My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Cheryl Wheeler

Album Review: Rebekah Long – ‘Here I Am’

here i amBluegrass singer and upright bass player Rebekah Long from Georgia has a sweet, light voice, and considerable ability as a songwriter. Her skills are well showcased in her new album. Singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse, who has carved out a real niche for herself in bluegrass in recent years, produced the album, and she and Rebekah wrote most of the material.

The two women co-wrote ‘He’s Never Coming Back Again’, an understated ballad about the pain of lost love, and ‘Nellie Mae’, a pretty tune about an adoptive mother’s love.

The pair were joined by Ulisse’s husband Rick Stanley to write a further three songs. My favorite of these, and possibly my favorite on the album, is the doomladen story song ‘Hairpin Hattie’, whose ghost fatally haunts cheating husbands on the dangerous mountain road she died on herself 80 years earlier outrunning the cops after murdering her own:

She never beckons innocents
The pure of heart they drive on by
Her anger’s for the cheatin’ men
The ones that have a roving eye

‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ is a bright cheerful tune lauding old fashioned rural life, which makes a promising opener to the album, while ‘Sweet Miss Dixie Deen’ is an affectionate tribute to the late wife of Tom T Hall. Rebekah spent several years working for the Halls, and also includes a nice cover of Tom T’s song ‘I Washed My Face In The Mountain Dew’.

A more unexpected cover, but one which works surprisingly well bluegrass style is the sultry ‘Somebody’s Knockin’, the sole country hit for Terri Gibbs in the early 80s. Rebekah doesn’t quite have the forcefulness required to really pull off Merle Haggard’s ‘The Fightin’ Side Of Me’ – it’s pleasant to listen to but unconvincing. The Mel Tillis-penned, and much recorded. ‘Unmitigated Gall’ is more effective, and highly enjoyable. The final cover, Cheryl Wheeler’s ‘I Know This Town’ is a fond tribute to a home town.

The title track and ‘The MapleTree And Me’ are delicately pretty Donna Ulisse songs, the former a tender love song, the latter wistful and poetic. The closing ‘December’, written by Ulisse with Dennis Duff, is atmospheric and bleak

This is a very nice bluegrass album with much to recommend it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt’

nobody love nobody gets hurtSuzy’s swansong for Capitol was released in 1998. She produced the record with her husband, and unfortunately it was a bit of a damp squib commercially, with no real hits.

She and husband Doug Crider wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘Somebody To Love’, her last top 40 single, with Matraca Berg. It opens with an arresting picture of a woman weeping in her kitchen all dolled up after a disastrous date, but the remainder of the lyric is bland and the melody is rather limited.

The title track performed less well, peaking in the 60s. Written by singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner, it is a memorable and slightly quirky story about a dyslexic and emotionally damaged bank robber which is a little heavy handed in pressing home its point, but a stripped down arrangement and sensitive vocal sell it.

The final single, the Kim Richey/Tia Sillers-penned ‘From Where I Stand’ was another flop. Although (like ‘Somebody To Love’) it has quite a commercial late 90s sound reminiscent of Trisha Yearwood’s more AC material, it’s not very interesting.

The insistently bluesy pop-country ‘Just Enough Rope’ sounds like an attempt to compete with the likes of Shania Twain. It is a departure from Suzy’s strengths as an artist but is quite catchy, although someone like Yearwood would probably have been more suited to it. It is one of only two tracks to feature fiddle.

A more traditional country fiddle leads into Julie Miller’s ‘Take Me Back’. This is the most traditional country track on the record (with the only steel guitar to make an appearance as well as the fiddle) and a real highlight; an excellent song with a close harmony from Garth Brooks on the chorus.

‘When I Run’ is a nice Skip Ewing ballad with a pretty tune and insightful lyric about someone finding love scary. Suzy’s subtle vocal is beautiful, and makes this commitmentphobe sympathetic and convincing, when she says,

It’s not you
It’s not fun
I know tryin’ to hide is crazy
Walking out won’t save me
My demons only chase me when I run

Kathy Mattea sings backing vocals but is so low in the mix she is inaudible.

The delicate ballad ‘Moonlight And Roses’, written by Cheryl Wheeler, is an understated gem about not missing an opportunuity to find love, with another excellent, subtle vocal. Alison Krauss plays viola.

Tony Arata’s ‘I Wish Hearts Would Break’ is a moving tribute to a dying mineworker whose spirit has been broken by the death of his beloved wife, which again Suzy sings beautifully, supported by Darrell Scott’s backing vocals. Childhood memories are fondly recalled in the gently folky ‘Family Tree’, written by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

Suzy and Doug’s ‘I Surrender’ is a pleasant love song, with Patty Loveless providing a gentle harmony. I preferred the closing ‘Train Of Thought’, written by Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ and Stephony Smith, an attractively laid back number with backing vocals from Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss.

Overall while this is not one of Suzy’s best albums, it is a pleasant listening experience, but the attempts at maintaining commercial viability are the least successful tracks. It marked the end of her time on a major label, but is worth picking up if you like Suzy’s music.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Voices In The Wind’

220px-SuzyBoggussVoicesintheWindSuzy Bogguss had a lot riding on her Voices of the Wind album. She was following up the platinum selling Aces, which contained her first string of top ten singles, and justifying her Horizon Award victory over genre heavyweights Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and Pam Tillis. While the record didn’t contain as many singles as Aces it was still a big success as her second consecutive gold record. Jimmy Bowen also returned as producer.

Bogguss was still riding the wave of her single “Letting Go” when time came to release the follow-up CD. Liberty/Capitol decided to tack that single on to the end of Voices in an effort to capitalize on the song’s success. It worked, and the track hit #6. The follow-up, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Drive South” fared even better, hitting #2. The high energy number, one of my favorite singles from her, was her biggest hit to date. The only other single, “Heartache” would break Bogguss’ hot streak, managing to stall at #23. The neo-traditional number was good, but probably a bit too slow for heavy rotation status on the radio.

Also included on the album is her version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which Dixie Chicks took into the top 10 from their Fly album in Spring 2000. Bogguss turns in a wonderful version of the song but it’s a bit too adult contemporary. It works better with the electric guitars and Natalie Maines’ biting vocal on the Chicks’ version. Bogguss’ is a little too sweet. “Eat At Joes,” co-written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a fabulous bluesy number about life at an all night diner, and one of the highlights. Trisha Yearwood’s voice may’ve been better suited for the song, her bluesy side is unmatched, but Bogguss turns in a very competent performance.

“Aces” writer Cheryl Wheeler contributes “Don’t Wanna,” an emotionally stunning ballad that Bogguss takes to new heights with her angelic voice. Bogguss has a subtle way of conveying a lyric and this is one example of where the production works in her favor in helping her tell the story. “Lovin’ A Hurricane” is the second track written by Hiatt and while it’s very good, her vocal almost seems too bland for the upbeat production. It tries but fails to repeat the magic of “Drive South.”

Bogguss had a hand in co-writing two of the album’s tracks, including one with husband Doug Crider (who co-wrote “Letting Go”). “How Come You Go To Her” (co-written with Michael Garvin and Anthony Smith) is an excellent mid-tempo ballad about a woman wondering why her man just isn’t into her. The Crider co-write is “In The Day,” another contemporary sounding ballad that succeeds on Bogguss’ ability to sell a story, this time of a burgeoning romance.

Crider also co-wrote “Love Goes Without Saying,” another similar sounding ballad, but another lyrically strong number. Chuck Pyle wrote “Other Side of the Hill,” a honky-tonk highlight. I love the rousing steel guitar and western themes, as well as Bogguss’ perfectly energetic vocal. If this track were a single, it would’ve likely been a huge hit.

Voices In The Wind is the perfect example of a catch 22. Lyrically, there isn’t a dud in the bunch. But Bogguss and Bowen spend a bit too much real estate on similar sounding ballads that bog the album down in a sea of slowness. She needs more songs like “Other Side of the Hill” to breakup the monotony, and showcase more diversity in what she can do as a singer and artist. That being said, it’s still a very strong album and although the 1992 era production is dated by today’s standards, Voices In The Wind is a worthy addition to any music collection.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Aces’

acesThe first time I heard Suzy Bogguss sing, I was sure that she was on the verge of becoming country music’s next big female superstar. It was, therefore, both surprising and disappointing when her first two albums and the singles released from them all performed poorly on the charts. Her commercial fortunes began to change in 1991 when she teamed up with her Capitol labelmate Lee Greenwood for a duet, the Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook-penned “Hopelessly Yours”, which rose to #12, her best performance to date on the Billboard country singles chart. The record’s success proved to be the breakthrough she needed and paved the way for her subsequent solo recordings.

Suzy was always a bit of a folkie at heart, as opposed to a hardcore country traditionalist, and the song selections on Aces, her third album for Capitol Nashville, reflect that preference. The album’s advance single was a revival of Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s “Someday Soon”, which had been recorded numerous times by a number of artists, including Judy Collins and Moe Bandy. Suzy’s excellent version reached #12, matching the success of “Hopelessly Yours.” Suzy and co-producer Jimmy Bowen slowed down the tempo ever so slightly on Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane”, giving the song more mainstream appeal than Griffith’s original and more quirky recording from a few years earlier. “Outbound Plane”, which peaked at #9, found Suzy cracking the Top 10 for the first time. Recognizing that the folk connection was proving successful, Capitol selected the album’s title track, written by folk singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, as Suzy’s next single. Like “Outbound Plane”, it reached #9 and is one of the songs for which Suzy is best remembered today.

The album’s fourth single — and its most successful was the more conventional “Letting Go”, written by Suzy’s husband Doug Crider and Matt Rollings. A tale about leaving home and the adjustments required by both parent and child, it peaked at #6 in the fall of 1992 and made an appearance on Suzy’s next album Voices In The Wind.

More often than not, I find that there are always one or two songs on every album that should have been a single, but for one reason or another, was not. Tony Arata’s “Part of Me” falls into that category this time around, although for the most part, Capitol showed good judgement in its selection of singles. There’s nothing particularly memorable about “Yellow River Road”, which is noteworthy only because it is the album’s only song in which Suzy had a hand in writing. The bluesy numbers “Save Yourself” and “Let Goodbye Hurt” require more soulful performances than Suzy was able to provide, and her version of “Still Hold On”, though good, cannot compare with Tanya Tucker’s grittier performance from a few years earlier.

Aces was the best and most successful of Suzy’s major label albums, and the only one to earn platinum certification. Inexpensive copies are easy to obtain.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Love Travels’

Three years after Walking Away A Winner returned Kathy Mattea to the upper reaches of the charts, she returned with Love Travels, an eleven-song collection that saw her return to exploring her Celtic roots, while still trying to have hits at radio.

The most successful of the album’s singles was “455 Rocket,” a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings composition featuring a decidedly pop-country arrangement indicative of the era. A CMA Video of the Year Winner, the song peaked at #21 in the states but fared better in Canada where it peaked at #16. I’ve always liked the song, and was surprised to learn Americana darlings Welch and Rawlings wrote it, but would not rank it among Mattea’s most impactful material. I quite like “I’m On Your Side,” the non-charting second single because of its infectious attitude, and upbeat persona.

The #36 peaking title track, a fabulous Celtic-inspired mid-tempo ballad, was the final single and shows the disconnect between Mattea and country radio. Mattea has always been a bit too smart for her own good, and while that makes for fantastic music, it keeps radio somewhat at bay. It’s too bad, too, because Love Travels contains some of the best music of her commercial days. Lionel Cartwright’s “If That’s What You Call Love” is an excellent somewhat pop flavored ballad Mattea wears beautifully. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and I love how the bed of steel guitar frames her delicate vocal.

Jim Pitman and Tom Kimmel’s Gospel flavored “The Bridge” is somewhat jittery in execution, but Mattea pulls it off with ease. While she does a great job with the song, I can only help but wonder how Wynonna Judd, a far better gospel-tinged vocalist, would blow the song out of the water. Another standout is Welch’s sonically brilliant “Patiently Waiting,” a groovy acoustic guitar led number that works because of Mattea’s confident vocal, the missing element from “The Bridge.” Recalling her mesmerizing “Knee Deep in A River,” “Sending Me Angels” shows she’s grown as a vocalist in the preceding five years and works wonders thanks to Mattea’s throaty vocal and use of steel as a framing technique. Cheryl Wheeler’s “Further and Further Away” finds Mattea tackling an airy vocal on a mid-tempo ballad that would’ve been stronger had the tempo been increased just a little. As it is, the track is too slow to be fully effective, but the combination of Mattea and Wheeler’s voices saves the song from being a complete washout.

The most powerful track on the album is the closer “Beautiful Fool” written by Don Henry. The song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr, a remembrance of the American legend often forgotten by most people. Like her seminal classic “Where’ve You Been” (which Henry co-wrote), “Beautiful Fool” relays its powerful message in an understated manner, down to the acoustic arrangement. Janis Ian, of “At 17” fame, and Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner wrote “All Roads To The River,” another Gospel inspired tune that ranks among my least favorite on the album because it takes Mattea too far out of her country sensibilities. While I’m all for singers trying something new, the way she has to stretch her voice on this song doesn’t work for me. “At The End of the Line” is a first-rate pop song and Mattea delivers a first-rate pop vocal. Unlike “All Roads to the River” she sounds natural and finds a nice groove with the tempo. It may not be the most country of all the tracks, but it still works.

Overall, Love Travels is a very strong album from one of country’s premier vocalists. It may have been the final release during her radio years, but it came at a time when her fellow contemporaries Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, and Pam Tillis also saw their fortunes dissipate. It’s not surprising as smart intelligent country music has a short life in mainstream culture. But that doesn’t make Love Travels any less of a fine album and one worthy of a listen

Grade: A – 

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rage On’

1988 saw Dan make a sideways move from EMI to its Capitol imprint. Rage On has tasteful Kyle Lehning production and excellent material which combines great melodies with interesting lyrics. Dan was at his commercial and artistic peak, and it continued his hot streak with country radio.

Lead single ‘Addicted’ was Dan’s eighth straight #1 hit. It was written by contemporary folk artist Cheryl Wheeler, but it fits Dan like a glove with its pretty melody and sensitive, insightful lyric. His empathetic vocal is perfect for this bleak third person portrait of a woman who can see her lover is drawing away from her, and her own heart breaking slowly:

She says she feels like she’s addicted to a real bad thing
Always sitting waiting wondering if the phone will ring
She knows she bounces like a yoyo when he pulls her string
It hurts to feel like such a fool
She wants to tell him not to call or come around again
He doesn’t need her at all now the way that she needs him
She’s on the edge about to fall from leaning out and in
And she don’t know which way to move, oh no

She wants to be fair, she couldn’t say
He was ever unkind
But if she could bear to walk away
She thinks he wouldn’t mind

Another fine song, ‘Big Wheels In The Moonlight’ followed it to the top of the charts, and has a much cheerier atmosphere. Set to a lively tune with occasional hand claps, it tells the story of a restless young boy bored with his hometown (“so small, look both ways you could see it all”) and dreaming of a truck driving life. There is an optimistic feel as Dan delivers the song with commitment, and Baillie & the Boys provide backing vocals. It was one of three songs on the album written by the regular partnership of Dan with Bob McDill.

Another McDill collaboration, the title track, ‘They Rage On’, broke Dan’s streak of #1 hits, peaking at #5. With a delicate vocal, Dan sympathetically portrays two sets of desperate lovers – a pair of restless teenagers (“like birds in a cage”) and an older couple having an illicit affair (“she’s lost her youth and he’s lost his dreams”) as they cling on to the one thing that makes them feel alive. The video interpreted the song by showing an interracial couple facing hostility, and perhaps it was this relatively controversial topic (not in the original song) that kept it off the top spot.

The final McDill co-write is one of relatively few country songs to have a New York setting. ‘Long Long Island Nights’ is the portrait a successful model who is just a small town girl at heart, in need of love.

Dan wrote two socially conscious songs alone. In ‘Factory Town’, he tackles a town dependent on one employer which is about to shut, playing the part of one factory worker, bewildered by the situation. ‘Those’ is an idealistic plea to help out one’s neighbours, in both material and emotional ways:

Then the world would be a better place for living
More forgiving every day
If those that have learned how to hold their own
Could help those who are slipping away

Those who have loved and lost everything
Could help those who have never loved at all
Those that are free now, no longer feel the pain,
Could help those who are still behind the wall

John Scott Sherrill’s superb ‘Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons’ is my equal favorite track with ‘Addicted’. The melancholy testament of a man whose childhood home is about to be lost to strip mining, Dan’s version is deeply affecting, channelling sadness rather than the outrage of John Anderson’s more forceful later cut, and he gives it a palpable sense of defeat which interprets the song effectively.

And I said “mMama forgive me but I’m almost glad
That you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody
Who’d actually blow it away”

The addition of a recorder in the instrumental section gives it a wistful old-fashioned air which works rather well.

‘Twenty Four Hour Love’ is a quietly catchy number Dan wrote with Mac MacAnally; a gentle love song from a working man who is not normally good at expressing his emotions. ‘Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice’ was written by K. T. Oslin, and is a solid song with a disillusioned Dan quietly determined to move on. A little more on the pop-country side, ‘A Heartache Just Around The Bend’ was written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball, and while pleasant, is the closest the record comes to filler.

Kimball wrote the downbeat ballad ‘Maybe I’m Missing You Now’ with Blackie Farrell, which has more of an impact. Here Dan ruefully regrets separating from his wife:

We made a promise for better or worse
Well, this is the worse that I’ve been
I’ve run out of reasons to hide anyhow
Maybe I’m missing you now

This is my personal favorite of Dan Seals’ albums, and is well worth adding to your collection. It’s easy to find used, or you could wait until the 2on1 with Dan’s country debut Rebel Heart appears in October.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Dan Seals – ‘Addicted’

Also featuring the song’s writer Cheryl Wheeler: