My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bobby Pinson

Single Review: Sugarland – ‘Still The Same’

Sugarland has reunited in an effort to reverse Jennifer Nettles’ commercial fortunes after her most recent solo album failed to produce any big hits. This is her last-ditched effort to remain a major piece of the mainstream conversation. The optimist in me was cautiously excited that this reunion would mean their return to quality music (and a reunion with their strongest writing partner Bobby Pinson) that would finally wash us clean of the bad taste The Incredible Machine left in our mouths.

The bad taste is as strong as ever. “Still The Same” is repetitive, dirty and completely devoid of personality. The production continues down their well-traveled road of borrowing heavily from the arena rock playbook (complete with muddled noise and computer-generated drum loops) written by U2. They make a half-hearted attempt at another “Stuck Like Glue” style “breakdown” and reduce the bridge to a bunch of oohs.

If anything this song does achieve its objective. They are “Still The Same.” Not much has changed in the seven years since The Incredible Machine. That might be comforting to some fans, but it isn’t to me. Now, I’m not going to write off the artistic credibility of their comeback on one song. It’s a right these days that artists will often release the worst song off their album as the lead single. I still have hope that an “Already Gone” or a “Stay” lurks around the corner. It isn’t high hope, but I still have it.

Grade: C-  

Advertisements

Single Review: Toby Keith – ‘A Few More Cowboys’

a few more cowboysOne of Toby Keith’s biggest hits was the Western themed ‘Shouldve been A Cowboy’. His latest single revisits that territory, but using the metaphor to tackle some of today’s social issues.

Written by Keith with Bobby Pinson and Dean Dillon, the lyric is in the main a celebration of Texas and an idealized cowboy ethos, with some more questionable elements. Some of it is conventional and likeable enough:

There’d be a bunch more daddies sons could be proud of
We’d have half the crime, we’d have twice the fun
With a few more cowboys, be a lot less outlaws
With a few more amens, be a lot less bad calls
With a few more yes ma’ams and a lot less yes man
This world would be a better place to live in
With a few more cowboys

He strikes a chord with the current anti-politics mood by making jabs at professional politicians:

If the White House was in Texas, man, we’d get a straighter answer

Although I’m not sure his alternative of “more fist fights” is much of an improvement, it’s hardly a surprise coming from Toby. Naturally there’s a bit of trade protection and an allusion to beating the enemy, again archetypal Keith:

Met ’em at high noon, hell, it’s about high time
We looked ’em in the eye, got our head out of the sand
Hit ’em with a big John Wayne, by God they’d understand

Production is beefed up, but recognisably country; there is a prominent electric guitar but it is not too intrusive, and Keith’s robust vocals are solid (when he actually sings). It’s quite an enjoyable tune with a pleasant mid paced melody. The lyric video is quite good fun, especially the image which accompanies the fist fights line.
But there is one element to the lyric which is fundamentally misjudged, and as it comes in the second line, and is then repeated in as portentous drawl at the end of the song, it can’t be overlooked as a passing thought – it’s a central point of the song:

If they’d let us smoke what we want, we’d have a lot less cancer

Um, really? While I understand there are some trials using parts of the cannabis/marijuana plant, that’s a far cry from actually smoking it being beneficial. This isn’t the place for that debate; suffice it to say that it significantly mars the song for me.

Grade: B- (it would be B+ without the line I objected to)

<a href="http://“>

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Clancy’s Tavern’

71PR-1ECj3L._SX522_Over the past decade or so, Toby Keith has become somewhat overexposed, often making headlines for the wrong reasons, whether it was his feud with Natalie Maines, his dispute with ABC over performing “American Soldier” in its entirety or for confrontational song lyrics. I began to tune out around 2010, after the release of Bullets In The Gun, and as a result missed Clancy’s Tavern, one of his better efforts of recent years.

Catching up with this 2011 release now has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It is a firmly contemporary country project, but is rootsy enough not alienate most country fans, and it also lacks any awkward attempts to push the stylistic boundaries of the genre. That’s not to say that there aren’t any missteps; by Keith’s own admission, “Red Solo Cup” is the stupidest song he’s ever heard in his life (although he also labeled it “freakin’ awesome”). The Jim Beavers-Brett Beavers-Warren Brothers composition (the only song on the album that Keith had no hand in writing), is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a catchy ditty and is mildly amusing, but becomes less so with repeated listenings. Songs like this have their place as album cuts or concert staples, but they typically aren’t considered single-worthy material. Nevertheless, it landed at #9 on the country chart and #15 pop — his best showing on the Hot 100. It also sold more than 2 million copies, making it the most successful single of his career, from a commercial standpoint — further evidence that quality and commercial success are often two divergent forces.

Prior to “Red Solo Cup”, Toby scored his most recent #1 hit with “Made In America”, about a salt-of-the-earth couple from the heartland, who lament that their traditional values that are no longer in vogue. It’s not a bad song, although it lacks subtlety. It would have packed a greater punch a decade or so earlier, but by 2011 this particular theme had been overdone by Keith and others, and was wearing a little thin. “Beers Ago” a reminiscence of his teenage years written with Bobby Pinson, is my favorite of the album’s three singles. It peaked at #6 but was somewhat overshadowed by the success of “Red Solo Cup”.

“I Need to Hear a Country Song” cries out for a “three-chord, stone cold country song”, even though it sounds nothing like one itself. The upbeat “Trying to Fall In Love” is the album’s most country-sounding track, with plenty of fiddle. I’d have picked this one for a single instead of “Red Solo Cup”, although it probably wouldn’t have sold nearly as well. Also quite good is a the title track, a homage to a neighborhood watering hole and the men and women who work there. Like “Honkytonk U” a few years earlier, “Clancy’s Tavern” was inspired by the Arkansas tavern owned by Keith’s grandmother.

The standard release consists of eleven tracks, all of which can be enjoyed, though “Red Solo Cup” is the clear weakest link. The album’s deluxe version contains four bonus tracks, which were all recorded live in concert in New York City. None of them are particularly memorable, with the possible exception of Keith’s take on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”.

When all is said and done, diehard Toby Keith fans are going to enjoy this album, and those who dislike his politics and personality will try their best to hate it. And those who try to keep an open mind will find it to be an enjoyable, though not perfect, album.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘American Ride’

american rideToby’s 2009 release is another mixed bag. He was personally responsible for bad and good alike, as producer, label owner and writer of most of the songs. Many of the songs were written with Bobby Pinson, whose own singing career sadly never quite took off, but who has turned into a successful songwriter.

The title track, a shouty rant about modern life which is the only tune Keith did not write, was the lead single and hit #1.

The second single was a sharp contrast in almost every way. ‘Crying For Me (Wayman’s Song)’ was a tribute to a late friend of Keith’s, a jazz musician. Appropriately, it features the saxophone of Dave Koz and other jazz musicians. The song itself is a beautiful ballad about the sorrow of being left behind when a dear friend dies. It peaked at #6 on Billboard.

The third and last single was one of Toby’s typical semi-comic numbers, and was written with Bobby Pinson and John Waples. In the energetic ‘Every Dog Has Its Day’ a clumsy attempt at picking up a girl is knocked back (literally – she ends up punching him in the face):

Some drunk tried to punk me, and asked my baby “do you dance”
She said “Yes I do, but not with you”

The chorus wanders off into irrelevant list territory, but it’s quite an entertaining track although it peaked at just #15.

Pinson also co-wrote most of the other songs on the album. ‘Gypsy Driftin’’, a solid song about the call of music which reminds me of some of the material on Pinson’s underrated 2005 album Man Like Me:

I learned quick my eighteenth summer
Diggin’ ditches for the man
You can’t be a guitar strummer
Cussin’ that shovel in your hand

Took my paycheck to a pawn shop
Bought a Silvertone guitar
Wrote a song about a beer joint
Went and played it in a bar

It’s hard as hell out on this highway
But I’m still addicted to the show
When that crazy crowd calls out it keeps me
A gypsy driftin’ down the road

‘Are You Feelin’ Me’ is a passionate contemporary-styled ballad addressed to an ex, a little over produced, but a strong song. ‘Woke Up On My Own’ is a well written song about seeing the light, but grievously over produced with screaming electric guitars entirely unsuited to the song’s emotional message, and oversung to boot. Celebrating drunken behavior, ‘Loaded’ is, perhaps appropriately, an unsubtle noisy mess.

The aggressive approach and gospel style backing vocals do work on the moralistic ‘If You’re Trying You Ain’t’. ‘If I Had One’ is good humoured and enjoyable, with Toby admitting he would behave the same way he criticises in others if he had the chance. ‘You Can’t Read My Mind’ is about unspoken lust for his date; the protagonist is drunk but not too drunk to know it’s best to keep his mouth shut. The solo composition ‘Tender As I Wanna Be’ is an emotional love song with a string arrangement, which isn’t bad.

The album ends with the martial and semi-comic ‘Ballad Of Balad’, about a high school dropout who joins the army. It is a convincing portrayal which would go down well performed for a military audience, although some may find it a little too aggressive with its celebration of killing the enemy.

“You’ll meet lots of new friends and you’re sure to get paid
We’ll show you the world and we’ll teach you a trade
It’s not a job, it’s an adventure”,
Oh, yes sir, I got that
Ah, but you never told me I’d get my ass shot at

This was Toby’s last independent release before his Show Dog label took over Universal South. It’s not his best work, but has enough bright spots to make it worth checking out.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘That Don’t Make Me A Bad Guy’

ThatDontMakeMeaBadGuyThat Don’t Make Me A Bad Guy, released in 2008, was the second consecutive self-produced album from Toby Keith. It produced three singles, topped the country albums chart, and reached Gold status.

Keith was still a heavy-hitter at country radio when the album came out. The Bobby Pinson co-written power ballad “She Never Cried In Front of Me” was issued as the lead single. He’s attending his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, where he finally learns a bitter truth:

How was I supposed to know?

She was slowly letting go

If I was putting her through hell

Hell, I couldn’t tell

She could’ve given me a sign

And opened up my eyes

How was I supposed to see?

She never cried in front of me

The track went #1, and while very good, the choral arrangement is too bombastic. The excellent high energy “God Love Her,” another Pinson co-write that deservedly hit #1, came next. Keith assumes the role of the bad boy stealing the heart of the rebel child, a preacher’s daughter. It’s my favorite of Keith’s more recent singles. The unremarkable ballad “Lost You Anyway” peaked at #10.

Keith and Pinson co-wrote the majority of the album together, with mixed results. My favorite of their collaborations is the title track, a wonderful steel-drenched shuffle that should’ve replaced “Lost You Anyway” as the album’s third single. I also quite enjoyed “You Already Loved Me,” a ballad with a nice dose of banjo. Another ballad, “I Got it for you Girl” leans heavy on power, but keeps the suffocating clutter in check.

“Creole Woman” is pure dreck, an electric guitar drenched mess without much appeal. Even worse is “Time That It Would Take,” an aggressive rocker smothered in electric guitars. “Hurt A Lot Worse When You Go” isn’t terrible but it is a paint-by-the-numbers Keith ballad, a little bit loud with a strong vocal, but nothing he hadn’t already done with far more intriguing results.

“Missing Me Some You” is a bluesy ballad Keith wrote solely. It doesn’t do much for me, but he turns in an astonishing vocal that showcases his goods. I quite expected to hate the album’s final track, the Eddy Raven assisted “Cabo San Lucas.” It has the steel drums you would expect, but the song is a tender ballad and not the cheesy island-y affair you would think judging by the title.

That Don’t Make Me A Bad Guy is a mixed bag at best, an album with two distinct personalities. Keith finds himself playing the game more often than not, which drags the project down. But he sprinkles in moments where he actually tries to up his standards and rise about the generic rockers he and label probably felt would appeal to the masses at the time. If he’d stuck in that vein, and offered the listener a few more surprises, this album would’ve been a slam-dunk.

Grade: B

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Big Dog Daddy’

big dog daddyBig Dog Daddy represents a new step in Toby Keith’s career, being the first of his albums that Toby produced entirely on his own. Released on Toby’s Show Dog Nashville label, in June 2007, the album debuted at #1 on both Billboard’s Country and Top 200 (all genres) chart; however, the album only reached Gold sales status whereas nine of his eleven previous albums went at least Platinum.

This album featured Carter’s Chord (sisters Becky, Emily and Joanna Robertson) doing the harmony vocals. Sonically it’s a nice album, but I don’t regard any of the songs on the album as being among Toby’s strongest efforts.

The album opens up with the first single, the #3 hit “High Maintenance Woman”. Written by Toby with Tim Wilson and Danny Simpson, the song is typical Toby fare

I see you laying by the poolside every day
She ain’t got a lot on
She ain’t got a lot to say
She wouldn’t look my way
But buddy what’d you expect?
I’m just the fix-it-up boy at the apartment complex
And she’ll go out dancing ’bout 7:15
Climb into the back of a long limousine
I know where she’s going
She’s going downtown
I’m going downtown too
And take a look around

She’s my baby doll
She’s my beauty queen
She’s my movie star
Best I ever seen
I ain’t hooked it up yet
But I’m trying as hard as I can
It’s just a high maintenance woman
Don’t want no maintenance man

The second track, “Love Me If You Can” was also the second single and it deservedly went to #1 . One of only two songs not written by Keith (Craig Wiseman and Chris Wallin wrote it) this tender ballad is the best song on the album.

Sometimes I think that war is necessary
Every night I pray for peace on Earth
I hand out my dollars to the homeless
But believe that every able soul should work

My father gave me my shotgun
That I’ll hand down to my son
Try to teach him everything it means

I’m a man of my convictions
Call me wrong, call me right
But I bring my better angels to every fight
You may not like where I’m going
But you sure know where I stand
Hate me if you want to
Love me if you can

Fred Eaglesmith penned “White Rose”, a song that rides the line between folk music and country music. I like the song and appreciate that Toby recognized the merits of the song which is nostalgic about such diverse elements as full service gas stations and teenage angst. I think this song should have been a single.

Yeah the whole town came out to watch
The day they paved the parking lot
Somebody hung a ribbon up and then they cut it out
And that big white rose up on that sign put innocence in all our lives
We could see it’s neon light half a mile down
Gas was 50 cents a gallon and they put it in for you
They bumped your tires then checked your oil and wash your windows too
And we shined those cars bright as bright we go park
Underneath that light staring at the prairie skies there was nothing else to do

Track four is the final single from the album, “Get My Drink On”. The song topped out at #11 and while it is an up-tempo and catchy song it is also silly and trivial. Toby co-wrote this song with Scotty Emerick and Dean Dillon. It is probably the most country sounding song on the album.

I

‘m gonna get my drink on, I wanna hear me a sad song.
My baby just left home, I didn’t treat her right.
Right here’s where I belong, I’m gonna stay ’till the money’s gone.
If it takes me all night long, I’m gonna get my drink on.

Well I got some little problems and the only way to solve ’em is the sure-fire way I know.
And when the going gets tough, well the tough get going to the little bar down the road.

Toby had a hand in writing the remaining tracks on the album. Toby’s “Big Dog Daddy” really rocks but it is rather generic. Still I could see releasing it as a single:

Hey Daddy!
Oh yeah
Well I’m a big dog daddy you know my face
And the joint starts rockin’ when I walk in the place
The band starts stompin those rhythm guitar
And the dance floor is jumpin’ through the back of the bar
Everybody looks better in the neon lights
When a plan comes together on a Saturday night

Yeah, the parking lot is packed and that’s a pretty good sign
I take it right in the back I don’t stand in line
The boys all lookin’ and a hittin’ the spot
Sayin’ the girls start shaking everything that they got
When a little cat momma gets ready to ride
I got Lincoln continental waitin’ right outside

The remaining tunes with writers in ( ) are:

“Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya” (Keith, Emerick)
“I Know She Hung the Moon” (Keith, Emerick)
“Pump Jack” (Keith, Bobby Pinson)
“Burnin’ Moonlight” (Keith, Emerick, Dillon)
“Walk It Off” (Keith, Emerick)
“Hit It” (Keith, Wiseman)

I own most of Toby’s albums and this album is the one I pull out least. For some reason, this album feels like Toby was coasting a bit or perhaps distracted by the demands of establishing his record label. There are no duds but no real gems either, other than the two songs from outside writers. Toby is in good voice throughout. He would issue better albums and singles in the years to follow. As for this album, I’d give it a B.

Single Review: Toby Keith – ’35 MPH Town’

35-MPH-TownToby Keith’s latest single sees him in unusually sober mood (using that word in both its meanings). He takes a gloomy look at modern rural life in America, showing the dark shadow of the nihilistic picture of rural partying painted by bro-country, in a song he wrote with Bobby Pinson.

The socio-political critique is both personalised for the listener, and hence made for immediate, and simultaneously separated from the narrator’s own views, whatever they might be, by framing them as the testimony of that narrator’s mother. Like many older people, she is fearful of crime in changing times, even in a town which has always been safe enough to leave the doors unlocked at night.

Through this maternal figure, Toby paints a picture of disenfranchised youth “growing up without Jesus”, thanks to their elders’ failures. Ultimate blame is cast on the adults around them:

We can’t blame the babies for growin’ up lazy
And crazy, it ain’t them that let them down

The exact cause remain rather unformulated, divided between failure to beat the children for misdeeds, and outrage at the passing of the days when a town like this let its children play freely outdoors

Cause the streets ain’t safe for a bike to ride down
Since they planted a prowler in this 35 MPH town

But quibbles about its accuracy aside, this really works giving voice to the genuine disquiet felt by people like the mother of the song.

This is my favourite single from Toby Keith in quite some time. It is also undeniably a country song, with nicely understated vocals and production, which is, regrettably, a welcome surprise in a mainstream country single these days.

Listen here

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Strong’

strongHaving left his label after the latest downturn in his fortunes, Tracy signed to Dreamworks where he was reunited with old producer James Stroud (and new label head) for 2004’s Strong. He didn’t write any of the material himself, but the result was a much better record than his last couple of efforts, and rather more successful commercially, at least to start with.

The wistfully beautiful ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’, previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons, was a comeback hit for Tracy, reaching #4. The cheerfully philosophical ‘It’s All How You Look At It’ was less successful, although it did sneak into the top 40; it is pleasant enough but a bit bland. The fun honky tonker ‘Sawdust On Her Halo’ is pretty good, but was sadly not a big hit with radio.

The title track is a paean to a single mother’s hard work, and comes across as a bit pandering because the woman in it is a cipher; she doesn’t really live as an individual character rather than a stereotype. The more downbeat and much more interesting (at least in its first half) ‘Bobby Darwin’s Daughter’ is a sensitive story song about a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory life, and longing for the innocence of her own childhood, when

She’d ask where God came from
Instead of wondering where He’s been

The second half of the song is a little more predictable, when she regains her faith when she is nearly killed in an accident and her remorseful and formerly neglectful husband remembers he loves her after all. It was written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson, and Rick Huckaby. The nostalgic ‘When Daddy Was A Strong Man’ also tenderly recalls childhood.

The thoughtful ‘Stones’ has a pretty, delicate melody and sensitive vocal interpretation of its lyric about the passing of time. ‘Everywhere But Hollywood’ is quite a good song contrasting reality with fantasy, written by Bobby Pinson, Jimmy Ritchey and Jason Sellers.

The leaving song ‘A Far Cry From You’ is one of the album’s few heartbreak numbers, and is very good. Also sad, but in more dramatic fashion, the protagonist of ‘The Questionnaire’ discovers the true state of his marriage when he finds an old women’s magazine where his wife has filled in a questionnaire on the subject remorselessly ranging over his various failings and her unhappiness, and ending with the devastating answer to “Do you still love him?”. We can guess the answer isn’t yes by his petulant “damn that questionnaire”. It is slightly over-produced but is a neatly crafted song.

‘What The Flames Feel Like’ brings more of a Southern rock edge, and is convincingly performed, while the mid-tempo ‘Think Of Me’ reminds the listener of the role of those who keep them safe by willingly going into danger themselves.

As Tracy was not able to sustain the success of the initial single, sales faltered, and Dreamworks dropped him after the record had run its course. However this was definitely a return to form, and is worth picking up. Subsequently, Tracy moved to Mercury (his last major-label deal), but they released only a hits package with the two new songs not doing well enough as singles to keep him on the label.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001’s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

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: Toby Keith – ‘Hope On The Rocks’

The most prolific of today’s mainstream acts, and the only person around who seems able to release full length albums, with generally all self-written material, on an annual schedule, Toby Keith is back with his latest. The excellent title track is about the secret sorrows of a bar room crowd as imagined by the bartender who concludes, “I’m all they’ve got – hope on the rocks”. The melody is a bit limited, but the lyric is thoughtful and sympathetic. Although Toby wrote every song on the record, it is interesting that this, the only one he composed solo, is by far the best.

The catchy top 20 hit ‘I Like Girls That Drink Beer’ is surprisingly likeable, with its preference for ordinary girls over the wealthy country club lady he is leaving. Like the bulk of the album’s selections, it is a co-write by Toby with Bobby Pinson.

The best of these is ‘Haven’t Seen The Last Of You’, a reflective depiction of the aftermath of a failed relationship which also benefits from pretty harmonies from Mica Roberts. Set a bit further down the line, ‘Missed You Just Right’ is also pretty good, with the protagonist having finally moved on from an unsatisfactory ex, and found the real love of his life as a result.

‘Get Got’ offers some highly cliche’d life advice (although the warning not to “mix whiskey with decision” is certainly a good tip for anyone who hasn’t already figured that out), and the arrangement and production are too loud. The hard living trucker’s confession, ‘Haven’t Had A Drink All Day’ is also too loud although it isn’t a bad song with plenty of energy.

‘Cold Beer Country’, written by Keith, Pinson and Marc Fortney of Trailer Choir, is a cheerful paean to hot summer days drinking beer, with a Dixieland jazz opening reminiscent of some of Haggard’s work in that style. This might work as a summer single.

Scotty Emerick co-wrote the downbeat ‘You Ain’t Alone’, depicting a lonely man brooding over the departure of his loved one, which is not bad. ‘The Size I Wear’ (written with Rivers Rutherford) is one of Keith’s rather clumsy, sexist, barely post-adolescent attempts at humor, which probably works better for a male audience than it does for me. He and Rutherford also wrote the rather better ‘Scat Cat’. This is a fairly interesting tale of a family moonshine operation and escaping the law, with a bluesy groove which I enjoyed.

Grade: B

You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Single Review: Toby Keith – ‘I Like Girls That Drink Beer’

Toby Keith’s last single “Beers Ago” went off the charts as quickly as it came, and he’s back again singing about the suds with his latest “I Like Girls That Drink Beer”.  But it’s not what you’d expect from the title, especially given Keith’s recent string of throw-away party anthems fueled by booze. He’s singing here about your genial aw-shucks country boy shedding the “high-rise life” for a “little down home lovin”, and using the “girls that drink beer” to personify the kind of woman who will be the antithesis to his current love affair. The song’s lyrics, co-written with regular Keith collaborator Bobby Pinson, are little more than another twist on a reliable country music theme. Yet it still works very well here.

“Beer” kicks off with its freewheeling chorus, and proves why Toby Keith is country music’s reigning king of honky tonk melodies. Keith’s confident swagger carries his vocal performance; gone are the growls, harrumphs and spitted lyrics that have plagued his singles lately. The singer’s winning vocal comes backed by a dyed-in-the-wool country sound where audible steel guitar flourishes are paired with a pair of hoedown-worthy fiddles to frame the track. The men in Keith’s target audience will surely be relating and singing along, and even the ladies don’t have to shed any dignity to enjoy this one.

Grade: B+

Listen here.

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom.  He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music.  Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience.  It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives.  Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.

The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40.  It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.

The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived  group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.

The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all.  This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith.  Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.

Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album.   The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.

An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective.  ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.

The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.

‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford.  On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared.  ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals  not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.

The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically.  A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.

This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim.  It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years –  the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman.  It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.

Grade: B

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Love On The Inside’

The multiplatinum success of their first two albums allowed Sugarland to flex their musical muscles and expand their boundaries a bit on their third disc. Jennifer and Kristian wrote or co-wrote every song on the set, collaborating with a country songwriting legend for the album’s final single and Bobby Pinson on a handful of tracks. The bright, infectious sound that had come to define the act can be heard here, but Love On The Inside also includes several welcome departures from the tried and true formula, where same-sounding filler had been on the first two albums. Like its predecessors, Love On The Inside would earn a multiplatinum certification, after becoming their first #1 album on both the Billboard Country Albums and all-genre Billboard 200 charts. The first 3 singles released would also shoot to the top of the singles chart, while a fourth hit the top 20.

First up at radio was the epidemically catchy ‘All I Want To Do’. The female narrator in the song is fully content with her current career-self and is all about focusing on loving the man in her life. A beaty, island-inspired production frame what is mostly a song centered around the ‘ooh oohs’ and otherwise catchy chorus. Lyrically sparse, the song sailed to #1 on the charts, and was certified as a platinum single, and became the pair’s biggest top 40 hit to date, resting at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. (‘Stuck Like Glue’ went to #17 this year, eclipsing that feat.) In the same sound format is ‘It Happens’, the album’s third single, though it does offer a bit more charm with its storyline about a lady have a super bad day.

‘Already Gone’ was the album’s third consecutive chart-topper and is a frank look at the ups and downs in one girl’s life. The three-act plot follows her from a teen branching out on her own with her mother’s advice still in the air, through her plunging headlong into her first heartache and to the eventual end of her marriage. Nettles emotive delivery packs a powerful punch that may take you by surprise given the almost-bright production.

Country legend, and perennial hit-maker, Bill Anderson co-penned ‘Joey’, the somewhat abstract tale of a young man killed in a drunk-driving accident. The verses attempt to tell the story, but so many essential details are omitted, it’s hard to follow, and the track seriously falters with the repetitive chorus. The brooding narrative found an audience, and became the fourth hit from the disc, resting at #17 on the singles chart.

‘Very Last Country Song’ closes up the standard edition of Love On The Inside as the decided highlight. A simple plucking acoustic guitar leads off as Nettles begins recounting the life story of a lady celebrating her birthday by pouring over photos in her kitchen. Through the snapshots, she remembers various family members and tells of the place they all still hold in her heart. It’s the chorus these vignettes center around, however, which simply says that if there were no reason for heartbreak, there’d be no more country music.

Nothing on Love On The Inside sounds tacked on, as every track seems to play an integral part in the overall scheme here. From the amped up blue collar anthem ‘Take Me As I Am’ to the cheeky ‘Steve Earle’, which finds the narrator longing to become a member of the singer’s own ex-wives club to the harmony-laden ‘Genevieve’ with its acoustic guitars turned way up, Love On The Inside finds the duo trying on an array of musical styles and personalities, and each fits like a glove this time around.

This album marked the arrival of Sugarland as bonafide country music superstars. It also showcased the best modern Nashville has to offer with its abundance of hooky melodies, memorable lyrics, and dazzling contemporary country music production. As a result, it stands as the showpiece of the Sugarland catalog, and my personal favorite album.

Grade: A+

Buy Love On The Inside from amazon.

A deluxe edition features 5 more songs. Highlights from those include the legant ‘Fall Into Me’, a slight retread of the love-is-the-salvation-at end of a long day theme of past Sugarland hits – ‘Just Might Make Me Believe’ chief among them.  Also noteworthy among the bonus tracks is a live cover of Matt Nathanson’s ‘Come On Het Higher’ and another cover, this time from 80s pop group The Dream Academy.  ‘Life In A Northern Town’ features Little Big Town and Jake Owen – Sugarland’s 2007 tourmates – in a nifty blend of voices on the very vague and muddy lyric.  This track, recorded at Comcast Theater in Hartford, CT, peaked at #28 in Summer 2008 to become another top 40 hit for all artists involved.

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Bullets In The Gun’

Toby Keith is one of the most prolific major label artists these days, consistently releasing an album a year, and writing most if not all of the material himself. He also produces his work, and now co-owns the label, so if anything is not quite up to par there is absolutely no one to blame but Toby himself. Bullets In The Gun is, on the whole, his strongest release for some time, but with no really outstanding moments and one major weak spot. Toby deserves credit for his production work, as the sound of the album is generally restrained with some variation in textures which keeps the interest even where the songs are not that interesting.

The title track, Toby’s latest single, is a gripping if somewhat derivative story song (written with Rivers Rutherford) with a drawled delivery about a drifter who hooks up with a bar dancer who leads him into a career of crime and bloody end. It is one of my favorite tracks here. Former single ‘Trailerhood’ is a nicely detailed and good-humored ode to a working class backwoods neighbourhood which paints a convincing picture, and has an engagingly bouncy tune and production, although it did less well on radio than usual, just scraping into the top 20.

‘Think About You All Of The Time’ is catchy but rather fluffily written about being hung up over an ex. I could see this as a future single. Toby teamed up with old friend Scotty Emerick and the great Dean Dillon to write the rather good ‘Is That All You Got’, a stoic demand of the woman who has left him, with just a hint of a wistful subtext.

The similarly themed ‘Ain’t Breakin’ Nothing’ paints an interesting picture of a man who readily confesses to being his “own worst enemy”. He combines defiance in the face of the inevitable breakup with proffering a kind of consolation to the woman leaving him:

You ain’t breakin’ nothin’ that ain’t already broke

This is one of no less than six songs here which Toby co-wrote with Bobby Pinson, who had a short-lived attempt at a solo career in the middle of the last decade. I loved Bobby’s debut album, and it would be good to see his work with Toby leading to another shot for him as an artist with Show Dog Universal, although his songs here are not his best work. The best of these collaborations (and one of the highlights of the album) is ‘In A Couple Of Days’, a plaintive and somewhat wry response to the woman who has just left him reeling from the shock of her departure and uncertain as to his feelings and now wants to know how he feels. I really like this one.

On the same theme is ‘Somewhere Else’, an pleasant if unexceptional mid-paced number about killing time in bars after an ex has walked out. ‘Drive It On Home’ is a fast paced and cheery trucking song with almost no tune. ‘Kissin’ In The Rain’ is an atmospheric slice of nostalgia about thwarted teenage romance between a rebellious daughter and a working class boy, but lacks much melody.

Pinson also co-wrote the worst song here, the banjo-led ‘Get Out Of My Car’, a crude demand for (immediate) sex from a date which is astonishingly crass even from Toby Keith. The only redeeming feature of this (apart from the playful banjo high in the mix) is that he gets turned down, which leads me to believe that the writers did not actually intend this to be quite as offensive as it is to a female listener (at least to me), and were merely monumentally clueless. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it was intended to be funny. It isn’t.

The unpleasant aftertaste is cleansed by the deluxe version of the album’s selection of four live covers as bonus tracks, although none of them is really essential listening. A shouted bluesy version of Johnny Paycheck’s ’29 Months and 29 Days’ lacks the intensity and conviction of the original. Waylon’s ‘Waynore’s Blues’ (given the wrong title on the cover) and Roger Miller’s ‘Chug A Lug’ work better for Toby, but the highlight is his version of the gorgeous ‘Sundown’, a top 20 country hit for Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot in the 70s, which would be hard to sing badly.

Grade: B-

Our friends at Country Universe are giving away an autographed copy this week.

Album Review: Sonny Burgess – ‘Have You Got A Song Like That?’

Texan Sonny Burgess is one of those relatively obscure artists who are still making traditionally-rooted country music. This is his third album, and although it was released some months ago, has only recently come my way. It is produced by successful songwriter Kerry Kurt Phillips, who does a fine job. Sonny’s voice is light but pleasant.

Things get off to a solid start with the amusing honky tonker ‘Beer-i-cide’, a song about the perils of drunken (and music-fuelled) behavior, written by Sam Tate, Kathleen Wright and Greg Barnhill:

Well there’s a biker in the corner who thinks I stole his girl
And man I swear he’s itchin’ for a fight
If this bar would just stop spinning like some gin soaked tilt-a-whirl
I’d show him who’s the big dog here tonight

There’s a tiny little Johnny telling me to walk the line
Tiny Waylon’s yellin’ “hit him from behind”
I put that bottle to my lips before I follow him outside
And it’s got the whole bar betting that I’m committin’ beer-i-cide

Well now I guess I should be leaving cause they’re turning off the lights
And my eye’s gone down enough that I can see
I might stumble home a broken man but there’s one ray of hope
That six-pack waitin’ in the fridge for me

And now Hank senior’s on my shoulder singing “Bless your cheatin’ heart “
Meanwhile Johnny’s telling Waylon “told you so”
I take that bottle from my lips to kiss my next ex-wife goodbye
I’ve used all the rope she’s given
I’m committing beer-i-cide

And I really will be sorry, least until tomorrow night
When once more I’ll be here sitting
Still committing beer-i-cide

Read more of this post

The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post