My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Billy Lawson

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

Music In My Heart is Charley’s first new album since Choices, which was issued in 2011. Charley is now 79 years old; however, his voice seems to have hardly aged at all. I suspect that he may have lost a little off the top of his range but the quality of what remains is outstanding.

Noted songwriter Billy Yates served as the producer of this album, as well as providing several of the songs and singing background on a few of the songs. Yates provides Charley with an updated version of the Nashville Sound minus the strings and soulless vocal choruses. Such stalwarts as Mike Johnson, Robby Turner and Scotty Sanders handle the steel guitar, while Stuart Duncan handles fiddle and mandolin.

The album opens up with the Tommy Collins classic “New Patches” that served up the last top ten single for Mel Tillis back in 1984.

Now and then an old friend tries to help me
By telling me there’s someone I should meet
But I don’t have the heart to start all over
‘Cause my heart is laying at another’s feet

[Chorus:]
You just don’t put new patches on old garments
I don’t want no one else on my mind
I just don’t need nobody new to cling to
I still love someone I’ve known a long long time

“Country” Johnny Mathis (1930-2011), so named so as to not be mistaken for the pop singer of the same name, is nearly forgotten today, but he was a fine songwriter and “Make Me One More Memory” is a fine mid-tempo song, handled with aplomb by Pride.

Take my heart, my soul, my heaven
Take my world away from me
All I ask is one last favor
Make me one more memory

Ben Peters provided Charley with many big hits so it is natural for Pride to raid the Ben Peters songbag for material. Co-written with son Justin Peters, “Natural Feeling For You” is the kind of ballad that could have been a hit during the 1970s or 1980s.

“All By My Lonesome” reminds me of the 1992 Radney Foster song “Just Call Me Lonesome”, although this song comes from Billy Yates and Terry Clayton. This is a mid-tempo ballad with a solid vocal by Pride.

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

Drinkin’ and cryin’
So close to dyin’
I’m next to no one
All by my lonesome

Thanks for sendin’ someone by to see if I’m alright
I appreciate your concern tonight
But I don’t need no company
To offer up their sympathy
If it ain’t you then I would rather be

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

“It Wasn’t That Funny” was written by Yates and Dobby Lowery. The song is a lovely ballad about an almost breakup, that a couple experienced and can laugh about now, but brought moments of anguish along the way.

Lee Bach penned “The Same Eyes That Always Drove Crazy”, a mid-tempo ballad of a chance meeting after years of separation. This song would have made a good single at any point before about 2005. The song features some really nice steel guitar by Mike Johnson and piano by Steve Nathan.

Billy Yates and Billy Lawson chipped in the introspective ballad “I Learned A Lot”, in which the narrator relives the lessons he’s learned from losing his previous love. The song first appeared on Billy’s album Only One George Jones.

“You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine” was written by Lee Bach, Larry Mercey and Dave Lindsey. The title references what was on the jukebox the first time the narrator met his love. The song has a nice Texas shuffle arrangement (the song references the Ray Price classic “Crazy Arms” and mentions taking out Ray’s old records). Again, this is another song that would have made a good single in bygone years.

“The Way It Was in ‘51” was written by Merle Haggard and was the title track for one of the Hag’s great albums and was the B-side of Hag’s “The Roots of My Raising”.

Sixty-Six was still a narrow two-lane highway
Harry Truman was the man who ran the show
The bad Korean War was just beginning
And I was just three years too young to go

Country music hadn’t gone to New York City yet
And a service man was proud of what he’d done
Hank and Lefty crowded every jukebox
That’s the way it was in fifty one

“Lee Bach” wrote “I Just Can’t Stop Missing You”, a nice ballad that makes for a good album track but wouldn’t ever have been considered for a single. This song apparently has keyboards mimicking the sound of strings giving it more of a Nashville Sound production than the other tracks on the album.

“Whispering Bill” Anderson wrote “You Lied To Me” a song that I don’t think he ever recorded, but Tracy Byrd recorded it on his 1995 album Love Lessons. Charley does a bang up job with the song

You looked at me as only you can look at me
You touched my cheek and told me not to cry
But you said you’d found somebody you loved more than me
And you told me I’d forget you by and by

But you lied to me, yes you lied to me
You said time would close the wound that bled inside of me
But every breath I take brings back your memory
You said I’d forget you, but you lied to me

“Standing In My Way” comes from Billy Yates and Jim McCormick, an interesting ballad of self-recriminations.

The album closes with a spritely up-tempo number from “Country” Johnny Mathis, “Music In My Heart”.

I really liked this album. In fact I would regard this as Charley’s best album in over twenty years. I like the song selections, I like the arrangements and I like Charley’s vocals. Radio won’t play these songs but they should – it’s their loss! Maybe Willie’s Roadhouse will play it – after all octogenarian Willie believes in giving the youngsters a chance. This album doesn’t have a dud among its tracks – solid A.

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Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonestar’

lonestarLonestar kicked off their recording career with the eponymous album Lonestar. Released in October 1995, the album hit the streets on the strength of the successful single “Tequila Talkin’” which was released in August 1995 and reached #8. There would be four more singles issued after the album was released. The album received mixed reviews upon its release, more than a few critics viewing the band as a lightweight version of Shenandoah, a comparison I did not feel to be very valid.

The album was definitely decent honky-tonk country music, with the band augmented by a solid corps of Nashville session men such as Bruce Bouton (pedal steel ), Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar), Brent Mason (electric guitar) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) and such distinguished vocal harmonists as Curtis Young and John Wesley Ryles. Unless otherwise stated, Richie McDonald handles the vocals on the singles.

The album opens up with the up-tempo ballad “Heartbroke Every Day” from the pens of Bill LaBounty, Cam King and Rick Vincent. This album track featured John Rich on lead vocals, and would be the fifth single released, reaching #18. I like Rich’s vocal, which has a bit of a bluegrass feel to it.

Why do I do this to myself
Why do I want the one that wants somebody else
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Why do I always take the fall
I’d rather have you hurtin’ me than not have you at all
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could
If I could
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Track two was the first single released, “Tequila Talkin’” penned by Bill LaBounty and Chris Waters (the brother of Holly Dunn). This single reached #8, the first top ten recording for the group:

I don’t know what they put in Cuervo that got me to say those things
Usually I wouldn’t care so much or make such a scene
But seeing you there in that dress you were wearing just drove me right out of my head
So don’t hold me responsible for anything I might’ve said

It was just the tequila talkin’
When I told you I’m still not over you
I get a little sentimental when I’ve had one or two
And that tear in my eye was the salt and the lime
Not the memory of you walkin’
If I said I’m still in love with you
It was just the tequila talkin’

John Rich, Don Cook and Wally Wilson wrote “I Love The Way You Do That’ – a good song but the intro sounds too much like the intro to track two.

“Running Away With My Heart” was penned by Michael Britt, Sam Hogin and Mark D Sanders. This would be the third single released from the album and would reach #8. This song is a mid-tempo ballad, which features some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Hey Buddy can you get me some faster wheels
I got a heartache nippin’ at my heels
I’ll be hurtin’ if she gets a big head start
First that girl stole my attention
Not to mention all my affection
Now she’s running away with my heart

“What Would It Take” was written by Billy Lawson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson, and is a slow ballad with heavy Nashville Sound string accompaniment of the kind that Billy Sherrill used with George Jones and David Houston. I think that this song, issued 15-20 years earlier, could have been a big single, but by 1995 it was very much an anachronism.

I held the world in my arms
I threw away the moon for the stars
Couldn’t see the forest for the trees
Couldn’t see the love in front of me

What would it take to take me back
Rebuild that bridge, retrace my tracks
I would give all I own
For one little stepping stone
What would it take to take me back

The redoubtable trio of John Rich, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson contributed “Does Your Daddy Know About Me”, an up-tempo honky-tonk song with solid steel and fiddle accompaniment that would have made a good single:

Well you say your daddy is a real cool dude and you keep no secrets from him
Well he knows you got a wild hair, knows your kinda out there and knows about your crazy friends
And he done found out about the night you snuck out with the Cadillac keys
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Well he knows you been skippin’ them Sunday School meetings
He’s heard how fast you drive
Knows you got an attitude, seen your little tattoo, but he lets all that slide
And I bet my boots that he think he knows you from A to Z
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Billy Lawson’s “Ragtop Cadillac” probably was very popular with line dancers. The lyrics are nothing special but it has a rhythm and feel very similar to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”.

“No News” was the second single and the first #1 record for the group reaching #1 in both the US and Canada. The song was written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders, and tells the story about a man whose woman has left him without telling him.

She said “It’s just a woman thing” and pulled out of the drive
I said not to worry I’m an understanding guy
I’ve heard that when you love someone you gotta let ’em go
She hollered “When I find myself you’ll be the first to know”
Ooh no news

I learned to do the laundry, feed the cat, and clean the house
I promised to be patient while she worked her problems out
When she packed her bags, her destination wasn’t clear
But I sensed that her intentions were honest and sincere
Ooh no news

Chick Rains has written a number of fine songs, but “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” is nothing special, a dance number that makes for a decent album track.

Richie McDonald and Kyle Green co-wrote “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance”, the only song McDonald had a part in writing. The song was the fourth single from the album reaching only #45 (but #18 in Canada). I don’t think I would have released this song as a single, although it makes a decent enough album track.

This would be one of two albums issued by the original lineup of Richie McDonald (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Rich (bass, vocals), Michael Britt (lead guitar, background vocals), Keech Rainwater (drums), and Dean Sams (keyboards). Other than John Rich’s contributions, the band relied on outside writers for material. Richie McDonald would emerge as a co-writer on subsequent albums, but I have doubts as to how essential were his contributions to the process.

I would give this album a B+. Of five Lonestar studio albums in my collection, this one is the one I listen to with the greatest frequency as it is the most consistently good album of the bunch.

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Do You Know Me? A Tribute to George Jones’

Do You Know MeIt would be futile to attempt to quantify the number of male country singers over the past 40 years or so that have cited George Jones as a major influence on their careers, so it was inevitable that tribute albums would begin to appear following the Possum’s death last year. There is perhaps no one more suited to singing an album of Jones covers than Sammy Kershaw, who not only is among the more sincere of the self-proclaimed Jones proteges, he is also the one who sounds the most like Jones.

Do You Know Me? A Tribute To George Jones was produced by Kershaw himself and released last week on his own imprint Big Hit Records. It consists of twelve songs that span the most successful stretch of Jones’ long and distinguished career, from 1955’s “Why Baby Why” to 1985’s “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”. Casual fans of both Jones and Kershaw could easily and understandably be duped into thinking that Jones himself is the performer on these recordings. More serious fans won’t have any problem distinguishig the difference, but the comparison is a bit unfair, if only because Jones made most of these recordings when he was in his vocal prime, while Kershaw is at a point where the wear and tear on his vocal chords is beginning to show. He sounds the most like Jones on uptempo numbers such as “Why Baby Why”, “White Lightnin'” and “The Race Is On”. The ballads are well done and mostly faithful to the originals, but Kershaw can’t quite match the magic that Jones and Billy Sherrill achieved on numbers such as “The Grand Tour”, “Once You’ve Had The Best” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It should be pointed out, however, that nobody could and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more justice to these songs than Sammy does.

My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”, a song written by Don Chapel that Jones took to #2 in 1968. That same year Jones repaid the favor by running off with Chapel’s wife Tammy Wynette. Georgette Jones, the only child that resulted from George and Tammy’s six-year marriage joins Sammy on “Near You”, an old pop standard that dates back to 1947. It woas originally recorded by its composer Francis Craig, and later covered by the likes of The Andrews Sisters, Roger Williams, Andy Williams, and several others. George and Tammy recorded it in 1974 when their marriage was in the midst of crumbling. Released in 1977 after the couple had divorced, it reached #1 on the Billboard country singles chart. Georgette is not the singer her mother was, but she sounds enough like Tammy to make her an ideal duet partner for Kershaw. With a little background noise and if one doesn’t listen too closely, one could almost believe that it’s George and Tammy singing.

In addition to the covers of Jones’ classic material, Do You Know Me? contains two new songs, including the title track, which is biographical ballad written for Jones by Johnny Holland and Billy Lawson, which he never got around to recording. Nobody could sing this song as credibly as Kerhsaw does, and had he not recorded it for this album, it likely would never have seen the light of day, which would have been a shame. The album closes with another ballad “The Route That I TooK”, a “Choices” -like number written by Sammy himself which talks about the Possum’s tendency not to do things the easy way.

Nothing on this album is likely to ever find its way to mainstream country radio airwaves, but it is a labor of love that truly deserves to be heard and it’s a must-have for any George Jones or Sammy Kershaw fan.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

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: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: Jamie Richards – ‘Sideways’

Jamie Richards is one of those solid Texan country singers who has been forging a regional career without troubling national radio. He is signed to the Daily family’s Houston-based D Records, which has just released his fourth album (the earlier ones are well worth checking out, too). He has a rich voice full of character with a distinctive slightly grainy tone, excellent relaxed phrasing. He spent some time as a staff songwriter for Curb in Nashville and wrote all but three of the songs here, most of which are very good. He also produced the record with Greg White.

The album opens with a five–song sequence of sad, mainly mid-tempo, songs about failing to get over an ex, and as he mentions some lows and highs in his personal life in the liner notes, these may be autobiographical. My favorite track is the chugging ‘Half Drunk’. This solo composition has the broken-hearted protagonist regretting his inability to drown his sorrows due to lack of cash:

You were too good to be true
I guess that’s why you weren’t…

It takes more than just a few of my favorite ice-cold beers
Hell, I’ll break out the Jack and Coke and I’ll make you disappear
Oh but you’ll be back when I come down and remember how it could have been
So for now I’ll do my best to forget you once again

I’m sittin’ here half drunk
Cause I ran out of money
Yeah I would’a been all the way
If I’d’a had just one more 20

Almost as good is ‘A Whole Lot Lonely’ (embarrassingly misspelt ‘Lonley’ on the cover), another intensely honest post-breakup number involving the protagonist talking to a drink-induced hallucination of his ex, and apologising to her shade for that real-life call at 3 a.m., explaining sadly:

I was a little drunk
But a whole lot lonely

The equally downbeat ‘Easier By Now’ (another excellent song) finds the singer still struggling with the memories despite the passage of years:

It should be easier by now
I should have long forgot that smile
Even after all this time and all the love I pushed aside
I always come back to you somehow

The title track seems to date back to Jamie’s time writing for Curb, and is a co-write with former Curb artist Ken Mellons. It’s a fine song with a resigned feel about struggling to find equilibrium after the end of a relationship; he knows drinking isn’t the answer, but it’s the only option.

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Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Taste Of The Truth’

Taste Of The TruthGene Watson is one of my all-time favorite singers, and it is good to report that he is still sounding great at the age of 65. Listening to his new album, his second for independent label Shanachie, is like listening to a masterclass in singing country music, a subtle rendering of understated emotion. Gene is not a songwriter, so the ultimate artistic success of his records always depend on finding great outside material, and fortunately he has found some fine songs here from some of the best writers currently in Nashville, which are ideally suited to his voice. The overall theme is one of lost love and regret.

It opens with ‘Speakin’ Of The Angel’, a great traditional sounding mid-tempo number written by Shawn Camp and Jim Rushing, which is a joy to listen to even though the protagonist is heartbroken dwelling on his beloved ex planning to marry another:

“If I swear that I don’t love her, God knows it’s a lie,
Speakin’ of the angel is enough to make me cry.”

The title track comes from the pen of Rebecca Lynn Howard, and is a fine ballad with a beautifully realized metaphor, delicately delivered in Gene’s best style, as he addresses another ex, this time one he now regrets having left, finding the freedo he had hungered for has a “lonely flavor”:

“I’d eat my words to have you back
If I thought I could
‘Cause the truth don’t satisfy me
Like I thought it would

In fact it leaves me hollow
With a bad taste in my mouth
It’s hard for me to swallow
Tears won’t wash it down
Knowing you don’t want me back
It’s all that I can do
To keep from chokin’ on
The taste of the truth”

Another gorgeous sad ballad perfect for Gene’s voice is ‘Til A Better Memory Come Along’, previously recorded by both Mark Chesnutt and Shelby Lynne. I like both previous versions, but this is quite lovely as Gene can’t get over the woman who has left and tells her memory so with perhaps the best vocal performance on the album:

“How long will it take before I leave you
In the past where you belong?
One day I might forget
But right now I’m not that strong
So I’ll hold on
Til a better memory comes along”

Just as good is another sad song about failing to get over someone (and obviously not trying very hard), Tim Mensy and Keith Stegall’s ‘Three Minutes At A Time’, as the narrator forgets his troubles for a while by listening to country songs on the jukebox: “it’s heartache in rhyme, but it helps me hang on”, he testifies.

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Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Nobody’s Got It All’

Nobody's Got It AllAfter the brief resurrection of John Anderson’s career in the early 90s, it died down again in the later part of that decade, although he has continued to release some excellent music on a series of major labels. One of my favorites is this release from 2001, on Columbia. It was produced by hot producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, and has some excellent songs, but sadly the chosen singles failed to catch on at radio, and the label deal lasted only for this one album.

The song which is most likely to be familiar is a cover of John Scott Sherrill’s ‘Five Generations Of Rock County Wilsons’, a farmer’s son’s lament at the destruction of his childhood home by developers, previously recorded in the 80s by Dan Seals and in the 90s by Doug Supernaw, but perhaps surprisingly never losing its sense of topicality. I like all three versions of this fine song, but John’s is probably the best and most committed vocal, as you feel the narrator’s pain as it turns to smoldering anger and then defeated sadness as he leaves town:
“I stood on the hill overlooking Red River where my mama and her mama lay
And listened to the growling of the big diesel Cats as they tore up the fields where I played
I said, ‘Mama forgive me, but I’m almost glad that you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody who’d actually blow it away’.”

A more unexpected (and less successful) cover comes in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’, a dark tale of a couple on the edges of the crime world which came to John’s attention via a version by The Band.

John did not contribute many of his own compositions this time around, but one of the songs he did write is one of my favorites, the heavy-hitting ballad ‘I Ain’t Afraid Of Dying’, written with Dean Dillon. It is a trenchant look at some of the darker aspect of modern society and fears for the future, with no punches pulled:
“Some father says in the name of God he took his baby’s life
Well, I don’t think so, the God I know wouldn’t believe that’s right
I may not have the answers when it’s all said and done
Sometimes I have to question where they’re coming from
I know where I’m going when they lay me to rest
Oh, I ain’t afraid of dying, Lord – it’s the living that scares me to death.”

The pair also wrote ‘Go To Town’, a pleasant but not that memorable piece about a party girl and a “smooth operator” growing up and settling down, ending with their children heading off to the excitement of the town in their parents’ stead. The other track John co-wrote was the melodic love song ‘I Love You Again’, written with Craig Wiseman, which is very listenable and sincerely delivered, but doesn’t stick in the mind.

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Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Rockin’ In The Country’

Daryle SingletaryDaryle Singletary is a man with a genuinely great voice, who might have been one of the best of the neotraditional country singers of the 1990s in terms of sheer vocal ability. Sadly, his chart career was based on fairly mediocre material, and he only had three top 5 hits. I only really got interested in him when he released the excellent Ain’t It The Truth in 1998, which was not a commercial success and proved to be his last on a major label.

This decade, he has released two albums mainly consisting of high-quality covers, but now he is back with an album of original material on E1 Music (the independent label formerly known as Koch).

I was concerned about the likely quality of the material and direction of the album when I heard the title, but I need not have been concerned. The album, produced by Greg Cole, who was responsible for Daryle’s covers sets, with label executive Chuck Rhodes, is pretty solid country throughout, and complements Daryle’s rich, textured voice well. Although the songs are not all instant classics, they are almost all good, with a couple of real highlights.

The title track is indeed as rocking as Daryle gets, which is to say uptempo country with a very faint southern rock flavor, the latter mainly courtesy of Charlie Daniels’ sizzling fiddle solo and occasional vocal interjections. The song itself is a fun number written by Paul Overstreet and Sonny Tillis about a farmer who forestalls foreclosure on his land by giving up the actual farm (selling the cows to a neighbor and building a stage in place of the barn), and putting on weekly country music shows there instead. It pays off for our hero big time – “they say the old coot’s got a million stashed”.

The most unusual track, and one which seems to be made for a video, is ‘She Sure Looks Good In Black’, written by Dale Dodson and Billy Lawson. This opens with an old country preacher (played by Christian music artist and Nashville session musician Gordon Mote) speaking at what turns out to be the funeral of the narrator, and telling us that the lady in the front row broke up with the deceased just a few weeks earlier; then we get a couple of lines from ‘Amazing Grace’ sung acapella in the voice of an elderly choir member (performed by Glen Duncan), before Daryle starts singing in the persona of the corpse. This may be my favorite track, as Daryle’s classic country voice tells us to a suitably mournful tune (with Rhonda Vincent on harmonies),

“My mama hates her, my daddy blames her,
My sister swears it’s all an act
But if she had wore [sic] red
She could have raised the dead
But my Lord, that woman sure looks good in black”

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