My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris Gaines

Single Review: Garth Brooks — ‘Stronger Than Me’

I have a confession to make. I’ve been falling for Garth Brooks’ marketing schemes for more than 20 years now. I’ve been smarter about avoiding his wicked games in recent years, but I have my share of his box sets and first addition albums with alternate covers in my expansive music collection. I also own the Chris Gaines album, mostly out of curiosity, which says way too much about my musical gullibility.

Brooks’ most recent marketing ploy occurred two weeks ago when he strong-armed the Country Music Association into letting him play what was then an unnamed new song he had recently recorded in tribute to Trisha Yearwood, live on the show. Neither Yearwood nor the audience had heard the song prior to the telecast.

As the story goes, Brooks approached the CMA with his idea for the performance. The producers turned him down, saying a ballad just wasn’t going to work for them the year. Unaccustomed to being told no, he did whatever he had to do to secure the slot.

I just wanted to hear the song and was honestly upset with the CMA for turning him away. I hate, more than anything, when producers and image consultants control what we see on screen. It’s become far more transparent in recent years on various awards shows.

I don’t believe the CMA corroborated his story, so who knows if it’s accurate, or just another ploy in his plan to drum up pre-buzz for this new song. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if the song itself is worth the hassle to be given such visible exposure. When all is said and done, a quality song is always worth celebrating.

“Stronger Than Me,” which was composed by Matt Rossi and Bobby Terry specifically for Brooks, depicts a man who is awestruck that his woman is always there for him when he needs her:

She always says that I’m the rock that she leans on

But it’s so hard to believe

Cause she is always there when I start losing faith, going crazy

She saves me

And every now and then she just wants me to hold her

But that don’t mean she’s weak

The way she’s unafraid to let her feelings show just means she’s stronger than me

 

She lifts the weight of this whole world off of my shoulders

With nothing but the touch of her hand

And every day and I wake up and she tells me that she loves me

I feel more like a man

I know I always thought I had to have the answer

Be her strength and take the lead

But when it comes to everything that really matters

She’s stronger than me

I really like how Rossi and Terry build up the woman in the relationship to be more than the spouse or girlfriend. The man actually recognizes her worth and admits his own flaws, all characteristics I can stand behind.

I just can’t forgive the execution. This idea that the guy is “saved” or “feels more like a man” simply because of his woman irks me. Those feelings and revelations have to come from within, not as a by-product of a romantic relationship. What happens if the relationship ends? What happens if she’s not there anymore to build him up? He’s defining his well-being based on the relationship instead of standing on his own two feet. He needs to know he can be okay without her, too, a lesson he clearly never learns:

I’d give her anything in life that’s mine to give her

Till the last breath that I breathe

And if I have a choice I pray God takes me first

Because she’s stronger than me

Sonically, the piano-centric arrangement is tasteful, but I don’t hear any ounce of passion in the finished record at all. The mixing is muffled and sounds like they recorded the song into a mobile phone or similar device. Brooks doesn’t display his usual emotion or sincerity vocally, two characteristics that drew me to his music in the first place.

“Stronger Than Me” is very similar to the formula he perfected on Fresh Horses, but comes off like a half-hearted attempt at regaining the glory of that album. “She’s Every Woman” this is not, and that’s a damn shame.

Grade: C

To listen to “Stronger Than Me” click here

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Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Garth Brooks

garthTroyal Garth Brooks was born February 7, 1962 in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the youngest child of Troyal Raymond Brooks and Colleen Carroll. His father worked in the oil business while his mom was a country singer, signed to Capitol Records in the 1950s. Young Brooks was required to participate in his family’s weekly talent nights, where he learned to play both Guitar and Banjo.

As a teenager, Brooks turned his attention to athletics. He was on his high school’s football, baseball, and track & field teams. He was talented enough to earn a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University (in Stillwater) where he competed in Javelin and earned a degree in advertising.

Brooks would begin his professional music career shortly after graduating college in 1984. He played the club circuit around Stillwater and sang the wide range of music he was exposed to in his childhood. It wasn’t until he came across a recording of George Strait’s debut single “Unwound” that he decided to set his sights on country music.

A year later he caught the attention of Rod Phelps, an entertainment lawyer from Dallas, who urged Brooks to go to Nashville and make a go at the big time. His first trip to Nashville in 1985 was a 24-hour disaster. He returned home and married Sandy Mahl, a woman he met while working as a bouncer at a local club. The couple moved to Nashville two years later and Brooks began making headway in music city. He connected with songwriters and producers and began singing demos. With a powerful management team behind him, Brooks pursued a record deal. He was passed over by every label in town, finally getting his deal when an exec at Capitol Records, the same label his mother recorded for thirty years prior, saw him perform at a local club. This came six months after they had previously passed on him.

Brooks released his eponymous debut April 12, 1989. (J.R. Journey reviewed the album as part of our Class of 1989 coverage in 2009). Like most of the era’s neo-traditional leanings, Brooks’ debut skewed hardcore country. His debut single, “Much To Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” peaked inside the top ten while the follow-up “If Tomorrow Never Comes” became Brooks’ first #1 hit. He would top the charts again with the album’s final single “The Dance,” which featured a masterful ACM and CMA winning music video that depicted historical figures (John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Keith Whitley, Lane Frost, the Challenger Astronauts, and John Wayne) linked by their tragic deaths.

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Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘Album #2’

Joey + Rory’s long-awaited sophomore effort was released last month. The appropriately-titled Album #2 finds the duo joining forces once again with producer Carl Jackson, and using the same primarily acoustic-based formula that worked so well for them on their 2008 debut album The Life Of A Song, which we reviewed last month as part of our coverage of the new New Traditionalists.

The most noteworthy change from The Life Of A Song, is that Rory, who wrote ten of the album’s twelve tracks, is featured more prominently here, occasionally chiming in to share lead vocals with Joey, and taking the lead completely on “My Ol’ Man”, a moving tribute presumably written about Rory’s own father. Rory is not a particularly gifted vocalist, but the well-written material and understated production more than compensate for his vocal shortcomings.

The album opens with the title track, a witty number about the pressures a fledgling country music act faces as it tries to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump:

This last year’s been a whirlwind, but we’re doing well we’re told,
Been up and down the highway, and on the radio
Sold a lot of our first record, we even had a hit
Now the big wigs back in Nashville say we better kick it up a bit
The critics all are waiting, to see what we will do
For much anticipated album number two.

Some say to go more country, some say we should turn pop
They’ve all got their opinions, on how to take us to the top
Our new image consultant, says we need a fresh hairdo,
As if that’s gonna make or break album number two …

In a similar vein, “Baby I’ll Come Back To You” offers a clever when-hell-freezes-over theme and manages to name-check a number of country stars in a manner that would have made The Statler Brothers proud:

Now I’m not saying there’s no chance at all
But it don’t take no crystal ball
To see the chance is mighty slim, Chris Gaines or me are coming back again
When Willie gives the weed up, and cuts off all his hair,
When George Jones finally says he need’s his rockin’ chair,
When Dolly gets a breast reduction down a size or two,
Then maybe, just maybe, maybe I’ll come back to you

And later they indulge in a little self-deprecating humor with:

When we sell a million copies of album number two,
Huh? We’ve sold how many?
I said maybe, just maybe, maybe I’ll come back to you.

Like its predecessor, Album #2 is a rather quiet affair, managing to avoid the traps of over-production and engaging in the loudness war, which plague so many contemporary country albums. The stripped-down, mostly acoustic arrangements and Joey’s understated vocal performance work exceedingly well on tracks such as “Born To Be Your Woman”, “The Horse Nobody Could Ride”, “Farm To Fame”, and “Where Jesus Is.” It doesn’t work quite as well on “God Help My Man”, which cries out for a feistier performance. I would have loved to have heard what Loretta Lynn would have done with this song back in her heyday.

“You Ain’t Right”, which is one of only two songs in the collection contributed solely by outside songwriters, is a decent song that suffers in comparison to Randy Travis’ superior version. The album’s biggest misstep, however, is the closing track, “This Song’s For You”, on which the duo collaborates with the Zac Brown Band. It is the only track on the album not produced by Carl Jackson. Instead, Keith Stegall is in the control booth. Often criticized for supposedly pandering to fans, “This Song’s For You” is not unpleasant to listen to and might actually work well live on the concert stage, but it seems out of place with the rest of the album. Because of the difference in style and its placement as the last track, it almost seems like a bonus track. However, it was released as the album’s lead single, in an apparent hope that the Zac Brown Band’s current popularity would result in some radio airplay. The strategy was not successful, however, as the single failed to enter the charts.

The second single, the more typical “That’s Important To Me” was sent to radio this month. At this time, it has yet to appear on the charts. None of Joey + Rory’s singles, aside from their debut “Cheater, Cheater” have charted. I suspect that this will be continue to be the case with any future singles released from this album, as they are not in the vein in which country radio is currently interested. However, the album managed to reach #9 on Billboard’s sales-based Top Country Albums chart, which suggests that Joey + Rory may have managed to find a niche of devoted fans that will buy their records, even if they don’t produce any radio hits.

Overall, I like Album #2 better than the first album. It is widely available and is currently available for download at Amazon for the bargain price of $5.

Grade: A

More than one outlet

chrisgainesHank Williams recorded under the guise of Luke the Drifter in the early 1950s, Garth Brooks was Chris Gaines, and George Jones as a rockabilly singing duck.  These are just a few of the alter egos country music has created.  An alter ego is a second self – ‘the other I’.  So what drives a recording artist to create an entirely new persona to market themselves?

A young singer, just out of the marines, migrated from Missouri to California in the early 1950s and began recording under the name Terry Preston. Ferlin Husky had created the stage name because he thought his given name was too rural-sounding.  While he never had any success with the Preston alias, Husky would go on to create a comic foil in the form of Simon Crum.  Crum was even signed a separate contract and had several hits of his own.

Likewise, George Jones began his career in 1955 with a string of hits for the small Starday label.  After a move to Mercury in 1956, George began experiementing with a rockabilly sound (which was wildly popular at the time) as Thumper Jones.  And though he had no real hits to speak of as a rockabilly artist, this chapter is still a necessary footnote in George Jones’ catalog.  During his crazier, no-show years, Jones was also known to create characters for himself too.  Legend has it that he performed an entire show in the voice of a duck character that sounded a lot like Donald Duck.  Later, Jones referred to him as Dee-Doodle Duck.  The duck didn’t score any hits for Jones either.

Luke the Drifter was born as a stage name for Hank Williams to release gospel recordings without hurting his popularity on the honky tonk – and therefore mainstream – circuit of the time.  So it’s not as glamorous a tale as one would imagine. (Or as sad a southern heartbreaking tragedy, however you think the name should have evolved.) Unlike Husky, and even Jones at the time, Hank Williams was a giant figure in country music.  His legend was already in place and that gave him the creative leeway to create another side of himself to market to the fans.  This other side of Hank Williams, a soft-spoken singer recording mostly recitations and spiritual numbers, was in stark contrast to the tortured soul depicted in Hank’s country numbers.  As a defining figure in the genre, Williams was at liberty to present more of the other side of his character in this new man, Luke the Drifter.

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