My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chapin Hartford

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Under The Kudzu’

220px-Shenandoah_-_Under_The_KudzuShenandoah released their second album for RCA Records (and fifth overall) in the summer of 1993. Don Cook, known at the time for producing Brooks & Dunn, helmed Under The Kudzu. The hope was a little of the Brooks & Dunn magic would rub off on Marty Raybon and the boys, and while the album wasn’t successful at a superstar level, it did keep them in favor with country radio.

Legendary songwriter Dennis Linde penned the album’s first single, the decidedly upbeat “Janie Baker’s Love Slave.” While the drum heavy production was right in line with the trends twenty years ago, the song is an awful mess, and one of Shenandoah’s weaker single offerings. Radio somewhat agreed, and the track peaked at #15.

Sentimental piano ballad “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” a story song about a guy’s longing to enjoy a lengthy marriage to his true love, returned the band to the top 5, when the song peaked at #3 in late 1993. While the song is a marked improvement over “Janie Baker’s Love Slave,” and boasts nicely understated production behind Raybon’s sincere vocal, it’s a little too schmaltzy.

They return to form with “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can To),” my favorite of the album’s singles, and one of their strongest radio offerings (it was the band’s final #1, too). Raybon co-wrote the tune with Mike McGuire and Bob McDill after seeing line dance instructional videos advertized on TV, and while the concept is clearly dated, the whole things works because Cook backs Raybon’s vocal with twangy guitars that are as ear catching as the song’s hook.

“I’ll Go Down Loving You,” a contemporary piano balled composed by Chapin Hartford, Sam Hogin, and Monty Powell, was the album’s finale single and the first song of the band’s career to miss the top 40 since their debut. This track would’ve been a bigger hit apparently, and it was good enough that it deserved to be so, if the band hadn’t partied ways with RCA shortly after the single’s release.

Linde wrote the title track as well. “Under The Kudzu” references the kudzu plant, which is a vine-like weed from Asia that’s become invasive in the Southeastern United States. The mid-tempo drum driven number is actually much stronger then I expected, although the melody is very reminiscent to Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of my Double Wide Trailer.”

“Nickel In The Well” is another similar sounding uptempo number but Cook smartly helps it stand out thanks to the heavy dose of dobro heard throughout. “Say The Word,” a contemporary mid-tempo number is also good, even if it lacks the extra magic to help it stand out.

“The Blues Are Comin’ Over To Your House” is an excellent more traditionally styled number that Cook wrote with Kix Brooks. It’s one of the album’s stronger songs, and while it hasn’t held up perfectly with time, it should’ve been released to radio, where it would’ve likely been a big hit. “That’s The Kind of Woman I Like,” another up-tempo number co-written by Cook, packs on the charm but lacks a little in the lyric department. It’s darn catchy, though, which is more than enough to help it stand out. Raybon co-wrote “It Takes Every Rib I’ve Got,” and it’s just plain uptempo filler, nothing great, and kind of dumb lyrically.

Under the Kudzu is nothing more than a contemporary country album designed to attract maximum airplay thanks to abundance of uptempo numbers heavy on the drums and somewhat catchy hooks. Cook’s production was very ‘of the moment’ and thus lacked the universal appeal that would help this project age gracefully. There are still some wonderful songs in the mix that keeps the album listenable, but Under The Kudzu is little more than a product of its time.

Grade: B+

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Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘All of This Love’

PamTillisAllofThisLoveIn the wake of the success of Sweetheart’s Dance – a platinum selling album that nabbed her the coveted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1994 – Pam Tillis decided to produce the follow-up record by herself, and became the first woman on a major label to do so. The stakes were high when All of This Love hit with a bang in November 1995.

The main reason I enjoy the women of 90s country so much is their dedication to their music. Most were often too smart for mainstream radio, thus enjoying relatively short commercial careers while reaping the rewards artistically. Tillis is one of these artists and she proved it with All of This Love, an album that had little to do with the bouncy sound of its predecessor. Instead the project was somber, moody, and alienated the casual fans that loved hits like “Mi Via Loca.”

Well, it was their loss because All of This Love produced some brilliant singles. “Deep Down,” a mournful fiddle drenched tune, peaked at #6. The song is the rare record where the juxtaposition of mournful lyric and upbeat melody comes together to create magic. Tillis co-wrote another tour de force, “It’s Lonely Out There,” with her now ex-husband Bob DiPiero. It’s a ferocious lyric, with a woman letting her man go, only to warn him “Go on and get your share/But believe me baby/It’s lonely out there.” The song may’ve only hit #16, but of all her singles, it’s left the biggest impression on me. One of my all-time favorite songs from the moment I first heard it all those years ago.

In between them, Tillis sent the album’s centerpiece to #8. “The River and the Highway,” written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz, is a poetic masterwork about two people trying to find comfort in each other. That Tillis could get such a left of center ballad into the top 10 speaks to her strong relationship with country radio at the time.

She wasn’t so fortunate on the final single, which became her first for Arista to miss the top 40. Despite or may be even in spite of its innate stupidity, I’ve always liked “Betty’s Got A Bass Boat.” The lyric is generic and the production has aged horribly, but the Bernie Nelson and Craig Wiseman-penned tune got me to purchase this album in the first place. Much like Julie Roberts’ misguided cover of Saving Jane’s “Girl Next Door,” it’s Tillis’ attempt at scoring a big hit with ripe radio fodder. In both cases the experiment failed, proving that trying to fit in just isn’t worth the embarrassing effort.

Tillis is much better when she’s not being guided by radio, and she proves it with a stellar cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain,” which features Marty Stuart playing the bluegrass staple. The collaboration is a gorgeous marriage of my favorite musical instrument and Tillis’ otherwordly voice. She’s similarly excellent on the mandolin, fiddle, and steel guitar soaked country shuffle title track, a Chapin Hartford song about a woman saving all her love for the man she has yet to meet. “Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” is an underappreciated Kim Richey number about budding love that’s as effervescent and sunny as the vivacious fiddle throughout suggests.

It’s easy to compare All of This Love with its predecessor, given all eyes were on Tillis (a budding superstar) at the time of its release. Most will refer to it as a lesser album given how it isn’t as radio friendly nor as appealing for casual fans (the songs could be looked at as not being ‘instantly catchy’ enough) but it’s certainly just as good but in many ways better than Sweetheart’s Dance. This is where Tillis came into her own as a powerhouse selector of material and while the two albums that followed weren’t nearly as strong, she’s bounced back in the last decade.

Grade: A

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Wild Angels’

wild angelsMartina McBride is one of the most technically gifted vocalists in country music, and her style was ideally suited to the 90s with its mix of contemporary shine and more traditional elements (although the latter tended to reduce over time), good songs, and great vocals. Her third album, 1995’s Wild Angels, would seal her star status. Martina took a co-production credit this time alongside Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her earlier work. Her vocals are superb throughout this album, and almost every song sounds as though it could have been a successful single. Bookending the set by opening with a baby’s cry and ending with studio chatter, however, is pretentious, self-indulgent and pointless.

The lead single, the charmingly hopeful ‘Safe In The Arms Of Love’, dreams about the prospects of true love some time in the future. A pretty arrangement with an almost Celtic feel and airy backing vocals from co-writers Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose (the third writer was Pat Bunch) contrast nicely with Martina’s powerful lead vocal. It was a cover of a song which was originally recorded by Baillie & The Boys and had been a Canadian country hit for Michelle Wright, but Martina’s version is my favorite. Peaking at #4 on Billboard, it was her second biggest hit to date.

The sunny title track was the second single, and while the efficiently glossy surface of this well-written contemporary country song (written by Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Harry Stinson) somehow sounds a little soulless to me, it was very radio-friendly and became Martina’s first #1 hit.

Surprisingly, the last couple of singles failed to repeat this success, even though they are siginifiantly better songs. ‘Phones Are Ringing All Over Town’ is a dramatic ballad (written by Marc Beeson, Kim Vassy and David McKechnie) about a complacent cheating husband’s discovery that he has crossed one line too many and the marriage is over with “nothing to be said”. It was only just a top 30 hit despite the excellence of both song and vocal.

‘Swingin’ Doors’ only just crept into the top 40, but deserved much better. Written by Chapin Hartford, Bobby Boyd and Jim Foster, it is a ballsy, sardonic response to a man the protagonist realizes has been stringing her along with empty promises. The doors to her heart are about to be closed to him. Banked harmonies help to sell the song’s defiance.

The final single (and my favourite), ‘Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road’ peaked at 26. It is in fact one of my favorite Martina McBride recordings ever. It was written by Matraca Berg and Tim Krekel, and portrays a woman whose marriage has reached such a desperate state she just leaves with no destination in mind:

Rollin’ out of Bakersfield
My own private hell on wheels
But this time I’m gone for good…

It makes me feel a little low
Steel guitar on the radio
when its kind of scary teh way these truckers fly
So this is how leaving feels
Drinking coffee and making deals
With the One above to get me through the night

Cause there ain’t no telling what I’ll find
But I might as well move on down the line
There ain’t no comfort to be found in your zip code
I’d rather break down on the highway
With no one to share my load
Cry on the shoulder of the road

Levon Helm’s harmony lends a California country-rock feel to the chorus, while Martina’s full blooded vocal makes her sound vulnerable but determined to make her way, and a tasteful arrangement with steel guitar.

The contemporary sounding mid-tempo ‘A Great Disguise’ has Martina hiding her heartbreak behind “smoke and ice”, with a big emotional chorus. ‘Beyond The Blue’ is quite a pretty song about looking forward to getting past the sorrow of a breakup, and both are quite good.

‘All The Things We’ve Never Done’ (written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig) is a gentle love song comparing possible missed opportunities in life with a supportive love. The similarly themed ‘You’ve Been Driving All The Time’ was overtly dedicated to Martina’s husband, whose support had been so instrumental in building her career; it is a sweet if slightly sentimental love song which affirms,

It takes a real man to take a back seat to a woman.

Another love song from the Bunch/Rose/Kennedy writing team, ‘Born To Give My Love To You’ is quite pretty with a string arrangement and multitrack harmonies from Rose and Martina herself.

An energetic cover of ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, the Delbert McClinton song best known by Emmylou Harris, is pretty good with a rocking vocal, some fabulous honky tonk piano from John Hobbs, and proves Martina wasn’t just a great balladeer.

This album exemplifies pop-country at its best – good, sometimes great songs, great vocals, and a production which while glossy, is not pretending to be a rock band. The overall mood is of female self-confidence and survival. Even the breakup songs focus on the woman moving on, and this positive image of being a strong woman may have been key to Martina’s success at a time when women in country music were doing better as a group than ever before.

Grade: A

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’

1991 was the height of the neotraditional movement, and the period saw a host of exciting new artists rooted in traditional country music breaking through. It was the ideal time for Sammy Kershaw, with his astonishingly George Jones soundalike voice, to make his debut. Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson produced his first album for Mercury, and did a fine job showcasing the artist’s voice.

His debut single ‘Cadillac Style’ was an immediate success, reaching #3. It sunnily celebrates the power of true love to overcome the limitations of poverty. The sultry title track (penned by Chapin Hartford and Jim Foster) relates the passions of first love somewhere in the South. Imbued with Southern atmosphere, the record peaked just outside the top 10.

The record’s finest song, ‘Yard Sale’ was Sammy’s third straight top 20 hit, and his finest single to date. Written by Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian, it depicts in precise detail the sad aftermath of a failed marriage, with the couple’s goods being sold off cheap to all comers, leading to Sammy’s sardonic comment,

Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?

This excellent song would have been perfect for George Jones himself at his peak. While Kershaw isn’t quite the superlative interpreter Jones is, he still delivers the song very well.

The final single, ‘Anywhere But Here’, was Sammy’s second top 10. A vibrant up-tempo treatment belies the protagonist’s broken heart and desire just to get away from the scene of his broken heart.

Bob McDill’s regretful ‘Real Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ has a lovely fiddle/steel laden arrangement. The protagonist finds his sophisticated modern worldview collapses when his heart gets broken, and he reverts to an older style of dealing with heartbreak:

I play Hank Williams on the jukebox
Order up old whiskey at the bar
And through my tears I light another Lucky
I’ve got a real old fashioned broken heart

This is another gem, as is ‘Kickin’ In’, a heartbreak ballad written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, with a pretty melody and fiddle underlining the sad mood.

Underlining the comparisons to George, Sammy picked an obscure George Jones song to record. ‘What Am I Worth’ has the protagonist plaintively questioning his value regardless of other achievements in life, because his loved one is rejecting him. A vivacious up-tempo mood belies the downbeat lyric.

My favorite track is the hardcore cheating song with a twist – both parties in the marriage are running around behind the other’s back, ‘Every Third Monday’. It was written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Billy Henderson. Also with a twist, the ballad ‘I Buy Her Roses’ initially sounds like a sweet love song, but there is a sting in the tale. The protagonist’s loved one has actually left him, and he is buying the flowers he always forgot to do when they were together. A sincerely delivered vocal sells the song effectively.

Closing out the set, ‘Harbor For A Lonely Heart’ is a pleasant but not particularly memorable ballad written by Kostas and Jenny Yates.

While Kershaw’s vocal similarity to George Jones meant he perhaps lacked a degree of individuality, there are far worse singers to emulate. This was a pretty solid album with some very fine moments, and a promising debut. It sold well at the time, and was certified platinum. Used copies can now be found very cheaply, and it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-