My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Brent Maher

Album Review: The Lonesome River Band – ‘Bridging The Tradition’

bridging the traditionThe Lonesome River Band is one of my favorite bluegrass groups, and the replacement of their last tenor co-lead singer by newcomer Jesse Smathers has not affected the recipe at all. Award winning banjoist Sammy Shelor dominates the arrangements, and also helps out on three-part harmonies, while the lead vocals are divided between Smathers and the excellent Brandon Rickman. This is bluegrass with the addition of drums as well as Shelor’s punchy banjo– anathema in purist bluegrass circles – and is a very listenable meld of bluegrass and acoustic country. Excellent vocals, impeccable playing, and stellar song selection combine to make this a very worthy release.

I loved the life-affirming Kim Williams/Doug Johnson tune ‘Rocking Of The Cradle’ when I first heard it a few years ago, and Rickman’s warm vocal is perfect to bring it alive. He is also warmly believable on ‘Showing My Age’, a lovely song which he wrote with songwriter Jerry Salley about calmly accepting growing older and comfortable in one’s own skin (although the younger Rickman takes the age down by a decade compared to Salley’s own version).

Rickman also wrote ‘Mirrors Never Lie’ with Larry Cordle, a soulful challenge to the protagonist from his own conscience, to face up to his heartbreak rather than hiding from it in a bottle of liquor. He wrote ‘Waiting On My Heart To Break’ with Curtis Wright; this is a mid-tempo country song about a husband’s doubts of his wife’s fidelity.

New boy Smathers opens boldly with the fast-paced ‘Anything To Make Her Mine’ where his vocals soar high. ‘Runnin’ From the Blues’ is a nice song written by Nashville songwriter Brent Maher with bluegrass’s Jamie Johnson. Smathers takes a darker turn on Waylon Jennings’ murder ballad ‘Rose In Paradise’, which is made for a bluegrass makeover.

Rickman’s voice melds with Smathers in a haunting harmony on the traditional ‘Boats On The River’, interspersed with Smather’s soulful lead vocal on the verses. They also harmonise together brilliantly on the Stanley Brothers’ fast-paced ‘Rock Bottom’ and the equally up-tempo ‘Old Swinging Bridge’, another old-time tune from the Virginia Mountain Boys.

Adam Wright contributed a couple of songs. The pacy ‘Thunder And Lightning’ is a gleeful story song about a moonshiner on the run:

I can outrun any old G-man
Might as well be pushing a plow

‘Real People’ ends the album on a good humoured but wryly comic note about struggling with finance and family.

In ‘Showing My Age’ the protagonist talks about missing country music. If you like bluegrass with an acoustic country feel (or country with a strong banjo lead), this is highly recommended.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Wynonna – ‘The Other Side’

the other sideWhile mother Naomi Judd always had strong country sensibilities, daughter Wynonna was always an awkward fit in country music. The Other Side, Wynonna’s fourth solo studio album, finds Wynonna attempting to reposition herself as a bluesy rocker along the lines of Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball or Lou Ann Barton.

Wynonna has a very strong voice, more than suitable for the material but somehow this album isn’t all that convincing. I’m not sure if Wynonna was simply finding her footing with this album, or if the somewhat lackluster material is to blame.

The album opens with “When Love Starts Talkin'”, written by Brent Maher, Gary Nicholson and Jamie O’Hara. Released as a single (it reached #13), this up-tempo rocker works fairly well and is probably my second favorite song on the album.

I thought I had my life worked out
I thought I knew what it was all about
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

I had my mind on the open road
I thought I knew where I wanted to go
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

Kevin Welch wrote “The Other Side”, a rather bland ballad. It’s not bad just nothing special. I think I would like the track better without the vocal background singers.

So, you’re at the end of your wits
The end of your rope
You just can’t fix
Everything that’s broke
Got to turn it loose, babe
Hey, just let it ride

“Love Like That” (Gary Nicholson, Al Anderson, Benmont Tench) is much better, a mid-tempo rocker that failed to chart when released as a single, which mystifies me since it my favorite track on the album. The song features some nice slide guitar work by Steuart Smith.

You might tell me to mind my business
But I’ve been watchin’ and I’ve been a witness
To the things you do and say and the games you play
You better start cutting the man some slack
Or he’s gonna leave and he won’t be back
One day you’re gonna chase him away
If you keep on yankin’ that chain
Honey, if I was in your shoes
I tell you what I would do

CHORUS
If I had a love like that
A real fine love like that
I’d be treatin’ him right
And never do him any wrong
If you’re gonna do like that
With a good love like that
Sister, just like that you’re gonna wake up
And find him gone

“The Kind of Fool Love Makes” (Brenda Lee, Michael McDonald, Dave Powelson) is a dull ballad, pleasant but nothing more.

“Troubled Heart And A Troubled Mind” (Wynonna Judd, Brent Maher, O’Hara) is a nice up-tempo blues that would have made a good single. Again Steuart Smith shines on guitar

A troubled heart and a troubled mind
Is all I’m gonna leave behind
I’m movin’ on down the line
Don’t shout me down I’m doin’ fine
You’ve been hard and heavy on my soul
Gotta lighten the load and let you go
Life’s too short, ain’t got the time
For a troubled heart and a troubled mind

“Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me” (Mark Selby, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tia Sillers) features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on electric guitar and has Wynonna harmonizing with herself. I think this song would have made a good single.

“Come Some Rainy Day” (Billy Kirsch, Bat McGrath) was released as a single and reached #14. A gentle ballad, this may be Wynonna’s most effective vocal on a slower song. For my money, Wynonna’s better songs tend to be the faster songs. While I am not a big fan of the Nashville String Machine, the use of the NSM is subdued and greatly augments Wynonna’s vocal on this song.

“Love’s Funny That Way” (Tina Arena, Dean McTaggart, David Tyson) finds Wynonna over-singing the song slightly. At 4:46, the song is about a minute too long, since the dragging ending adds nothing to the song.

“The Wyld Unknown” (Cliff Downs, David Pack) is a mid-tempo rocker is that Wynonna sings effectively. I can’t say that the lyrics say anything important but it makes for a good album track.

Next up is “Why Now” (Downs, Pack, James Newton Howard) is another slow ballad dragging in at a flatulent four minutes and forty-nine seconds. A trimmed down version of this song would probably be better. The lyrics are actually pretty decent:

Somewhere off
In a distant dream
You were long ago
Like a memory

Now you’re back
Standing here
Sayin’ all the words
You think I want to hear

Did you finally realize
What I knew all along
That you never needed me
Until I was gone

“We Can’t Unmake Love” (Will Robinson, Aaron Saine) finds Wynonna singing a duet with John Berry, an artist with an excellent voice but somewhat addicted to tediously slow ballads. Having said that, I must admit that this is a pretty nice effort.

“Always Will” (Harry Stinson, John Hadley) was released as a single, reaching #45. The song has a very Celtic feel to it with Tammy Rogers on fiddle and Hunter Lee on Uillean pipes. At nearly five minutes, the song was a bit too long for radio to have had much interest in the song.

For me this album was a very mixed bag. The one word I would not use to describe it is “country”. I would give it a C+ but it is a very up and down C+. Some songs I like a lot, others I found boring. There was nothing on the album I loved, and nothing I hated.

Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘I’m Alright’

51phmj5EClL-2Although Jo Dee Messina enjoyed some initial success with “Heads Carolina, Tails California”, her career did not really take off until the release of her sophomore set in 1998. Coming on the heels of two failed singles, producers Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw took a play-it-safe approach when choosing material for I’m Alright, an album that is heavy on radio-friendly material. The strategy paid off: the album spawned five hit singles, the first three of which went to #1. The first, “Bye Bye”, written by Rory Michael Bourke and Phil Vassar, is an energetic uptempo number — slightly reminiscent of “Heads Carolina” — at which Jo Dee excels. It was followed by another uptempo ear worm — “I’m Alright”, another Vassar composition which is my favorite Jo Dee Messina song. Jo Dee proved that she was equally adept at singing ballads when “Stand Beside Me” became her third #1.

“A Lesson In Leavin'”, written by Randy Goodrum and Brent Maher had previously been a hit for another redhead when Dottie West took it to #1 in 1980, scoring her first chart topper as a solo artist rather late in her career. Jo Dee’s version, which is faithful to the original, just missed topping the charts,leveling off at #2. She does a good job at interpreting a song that was deserving of being introduced to a new audience. Another ballad, “Because You Love Me”, written by Kostas and John Scott Sherrill, was the album’s fifth and final single, peaking at #8.

As far as the rest of the album is concerned, I really enjoyed the ballad “Even God Must Get The Blues”, which laments the state of the world. It’s the album’s most serious number, and while it was probably not sufficiently commercial to be considered for single release, it is effective in delivering its message and is very well done. I also enjoyed Jo Dee’s version of “I Know A Heartache”, a remake of Jennifer Warnes’ 1979 hits. Warnes was not primarily known as a country artist but her original version did reach #10 on the country charts, as well as #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. There are also a couple of misses, namely “Silver Thunderbird”, with its dated production and pedestrian lyrics and “No Time For Tears” which is forgettable filler.

I enjoyed the radio hits from this album when they were on the charts, though I considered them to be mostly lightweight ear candy at the time. Today I’d be thrilled to hear anything half this good on the radio. I’m Alright is not a great album, but it is a very good one. If you are only going to own one Jo Dee Messina album, this is the one to have.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Restless’

51aMwLjN8yLShelby Lynne parted ways with Epic after three albums, all of which underperformed commercially, citing a lack of creative control as one of the reasons for her departure. She’d decided that if country radio wasn’t going to embrace her, she at least wanted critical acclaim and the freedom to go in different musical directions if she so chose. Temptation, her first post-Epic release had little to do with country music, but the follow-up Restless, is a different story. It is widely regarded as a western swing album, but it also has some elements of blues, as well as some more mainstream fare which suggested that Shelby hadn’t completely given up on the idea of having some radio hits.

Restless was issued by a different label than Temptation — originally issued by Magnatone and later re-released by Curb, but retained most of the personnel that had worked on the previous album. Brent Maher was back on board as producer and, along with Jamie O’Hara, as a co-writer on several of the album’s tracks. Shelby herself had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten tracks. I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening track and lead single “Slow Me Down”, which was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #59. It was followed up by the non-charting and more mainstream “I’m Not The One”, which really deserved more attention and likely could have been a hit for a more established artist. “Another Chance at Love”, the final single, is a pure western swing number which is excellent but probably not the most commercially viable choice in a radio environment which at the time was preoccupied with the crossover music of Shania Twain. “Hey Now, Little Darling” might have been a better choice, but by this time it was quite obvious that radio wasn’t much interested in anything Shelby had to offer.

I’m a big western swing fan, so there is much here for me to like: the title track, “Reach For The Rhythm” and “Swingtown” are all excellent. The blues-laced “Just For The Touch of Your Hand” is not quite as good but still enjoyable. It sounds tailor-made for Wynonna Judd, which is not surprising given Maher’s and O’Hara’s long association with Wynonna and The Judds. The pop-tinged ballad “Wish I Knew” is well performed but seems out of place on this album. The album’s best track is the underrated Jamie O’Hara gem “Talkin’ To Myself Again”, which had become the final Top 20 hit for Tammy Wynette almost a decade earlier.

Like its predecessors, Restless was a commercial disappointment and resulted in the end of the country phase of Shelby’s career and the beginning of a series of albums that explored various styles of pop. It is however, my favorite Shelby Lynne album. If you are only going to own one of her albums, make it this one.

Grade: A

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Temptation’

temptationAfter three albums had failed to break Shelby Lynne, she parted ways with Epic. Her music had always been a little more eclectic than most of her peers, but now she began to experiment more. Although it was still marketed as country music and recorded in Nashville with seasoned session musicians, her work with producer Brent Maher for her new label Morgan Creek (in association with Mercury Records) drew more deeply from the wells of jazz and big band than even the countrypolitan end of country music.

She was still marketed as a country artist, but unsurprisingly the country radio which had been unreceptive to her more conventional material was even less so to her new direction. Lead single ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’ got minimal airplay, peaking at a dismal #69 on the Billboard country chart, although it has a catchy tune and arrangement and is quite enjoyable. Interestingly, Brent Maher wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs, most of them with Jamie O’Hara.

‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, one of the two outside songs, didn’t chart at all, although it is a very nice Patsy Cline style ballad written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and is beautifully sung.

Even better is my favourite song on the album (not coincidentally, the only other song Brent Maher had no hand in). ‘I Need A Heart To Come Home To’ is a lovely sad ballad written by John Barlow Jarvis and Russell Smith about loneliness and the temptation of reconnecting with an old flame:

Something happened the night you kissed me
My will to love was born again
Your tenderness has convinced me
What a lonely fool I’ve been

I need a heart to come home to
Give me all the love I never knew
I need a heart to hold on to
I need a sweet sweetheart like you

Both song and performance are excellent, and the track featured on the soundtrack of hit movie True Romance.

Shelby co-wrote the title track with Maher and Jamie O’Hara, and this bold, brassy tune is a bit lacking in melody or real emotional impact, with an assertive attitude which doesn’t quite fit the self-searching lyric. The trio also wrote the similarly styled ‘Some Of That True Love’, where the swing arrangement fits the song better.

The understated mid-tempo ‘Little Unlucky At Love’, written by Maher and O’Hara, is quite good, but the pair’s ‘Come A Little Closer’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, written by Maher alone, are forgettable big band.

I disliked the bluesy, soul-influenced ‘The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away’ (written by Maher with Don Potter and Don Schlitz, mainly for its annoying spoken segments. However the sophisticated minor-keyed jazz ballad ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is very well done.

This is one of those records which is tough to assign a letter grade to. It is well sung and played, and Shelby sounds thoroughly engaged with her material, but most of it is not really to my personal tastes. As a jazz-inflected record for a general audience, it is very good; but it has little to do with country music other than the personnel.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’ plus later recordings

Released in September 1990, Love Can Build A Bridge saw the duo continuing their success into the new decade. A bittersweet project, it would be the last during their hit making years and was followed by the famed farewell tour in 1991. It was also the first Judds album not to feature a #1 hit.

Lead single “Born To Be Blue” opens soft with Wynonna’s distinctive twang coupled with piano accompaniment until the track kicks into high gear on the chorus. Producer Brent Maher was smart to showcase Wynonna’s bluesy vocals as they elevate this otherwise boring song and foreshadow what was to come in her solo work.

The spiritual title track, co-written by Naomi with John Barlow Jarvis and Paul Overstreet is the highlight of the album and like “Born To Be Blue” only reached a chart peak of #5. The soft and tasteful production heightens the overall message connecting us with God.

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Album Review: The Judds – ‘Heartland’

The duo’s third full length album was released in February 1987.  It largely continued on the same pattern as their exceptionally successful earlier records, and continued their hot streak on the charts, although the material as a whole was not as strong.  The lead single was a cover of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ featuring sultry lead vocals from Wynonna backed by the Jordanaires, who had also sung on Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit version.  Surprisingly, it broke their string of #1 hits, peaking at #10, but after this sidestep, it was back to the chart toppers with each of the three remaining singles released from the album.

The hypnotically catchy ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ is a confident and playful invitation to share the protagonist’s start of a new life, written by producer Brent Maher  with Craig Bickhardt and Don Schlitz,  which was a natural for radio and is still irrestistible listening.  It was followed by the contrasting melodic ballad ‘Maybe Your Baby’s Got the Blues’, written by Troy Seals and Graham Lyle.  Wynonna’s lead vocal is tenderly sympathetic as she offers romantic advice to save a relationship, supported by the subtly faint strains of an organ.

Finally, the funky ‘Turn It Loose’, another successful Maher/Bickhardt/Schlitz collaboration, is a lively love song to music.  It is largely enjoyable apart from Wynonna’s occasional grunt.  Schlitz and Maher teamed up with Don Potter to write the pleasant ‘Why Don’t You Believe Me’, while Maher, Potter and Bickhardt came up with the similar ‘I’m Falling In Love’.  Wynonna’s lead vocals on both songs are excellent, but the songs themselves, while melodic, are forgettable.

‘Cow Cow Boogie’ is a jazzy take on cowboy songs.  This is not a favorite of mine, but was definitely an interesting experiment which few other mainstream stars would have tackled.  The gentle family reminiscences of ‘Old Pictures’ (written by K T Oslin (about to make her own breakthrough with her signature song ‘80s Ladies’) with Jerry Gillespie), set to a pretty melody, make for very pleasing listening, and although the keyboards sound slightly dated, the delicate harmonies are still a delight.

While most of the album reveals other musical influences, the duo affirmed their country roots with an exquisite reading of ‘The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)’, which is the outstanding moment musically. Supplemented by a heavenly third harmony from Emmylou Harris on the chorus, this is an absolutely beautiful reading of the tragic tale of ‘an erring but precious son’ and the grieving mother whose loving visit cheers his prison travail.  This is worth downloading even if the rest of the album does not appeal.

Including only nine tracks even on the CD version made this a rather mean spirited release from RCA even by their standard.  Notwithstanding this, it was commercially very successful, the string of #1 hits and the band’s fanbase helping to propel it to platinum level sales.  It was also used as the springboard for an attempt to break the Judds to international audiences.  Under the title Give A Little Love, the European release added Paul Kennerley’s insistent title track, which was at the time unreleased in the US but was later to appear on their Greatest Hits and was then a #2 country hit for the duo, together with five of the six tracks from their six track debut EP, omitting only ‘Mama He’s Crazy’.  Unfortunately this version is no longer easy to find, as it is much better value with the added material.

Heartland continued the Judds’ run as one of the top acts in country music and certainly the genre’s pre-eminent duo.  However, musically, it did not really break any new ground.

Grade: B (A for the European version)

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Rockin’ With the Rhythm’

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about 1985’s Rockin’ With the Rhythm. Producer Brent Maher seemed to be adhering to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle, using essentially the same formula and many of the same songwriters that had made Why Not Me a double-platinum success. The strategy was an effective one, allowing The Judds to continue on their winning streak. All of the album’s four singles reached the top of the charts, and though it did not sell quite as well as its predecessor, it still achieved platinum certification at a time when female country artists rarely reached such sales figures. It was also named Billboard’s Top Country Album of 1986.

The single releases were book-ended by two Paul Kennerly compositions, “Have Mercy” and “Cry Myself to Sleep”. In both songs, the protagonist is at her wit’s end trying to come to terms with the end of a somewhat emotionally abusive relationship, although “Have Mercy” takes a much more tongue-in-cheek approach than the dead-serious “Cry Myself to Sleep”. In between these two #1 hits were “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” and the upbeat title track. “Grandpa”, which takes a nostalgic look back a simpler and happier era that perhaps never really existed in the first place, became The Judds’ best known hit. The song earned the duo their third consecutive Grammy award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1987.

Like its predecessor, Rockin’ With the Rhythm contains a treasure trove of album cuts that had hit single potential, had RCA/Curb chosen to release them to radio. My favorite is “If I Were You”, penned by Sonny Throckmorton and Brent Maher along with the great Harlan Howard, followed by a cover of Lee Dorsey’s 1966 R&B hit “Workin’ in the Coal Mine”. The closing track “Dream Chaser” is a real beauty that sounds almost semi-autobiographical, though neither of the Judds had a hand in writing it. In fact, Rockin’ With the Rhythm is the first of only two Judds albums that contained none of Naomi’s original compositions, but with songwriters such as Paul Kennerly, Don Schlitz, Jamie O’Hara, Sonny Throckmorton, Harlan Howard, Kevin Welch, and Jeffrey Hawthorne Bullock — who wrote “Dream Chaser” with Brent Maher — the lack of Naomi’s contribution as a songwriter is barely noticed.

To a certain extent, Rockin’ With the Rhythm can be viewed as a continuation of Why Not Me. I’m undecided as to which album I like better, but as a pair, they represent the duo’s very best work. A testament to their strength is the fact 1988’s Greatest Hits collection consisted solely of the eight singles culled from these two albums, along with two new tracks. Although Wynonna and Naomi went on to release three more solid studio albums, as well as a Christmas collection, they would never quite reach this creative zenith again. The album is highly recommended, and easy to find.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Wynonna and Naomi’ & ‘Why Not Me’

The Judds’ first appearance on record was the 1983 mini-LP Wynonna and Naomi.  Initially released only on vinyl and cassette, it consisted of six tracks, most of which eventually appeared on subsequent albums.  “Had a Dream (For the Heart)”, a Dennis Linde composition previously recorded by Elvis Presley, was the duo’s debut single, which peaked at #17 in late 1983.  But it was the second single, “Mama He’s Crazy”, released in the spring of 1984, which made it to #1 and jump-started their career.  The Kenny O’Dell composition was the first of eight consecutive #1 singles for The Judds.  It was also one of the first hit records of the New Traditionalists era, which wouldn’t get fully underway for another two years.

Initially, “Had a Dream” and “Mama He’s Crazy” were the only two singles released from the mini-LP, but an alternate take of “Change of Heart”, written by Naomi Judd, was included in their 1988 Greatest Hits package and released as a single, reaching #1 .   Likewise, “John Deere Tractor” was included as a bonus track on the CD version of 1990’s Love Can Build a Bridge, and was released as the duo’s final single before Naomi’s retirement in 1991.

Two songs on the disc never appeared elsewhere: “Isn’t He a Strange One” written by Kent Robbins, and “Blue Nun Café”, a excellent number written by Harlan Howard and Brent Maher, who produced all of The Judds’ albums.   Wynonna and Naomi eventually received a budget CD release in the 1990s; that version contained two bonus tracks, “Cry Myself To Sleep” and “Dream Chaser”, both culled from their 1985 collection Rockin’ With the Rhythm. Read more of this post

Spotlight Artist: 80s Duos

This month we’ve decided to do something a little different; instead of spotlighting a single artist for the entire month, we’ll be taking a look at the careers of several of the duos that came to prominence during the 1980s:

1.  David Frizzell & Shelly West

This duo’s pedigree was impressive; he was the younger brother of the legendary Lefty Frizzell, while she was the daughter of Dottie West and the wife of another Frizzell brother.   Together they charted 11 singles on the Billboard country charts between 1981 and 1985, the first and best known of which was “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma”.  That #1 single had been featured in the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can, and released on the Viva label, which was distributed by Warner Bros.   They were awarded the CMA’s Duo of the Year trophy twice, and both Frizzell and West scored some solo hits during this period, though neither’s career was to enjoy any longevity.  Shelly’s divorce from Allen Frizzell may have been partially responsible for the end of her professional relationship with David.

2.   The Judds

The most commercially successful of the duos we’re spotlighting this month, the story of this mother-daughter act is well known.  Record producer Brent Maher’s daughter was hospitalized and under the care of nurse Naomi Judd in the early 1980s, which provided the opportunity for Naomi to give Maher a demo tape, leading to a live audition and on-the-spot signing with RCA/Curb.   The Judds were an immediate success, scoring 15 #1 singles between 1983 and 1990.  During that time, they also won seven Academy of Country Music awards, nine CMA trophies, and five Grammys.   A bout with Hepatitis C prompted Naomi’s retirement in 1991, while Wynonna went on to enjoy a highly successful career as a solo artist.  During the 20 years since Naomi’s retirement, the two have occasionally reunited in concert and in the studio.

3.  Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Sisters Kristine Arnold and Janis Gill sang together as children in California and began performing as The Oliver Sisters when they were teenagers.  They later renamed their act after the title of the classic album by The Byrds.   Both women married musicians; Kristine’s husband is Leonard Arnold of the band Blue Steel,  while Janis is the ex-wife of Vince Gill.   The Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed with Columbia Records in 1986, and for a brief time were one of the hottest acts in country music.  Their debut single “Hey Doll Baby” peaked just outside the Top 20.  Their second single “Since I Found  You” reached the Top 10.  Six more Top 10 hits followed.   Though they were never top record sellers, they were staples at country radio in the late 80s.  Their first two albums for Columbia racked up a number of radio hits, but after that the hits began to taper off.   After two more albums failed to generate any more hits, Columbia dropped the Sweethearts from its roster in 1992.  They re-emerged the following year on Sugar Hill Records, for whom they recorded two critically acclaimed albums in 1993 and 1996.

4.  The O’Kanes

Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane recorded three albums for Columbia between 1986 and 1990.  Six of the nine singles released during that period charted in the Top 10, including their best known hit “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You”, which reached the #1 spot in 1987.  Jamie, a native of Toledo, Ohio, had penned “Older Women”,  which had been a #1 hit for Ronnie McDowell in 1981 and  The Judds’ signature hit “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”, which won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1986.  The two met while working as songwriters for the same publishing company.   They disbanded in 1990 and resumed their solo careers.  Brooklyn-born Kane eventually went on to become one of the founders the independent Dead Reckoning Records.

5.  Foster & Lloyd

Country rockers Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd recorded three albums together for RCA between 1987 and 1990, and in the process scored nine charting singles, four of which reached the Top 10.   Prior to landing their own record deal, they wrote “Since I Found You”, which became the breakthrough hit for The Sweethearts of the Rodeo.   Foster & Lloyd’s biggest hit was 1987’s “Crazy Over You”, which rose to #4.  Perhaps a bit too offbeat for conservative country radio in the late 80s, they were more of a critical, rather than commercial, success and disbanded in 1990.   Lead vocalist Radney Foster subsequently signed with Arista Records and enjoyed a moderately successful solo career, while Bill Lloyd went back to earning a living as a session musician.  They reunited in 2011, with the release of It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album together in over 20 years.

As always, we hope that this spotlight will provide our readers with a pleasant trip down memory lane, or perhaps inspire them to explore music that they may have overlooked or are too young to remember.

Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘What Do I Do With Me’

TanyaTuckerWhatDoIDowithMeHad she chosen to retire from the music business around 1990, Tanya Tucker could have done so knowing that she’d secured her musical legacy. By then she had been a presence on the country charts for nearly two decades, had released 20 studio albums, and secured 30 top 10 hits, including ten #1’s. She was also the “last woman standing”, the only artist who had been having top 10 hits in the early 70s to still be regularly reaching the top of the charts. No one was surprised that her winning streak still continued, but few realized at the time that Tucker had not yet reached her commercial or artistic peak.

Released in July 1991, What Do I Do With Me is the jewel in Tucker’s musical crown. It follows the same formula as its predecessor, Tennessee Woman , combining radio-friendly, pop-infused uptempo songs with tender, heartfelt ballads. However, this time around the song selection was stronger and that is what makes What Do I Do With Me Tanya Tucker’s masterpiece.

For the lead single, Tucker again turned to her old friend Paul Davis, who wrote the sassy, harmonica-driven “Down To My Last Teardrop”, in which the long-suffering protagonist tells her unfaithful partner that he’s drained her of every last drop of emotion. Tucker took this tune all the the way to #2 in the early summer of 1991.

The next single was the title track. Beautifully written by Royce Porter, L. David Lewis, and David Chamberlain, it tells the story of a woman wondering aloud how she will occupy the free time she suddenly has in the aftermath of a break-up. This is the type of ballad at which Tucker excels. Every line is filled with emotion, yet her performance is restrained and never over-the-top. Like its predecessor, “(Without You) What Do I Do With Me”, just missed the top spot on Billboard’s country singles chart, peaking at #2. This is the kind of song that has been missing in action from country radio in recent years, having fallen from favor in lieu of happier, empowerment anthems.

“Some Kind Of Trouble”, a more blues-infused number, didn’t chart quite as high, peaking at #3. Written by Mike Reid, Brent Maher and Don Potter, this song is more beat-driven than the previous singles, but the lyrics are still quite strong. I suspect that it was probably written with The Judds in mind, given the Maher and Potter connection, and would have likely been recorded by that duo had they still been active.

The fourth and final single, “If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight” is a more light-hearted number written by Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters, that peaked at #4.

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