My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Casey Beathard

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’

Kenny Rogers released his most recent album, You Can’t Make Old Friends, in October 2013. It was his inaugural release for Warner Bros. Nashville and first record of all new material in seven years.

The title track, co-written by Don Schlitz with Caitlyn Smith and Ryan Hanna King, reunited Rogers with Dolly Parton. The mostly acoustic ballad is a masterful look at two singers contemplating their advancing age, wondering how they’ll go on one day without each other. The song peaked at #57 as the album’s only single.

You Can’t Make Old Friends is peppered with contributions from some of the finest writers to emerge out of Nashville in the past thirty years. Schlitz appears again, alongside his longtime co-collaborator Paul Overstreet, on “Don’t Leave Me in the Nighttime,” which features accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco. The track is good but would’ve been a lot stronger had it been given a 1990s styled arrangement.

Allen Shamblin also has two cuts. He wrote the contented “All I Need Is One” with Marc Beeson and the reflective “Look At You” with Mike Reid. The latter is the stronger song by a mile, but pails in comparison to “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which is the pair’s masterpiece.

The album closes with Dan Seals’ “It’s Gonna Be Easy Now,” which he recorded on On The Front Line in 1986. Rogers’ version is a terrible mix of raspy vocals and an overbearing arrangement that drowns the song in faux-rock.

“When You Love Someone” comes from the pen of Gretchen Peters and composer Michael Kaman. Peters originally recorded the tune as a duet with Bryan Adams for the animated film Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron in 2002. The track, a tasteful ballad, is very good although it does get list-oriented.

Dave Loggins co-wrote “Neon Horses” with Ronnie Samoset. The song has good bones but flies off the rails when Rogers begins cooing “la la la” throughout. “Dreams of the San Joaquin,” co-written by Randy Sharp and Jack Wesley Roth is one of the album’s most well-written and strongest offerings.

A pair of tunes come from the minds of more contemporary songwriters. Casey Beathard co-wrote “You Had To Be There,” a dark ballad relaying a phone call between an absentee father visiting his son in prison. Power rocker “Turn This World Around,” which comes from Eric Paslay, Andrew Dorff and Jason Reeves, casts Rogers in a modern light that renders him unrecognizable. “‘Merica” is a national pride anthem that I found unappealing.

You Can’t Make Old Friends is far from a terrible album, but it is Rogers’ usual mixed bag of styles and sonic textures. He doesn’t make any wide sweeps but he does choose material that runs the gamut from great to good to awful. In other words, this is a typical Kenny Rogers album.

Grade: B-

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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: Eric Church – ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

MisunderstoodThere’s a quote from Marty Stuart that says the most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is play actual country music. I’d go on to add that the second most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is to record and release an album of your own volition on a major label without any executives getting in your way.

For his fifth album, the spellbinding Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church was able to accomplish that second feat. In a handwritten letter published upon the album’s surprise release last November, he relayed a touching story about finding inspiration through a guitar his son had named late last summer and the music that poured out of it as a result. In a brisk 30 days, Church had recorded the ten tracks that would comprise the strongest mainstream country album of the decade thus far.

Mr. Misunderstood triumphs on the strength of Church’s willingness to mature as an artist and songwriter. He’s letting the music speak for itself, forgoing egotistical pretense, and highlighting Jay Joyce’s strength at elevating lyrical compositions without bombarding the audience with needless noise.

Nowhere is the pair more masterful then on “Knives of New Orleans,” the album’s blistering centerpiece. Written by Church, Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman, the song tells the tale of a fugitive wanted for a brutal murder he mercilessly committed without remorse:

Yeah, tonight, every man with a TV

Is seeing a man with my clothes and my face

In the last thirty minutes

I’ve gone from a person of interest

To a full-blown manhunt underway

 

I did what I did

I have no regrets

When you cross the line

You get what you get

 

Tonight, a bleeding memory

Is tomorrow’s guilty vein

Your auburn hair on a faraway sea wall

Screams across the Pontchartrain

I’m haunted by headlights

And a crescent city breeze

One wrong turn on Bourbon

Cuts like the knives of New Orleans

It’s far and away my favorite song on the project. I also equally adore Church’s solo-penned “Holdin’ My Own,” an unapologetic acoustic masterclass in introspection. In just under four minutes, he brilliantly traces his career trajectory and stands firm against anyone who wants a piece of him:

Always been a fighter scrapper and a clawer

Used up some luck in lawyers

Like Huck from Tom Sawyer jumped on my raft

And shoved off chasing my dreams

Reeling in big fishes

I had some hits a few big misses

I gave em hell and got a few stitches

And these days I show off my scars

 

With one arm around my baby

And one arm around my boys

A heart that’s still pretty crazy

And a head that hates the noise

If the world comes knockin

Tell em I’m not home

I’m finally holdin my own

 

I’ve burned up the fast lane

Dodging drugs and divorce

If I’m proof of anything

God sure loves troubadours

Sometimes late at night

I miss the smoke and neon

Sneak out of bed grab a six string

Play what’s still turnin me on

Like that tight old time rock n roll

Or that right down home country gold

I miss blues and soul

But not more than I miss being home

Also outstanding is “Three Year Old,” a tender ballad Church wrote about his son Boone with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell. It follows “Holdin’ My Own” in showing a more mellow side of Church, the man behind the sunglasses and electric guitars. The trio relies on personal observances to frame the story:

Use every crayon color that you’ve got

A fishing pole sinks faster than a tackle box

Nothing turns a day around like licking a mixing bowl

I learned that from a three year old

 

A garbage can is a damn good spot to hide truck keys

Why go inside when you can go behind a tree?

Walking barefoot through the mud will knock the rust right off your soul

I learned that from a three year old

 

You can be a cowboy on the moon

Dig to China with a spoon

Talk to Jesus on the phone

Say “I love you” all day long

And when you’re wrong, you should just say so

I learned that from a three year old

Church balances the self-examination with some primed-for-radio hits. “Round Here Buzz” is about the self-destruction after she’s left the hometown he’s hell-bent on staying in. He’s also without his woman on “Record Year,” but instead of turning to alcohol he’s drowned his sorrows in a ‘three-foot stack of vinyl.’

On his last tour, Church won raves for including artistic-driven Roots and Americana artists as his opening acts. The mutual admiration continues with Rhiannon Giddens joining Church for powerful background vocals on “Kill A Word,” a slice of social commentary about destroying words that aren’t good for our society. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a full-fledged duet with Susan Tedeschi that mixes blues and rock. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but it is very good.

I also have mixed emotions about “Mistress Named Music,” which Church also wrote with Beathard. The vibe of the track is very good, Church gives a powerful vocal performance and the use of organ wonderfully sets the tone for the moody ballad. I just don’t seem to go back to it that often. The same goes for “Chattanooga Lucy,” which I flat out don’t get. It’s easily the most esoteric track on the whole album. I don’t hate the title track, either, but it has grown repetitive on repeated listenings. That said, I fully stand behind the song’s message.

The only thing truly misunderstood about Church is the whole point of his musical journey over the past ten years. He hasn’t won any favors with country purists nor has he gone out of his way to please those put off by his egotism. But he has built a career on real music that bucks every trend. He stands out because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Church isn’t dumb nor is he a maniac. At the end of the day he’s an authentic artist releasing his own music. He’s getting massive airplay for songs that shouldn’t even be breaking through at all. He’s the last real country singer standing in mainstream Nashville. He may have an edge, but he can stand tall with the best of them. Mr. Misunderstood proves that in spades.

Grade: A

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top 10 Singles of 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

 

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Album Review: Chris Young – ‘A.M.’

AMChris Young has the best voice in contemporary country music. His problem for me has always been a too-often mediocre choice of songs, but at least his traditional instincts meant it sounded good (and there have been some outstanding highlights like ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Drinking Me Lonely’, and his super Voices EP of three classic covers). Unfortunately, the demands of country radio have struck again, and this album comes across as a determined and probably successful effort to get airplay. In other words, it’s over-produced (by James Stroud), and the largely generic songs (many of them co-written by Chris) aren’t much good either, with a couple of exceptions.

The barely-bearable lead single ‘Aw Naw’ (written by Chris with Ashley Gorley and Chris DiStefano) features partying lyric, depressingly shallow attitude towards women, loud production, not much melodic range, and irritating spelling, the only semi-redeeming factor being Chris’s muscular vocal which is actually pretty good. This had already steeled me for the possibility that this album (Chris’s fourth) would be a complete sellout, and sadly those fears were realized, although nothing else is quite as bad.

The same trio responsible for ‘Aw Naw’ also wrote the title track (a very similar loud high-energy track about late nights out) and ‘Goodbye’. The latter, product of the same writing session, is a much better song, a ballad about an unexpected call from a lover planning on breaking up. Although the production is cluttered and insensitive after a misleadingly pretty piano opening, the vocal is fine, as Chris embarks on a convincingly impassioned appeal to her that their relationship is “too good for goodbye”.

The two Chrises (Young and Di Stefano) teamed up with Rhett Akins for ‘We’re Gonna Find It Tonight’, another pretty generic partying song, delivered efficiently. Unexpectedly Akins also co-wrote the best song on the album, ‘Text Me Texas’ (alongside Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne). A nicely understated ballad about a man angsting over what his girlfriend may be doing in Houston, and with whom. He begs her to make contact – even a texted lie if she’s not willing to talk would be better than nothing. An excellent vocal is married to sympathetic production, making this a real standout.

‘Forgiveness’, written by Casey Beathard and Scooter Carusoe, is also very good, a reflective confession of the protagonist’s failings as he yearns for the peace of mind he can only get from one person’s forgiveness, which is nicely produced and arranged, with Chris using the deepest part of his vocal range with magisterial effect:

It ain’t hidin’ in a bottle on a shelf
Or lying in the bed with someone else
I can’t feel it on some Sunday morning pew
But one sleepless night it dawned on me
The peace I need so desperately
Is buried in the one place I can’t get to
Girl, it’s got to come from you

McAnally and Osborne wrote ‘Hold You To It’ with Chris Young, which is a return to the generic with a medium-tempo bar pick-up number, although it does have quite a catchy melody. Young’ s final writing credit is for the closing track ‘Lighters In The Air’, another with a pleasant tune but plodding production and not very memorable lyrics. More interesting than either song is the fact that both refer to music but not apparently to country; the former refers to the girl’s favorite song as having a “pumping” bass-line and “grooving” backbeat, while the latter is “summertime rock ‘n roll”.

‘Nothin’ But The Cooler Left’ is cluttered, loud, pandering and exceptionally boring and quite likely to be a successful single next summer. ‘Lonely Eyes’is set in a bar again, but with a darker feel which makes it more interesting, but the production is too loud in places. ‘Who I Am With You’ is a decent positive love song (written by Marv Green, Jason Sellers and Paul Jenkins), with a sincere vocal but too heavy a hand on the production.

Download ‘Text Me Texas’ and ’Forgiveness’, and perhaps also ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Who I Am With You’, but pass on the rest.

While I’ve been critical of the production choices, it’s only fair to say that it’s not as bad as much of what’s getting radio play these days – faint praise, perhaps, but worth mentioning. And Chris Young still has a great, great voice. Hopefully at some point he can make a great album too.

Grade: C

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: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘Strong Enough’

strong enoughAfter the comeback marked by Down The Road I Go, Tritt’s second Columbia album, released in 2002, was a reversion to the mixed bag of previous years in terms of material (although sound-wise there is more of a straight contemporary country sound and less of either the Southern rock or traditional elements), and it was generally less well received.

The title track and lead single ‘Strong Enough To Be Your Man’ is a love ballad written by Travis addressing the concerns of a lover (‘a complicated lady’) who has doubts about the durability of the relationship. The song is solid but unexciting, but it is lifted to a higher level by the convincingly tender vocal which is generally excellent; surprisingly it peaked at an unlucky #13.

There was only one more single for this album, ‘Country Ain’t Country No More’, which made it into the top 30, but deserved better. The song, written by Casey Beathard, Teresa Boaz and Carson Chamberlain, is an ironic, mostly regretful look at modern changes to farming and rural life. A farmer’s son has gone to law school as well as college, and on one of his rare visits home urges his dad to “Catch up with the times, nowadays people trade heifers online”. The song’s sympathies clearly lie with the father who has had to sell off his land to a housing developer to cope with economic problems, and is sad to see the loss of traditional values which have followed.

Opener ‘You Can’t Count Me Out Yet’ is an assertive mid-tempo rocker with Tritt defying doubters in his career by trumpeting about the success of his comeback. It’s not awful, but the tone of the lyric is too vainglorious for my taste. ‘You Really Wouldn’t Want Me That Way’, written by Tritt with Walt Aldridge and Casey Beathard, is another song about a man who has no intention of changing, and is okay but unremarkable. ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothin’’ is more nuanced, and hence much more interesting. Written by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles, it is the half-rueful confession of a man who has to learn his life lessons the hard way.

I also liked the vibrant up-tempo ‘If You’re Gonna Straighten Up (Brother Now’s The Time)’, written by Tritt with Dennis Robbins and Bob DiPiero. Travis offers words of advice for a neglectful husband about to run out of time to change.

The introspective downbeat Dean Dillon/Tritt co-write ‘I Don’t Ever Want Her To Feel That Way Again’ is rather good, with a man brooding over the way he has hurt his loved one (and damaged their love) with harsh words he wishes he could take back.

‘Doesn’t Anyone Hurt Anymore’ is a pretty good ballad written by Tritt with Troy Seals and Dennis Robbins, with the narrator complaining about all the happy love songs on country radio. ‘Now I’ve Seen It All’ is a pleasant love song.

‘Time To Get Crazy’ (written with Gary Nicholson) is the obligatory fast paced rocker and is nothing special. Closer ‘Can’t Seem To Get Over You’ is the equally obligatory Marty Stuart co-write, and is an okay but forgettable mid-tempo number.

Travis Tritt has rarely recorded anything with a religious element. ‘God Must Be A Woman’, written by Vernon Rust, is a rare example, although it is really more of a love song, comparing God’s unconditional love to that of the protagonist’s wife. The melody is pretty but the lyric will put off some, and I find it slightly awkward myself.

This is a fair album but one lacking any real standouts, and came as a real disappointment after Down The Road I Go. Used copies are available cheaply enough to be worth checking out.

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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2012 Grammy predictions

The Grammy awards are probably the world’s most prestigious cross-genre awards in the word of music, although within country music the CMA and ACM awards hold greater weight. The significance of the Grammies has been further affected this year with the contraction in the number of categories of interest to country fans. But awards shows offer a way of taking stock once every few months regarding the genre as a whole, particularly the more mainstream end. In a few days, we’ll learn who has won this year’s awards. In the meantime, here are our predictions:

Best Country Solo Performance

This new category combines the former nods to performances by male and female vocalists.

‘Dirt Road Anthem’ – Jason Aldean
‘I’m Gonna Love You Through It’ – Martina McBride
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘Mean’ – Taylor Swift
‘Mama’s Song’ – Carrie Underwood

Razor X: I can’t remember the last time I came across a more underwhelming list of nominees. “Honey Bee” is the only one on the list that I can tolerate, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of song that usually wins Grammys. I think Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are the two real contenders here; I’ll predict that Underwood will win.

Occasional Hope: A remarkably uninspiring lineup in this category. I suppose by default my vote (if I had one) would have gone to Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood’s song is well-meaning but bland; Martina McBride’s is the epitome of emotional manipulation; Jason Aldean’s record is horrible; and Taylor Swift’s song has nice production for once, but the lyric collapses into juvenile namecalling (and I’m afraid I’m still unimpressed by her vocal ability). That leaves Blake Shelton with a slight but not unlistenable song, making it my lukewarm favorite by default. Who will actually win it? The Grammy voting pool is a bit different from the specialist country awards shows, so I’m going to predict Taylor Swift as although Aldean has had a big breakthrough over the past couple of years, I think his lack of cross-genre name recognition will limit his appeal to voters. He, Swift and Blake Shelton all have performance slots on the show (Blake as part of a Glen Campbell tribute and Jason Aldean revisitng his duet with Kelly Clarkson), which could be an indication that the battle is between these three.

Jonathan Pappalardo: It seems as though the Grammy organization can’t win. If they go by artistic merits they’re deemed out of touch with reality. If they go with what’s popular, they’re deemed too mainstream. For my tastes these nominees are awful. There isn’t a song here I can get excited about, apart from Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” If she has to win an award this year, let it be this one.

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Album Review – Lee Ann Womack – ‘Call Me Crazy’

Following the success of There’s More Where That Came From, Womack released the single “Finding My Way Back Home” in August 2006. A return to the poppier sounds she favored on I Hope You Dance, the song failed to rekindle her radio career and an album of the same name was shelved.

Her next full-length album Call Me Crazy finally saw the light of day in the fall of 2008. Upon release critics hailed the album as one of the year’s best and praised Womack for continuing to explore her roots and show that women don’t have to rely on singing feel-good songs all the time.  Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘X’

By 2008 I had lost a lot of faith in Trace Adkins as an artist. But then he released the mistitled X (it is the Roman number 10, and was supposedly to mark this as his 10th release – but they only reached that number if you count greatest hits compilations).

The first single, the gospel-inflected ‘Muddy Water’ presents a troubled sinner seeking renewal in baptism. It’s a bit more heavily produced than necessary, but largely enjoyable although it peaked just outside the top 20. There is room for some sheer frivolity when a jaundiced Trace, just divorced, decides next time he might as well ‘Marry For Money’, in a humorous song written by Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton. This did a little better on the charts, reaching #14, the same peak as the rather more serious ‘All I Ask For Anymore’. ‘All I Ask For Anymore’ (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James) is a mature reflection on the changing desires that come with growing up, from shallow youthful selfishness to a grown man’s concerns for his wife and children. Trace delivers perhaps the finest pure vocal performance of his career supported by a swelling string arrangement. The similarly themed ‘Happy To Be Here’ (written by Jason Matthews, Jim McCormick and Mike Mobley) is a bit too heavily produced but not bad.

Two of the songs are outright modern classics. ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ was not a single, but gained some attention when Trace sang it live at the ACM award show. A superb song by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, this explores the sacrifice of soldiers who have died, mostly in vain, starting with a Confederate soldier falling outside Nashville in the Civil War, and taking us through Omaha Beach on D-Day, Vietnam and Afghanistan:

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary, I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

Trace’s vocal is perfectly understated and conveys the sense of defeat which imbues the song’s longing for an end to conflict. The West Point choir joins the chorus at the end, embodying the unresting souls of their predecessors, but they sound perhaps just a little too rehearsed and polite for the part they are playing.

If anything, the bleak look at alcoholism and denial penned by Larry Cordle and Amanda Martin, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, is even better as it remorselessly catalogs a man’s battle with alcohol, with the alcohol winning:

Sometimes a man takes a drink
So he can just throw his head back and laugh
At the things he can’t change
Like the bills he can’t pay
And all of those ghosts from the past
It’s the crutch he leans on
When things have gone wrong
Life didn’t turn out like he planned
Sometimes a man takes a drink
Oh but sometimes a drink takes the man

This is a masterpiece, with a superb vocal from Trace (who has had his own issues with drinking in the past).

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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Single Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Just Fishin”

Trace Adkins’s ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’ (complete with tacky puppet video) was, it seems, a step too far for country radio (even though they happily played ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ which I still think is much worse). The single crept onto the top 40, but some stations found the subject matter too risqué, and Trace and his label decided to pull it rather than wasting their energies promoting a song that just wasn’t catching on in more conservative markets. More surprisingly, they have decided to abandon last year’s disappointing Cowboy’s Back In Town altogether, and have picked a song originally recorded for that album, but rejected in favor of such tasteful gems as ‘Ala Freaking Bama’ and ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, not to mention the last single. This decision, incidentally, epitomizes my frustration with some of Trace’s artistic decisions. Hopefully reviving the song now is a promising sign for his next album, expected later this year.

With ‘Just Fishin’’, Trace is reverting to something much more family friendly, with an affectionate tale of a fishing trip with a little girl, who sounds about six or so. The picture is charming, as the child prattles about her pet kittens and new ballet shoes, and other such little-girl interests, and enjoys the fishing experience, taking Daddy’s “I love you” for granted. His little girl is just having fun; he knows it’s more significant than that.

It feels rather like a prequel to his last solo #1, ‘You’re Gonna Miss This’ – and perhaps an attempt to recapture the success of that song, but ‘Just Fishin’ is less wistfully conscious of missing out on the opportunities to spend time with a growing child. This time, he’s getting it right and storing up the good memories now. He knows the clock is ticking for times like this, and she’ll grow up, but the mood is relaxed and laid back. The video scenario is obvious.

The song is written by Casey Beathard, Ed Hill and Monty Criswell, but it clearly strikes a chord with the artist, the father of five daughters of his own. The production is a bit busier and louder than I would like, but that is really the only flaw in this single. Trace’s vocal is warm and heartfelt, and this is definitely a step back in the right direction.

Grade: A-

Listen for yourself.

Album Review: Darius Rucker – ‘Charleston, SC 1966’

The best thing about Darius Rucker’s second country album is what was most marked about his first: the singer’s gravelly yet flexible voice. More notable this time is the solid and often inventive contemporary country production helmed by Frank Rogers, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite mainstream producers, with an excellent ear for the right instrumentation for any given song, and balancing commercial considerations with artistic merit. Rogers also currently produces Josh Turner (whose latest, Haywire, sounds gorgeous despite some lacklustre material) and Brad Paisley, who makes a guest appearance here. Where it falls down a little is with the lack of ambition and limited emotional palette, and it is interesting that all of these artists (each of them lucky enough to be happily married in real life) seem to have a reluctance to tackle much heartbreak or darkness in their music. Darius co-wrote every song, most frequently collaborating with Rogers, and although the material is pretty good, and more consistent than that on Learn To Live, there are no modern classics here. Possibly a few outside songs would have raised the bar. The album’s title (Darius’ place and date of birth) is an obvious nod to Radney Foster’s superb Del Rio, TX, 1959 – a rather rash idea, as it raises expectations it cannot deliver. Instead of aiming for excellence, Darius is apparently happy to settle for something that is merely good: well-performed, mainly mid-tempo, mainly positive, radio-friendly material in the center of today’s country music. And he does succeed in that rather better than many of his contemporaries.

Opening track ‘This’ is very reminiscent of much of Brad Paisley’s recent material, a paean to current domestic happiness along the lines of ‘Bless The Broken Road’:

Thank God for all I missed
Cause it led me straight to this

Written with Rogers and pop writer (and outgoing American idol judge) Kara DioGuardi, it is a perfectly competent and aurally pleasing but perhaps rather unambitious number which really epitomises this album. Also rather Paisleyesque in its domesticity is the sweet married love song ‘Might Get Lucky’ which Darius wrote with his hero Radney Foster and Jay Clements. This has a warmth and genuineness which is rather appealing. Both songs should find a ready home on country radio. ‘The Craziest Thing’ is another love song to a wife, which is less successful, managing to make walking on fire sound rather dull, despite a bouncy production. Paisley himself duets with Darius on the mildly witty carefree vacation song ‘I Don’t Care’, which the two wrote together with Chris DuBois; this breaks no new ground but is likeable and a surefire hit single in the making for next summer.

There is a welcome change of pace, and equally welcome move to something more emotionally ambivalent, with the languid ballad ‘Whiskey And You’, a love song which compares the protagonist’s need for his woman to a need for alcohol:

Ain’t nothing I can do
But come crawling back to
Whiskey and you
I never asked you to love me
I never begged you to stay
But I never want you to leave me

Also very good, and a bit more complex emotionally than the rest of the album, is ‘Things I’d Never Do’, written by Darius, Rogers and Clay Mills, with its wistful feel. The mortified protagonist, stuck in a hotel room, regrets past choices to do the kind of the things he would never have thought himself capable of:

I’d never leave the perfect girl
Or rip apart the perfect world
Just up and leave in the middle of a song

This is very effectively and subtly done, and my favorite track. Mills also cowrote ‘I Got Nothin’, a resigned response to a failing marriage where there just might be something to revive, which I also like. ‘We All Fall Down’, written with Kim Tribble, is a subdued and rather downbeat acknowledgment of inevitable and universal failure, which is another highlight for me, although it is certainly not commercial.

Closing track ‘In A Big Way’, written with Casey Beathard, expresses a traveler’s longing for home and family, and sounds possibly autobiographical (and it’s nice to hear someone namechecking Charley Pride alongside George Jones rather than one of the usual suspects). The tuneful and good-humored ‘Southern State Of Mind’, written with Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois, is partly another homesick ode to home,

“where they drink sweet tea and they raise you to be polite”

and partly a declaration that he takes his southernness with him wherever he goes.

Lead single and #1 hit ‘Come Back Song’, written with Chris Stapleton and Casey Beathard, is quite a nice plea for forgiveness and reconciliation. I like it more than Darius’s last few singles, but it is not one of the more memorable songs on this album. ‘Love Will Do That’ is a nice example of Frank Rogers’ production, with some nice banjo from Bela Fleck and mandolin from Sam Bush, but is lyrically uninteresting. ‘She’s Beautiful’ is flat out boring and might have been dropped from the set with no ill effect.

This is in many ways a safe record. It is well made, pleasant to listen to, and should yield another brace of hits for Darius, but he doesn’t really take any chances with the material. I’m not sure I’ll remember it all that long after it’s left my current releases playlist. It seems disappointing in comparison to what I believe Darius is capable of (or to Del Rio, TX, 1959), but taken purely on its own merits it’s a pretty good record, particularly when set against many of his chart rivals.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Cowboy’s Back In Town’

Trace Adkins is one of the most frustrating artists in country music. He has a genuinely great voice, real interpretative ability and (when he chooses to exercise it), a sense of subtlety. When that natural talent is allied to great, or even good, songs, the result is close to sublime. Sadly, his musical taste is questionable, and he has recorded some of the worst songs released in the last ten years. His 2008 release, X, went a long way to restoring my faith in him as an artist, but regrettably, country radio was less enthused than it was for his worst efforts, like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’, an execrable song which managed to top the charts.

Everything I heard in advance of this project’s release led me to expect Trace would be back to his worst. Radio’s lack of support for the singles from X, the move from Capitol to Toby Keith’s label. It says a lot for my admiration of Trace at his best that I was prepared to buy this, despite my concerns about the project. The first single, the truly horrible shoutfest ‘Ala-Freakin-Bama’, was a particularly disturbing sign. When Trace announced his departure from Capitol soon after the release of that single, I had hoped it would never re-surface. Unfortunately, Trace secured the rights to the last recordings he made for Capitol, and chose to include it on his debut for Show Dog Universal. Luckily, there is only one other song as bad, aggressively tuneless closing track ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, whose title says it all.

The grunt in the preamble to opening track ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’, which is the first we hear from Trace, was not a good start either, although the song itself is not that bad – mediocre rather than awful, albeit too loud, one-note, and repetitive as it tells ths story of a farm couple who abandon their duties for a literal roll in the hay. Mostly, this record leans to the average rather than the overtly bad, with some pretty good songs.

Current single ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ is quite a nice ballad (if a little repetitive) which was one of the few promising signs before the record’s release. Another alarm signal was raised when I originally saw the tracklisting and saw Trailer Choir were guesting on one song, ‘Don’t Mind If I Don’t’, but this was unfair as the end result is only mildly irritating, with Trailer Choir themselves barely noticeable. The song is boring, but inoffensive.

There are a couple of attempts at humor. Much of ‘Hold My Beer’ is shouted rather than sung but the lyrics (about a drunken wedding party, courtesy of Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell and Ed Hill) are mildly amusing, although I think they will pall with repetition. I can see this as a single complete with over-the-top video. The ironic backseat driver ode ‘Hell I Can Do That’ is rather better in the lighthearted vein, written by Jim Collins, Tony Martin and Lee Miller, with an engaging everyman feel and playful use of instrumentation.

The title track is quite a pleasant midpaced story song about a city woman whose life improves whenever her cowboy boyfriend comes to visit. It is one of Trace’s rare compositions, alongside Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard. Also pretty good is the love song ‘A Little Bit Of Missing You’, written by Mickey Jack Cones (who co-produces this track), Jim McCormick and Tim Johnson. Although it feels a bit over produced, it provides one of the few really melodic moments on the album, and one of the few times Trace’s gravelly bass notes are used to good effect. Most of the songs here could literally be sung by anyone, and Trace’s great voice is simply under utilised.

The highlight is the string laden ‘Still Love You’, a tender ballad co-written by Jeff Bates, where again Trace shows us he really is a fine vocalist with sensitive interpretative ability. The song itself is still only average compared to some of the outstanding ballads Trace has given us in the past.

I also liked ‘Break Her Fall’, a story of a teenage romance between a “long haired country boy” and a rich man’s daughter, written by Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy, with a little too much electric guitar for my taste. It’s a familiar, even clichéd, story, but nicely done with some specific color which makes it convincing and a few memorable lines:

She used me like a razor blade
To cut the ties that bind
Freed herself from Daddy’s world
Got tangled up in mine

This isn’t quite as bad as I was fearing, or Trace’s worst album (a title I would award to Dangerous Man), but it is still a real waste of his talent.

Grade: C

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: Josh Thompson – ‘Way Out Here’

It’s easy to categorize new Columbia artist Josh Thompson as another in the long line of outlaw wannabe who needs to tell us how country he is rather than showing it in the music. He does have more life experience to draw on than some of his competitors, having spent several years working in the real world before coming to Nashville in his 30s.

However, self-conscious statements of countriness do form the core theme for the songs on his debut album (all written or co-written by Josh), including the title track, which is a “my hometown is so country” number, complete with name-dropping mention of Johnny Cash, and is Josh’s new single. It is probably just generic enough to be a hit, as is ‘Blame It On Waylon’, co-written with former artist Rhett Akins, and a likely future single (it is one of the tracks billed rather prematurely on a sticker as a ‘hit song’). This is borne out in these lyrics:

If I got a don’t care attitude and long hair
And mean every damn word I’m singin’
I blame it on Waylon
And all them other outlaws

This seems to be more about image than substance, missing the point on a fairly fundamental level. The best part of this track comes in the instrumental break at the end of the song, where the rhythm actually is reminiscent of Waylon, rather than generic rock-country, and feels more like a genuine tribute than the main part of the song. The forgettably generic ‘You Ain’t Seen Country Yet’ references Haggard in the lyrics seemingly at random, and also features annoying “crowd” noise. ‘A Name In This Town’, written with Casey Beathard and David Lee Murphy, has more specific detail and a sense of ambivalence about the home town, which makes it the best of the songs in this vein. ‘Always Been Me’ has a hackneyed hook line, but feels the most sincere.

But there is some real substance here, notably with Josh’s sole solo composition, the reflective ‘Sinner’, my favorite track. It is encouraging to see that this is one of the songs expected to be a single, according to the label sticker. It treads a well-worn path thematically, but it is one that never really palls, as the protagonist humbly confesses his sins and inadequacies:

My heart’s been filled with hate, greed and envy
But I believe Jesus died to save souls like me

Cause I’m a sinner, that’s just what I am
Sometimes the devil can get the upper hand
But I hit my knees, close my eyes and bow my head
And thank the good Lord that when it comes to forgiveness
He’s no quitter cause I’m a sinner

If heaven had a limit
On the number of commandments you could break
Before they just cast your soul away
Well then, there’s no doubt
Where I’ll be heading when I check out

The song also benefits from Josh’s best vocal interpretation, coming across as more heartfelt than all the posturing.

The other really good song here is the waltz-time ‘I Won’t Go Crazy’, a dogged determination not to crack up over his heartbreak, co-written with Dallas Davidson. On a similar theme is the more superficial ‘Won’t Be Lonely Long’. I like the low key opening with the protagonist down in the dumps after his girl has walked out, but luckily she left at 7 pm on a Friday night, enabling him to go out and drown his sorrows (or have a good time instead). It isn’t a bad song (although any love whose loss is so easily overcome suggests it is fairly shallow-rooted), but it becomes less interesting as it bursts into the rocking chorus; I could imagine Brooks & Dunn doing this. I did like the wry spoken outro (“is it too late to get you back?”) which hints at something a little more ambivalent than the body of the song offers.

The pleasant ‘Back Around’ offers mellow recollections of teenage love, and is nice enough as far as it takes us, but lacks context – there is no indication as to how the relationship ended up, and Josh is not a sufficiently expressive singer to give us more than the lyric supplies. Josh’s debut single, the punchily fast-paced working man’s declaration of working hard to put ‘Beer On The Table’ sounds just like early Tim McGraw (or Tim’s more recent ‘It’s A Business Doing Pleasure with You’), and seems to have peaked just inside the top 20. It’s no classic, but it is quite entertaining, and one of the more memorable tracks here.

Neither Josh’s voice nor his material are particularly distinctive, but some of it is worth hearing. The current artist he reminds me of most strongly stylistically is Eric Church. I would be interested in hearing more if he could find the inspiration to tread some less well trodden paths in his songs.

Grade: C+

Way Out Here is available as a CD or digitally from amazon.