My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Brice Long

Album Review: Cody Johnson – ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’

After half a dozen self released albums since 2006, and building his career in his native Texas, 31 year old Cody Johnson makes his major label debut with this Warner Brothers record. It is an excellent album, showcasing a fine voice, great songs and perhaps offering mainstream country a way forward by mixing traditional country with some contemporary vibes. Cody’s long term producer Trent Willmon helms the project.

The lead single, ‘On My Way To You’ is a warm romantic ballad reflecting on, and not regretting, all the mistakes of the past. It is a very nice song, written by Brett James and Tony Lane, and is sung beautifully.

The title track, written by Leslie Satcher and David Lee, is a slow meditation on life and how to live, with some lovely fiddle.

‘Fenceposts’ is a lovely song about a young man inviting his sweetheart to settle down and make a life with him on their own farm. In ‘Understand Why’, written by Neil Medley and Randy Montana, a jaded Johnson seeks solitude after romantic failure.

A gorgeous low-key cover of Roger Miller’s ‘Husbands And Wives’ (familiar to younger fans from the Brooks & Dunn version) was recorded live. Radney Foster’s ‘Noise’ is a bit busy for my taste, but an enthusiastic take on Charlie Daniels’ ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ is great, with Johnson coming across like a young Travis Tritt. The sultry ‘Nothin’ On You’ (written by producer Willmon with Barrett Baber) channels Gary Allan. The energetic ‘Honky Tonk Mood’ is written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and is also very good.

‘Monday Morning Merle’, written by Lance Miller, Bart Butler and Brad and Brett Warren. It is a sad song about a man hiding a broken heart during his working week with the help of music:.

Wednesday spins the Beatles
Thursday is the Eagles
“Take It Easy” ’til that Friday rocks his world
After Saturday ol’ Jackson Browne
Is Sunday morning coming down
Then he’s right back to missing that girl
Turns up ‘Misery and Gin’
Here we are again
Monday morning Merle

Monday morning Merle
Lets that ol’ broken heart get back to work
He hides all the holes and the hurt
Under the dirt on his shirt
And the only way that he can get
Through the days and the regret
Is a song full of truth
With some words he never said
With those whiskey remedies
And those old school melodies you can’t forget

Brice Long, Carlton Anderson and Wynn Varble wrote ‘Where Cowboys Are King’, a fond tribute to Texas. ‘Y’all People’, about good-hearted country people, is dedicated to Cody’s fans, and could play well on country radio.

‘Doubt Me Now’, written by Casey Beathard and Mitch Oglesby, is a country rock defiance of those who have doubted the protagonist’s chances:

People like you got nothin’ better to do
Than throw rocks at things that shine
Well, you oughta be chasin’ your own dreams
‘Stead of shootin’ holes in mine

It annoyingly finishes with an electronic fadeout, but is a pretty good song until that point.

Johnson wrote two songs himself. ‘Dear Rodeo’ is a thoughtful retrospective on his first-love former career as a rodeo rider:

Dear rodeo
I’d be lyin’ if I tried to tell you I don’t think about you
After all the miles and the wild nights that we’ve been through
The Lord knows we had a few

Dear rodeo
I’d like to say that I took the reins and rode away
No regrets, no left-unsaids, just turned the page
Oh, but you know better, babe

Between them almost-had-’ems and the broken bones
The dream of a buckle I’ll never put on
I’m jaded
Whoa how I hate it
But somehow the highs outweigh the lows
And I’d do it all again
Even though
We both know
I’d still have to let you go

So dear rodeo
I tried like hell to tell myself it was all your fault
I held on tight with all my might
I just couldn’t hang on
And that’s hard to hang your hat on…

I’d like to think you miss me too
But I know you don’t
Oh, but that don’t change the past
And that don’t change the truth
I’m still in love with you

This is a definite highlight.

The album closes with Johnson’s other writing credit, ‘His Name Is Jesus’, a simple statement of faith.

This is a strong entry onto the mainstream scene, which I hope does well. Do check it out.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Josh Ward – ‘More Than I Deserve’

Josh Ward is one of those Texan country traditionalists who are still out there, performing and recording real country music, and enjoying significant regional success which has started to reach other parts of the country. His latest album, his fourth, hopes to continue his success.

The lead single, ‘’All About Lovin’’, is a cheerful up-tempo tune written by Brice Long, Terry McBride and Chris Stapleton. A potentially radio-friendly toe-tapping groove means this could have been a hit if national country radio hadn’t lost the plot; it did hit the top of the Texas country charts.

Josh co-wrote three of the songs. He is a former rodeo rider himself, and the thoughtful ‘A Cowboy Can’ pays tribute to tough lives and those who don’t give up:

The nights get cold
And the highway never ends
Not many folks can live this life
But a cowboy can

I wouldn’t wish this on the faint of heart
‘Cause I know it ain’t for everyone
Some folks might try to look the part
We don’t do this just for fun
It’s every part of who I am
I’ve got no-quit runnin’ through my veins
It ain’t an easy way to make a buck

‘One More Shot Of Whiskey’ is an excellent song, a downbeat depiction of heartbreak:

I’ve been hangin’ with the devil
I’ve been right down on his level
And I drink his wine night after night
I’ve tried Jones and I’ve tried Haggard
Tried to find somethin’ sadder
It helped a little bit but it took too much time
I’ve only found one thing that comes close


If it takes a month of Sundays
I’ll get over you someday
Say the hell with you and I’ll find someone too
But tonight I’m in trouble and I might start shootin’ doubles
Catch a quick-fix buzz and call you up
So as long as Tennessee makes 90 proof
I need one more shot of whiskey

‘Cause I know that’s all it takes for me
To drown out your damn memory
And help my heart not hurt this way
But I won’t know it did the trick until it hits me

The almost-title track, ‘More Than I Deserved’, the last of Josh’s own songs, is a wistfully regretful song about a lost love.

‘Say Hello To Goodbye’ is a lovely ballad with the protagonist offering some sympathy to a friend who, one assumes like himself, has lost in love through his own fault.

Another highlight is ‘The Devil Don’ t Scare Me’, in which losing a loved one is the worst thing he can possibly imagine happening, including death and hell:

Preacher used to preach about fire and brimstone
I was shakin’ in the shoes in the pew I sat on
12 years old
Afraid of where I’d go
Ten years later wonderin’ how I got here
Where neon burns and they sell cold beer
Heaven seems so far away

‘Cause ever since the night she left me
Ain’t a damn thing that can help me
I’ve tried praying
I’ve tried whiskey
It’s livin’ hell wishing she’d missed me
No I ain’t afraid of dying
‘Cause I lost the one thing I was livin’ for
Now the devil don’t scare me anymore

‘Ain’t It Baby’ is a mellow ballad about staying in love, and ‘Loving Right’ is quite pleasant.

In the midpaced honky tonker ‘Another Heartache’, the narrator wants to enjoy himself and a one night stand, and not fall in love to risk the pain of the inevitable pain.

A rapid paced paean to the bar which is the protagonist’s ‘Home Away From Home’ lacks melody. ‘God Made A Woman’ is a bit generic.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From A Room Vol 2’

Chris Stapleton’s second blues-influenced album of the year is broadly similar in mood to the first, but feels a little more consistent and cohesive. Wife Morgane Hayes Stapleton’s delicate harmonies augment Chris’s rougher yet soulful voice, and they could easily be billed as a duo rather than Chris as the solo star.

There are a couple of outside covers bookending the set. Kevin Welch wrote the opening ‘Millionaire’ around the turn of the millennium, and it is a laid back slightly loungy tune about true wealth coming from love. ‘Friendship’ is an old jazzy soul song which works well for Chris.

He wrote the remainder of the material with various partners. A couple of songs were written with Kendell Marvel. ‘Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind’ was slightly more country as done by Marvel on his own excellent album this year, with Chris’s version leaning more bluesy and feeling sleazier. The rock-edged honky tonker ‘Hard Livin’’ is on a similar theme of looking back at a life of hard drinking and wild living with some regret as he grows older.

‘Scarecrow In The Garden’, co-written with Brice Long and Matt Fleener, is a family story song about immigrants coming from Northern Ireland to farm on bad ground in West Virginia, ending with a doomladen picture in the third generation:

There’s a scarecrow in the garden
That looks like Lucifer
I’ve been readin’ Revelation
With my bare feet in the river

I know every single fencepost
Every rock that goes around
I’ve been starin’ at the red oak
Where I know they’ll lay me down

The fields ain’t what they once were
The rains just seem to flood
And I’ve been thinkin’ about that river
Wonderin’ how it turns to blood

I’ve been sittin’ here all morning
I was sittin’ here all night
There’s a Bible in my left hand
And a pistol in my right

A gentle acoustic arrangement allows the song to breathe.

Another highlight is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, written with Jameson Clark, an honest confessional with a stripped down acoustic arrangement:

I wish that I could go to church but I’m too ashamed of me
I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees
And I hope He’ll forgive
The things you ain’t forgot
When I get drunk and talk to God

Mike Henderson, once a band mate in the SteelDrivers, co-wrote two songs. The subdued, sad ‘Nobody’s Lonely Tonight’ is extremely good, but ‘Midnight Train To Memphis’ is raucous Southern rock which is not to my taste at all.

Morgane’s father Darrell Hayes helped Chris write ‘A Simple Song’, a weary, gentle song about a working class man’s life, suffering in hard times but satisfied by family and home.

As with the previous release, there are only 9 tracks, which is disappointing.

However, while Stapleton is certainly not traditional country, his music is head and shoulders above most of the current ‘mainstream’ crop, and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jon Pardi – ‘California Sunrise’

71aFoU3QlUL._SX522_When reviewing new music, I always try to follow two basic rules: (1) not to expect too much and (2) not to read any other reviews until I’ve had a chance to listen to it myself, so as not to be influenced by anyone else’s opinion. I didn’t initially expect to review Jon Pardi’s California Sunrise, so I’d already inadvertently broken Rule #2 by the time I decided to do it. The generally favorable reviews I read caused me to break Rule #1 and raise my expectations — which set me up for a huge disappointment.

Hailed as an album that tries to steer country music back towards it roots, California Sunrise is the most uninspired collection of songs that I’ve heard so far this year. I do give Pardi and producer Bart Butler for avoiding the EDM elements that have infested country music in recent years and for mostly avoiding bro-country cliches. They also make more use of country instrumentation – i.e., fiddle and steel – than is usually the case these days and that is appreciated, but ultimately the country elements are drowned out by too-loud electric guitars and hick-hop rhythms. Pardi’s vocals, which remind me of a blend of Brad Paisley and early Gary Allan, are also drowned out by the too-loud production.

Pardi is credited as a co-writer on eight of the album’s twelve songs, which partially explains why listening to the album seems like playing the same song over and over. One exception is the lead single “Head Over Boots”, which he wrote with Luke Laird, which really isn’t bad but it’s not great either. Pardi did not the album’s two most noteworthy songs: “She Ain’t In It” and “Dirt On My Boots”, which are the album’s best and worst cuts respectively. The former, written by Clint Daniels and Wynn Varble is the only song on the album that I truly liked — the one bonafide country number about a protagonist trying to resume his social life after a bad break-up. The bro-countryish “Dirt On My Boots” comes to us courtesy of Rhett Akins, Jesse Frassure and Ashley Gorley is downright terrible (I’m guessing it will be the next single), but to be fair “All Time High” written by Pardi, Bart Butler and Brice Long isn’t a whole lot better.

The remaining songs are bland, lyrically light and tend to all bleed together and aren’t worthy of individual commentary.

Jon Pardi is a talented but not exceptional vocalist, who has a lot of potential if he can only find better material. California Sunrise is not a traditional album, though it certainly comes closer than most of today’s other mainstream releases. If Pardi can tone down the rock elements and volume, and lean a little more on those country roots, he may release a great album one day, but he’s not there yet. Download “She Ain’t In It” and skip the rest.

Grade: C-

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2014

what we ain't got

jake owenEvery year the pickings on country radio seem to get slimmer and slimmer, with fewer slots available for anything really country, or for material with any lyrical depth. But there are still some gems out there, and a few of them are even hits. So here is my personal pick of the year’s singles.

10. All Alright – Zac Brown Band
The arrangement is a bit rock-oriented for my taste with fuzzy guitars but this is a great song with a very strong melody and plaintive vocal from Zac, so it just squeezes into my top 10 ahead of Josh Turner’s current single ‘Lay Low’ which I liked a lot but didn’t feel had a lot of depth. ‘All Alright’ underperformed on country radio, just scraping into the top 20, perhaps because the band have cut their ties with Atlantic and lost some promotional muscle.

9. Bad Girl Phase – Sunny Sweeney
Sunny rocks out and exercises her wild side.

brandy clark8. Hungover – Brandy Clark
One of the best songwriters in Nashville (she also co-wrote ‘Bad Girl Phase’), Brandy is also a fine singer, and this single comes from my Album of the Year of 2013. A jaundiced depiction of a marriage failing thanks to one party’s drinking, while the other moves on, unnoticed, it is a brilliantly observed slice of life. Brandy has recently signed a deal with Warner Brothers which may get her music wider recognition.

7. I’ll Be Here In the Morning – Don Williams
One of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s revives a deeply romantic song reminiscent of his best, written by the legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Warm and tender in all the right ways.

dreamers6. That’s What Dreamers Do – Travis Tritt
The 90s star at his ballad-singing best, with a sensitive and thoughtful lyric about rising past hard times. It was written for a Walt Disney biopic, but its genuinely inspirational message is universal. Tritt’s vocal is excellent, sweet and tender, and backed by a tasteful arranagement.

5. What I Can’t Put Down – Jon Pardi
The young country-rocker’s third single (written by himself with Brice Long and Bart Butler) peaked just outside the top 30 – a disappointment following his top 10 breakthrough in 2013. The singer’s youthful energy sells the cheerful confession of over indulgence in sinful pleasures. Highly likeable.

ronnie dunn4. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes – Ronnie Dunn
Technically this came out at the end of 2013 (and Razor X listed it in his top 10 singles for that year), but I’m counting it as a 2014 single. A melancholy reflection on growing older which was written by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean, Dunn’s vocal is perfectly judged with a wistful yearning for the lost innocence and carelessness of youth, “When I didn’t know what wasn’t good for me, but I knew everything else for sure”. Unfortunately it was far too good, and adult, for country radio to give it the time of day.

3. Girl In A Country Song – Maddie & Tae
This smart and funny satirical take on bro-country was a big surprise, coming from a pair of unheralded teenagers. It’s still on the poppy side aurally – but the clever and punchy lyrics work so well I don’t care about that for once (and the production is relatively restrained). They remind me quite a bit of the shortlived Wreckers. I’m interested in seeing what they come up with in future – and this song making it big on country radio is a great sign.

2. Blue Smoke – Dolly Parton
A delightful confection from another veteran who still has the goods. Dolly wrote the bluegrass-tinged tune as well as performing it with her customary zest.

1. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen
This is a beautifully understated and philosophical sad lost love song written by Travis Meadows based on his own bitter experiences. Jake has gone on record to declare this the best song he has ever recorded, and he is dead right. It’s also the best mainstream single by anyone for quite some time. It’s still rising slowly up the charts, and may not be the smash hit it deserves to be: but it’s the song of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Different Things’

different thingsAfter leaving RCA, Tracy struck out on his own. His last album to date was released on his own label in 2006). Freedom from commercial concerns led him to his most mature work, and the best album of his career. He produced the set alongside Mike Geiger, and they did a fine job showcasing the songs tastefully.

My very favourite track is the incisive and gloriously judgmental cheating song, ‘Cheapest Motel’ in which a man loses everything after a fling:

They used the Bible for a coaster
And it never crossed their mind
Maybe they should have opened it
Instead of that high dollar wine

But he ends up exchanging his happy marriage and family for a lonely existence:
The cheapest motel in town cost him everything

It was written by Cole Deggs, Mike Geiger and Trey Matthews. It was the lead single, and got a little airplay, but really deserved to do much better.

Almost as good, the sober realisation of the title track shows a man who has come to understand his failings. He looks back on a lifetime’s rash choices, now that his marriage is collapsing.

What I want is to give up
Just let go and walk out on us
What I need is to see this through
Oh, and find a way back to you

The last thing that I reach for every evening
Is a woman who I can’t reach any more
Time has worn the new off of the feeling
And right now I wanna just walk out the door
But what I want and what I need
Have always been different things

This excellent song was written by John Ramey, Brice Long and Bobby Taylor, and is interpreted with the just the right amount of resignation by Tracy. A stripped down production gives it the perfect support.

A similarly rueful attitude dominates ‘She Was Smart’, in which a rich man finds out money isn’t enough to make up for his lack of commitment to his girlfriend.

Sweet but not overly sentimental, ‘Just One Woman’ is a ballad with a spoken introduction about an old man’s lifelong love for his wife. Also rather sweet, ‘A Cowboy And A Dancer’ is a story song in which a cowboy down on his luck meets a girl whose dreams of musical theatre stardom have sputtered out by working as a stripper to put herself through college. A shared ride out of Texas turns into romance.

‘Saltwater Cowboy’ is a lighthearted and likeable beach song. ‘The Biggest Thing In Texas’ is a fun little slice of western swing which allows Tracy to affectionately dig at his fellow Texans’ pride in their home state:
Pride is the biggest thing in Texas

‘Better Places Than This’ the second and last single sadly failed to chart, but it is an entertaining honky tonker with sadness at its heart. In response to being thrown out of a second-rate bar where he’s been drowning his sorrows a little too long, the protagonist declares:

Keep your old cold shoulder and your lukewarm beer

I haven’t lost anything here I can’t live without
Can’t you see everything’s already gone that I ever cared about?

I’ve been thrown out of better places than this
I know where to go and I know what to kiss
I’ve heard it all before from my sweet angel’s lips

‘Before I Die’ offers up a bucket list with a wistfully delivered lyric and lovely melody. Not outstanding, but nicely done.

The closing ‘Hot Night In The Country’ is a rare Tracy Byrd co-writing credit (alongside Mark Nesler and Tony Martin) but is a bit dull. ‘The More I Feel Rockin’’ is a cheerful mid-tempo celebration of refusing to slow down despite growing older – pleasant filler but enjoyable enough.

Overall, though, this is the best album Tracy has ever recorded, and is an essential purchase. That makes it all the more disappointing that he has gone silent since its release.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Randy finds religion: the Christian albums of Randy Travis

Randy’s second and last effort for DreamWorks, the uninspired and over-produced A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, fell pretty flat both artistically and commercially. Perhaps in response to that, the new millennium saw a major change. He returned to the Warner group for his first religious album (released on Word/Warner Brothers/Curb), Inspirational Journey, in 2000. Surprisingly what appeared at the time to be a one-off detour turned into a whole new career for him.

Kyle Lehning returned to the producer’s chair, and this is basically Christian country music of a very high quality. Randy sounds very sincere and is in great voice throughout, and this is a fine collection which most country fans would enjoy if they can live with the subject matter.

‘Baptism’ (written by Mickey Cates is an atmospheric and affectionate picture of an east Texas river baptism, and is a highlight. Randy had previously guested on a duet version with Kenny Chesney on the latter’s Everywhere We Go; that version served principally to show how infinitely superior Randy’s voice was to Kenny’s. The solo version is better, with a gospel choir some way down in the mix. It was released as the album’s sole single, but barely charted.

My favorite is the traditional country plea to ‘Doctor Jesus’, laced with fiddle and steel, and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. Randy’s emotional vocal convincingly portrays a man at the bottom and in need of help from “the best healer around”.

Randy’s personal commitment to the project is reflected in the fact that he wrote three of the songs. The best of these is ‘The Carpenter’ (about Jesus) which he wrote with Chip Taylor and Ron Avis; the song features guest vocals from Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and is very likeable. His other two compositions (the slow, churchy ‘I Am Going’ and ‘Walk With Me’ work less well for me. But even the lesser material like these songs, the opening ‘Shallow Water’ and the subdued ‘See Myself In You’ sound good. ‘Feet On The Rock’ is up-tempo churchy gospel which is quite enjoyable.

The insistent Ron Block song ‘Which Way Will You Choose’ is very catchy with dancing fiddle and a very strong vocal. ‘Drive Another Nail’ is an effective story song about a retired carpenter who sees the light. ‘Don’t Ever Sell Your Saddle’ (from the pens of Kim Tribble and Brian Whiteside) has a warm, nuanced vocal, and could easily have fitted on one of Randy’s secular albums, with its comforting collection of life advice from a father – advice the man didn’t always take himself. The album closes with a very slow take on the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, recorded in memory of Randy’s late mother and his father in law, but I feel the arrangement drags a bit.

While not a best-seller, the album did sufficiently well for Randy to decide to follow it up with another, which was to do rather better. 2002’s gold-certified Rise And Shine is notable for the inclusion of Randy’s last solo hit, the outstanding story song ‘Three Wooden Crosses’. Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams and masterfully interpreted, it was Randy’s first #1 in nine years, and was named CMA Song of the Year. It was not the start of a career resurgence, though, as the follow-up single, ‘Pray For the Fish’, a lively but rather slight tale of a river baptism, failed to crack the top 40.

Also excellent is the tender ‘Raise Her Up’, written by Robb Royer and Rivers Rutherford, which might perhaps have built on the success of ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ if it had been sent to radio. This is the voice of a fatherless boy who grows up to become loving stepfather to a similar child, comparing their story to that of Joseph and Jesus.

The Rory Lee/Paul Overstreet song ‘When Mama Prayed’ is a tenderly sung tribute to the power of prayer; the heroine’s prayers bring her irreligious husband and drunk son to see the light. It’s a nice take on an oft-told tale, and one which resonated with Randy given his past. Similarly, the deathbed-set ‘If You Only Knew’ is an unexceptional lyric lifted to a new level by Randy’s vocal although the string arrangement and choir-like backing vocals are a bit stifling. ‘Valley Of Pain’, written by Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin, is a good depiction of someone holding on to their faith through a bad patch. ‘The Gift’, written by Phillip Moore and Ray Scott, is rather a nice Christmas song:

“On our Savior’s birthday
We got the gift”

Randy co-wrote six of the 13 songs. They are all perfectly listenable and clearly heartfelt, but not that memorable out of context. The best is the dark envisioning of the Second Coming in ‘Jerusalem’s Cry’, with Randy’s vocals at their most gravelly, although it is probably the least “country” track on the album.

There was also an accompanying DVD with a short (20 minute) documentary about Randy, who talks about horses, his wild youth and his religion, with Kyle Lehning also contributing. There are clips of Randy performing, in the studio, and a lot of him riding horses.

Worship & Faith in 2003 was a reverently sung collection of hymns, traditional spiritual songs and one or two modern worship songs, given an all-acoustic country production. I enjoy listening to it a great deal, but there isn’t anything here for the non-religious listener. One song which particularly stands out is ‘I’ll Fly Away’ thanks to Joy Lynn White’s distinctive harmonies, while John Anderson duets on a serious version of ‘Just A Closer Walk with Thee’. It did well, selling gold again.

Passing Through, released a year later, is actually not a religious record, and was billed as a return to secular music. However, it was still on Christian label Word in association with Curb and Warners, and had nothing on it likely to offend Christian music fans, and in fact won a Dove Award. Lead single ‘Four Walls’ is, unfortunately, not the country classic but an affectionate story of a rural family united in love. It is pleasant and well sung, but rather dull, and I can see why it didn’t spark at radio. It had been recorded back in 2001, together with several other songs included on the new album. ‘That Was Us’ (also recorded by Tracy Lawrence) fondly recalls a bunch of rural teenage delinquents who grow up to prove their hearts are in the right place, and might have gone down better at radio. ‘Pick Up The Oars And Row’, written by Jamie O’Hara, is a sympathetic song addressed to a woman let down by a lying man, which is very good. The subdued ‘My Daddy Never Was’ is an excellent slice of life written by Tony Lane, about a divorced man working hard to be “the daddy my daddy never was” and reflecting on his own failings; Randy’s voice cracks in places but this only suits the defeated mood of the song. Dennis Linde’s ‘Train Long Gone’ stands out with wailing harmonica and train sounds, but doesn’t quite work for me.

Of the newly recorded material, the overly sentimental and part-spoken ‘Angels’ (a tribute to mothers) was the second attempt at a single, and another mis-step. I much prefer ‘Running Blind’, written by Roger Ferris. At a truck stop in New Mexico, a cashier gives the narrator some salutary advice about heading back home to the girl left crying at home, set to a punchy rhythm and Charlie McCoy’s harmonica. The swingy ‘My Poor Old Heart’ (written by Shawn Camp and Gary Harrison) and the gently philosophical ‘Right On Time (from Al Anderson and Sharon Vaughn) are also pretty good. The album title comes from the fiddle-led ‘A Place To Hang My Hat’, written by Shawn Camp, Byron Hill and Brice Long, the only religious song. Randy wrote a couple of tender love ballads, ‘I’m Your Man’ with piano and steel in the foreground, and ‘I Can See It In Your Eyes’(a co-write with Matthew Hague), with heavenly harmony on the chorus from Liana Manis.

Sales of Passing Through were disappointing, and Randy turned to hardcore religious music with Glory Train. This is mainly religious numbers from a variety of American musical traditions, with a handful of contemporary church worship songs, and has the least country feel of any of Randy’s albums, although the fiddle is prominent on a number of tracks. His vocals still compel attention on the mainly up-tempo material (apart from a pointless version of ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ which has nothing to interest the listener). Highlights include the title track, a black gospel classic from the 1930s given a country makeover with swirling fiddle and harmonica; a warm version of ‘Precious Memories’, a slowed-down take on ‘Were You There’, the insistent gospel of ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Oh Death’, and ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’. The Blind Boys of Alabama guest on two gospel tracks, and contemporary Christian group the Crabb Family on another. The least effective track is a pointless sing along of ‘He’s Go the Whole World In His Hands’.

Randy’s religious detour produced some fine music, even if it was a little frustrating for fans of his secular music. All these albums are easy to get hold of.

Grades:

Inspirational Journey: A
Rise And Shine: B+
Worship And Faith: A-
Passing Through: B+
Glory Train: B

Single Review: Laura Bell Bundy – ‘Drop On By’

“Another shot of whiskey, can’t stop looking at the door
Wishing you’d come sweeping in the way you did before …
It’s a quarter after one, I’m a little drunk, and I need you now”

“I’m sitting here lonely, going crazy, hoping that there’s a chance that maybe
Oh baby, you could drop on by …
You and me and this bottle of warm red wine are both workin on my mind, and I need you now”

Other than the fact that you just don’t mix whiskey with wine, these lyrics could come from the same song.  The second single from Laura Bell Bundy’s ambitious Achin and Shakin’ album sounds so thematically similar to the smash Lady Antebellum hit it’s impossible not to hear the similarities.  Still, this effort from the Broadway-bred singer is a fairly good song in its own right, with a vocal to match.

Written by veteran tunesmiths Brice Long and Ronnie Rogers, blues and modern country combine in this slow-burning, come-hither number, asking simply ‘won’t you drop on by?’  Bundy’s voice, while pleasant enough, isn’t powerful enough to really sell the lyric.  And I found myself more annoyed with her nasal nuances than entertained by the second listen.

With her first single, she was sold convincingly as a sex symbol, and in that regard, ‘Drop On By’ follows suit.  It also introduces listeners to the Achin’ side of her album with rather perplexing results.  Sure, it sounds a bit neo-traditional (a bit, mind you).  But all in all, it’s just another sunny song – the only ‘aching’ aspect of the song is her slight loneliness for the man she desires – and is designed to arouse the senses of 30 and 40-something women who can merely fantasize about the situation presented in the lyrics.  In that regard, it should also succeed.  As far as convincing me that Laura Bell Bundy is a serious country artist, it falls short.

Grade: C-

‘Drop On By’ is available for purchase at amazon.

Watch the music video here.

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘See If I Care’

Seven years after his debut single hit the charts, Gary Allan’s career was showing serious signs of heating up.  His previous two studio albums had gone platinum and he had the year before scored his first #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Consequently, he was nominated for the CMA’s Horizon Award just before his fifth album, See If I Care, hit stores in September 2003.  Like its predecessor, See If I Care would give Gary another platinum frame for his wall, and would spawn 2 chart-toppers and another top 15 hit.  The album debuted at its peak on the Billboard Country Albums chart at a respectable #2 slot, meanwhile scratching the top 20 in the all-genre chart.

‘Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey’, the rocking album opener finds the singer drowning his sorrows with black label whiskey while telling all his friends and fellow barflies white lies about how happy he is.  The Steeldrivers would later record a bluegrass version of the tune.

‘I Can’t Do It Today’ is a John Rich co-write with fellow Muzik Mafia members Vicky McGehee (a member of the Gretchen Wilson posse) and Rodney Clawson.  Gary slips into falsetto vocals perhaps a little too often in the bluesy kiss-off number, and the melody is a little clunky.  It’s placement at the beginning of the set is awkward as it is definite filler.

Gary would earn his second consecutive #1 with the album’s lead single, the poignant ‘Tough Little Boys’.  The almost-saccharine lyric is a bit of a departure from the material we’re used to hearing from Allan.  It’s a neat, three-act story song revolving around the story of a little boy who grows up and hurts and cries again when he becomes a dad.  The message of just how much macho men love their families, but can’t put their feelings into words, has always resonated well with the country audience and this is certainly one of the better attempts at tugging at country fans’ heartstrings.

The disc’s title track is more akin to the sound Allan had crafted for himself in previous albums.  ‘See If I Care’ finds the singer hiding his heartache with mock sarcasm.  The burning delivery from Gary gives real character to the brilliant Jamie O’Hara lyric.

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Album Review: Gary Alan – ‘Smoke Rings In The Dark’

Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.

The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:

I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark

The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark

I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark

This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.

His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.

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