My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Blaine Larsen

Single Review: Blaine Larsen – ‘Missing The Rain’

missing the rainBlaine Larsen is one of those artists who should have been a star. When he emerged a decade ago, just out of high school, his rich voice, neotraditional leanings and mature interpretative skills belied his youth. Originally discovered by songwriter Rory Feek (now of course one half of the much loved duo Joey + Rory), he released two albums on BNA. His biggest hit for BNA was the affecting ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’, about teen suicide, which reached the top 20. Subsequent label woes meant the planed independent third album never materialised, and meanwhile commercial country music took its much lamented turn further away from traditional sounds than ever before.

Although Blaine has taken a step back from the quest for stardom, studying to become a minister, he has released a new single to iTunes, with the proceeds dedicated to the costs of his and his wife’s planned adoption of a third child. In other words, this is a one-off rather than an attempted comeback. (He calls himself a “recovering country music artist” on his twitter account.)

While it’s not the best song ever, it is worth a listen. The fairly simple pretext is of a lovelorn musician playing a season at a Gulf Coast beach location, but missing his Seattle home and sweetheart, noting,

I’ve had my fill of Margaritaville
Even though I’m a big Buffett fan

Perhaps the theme is a little dated now; this might have been a hit for Kenny Chesney a few years ago, but it feels as if it has missed its time. The electric guitar is too loud for my taste, but otherwise the production is pleasant enough on this attractively melodic and well sung tune. It’s not as good as Larsen’s rather good and unfairly overlooked BNA records

Grade: B

Listen here.

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Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘His And Hers’

For Joey + Rory’s third studio album, they have stayed with producer Gary Paczosa, who helmed last year’s charming Christmas album. As with that Christmas record, Paczosa does a good job, but not quite as sparking a sound as that given to their first two albums by Carl Jackson. Joey’s voice is what sets this duo apart, and it was a little disappointing that this time around she and Rory have split the lead vocals equally (hence the choice of title). I can appreciate they want to underline the point that this is an equal partnership professionally as in life, but while Rory’s voice is perfectly listenable and he shows fine interpretative skills here, Joey is one of the best female vocalists around at the moment. Another slight disappointment was that the delightful ‘Headache’, released as a single last year, didn’t make the final cut.

I have already written about the somber lead single, the stunning ‘When I’m Gone’, and this impresses me more each time I hear it. There are two other really outstanding songs here, both written by Rory with the impressive Erin Enderlin.

The title track tells the story of a couple slowly growing apart, lyrically very similar to the song of the same title recorded some years ago by John Anderson, but the sweet melody and Joey’s subtle vocal set this apart:

All a husband and wife
Have left of a life
That had such a beautiful start
Are two kids torn apart
And two broken hearts
His and hers

Also excellent, ‘Waiting For Someone’ has a woman who meets the perfect man while waiting in a bar for a blind date (perhaps). It seems in fact to be a more subtle ‘The Chair’ situation, as she winds up telling the man she has been talking to,
I was waiting for someone like you”.

A perfectly constructed lyric and delicate tune are interpreted beautifully by Joey’s sultry but vulnerable vocal.

The other songs on which Joey sings lead are pretty good if not quite up to that standard. Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Let’s Pretend We Never Met’ is a swinging flirtatious number with a wife trying to jazz up her tired marriage, which is quite fun. ‘Love Your Man’ is a pacy and quite enjoyable song encouraging another married woman to persevere with loving her husband, which Joey helped Rory and his daughter Heidi to write. ‘He’s A Cowboy’ is a tribute to the titular cowboy, which doesn’t bring anything new to a wellworn theme, but is beautifully sung with Jon Randall Stewart on backing vocals.

In the compelling story song ‘Josephine’ (on of Rory’s own compositions), he voices the letters of a Civil War Confederate soldier separated from his wife, wracked by guilt over killing a young enemy soldier and anticipating his own death. This is excellent.

‘A Bible And A Belt’ was written by Rory with Philip Coleman and sounds autobiographical. I’m not a big fan of correlating religion and corporal punishment, so this one’s positive, nostalgic feel doesn’t quite work for me, but it is nicely put together with Rory’s finest vocal.

I really like ‘Teaching Me How To Love You’, which rich-voiced teenager Blaine Larsen (who was discovered by Rory) recorded back in 2005. I was disappointed and a little surprised he never broke through, but while Blaine’s version sounds better than Rory’s on a purely aural level, I couldn’t be convinced by the delivery from an 18 year old talking about all the life lessons taught by past loves, and Rory’s maturity makes it infinitely more believable.

The jazzy ‘Someday When I Grow Up’, written by Rory with Tonya Lynette Stout and Dan Demay has a father refusing to mature, and is quite amusing with an interesting instrumental arrangement, but has Rory’s least impressive vocal performance. A similarly slightly flawed but lovable man is the protagonist of a charming relaxed cover of Tom T Hall’s love song ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey’ ( a #4 hit for the singer-songwriter in 1974), and this is highly enjoyable in a Don Williams/Alan Jackson style.

‘Cryin’ Smile’ is a bit of a list song (written by the team of Phil O’Donnell, Gary Hannan and Ken Johnson), but Rory’s invested vocal lifts this song about those emotional and sometimes bittersweet moments in life.

As expected, this sounds good, but although there are a number of standout tracks, overall the material falls just a little short of their first two albums. But at its best, there are some great songs, and the duo remains one of my favourite acts in country music.

Grade: A-

Too much too soon?

Arguably, the biggest star in country music today, at least in sheer commercial terms, is Taylor Swift. She controversially swept the board at last year’s CMA award ceremony, but has been overlooked in most categories this year. Her undeniable appeal to young girls has led to suggestions that as her fans grow up, they will outgrow Taylor, and that her current stratospheric career may not be sustained at the same level, while others have suggested that she may mature as a songwriter and actually expand her fan base. Fans laud her songwriting (even when they admit her vocal shortcomings), particularly given her youth, implying she will improve further as she gets older. Sales figures for her upcoming third album are likely to be scrutinised closely. A look back at other teenage country stars is not encouraging.

The most famous teenage country stars of the past are LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, both of whom became stars at the age of 13, but neither of them had an easy road to maintaining that success. Tanya’s teenage stardom fizzled out after she moved to a sexier image and pop material, and endured a few years in the wilderness before making her comeback in the mid 80s. The jury is still out on LeAnn; her initial hit with ‘Blue’ was very much in the vein of Patsy Cline, for whom the song had originally been intended, but since then she has seemed uncertain of her identity as an artist. One cannot help wondering if that was because her initial career path was influenced by her parents. Like Tanya, she chased the pop crossover market, with more success, but the pop world is a fickle one, and in 2005, she was back in country music with some accomplished pop-country. Her emotional comeback hit ‘Probably Wouldn’t Be This way’ was a very fine record, but overall I didn’t feel she had really developed as an artist as much as I would have hoped considering how phenomenal she was as a child. She was not able to sustain this second blast, and the recent unfavourable publicity relating to her private life is unlikely to help. Her upcoming covers album may be produced by Vince Gill, but what we’ve heard from it so far does not inspire. Unlike Taylor Swift, however, LeAnn and Tanya were not marketed to their peers, and neither wrote songs as teenagers. Rather, both were presented as girls with voices mature beyond their years, and Tanya in particular recorded very adult material right from the start.

Following the initial success of LeAnn Rimes, the late 90s saw other labels jumping on the bandwagon and signing big-voiced teenagers. The 15-year-old Lila McCann scored the biggest selling debut album of 1997 and a #3 hit in ‘I Wanna Fall In Love’. Hers was another flash in the pan, as she only had one more top 10 hit. Her bright pop-country records have not worn particularly well, and an attempt at a comeback as an adult in the mid 2000s met with general indifference. The very similar Jessica Andrews had an almost identical career trajectory: her first hit at 15, in 1999, a solitary #1 the following year, with radio interest subsequently diminishing, and a comeback attempt which soon fizzled out. These girls were initial beneficiaries and longterm casualties of the Nashville tendency to copy the latest trend. Both had good voices, but not very distinctive ones, and their youth made their vocal ability and longterm potential seem more impressive than perhaps it really was.

What impresses in a teenager does not necessarily translate into exceptional adult ability. Further, many of these young artists have not really developed a strong sense of themselves as an artist, tending to adopt the latest trend. The roots of their artistry often seem to run rather shallow, and there is usually (and inevitably) a lack of maturity. Wynonna was only a teenager when The Judds burst onto the scene, but it seems clear that although Wynonna’s voice provided the essence of their music, their musical direction was largely directed by Naomi. Looking at some of Wynonna’s later solo music, one wonders if left to her own devices, she would have picked country music as the market place for her undeniable talent.

Many young artists are signed to development deals which do not pan out, leaving them high and dry a year or two down the line. Examples of promising young artists chewed up by the system include Ashley Monroe, whose excellent Satisfied finally won a digital-only release last year after years on the shelf; she has now signed to the LA branch of Warner Brothers. Her friend the Australian Catherine Britt never saw her superb RCA album released in the US at all. Both girls were lucky to some degree in that their singles had made some critical waves, and they have been able to continue musical careers, even if mainstream country stardom has so far escaped them. A worse fate lies in wait for the many who sign to a major label, but never seem to release a thing. I remember some years back, there was some buzz surrounding a then-14 year old named Alexis who was signed to Warner Brothers and was supposedly very talented. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because no records were ever released, and she was eventually dropped by the label. Might artists like this (particularly one who should still be in school) be better served if they waited to sign a record deal until they were ready to make a record? Not everyone who wants to become a star is going to succeed, and the excitement of apparently achieving that dream must surely derail thoughts of a backup plan.

Another of today’s superstars, Carrie Underwood, tried and failed to get a deal in Nashville as a 15-year-old, and in the long run that failure probably did her a favour, giving her a free run when she auditioned for American Idol. Fellow Idol alumna Kristy Lee Cook, who did sign to Arista at 17, saw no discernible benefit from this, only to have her second deal with the same label (post-Idol) fizzle out after a rush-released album and some rather half-hearted promotion.

But could this be such an artist’s only chance anyway? Billy Gilman’s career was one which could not wait on maturity because it was based on his unbroken child’s treble. A modest success as a 12-year-old has not translated into a career as an adult. Taylor Swift’s longterm career trajectory is as yet unclear, but so far her success has been built on her appeal to girls her own age and younger; delaying the onset of her career might have helped her hone her often derided performance skills, but she would have lost that USP – the insight into the emotional lives of high school age girls.

One of the artists we are spotlighting this month, Ashton Shepherd was signed to MCA at 20 with a songbook of material she had composed in her teens. In her case, her youth was balanced by the life experience which came with early marriage and motherhood. She was lucky in that her debut album was released within a year, with label boss Luke Lewis saying then that they had not delayed, in order to capture her raw talent before she got sucked into the system. However, that meant that while the album she released showed a great deal of promise, it was also evident that there was room for improvement.

It is mainly females who seem to be victims of this trend, with male singers rarely being spotted before they hit their 20s. One exception is Blaine Larsen, who emerged at just 18 with a mature voice and material which spanned the age appropriate (‘My High School’, and the teen suicide-themed ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’) and songs clearly designed for someone rather older (‘Teaching Me How To Love You’), which however well sung were not entirely convincingly from such a young man. He didn’t really click with radio and is currently going the indie route, with a new album expected this year. It is unclear whether he will have the chance of a comeback, or if his big chance as a teenager was his one and only chance at making it big.

Instrumental musical prodigies run counter to this to a degree. Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Marty Stuart were all playing bluegrass professionally as teenagers, but only became country stars in their own rights years later. Alison Krauss was recording in her teens but although she sang on her records, she was promoted mainly as a fiddle prodigy. Indeed, those early vocal efforts barely hint at the unique vocal talents she developed as an adult.

Sometime your first shot at success is the only chance you’ll ever get. The public’s first impression may well endure, and an artist whose juvenilia becomes the best-selling work of their career, may never achieve what might have been.

Do you think a young singer should take the first shot at realizing their dreams, or wait until they have honed their craft?

Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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Another shot for Blaine Larsen

blainelarsenOne of my favorite singers to come along in the past few years is Washington native Blaine Larsen.  In 2004, he released his first album on the small Giantslayer Records, under the wing of the label’s owners Tim Johnson and Rory Lee Feek, now of Joey + Rory fame.  The next year, the 19 year-old had an album out on BNA, the same tracks from his debut, with one single added.  It turned out to be the hit ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’, which was written by Rory Lee Feek and Jamie Teachenor and became Larsen’s only top 20 country hit to date, rising to #18.  He would release three more singles from his first 2 albums over the next couple years, with little success.

I first heard Blaine Larsen on the radio one day in 2005.  I remember thinking he was a great singer and also that it was nice to hear a mature voice on the radio.  His richly defined baritone and the powerful single ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’ definitely had my attention.  A couple days later the video was playing on CMT and I saw this skinny blonde kid, obviously younger than I am but sounding like a seasoned veteran.  I got over that initial juxtaposition and have been impressed with this guy ever since.  I kept expecting him to hit big with one of his singles, but despite some mild success – three top 40 hits – he hasn’t had that initial breakthrough yet.

Now Blaine Larsen has been signed as the flagship artist for the newly-founded Treehouse Records.  His first single ‘It Did’ is up on his MySpace page and is going to radio sometime this month.  Maybe this new deal with the label firmly behind him is just what Blaine Larsen needs.  Here’s wishing him good luck.

Also, check out this choice track from his sophomore album, ‘Lips of a Bottle’, featuring Gretchen Wilson.

Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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