My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Carolyn Dawn Johnson

Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘Parading In The Rain’

Chalee’s tenure with Asylum having come to an end, another label decided to give her a chance, and she moved to James Stroud’s Dreamworks. Artistically, it resulted in her finest work, largely inspired by her own most recent divorce; but commercially it was a disaster.

The lead single, ‘Lonesome Road’, was the only single to chart, and t peaked at #54. Written by Bryan Simpson, Ashley Gorley and Melissa Peirce, it has a Celtic country-rock feel, and is an energetically delivered song about surviving against the odds.

Chalee didn’t write her next single, Phillip and Amber Leigh White did, but it feels like a very personal one. ‘Easy Lovin’ You’ is a tender ballad addressed to her daughter, recalling the difficulties and sacrifices of teenage motherhood, and the rewards:

The best thing that I ever did
At the time was my worst mistake
17 and just a kid
I was 17 when I threw my childhood away
For a hazel eyed quarterback

Senior year and 8 months pregnant
I never felt so fat
Wishin’ I could go to prom
But they don’t make dresses for girls like that…

Looking back it was hard lovin’ me
But it’s easy lovin’ you

Chalee’s eldest daughter Tiffany provides harmony vocals on this deeply moving track, which regrettably failed to chart.

The last attempt at a single was the album’s title track, written by Kris Bergsnes and Bobby Pinson. It is an upbeat tune with an optimistic lyric about positivity and making the most of a situation. The lyric is a bit bland, but Chalee’s delivery is infectious on a song I could imagine as a hit for an artist like Jo Dee Messina.

Chalee co-wrote three songs on the record. ‘I Am Love’ (written with Kendall Marvel and Phil O’Donnell) is quite good. ‘Believe’, written with Kelly Garrett, is pleasant and optimistic, if a little clichéd and rather poppy. By far the best of Chalee’s songs is ‘The Mind Of This Woman’, a co-write with Dean Dillon. This is an excellent closely observed depiction of a woman stuck in an unsatisfactory life.

‘I Am Pretty’, written by Buffy Lawson and Eric Pittarelli, is a sensitive story song about a woman rediscovering her dignity and making the decision to leave an abusive husband. It is one of the strongest tracks on the record.

‘Cheater’s Road’, written by Jason Sellers and Sharon Rice, is another story song, about a rich man’s neglected wife finding passion in an extra-marital affair:

She’d rather have him than an empty bed and her self-respect

‘Me And Mexico’, written by Mark Narmore and Liz Rose, is an up-tempo song about adapting well to a breakup by going on vacation. ‘More To This Than That’, written by Gary Burr and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, is a fine ballad about the a couple dividing up their possessions as they split. The record closes with Leslie Satcher’s ‘Peace’, a thoughtful song about people in desperate need of God.

This album is definitely on the contemporary side of modern country, but it is very well performed. It’s a shame it did not do better, as it seems to have had commercial potential.

Grade: B+

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

Classic Rewind: Carolyn Dawn Johnson – ‘Die Of A Broken Heart’

Classic Rewind: Carolyn Dawn Johnson – ‘Georgia’

The song starts at 2.40, after an introduction talking about how she wrote it.

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Martina’

martinaThe four new tracks on Martina McBride’s Greatest Hits album were largely seen as a return to form following 1999’s disappointing Emotion, but unfortunately the regained momentum was quickly lost again with the release of Martina, an album that is consistently mentioned by fans as one of their least favorites in the McBride discography. However, while I wouldn’t rank Martina among McBride’s best work, it does have its bright spots and is a much better album than Emotion or most of the albums that came after it.

Martina once again shared production duties with Paul Worley. The album was released in September 2003, and McBride definitely had one eye on the pop charts this time around. The first single, the somewhat bland female empowerment anthem “This One’s For The Girls”, which featured backing vocals from Faith Hill and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, was not only a #3 country hit, it also reached #1 on the adult contemporary charts. I always thought this song was screaming out to become a Cledus T. Judd parody called “This One’s For The Squirrels.”

Encouraged by the crossover success of “This One’s For The Girls”, RCA selected the very middle-of-the-road piano and string quartet ballad “In My Daughter’s Eyes”, with lyrics by Hallmark, as the album’s next single. A pretty but somewhat saccharine number, it charted at #4 country and #3 adult contemporary. The next single didn’t fare as well, peaking just outside the Top 10 on the country chart, and missing the AC chart altogether, but “How Far”, a Jamie O’Neal co-write with Shaye Smith and Ed Hill, is a much better song than either of its predecessors, despite some oversinging at times. In the vein of “Whatever You Say”, it would have been right at home on the Evolution album.

The album’s biggest misstep is the fourth and final single, “God’s Will”, which tries too hard to tug at the heartstrings and comes off as a crass attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions. The lyrics seem forced, the melody is plodding and at almost six minutes in length, it is way too long (I assume the radio edit was shorter). Peaking at #16, it marks the beginning of Martina’s chart decline; most of her singles from this point forward would chart outside the Top 10.

Overall, Martina is very mixed bag, but there are some worthwhile tracks among the album cuts, the best of which is the bluegrass-flavored “Reluctant Daughter”, which features backing vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, and features Skaggs on mandolin. It’s a nice reprieve from the rest of the tracks, which are mostly pop-leaning. Also quite good is “Wearing White”, a song about a bride who opts for a traditional wedding with all the trimmings, despite an apparently checkered past. Vince Gill contributes harmony vocals to this track, which also features some very nice fiddle playing by Jonathan Yudkin. Not quite as good but still enjoyable was the Celtic-flavored but lyrically fluffy “So Magical”. The Big & Rich written “She’s A Butterfly” has a pretty melody, but there is too much reverb on the vocal track, a problem which also plagues the track “Learning To Fall.”

The album closes with a live in concert rendition of “Over The Rainbow”, which while well done, seems a bit out of place with the rest of the songs on the disc.

Though rarely counted as a favorite by McBride’s country fans, Martina is the artist’s second-best selling album, after Evolution, selling more than two million copies and reaching #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, a feat no doubt achieved by the crossover success of the album’s first two singles. Though not essential listening, it’s worth picking up a cheap copy on Amazon.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Still Country’

Loretta’s first solo album in a decade was recorded in 1998 and released two years later released on the independent Audium label. Her voice was, sadly, not quite what it had been, but the songs are stronger than they had been on her last MCA album and the production from Randy Scruggs is exemplary throughout.

The heart-wrenching piano-led opening track ‘On My Own Again’ sounds as though it must be autobiographical addressing Loretta’ own experience of widowhood following Doolittle’s death in 1996, but it was actually written by Randy Scruggs, who produced the album. The woman in this song, unlike Loretta, is childless, but in other respects this must have felt very close to home. It is definitely a highlight, filled with intense emotion.

She did write one personal expression of her loss in ‘I Can’t Hear The Music’ credited as a co-write with Cody Jones and Kendal Franceschi, who finished it off when the weight of emotion overwhelmed Loretta herself from doing so. Tears audibly fill her voice as she talks about her feelings for Doolittle, and the effect is genuinely moving:

He showed me there was more to me
When I thought I had nothing else to give
God knows he wasn’t perfect
Ah but then again nobody is
He always told me the truth
No matter how hard it was to hear
When he’d say “I believe in you”
That was music to my ears

Oh each word’s like a note,
Like a beautiful tune
The kind that inspires
And helps you get through
Oh if I said “I can’t” he’d say “you can”
He was my toughest critic
Oh, and my biggest fan
Now he’s gone to a distant shore
And I can’t hear the music any more

By all accounts, including Loretta’s own in her two unflinchingly honest autobiographies, he was a bad husband in many respects – constantly unfaithful and an alcoholic, but her love for him is undeniable.

Her other composition here is the bouncy gospel-cum-tribute to Kentucky (“the closest place to Heaven that I know” of ‘God’s Country’, with hoe-down style fiddle and Earl Scruggs on banjo. The decline in her vocal powers is all too obvious, but her personality comes through engagingly, as it does on ‘Country In My Genes’, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Key, and the other track featuring Earl Scruggs. This was the single released to support the album, but perhaps unsurprisingly it failed to chart. Here Loretta defies attempts to change her image; it’s a bit shouty at times but still enjoyable:

I got country in my genes
Country in my blood
It goes back generations
It’s something I’m proud of
It’s something I was born with
Whatcha get is what you see
I’m just an old hillbilly with a country song to sing
Lord I’ve got country in my genes

Yeah country’s hit the big time
Me, I’m still the same
I ain’t above my raising
And I ain’t about to change

Max D Barnes and Vince Gill wrote the pretty but mournful look at lost-love, ‘Table For Two’ which has the best vocal and is one of my favorite tracks. I’m surprised that Vince never recorded this beautiful song himself. Another favorite track is the poignant ‘Hold Her’, the third-person tale of a woman planning to leave the husband she wrongly thinks doesn’t love her, and the man who could keep her if he only showed her he did, written by Don Wayne and Irene Kelley:

All he’d have do to hold her is to hold her
Tell her how he feels down deep inside
All he’d have to do to hold her is to hold her
There’s no way she would ever leave his side

I enjoyed the sprightly cover of John Prine’s charmingly optimistic ‘Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love’, with its almost-Caribbean rhythms, and the closing track, a version of ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’, previously recorded by Rhonda Vincent on her underrated 1996 release Trouble Free. ‘Don’t Open That Door’, written by Jerry Salley, Coley McCabe and Robin Lee Bruce, is a great song about struggling to resist the temptation to get involved again with a bad-news ex, but Loretta’s voice sounds strained on the sustained notes in the chorus.

The least successful track is ‘Working Girl’, a Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song with Matraca and Carolyn Dawn Johnson on backing vocals, a disastrous attempt at sounding contemporary. It just doesn’t work, with Loretta sounding very strained vocally, and is actually painful to listen to. It was covered more successfully a few years later by Terri Clark.

Loretta had been out of the limelight for some years, due in part to Doolittle’s illness, and this record was largely ignored. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the material, it is a little disappointing, revealing Loretta had passed her best vocally.

Grade: B-

Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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