My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Billy Joel

Album Review: Kenny Rogers and Dottie West – ‘Classics’

Male-female duets still exist today, although usually in the form of acts that always (or nearly always) perform as duets. Acts that normally perform as solo acts may combine for a song or two (“Special Events”), but rarely do they issue albums of duets

The album Classics, released in 1979, was the second (and final) album of duets released by the unlikely pairing of Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. Kenny, of course was a country & pop superstar but Dottie West was a veteran second-tier country artist, whose 1978 album with Kenny (Every Time Two Fools Collide) would trigger a brief renaissance on the United Artists/Liberty label.

I am not sure why this particular pairing came about, although I have some suspicions. United Artists was not a major player in country music and did not have a deep roster of female artists. Billie Jo Spears, arguably the leading female country singer on the label, did not have a voice that would blend well with Kenny’s voice.

The recently signed Dottie West, on the other hand, had a track record of being able to blend and harmonize with male singers. Her track record at RCA had included successful recordings with such diverse singers as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Jimmy Dean. Dottie’s first album and the second album, released on the heels of the first duet album, did not produce any top fifteen hits but the first duet album did produce a #1 and a #2 single.

That brings us to this album, a collection of some county songs, some borderline pop-country-easy listening songs and some pop songs. Produced by Larry Butler, the album was not quite as successful as its predecessor duet album, but still sold over two million copies.

The album opens up with “All I Ever Need Is You”, a top ten pop hit and #1 Adult Contemporary hit for Sonny & Cher and a top twenty county hit for Ray Sanders, both versions in 1971. This version would rise to #1 on the country chart. While not as country as the Sanders version (still my favorite), it is not as pop as the Sonny & Cher versions. Both steel guitar (by Pete Drake) and string arrangements are featured in the arrangement. The song works well as a duet.

Sometimes when I’m down and all alone
Just like a child without a home
The love you give me keeps me hangin’ on
Oh honey, all I ever need is you

You’re my first love, you’re my last
You’re my future, you’re my past
And loving you is all I ask, honey
All I ever need is you

The Wynette, Richey, Sherrill composition “ ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own” is up next. The song was a #1 country hit for Tammy Wynette in 1976. The song works as a duet but is in a key where Kenny seems to be struggling to hit some of the notes.

“Just The Way You Are” was a #3 Billboard / #2 Cashbox top ten pop hit for writer Billy Joel in 1977. The arrangement of this song reeks of cocktail lounge balladry. I’d rather hear Billy Joel perform this song and I am no fan of his music.

Randy Goodrum penned “You Needed Me”. Goodrum would co-produce Dottie’s 1979 album Special Delivery and write six of the songs on that album. I think that this song, as recorded by Anne Murray (#1 pop / #4 country), , was his biggest hit as a songwriter. The arrangement on this one is definitely easy listening.

“(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” was made famous by B.J. Thomas, winning the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Country Song. The song’s writers, Larry Butler and Chips Moman definitely cleared the bases with this song as it went to #1 on the country, pop and A/C charts in the US, nearly duplicating that success in Canada. Kenny & Dottie do a nice job with the song although the arrangement can be best described as ‘countrypolitan’. Steve Glassmeyer is featured on soprano sax.

It’s lonely out tonight
And the feelin’ just got right for a brand new love song
Somebody done somebody wrong song

Hey, wontcha play another somebody done somebody wrong song
And make me feel at home while I miss my baby, while I miss my baby
So please play for me a sad melody
So sad that it makes everybody cry-why-why-why
A real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong
Cause I don’t want to cry all alone

There is no questioning the country credentials of the next song, “Together Again” written by the great Buck Owens. Although initially released as the B side of Buck’s 1964 single “My Heart Skips A Beat”, most disc jockeys played both sides of the record resulting in both songs reaching #1, although in different weeks.

Unfortunately, the song is given an easy listening arrangement with strings and keyboards and not a trace of a steel guitar in the arrangement. There is a key shift whenever Kenny takes over from Dottie in singing a verse. I liked Dottie’s vocal on the song, Kenny’s not so much. The net effect is really disappointing.

Paul Craft was a successful songwriter who penned “Midnight Flyer”. The song is probably best remembered for Eagles recording of the song, although the song entered the realm of bluegrass music
through the Osborne Brothers terrific single recording of the song in 1973. Producer Butler gives the song the (fairly) acoustic arrangement the song demands. Kenny & Dottie acquit themselves well on this song.

Oo, Midnight Flyer
Engineer, won’t you let your whistle moan?
Oo, Midnight Flyer
I paid my dues and I feel like trav’lin’ on

A runaway team of horses ain’t enough to make me stay
So throw your rope on another man
And pull him down your way
Make him into someone who can take the place of me
Make him every kind of fool you wanted me to be

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were a highly successful songwriting team and Phil Spector was a successful producer and occasional songwriter best known for his ‘wall of sound’ production style. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” was certainly the biggest hit that the Righteous Brothers would ever have, and possibly the most successful song from the Mann-Weil songwriting team. After hearing the Righteous Brother’s version it is difficult to accept any of the cover versions, of which there have been many. Kenny & Dottie do a decent job with the song, which is given a somewhat subdued ‘wall of sound’ production, but it pales in comparison to the original.

“Let It Be Me” is a popular song originally published in French in 1955 as “Je t’appartiens”. Written by Gilbert Becaud & Pierre Delanoe, the song became a worldwide hit when Manny Curtis appended English lyrics to the song. The Everly Brothers (#7 pop – 1960) and a duet by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler (#5 pop – 1964) cemented the song’s popularity in the English speaking world. In 1969 Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry had a pop and country hit with the song. Kenny and Dottie sing the song quite well – I think Kenny’s best vocals on this album are to be found on this song. The song is not country, the arrangement is very orchestral, but the net effect is very nice.

Like most of Kenny’s albums, this is essentially a pop album with a nod toward country music. There would be no more duet albums by this pair and after a brief resurgence in 1979 through early 1981, Dottie’s solo career would fade away (not surprisingly as Dottie would turn 50 in 1982). The younger Rogers (b. 1938) would continue to have varying degrees through the end of the 1980s, followed by a long coda.

I like parts of this album, but there are tracks I tend to skip over – I give it a C+

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Ropin’ The Wind’

ropin the windGarth’s third album was released in September 1991, with the artist at the peak of his commercial success. The first single, Larry Bastian’s ‘Rodeo’ was a portrait of a rodeo rider’s obsession with his pursuit of excitement over love. Delivered with an intensity and drama hovering on the edge of too much, it is pretty good, and peaked at #3.

A cover of Billy Joel’s pop hit ‘Shameless’ was to become one of Garth’s biggest hits. Despite not sounding remotely like a country song, Garth’s passionate vocal (backed by Trisha Yearwood’s harmony) and star status pushed it to #1.

Much, much better is ‘What She’s Doing Now’ (one of seven Garth co-writes on the album, but the first of them to be sent to radio. A gently sad reflection on a failed relationship and its continuing hold on the protagonist, with a string arrangement which sweetens it, this is a very good song. It had been previously recorded by Crystal Gayle with a gender twist in 1989, when she was well past her peak, but Garth’s own version hit the top of the charts. The similarly paced ‘Burning Bridges’ is another understated ballad (written by Garth with Stephanie Brown) which might serve as a prequel to it. This is the confession of a serial leaver, and shows Garth can be subtle. The style is perhaps more James Taylor than honky tonk, but it’s very palatable.

Next to radio was the punchy drama of ‘Papa Loved Mama’, written by Garth with Kim Williams. Telling the story of a trucker who kills his faithless wife and her lover by driving his rig into the motel she is staying at, it peaked at #3.

Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Now Mama’s in the graveyard
Papa’s in the pen

The same songwriting partnership, with the addition of Kent Blazy, produced the best song on the album in ‘Cold Shoulder’, the story of a lonely trucker missing his wife while on the road. A tasteful production helps make this a standout:

I wish I could hold her
Instead of hugging this old cold shoulder

The fifth and last single was #1 hit ‘The River’. Written by Garth with Victoria Shaw, it is one of his well meaning but slightly preachy earnest declarations of the importance of taking risks and living life to the full. It is quite pleasant and likeable, with an attractive arrangement.

‘In Lonesome Dove’, which Garth wrote with Cynthia Limbaugh, is a Western story song which is back to the drama but with a relatively low key reading which makes it all the more effective. It may have been inspired by the Western novel and TV drama of the same name, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the same.

‘We Bury The Hatchet’, written with Wade Kimes about a tumultous relationship, is playful western swing and quite entertaining. The lively up-tempo rebellious attitude of ‘Against The Grain’ came from bluegrass singer-songwriters Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson with Bruce Bouton, but doesn’t quite convince.

Not on the original record, but added to subsequent re-releases is ‘Which One Of Them’, a pretty good song about a heartbroken man pretending his one night stands are his lost love, as he muses wearily,

I’ve forgotten what’s wrong
Given up on what’s right

Ropin’ The Wind has sold over 14 million copies in the US alone, and a further 3 million worldwide, making it his biggest ever seller. Is it his best work? Not quite, but it’s not at all bad.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Across The Rio Grande’

HollyDunnAcrosstheRioGrandeFor her third MTM release Across The Rio Grande, Holly Dunn took a co-producing credit for the first time, working with Tommy West (who produced her previous two releases) and Warren Peterson. Her career was also gaining traction by the time this was released in 1988 and she was now in the good graces of country radio.

Chick Rains and Bill Caswell penned the first single, “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” The track is an excellent dobro infused uptempo number oozing with charm and personality from Dunn who’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the song. Radio and the fans agreed and the song made it to #5. Michael Johnson and the Forester Sisters also recorded versions of the song around the same time.

Slightly less successful was the second and final single, the #11 peaking “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday.” With country music in the thick of the new traditionalist movement by 1988, I would’ve thought this would’ve done much better, maybe even peaking higher than “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” Could it have been the backup singers or Dunn retro style that was the issue? The song is surely excellent on its own merits even if it may’ve been a little too retro even for 1988.

Dunn and her “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday” co-writers Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters teamed up to write three other songs for the project. “City Limit” is a wonderful uptempo number dosed in fiddle with a rather engaging drumbeat. Dunn does a wonderful job vocally too, bringing out the song’s infectious charm. “Have A Heart” is the same sort of dobro infused track and Dunn does a wonderful job here as well. The best of the four is “If Nobody Knew My Name,” an album highlight thanks to gorgeous high lonesome harmonies from Cheryl and Sharon White. The production on the ballad, light guitars and fiddle, is impeccable, too.

“Lonesome Highway” found Dunn teaming up with Budd Lee to write a mid-tempo dobro centric number that was another of the stronger songs on the project and possibly my favorite thing on the whole album thanks in part to the production and Dunn’s vocal delivery. Dunn’s final co-write came courtesy of “On The Wings of an Angel,” which she wrote with Don Schlitz. Her crystal-clear voice is the perfect counterpart to the striking fiddle-laced production.

Billy Joel, three years before he gave Garth Brooks the okay to record “Shameless,” had a country connection with Dunn, who included his “Travelin’ Prayer” on this album. Originally released on Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man, “Travlin’ Prayer” has a chugging beat similar to Gram Parson’s “Luxury Liner.” Dunn veers little from Joel’s recording although she does convert it into a bluegrass song, which works well. Dunn’s vocal is incredible, too, as she’s able to keep up with the rapid fire pace of the song with ease.

Mandolin riffs are front and center on Shapiro and Waters’ “The Stronger The Tie.” The spiritual number is reminiscent of something Kathy Mattea would record and quite good even if it leans in a more contemporary vein. Spanish infused “Just Across The Rio Grande,” the album’s title track, is excellent although somewhat thematically out of place.

Across The Rio Grande is a wonderful album complete with many stellar moments from Dunn. The album isn’t as commercial as the albums her contemporaries were releasing at the time, but its still full of excellent songs with nice production and Dunn’s beautiful voice. Across The Rio Grande definitely has a late 80s sheen to it and thus it hasn’t aged as gracefully as it could’ve, but that doesn’t hinder the listener’s enjoyment at all. It’s also a shame the album is out of print as it’s a worthwhile addition to any record collection.

Grade: A 

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

758_1386719351When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down as Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

Grade: B

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘The Grass Is Blue’

Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.

The Grass Is Blue
is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Garth Brooks – ‘Ain’t Goin’ Down Til the Sun Comes Up’

This is a clip from Garth’s legendary Central Park Concert in August 1997.