My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Byron Hill

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘What I Do The Best’

JMM’s career started to take a downturn in the mid 1990s. ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us’, the lead single from his fourth album, was a sad disappointment, peaking at #15, his lowest charting single ever. It’s a shame, because it is a rather charming jazzy western swing number with some very nice fiddle. It was written by Jim Robinson and Wendell Mobley.

My favorite song on the album was rather more successful. ‘Friends’, written by Jerry Holland, reached #2. It is a beautiful sounding ballad with a pained Montgomery facing the loss of love and an ex who wants to keep him around in a non-romantic way:

You say you want to be friends
That’s a newly sharpened blade
That’s a dagger to the heart
Of the promises we made
That’s a chapter full of pain
A season full of rain
A dark and stormy night
Spent all alone

Friends get scattered by the wind
Tossed upon the waves
Lost for years on end
Friends slowly drift apart
They give away their hearts
Maybe call you now and then
But you wanna be “just friends”

You say you love me very much
And you’ll always hold me dear
Those are the sweetest words
I never wanna hear
What’s a love without desire
A flame without a fire
Can’t warm me late at night
When I need you most

A subdued opening builds in emotion and power through the song.

‘I Miss You A Little’, a rare JMM co-write, was the third single, and was anther top 10 hit. It is a downbeat song about loss which is very good. The final single from the album was ‘How Was I To Know’, which just missed the top spot but is a rather bland adult contemporary tune.

He also wrote ‘A Few Cents Short’, a very nice midpaced song about someone too hardpressed financially to contact his loved one:

Lookin’ for spare change to put gas in my car
But what I’ve found won’t get me very far
Seems lately the low times have hit me pretty hard
‘Cause I’m a few cents short from gettin’ to where you are

I’m a few cents short of holding you in my arms
And a few cents short of keepin’ us from falling apart
Ain’t it funny how the money can change our lives
‘Cause I’m a few cents short from losing you tonight

So I walked to a pay phone down the road
But a few dimes and a nickel is all I hold
The operator wants more money to place my call
But I’m a few cents short

Some lovely fiddle ornaments the song.

My favorite of the remaining tracks is the vibrant and very retro shuffle ‘Lucky Arms’, envying his ex’s new love. The title track is a very nice mid paced love song. ‘I Can Prove You Wrong’ is a tender ballad offering true love to a woman who has been hurt in the past.

In the quirky ‘Cloud 8’, written by Byron Hill and Tony Martin, the protagonist has lost in love and compares himself to those still happily on Cloud 9. ‘Paint The Town Redneck’ is quite an entertaining song about letting loose on a Friday night after a hard week’s work.

The album was certified platinum, which was a significant reduction from his previous efforts. However, it is a solid effort which I enjyed a lot.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Keepin’ Me Up Nights’

0001597610Released in 1990 as their only studio album for Arista Records, Keepin’ Me Up Nights will do just that as it is a interesting effort throughout.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) can often feature an astounding number of musicians on stage but this album finds the band being comprised of Ray Benson on lead vocals and guitar; Larry Franklin on fiddle, guitar, and harmony vocals; Tim Alexander on piano, accordion and harmony vocals; John Ely on pedal and lap steel; Michael Francis on saxophone, Joe Mitchell on acoustic and electric bass; and David Sanger on drums. The band is augmented by Greg Jennings playing guitars and six string bass.

The album opens with “Keepin’ Me Up Nights”, a bluesy/jazzy number written by James Dean Hicks and Byron Hill.  In the albums notes Benson says the intent was to do a ‘Ray Charles sings western swing’ arrangement. I would say there were successful.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was written by Ronnie Dunn and would prove to be a major hit for Brooks & Dunn two years later. Since I heard AATW’s version jazzy version first, I found myself surprised at the Brooks & Dunn arrangement and frankly I think AATW did it better, albeit quite differently and definitely not suitable for line dancing.

“Dance With Who Brung You” is a Ray Benson original inspired by a phrase used by former Texas football coach Darrell Royal. This song is done as a mid-tempo ballad.

You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Don’t be a fickle fool,You came here with a gal, who’s always been your pal
Don’t leave her for the first unattached girl, it just ain’t cool
You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Life ain’t no forty-yard dash, be in it for the long run,
’cause in the long run you’ll have more fun, if you dance with who brung You to the bash

Ray collaborated with co-producer Tim Dubois on “Quittin’ Time”, a boogie with real nice sax solos by Michael Francis.

Lisa Silver (who played fiddle on AATW’s second album), Judy Rodman and Carol Chase join the band to provide background vocals on Bobby Braddock’s lovely “Eyes”, an exquisite slow ballad.

Troy Seals and John Schneider wrote “Goin’ Home” is a ballad about the joys of going home after being away too long. This song has a rhythmic arrangement suitable for line dancing.

Well I’ve got a lot of friends on the West Coast,
Got a lot of memories
Well I want you to know that I won’t forget
Everything you’ve done for me
But it’s been too long, just too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home
New York, Detroit, Chicago
You were really somethin’ else
You treated me just like kinfolk y’all,
And I swear I can’t help myself
But it’s been too long, way too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home

I’m gonna write a letter,
I’m gonna send a telegram
Gonna tell everybody this wanderin’ boy is packing his bags right now
And I’m’a goin’ home

“That’s The Way Love Is” was written by former (and founding) AATW member Leroy Preston in 1989. The song, a mid-tempo ballad with a strong Cajun feel to the arrangement (fiddle and accordion), tells of the ups and downs of life. John Wesley Ryles, briefly a star in his own right, chips in background vocals

“Gone But Not Forgotten” was penned by Fred Knobloch and Scott Miller is an up-tempo western swing song about where money goes. We’ve all lived this story …

The great Harlan Howard wrote “You Don’t Have To Go To Memphis”. The premise of the song is that you don’t have to go to Memphis to get the blues, just fall for the wrong woman. The song features nice piano and fiddle solos

You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
You just fall in love with the kind of women I do
Well, I’ve had me a dozen but I never had me one that
Did not fall through
You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
There she goes, here I stand
Watching good love slip away
Once again, I’m all alone
Love has come and gone

“Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)” is a classic boogie from 1940, originally recorded by Will Bradley’s Orchestra (with Ray McKinley on lead vocals). The song was a huge hit for Bradley and has been recorded many times since Bradley’s recording including Commander Cody, Ella Fitzgerald and The Andrews Sisters. The song was completely written by Don Raye although some other names also show up on the writer’s credits

In a little honky-tonky village in Texas
There’s a guy who plays the best piano by far
He can play piano any way that you like it
But the way he likes to play is eight to the bar
When he plays, it’s a ball
He’s the daddy of them all
The people gather around when he gets on the stand
Then when he plays, he gets a hand
The rhythm he beats puts the cats in a trance
Nobody there bothers to dance
But when he plays with the bass and guitar
They holler out, “Beat me Daddy, eight to the bar”

“Texas Fiddle Man” was written by fiddler Larry Franklin and he takes the lead vocals on this song, which features some extended fiddle solos. The folks at Alabama (the band) contributed the idea for the closing riffs.

The album concludes with “Pedernales Stroll” a gentle instrumental tribute to finger pickers such as Chet Atkins, Merle Travis. The song is the only instrumental on the album and as such, the perfect ending to an exciting album

Grade: A+

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Making Plans’

making plansAfter the underperformance of Love And Honor, Ricky left Columbia, but a move to independent label Vanguard in 1997 saw him making some of his best music. He was reunited with his old producer Steve Buckingham, assisted on this occasion by Marshall Morgan. The sensitive arrangements are laden with fiddle and steel, and put Ricky’s pure voice with its delicate vibrato at the center.

It opens with the lively fiddle-led kissoff ‘Just Say Goodbye’, written by Byron Hill and Joe Chambers. It’s one of my favorite of Ricky’s up-tempo recordings. Chambers also contributed the impassioned ballad ‘I Wish You Were More Like Your Memory’, in which the protagonist can’t get over his ex.

The mid-tempo ‘When The Feeling Goes Away’ is a cover of a rather obscure (but very good) Merle Haggard tune (it was the B-side of the hit single ‘Carolyn’) about surviving a breakup:

Wine is just a shadow that clouds my memory
And a bar is just a hiding place for fools like me
And drunk is just a feeling that keeps my pain away
But I’ll be alright when the feeling goes away

A cover of Mel Street’s classic cheating song ‘Borrowed Angel’ is also great. The title track is a lovely old Johnny Russell song about a relationship about to collapse, which was also recorded by a number of other artists, most recently the Trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

‘He’s Not The Man I Used To Be’ is an excellent song in which the protagonist finds his ex has moved on, and realises the error of his ways. He gets the picture in time to avert such a fate in ‘It Wouldn’t Kill Me’, written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson and Paul Shapiro, and previously cut by Boone and later covered by Jeff Carson. It’s a great song which deserves to have become a hit on one of its outings, in which the protagonist realises working at keeping the romance alive is worthwhile:

It wouldn’t kill me to tell her that I love her
It wouldn’t kill me to make her feel alive…
It wouldn’t kill me like it would if she ever said goodbye

‘She Needs Me’ is a romantic ballad about an independent woman. ‘Tic Toc’ is a brightly delivered medium-paced number about a relationship about to wind down, with a protagonist who doesn’t sound too upset about it.

The album loses steam as it tails off with the last three tracks. ‘Our Love’ and the optimistic ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ (the album’s sole, non-charting, single) are pleasant but forgettable. Sandwiching the pair, the regretful ‘The Best Thing I Had Goin’’ is actually pretty good, but not as memorable as the bulk of the album.

This album has been overlooked because it was released towards the end of Ricky’s career and as an exclusive Walmart offering, but it’s well worth tracking down used copies.

Grade: A

Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘Only One George Jones’

only one george jonesSinger-songwriter Billy Yates kickstarted his career by writing ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’ for his hero George Jones, and Jones later cover of Yates’ ‘Choices’ provided the great man’s last solo top 30 hit. Understandably, then, the shadow of the late George Jones looms large over Billy’s latest album, from the titular tribute to the “king of country soul” (which is heartfelt but not particularly insightful), to a closing version of ‘Choices’ featuring a cameo from Jones. Incidentally, the album was recorded, and dedicated to George, before his death.

The playfully vivacious semi-novelty story song ‘The House That Jack Built’ (written with Jerry Salley) is the kind of thing Jones would have cut in the 60s. It’s highly entertaining and a genuinely feelgood number, with Salley and Rebecca Lynn Howard adding harmony vocals. Another Salley co-write, the midtempo love song ‘Till The Old Wears Off’ features a Jones-style growl on the low notes, although the song itself is less memorable.

Elsewhere, the album is packed with classic sounding sad country songs, loaded with steel guitar. In ‘I Learned A Lot’, a chastened Billy claims that neglecting and losing his first love taught him how to treat a future love interest. Billy laments that his loved one still loves ‘The Man I Used To Be’, before he started cheating on her.

The appropriately titled ‘Sad Songs’ (written with Jamie Teachenor) is one of my favorites. Billy recalls listening to great country songs about broken hearts (another chance to namecheck Jones, along with Lefty Frizzell), before he understood heartbreak from personal experience. Now, though, his lover has left and:

I understand how it kills a man
When his world just walked out the door
Those lonesome refrains just add to the pain
No, I don’t buy the sad songs no more

I’m still not entirely sure (even after multiple listens) whether ‘As I Kiss My World Goodbye’ is positively suicidal about a breakup, or about actually dying. The least traditional country song on the record ‘That’s Your Memory On My Mind’ is a soulful acoustic ballad set to a piano backing; it is well done although less to my taste stylistically than the rest of the album.

The gentle retrospective ‘It Wasn’t That Funny’ looks back at the ups and downs of a relationship, as he and his spouse can laugh now at past arguments and near-breakups.

Another fine song is the piano-led ‘The Father And The Son’, written with Tom Douglas. The gripping story song shows us a young mother (revealed in the last verse to be the narrator’s mother), daughter of a preacher, struggling with her mental demons and the loss of faith for the survival of her teenage marriage:

The devil on one shoulder says “go back to your youth”
While the angel on the other is whispering the truth

There are four good reasons not to run
The father and a son
And the Father and the Son

The gently philosophical ‘The Shoulder’ written with Casey Beathard recounts a tale of a young man who inevitably falls by the wayside after growing up in a narrow small-town atmosphere, but eventually finds salvation:

I guess it goes to show God blesses even those
On the shoulder of the straight and narrow road

When enough is enough and you turn yourself around
And you pick yourself up just to fall back down
Can’t stay on top
Won’t stay in the ditch
And the best you can do is pray you’ll hitch
A ride on someone’s prayers to where you want to go

The cheerful ‘I’m A One Man Band’ picks up the tempo and sings the praises of monogamy. The driving ‘Chill My Beer’, written with Byron Hill, offers an ironic dig at a cold-hearted woman; the lyric isn’t bad, but the melody is confined to about four notes, which make it one of the record’s less successful moments.

A generous 16-strong tracklisting allows for some filler, which appears in the shape of ‘A Country Boy Just Don’t Care’, which is an okay song about being true to oneself, and ‘She Ain’t Got Nobody’ is a cliche’d song about an attractive single woman in a bar.

This is Billy’s strongest set of material for some time. production values are excellent, and this is a solidly country record worthy of being inspired by Jones.

Grade: A

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Politics, Religion, and Her’

When Sammy Kershaw convened in the studio to follow up Feelin’ Good Train he stuck with his trusty production team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. In addition to his secular work, they’d teamed up for a holiday release, Christmas Time’s A-Comin’ (the title track being my favorite version of that fabulous song) in the winter of 1994, and Greatest Hits, Chapter 1 in 1995.  As a result, when Politics, Religion and Her was released in May 1996, it stuck true to the formula Kershaw had honed since his debut five years earlier.

Lead single “Meant To Be,” an uptempo ode to finding love in unexpected places, was the most successful at radio peaking at #5. He followed with the novelty song “Vidalia” which reached a #10 peak that summer. Both are very good although “Vidalia,” a song I remember distinctly from watching the video on CMT as a kid, isn’t the greatest lyric in Kershaw’s catalog.

Radio didn’t respond as kindly to the album’s title track and it only managed to squeak into the top the top 30. Thanks to a killer lyric by Bryon Hill and Tony Martin plus underpinnings of mournful steel, it’s my favorite of the four singles. Deflecting pain has rarely sounded so good as it does here:

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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Spotlight Artist: Kathy Mattea

Born in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia on June 21, 1959, Kathy Mattea started singing bluegrass as a teenager and in 1978 dropped out of college to move to Nashville to pursue her country music dream. She found work singing songwriters’ demos, and the songwriter Byron Hill was sufficiently impressed by her voice to bring her to the attention of Mercury Records, who signed her to a recording deal.

Her early career gave no real indication of what kind of artist she really was. Her first two albums, 1984’s self-titled debut (co-produced by her mentor Hill), were solidly pop-country efforts with mainly up-tempo material which seemed radio friendly enough but which failed to make an impact at country radio. Moving to Allen Reynolds for 1985’s From My Heart was a step in the right direction, but the album was still mired in the pop-country sound then popular at radio in the years after the Urban Cowboy movement. Mercury kept faith with Kathy, and tried a third album, allowing a fundamental change of focus.

Adopting a more rootsy sound just as the neotraditional movement swept in proved to be a great move. Kathy’s folky sound was just distinctive enough to set her apart from her rivals, while her pure, clear voice shone through the less cluttered backing she preferred. Although she wrote relatively infrequently in her career, she has been a great picker of songs, frequently popularizing songs from left field songwriters like Nanci Griffith. It was a cover of Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five And Dime’ that catapulted Kathy into country stardom, as the song became her first big hit.

It was the first of a string of 15 straight top 10 hits over the next six years, including four chart-toppers. She won Grammies for her performance on the single ‘Where’ve You Been’ (written by husband Jon Vezner) and for her Christmas album Good News, which premiered modern Christmas classic ‘Mary, Did You Know’. She was also named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year twice, in 1989 and 1990.

In the early 90s she started branching out more artistically, including more folk, bluegrass and Celtic elements, and while her song selection remained top-notch, she drifted away from the mainstream. When the hits dried up and she left Mercury in 1997, she was soon picked up by another major label, MCA, but her sole album for that label, 2000’s The Innocent Years was disappointing.

A couple of independent releases followed before she really found a new impetus and direction for her career. In 2008 she released the critically acclaimed bluegrass concept album Coal, which paid tribute to the coal mining community she grew up in. Originally intended as a one-off project, it has in fact changed her approach to music, and she builds on that with her new album. Calling Me Home draws on folk and the Appalachian mountain music which fed the roots of early country music, and is out on acoustic specialists Sugar Hill Records on September 11.

We will be taking a look back at her career over the month.

Album Review – Rhonda Vincent – ‘All American Bluegrass Girl’

Released in 2006, All American Bluegrass Girl captured Rhonda Vincent at the height of her fame. A self-produced set, it features three songs either written or co-written by the singer and peaked at #1 on the Bluegrass album chart and #43 on the Country album chart.

Of note beside the music is the somewhat off-beat cover art, which came about after Vincent decided to forgo the glamour shot and try to act sexy. The cover image somewhat sets the tone for the project, as it’s just a little bit beneath the level of Vincent’s enormous talent.

But there are still some good moments. The excellent self-penned title track leads the album and unlike anything Vincent recorded prior, it details her life-story in song. In three minutes, Vincent perfectly captures the feeling of being one of a handful of female superstars within the bluegrass genre:

All my life they told me,

‘You’re pretty good for a girl

Some day you’ll play the Opry

just like Sonny, Bob and Earl’

I’m livin’ dreams I never dreamed

Mom and Daddy, they taught me right

To be an all American bluegrass girl

who’s singin’ here tonight

Another standout is Honey Brassfield’s “Heartbreaker’s Alibi,” a duet between Vincent and her hero, Dolly Parton. Led by Vincent’s impeccable mandolin picking, the tune details a wonderful story about a woman’s pain after catching her man cheating.

The other duet, Bobby Osborne, Peter Goble and Brian Vincent’s “Midnight Angel” is very good and the inclusion of Osborne as a guest vocalist gives the album an added texture never mind fulfilling a childhood dream of Vincent’s to sing with him. When first listening back in 2006, I wasn’t terribly accustomed to Osborne’s voice, and while his twang is an acquired taste, it adds an indelible magic to the song.

Also excellent is “Rhythm of the Wheels,” Al Wood’s chugging train song placing Vincent as an outcast, living on a locomotive, hoping she isn’t caught. The song succeeds because of the coupling of Vincent and The Rage’s tight harmonies with Charlie Cushman’s banjo licking. But the exuberant energy of “Rhythm of the Wheels” is what really helps it stand out, and cements its place as my favorite song on the whole project.

Unlike any record Vincent released before it, All American Bluegrass Girl takes risks with song selection and dives into subjects she hadn’t really touched upon before. “God Bless The Soldier,” the other self-penned tune, is heavy and clunky and while Vincent means well, the execution never quite came together for me.

On the contrary, Byron Hill and Mike Dekle’s “’Till They Came Home” works really well as a support the military song, and tells a multi-generational story that, in the chorus, gets to the heart of families emotionally effected by war. The effectiveness in storytelling, plus the understated quality of Vincent’s vocal make it my second favorite track on the album:

And as the headlines rolled

Every mother prayed

Every father lay awake

The whole night through

Every brother bragged

Every sister cried

Every hometown across this land held on

Till they came home

All American Bluegrass Girl also bustles with a few gospel songs. The most interesting is “Jesus Built A Bridge To Heaven” do to its funky dobro and acoustic guitar backed accompaniment. Connie Leigh’s “Don’t Act” is a standard Vincent bluegrass rocker, with fiery mandolin and banjo behind the cautionary tale of honoring the bible and being a Christian. It’s a fairly heavy-handed message, and won’t please everyone as it wears its faith too heavily on its sleeve. On the other hand, Val Johnson’s “Prettiest Flower There” is a beautiful story of seeing angels at a funeral but the steel guitar and fiddle mixture throughout bogs down the heavy arrangement.

The album concludes with the instrumental “Ashes of Mt Augustine,” later reprised on Your Money and My Good Looks, and a cover of Roy Acuff’s “Precious Jewel,” sung with her band, The Rage. They turn “Jewel” into a harmonious and classic bluegrass stunner and it works really well to close the album.

Overall, All American Bluegrass Girl is a mixed bag, poking holes in the consistently stellar bluegrass work Vincent was recording for Rounder in the last decade. She moves too freely between bluegrass and acoustic country and the results are good but not great. The religious material and songs about the military are often too heavy handed and polarizing, but there are some moments to treasure, namely the title track and duet with Parton.

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

Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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Album Review: James Dupre – ‘It’s All Happening’

Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics.  He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters.  Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel.  James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.

The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set.  The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:

There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke

It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart

And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar

That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool

Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:

I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight

I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight

Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.

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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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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘It Would Be You’

Gary’s second album for Decca was released in May 1998, and was in many ways a continuation of the approach taken on Used Heart For Sale, but with generally better material. Like that record, it was produced by Mark Wright and the songwriter Byron Hill who had helped Gary get his deal.

The title track and leadoff single was another top 10 hit for Gary, a brooding song about a woman who epitomises the worst kind of heartache:

If it was a full moon it would be a total eclipse.
….
But if we’re talking ‘bout a heartache, it would be you

Following the pattern of his debut, the ensuing singles performed disappointingly, failing to make the top 40. ‘No Man In His Wrong Heart’ is a fine song (written by Ronnie Rogers and Trey Bruce) which deserved to do much better, a tenderly delivered tale of resisting temptation one night while affirming the protagonist’s love for the woman at home. The third and final single, ‘I’ll Take Today’ (previously recorded by Tanya Tucker) is based on a similar situation, in this case with the protagonist running to an old flame, and telling his loved one that his ex is no threat to their relationship:

Old times, next to you, can never come close
I’ll take today over yesterday, any day

Gary Allan’s love songs are never saccharine – there is usually some kind of pained undercurrent of a troubled past which, together with the grainy tone of his voice adds a real sense of authenticity to the romantic sentiments. In similar vein is the mellow-sounding Jamie O’Hara/Gary Nicholson song ‘I Ain’t Runnin’ Yet’, which has a man used to shying away from anything approaching commitment and now taken unawares by his feelings. If Decca had not closed down, perhaps this would have been a fourth single.

‘Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long’ (a single for co-writer Marty Stuart in 1989) picks up the tempo. It is one of two cuts from Kostas, the other being ‘Red Lips, Blue Eyes, Little White Lies’. Both songs are pretty good, and bring some variety to the record, but individually neither is particularly distinctive.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Used Heart For Sale’

Country music enjoyed a huge renaissance with the New Traditionalist movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the mid-90s, it had begun to backslide and the lines between country and pop once again became more blurred. Gary Allan’s 1996 debut for Decca Records was a notable exception to the rule. Produced by Mark Wright and Byron Hill, Used Heart For Sale is a throwback to the Bakersfield sound, reflecting Gary’s traditionalist leanings and the experience he gained while paying his dues in southern California’s honkytonks.

Things got off to a strong start with the lead single “Her Man.” Previously recorded by Waylon Jennings but not released as a single, Gary’s version of the Kent Robbins tune reached #7 on the Billboard country singles chart. Unfortunately, none of the subsequent singles — “Living In A House Full of Love”, “From Where I’m Sitting” and “Forever And A Day” — fared as well on the charts. None of them managed to crack the Top 40, probably due in part to Gary’s newcomer status; he was not yet an “automatic add” at country radio. Another obstacle was that country radio had begun to resist playing traditional-based music, a trend that continues to the present day. However, it is safe to assume that “From Where I’m Sitting” would have been a monster hit had it been released by one its co-writers, Garth Brooks. It’s one of the less traditional songs — and one of the weakest — on the album, but Garth’s star power would likely have carried it to the top of the charts. In the hands of a newcomer like Gary Allan, however, it faltered and stalled at #43. It’s a rather forgettable ballad, most likely chosen as a single based on the Brooks connection.

Used Heart For Sale boasts a strong roster of songwriters: George Ducas, Jim Lauderdale, John Levanthal (aka Mr. Rosanne Cash), Faron Young, Billy Sherrill, and Glenn Sutton all made contributions, as did producers Byron Hill and Mark Wright. Gary himself shared songwriting credits with Jake Kelly on the title track, which is one of my favorites from the album. Sherrill and Sutton wrote “Living In A House Full Of Love,” which had been a Top 5 hit for David Houston in 1965. Gary’s version of the Faron Young classic “Wine Me Up” is another highlight of the album. Tanya Tucker included it on her recent covers album, which got me to thinking that she’d be an ideal duet partner for Gary.

The bluesy “Wake Up Screaming” closes the album. It’s the least traditional-sounding song in this collection, foreshadowing a style that Gary would use more frequently in subsequent albums. This one would have fit perfectly on 1999’s Smoke Rings In The Dark, perhaps more comfortably than it fits on this album.

Despite producing only one bonafide hit, Used Heart For Sale sold respectably, earning gold certification from the RIAA. Not as well known as Gary’s later albums, it is an overlooked gem in his discography. Decca Nashville folded in 1998, but Gary was transferred to the roster of Decca’s parent label, MCA which re-released Used Heart For Sale. It is still in print and is available both digitally and in CD form from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Gary Allan

By the age of 13, Gary Allan Herzberg – he takes his stage name from his middle name – was already playing the club circuit in his native southern California area.  The young man from Li Marada, CA began his music career as a child, always having a guitar around the house.  “I don’t remember not playing the guitar”, recalls the singer, “It was just always there.”  By age 15, Gary had caught the attention of executives at A&M Records, but decided against the deal, opting to finish his education and pursue his music career when his skills were more honed.

The late 1980s and early 90s found Gary playing the club scene once again.  In 1993, a chance meeting with Byron Hill lead to his first demo recordings in Nashville.  After a 1995 Los Angeles showcase, the singer was offered a deal on the newly-revived Decca Records country division.  He recorded his first 2 albums for the label before it was absorbed into Universal Music Group and Gary was moved to MCA Nashville, with Decca being shut down once again.  He has recorded for MCA since then.

His first album for Decca, Used Heart for Sale, yielded the top 10 ‘Her Man’ and was certified gold.  He’s since charted 18 top 40 hits on the Country Singles chart, including 3 #1’s.  With six gold albums – three platinum – to his credit, Allan has proved a consistent hit-maker and record seller while retaining a fresh and soulful sound.  He will release his eighth studio album, Get Off On The Pain, March 9.

Throughout his career, Gary Allan has infused traditional country music with the Bakersfield sound and West Coast rock, to mostly renowned critical acclaim.  And there’s good reason for that: he’s really that good.  His mainstream success is a bit puzzling, but nonetheless refreshing.  Throughout the month of February, we’re going to explore the music of Gary Allan, revisiting the songs that made us fans and the ones that reminded us of of his raw talent.  We hope you enjoy the music from one of the few standout talents left in mainstream country music.  If you’re not familiar with it already, now’s a great time to start.

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Strait From The Heart’

straitfromtheheartGeorge Strait’s sophomore effort finds him repeating the same winning formula of his debut, from teaming up once again with producer Blake Mevis, to working a pun based on his last name into the album title. Released in June 1982, Strait From The Heart attempts to strike a balance between Strait’s traditional country roots and the Urban Cowboy sound that was prevalent in the early 80s.

“Fool Hearted Memory”, written by Byron Hill and Blake Mevis was the album’s first single. Released a month in advance of the album, this mid-tempo number holds the distinction of being the first in what was to become a very long string of #1 hits for George Strait. It was his fourth single release in total, and the third to peak inside the Top 10. By this time, Strait was beginning to develop a solid reputation as a traditionalist singer, so the next single release, took some by surprise. “Marina Del Rey” was written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus, and no one was more surprised than they when Strait fell in love with the song. They’d figured he wouldn’t be interested in this contemporary-sounding romantic ballad. A big departure from Strait’s previous work, “Marina Del Rey” employed a full string section, while the fiddle and steel that had figured so prominently on his earlier singles took a back seat. Despite being more in line with what radio was playing at the time, “Marina Del Rey” didn’t perform quite as well on the charts as Strait’s previous two singles, missing the Top 5, but still peaking at a very respectable #6. Though it was a pivotal record in Strait’s career at the time, “Marina Del Rey” hasn’t aged as well as most of his other hits; the production sounds dated to modern ears, particularly the singing seagull sound effect employed at the end, which is something that Strait objected to at the time. “Blake promised me that he would take the singing bird out at the end of it, which he didn’t do,” Strait said. ” And I’ve always hated that.”
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Album Review – Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album

Keith whitley tributeOne of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.

The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).

Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.

Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.

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