would obviously account for the singles.  Kix had become a full-time sideman by this point, having not sang lead on a Brooks & Dunn single since 1999.  The title track kicks off the disc, written by Ronnie with Paul Nelson and Larry Boone.  It’s another declaration of affection for the small town life, only this time it’s a ‘cowboy town’ though sentiments like ‘sweat of our brow’ and wearing your boots to church have been used to describe more than the ranching lifestyle lately, so the lyric is a bit generalized.   The same writing team also gave us ‘Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)’, which finds Dunn singing the praises of his heroes.  The lead single, ‘Proud of the House We Built’, a mid-tempo Marv Green and Ronnie Dunn composition.  This testament to the power of lasting love sailed to a #4 peak on the Country Singles chart.

Citing Reba McEntire as the inspiration behind ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’, the pair performed the song on the 2008 CMA Awards show with Reba, before adding her to the single version, and crediting the song on the charts to Brooks & Dunn with Reba McEntire. Peaking at #2 on the charts, it became the second top 10 pairing of the two acts.  The concept of a tough cowgirl, set to a three-act country story song, is akin to ‘Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma’, which Ronnie Dunn wrote with Reba for her 2007 Duets project.  I’ve always said I don’t think McEntire added much to the single, but the more I listen to it (thanks, radio), the more I understand and appreciate her contribution.

The rocked up ‘Put A Girl In It’ was third to radio, and it’s a tribute to the duo’s hits of the past if nothing else.  One of few outside written songs, this one was penned by one time ’90s hit-maker Rhett Atkins with Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson. Complete with rodeo-style yells from Ronnie, it fits in neatly with their similar-sounding hits and works just as well in concert with their mega-size inflatable cowgirls.  It went to #3 on the charts.  So ends the Ronnie Dunn-styled half of Cowboy Town, though he still has a few more vocal performances to give before the disc ends.

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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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