My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Byron Gallimore

Album Review: The Forester Sisters – ‘All I Need’

The Forester Sisters grew up singing in church, and as their career progressed, they wanted to share their faith with their fans. In 1988 they released a side project double album of hymns entitled Family Faith on Heartland Music, and the following year came All I Need on their main label Warner Brothers.

There was even an official single, ‘Love Will’, written by Don Pfrimmer and Byron Gallimore. This is a really sweet idealistic song backed with a string arrangement. It had in fact appeared on their previous album, Sincerely.

Nothing can be everlasting
Or send an Iron Curtain crashing
But love will…

Love will not forsake you on the last day that you live
‘Cause you can take it with you when you go…

I don’t wanna be there if we all wake up too late
Love’s the only weapon that is strong enough for hate

The title track is a mellow ballad which could be read as a secular love song, but in the context of this album is clearly directed at God. It was written by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles.

The bright and airy ‘Still In The Spirit’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Thomas Cain.

Christian Contemporary songwriter (and later an artist in that genre himself) Chris Rice wrote ‘Already There’, a beautiful tender ballad about heaven.

‘This Old House’ is not the Stuart Hamblen classic but a pleasant mid-paced song about a real home, written by Greg Davis and John Randall Dennis.

‘Peace Within’ is a Christian country standard, written by Dickey Lee, Allen Reynolds and Susan Taylor. The girls had previously released their delightful version of this song on their Family Faith album, together with gospel favorite ‘Precious Memories’ and the uplifting hymn ‘Love Lifted Me’. Also repeated is a gorgeous soulful reading of ‘Amazing Grace’, performed as a duet with Larnelle Harris, a Southern gospel singer with a rich voice.

The album closes with the traditional ‘Motherless Child’, performed as an ethereal accappella tune.

Some of the production is a bit dated now, but it is not unpleasant. The girls are in great voice and this is an excellent religious album with some country elements.

Grade: A-

Abum Review: Forester Sisters – ‘Sincerely’

Sincerely was the Forester Sisters’ fifth studio album for Warner Brothers, although it should be noted that the fourth album was a Christmas album. Released in July 1988, Sincerely continued the downward trend of charting lower than each previous (non Christmas) album, reaching only #30 on the charts. Three singles were released from the album, each reaching the top ten but none getting any higher than #7.

The album opens up with “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which was written by Paul McCartney & John Lennon an album track for the British version of the Beatles Help! album. The song has been covered and performed by many country and bluegrass groups over the years and Calamity Jane released it as a low charting single (#44 in 1982). The Forester Sisters give the song a slow intro but then launch into the standard tempo for the song. It’s nice but nothing special.

Byron Gallimore and Don Pfrimmer wrote the next song, “I Will”, a slow ballad that was released as the third (and highest charting) single from the album, reaching #7. It’s a nice song:

Nothing grows in the driest places,
the bitter cold,
or children’s faces,
like love will,
love will…

Nothing can be everlasting
or send an iron curtain crashing
like love will,
love will…

“Letter Home” is up next and was the first single from the album. It only reached #9 but in my opinion this Wendy Waldman composition was the best song on the album

Dear mama, I hope that you’re alright
I can hear the thunder rollin’
Across the Southern sky tonight
The kids are asleep and the T.V.’s on
And I’m sittin’ here alone
So I thought I’d write this letter home

I was the one you were counting on
The family’s high school star
Jimmy and me ran off that summer
Must have broken your and daddy’s heart
We didn’t need nobody’s help
We were 18 years and grown
That’s why there was no letter home

Letters home I wrote them in my dreams
Askin’ if I know what I know now
Would it even have changed a thing
The hardest part of looking back
Is the mistakes are all your own
I just couldn’t tell you
So there was no letter home

Doug Stone would have a #5 hit in 1990 on Harlan Howard’s “These Lips Just Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”. The Foresters do a pleasant enough job on the song, but it seems more effective from a male perspective. Stone’s version was deservedly a hit, this version is nothing more than album filler.

Next up is the title track “Sincerely”. This song, written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, was originally recorded by Moonglows, the group of which Fuqua was a member. The Moonglows’ version reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and number 20 on the Billboard Juke Box chart in the early months of 1954. Later during the year the song was covered by the McGuire Sisters. The song reached #1 in 1955 and sold well over a million records. The Forester Sisters version of “Sincerely” is pretty, albeit over-orchestrated and a bit bland. The song reached #8 and was the second single released from the album.

The next track “Things Will Grow” is filler. “Some People”, written by Carol Chase and Dave Gibson, speaks a lot of truth and is perhaps more than simply filler – I can envision a string voiced singer making a hit out of the song.

Russell Smith and Susan Longacre combined to write “On The Other Side Of The Gate”, a song given a more hard country treatment than most of the songs on the album, with steel in evidence and fiddle breaks. I really liked this song.

“You Love Me” from the pens of Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset is a really interesting song with a different feel than anything else on the album. At points the arrangement reminds me of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” although the lyrics are entirely dissimilar

The last song on the album is Karen Staley’s “Matter Of Time”, a slow ballad about loss of love and the slow passage of time.

The Forester Sisters were bucking the emerging “New Traditionalist” movement with this album. While I like the album a lot, it has more of a 50s-60s easy listening vibe to it than a modern/traditional country vibe. As a easy listening album I would give it an “A” but as a country album I would downgrade it to a “B”.

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Time Flies’

After he was dropped by Warner Brothers. JMM released one further album, 2008’s Time Flies, on independent label Stringtown Records. Recorded in his brother Eddie’s home studio, it was produced by Byron Gallimore with, for the most part, his trademark sheen and lack of subtlety.

The lead single (or at least the first song released, as it did not chart), ‘Mad Cowboy Disease’, is a tongue in cheek country rocker written by Jamey Johnson, Jon Maddox and Jeremy Popoff. JMM sings it with a commitment which carries off a sometimes silly lyric, and there’s even a fun nod to Mel Tillis in the song. Next up was ‘If You Ever Went Away’, an emotional ballad written by Randy Houser and Daryl Burgess. It is a nice song which JMM sings well, but a bit over-produced. ‘Forever’, which was an actual radio single and made it into the top 30, is a very boring AC song.

Jamey Johnson contributed another pair of songs. ‘What Did I Do?’ (written with George Teren) is a rocking love song – not bad but over-produced. ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is quite a pleasant ballad which Johnson wrote with Arlis Albritton and Jeremy Popoff.

‘Loving And Letting Go’, written by Greg Barnhill and Gary Hannan, is a rather dull AC ballad. ‘Fly On’ is better, a wistful ballad about loss.

Luke Bryan’s own career has led to considerable (and often justified) disdain from more traditional country fans, but his cowrite with Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller included here, ‘With My Shirt On’ is actually rather good, with a wryly amusing lyric about noticing the ravages of middle age:

Remember Key West spring break
We were 21, in perfect shape
We stayed oiled up and half naked all week long
But that was 10 years and 20 pounds ago
Girl, you’re still a 10 but I’m somewhere below
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on?

Now you say our love has grown beyond the physical
And you tell me that you think I’m irresistible
Today I had a salad but I gave in and ate a roll
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on

The best tracks all cluster at the end of the set, with Gallimore reining it back a bit. The best is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, a powerful Chris Stapleton song which Stapleton himself finally recorded in 2017. JMM’s vocal is much less intense but it is a pretty good performance of a great song which feels believable, and there is a tasteful steel-laced arrangement.

‘All In A Day’ is a warmly sung song about the passage of time as a beloved grandfather comes to the end of his life, set to a soothing melody. Written by Daryl Burgess and Dan Denny, it provides he album’s title.

JMM co-wrote the charming autobiographical ‘Brothers Til The End’, about growing up playing country music in a family band with his parents and brother Eddie, and thein their rival country music careers, “chasing each other up and down the charts”.

Grade: B

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Letters Fom Home’

Letters From Home was John Michael Montgomery’s [“JMM”] ninth studio album, and his third released on the Warner Brothers label. Released in April 2004, JMM’s career its downhill slide. Although the album charted reasonably well (#3 country /#31 all-genres), sales were tepid and the album received no RIAA certifications. There would be one more studio album (released in 2008) that charted poorly.

In the wake of 9/11 there were many patriotic songs released, a few quite good and many being little more than jingoistic flag wavers. This album features one of the better such songs in the title track, Tony Lane and David Lee’s “Letters From Home”. This song transcends the politics of the moment with a timeless, understated, but emotionally moving portrayal of a soldier at war, whose soul scorching daily grind is eased by news from family and friends back home. The song does not mention any politicians or villains by name, so in a sense it is a universal song that could apply to any soldier at any time in our nation’s history. The song soared to #2 country and would rise to #24 on the pop charts (the best showing ever for a JMM single) and its rise on the charts is commensurate with its quality.

My dearest son, it’s almost June
I hope this letter catches up with you
And finds you well
It’s been dry
But they’re callin’ for rain
And everything’s the same old same
In Johnsonville
Your stubborn old daddy
Ain’t said too much
But I’m sure you know
He sends his love

And she goes on
In a letter from home

I hold it up and show my buddies
Like we ain’t scared
And our boots ain’t muddy
And they all laugh
Like there’s something funny
‘Bout the way I talk
When I say, “Mamma sends her best, y’all”
I fold it up and put it in my shirt
Pick up my gun and get back to work

And it keeps me drivin’ on
Waitin’ on letters from home

Only one more single would be released from the album, “Goes Good with Beer” which peaked at #51. The song undoubtedly would have been a bigger hit had it been released during JMM’s heyday. As it was, it barely received any airplay in my part of the country.

Flat tire on the interstate
Too many nights of workin’ too late
Had a run in with an old memory
No, it ain’t been the best of weeks

But it goes good with beer and the Friday night atmosphere
Of this cross-town bar where the cars all get steered to
And it goes hand in hand with my
Crazy buddies and this three-piece band
And the pretty girls and the games we play and the smoke and mirrors
Yeah, troubles come, but they go good with beer, yeah, they do, yeah

I think that the mid-tempo ballad “That Changes Everything” would have made a good single, but I also think that the label regarded the title track as a fluke hit (or last hurrah), and had lost interest in JMM by this time. Moreover, JMM’s sound and production were getting more country at a time when country radio was viewing acts like Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean as representing the epitome of country music. Billy Currington also recorded the song as an album track but I like JMM’s version better.

I said, “I know a shrimp boat captain out of Galveston”
I’ve been thinkin’ I’d go down and work for a spell
Oh, you never can tell it just might suit me fine
Spend some time out on the bay
But then there’s always cowboy work in Colorado
And I was thinkin’ that that just might be the thing
Make a little pocket change I figure what the heck
Ain’t nothin’ standin’ in my way
But then she smiled at me

Looked a while at me
And that changes everything
That’s a whole “nother deal
That puts a brand new spin
On this ole rollin’ wheel
That’s some powerful stuff
That’s a girl in love
And that’s one thing
That changes everything

This is a pretty decent album, which I would give a B+. The production by Byron Gallimore and JMM features Tom Bukovac on electric guitar, Mark Casstevens on banjo, Stuart Duncan & Larry Frankin on fiddle, mandolin, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, dobro, and Glen Worf on bass among the many fine musicians utilized on the album.

Track Listing

“Good Ground” (Bill Luther, Bob Regan, Naoise Sheridan) – 4:09
“Letters from Home” (Tony Lane, David Lee) – 4:27
“That’s What I’m Talking About” (Paul Nelson, Tom Shapiro) – 3:24
“Look at Me Now” (Mike Geiger, Vicky McGehee, D. Vincent Williams) – 3:22
“Goes Good with Beer” (Casey Beathard, Ed Hill) – 4:26
“Cool” (Harley Allen, Brice Long) – 3:38
“It Rocked” (Marty Dodson, Paul Overstreet) – 3:50
“That Changes Everything” (Lane, Lee) – 3:57
“Break This Chain” (Jim Collins, Billy Yates) – 2:52
“Little Devil” (Blair Daly, Danny Orton) – 3:47

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘Only The Heart’

Big Spring, Texas native Ronna Reeves released her debut album on PolyGram/Mercury Records in 1991. Only The Heart was a commercial dud, with the album and all four of its singles failing to chart.

Reeves’ debut single, the excellent steel laced chugger “Sadly Mistaken” was co-written by Byron Gallimore. The would-be power ballad “The Letter,” which followed, wasn’t very good or well-written.

The third single, “That’s More About Love (Than I Wanted To Know)” came with pedigree — Dickey Lee and Bob McDill co-wrote the mid-tempo ballad, which was originally released as a low-charting single by Nicolette Larson in 1986. Reeves’ version is good but hasn’t aged well through the years.

“Ain’t No Future In The Past,” a nice up-tempo rocker, ending the label’s promotional run with this album. The title track, a wonderful ballad, was written solely by Karen Staley.

In addition to the Lee/McDill co-write, Only The Heart had one more notable moment. Reeves covered country legend Ernie Ashworth’s classic “Talk Back Trembling Lips.” Her version is spellbindingly good and easily one of the best songs on the albums.

“I Could Be Loving You” is a well-executed and engaging uptempo rocker. “Sayin’ You’re Wrong Don’t Make It Right” is a wonderful example of 1990s country at its best. “If I Were You” features an almost identical story to Terri Clark’s classic of the same name, which would appear four years later. Clark’s take on the theme is better and far more polished. “Same Old Story” is an excellent Tony Arata ballad.

Only The Heart is a mixed bag with some truly great songs, some that are just okay, and not enough to make me excited to see where Reeves will head as an artist. I can see why it failed. The album just isn’t distinctive enough to stand out from the pack. She’s a great singer in search of better material.

Grade B+

Album Review: Ty England – ‘Two Ways To Fall’

Ty turned to Byron Gallimore and James Stroud to produce his second RCA album in 1996. It was filled with positive, mainly up-tempo material, without a broken heart in sight.

The lead single, the energetic up-tempo blue-collar love song ‘Irresistible You’ is, if not quite irresistible, quite enjoyable, although the production is a bit too busy. Written by Billy Lawson, it peaked at #22. The second and final single ‘All Of The Above’, written by Chris Waters and Jon Robbin, failed to crack the top 40, but I actually prefer it. It’s a little fluffy lyrically, with its multiple choice test with no wrong answers, but Ty’s earnest vocal sells it as a sweet love song.

Ty was generally more at home on the upbeat material. The frantic opener ‘It Starts With L’, written by Sandy Ramos, is very catchy and could have been a single. ‘Never Say Never’ (by Al Anderson and Craig Wiseman) has a similar vibe.

The title track, written by husband and wife team Barry and Holly Tashian with Mark D Sanders, is a nice mid paced song about the ups and downs of love, although the arrangement does sound a little dated now.

‘I’ll Take Today’ is a nice ballad about an encounter with an ex he no longer regrets losing, and affirming his love for his present partner. ‘Sure’ is another pleasant love song.

‘The Last Dance’, written by Tony Martin, Reece Wilson and Roger Springer, is a lovely midpaced story song on the lines of Rhett Akins’s 1995 hit ‘She Said Yes’, with a shy boy finding love at a high school dance, and then marrying the girl:

Nervous and scared I asked you for a dance
All of my buddies said “Yeah, right, fat chance
She’ll never go for a good ol’ boy like you”
But somewhere between my stutter and stammer
Before I could ask you had already answered
And to my surprise you said that you’d love to

And they all laughed when I stepped on your toes
But they got quiet when you moved in close
They lost their smiles when they knew they’d lost their chance
My two left feet couldn’t do a right thing
I looked like a fool but I felt like a king
Oh, they got a laugh
But look who got the last dance

Nervous and scared after saying “I do”
All of my buddies made fun of the new groom
As they stood in line waiting to kiss the bride
They kept us apart dancing with you all night long
But when the band started into their last song
I was the one standing by your side

I really like this song. The same writing trio provided ‘Kick Back’, a bright western swing tune about accepting life.

The highlight of the record, though, is ‘Backslider’s Prayer’, a touching story song about a man struggling with life and faith who ends up praying out loud in a crowded diner:

He said “I know this ain’t the time or place
But Lord, I need to talk”
In a business suit in a corner booth
In a crowded little restaurant

We all tried not to listen
We all tried not to look
But a whole room full of customers
And the waitress and the cook
All stopped what we were doing
When he bowed his head
In that silence we heard every word he said

“I’ve been trying to do things my way
Down here on life’s highway
Slippin’, slidin’ sideways
Between no way and nowhere
If I could only gain a foothold
Up there on your high road
Lord, if you hear me help me
I’ll do anything you tell me to
All I’ve got to offer you is this
Backslider’s prayer

Well, the waitress made the first move
When she filled his coffee cup
She said “You ain’t alone here, mister
You’re speaking for the rest of us”
I heard some scattered Amens
And a couple of “I’ve been theres”
Then things got back to normal
The dishes and the silverware
Were clanging in the kitchen
Like an angels’ band
As I took my place in line
To shake his hand

While a perfectly capable singer, Ty was not at all distinctive as a vocalist, and the lack of emotional depth and variety on this album is another drawback. It’s not a major surprise that radio lost interest, and RCA pulled the plug on his record deal after this album. It remains pleasant listening, but not essential.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Damn Country Music’

1035x1035-image003Tim McGraw’s fourteenth album, Damn Country Music, is his third release for Big Machine Records in as many years. Like the majority of his work, McGraw co-produced the album with Byron Gallimore.

Lead single “Top of the World” currently sits just inside the top ten. The sweeping ballad is a pop confection, complete with beats surrounding McGraw’s smooth voice. He’s done better, but he’s also given us far worse.

McGraw previewed the title track in lead up to the album’s release. “Damn Country Music” is a chase your dreams in the music industry song, set to a somewhat cluttered unmistakably country arrangement. I really like the message that no matter what, life always circles back to the same thing:

It’s the hum of wheels on a blacktop

The strum of strings on a flat top

It’ll take you, break you

Damn sure, make you

Do things; you never thought you’d be doing

Damn country music

Rodney Clawson scored three co-writes on the album. “Losin’ You” is a progressive laundry list pop ballad about all the places he keeps losing the woman who already broke up with him. “Want You Back” is more of the same, but this time he’s begging his girl to come back home. “California” is the most ‘country’ of the three, but the arrangement is so progressive, you’d never know it. The track features Big & Rich, but their ‘contributions’ are basically inaudible.

“Here Tonight,” the other duet, features his eldest daughter eighteen-year-old Gracie, the front woman of alt-rock band Tingo. It’s very good, although McGraw and Gallimore should’ve stripped away the wailing guitars to reveal the organic charm underneath.

I first heard “Humble and Kind” when Little Big Town brought Lori McKenna on stage to sing it at a local concert last year (McKenna lives in my area and has even appeared on the radio station where I assist with the morning news show). The song is excellent and I like what McGraw has done with it. I only wish the key could’ve been moved up so McGraw could sing in a more pleasing place in his voice. As it stands, he doesn’t have the vocal to carry the song.

“How I’ll Always Be” is one of the more charming songs, with a shuffle arrangement echoing “Just To See You Smile.” The latter blows the former out of the water, but at least McGraw gives us one track that tries to retain some hint of country music.

I can hear how “Love Does” would’ve easily fit into an early 2000s context, but the proceedings are ruined by a clubby arrangement and processed vocal that renders McGraw almost unrecognizable. “What You’re Looking For” is just more of the same.

What isn’t more of the same is “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home,” the only track on the album that is unmistakably country music through and through. The arrangement is crap, but the obvious country elements shine through loud and clear. In the late 1990s, this tune about a guy begging to be loved would’ve been clean, sharp and a multi-week chart topper. As it stands right now, the track is just too cluttered.

Damn Country Music, despite its title, is country music by association only. Tim McGraw has made a progressive pop record, and a bad one at that. I’m sick of him showing his gravelly side dressed up with gritty gruff guitars. I’m sick of the processed vocals and watered down vibe he continues to go for. McGraw should’ve been at the CMAs to watch Chris Stapleton execute this style correctly. Let the new guy teach the old guy how its done.

Grade: C

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Burn’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: 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+

Spotlight Artist: Jo Dee Messina

JDMMost country artists are proud of their Southern heritage but our August spotlight artist hails from a part of the country that is not particularly known for producing country music stars. Jo Dee Messina was born in Holliston, Massachusetts on August 25, 1970. Influenced by acts such as Patsy Cilne, Reba McEntire and The Judds, she performed in local clubs as part of a family band during her high school years, and moved to Nashville at age 19. While waiting for her big break, she came to the attention of producer Byron Gallimore and became friendly with another up-and-coming artist named Tim McGraw.

Gallimore and McGraw co-produced Messina’s eponymous debut album for Curb, which was released in 1996. The first single, “Heads Carolina, Tails California” was an instant success that shot to #2 on the Billboard country singles chart. The follow-up single “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore” reached #7, though it is not one of her better remembered hits today. After that, two subsequent singles failed to reach the Top 40 and many critics began to write off Messina as a flash in the pan. Jo Dee proved them wrong when she released her sophomore set in 1998. That album, I’m Alright, produced five hits, including three #1s and a remake of Dottie West’s “A Lesson In Leavin’”, which landed at #2. I’m Alright attained double-platinum sales in the United States and it remains her best-selling album.

Although Jo Dee’s impact in the late 90s and early 2000s was great, her reign at the top of the charts was relatively brief, in part due to personal problems such as bankruptcy and a stint in rehab for alcoholism. Her discography is small – only five studio albums (excluding a Christmas collection) to date, but she managed to rack up nine #1 hits between 1998 and 2005. Today she is a mother of two and continues to perform, although she is no longer on the roster of Curb Records. Her latest collection, Me, was released last year on her own label with the aid of a Kickstarter campaign. We hope you’ll enjoy our look back at her career highlights during the month of July.

5 questions with Dakota Bradley

dakota bradleyDakota Bradley has already caught the attention of talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, country star Tim McGraw and hit-making producer Byron Gallimore, who were all instrumental in the eighteen-year old’s eventual signing to Streamsound Records.  In a quick phone chat before his show at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Phoenix last week, we talked about his first single, “Somethin’ Like Somethin'” and the celebrity connection to his claim to fame.

J.R. Journey: You first appeared on the Ellen show as a duo. Now you’re a solo artist. How did that come about?

Dakota Bradley: Everything happened so fast after I was on that show. I literally just hit my eighty-fifth city on my radio tour. I just finished an album – produced by Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw.

J.R.: How did that appearance lead to the Byron Gallimore/Tim McGraw connection? 

D.B.: Well, right after I was on Ellen, I got to meet some really cool people in Nashville. I got introduced to writers and everybody. And I got introduced to Byron. He gave me a publishing deal and a record deal right away, which was pretty unbelievable. And he introduced me to Tim. I played a couple songs for Tim and the next day we were cutting records. And I’ve been on a radio tour ever since then. It’s pretty wild out here.

J.R.: So, in addition to those guys producing your record, I see your first single was co-written by Shane McAnally (who is one of the hottest writers on Music Row right now) with Josh Kear and Mark Irwin. You’re keeping pretty good company for a teenage newcomer. Tell me about how came to record that song.

D.B.: Oh, I feel very lucky. Mr. Gallimore – Byron Gallimore – and Missy, Byron’s wife, have been instrumental in finding songs for Tim over the years, over his entire career. Missy found that song and brought it to the studio. Tim loved it, and we cut it. And Tim is actually the one who picked it for the first single.

J.R.: Anybody else you’d like to work with?

D.B.: Keith Urban. John Mayer. Taylor Swift. Just anybody who loves good music.

J.R.: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

D.B.: Hopefully still touring and making music, if I can be that lucky. It’s hard to see where I’m gonna be tomorrow. I just hope I’m still making music.

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Let It Go’

Like most of Tim McGraw’s albums, 2007’s Let It Go is a combination of the good, the bad, and the mediocre on which Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith returned to share co-production duties. The lead single was the annoyingly fluffy “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” which was written by Big & Rich’s Big Kenny. It’s a mediocre song with a sing-songy chorus that grows tiresome with repeated listenings. The final chorus on which McGraw is joined by his three young daughters only adds to the irritation factor. Nevertheless, it reached the top spot on the charts, becoming McGraw’s first #1 hit since 2004’s “Back When”.

Much more to my liking is the album’s second cut, “I’m Workin'”, written by Darrell Scott and Lori McKenna. It’s a gritty number that in years past would have been a big hit on country radio. From the opening line, “Damn, I hope no one dies on this night shift tonight”, the listener is immediately pulled into the story. The narrator’s profession is never revealed. My first thought was that he was a policeman, but he could just as easily be a paramedic or even an ER doctor. Another song that should have been a single is the album’s best track “Whiskey and You”, a pure country number written by Lee Thomas Miller and then-Steeldrivers member Chris Stapleton. Likely deemed too traditional for country radio, “Whiskey and You” was left to languish in obscurity as an album cut, passed over in favor of schlock like the title track, a boring AC-leaning duet with Faith Hill, and a cover of an Eddie Rabbitt song — one of the songs in the late singer/songwriter’s catalog least worthy of a remake.

Faith Hill makes one of her two guest appearances on “I Need You”, a rather lackluster number written by David Lee and Tony Lane, that reached #8. It’s not nearly as good as “Shotgun Rider”, which is not a true duet but features a prominent harmony vocal from Hill. Written by Anthony Smith, Jeffrey Steele and Sherrie Austin, it’s the best McGraw/Hill song I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad Tim and Faith haven’t done more songs in this vein.

“Suspicions” was a #1 hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1979, an era when a lot of barely-country sounding songs were big hits. It’s one of my least favorite Rabbitt songs. Tim’s version is very faithful to the original, but it only reached #12, making it one of the very few McGraw singles not to make the Top 10, in spite of Tim’s popularity and country radio’s increasing willingness to play non-country material. The follow-up single was the much more traditional “Kristofferson”, a tribute to one of country music’s greatest songwriters, written by Anthony Smith and Reed Nielsen. It fared even worse on the charts than “Suspicions”, stalling at #16. Tim bounced back, however, with the generic and overproduced title track, which climbed to #2.

The very best of the album’s seven singles was not included on the album when it was initially released. “If You’re Reading This”, on which Tim shares a rare songwriting credit with Brad and Brett Warren, was performed on the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. It tells the heartbreaking story of a fallen soldier, in his own words, in a letter to his wife, to be sent to her in the event of his death. It was one of the best performances of Tim’s career and was so well received that the song entered the Billboard charts from unsolicited airplay of the audio from the telecast. This prompted Curb to release the live recording as a single, between “I Need You” and “Suspicions” and to include it on subsequent pressings of the album. “If You’re Reading This” peaked at #3; I was surprised that it didn’t go all the way to #1.

Mid-2008 was about the time when Curb Records began playing games to prolong Tim’s contract. Instead of releasing a new album, they opted to release a seventh single, “Nothin’ To Die For”, a preachy and overproduced “don’t drink and drive” number that reads like a public service announcement that somehow climbed to #5 on the charts.

The rest of the album is mostly generic filler, with the exception of “Between The River and Me”, which tells the story of a son’s revenge against an abusive father. It’s a southern Gothic number in the traditon of “Ode To Billy Joe”, “Fancy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, but unlike those classics, “Between The River and Me” is ruined by over-the-top production that renders it almost unlistenable. To call it bombastic would be an understatement.

Though it has its share of duds, Let It Go is one of the stronger album’s in Tim’s discography and has enough good songs on it to make it worth recommending. It is easy to find at reasonable prices.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Live Like You Were Dying’

2004 saw the release of Tim’s eighth studio album, Live Like You Were Dying.  It proved to be something of a return to form after the disappointing Dancehall Doctors album, thanks to much better material, although Tim kept that production team of himself, band leader Darran Smith and Byron Gallimore, with the Dancehall Doctors again providing backing.  The album’s making was overshadowed by the death of Tim’s father Tug at the beginning of the year, and it can be no coincidence that much of the material here is about contemplating loss and death and the sum of one’s life.  Although Tim did not contribute to any of the songwriting, the overall feel is of a very personal selection of material.

The title track served as the lead single, and it was exceptionally successful, hitting #1 and selling a million copies.  Written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, it tells the story of a 40something man who is spurred by a potentially terminal diagnosis to experience various things on his “bucket list” before it is too late.  The underlying Hallmark card message about living life to the full was obviously inspiring to many listeners, and touchingly it’s about being a good friend and husband as well as just having fun and engaging in dangerous sports (not something most people would actually be able to do if suffering a fatal illness).  The nostalgic but even more cliche’d ‘Back When’ was, surprisingly, the album’s second straight chart topper, although it is the album’s least imaginative song, and one that makes Tim sound like an old man grumbling about changing times and new uses of words.  It’s also rather disconcerting to hear the far-from-traditional McGraw complaining about “pop in my country”.

The much better ‘Drugs Or Jesus’ then faltered just inside the top 15.  It’s an interesting song about being trapped in a small town, where religion and illegal highs offer the only escape:

In my hometown

You’re either lost or found

It was probably too bleak and challenging an approach to be embraced by country radio, too often inclined to the comfortably self congratulatory when examining rural or small-town life.  The protagonist in this case has been fleeing from God, but seems to accept Him at the end.

The sour post-divorce tale of ‘Do You Want Fries With That?’ took him back to the top 5.  It’s an entertaining if slightly cartoonish tale (written by Casey Beathard and Kerry Kurt Philips) of a man financially ruined by the breakup of his marriage and reduced to a second job serving fast food, who encounters and rails against the man who has taken his place in the family home:

Your ketchup’s in the bag
And her check is in the mail
I hope your chicken’s raw inside
And I hope your bun is stale
I’m supposed to tell you
“Please come back!”
But how ‘bout this instead?
I hope you both choke on a pickle
Man, that would tickle me to death

The final single, the reflective ‘My Old Friend’, about an old friend who has died, is quite good, but would have been more appealing given a stripped down production.  It peaked at #6.

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Album Review: ‘Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors’

Nearly a decade into his recording career, Tim McGraw broke with the usual Music City practice of using studio musicians for his eighth album. Instead, he opted to get of town and took his road band to a studio in upstate New York where Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors was created. On the relatively rare occasions when country artists do use their road bands in the studio, it usually results in a reasonable replication of how the artist and musicians sound in concert. In this case, however, the production on most tracks is very layered and wall-of-sound-like, making it difficult to assess the actual contributions of the Dancehall Doctors. There’s nothing really distinctive about their sound or style of playing, so I’m not really sure what the purpose of using them was, except as a marketing tool or perhaps a vanity indulgence on Tim’s part.

Tim and co–producers Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith use the album as an occasion to branch out a bit stylistically, opting for a more soft-rock or AC rather than country sound for the most part, a move that I suspect was prompted by the tremendous success his wife Faith Hill was having on the pop charts at the time. While he deserves credit for his willingness to try something different, the experiment largely falls flat and serves to highlight his shortcomings as a vocalist, rather than present him as a versatile artist. To be fair, this isn’t a 100% pop album, as Tim does make a number of concessions to his country fans.

The first single to be sent to radio was one of the more country-sounding numbers, “Red Rag Top”, a song that I have never been able to enjoy partially because because I find the subject matter to be repugnant, but mostly because of the dismissive attitude of the narrator in the aftermath of the termination of his girlfriend’s unwanted pregnancy. It was a gutsy move to release a song about abortion to conservative country radio. I don’t recall much of a backlash at the time, but enough stations refused to play it that it broke McGraw’s string of consecutive #1 hits. Still, it peaked at a very respectable #5.
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Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘All I Want’

Once Tim had made his commercial breakthrough, he was able to be a little more adventurous with his third album in 1995. This marks the point at which one can call Tim McGraw an artist rather than just a singer. The song quality was good, but the production (orchstrated as before by James Stroud and Byron Gallimore) lacks subtlety and leans a little too heavily to electric guitars front and center. Although sales were less than for its predecessor, Tim had found a firm place on country radio, as evidenced by five top 5 singles, two of them #1s.

Lead single, the silly but somehow irresistibly catchy ditty ‘I Like It, I Love It’ (complete with a nod to the Big Bopper), was Tim’s third #1. It also had some pop airplay. The singalong nature of the song for once makes crowd noise acceptable. This song should probably fall in the guilty pleasure category, but I don’t even feel guilty about it.

The rather good emotional string-laden ballad ‘Can’t Be Really Gone’, written by Gary Burr, fell just short, peaking at #2. Tim is not one of the best vocalists around, but this is one of his better efforts, with a real emotional commitment to this song about a man in denial about the permanence of his wife’s leaving. Title track ‘All I Want Is A Life’ is an up-tempo rocker without much melody and with too-loud and now dated sounding production, but a relatable lyric about struggling with poverty and aspirations for something more. It was the least successful of the album’s singles, but still peaked at #5.

Also a bit heavily produced but less obtrusively so, ‘She Never Lets It Go To Her Heart’ was another chart-topper, written by the hitmaking team of Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters. The mid-tempo ‘Maybe We Should Just Sleep On It’ (written by Jerry Laseter and Kerry Kurt Phillips) also did well, peaking at #4. These two are okay but not outstanding, and there was better material on the album, such as the relatively understated ballad ‘The Great Divide’, written by Brett Beavers. This is a very good depiction of a couple trapped in a tired marriage, who would rather pay attention to their respective book and TV show than one another. There is still hope their love can be rekindled.

‘I Didn’t Ask And She Didn’t Say’ is a nicely observed song, written by Reese Wilson, Van Stephenson and Tony Martin. Flight delays lead to an awkward encounter with a long-past ex, where the real questions remain unanswered. Tim’s voice has an urgency in it betraying the protagonist’s suppressed passion as he recalls past happiness, before they part with everything unresolved:

We said our goodbyes
Swore we’d stay in touch
Then we went our separate ways
Knowing no one ever does

‘When She Wakes Up (And Finds Me Gone)’ is another mature song with complex emotions which is well sung by Tim, but would have worked better for me with more stripped down production. The extended electric guitar solo at the end is excessive and adds nothing worthwhile. ‘Don’t Mention Memphis’ is another good song about a breakup, written by Bill LaBounty and Rand Bishop, but the rhythm is abit jerky and the track is over-produced. The impassioned ‘You Got The Wrong Man’ is also quite entertaining if rather processed sounding, as Tim tries to persuade a woman burnt by love before that he isn’t like the man who broke her heart.

Then there are a couple of real missteps. ‘Renegade’ is a boring rocker with Tim unconvincing as a rebel. ‘That’s Just Me’ is a southern/country boy pride number written by Deryl Dodd which sounds musically a little like a slightly slower ‘Indian Outlaw’. Dodd recorded it himself a couple of years later when making his Columbia Records debut.

Overall, the material selected here was a major advance for Tim McGraw, but the production choices are less palatable. Tim had found his musical direction, and if it was a long way from the traditionalism of his first album, it held a lot of appeal for country radio and cemented his fanbase. Triple platinum sales meant this was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it is a better, more mature work. Better still, from Tim’s point of view, while topuring in support of the album, he fell in love with opening act Faith Hill, and by the time his next album came out he would be a husband and father.

Used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Tim McGraw’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This track was produced by Doug Johnson.

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

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

Grade: B-

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Emotional Traffic’

Were I unaware of the longstanding feud between Tim McGraw and Curb Records, and the resulting lawsuit surrounding the release of Emotional Traffic, I would likely be asking myself what on earth Tim was thinking when he recorded this collection. It’s difficult to imagine that he thought his fans were clamoring for an album of overproduced junk that, with only a few exceptions, is far removed from the realm of country music. One possible explanation is that it is an act of deliberate sabotage on Tim’s part, a parting shot at an unscrupulous company that went to great lengths to extend his contract term. It seems like a stretch at first, but the more I listened to the album, the more plausible the theory seems. While I do think that Curb treated McGraw shabbily, I’m slightly more sympathetic towards them after giving Emotional Traffic several spins. While Curb’s legal objections to Emotional Traffic were concerned with the timeframe in which the album was recorded, a more meritorious argument would have been that it doesn’t meet the standards of McGraw’s earlier work and that it provides them with very little usable material to promote to country radio. Make no mistake, this is one hot mess of a record.

Emotional Traffic was co-produced by Tim and Byron Gallimore, who has had a hand in producing Tim’s records since the very beginning of his career. Originally recorded in 2010, the album was shelved in favor of a redundant hits compilation and was then further delayed by the court case. One track, “Felt Good on My Lips” was released as a single in September 2010 and made it to #1. Though I’m not overly fond of the song, it does have a catchy melody, and despite its throwaway, fluffy lyrics, it’s one of three songs on the album that is at least tolerable. It was written by the Warren Brothers — who contributed four songs to the album — along with Brett Beavers and Jim Beavers. This foursome also collaborated on the rather annoying and sing-songy “Hey Now.” Tim himself shares songwriting credits along with Brett and Brad Warren and Martina McBride on “I Will Not Fall Down”, an introspective song about getting older that aims to be inspirational (“I will not fall down without getting up”), which ultimately falls flat due to the constant repetition of the title line, over-processed vocals and too-busy production.

“Touchdown Jesus”, written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip is not a great song but it’s infinitely superior to most of the other offerings here. It has the potential to be a hit single, and I think I could get to like it more with repeated listenings, although it does degenerate into a bombastic gospel-like song towards the end.

Of the twelve tracks on this album, only one — the current single “Better Than I Used To Be” — is truly good — although, as Occasional Hope recently pointed out, it cannot compete with Sammy Kershaw’s far superior version. Nevertheless, I’m glad that someone who is still getting radio airplay decided to give it a chance. The only truly country-sounding song on the album, it is currently on the verge of cracking the Top 20 and will likely reach the higher rungs of the chart.

With the exceptions of “Better Than I Used To Be”, “Touchdown Jesus” and the mediocre “Felt Good On My Lips”, I’m afraid that I found Emotional Traffic to be quite unlistenable, and I imagine that all but the most dedicated McGraw fans will be disappointed in it. While Tim has never been one of my favorite artists, he has had a knack for picking some very good material in the past. Hopefully he has some better songs on hold for his next project once the remaining legal issues play out.

Grade: D

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘There’s More Where That Came From’

2005’s There’s More Where That Came From is a pivotal album in the discography of Lee Ann Womack that helped to erase memories of the disastrous Something Worth Leaving Behind and to re-establish much of the credibility that she had lost with that ill-advised flirtation with pop diva-dom. Three years after her last full-length studio release, Lee Ann was back in a big way, with a new producer and a new sound. Or, perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be a new old sound. There’s More Where That Came From pays homage to a bygone era, with a retro sound and artwork that made it resemble a Tammy Wynette album from the 1970s. The disc itself even has the same design that MCA had used on its vinyl releases in the 70s and 80s, with a rainbow coming out of the clouds.

The country music landscape had changed considerably since Lee Ann’s debut just eight year earlier. Whereas her first album arrived at a time when it appeared that the genre might be swinging back toward its roots, There’s More Where That Came From was released at a time when things had moved decidedly toward the pop end of the spectrum and when the youth movement was in full force, leaving artists over the age of 40 at a distinct disadvantage. It is therefore, a little surprising that Lee Ann was allowed to release what could only have been viewed at the time as a non-commercial album, but her career had nosedived so badly by that time, her label perhaps felt that there was nothing left to lose.
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Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Eleven’

In recent years Martina McBride has struggled to remain commercially relevant. Having landed only one Top 10 hit in the past seven years, she left her longtime label RCA last year in the hopes of reviving her flagging career. Unfortunately, the move to Republic Nashville has done little to change her commercial fortunes, as it has become apparent that her chart decline is due not to any neglectfulness on the part of RCA, but to her seeming inability to select decent material. She shares co-writing credits on six of Eleven’s tracks, the most she’s ever contributed to a single album, but for the most part this doesn’t result any measurable improvement over her other recent efforts.

When an artist ends a long term relationship with the label where she scored her greatest achievements, it can signal a bold new change in direction or a continued long period of stagnation. In Martina’s case, it’s definitely a case of the latter, as Eleven is more or less in the same vein as her last few, very lackluster albums for RCA. Her debut single for Republic Nashville, “Teenage Daughters”, offered a brief glimmer of hope that she might be getting her mojo back, but those hopes were quickly dashed as rest of the album is mostly a relapse back into the bubblegum pop she’s been peddling since 2006.

Though not a great song by any means, “Teenage Daughters” showed a spunkier side of Martina, which we’ve not seen in quite some time. Written by McBride and the Warren Brothers, the song deals with the challenges of raising adolescent daughters and was in no doubt inspired by Martina’s real-life experiences. The record peaked at #17. It was followed by what appears to be the intended centerpiece of the album, the God-awful “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”, the most shameless attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions to hit the airwaves since “God’s Will”. McBride and producer Byron Gallimore were likely hoping for a big power ballad hit that explores serious issues, in the vein of “Concrete Angel” or “A Broken Wing”. The problem is that the lyrics lack any subtlety whatsoever. It’s currently at #19 on the charts, but since most radio listeners really don’t want to hear songs about people suffering from cancer, I’ll wager that this one isn’t going to go much higher.

Most of the other tracks on the album, from the opening track “One Night” to the annoyingly sing-songy “Always Be This Way” and “Broken Umbrella” sound like throwbacks to 1970s-era Top 40 AM radio, reminiscent of the poorer efforts of artists like Helen Reddy, The Carpenters or The Captain and Tennille.

Despite these considerable drawbacks, Eleven does have its brighter moments. Though not very country, “Marry Me”, a cover of last year’s minor adult-contemporary hit by the pop/rock group Train, is quite pleasant. It is performed with the song’s writer and Train’s lead singer Pat Monahan. The bluesy “Whatcha Gonna Do”, written by Rachel Thibodeau, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jason Sever also works quite well and I’m guessing that it will eventually be released as a single. And things improve considerably with the album’s last three tracks, “Summer of Love”, “When You Love a Sinner” and the stunningly beautiful closing track “Long Distance Lullaby”, which Martina co-wrote with Mark Irwin and Josh Kear. These three numbers are the album’s best tracks, and serve as a reward of sorts for having persevered through the earlier tracks.

Having been disappointed by Martina’s previous three albums, I wasn’t expecting Eleven to be an outstanding effort, and it definitely isn’t, but it’s worth the $4.99 that Amazon MP3 is currently asking for it (the version with digital liner notes is $9.49). A deluxe version with four bonus tracks and three music videos is available exlusively from Target stores.

Grade: C

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘You And You Alone’

Partly due to the disappointing performance of 1996’s Full Circle, Randy Travis departed from Warner Bros. to become the flagship artist of the newly-formed DreamWorks Nashville in 1998. You And You Alone was his first collection for the fledgling label. Hoping to rejuvenate his flagging career, he put together a new production team consisting of himself, Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, marking only the second time in his career that he worked without Kyle Lehning. The result was a slightly more contemporary, definitely more radio-friendly but still true to the traditions of country music, collection of songs. The uptempo “Out Of My Bones” was released as the advance single in March 1998. It found Travis sounding more energetic than he had in quite some time, and it quickly re-established him at country radio. Returning to the Top 10 for the first time since 1995’s “The Box”, “Out Of My Bones” told the tale of a man’s vain attempts to rid himself of the memory of his ex. It peaked at #2.

DreamWorks decided to follow up this success with another uptempo number, the album’s opening track “The Hole”, which didn’t fare quite as well, but still managed to crack the Top 10, landing at #9. Next, they sent to radio the beautiful midtempo “Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man”, written by Trey Bruce and Glen Burtnik and previously recorded by Mark Collie. More contemporary than most of Randy’s singles, it may have been an acknowledgement of the changing tides at country radio, which had shifted back towards pop. Like “Out Of My Bones”, “Spirit of A Boy” just missed topping the chart, leveling out at #2.

The album’s fourth single was the decidedly more country — and possibly too country for country radio — “Stranger In My Mirror”, written by Kim Williams and the great Skip Ewing. The sound was a throwback to Randy’s Storms of Life days, but despite being the best track on the album, it stalled at #16 and unfortunately marked the beginning of Randy’s declining chart performance.

There is only one throwaway track in this collection — the Billy Livsey and Don Schlitz-penned “I Did My Part”, but the rest of the collection is first rate and holds its own with Randy’s better known earlier work. Particularly good are the bluegrass-tinged “I’m Still Here, You’re Still Gone” which features background vocals from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, and the superb title track, which features harmony vocals from two of its co-writers, Leslie Satcher and Melba Montgomery, along with Vince Gill. Melba, of course, is best known for her duet work with George Jones before he began recording with Tammy Wynette.

You And You Alone reversed Randy’s declining fortunes at country radio, albeit temporarily, but it failed to garner the impressive sales he’d enjoyed at the beginning of his major label career. Travis teamed up with Gallimore and Stroud one more time for 1999’s A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, which was a critical and commercial failure. Shortly thereafter, he was dropped from the DreamWorks Nashville roster and spent most of the next decade recording religious music, which resulted in one final #1 hit, 2000’s “Three Wooden Crosses.” He later rejoined Warner Bros. and returned to secular music with 2008’s Around The Bend.

Despite having produced three substantial hit singles, You And You Alone tends to be another overlooked gem in the Travis discography, and as a very small part of his catalog not controlled by Warner Bros., its singles rarely appear on hits compiliations. The album itself is still available at reasonable prices from third-party sellers at Amazon, and is highly recommended.

Grade: A