My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Billy Montana

Album Review: ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’

8146Wru52WL._SX522_Wynonna & The Big Noise represents a change in direction for Wynonna Judd, a move away from the bland AC of most of her post-1993 albums. It is not a move back towards country, but I have long since given up hope that she will ever release another completely country album, barring another reunion of The Judds. There are more country moments on this album than we’re typically used to, however, and the entire album has more rootsy, organic feel than anything she’s done as a solo artist.

Wynonna’s husband Cactus Moser produced the album. Chris Stapleton and Julie Miller both contribute songs and Jason Isbell provides the duet vocals on “Things That I Lean On”, which I reviewed back in February. That track was one of a few that were released via iTunes in advance of the full album, but it does not appear to have been released as a single. That seems to suggest a change in strategy on the part of Curb Records, which may be forgoing promoting the album to radio and seeking alternate outlets instead. The album definitely seems to have been made without regard to the charts, with Wynonna and the band performing songs that moved them. There are plenty of songs that cater to Wynonna’s R&B/blues roc k leanings, beginning with the opening track “Ain’t No Thing”, penned by Chris Stapleton and John Scott Sherrill, and continuing on with “Cool Ya”, Julie Miller’s “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and “Choose To Believe”, written by Kevin Welch and Charlie White.

She sounds like she is truly enjoying herself on all of these, but it is the quieter tracks, the ballads, that are the album’s best moments, beginning with the aforementioned “Things That I Lean On.” “Jesus and a Jukebox”, the most country-sounding song in the collection, is my favorite, with the Celtic-flavored “Keeps Me Alive” a close second. “Every Ending (Is Its Own Beginning)” is a very nice middle-of-the-road mid-tempo number that Wynonna and Moser wrote with Doug Johnson and Billy Montana.

The album’s most commercial track “Something You Can’t Live Without” is a Cactus Moser and David Lee Murphy composition that was a non-charting single in 2013, shortly after The Big Noise band was formed. It reminds me of some of Wy’s early solo efforts, although at five minutes and 33 seconds, it is way too long (presumably an edited version was sent to radio) and it begins to drag a bit after a while.

I haven’t been a huge fan of much of Wynonna’s solo work but this album was a pleasant surprise. Moser seems to have helped her find her niche. I look forward to their future projects together.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Burn’

Jo_Dee_Messina-BurnAfter making history as the first woman to score three consecutive multi-week number one hits, bringing a cover of an old Dottie West tune to number two, and winning the CMA Horizon Award, expectations were unbelievably high for whatever Jo Dee Messina would do next.

The world got their answer in May 2000, when the decidedly very pop “That’s The Way” was shipped to country radio. The track, which was soaked in mandolin, soared to #1. Penned by Annie Roboff and Holly Lamar, “That’s The Way” is undeniably infectious and one of the strongest examples of turn-of-the-century pop-country done right.

When Burn hit stores in August, it became Messina’s first record to top the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Produced once again by Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw, Burn was distinctively different than it’s predecessors in that it favored bright hooks that would help Messina appeal to a more mainstream audience.

The epic title track, a stunning mid-tempo power ballad, hit radio in October. Written by Tina Arena, Steve Werfel and Pam Reswick, “Burn” was a cover of Arena’s 1997 single, which exploded in her native Australia. Messina took her version to #2.

The third single, “Downtime,” returned Messina to uptempo territory. Written by Phillip Coleman and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the track peaked at #5. Like “That’s The Way,” “Downtime” succeeds on it’s infectious melody, which is more reliant on drums and guitars than her previous upbeat single. It’s excellent none-the-less.

Messina would return to #1 with the fourth single, a lush pop ballad entitled “Bring On The Rain.” A song about not surrendering to grim circumstances, the Billy Montana and Helen Darling penned number is probably most notable for finally teaming Messina with McGraw, who provides a harmony vocal that gives the song the perfect amount of added texture.

Final single “Dare To Dream,” which came as the album cycle was dying down, fared the worst peaking at #23. Another rollicking uptempo, “Dare To Dream” employs the wall-of-sound production technique and even though Messina sells it hard, it’s not a very strong song.

When Burn came out fifteen years ago, I actually wrote a pretend review for it and noted the album had a heavy reliance on uptempo tracks, which I viewed as a negative for the overall listening experience. I still agree with that assessment. Burn is the type of album where once you’ve heard one uptempo, you’ve really heard them all. The lack of variety might work from a commercial prospective, but it drags the album down.

That being said, my favorite album cut is George Teren and Tom Shapiro’s “If Not You,” another infectious pop-country rocker not to far removed from the singles in this vein. There’s nothing spectacular about the lyric or anything, but the song has stuck with me all these years.

It’s very easy to see why Burn is such a let-down in the wake of Jo Dee Messina and I’m Alright. With significant effort dedicated to eradicating the depth she showed on her previous projects, Burn becomes nothing more than a pandering mainstream product.

What ultimately saves it, though, is the crispness of the production and Messina’s commitment to give her all on every track. There’s nothing overly loud or obnoxious about Burn. Do drum machines replace fiddles and steel guitar? Of course they do. But this is turn-of-the-century commercial country music at it’s finest. What you see is what you get, a time capsule of the sounds that drove the genre in 2000.

Grade: B

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘The Dreamer’

Blake’s second album, produced as before by Bobby Braddock and released in 2003, featured a state of the art commercial country sound which mirrored the state of country music of the period.

One of my favorite ever Blake Shelton recordings is his second #1 hit, which was the lead single from this album. ‘The Baby’, penned by Harley Allen and Michael White, is a story song with a tear-jerking emotional payoff. It is the frank confession of a spoilt youngest son, whose doting mother excuses all his failings, “because I was her baby”. He ends up missing his mother’s deathbed, even though she has been calling for her favorite:

She looked like she was sleepin’
And my family had been weepin’
By the time that I got to her side
And I knew that she’d been taken
And my heart it was breaking
I never got to say goodbye
I softly kissed that lady
And cried just like a baby

The ill-chosen second single ‘Heavy Liftin’’ is a not very interesting song in itself but its main flaw is the production. There is just too much going on in the arrangement with banjos fighting against the blaring electric guitars – it ends up sounding as it would if two separate tracks were recorded, they couldn’t decide which to go with and stuck them together. It didn’t make into the top 30, but would probably do rather better if released to today’s radio.

Much better is memorably quirky top 30 single ‘Playboys Of The Southwestern World’, written by Neal Coty and Randy Van Warmer. It tells the amusing story of two wild boys who get themselves into trouble, ending up in jail in Mexico.

There is a great cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1978 hit ‘Georgia In A Jug’, written by Blake’s producer Braddock. A jilted fiancé drinks away the money he had saved up for the exotic honeymoon:

I’m going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum
Goin’ out to Honolulu in a mai tai mug
Then I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug

The arrangement copies the original fairly closely (with some delicious added fiddle), but that’s no bad thing, and the result is entertaining.

Braddock also wrote ‘Someday’, which questions what may happen beyond death. Delivered dramatically with a gospel choir, it is quite effective. The idiosyncratic ‘In My Heaven’ was written by Rivers Rutherford and Bobby Pinson and offers a picture of a perfect world from their point of view. The message is a bit mixed – on the one hand “we hurt no one”, on the other they’re feeding lawyers to the lions; and there’s a strong emphasis on having fun and playing sports missed in with the idealistic inclusiveness.

Blake wrote the title track, which is quite good, with the protagonist realising the costs of achieving his dreams of material success, and finding it has not made him truly happy when the one he loved is not with him. The production is a little louder than necessary, but overall this is a decent track  ‘My Neck Of The Woods’ which he co-wrote with Billy Montana and Don Ellis celebrates both the natural beauties and the neighborliness of the countryside. It was partially inspired by Blake’s then Tennessee farm home, and acknowledges the very real difficulties of rural poverty more than the glut of rural pride songs we hear today. ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ is a modern trucking anthem, which is well sung and interpreted by Blake. John Rich co-write ‘Underneath The Same Moon’ is a somewhat overblown big ballad.

There are some great tracks here, but overall it isn’t as strong a set as Blake’s debut, with the production ramped up a bit too much at times. Cheap used copies are, however, easy to find. It was a reasonable success for him.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Tim McGraw’

Tim’s debut album saw him presented as one of the myriad “hat acts” who swarmed all over country radio in the early 90s, inspired both by the neotraditional movement and the monster success of Garth Brooks. Producers James Stroud and Byron Gallimore make the music far twangier and more traditional than his more recent work, but also rather more generic. Still in his early 20s, Tim had not quite managed to find his own voice or artistic identity, and he did not stand out from the competition.

Having said that, though, the songs themeslves are pretty solid. Tim’s debut single ‘Welcome To The Club’ failed to make the top 40 but makes quite a pleasant mid tempo opener, with Tim empathizing with a similarly heartbroken friend. Much better is the up-tempo ‘Memory Lane’, one of two Joe Diffie co-writes on the album, which had previously been recorded by Diffie soundalike Keith Palmer on his self-titled Epic release in 1991. Like Palmer, Tim’s version reflects Diffie’s vocal inflections, and although it is an enjoyable track, it lacks individuality. Much the same goes for the heartbreak ballad ‘Tears In The Rain’, also co-written by Diffie, which the man himself finally got around to recording on his underwhelming Life’s So Funny set in 1995.

The third and last single, honky tonk dance tune ‘Two Steppin’ Mind’ is quite enjoyable but was another flop. It’s commonplace these days to deplore the business practices of Curb Records, but they did keep supporting Tim’s career when he was struggling to break through when many other labels would have let him go after three failed singles, never to be heard from again.

The best song on the album is ‘The Only Thing That I Have Left’, an excellent ballad written by Clay Blaker, and which George Strait had cut on his Strait From The Heart album back in 1982. Tim sings it with commitment, with its lyric about a washed up singer clinging to love no doubt ringing true after he had spent the last few years touring small venues while building up his career. It is not unfair to say that he was no Strait, and perhaps he was also a little too young to entirely convince on this number.

Also good, ‘You Can Take It With You (When You Go)’ is bouncily cheerful and radio friendly western swing, written by Frank Dycus and Kerry Kurt Phillips. This wry response to a woman leaving a man with nothing, taking the entire contents of their home, might have been a good single choice, as it has more personality than most of the tracks.

Well, she took everything but the kitchen sink
If I had me a glass Lord, I’d pour me a drink …

I oughta call somebody but I ain’t got a phone
Just goes to show you can take it with you when you go

‘What Room Was The Holiday In?’ was the first Tim McGraw track I ever heard, and I’m still rather fond of it, with its banked harmonies, play on words, and outraged sarcasm addressed at a cheating lover:

You’ve got a glow that’s not a suntan
And a new gleam in your eyes
Oh, it must have been one great vacation
Girl you look so satisfied

Tell me what room was the holiday in?
Was I out of your mind when you turned to him?
What a good time it must have been
Tell me, what room was the holiday in?

You said you needed a small vacation
Just a couple of days all by yourself
So off you went in a new direction
And what you found was someone else

This track was produced by Doug Johnson.

The wearied farmer’s lament ‘Ain’t No Angels’, written by Billy Montana and Brad Davis, is another very good song, but one which Tim was not quite up to vocally at this stage in his career. ‘What She Left Behind’ and ‘I Keep It Under My Hat’ are filler rounding out the tracklist – not unlistenable by any means, but not demanding repeat listens.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of radio success, the album did not sell particularly well. Not an essential purchase by any means, but not bad if you can find it cheaply enough (and used copies are very cheap), it may be of interest to Tim’s most diehard fans, but also those who have cooled on his more recent direction but missed out on this when it came out. I admit that I hadn’t listened to it in several years before revisiting it when we decided to cover Tim as this month’s Spotlight Artist, but I enjoyed it much more than I remembered, generic though it may be – and definitely more than his latest effort.

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

Read more of this post

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Songwriter’

Even at the height of his stardom, it was widely acknowledged that “Whispering” Bill Anderson wasn’t much of a singer. But he was, and remains, an excellent country songwriter, who continues to get cuts by some of today’s biggest stars. He has just recorded a dozen of his latest songs on an independently released record, co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul Schnelle, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, piano, and keyboards and sings backing vocals – basically every instrument but drums, bass and steel.

The songs are all co-writes, and I was struck by the generosity with which Bill puts his own name last in the credits each time. His vocals are no stronger than one might expect, but on most of these songs it doesn’t matter. Half the songs are comedic, and do not demand great singing; in some of the others the limitations of his voice is put to good use.

The stall is set out with the opening track ‘It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey’, co written with the album’s producer Rex Schnelle and Rivers Rutherford. It’s a very witty riposte to someone who’s never satisfied whether it’s because:

So the government’s crazy and the weather’s all wrong
The radio ain’t playing country songs
Grits won’t cook in the microwave
And you’re mad about the price of gas these days
You can’t get a signal on your mobile phone
Your dog ran off and your wife came home

Also laugh-out-loud funny is the episodic ‘That’s When The Fight Broke Out’ which recounts a hapless husband’s many ill-judged remarks in a series of one-liners. A sense of humor is not necessarily conducive to a happy marriage.

‘Good Time Gettin’ Here’ is a good-natured recital from the kind of guy who wastes most of his time having fun, declaring from high school graduation to his arrival at the gates of heaven:

I’m not sure where I’ve been or where I am or where I’m going
But I sure had a good time gettin’ here

Written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon, this entertaining song could easily be a hit single for someone like Brad Paisley.

Speaking of Brad, he co-wrote and plays electric guitar on the rather vulgar ‘If You Can’t Make Money’ with Jon Randall also co-writing. The advice for economic hard times is to make love instead of money:
We can’t get a break, can’t get a job
We need to get the opposite of laid off

This is one of the songs where the vocal limitations are a problem, making the song sound sleazy.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Walt Wilkins – ‘Vigil’

Texas based singer-songwriter Walt Wilkins released this album last year, but it escaped my notice at the time. Vigil is a real labor of love, whose making was funded by an anonymous benefactor and whose profits are all being devoted to charity (the Longevity Foundation). More Americana than conventional country, this reveals a Texas troubadour at his most reflective, armed with a rough voice and a poet’s soul. The concept is more formed than on most inspirational records, in that it is built around a night vigil, not quite a dark night of the soul but one involving doubt as well as faith, and perhaps all the more deeply rooted for that, and conveying longing rather than preaching. As a spiritual exercise it is more effective than many more straightforward declarations of faith.

Opening track ‘Be Home Soon’, written by Sam Baker, is the only song not written or co-written by Wilkins himself, but sets the stage perfectly as it depicts the tired narrator on his way home late at night, ready for the night vigil whose concept frames Walt’s own songs. The first of these, written with regular collaborators Liz Rose (best known these days for her work with Taylor Swift) and Davis Raines (credited on the liner notes as ‘This Is All I Know’ , although the lyrics sung appear to be ‘That’s All I Know’) sets out the minutiae of everyday life for a simple man (“life is hard and it hurts sometimes but it proves I’m alive”).

Read more of this post