My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Beth Nielsen Chapman

Album Review: The Forester Sisters – ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout Men’

Talkin’ ‘Bout Men was the Forester Sisters’ eighth studio album for Warner Brothers, although it should be noted that this includes a Christmas album an a religious album. Released in March 1991, Talking About Men momentarily broke the downward slope of the previous four albums, reaching #16 on the charts. Four singles were released from the album, with only the sassy title track receiving much traction at radio, reaching #8 each reaching the top ten but none getting any higher than #7.

The album opens with “A Step In The Right Direction” a spritely mid-tempo number written by Rick Bowles, Robert Byrne and Tom Wopat (yes – that Tom Wopat). This track would have made a good follow up to “Men”. The song had previously been released as a single by Judy Taylor about a decade earlier, but that version barely cracked the charts:

Everybody knows that love’s like a swingin’ door
Comes and goes and we’ve all been there before
But you can’t get none till you’re back out on the floor

Well, that’s a step in the step in the right direction
Everybody knows that practice makes perfection
So, come on, let’s make a step in the right direction

“Too Much Fun” was the second single released and the actual follow up to the title track. It tanked only reaching #64. Written by Robert Byrne and Al Shulman, this is not the same song that Daryle Singletary took to #4 a few years later. This song is also a good-time mid-tempo ballad about a woman enjoying being free of a relationship. I would have expected it to do better as a single, but when as Jerry Reed put it, ‘when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not’.

Rick Bowles and Barbara Wyrick teamed up to write “That Makes One of Us”, the third single released from the album. The single did not chart. The song has acoustic instrumentation with a dobro introduction, and is a slow ballad about a relationship that is ending because only one is trying to keep it going. The song sounds like something the McCarter Sisters or The Judds (in their earlier days) might have recorded:

You’ve made up your mind
We don’t want the same thing
And that we won’t change things
Wishing there were ways
And there’s no use staying together
Nothing lasts forever
That’s what you say

And that makes one of us not in love
And that makes one of us who can’t give up
If you can walk away from the life we’ve made
Then that makes one of us

I still believe we’ve got something worth saving
I keep hoping and praying for another chance
You’ve held my heart and your gonna break it
Cause you wanna make it
A part of your past

Byrne and Shulman teamed up to write “Men”, the first single released from the album and the laast top ten single for the group, reaching #8. The song succeeded despite not truly fitting in with the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement that had taken over the genre. “Men” is a smart song that likely would have charted higher had it been released a few years earlier:

They buy you dinner, open your door
Other then that, what are they good for?
Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men
They all want a girl just like the girl
That married dear old dad, they make me so mad

Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men
Well, you can’t beat ’em up ’cause they’re bigger then you
You can’t live with ’em and you just can’t shoot ’em
Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men

They love their toys, they make their noise
Nothing but a bunch of overgrown boys
Men! I’m talking ’bout men
If you give ’em what they want, they never fall in love
Don’t give ’em nothin’, they can’t get enough

Men! I’m talking ’bout men
Well, you can’t beat ’em up ’cause they’re bigger then you
You can’t live with ’em and you just can’t shoot ’em
Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men

“Sombody Else’s Moon”is a nice ballad written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Kent Robbins. This is not the same song that would be a top five hit for Collin Raye in 1993.

“It’s Getting Around” was written by Sandy Ramos and Bob Regan is an mid-tempo song with dobro leading the way for the acoustic accompaniment. It is a nice track that might have made a decent song. What’s getting around, of course, is goodbye.

Next up is “You Take Me For Granted”, a classic written by Leona Williams while she was married to Merle Haggard. It’s a great song that Haggard took to #1, and that Leona recorded several times over the years. The Forester Sisters have a nice take on the song, but it is not a knock on them to say that they are neither a nuanced as Haggard, nor as soulful as Leona Williams:

My legs and my feet
Have walked ’till they can’t hardly move from tryin’ to please you
And my back is sore
From bendin’ over backwards to just lay the world at your door.
I’ve tried so hard to keep a smile on a sad face while deep down
It’s breakin’ my heart
And as sure as the sun shines I’ll be a lifetime
Not knowin’ if I’ve done my part

‘Cause you take me for granted And it’s breakin’ my heart
As sure as the sunshines I’ll be a lifetime
Not knowin’ if I’ve done my part.

“The Blues Don’t Stand A Chance” is a slow ballad written by Gary Burr and Jack Sundred. The song is about a strong relationship that endures despite separation.

Tim Nichols and Jimmy Stewart combined to write “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled”, the third single released from the album. The song did not chart, and I’m not sure the reggae beat helped matters with country audiences. The lyric could be described as folk-gospel. I like the song but would have not chosen it for single release.

“What About Tonight” closes out the album. Written by John Jarrard and J.D. Martin, the song is a slow ballad that I regard as album filler. The highlight of the song is some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Men would prove to be the last big hurrah for the Forester Sisters. The title track would not only be the last top ten single but would also be the last single to crack the top fifty. Noteworthy musicians on the album include Bruce Bouton on steel and dobro, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, and Guy Higginbotham on saxophone.

I liked the album but it was definitely going against the prevailing trends at the time of its release. My favorite song on the album is “Step In The Right Direction” followed by “Men”. I would give the album a B+.

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘A Tribute To John D Loudermilk’

John D Loudermilk, a cousin of the legendary Louvin Brothers was a remarkable songwriter and artist in his own right, whose music crossed musical boundaries with eleements of country, rock and pop.
In March 2016 he was honoured by a star-studded tribute concert in Nashville, and selected performances from that occasion have now been released on CD/digital download and DVD. The concert is also set to be broadcast on PBS.

Opener ‘Everybody Knows’, performed by musician/singer/songwriter Harry Stinson, has a hypnotic 1950s pop-meets-Louvin Brothers feel. Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman delivers the teenage romance ‘Language Of Love’ in a sprightly 50s doowop pop style, also adopted by Lee Roy Parnell in a slightly bluesier fashion on ‘Mr Jones’. Another songwriter paying tribute is Bobby Braddock, who takes on ‘Break My Mind’ quite effectively, accompanied by his own piano. Norro Wilson is also pretty good on the novelty ‘The Great Snowman’.

Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver race through ‘Blue Train’, which works perfectly with a bluegrass arrangement. Southern rocker Jimmy Hall takes on ‘Bad News’ which again works well in this setting. Buddy Greene, mainly a Christian artist, sings the tongue in cheek story song ‘Big Daddy’s Alabama Bound’; his vocals are limited, but the arrangement is great. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers is passionate on the politically fuelled anthem to the Cherokee nation now restricted to the ‘Indian Reservation’.

Rodney Crowell also rocks it up on ‘Tobacco Road, possibly Loudermilk’s best known song; this is highly enjoyable and one of my favorite tracks. I was less impressed by his wife Claudia Church on the syncopated pop of ‘Sunglasses’.

John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band. Jorgenson (who helmed the whole affair) is known for his guitar playing rather than his singing, but his vocals are perfectly adequate on the rocker ‘Midnight Bus’. I very much enjoyed his Desert Rose Bandmate Herb Pederson on ‘It’s My Time’, very much in classic Desert Rose Band style. John Cowan soars on the life-affirming ‘I Wanna Live’.

Rosanne Cash is tender on the lovely ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, another highlight. Ricky Skaggs and the Whites team up on two songs. ‘Heaven Fell last Night’ is a lovely romantic ballad sung together by Ricky and wife Sharon, while Ricky takes the lead on the fun Stonewall Jackson hit ‘Waterloo’. I also enjoyed Becky Hobbs on the country hit ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’.

Emmylou Harris’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age, but she is well supported by the harmony vocals of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy on ‘Where Are They Gone’. 80s star Deborah Allen also sounds a little worse for wear on her song, the wistful ballad ‘Sad Movies’. Loudermilk’s son Mike doesn’t have much of a voice, but he does his best on a pleasant version of the catchy ‘Abilene’, and is backed by (his own?) delightful guitar work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae, an Americana/folk duo and rela-life married couple. Their version of the part spoken airline tragedy story song ‘Ebony Eyes’ is prettily harmonised although the individual voices are not that strong. Also new to me was Beth Hooker, who delivers a sultry blues version of Turn Me On’. Guests from further afield include Australian fingerpicking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel on an instrumental track.

This is a worthy tribute which reminds the listener of both the musical breadth and quality of Loudermilk’s oeuvre.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Highway 101 & Paulette Carlson – ‘Reunited’

51HKJyMSbOLSix years after she left for an abortive attempt at a solo career, Paulette Carlson rejoined briefly with bassist Curtis Stone and guitarist Jack Daniels, who had left in 1993.

Gone was drummer Cactus Moser. Also gone was the musical environment that had spawned Highway 101, and any sort of major label record deal as the new album was released on Intersound, a label primarily know for releases by obscure artists, and albums of remakes by over-the-hill first and second tier artists of the not too distant past. Carlson and Daniels would soon depart again and neither has been part of Highway 101 since 1997.

Reunited was released in 1996 and was comprised of twelve tracks. Four of the tracks were reprises of earlier Highway 101 singles (“The Bed You Made for Me”, “Setting Me Up”, “All the Reason Why” and “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”). Two new singles (“Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From” and “It Must Be Love”) were released, neither of which charted, and there were six other songs on the album.

While I looked forward to getting the album, I found that I was somewhat disappointed in the sound of the album as the overall sound was much louder than previous albums. I also found the album’s use of percussion somewhat jarring. There are points in which the drums are the predominant sound.

The album opens with “Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From”, written by Paulette Carlson, Tom Shapiro, and Chris Waters. Had the song been released in 1988 rather than 1996, and with slightly different production, the song would have been a hit single. Unfortunately radio in 1996 was not really friendly to honky-tonk music

“The Bed You Made for Me” was one of Highway 101’s biggest hits, reaching #4 in 1987. This version sticks pretty close to the original arrangement

“Holdin’ On”, written by Christy Seamans and Curtis Stone is a sad song about lost love and abandonment, taken at a slower tempo. It’s a nice album track, nothing more.

Much the same can be said of “Hearts on the Run”, a Larry Butler, Jeff Sauls & Susan Sauls composition. The percussion of is much more subdued on this track, and frankly it sounds more like a Paulette Carlson single than a Highway 101 track.

Mark Knopfler’s “Setting Me Up” is next, a cover that reached #7 in 1989. The arrangement is fairly faithful to the original version, but the track runs about thirty seconds longer than the original version.

Paulette Carlson wrote “She Don’t Have the Heart to Love You” a nice ballad and better than average album track.

In my opinion “Texas Girl” penned by Paulette Carlson, Gene Nelson and Jeff Pennig is the best song on the album, a song that would have been a hit if released anytime between 1950 and 1990. The song is a excellent two-step with one of Paulette’s better vocals. Even in 1996 it might have made a successful single

Another of Highway 101’s hits follows in “All the Reasons Why” by Paulette Carlson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. The song reached #5 in 1988.

“Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart” from the tandem of Roger Miller and Justin Tubb was a surprise hit in 1989, a cover of a Johnnie Wright hit from 1964. This version is true to their #4 hit from a few years earlier. I think Roger Miller had the best version of the song on one of his albums, but this version is very close. In my opinion (humble or otherwise) this is classic country songwriting

If you see me in some corner looking like all hope is gone
If you see me sit for hours and you wonder what is wrong
Well, it hurts to talk about it but my world just fell apart
I’m a walkin’, talkin’, cryin’, barely beatin’ broken heart

Did you see the teardrops fallin’ and the tremble in my hands
Then you’ll know that there’s a story and nobody understands
It’s a sad and lonely story but I’ll try to make it short
I’m a walkin’, talkin’, cryin’, barely beatin’ broken heart

Tony Haselden and Harold Shedd were responsible for “I’ve Got Your Number”, a rather sardonic song that might have made a decent single in another time and place (and perhaps in another genre)

Now word’s around you’re back in town and headed for my heart
I’m not the same I’m one old flame that you ain’t gonna start
There ain’t no doubt the fire went out when you broke this heart in two
So honey, don’t call me til I call you You know
I’ve got your number But your phone ain’t gonna ring off the wall
Because I’ve got your number and honey, that’s the reason I won’t call.

Another decent album track as is the Curtis Stone – Debi Cochran composition “It Must Be Love”.

The final track “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” comes from the pens of Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange). At the time this album was released, Lange was a few years prior to the mega-success he would experience with his then wife Shania Twain. This song is essentially a Paulette Carlson solo effort. It’s not a bad song but at 5:43 the song is just too long.

This isn’t a bad album, initial reservations notwithstanding. I will say that I was surprised at how integral a part of the Highway 101 sound was Cactus Moser. While John Wesley Ryles is an outstanding background singer (and probably should have been a star in his own right), the vocal blend of Curtis Stone, Jack Daniels and John Wesley Ryles is not the same as that of Curtis Stone, Jack Daniels and Cactus Moser, and the album suffers for it. The CD is an enhanced CD which contains some extra videos and text when played on a CD-ROM drive

I’d give this album a solid B .

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101 2’

highway 101 2The title of Highway 101’s sophomore album is not, as you might think, the number 2. Rather, it is the symbol for squared. Pretentious title aside, the material isn’t quite as consistently strong as on their debut album, but it is still a very rewarding record, and helped to maintain them as one of the top country groups of the late 80s.

The exuberant lead single, ‘(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes’, was the band’s third #1 hit. It was written by Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins.

It was followed by my favourite track on the album, the sweetly sung, regretful ballad ‘All The Reasons Why’, which reached #5. Written by Paulette Carlson with Beth Nielsen Chapman, its guilty protagonist has just broken up with her unfortunate spouse, who can’t understand why:

You’ve asked what you’ve done wrong,
And if there’s someone new
What has changed my heart
And what else can you do
Oh darlin’ can’t you see
It’s not so cut and dried
And who knows where love goes
And all the reasons why

She wants to stay friends, but it’s hard to see that happening.

There was a change of pace for the third single, the urgent ‘Setting Me Up. This was a cover of an album cut by the British rock band Dire Straits, written by that band’s Mark Knopfler. Apparently he was unaware that his publisher had some country demos recorded of his songs, resulting in this and other cuts, but he did have some country influences – in 1989-90 his main project was a country-rock-blues band called the Notting Hillbillies, which also featured steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, and he later made an album and toured with Emmylou Harris. This song isn’t particularly country in its rhythmic structure, but was another to 10 hit, and allowed more of a band feel than usual, with some superb playing by the guys and a share of the vocals.

The last single, another top 10 tune, was the excellent ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, written by Jim Photoglo and Russell Smith. It is a rather upbeat breakup song in which the protagonist has grown up since meeting her ex in a bar, and now wants more to life:

The night life isn’t my life anymore
What matters most to me is a home and family
But you can’t find that behind those swingin’ doors…

I won’t play second fiddle to the beat of your honky tonk heart
Go on back to the bar where I found you
Go on back to your so-called second home
You’ll feel better with your good-time friends around you
And I’ll be here but I won’t be alone

Photoglo also co-wrote (with Wendy Waldman and Josh Leo) the solid mid-tempo ‘Road To Your Heart’.

‘Somewhere Between Gone And Goodbye’ is an excellent song written by Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’, given a sparse production and great harmonies. An anxious woman lies awake wondering when her man is coming home:

How many nights must I lay me down and wonder
Will I wake up tomorrow without you by my side?
I’m feeling worn and thin as the sheets that I lay under
Lying somewhere between gone and goodbye

Late night headlights out in the driveway
Drivin’ me crazy again
No need to sneak in
I wasn’t really sleepin’
No need to tell me
I know where you’ve been

It feels like the prequel to ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, and would have made another good single.

A vibrant and authentic sounding cover of Buck Owens’ ‘There Goes My Heart’ reminds us of the band’s California roots. ‘Feed This Fire’ is an earnest love song written by Hugh Prestwood about the need to work at keeping the romance going; it was subsequently a hit single for Anne Murray. Paulette fights temptation she knows has no good ending in ‘Desperate Road’.

Finally, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Long Way Down’ is a strong story song about a young woman musician who has fought her way to stardom from tough beginnings, but can’t rest on her laurels.

While the album lacks the classics of their debut, this is a very strong follow up with no weak songs.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Getting It Dunn’

HollyDunnGettingItDunnA year after releasing her first retrospective, Holly Dunn returned with the album that would serve as closure to the commercial phase of her career. Getting It Dunn was released in June 1992 and spawned four singles, none of which cracked the top 40 on the charts.

Mel Tillis’ mid-tempo honky-tonker “No Love Have I,” served as the first single, peaking at #67. Despite a generous helping of steel, and Dunn’s impeccable vocal, the track didn’t chart higher although it deserved to. The Dunn/Chris Waters/Tom Shapiro penned “As Long As You Belong To Me” charted next, peaking at #68. The mid-tempo rocker had a confident vocal from Dunn, although it just wasn’t commercial enough to pop in the current radio climate. “Golden Years,” the third and final single, did slightly better, peaking at #51. A co-write by Gretchen Peters and Sam Hogin, the track is wonderful despite the somewhat sappy string section heard throughout.

The album’s other notable track is “You Say You Will,” composed by Verlon Thompson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Dunn’s version of the bluesy Dobro infused number appeared just two months before Trisha Yearwood’s take on her own Hearts in Armor album. Both versions are remarkably similar and equally as good, although Yearwood turned in a slightly more polished take, which helped the pensive tune reach #12 in early 1993. Warner Brothers didn’t release Dunn’s version as a single.

Dunn’s usual co-writers Waters and Shapiro helped her write a few other tunes for the project. “Let Go” is somewhat light, with an engaging drumbeat and muscular electric guitar heard throughout. Steel and synth ballad “I’ve Heard It All” is a revelation, with Dunn playing the part of a jilted lover done with excuses. “You Can Have Him,” marks similar territory and is the best of three, with an engaging beat, and polish that had it ripe to be a single.

Shapiro teamed up with Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones to write “I Laughed Until I Cried,” a fabulous break-up power ballad with one of Dunn’s most emotion filled vocals on the whole album. Craig Wiseman co-wrote “If Your Heart Can’t Do The Talking” with Lynn Langham. The steel and dobro infused mid-tempo number is excellent and wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Yearwood’s early albums. Wally Wilson and Mike Henderson composed “Half A Million Teardrops,” another mid-tempo number and one more example of the excellent recordings found on Getting It Dunn. Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp’s “A Simple I Love You” rounds out the album, and Dunn provides the project’s standout vocal. I love the steel on this, too, although the rest of the production is a touch heavy-handed.

Holly Dunn will always be a quandary to me. Her vocal and songwriting abilities are outstanding, but the production on her records was always lacking in that little bit of extra polish that would’ve sent her over the top to the leagues of say a Trisha Yearwood or a Kathy Mattea. But that isn’t to suggest her music was lacking in any particular way to be less than excellent, it just wasn’t always embraceable by country radio and their standards at the time. But, thankfully, commercial prospects aren’t everything, and Getting It Dunn is another glorious addition to her already wonderful discography.

Grade: A

Album Review: Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘UnCovered’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘A Horse Called Music’

a horse called musicFrom the middle of the 1980s, as Willie hit his 50s, his sales slowed down and radio play became more erratic. After ‘Living In The Promiseland hit the top of the Billboard country chart in 1986, his next few singles failed to crack the top 20, until a Julio Iglesias duet (‘Spanish Eyes’) from another of his standards albums reached #8 in 1988.

Released in 1989, the likeable mid-tempo ‘Nothing I Can Do It Now’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, was to be Willie’s last ever #1 hit single. A bright optimistic mood is set by Willie’s sprightly vocal and the chugging tempo, as the protagonist decides regretting his mistakes is pointless:

I could cry for the time I’ve wasted
But that’s a waste of time and tears

Chapman sings harmony vocals. She also wrote ‘If My World Didn’t Have You’, a very pretty romantic ballad with a string arrangement, which might have been better suited to a more conventionally ‘pretty’ vocalist.

The strings come close to swamping the album’s second single ‘There You Are’, a desolate ballad about being blindsided by memories of a lost love. It peaked at #8.

Although it did not do well on the charts, the third and final single, ‘The Highway’ (written by Tom Conner and Richard Wesley) is an excellent song, perhaps my personal favourite on the album. A thoughtful, but not regretful, reflection on a middle-aged trucker’s life and the paths not taken – contrasting his roadside bar friendships with the lives of childhood friends left behind, from the classmate sent to die in Vietnam to those working out their lives in low-wage manual labor, which the protagonist clearly finds a fate worse than death.

Also great is the title track, an atmospheric and touching Western story song (written by Wayne Carson) recounting the tale of an ageing cowboy who has lost in love.

Willie himself wrote just three songs on the album. The best of these is ‘Mr Record Man’, a traditional country shuffle about a lonely man finding fellow feeling in lonesome country songs. ‘Is The Better Part Over’ is a heavily strung jazzy ballad about calling it quits on a relationship once the thrill has gone. ‘I Never Cared For You’ pre-emptively tackles his beloved’s doubts of his honesty.

The introspective arty ‘If I Were A Painting’ and the minor-keyed ‘Spirit’ are well-written songs but lacking melody, are rather boring.

Overall, the high points outweigh the less stellar songs here, and it’s worth picking up as a late example of Willie’s commercial period.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Collection’ (the Warner Brothers recordings)

pam tillis collectionDuring the 1980s, Pam Tillis was signed to Warner Brothers Records, who released a number of singles to country radio. None enjoyed much success, and by the end of the decade Pam had moved on. After Pam’s rise to fame with Arista the following decade, Warner Bros capitalized by releasing an album containing a selection of the sides she had cut for them, including early versions of songs she had since taken to the top with Arista. Her only album for Warner Bros, Above And Beyond The Doll Of Cutey, was an unapologetically pop (and not very good) record, but these country recordings are all pretty good.

It is hard to see why these early versions of the atmospheric ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’ (a bit more understated than the hit) and the beautifully resigned melancholy of Pam’s own ‘One Of Those Things’ (which was to become one of my favorite Pam Tillis singles – and I think I like this version even more) were not successful at the time.

An excellent and respectful cover of Buck Owens’s ‘There Goes My Love’ shows Pam’s traditional country roots. ‘Those Memories Of You’ may be familiar from the Dolly Parton-Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt Trio album of 1987; Pam’s version (from 1986) does not quite have the charm of that version but is a nice enough recording. Another possible missed opportunity was the fine version of a song which was to become Lorrie Morgan’s breakthrough hit – ‘Five Minutes’ (a Beth Nielsen Chapman song), which Warner Brothers left on the shelf. The production is a little dated with a faintly tinny sound, but the vocal is good.

The other songs are less familiar, but make for a pretty good collection. The joyful up-tempo ‘I Thought I’d About Had It With Love’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman with Milton Brown about finally finding true love, has a great charm. The catchy ‘I Wish She Wouldn’t Treat You That Way’ is a tongue-in-cheek complaint at the loving way her rival is treating the mutual object of their affections. Both of these songs should have had commercial potential.

Pam wrote ‘Sometimes A Stranger Will Do’ with Pat Bunch and Mary Ann Kennedy, a ballad with a melancholic undertone about resorting to the odd one-night-stand while traversing the dating scene in search of a forever love. The trio also wrote ‘Goodbye Highway’, which is a bit fillerish but adds a bit of tempo. ‘Tennessee Nights’ is a pleasant but fairly bland love ballad.

Packaging of this album was both cheap (no pictures) and deliberately misleading (referring to four songs as hits, when two were only hits when re-recorded for Arista, and the other two when recorded by different artists altogether). Dubious marketing aside, the actual music contained here is up to the standard of Tillis’s hit material. Used copies of the CD version are easy to find at cheap prices, and this is worth getting hold of if you’re a fan of Pam’s music. The same material was repackaged yet again in 2000 as Super Hits.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Something Up My Sleeve’

something up my sleeveSuzy’s fifth album was released in 1993. Produced once more by Suzy with Jimmy Bowen, it is a mellow, classy album rather than an overtly commercial one, with AC leanings musically and mature lyrics. Suzy’s crystalline voice sounds beautiful throughout.

The first two singles were top five hits, and both were co-written by the artist. Suzy and husband Doug Crider wrote the philosophical ‘Just Like The Weather’, which has a pretty melody. She wrote the vicacious ‘Hey Cinderella’ with Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, a questioning of real life happy-ever-after which is probably the album’s best remembered song

The remaining singles were less well received. ‘You Wouldn’t Say That To A Stranger’ missed the top 50 but is a thoughtful song written by Doug Crider with Pat Bunch about the harsh words that can be exchanged between lovers. It is a very good song, with a lovely melody.

‘Souvenirs’, an early Gretchen Peters song about drifting through the US, is a very singer-songwritery kind of song about the disillusionment of travelling aimlessly through the US and finding you’re not actually Jack Kerouac. It was probably a bit too downbeat and folky to have a wide appeal; not surprisingly it faltered in the 60s.

Similar in feel, ‘Diamonds And Tears’ is another mature, poetic song about learning from experience, this one written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison.

Suzy and Doug Crider teamed up with Steve Dorff for the melancholic unrequited love song ‘You Never Will’, which sounds very pretty with a tasteful string arrangement, and is probably my favourite track. Pat Bunch co-wrote the pleasant but slightly dull ‘You’d Be The One’ and the okay ‘No Green Eyes’ with Suzy and her husband.

‘I Keep Comin’ Back To You’ is yet another mellow sounding ballad, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Bill Lloyd. The title track was a duet with labelmate Billy Dean, a rather wimpy tenor who was never a big favourite of mine. It sounds pleasant but unexciting.

It was her last gold-selling studio set. Overall, it is very nice sounding although a long way removed from the traditional sounds of her debut, but few of the songs really stand out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Evolution’

evolutionFollowing the release of “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”, the final single from Wild Angels, Martina McBride made a couple of guest appearances on other artists’ records. The first was “Still Holdin’ On”, a duet with Clint Black (written by Black with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart) that peaked at #11. The second was a guest vocal on “Valentine” by adult contemporary/New Age pianist Jim Brickman, which reached #3 on the adult contemporary chart. Both tracks were included on Martina’s next album, 1997’s Evolution, a project which saw her moving further away from traditional country sounds in favor of slicker, more heavily layered production. The album, which Martina co-produced with Paul Worley, was the most successful of her career, selling more than three million copies in the US. It opens with a clip of a home-recording of a seven-year-old Martina singing Little Jimmy Dickens’ “I’m Little But I’m Loud” before moving on to more contemporary fare.

Though her albums had sold quite well up to this point, Martina’s success at radio had been very hit or miss. Evolution was the turning point for her as far as singles success is concerned. Disregarding the Clint Black and Jim Brickman collaborations, the album’s first single was “A Broken Wing”, which became her second #1 hit in early 1998. The gospel-flavored mid-tempo number found her once again telling the story of an abuse victim, although this time around the abuse was psychological rather than physical. Whether the victim escaped or committed suicide at the end of the song is open to interpretation.

Meanwhile, “Valentine” has been enjoying some unsolicited airplay on country radio, prompting RCA to release a more countrified version to country stations. The single version, which contains a prominent pedal steel guitar track, is not the version that is found on the album. It reached #9 on the country singles chart. Though criticized by some for its Hallmark-esque sentiments, it is a pretty song that I quite like.

Up to this point, Martina had never had more than two Top 10 singles from the same album. She managed to break the cycle of two hits followed by a few misses when “Happy Girl”, a Beth Nielsen Chapman and Annie Roboff composition, landed at #2. It is actually one of the album’s weakest tracks and my least favorite. I greatly prefer the next release, “Wrong Again”, a beautifully performed ballad and one of the finest singles of Martina’s career, which made it all the way to #1. The album’s final single, “Whatever You Say” is more in the power-ballad vein. Though it is probably the album’s most heavily produced track, Martina knocks it out of the park. The tune finds her confronting an uncommunicative lover, and giving him an ultimatum. It just missed the chart’s top spot, peaking at #2. Sara Evans contributed to the backing vocals on this track.

As far as the album cuts go, there is much to like and not much filler, though “Keeping My Distance” and “Here In My Heart” are on the weak wide. My favorite among the non-singles is “One Day You Will”, a Richard Leigh co-write with Shane Teeters, that is spiritual without being overtly religious. Not commercial enough to release to country radio, I think this song could have found success on the Contemporary Christian charts.

Despite its pop leanings, I think that Evolution contains some of Martina McBride’s best work. Like most country artists who enjoy a degree of crossover success, she would eventually go too far into pop territory (with her next album as it so happens), but with Evolution she managed to find that delicate balance that allowed her to expand her horizons without alienating her country fans. With the exception of Timeless, it is her last truly great album. It is essential listening for Martina McBride fans, and easy to find if you’ve managed to miss hearing it up to this point.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Matttea – ‘Time Passes By’

As the 1990s began, Kathy Mattea was the reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and for her first album of the decade, she made a subtle shift away from mainstream country, releasing a collection that leaned slightly more towards the folkabilly-style music that Nanci Griffith had done a few years earlier. Time Passes By, Mattea’s sixth release also bears the stamp of Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean, who contributed one of his own compositions and also shared production duties with Mattea and her husband Jon Vezner on a cover version of “From a Distance”, a Julie Gold-penned son that had recently been popularized by Bette Midler. There is a distinct Celtic feel to many of the tracks, foreshadowing a more pronounced move in that direction that Kathy would make a few years later.

Mattea deserves credit for taking some creative risks, even though Time Passes By is somewhat of a hit or miss affair. Not surprisingly, it was not as well received at radio as the three albums that preceded it, and though it still sold enough units to earn gold certification, it marks the beginning of the end of Kathy’s reign at the top of the singles charts. The title track, which is the most mainstream song in the collection, was the album’s biggest hit, charting at #7. Written by Jon Vezner and Susan Longacre, it is somewhat reminiscent of Kathy’s recent hit “Come From The Heart”, but the live-for-the-moment message is less effective this time around. It was the only single from the album to reach the Top 10. Kathy would only reach the Top 10 one more time in her career, three years later.

Following the positive tone of “Time Passes By”, the second single “Whole Lotta Holes” does a complete 180 and is a distinct downer. It barely scraped into the Top 20, peaking at #18. The next single, the Hugh Prestwood tune “Asking Us To Dance” is a lovely ballad that deserved to rise higher than #27.

There are a handful of standout tracks in this collection, as well as a few duds. Among the gems are “What Could Have Been”, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, and “Summer of My Dreams” which is my favorite song from this set. Dougie MacLean’s “Ready For The Storm” is also quite good. Not so good are “Quarter Moon”, on which Mattea sounds screechy as she attempts to hit some high notes that are just out of reach, and “Harley”, an offbeat number about a biker couple that whose child becomes lost when the sidecar he is riding in becomes detached and rolls away, unnoticed by his parents. The child is subsequently found unharmed in a field by a farmer and his wife who raise him as their own. It’s meant to be a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek number but it doesn’t quite work for me. Mattea’s version of “From A Distance”, which closes out the set, is a slight disappointment. It is beautifully sung, and the sparse, acoustic arrangement starts off well. I even like the bagpipes that chime in about two minutes into the song, but clocking in at five minutes, the song is dragged out too long, and it would have been a lot better without the chorus chanting “God is watching us” repeatedly as the track fades out.

Although Time Passes By is not Kathy’s very best work, it is a decent effort. It doesn’t contain any of her biggest hits, so casual fans may be inclined to give it a miss, but those who do give it a listen are bound to find a few tracks that they really like.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Fearless’

Perhaps feeling pigeon-holed by country radio, Terri Clark sought a change in direction for her fourth studio release. She hired a new producer, Steuart Smith and turned to fellow singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter to supply her with some new material. The result is a more introspective set of songs, with less twang and more contemporary and middle-of-the-road production. Heralded by many critics as an artistic triumph, country radio was singularly unimpressed and shunned Fearless after the first single peaked at #13. In recent years, radio has become an increasingly unreliable judge of music quality, but this is one time I am firmly in radio’s corner; with one or two exceptions, Fearless is a dull and lifeless collection with little of the charm found in Clark’s previous work. It is my least favorite album in her catalog.

Fearless could just have easily been titled Terri Clark Sings Mary Chapin Carpenter, for Carpenter’s influence can be heard throughout the album, including and beyond the three tracks that she co-wrote. I find Carpenter’s music to be very hit or miss; when she’s great, she’s really great, but many of her albums are tedious to get through. Some of the songs on Fearless might have worked better if Carpenter were singing them, but the style just doesn’t work for Terri Clark. When I listen to a Terri Clark album, I want to hear Terri Clark, not a Mary Chapin Carpenter wannabe.

The lead single, “A Little Gasoline” is one of two tracks on which Terri’s previous producer Keith Stegall acts as a co-producer. It is closer in style to Terri’s earlier work and is the only truly radio-friendly track on the album. There must have been some concern — justified, as it turned out –that radio would not be receptive to Clark’s new sound, and “A Little Gasoline” seems to have been selected as an insurance policy against that. The strategy was somewhat successful; “A Little Gasoline” received enough airplay to reach #13 and become the album’s most successful single. The remaining singles did not fare as well: “No Fear” stalled at #27, “Gettin’ There” reached #41 and the mind-numbingly dull “Empty” did not chart at all.

The one truly enjoyable track on the album is Terri’s exquisite remake of the Carlene Carter-Susanna Clark song “Easy From Now On”. Emmylou Harris, whose definitive version reached #12 in 1978, sings harmony. The stripped-down acoustic guitar and fiddle arrangement gives the track a Celtic feel. It’s a beautiful, well performed and tastefully produced recording. It’s a shame that none of the album’s other tracks come even close to matching it.

Though the album is not to my personal taste, Terri deserves great credit for trying something different, instead of resting on her creative laurels. In theory, collaborating with acclaimed songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kim Richey and Beth Nielsen Chapman sounds like a good idea, but the results just don’t seem to be a good fit for Clark. Like her two previous albums, it reached #4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart; however, it was her first album that failed to earn gold or platinum certification in the United States. It did earn gold certification in Canada, representing sales of 50,000 units or approximately half the Canadian sales of her previous album.

Grade: C

Fearless is not essential listening, but diehard fans can purchase it inexpensively from Amazon.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Everybody Knows’

After four fine albums, Trisha’s fifth effort, released in 1996, was a bit of a disappointment for me. She was in her usual fine vocal form and Garth Fundis produced as usual, but the record overall feels just a little too tasteful at times. The overall mood leans towards AC, and is rather ballad-heavy with a few nods to radio.

The lead single was the radio-friendly ‘Believe Me Baby (I Lied)’, written by Kim Richey, Angelo, and Larry Gottlieb, which hit #1. The bright production belies the regret-filled lyric and passionate vocal as the protagonist admits she never really wanted her man to leave.

It was followed by the broadly similar #3 hit ‘Everybody Knows’, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, with the protagonist this time fighting with all her friends and family members’ well-intentioned advice about how to cope with her broken heart. Opening track ‘I Want To Live Again’ fits into the same sophisticated mid tempo contemporary radio friendly template with broad commercial appeal.

The third single, ‘I Need You’, flopped in the 30s. The downbeat ballad about a neglected wife pleading for her husband’s renewed attention is a fine song with a beautifully delivered vocal, but it was perhaps a little too subtle or bitter for casual listeners as she comments,

The television seems to be your life’s ambition

And begs for a return to:

That boy
The one that chose me over every other choice

I like all the singles, but my favorite track is the Kevin Welch story song ‘Hello, I’m Gone’, a fiddle-led number about a woman leaving a man in Texas with nowhere particular in mind to go, and nothing but one suitcase, a broken down pickup truck, and a gun:

Man, she’s just running
It don’t matter where
She figures she’ll know where she is when she’s there
And she didn’t leave nothin’ she can’t do without
That’s enough reason for leavin’ no doubt
She turns down the window, turns up a song
Laughs at the weather and says
Hello, I’m gone

Almost as good is the delicately sung AC ballad ‘Maybe It’s Love’, written by Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman about the uncertain feelings at the start of falling in love with someone after a period of having frozen her heart. Trisha’s lead vocal and Vince Gill’s harmony are exquisite.

The other highlight is the bitter ‘A Lover Is Forever’, written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. This is a rejected lover’s diatribe against the man who is leaving her to wed another:

You think a ring upon your hand
Will solve your insecurity…

I know you think you’re so damn clever
You can marry any time you want
But a lover is forever

There is little overt to criticize with the remainder of the material, but it tends to blend together rather. Songs like the soothing ‘It’s Alright’, written by Jamie O’Hara and Gary Nicholson, with husband Robert Reynolds’ Mavericks bandmate Raul Malo on harmony, and ‘Little Hercules’ are the epitome of tasteful production, beautiful singing and thoughtful lyrics that somehow manage to end up less than the sum of their parts. A little more interesting is ‘Under The Rainbow’, written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs about finding domestic contentment in the real world.

The international version of this album boasted three additional tracks, the delicately sung portrait of ‘Even A Cowboy Can Dream’, the boring ‘Find A River’, and the cheery up-tempo ‘The Chance I Take’ (my favorite of the three), but none of these really adds substantially to the album.

The album is easily and cheaply available.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘No Place That Far’

After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.

Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.

Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30.  It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly.  I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.

Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher.  Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters.  Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.

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Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Strong Enough To Bend’

TanyaTuckerStrongEnoughtoBendTanya’s third release for Capitol, in 1988, showed no signs of a creative or commercial slowdown, even though she finally admitted that year that she had alcohol and cocaine addictions, and went into rehab.

Strong Enough To Bend is one of my favorite Tanya Tucker albums. Produced as before by Jerry Crutchfield, it features some very good songs, and shows Tanya at her best vocally. She commits 100% even to the less stellar material. For some reason it was recorded in the Bahamas, but the usual top Nashville session musicians were imported to play on the record.

The title track and lead-off single, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Don Schlitz, was a charming piece comparing a lasting relationship to a tree which bends in the wind instead of breaking:
“Sway with the wind ’til the storm is gone
Like a tree out in the back yard
That never has been broken by the wind
Our love will last forever
If we’re strong enough to bend.”

It is the kind of song which might sound sappy performed by a more sentimental singer, but Tanya tackles it briskly enough to let the message sound rooted in experience. It was to be Tanya’s last #1 hit.

Tanya took a completely different approach in the track which was picked to follow it on the charts, the positively raunchy ‘Highway Robbery’. This semi-novelty song has Tanya stopped from speeding and claiming the (perfectly good) excuse that she was doing it only so she could hunt down the hot blue-eyed guy who “stole my heart from a moving car” when he passed her some miles back down the road. “He oughta do time in my arms for what he’s done”, she claims, evidently to no effect, as by the fadeout at the end of the song she’s abandoned him in favor of making eyes at the (lucky?) patrolman. The story is entertaining if silly, but too heavily produced for my taste, but was a big (#2) hit. Also successful despite being very over-produced was my least favorite track, the boring and pop-sounding ‘Call On Me’, which reached #4.

The final single released from the album, the touching ‘Daddy And Home’, was less successful, but is actually the highlight of the album. Altough it is not typical of Tanya’s best-known material, it is one of her finest moments artistically. It is a beautifully restrained and tender take on an old Jimmie Rodgers classic about homesickness and a child’s love for an aging father, which Tanya dedicated to her own father, a major influence on her career.

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Class of ’89 Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Leave The Light On’

leavethelighton1Lorrie Morgan was one of the ‘Class of ’89’ who had been around on the fringes of the country world for a while, but who made a major breakthrough that year. Her father George Morgan was a minor country star of the 1950s, who sold a million copies of his biggest hit, ‘Candy Kisses’, and Lorrie’s first single, in 1979, was a posthumous duet with him. Thanks largely to her family connections she became an Opry member in 1984, before she had had any hits in her own right, and five years before the release of her debut album. Sadly, the release of Leave The Light On was overshadowed by the death shortly before of Lorrie’s husband, Keith Whitley, and she received a certain amount of criticism at the time for continuing to perform.

Lorrie’s warm alto voice is very good, but her qualities as an artist rest more in her interpretative ability than in the voice itself. She was fortunate in the material she and producer Barry Beckett found for Leave The Light On, because the majority of it provided a great showcase for her. Her style was rather more contemporary than many of her peers, certainly compared to her husband Keith Whitley, which may explain why she did not record any of his songs on this release.

Almost half the tracks relate to unhappy marriages past the point of repair, and given the circumstances under which it was first heard, it would be very tempting, if perhaps not altogether fair, to read a lot into the choice of material. Sequenced differently, one could almost see this as a concept album.

Lorrie’s first top 10 hit was the lovely piano-led ballad ‘Dear Me’, as the singer addresses a letter to herself, reflecting on a lost lover, a lyric delicately delivered by Lorrie. An equally beautiful and even sadder song is ‘Far Side Of The Bed’, with the narrator packing to leave an unsuspecting and sleeping husband and reflecting on the “raging love” they once shared and have now lost. Again, Lorrie interprets it perfectly.

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s beaty mid-tempo ‘Five Minutes’ tackles the same theme with a bit more energy, and gave Lorrie her first #1 hit. Yet again, she is packing to leave with the magic long gone from the relationship, but this time gives her husband a (slim) chance at winning her back – before her taxi arrives.

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