My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chuck Cannon

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Don’t Fence Me In’

dont-fence-me-inThe singles from Wishes would prove to be the peak of Lari White’s popularity. The followup album, Don’t Fence Me In, which saw her stretch her wings artistically, was less successful in the marketplace.

The first single, ‘Ready, Willing And Able’, is quite a good mid-tempo song about being open to falling in love, which Lari delivers with commitment. It was written by Jess Leary and Jody Alan Sweet, and reached the top 20.

The only other single, the vivacious up-tempo ‘Wild At Heart’, failed to make the top 40, and combined with unspectacular sales of the album led to RCA dropping Lari. Lari wrote it with Al Anderson, and it’s pretty good and well performed.

‘Ain’t Gonna Worry About Love No More’ (written by Michael Noble) is in a similar contemporary up-tempo vein.

Lari wrote three songs with her husband Chuck Cannon. The best of these, ‘Something Blue’, is a bluesy torch song about a marriage in the course of disintegrating:

Our love is something old
Her kiss is something new
And now we live on borrowed time
Cause all that’s left is something blue

The upbeat poppy ‘Do It Again’ affirms the narrator’s past choices and mistakes. ‘Next To Love’ is fairly forgettable filler.

‘Ghost Of A Chance’, written by Lari with Chuck Jones, is a low key soulful ballad about fighting the unseen rival of her partner’s ex, with some nice fiddle. This is excellent, and my favourite track.

I also like another ballad, ’The Test’ (written by Don Schlitz and Billy Livsey), although it feels a little bit contrived. A married woman reviews the strength of her relationship on paper, listing all the fights and bad times, which makes her think it must be over – but set against that she has just one positive: she loves him.

‘I’ve Been Waiting For Your Love’ is a pretty AC-leaning ballad written by Stephony Smith and Terry Burns, with some nice fiddle. ‘Woman Of The World’ is an upbeat song about women as survivors.

Rather pretentiously, two tracks have short teasers earlier in the set list. The title track is the Cole Porter-penned standard. Right at the start of the album Lari sings the first chorus fairly straight, with harmony singers Trisha Yearwood and SShelby Lynne, but with old dusty vinyl sound effects. Then almost at the end of the album she launches into a speeded up rockabilly take on the song. It doesn’t really work for me.

Similarly, ‘Soul Searchin’ Blues’ starts out randomly inserted three quarters of the way through with one verse, and then continues right at the end. This is a straight blues tune.

The record is not particularly country, and certainly not traditional, but Lari White was a very talented singer and songwriter, and if you like a slightly poppy/jazzy/AC edge to your country, this album is well worth while.

Although Lari would enjoy one more top 20 hit with ‘Stepping Stone’ on a new label, Lyric Street , and then a top 20 duet with Travis Tritt, that was the end of her mainsteam success.

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Lead Me Not’

lari-whiteLead Me Not was Lari White’s debut album, released in 1993 on the RCA label. This was Lari’s second stab at major label stardom as her prize for winning the television talent show Star Search in 1988 was a recording contract with Capitol Records.

Unfortunately the single released on Capitol (“Flying Above the Rain”) went nowhere and she was released by Capital . A person of many talents, including songwriting, Lari marked time by joining Ronnie Milsap’s publishing house, took acting lessons and performed in local theatre productions. In 1991 after attending an ASCAP showcase Rodney Crowell invited her to perform in his band. White signed to RCA, which brings us to this album, which Rodney Crowell produced.

Lead Me Not spotlights Lari’s vocal prowess and her talents as a songwriter as Lari wrote or co-wrote eight of the ten tracks on the album. The album only reached #36 on Billboard’s Heat Chart and missed charting on the Country Albums chart; however, all three of the singles released charted country (none cracked the top forty).

The album opens up with “Itty Bitty Single Solitary Piece of My Heart’, a co-write with John Rotch. The title sounds as if it would be a novelty number, but the song is actually a bluesy ballad warning off a would-be suitor. Jerry Douglas on dobro is featured prominently in the arrangement.

Chorus:

So you won’t get a taste of this, not even a kiss
The fact that your middle name is heartache is no coincidence
You made a livin’ out of lovin’ and leavin’ ‘em to fall apart
So now you better understand youi’ll never lay one hand on one
Itty bitty little single solitary piece o’ my heart

Next up is “Just Thinking” a romantic piece of cocktail jazz, written by Lari, and one that perhaps would have made a good single is pushed to another genre such as Lite Jazz or Adult Contemporary. Bergan White (no relation) arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

“Lay Around and Love On You” was written by Bobby David and David Gillon. Released as the third single, the song reached #68 on the country charts. The song isn’t remotely country having a strong New Orleans R&B vibe. It’s a great song, and if released during the mid 1970s or early 1980s, likely would have been a hit.

Time for me to go to work again
But all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you
Seven thirty, but I don’t care
What you’re doing is gonna keep me here
‘Cause all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

Lay around and love
Lay around and love on you
You’ve got me so turned on
Honey, I can’t turn you loose
Hope nobody calls
Got the phone off the hook
We’re gonna try everything in the book
All I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

“Lead Me Not” was the second single from the album. Written by Lari, the song has a strong gospel feel to the arrangement, not surprisingly since the title is a play on a familiar religious theme. Nice saxophone work by the appropriately named Jim Horn is the highlight of the arrangement.

Well, I should have been home hours ago
I always lose track of the time
I’ll just hold up this wall while I try to recall
A thought from the back of my mind
Oh yeah I remember, it began with a wink
When you caught me looking at you

So don’t ask me if you can buy me a drink
I know what you’re trying to do
Lead me not into temptation
I already know the road all too well
Lead me not into temptation
I can find it all by myself

This is followed by another Lari White solo composition “Made To Be Broken” a lovely, well performed easy-listening ballad.

“What A Woman Wants” was the first single and biggest hit on the album reaching #44. Lari co-wrote this with soon-to-be husband Chuck Cannon (they married in 1994 and are still married, with two daughters). This song deals with the changing roles in society and the effort to try to explain to men what women today want. The song is taken at a quick tempo, and frankly I am surprised that the song wasn’t a bigger hit.

Come here darlin’, let me whisper in your ear
A precious little secret that I think you need to hear
With the way the women’s movement’s always making the news
I can see how a man might get confused
Now a woman doesn’t mind a man holding the door
But slaving in some kitchen ain’t what God made a woman for
We’ve come a long way baby, but way down deep we’re still the same
What a woman wants will never change

What a woman wants is to be treated like a queen
By a man who deserves to be treated like a king
What a woman wants, what keeps her holding on
Is a loving man who understands what a woman wants

The seventh track features a Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson composition “Anything Goes”. The song has a definite Mexican flair. Verlon’s career as a recording artist never took off, but he remains a prominent songwriter and instrumentalist.

It took until track eight to reach a song that I would regard as truly being country music, that song being “When The Lights Are Low”, a song Lari co-wrote with Chris Waters (bother of Holly Dunn). This song features classic steel guitar work by Tommy Spurlock, fiddle by Jonathan Yudkin and a great vocal by Lari. The song is a prototypical country ballad with lyrics any fans of traditional country music could enjoy and should have been released as the first single. While I don’t know whether or not this would have been a big hit at radio, at least it would have pegged Lari as a legitimate country artist. As it was, if I were a DJ dealing with Lari’s first three RCA singles, I would not known how to classify her (Con Hunley had the much same problem fifteen years earlier).

In the dark I’m just part of the crowd
It’s hard to tell who it is I’m there without
In some tall stranger’s arms
Your memory’s not so clear
I can cry all night long
‘Cause no one sees the tears
Where the lights are low

Where the jukebox plays
The saddest song it knows
Through a smoky haze
Since you’ve been gone
That’s where I go
‘Cause everything looks better
Where the lights are low

Lari collaborated with her future husband again on “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”, another easy listening/adult contemporary ballad. It’s a nice song, well sung but again not especially country. As on track two, Bergan White arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

The album closes as it began, with a Lari White – John Rotch collaboration in “Good Good Love”. As with the opening number with is a bluesy R&B tinged ballad, with gospel overtones in the production.

If you want a good good love
Hold on when the times are bad
‘Cause if you jump ship when trouble hits
Good for nothin’ is all you’ll have
You gotta anchor down in the winds of doubt
You can’t give in and you can’t bail out
If the water’s high hold your head above
And hang on for that good good love

When love sets sail it’s always a sunny day
And when the skies are blue it’s so easy to make love stay
But when the clouds roll in and the ship begins to strain
You gotta try a little harder
Go on, test the water
‘Cause the air is so much sweeter
After a real good rain

This album features a bewildering array of instruments: bells, bongos, cowbells, dobro, fiddle – you name it, it is probably on here somewhere.

I purchased the album on the recommendation of a friend. I really liked the album but I wasn’t sure where to place it in my collection, finally settling on filing it with my pop/rock/ R&B records. Lead Me Not is a very good album that I would not hesitate to recommend as fans of varying forms of music can find things to like about this album. On this album Lari White reveals herself as a very talented songwriter and vocalist, albeit one not easily pigeonholed. Her breakthrough would occur on her next album, and wouldn’t last long but her music is worth the search.

I would give this album an A-

She still performs and maintains a website where you can purchase most of her music.

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘I’m Already There’

im-already-thereThe band’s fourth album was released in June 2001. Producer Dann Huff gave the somewhat generic rock-pop-country hybrid music a commercial sheen which appealed to fans, but has already dated.

The title track, a soaring ballad which shows off Richie McDonald’s voice at its best, was another big hit for them – not only a chart topper, but selling over half a million copies. An emotional song about a loving father stuck working on the road with a pretty melody and swelling strings, the passionate vocal just saves it from sentimentality. McDonald also gets a songwriting credit, alongside Gary Baker and Frank Myers (who had a shortlived attempt at a country career as a duo in the 90s). Unfortunately it is by far the best song on the album.

Follow up ‘With Me’ broke Lonestar’s streak of five straight #1s, only just squeezing into the top 10. Unsurprising, because it really isn’t a very good, or country, song. Unsubtle, intrusive production doesn’t help a boring lyric without much of a tune.

‘Not A Day Goes By’ was back to the ballads, and was much more successful, reaching #3. A wistful song about the power of a memory, McDonald sings it beautifully. It is more AC than country, but very well done.

The final single, Mark McGuinn’s ‘Unusually Unusual’ made it to #12. Huff’s production and arrangement choices are intrusive; the song itself tries to depict a charmingly quirky girl, but falls a bit flat for me.

‘I Want To Be The One’ is quite a good song about unrequited love, written by Chuck Cannon, Lari White and Gary Nicholson, but very pop backing vocals dominate it.

Most of the other tracks have strong rock leanings, with even the ballads loud, and are not particularly interesting.

The remains their second best seller, after the ‘Amazed’-spurred monster success of Lonely Grill. However, I would only bother downloading ‘I’m Already There’, and perhaps ‘Not A Day Goes By’.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘What The World Needs Now’

what the world needs nowReleased in 2003, What the World Needs Now was Wynonna’s debut for Curb/Asylum after cutting ties with Mercury. Wynonna produced most of it with Dann Huff, and there is an overarching theme of vaguely uplifting spiritual encouragement, but with little in the way of country music. She had reportedly been planning on making a straight soul record, but decided, perhaps at the promptings of her record label, to at least pay lip service to still being a country artist.

The bluesy title track with a touch of gospel is competently performed but not country at all (apart from the rustic banjo introduction, which seems to belong to another song, and is soon swallowed up by all the other instrumentation). Country radio treated it with some scepticism, and it peaked at #14, marking Wynonna’s last top 20 hit. The follow-up, ‘Heaven Help Me’, is a classy AC ballad, with a spiritual edge, and beautifully interpreted with a tender vocal. It just crept into the top 40, but is much better than its predecessor, although the orchestral arrangement is a bit too much.

A dramatic cover of the rock ballad ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, produced by R&B producer Narada Michael Walden and featuring rock guitar hero Jeff Beck, has absolutely no country elements, and perhaps represents the original plan for the album. Unsurprisingly, it won no country airplay, but it was a top 20 hit on both Adult Contemporary and Dance charts. The dance remix is tacked on as a ‘bonus’ track; it is quite unlistenable for me, but makes the other version sound much better in comparison. The only other track surviving from these sessions, ‘Who Am I Supposed To Love’, is a decent soul ballad, but a long way from country.

The final single ‘Rescue Me’, promoted to AC and Christian radio, failed to chart anywhere, and falls somewhere between gospel and Christian Contemporary. It was written by Katie Darnell, a terminally ill 17 year old, and had previously been recorded, but not released, by John Rich.

Most vaunted at the time of the record’s release was Wy’s reunion with mother Naomi on ‘Flies On The Butter (You Can’t Go Back)’. The third single, and Wynonna’s last solo top 40 country hit, it is charmingly nostalgic. The song was written by Chuck Cannon, Allen Shamblin, and Austin Cunningham, and is the album’s most convincingly country moment. Although it is billed as a duet, Naomi really only contributes harmonies on some lines.

‘Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis’, written by Derek George, Neil Thrasher, and Bryan White, is about longing for love rather than all the meaningless material goods remaining after a failed marriage, and the lyric is interesting although the melody and arrangement are pedestrian. It leads into a strong cover of the real Elvis’s ‘Burnin’ Love’ which was previously released on the soundtracks of the animated movie Lilo And Stitch. This is highly enjoyable.

‘I Will Be’ is a powerfully sung big ballad which isn’t a bad song underneath, but is heavily over-produced and pop rather than country. ‘Your Day Will Come’ is more contemporary country, and quite well done but a touch bland. The rocker ‘(No One’s Gonna) Break Me Down’ is rather busy with everything imaginable thrown in, including some nice honky tonk piano but too much in the way of electric guitar on top.

The black gospel-influenced ‘It All Comes Down To Love’ is partly spoken and too loud for my taste, but would appeal to fans of that style of music as it is powerfully performed. ‘It’s Only Love’ is in the same vein.

‘You Are’ had appeared on the soundtrack of one of her sister Ashley’s films a few years earlier. It’s rather bland and forgettable with some odd effects in the arrangement.

I like the album better than Revelations, which didn’t do anything for me, but not as much as he first two solo efforts. Wynonna is a great singer, and sings with conviction throughout, but her musical spectrum is wider than mine. This is not a bad album by any means – in fact it is rather a good one. It just has very little for country fans. Diehard Wynonna fans will love it regardless.

Grade: B

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Unleashed’

KeithunleashedBy 2002, you couldn’t find a male country singer bigger than Toby Keith. He was routinely topping the charts turning over multi-week numbers ones with each radio offering. But it was also during this time he lead by his ego and lost of some of his better judgment. That fall made a mockery of himself with the Country Music Association, blasting them for making him the belle of the ball with a front row set and prime exposure, only to lose each of the six awards for which he was nominated.

Two of those nominations were for the lead single from his seventh album Unleashed. I first heard “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” when Keith debuted it in April at the CMT Flameworthy Awards (now the CMT Video Music Awards). When he got to the line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way” I was cheering. I really enjoyed the fire in that one line.

Thirteen years later, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” is nothing more than a bombastic document capturing an era in country music. The brash attitude of the track worked well with Keith’s persona, but caught the ire of Natalie Maines, who called the track ‘ignorant.’

I still can’t believe I ate up the second single, the horrible chart-topping “Who’s Your Daddy.” Keith’s ego exploded as he failed to mix humor, brash, and country-rock on a song that had very little redeeming value. Radio was surprising cool to “Rock You Baby,” a bland power ballad that was the only slower song released from Unleashed. Given Keith’s prominence at the time, I was very surprised when it stalled at #13.

The final single was the Willie Nelson duet “Beer For My Horses.” I quite like this song, although the production has worn thin through the years. The song is a battle cry for justice, detailing despicable actions that deserve repercussions:

Well a man come on the 6 o’clock news

Said somebody’s been shot, somebody’s been abused

Somebody blew up a building

Somebody stole a car

Somebody got away

Somebody didn’t get too far

 

We got too many gangsters doing dirty deeds

We’ve got too much corruption, too much crime in the streets

It’s time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground

Send ’em all to their maker and he’ll settle ’em down

“Beer For My Horses” went on to spend six weeks at number one, becoming Keith’s longest consecutive stay at the top. Nelson, who was 70 at the time, became the oldest male artist to score a chart topping single.

Keith had a hand in co-writing all twelve of the album’s songs, including two with long-time collaborator Chuck Cannon. “Good to Go to Mexico” is a catchy yet far too lightweight mariachi drenched number about making a permanent escape to paradise. They succeed on the splendidly sweet, “Huckleberry,” a plucky love song in the vein of Bryan White’s ‘Rebecca Lynn:’

Baby I’ll be your Huckleberry, you don’t have to double dare me

If the storm gets wild and scary count on me to be right there

You’re so extra ordinary sweet like maraschino cherries

We’ll grow up and we’ll get married

I’m gonna be your Huckleberry

Five more of the album’s tracks found Keith co-writing with his close friend Scotty Emerick. “It’s All Good” begins with poignant commentary, by ends up as an immature tale of two lovers. “Losing my Touch” is a nicely restrained ballad about the inability to shine in a relationship. “Ain’t It Just Like You” has a by-the-numbers lyric about the end of a relationship, but the melody is a bit too progressive for my liking. Even worse is “That’s Not How It is,” a slice of pure pop that goes nowhere melodically. Thankfully the pair wrote “It Works for Me,” a pure country shuffle about being with not having the newest or shiniest possessions. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album.

The final song is the steel drenched waltz, “Rodeo Moon,” which Keith co-wrote with Chris LeDoux. It’s a great song (with beautiful harmonies by Lari White), in both Keith’s and LeDoux’s versions, but I feel like they need far more restrained vocal performances and a softer waltz melody.

I remember buying Unleashed the day it came out. I rushed to the store because I knew by the afternoon it would sell out. Looking back, I was a bit too eager to own what turns out to be a sonically disjointed album aimed at appealing to a wide array of country music fans. While most of the album is filler, I did enjoy “Huckleberry,” “It Works for Me” and the duet with Willie Nelson is a modern day classic.

Toby Keith is one of the most naturally talented country music vocalists of the past twenty or so years. More often then not, though, he fails to put his gifts to good use on quality material. There are a few notable tracks, but on the whole Unleashed just isn’t worth the effort.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Pull My Chain’

pull my chainFor the most part, Pull My Chain is a very upbeat album of fun songs, although some songs are a little light on substance.

The album opens up with “I’m Just Talking About Tonight”, a song Toby co-wrote with frequent collaborator Scotty Emerick. The song reached #1 the week of the infamous 9/11 incident and also reached #27 on Billboard’s pop chart. The song is about a no commitments barroom perhaps pickup:

Well, I’m not talkin’ ’bout lockin’ down forever, baby
That would be too demanding
I’m just talkin’ ’bout two lonely people
Who might reach a little understanding

I’m not talkin’ ’bout knockin’ out heaven
With whether we’re wrong or we’re right
I’m not talkin’ ’bout hookin’ up and hangin’ out
I’m just talkin’ ’bout tonight

You were sittin’ on your bar stool
And talkin’ to some fool who didn’t have a clue
I guess he couldn’t see you were lookin’ right at me
‘Cause I was lookin’ at you too

Then it’s, “Do you wanna dance, have we ever met”
You said, “Hold your horses boy, I ain’t that easy to get”

Next up is “I Wanna Talk About Me” about a guy, having been steamrolled in a relationship, finally insisting upon focusing the attention on his needs wants and desires. There was a terrific music video that accompanied the single, that shows a patient (and bored) Keith in a number of roles as a bored listener as the girl goes on and on about different things. The song was written by Bobby Braddock and sailed to #1 where it spent five weeks at #1 in late 2001.

Yeah yeah
That’s right
We talk about your work how your boss is a jerk
We talk about your church and your head when it hurts
We talk about the troubles you’ve been having with your brother
About your daddy and your mother and your crazy ex-lover
We talk about your friends and the places that you’ve been
We talk about your skin and the dimples on your chin
The polish on your toes and the run in your hose
And God knows we’re gonna talk about your clothes
You know talking about you makes me smile
But every once in awhile

I want to talk about me
Want to talk about I
Want to talk about number one
Oh my me my
What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see
I like talking about you, you, you, you usually, but occasionally
I want to talk about me
I want to talk about me

“I Can’t Take You Anywhere”, another Keith-Emerick co-write follows the same beat, but isn’t singles quality material.

Next up is the slow ballad “You Leave Me Weak”, another Keith-Emerick co-write that was easily one of the best country love songs of the period. I don’t know if consideration was given to releasing this as a single, but it would have made a very good one.

I’m the one who gets that look in your eye
I’m the one who feels you tremble inside
I’m the one who steals those kisses from your breath
But sometimes it’s so good at night it scares me to death

Thinkin’ what would I do if I didn’t have you
I’m as strong, strong as I can be
Oooh ooh ooh, baby you leave me weak

Put my hands upon your skin and it warms me to the touch
All that I can think about while we’re makin’ love
I’m the only one who knows how passionate you get
About all of our deepest little secrets that we’ve kept

As the night grows longer, girl you just get stronger
And you pour yourself all over me
Ooh ooh ooh, baby you leave me weak

“Tryin’ To Matter”, yet another Keith-Emerick co-write is about trying to make a relationship work. It is a good song but it is nothing more than an album track.

“Pull My Chain”, with Toby co-wrote with Chuck Cannon is one of the highlights of the album, a funny and witty look at love. Although I think it could have made a decent single, there is a danger in releasing too many novelty songs as singles.

Got me on a short leash, tied to your screen door
I used to run with the big dogs ’til I stretched out on your front porch
I used to be a hound dog, chased a lot of fast cars
Now I don’t even bark when the kitty cats stroll through the back yard

I used to howl at the moon, yeah I’ve been known to roam
Then I caught her trail one day, followed this girl home
I ain’t the same, she knows how to pull my chain

“The Sha La La Song”, also a Keith-Cannon endeavor, is a good album track.

Do you remember, well I remember
Every kiss, bittersweet and tender
Every promise, every vow
Every time you said forever baby, even now
Even though you left me, for another
I’m a big boy, I will recover and

Sha la la la la la la la la la la la la
I’ll get over you
Sha la la la la la la la la la
Just one more lonely night or two

Dave Loggins wrote a number of classic songs during his career , but “Pick ‘Em Up and Lay ‘Em Down”, isn’t one of them although I can see it as a song that would clog the dance floors.

“Forever Hasn’t Got Here Yet” finds Keith co-writing with Jim Femino. The song sounds very ‘radio friendly’ but it wasn’t picked as a single.

“Yesterday’s Rain” is a very poignant song about how real love never fades away, even when your lover leaves you . The song was a Keith-Emerick co-write.

Somebody told you that my broken heart started mending
I’m getting by, but the truth is that I’m still standing
Knee deep in yesterday’s rain

Well, I ain’t high and dry, I ain’t got a big boat
But I got a new umbrella and an overcoat
And if the good Lord’s willin’ and the sun breaks through
That’ll be one more day, that I made it without you
That I made it without you

“My List”, written by Tim James and Rand Bishop, spent five weeks at #1 (and reached #26 pop), and is a reminder of how we often let important things get away from us in the hustle of everyday life and the importance of not letting that happen. The song came with a music video that was shot shortly after 9/11. News footage of the attack is shown at the beginning of the video as a married couple watch the news. The video ends by revealing that the husband in the video is a fireman, shown suiting up to go fight a fire. Toby appears in the video as a fire fighter. The song also was used in an episode of the television show Touched By An Angel.

“You Didn’t Have As Much To Lose” is another Keith-Cannon collaboration, this time an emotional ballad about a love gone wrong love-gone bad ballad. Not singles material but a nice album track.

The album closes with “Gimme 8 Seconds”. I am not sure that it would have been possible tor Toby to find a more famous co-writer to collaborate with than Bernie Taupin. Taupin has collaborated with Elton John on at least thirty albums and wrote or co-wrote many of Sir Elton’s most famous songs. “Gimme 8 Seconds” is more of a rock number than a county song but the subject matter – the eight seconds a bull rider needs to stay on the bull – is definitely a country topic.

Pull My Chain was released in August 2001 and kicked off a period (2001-2011) in which nine of his ten albums reached #1 (the other reaching #2) on Billboard’s Country Album charts, with four reaching #1 on the all genres album charts. Pull My Chain reached #9 on the all genres chart and sold double platinum. Bigger successes would follow.

I’d give this album a solid A.

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’

how do you like me nowAs the millennium drew to a close, Toby Keith released the best album of his career on new label Dreamworks.

The lead single, ‘When Love Fades’ is a powerfully sung ballad written by Keith with Chuck Cannon. It’s not a bad song, but it failed to catch fire at radio and didn’t enter the top 40. Keith was understandably concerned by the poor start for his new deal, and asked for the single’s promotion to be pulled in favour of the title track. It was with this song (another Keith/Cannon effort) that Toby really found his voice. The vengeful ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’ was perfect for Keith’s personality as he gleefully shows off his wealth and fame to the object of his unrequited affections in high school, who is now unhappily married. It was a career-making five-week chart topper, and while the protagonist’s motivation is immature, Toby Keith sells it completely.

Keith kept the tempo up with the horn-driven ‘Country Comes To Town’, which peaked at #4. I much prefer the final single, the tender ballad ‘You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This’, which captures the moment when a pair of “just friends” tentatively become something more:

You shouldn’t kiss me like this
Unless you mean it like that…

They’re all watching us now
They think we’re falling in love
They’ll never believe we’re just friends
When you kiss me like this
I think you mean it like that
If you do, baby, kiss me again

It reached #1 in March 2001, and it stands up well today.

Equally tender a performance, though not as memorable a song, is the sweet ‘Do I Know You (Bottom Of My Heart)’. ‘Heart To Heart (Stelen’s Song)’ is Keith’s real-life observation of his young son Stelen and his relationship with his wife Tricia, Stelen’s mother. (As a footnote the couple are still happily married and Stelen is in college.) ‘She Only Gets That Way With Me’, also probably about Tricia, was written by Toby with Scotty Emerick.

The breakup song ‘Blue Bedroom) was a co-write with Chuck Cannon, and is pretty good. More abstract is the macho philosophy of ‘Die With Your Boots On’, as voiced by a hard working truckdriving protagonist and his gambler father.

Toby wrote all but three of the songs. One of those outside numbers, ‘New Orleans’, is not only my favorite on the album, but probably my favorite Toby Keith cut ever. A compelling story song written by Mark D Sanders, Bob DiPiero and Steve Seskin, it relates the tale of a young woman fleeing something (or someone) in New Orleans, who finds a new life for herself in a random small town:

He was 25, she was 28
He was home grown country,
She just pulled off the interstate
She bought a Dr. Pepper, ten dollars worth of gas
She was obviously lost but too afraid to ask directions

So he offered her a smile and a stick of beechnut gum
Said “where you headed to girl, where you coming from?”
She said, “New Orleans
That’s another story
New Orleans
That’s another time
That’s another town
That’s another life”

First she stayed a day
Then she stayed a week
A couple of months later they were living on his parents’ street

Wednesday night supper at the First Baptist Church
Stranger standin’ in the doorway
As they’re passin’ out dessert
He said “Go and pack your bags
Cause I’m here to take you home
Goin’ back to Louisiana
Woman, I ain’t gonna go without you”

There’s a few defining moments in every person’s life
When you know what you’ve done wrong
And you know what you done right
Before the congregation
Her husband and her kids
She said, “How dare you even speak to me
After everything you did in New Orleans”

It’s effective partly because of what it doesn’t spell out; we never hear exactly what her ex did to her, or what happens next, although we can guess. Toby sings it with unusual restraint.

Not as intense, but still very good is the mid-tempo ‘I Know A Wall When I See One’, written by Jerry Salley and J B Rudd, about an encounter with an ex which brings back painful memories. The other outside song, ‘Hold You, Kiss You, Love You’ is a bit flat.

The production, courtesy of Toby and his new label boss James Stroud, is glossy and often hard driving contemporary fare which has dated a little but is effective enough. The material is generally strong, and overall this is my favorite Toby Keith album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Blue Moon’

TobyKeithBlueMoonThe shuffling of Toby Keith from label to label (all were a subsidiary of Mercury Nashville) had reached its apex by the time Blue Moon, his third album, was released in 1996. Keith was now the flagship artist on the Music City division of A&M, a label originally started in the early 1960s in California. In the process, Harold Shedd was dropped as Keith’s producer. Keith would step up and co-produce the album with Nelson Larkin, who had assisted Shedd on Keith’s previous records.

After he took complete control of his career in the 2000s, Keith reminisced about his 1990s work saying he was known as the ballad singer in his early years. Keith certainly has the voice for such material and from a singles standpoint, Blue Moon delivered. He solely penned the album’s lead single, the title track, which found him at his most tender. The AC-leaning lament, about a guy taking responsibility for his role in ending his relationship, peaked at #2.

The second single was the cinematic “A Woman’s Touch,” which Keith composed with Wayne Perry. The track opens with sweeping guitars and cymbals that nicely give way to more of a typical Keith arrangement. “A Woman’s Touch,” which peaked just outside the top 5, is a very good song although not strong enough to be much remembered today.

The album’s final single (and Keith’s third #1) is probably the greatest use of clever wordplay in a country love song I’ve ever heard. “Me Too,” which Keith co-wrote with frequent collaborator Chuck Cannon, finds him stepping into the shoes of a man who has difficulty saying ‘I love you:’

Oh, I’m just a man, that’s the way I was made

I’m not too good at sayin’ what you need me to say

It’s always right there on the tip of my tongue

It might go unsaid, but it won’t go undone

So when those three little words come so easy to you

I hope you know what I mean when I say, me too

Keith had a hand in writing all but one of the album’s remaining seven tracks, including two with Perry. “She’s Perfect” is a similarly styled ballad and another tune in which Keith admits he’s at fault for the state of his relationship:

There’s nothin’ wrong with her, she’s perfect

She’s as pure as she can be

She’d never say, but the only mistake she ever made was me

It might appear to you she’s broken

By the teardrops in her eyes

But there’s nothin’ wrong with her, she’s perfect

I’m the one who made her cry

Another such ballad is “The Lonely,” the Cannon and Lari White co-write Keith didn’t help compose. The track isn’t terrible, but it isn’t memorable either. “Every Night,” a semi-uptempo, finds Keith helping his woman through the heartbreak wrought from her previous relationship. “She’s Gonna Get It,” the other co-write with Perry, is faux uptempo encumbered by a clumsy lyric. “Lucky Me” is an above average rocker about a man reveling in the emptiness in his home in the wake of a breakup. While the premise shows promise, Keith should’ve gone further with the lyric and provided some kind of interesting twist or clever ending. “Hello,” which finds Keith in Mexico, closes Blue Moon with pure dreck.

“Closin’ Time At Home” may suffer from a suffocating and uninteresting arrangement, but it should’ve been a single. Keith is a man in San Bernardino thinking about the woman he left back home in Tulsa:

If it’s midnight in California, must be closin’ time in Oklahoma

I know that she’s already danced another night away

And these west coast nights sure seem colder

Knowin’ somebody else’s arms will hold her

Midnight in California means it’s closin’ time at home

Blue Moon finds Keith in a holding pattern. The three singles are excellent and kept him within country radio’s good graces. But the album presents a subdued and average Keith not taking any chances either lyrically or sonically. The guy who brought us the memorable run of iconic 1990s fare on his first two studio sets was gone and we still had another three years before he became the artist who took the bull by its horns. This Keith feels like a timid people-pleaser.

Blue Moon is the weakest of his Mercury/Polydor/Polygram/A&M recordings. Its no wonder he unapologetically tore down the walls and rebuilt the house. If he’d stayed in this vein, he would’ve been just another 1990s has-been. Toby Keith is too good for material like what he co-wrote, co-produced and recorded here.

Grade: B

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Toby Keith’

toby keithToby Keith’s debut album in 1993 showcased him not only as an impressive vocalist with a big booming voice, but as a singer-songwriter. He wrote all but two of the songs, and with no recourse to co-writers.

‘Should’ve Been A Cowboy’, the first single, was an immediate, and enduring, success for Toby, speeding to the top of the charts, and becoming the most played song on country radio for the whole decade of the 1990s. Filled with visual imagery and nostalgia for the sanitized old movie and TV Western depictions of a cowboy’s life, it is pleasant listening but the polar opposite of the harsher reality offered in ‘Went For A Ride’, recorded by Radney Foster the previous year.

The contemporary styled ballad ‘He Ain’t Worth Missing’ reached #5, and is earnestly sung, although the keyboards now sound dated. ‘Under The Fall’ is on much the same theme (consoling a lovelorn woman), but is a less well written song.

The last two singles both peaked at #2. The catchy and rocking ‘A Little Less Talk And A Lot More Action’ was one of the two non Keith-penned tunes, although it heralds much of his later work. It was written by Keith Hinton and Jimmy Alan Stewart. Stewart also co-wrote (with Chuck Cannon) ‘Some Kinda Good Kinda Hold On Me’(written by Chuck Cannon and Jimmy Alan Stewart), which is up-tempo filler with an effective groove and an extended sax solo.

The final single, ‘Wish I Didn’t Know Now’, with its wounded take on deception and lost love, is my favourite of the singles. Also very good is the breakup ballad ‘Ain’t No Thang’, although I’m mildly irritated by the spelling choice.

‘Valentine’ is an overly forceful ballad which would work better with a subtler, more vulnerable approach (I’m tempted to say with anyone other than Toby Keith singing it). He shows, however, that he is capable of subtlety on ‘Mama Come Quick’, a nicely constructed tune which compares a childhood hurt to the pain of a broken relationship, and pays tribute to a mother’s loving consolation. Very nice.

The closing track, ‘Close But No Guitar’, is a wryly amusing story song which I enjoyed a great deal. The protagonist has been left behind by an old girlfriend who has gone on to make it big in Nashville. He ends up covering her hit songs for pennies in the same old bar they started out in together.

The album reflected the performance of the singles, and was certified platinum. It was a bright start to Toby Keith’s career and stands up reasonably well today

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Toby Keith

toby-keith-1Our October spotlight artist is one of the few remaining commercial links to the 1990s and one who arguably was the face of country music during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Toby Keith Covel was born in Clinton, Oklahoma on July 8, 1961. His interest in music was sparked during summers spent with his grandmother, who owned a supper club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He played football in high school and played semi-professionally after graduation. During that time he was also a member of the Easy Money Band, which played in local bars, but the oil industry, where he worked as a derrick hand, paid the bills.

Covel dropped his surname for professional purposes and moved to Nashville in 1990, with the goal of obtaining a recording contract by his 30th birthday. With the self-imposed deadline looming, Keith was about to give up and return to Oklahoma, when he was signed to Mercury Records by Harold Shedd. His first single for the label, “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” quickly climbed to #1. He spent the next five years being shuffled around between Mercury and its sister labels Polydor and A&M. His records consistently made the Top 10 and he regularly achieved platinum level sales, yet he struggled to stand out from a pack that was dominated by artists such as Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt.

All of that would change when Keith left Mercury in 1998 to sign with the fledgling DreamWorks Nashville label. The following year he released his breakthrough single, the in-your-face “How Do You Like Me Now”, which he had co-written with Chuck Cannon some years earlier, but Mercury had not let him record. The suits at DreamWorks also had some reservations, but they quickly abated when the record spent five weeks at #1 in the spring of 2000.

Keith became a label exec himself, founding the Show Dog Nashville imprint when DreamWorks closed its doors in 2005. Show Dog Nashville has since merged with Universal South and is now known as Show Dog-Universal Music. By this time, Toby’s bombastic personality and his political views were beginning to overshadow his music. His response to the events of September 11, 2001, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” played to country music’s conservative base and earned him the contempt of the political left, as did 2003’s pro-military “American Solider”. Both records were multi-week #1s, and eventually led to a very bitter public feud with The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines.

Although radio has cooled towards Toby Keith in the past few years, he remains one of country music’s most visible and prolific artists. His latest album 35 MPH Town, will be released on October 9th, providing us with the opportunity to look back at Toby’s career so far.

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’ plus later recordings

Released in September 1990, Love Can Build A Bridge saw the duo continuing their success into the new decade. A bittersweet project, it would be the last during their hit making years and was followed by the famed farewell tour in 1991. It was also the first Judds album not to feature a #1 hit.

Lead single “Born To Be Blue” opens soft with Wynonna’s distinctive twang coupled with piano accompaniment until the track kicks into high gear on the chorus. Producer Brent Maher was smart to showcase Wynonna’s bluesy vocals as they elevate this otherwise boring song and foreshadow what was to come in her solo work.

The spiritual title track, co-written by Naomi with John Barlow Jarvis and Paul Overstreet is the highlight of the album and like “Born To Be Blue” only reached a chart peak of #5. The soft and tasteful production heightens the overall message connecting us with God.

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Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘High Lonesome’

Released in August 1991, High Lonesome was Randy’s first album not to reach #1 on the country albums chart, and his last platinum release. But if Randy’s commercial fortunes were starting to decline, this album is an artistic triumph. His voice is in great shape, and he also seems to have undergone something of an artistic rejuvenation, co-writing half the songs. The consistent quality of the material was the best he had had since Storms Of Life, and is more varied in tempo and mood than No Holdin’ Back, his last solo release.

Lead single ‘Point Of Light’, written by Don Schlitz and Thom Schuyler, was inspired by a phase in President George Bush’s inaugural address, and it was a mildly controversial choice as a single due to the political connotations, as Bush was then standing for re-election. That controversy did not prevent the song reaching #3 on the country chart. Taken on its own merits, 20 years later, it comes across as a deeply idealistic tribute to those performing good works rather than political, but is perhaps a little too earnest to stand among Randy’s classics, and while not at all bad, it is the weakest track on the album.

Randy had been touring with rising star Alan Jackson in the run-up to recording this album. They spent a lot of time on the road writing together. Alan recorded one of their collaborations (‘She’s Got the Rhythm (I’ve Got the Blues)’), and Randy included three on this album. Unexpectedly, all four songs ended up as singles. The ballad ‘Forever Together’ is a fairly straightforward declaration of renewal of love from a penitent man who has put his wife through some hard times, but has at last seen the error of his ways. It is put together quite beautifully and sensitively delivered. It was Randy’s first #1 since ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’, and is one of my favourite recordings of his.

The jaundiced mid-tempo ‘Better Class Of Losers’ then peaked at #2, with its preference for downhome living over city sophisticates like the protagonist’s now-ex girlfriend. ‘I’d Surrender All’, the third and best Jackson co-write, failed for some reason to impress radio programmers, just scraping into the top 20. A classic heartbreak ballad with acoustic guitar opening and sinuous steel winding through the song, this sees the protagonist devastated by his woman walking out:

I never thought I’d miss the early morning smell of hairspray in the air
All the little things I used to take for granted
Now I miss them most of all
Ain’t it funny how a woman walking out the door
Can bring a man to crawl?

Alan also donated the bouncy semi-novelty ‘Allergic To The Blues’, which he wrote with Jim McBride. One of the lesser moments, it is still fun with a light touch and ironic edge as the protagonist goes to all possible lengths to persuade his woman not to walk out.

The tenderly sung opening track ‘Let Me Try’ is a plea to a woman disillusioned by love, with the protagonist offering to restore her faith. Written by Allen Shamblin and Chuck Cannon, it is an excellent song and it is a shame it didn’t get the additional exposure of being a single. Yet another highlight is the gently wailing title track, written by Gretchen Peters, which features Marty Stuart on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on dobro, although Mark O’Connor’s mournful fiddle is the most effective part of the backing.

The playful ‘Oh What A Time To be Me’ written by Randy with Don Schlitz, has the protagonist slightly smugly reflecting on his good luck picking up his friend’s discarded lover and giving his old buddy the news. A brass section lends it a bright swingy Dixieland feel. The pacy ‘Heart Of Hearts’ written by Kevin Welch and Michael Henderson is also enjoyable, as the protagonist decides cheating just isn’t what he really wants to do deep down inside. The album closes on a high with Randy’s first gospel number, the lively acappella ‘I’m Gonna Have A Little Talk’, with backing vocals from Take 6.

This is one of my favorite Randy Travis albums, with the man at the top of his game. He is in great voice and sounds completely invested in every track, while Kyle Lehning oversees the production as tastefully as usual. It is easy to find now, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sarah Buxton – ‘Sarah Buxton’

Sarah Buxton seems to have been around for ages, but in fact this is her debut album. It has taken her label, Lyric Street, so long to get her to this point, because radio has been surprisingly resistant to her brand of bright pop-country despite her releasing some very good songs as singles. Five of the tracks here were previously digitally released as part of a digital EP Almost My Record as long ago as 2007, and these older tracks are the ones I enjoyed the most which is discouraging in regards to her future direction. Sarah’s distinctive throaty voice with a hint of gravel is very listenable, and she is a talented writer.

The best songs are perhaps the most familiar. The best known is ‘Stupid Boy’, which Keith Urban covered a few years ago. The reproach to the folly of a man and the damage he has done to his girlfriend (and to his own chances of happiness) by constraining her comes across a little differently from a woman’s voice than it did in Keith’s more forceful version. It is a well-written song (composed by Sarah with Dave Berg and Deanna Bryant) and although it doesn’t sound very country structurally it is well worth hearing:

She laid her heart and soul right in your hands
And you stole her every dream
And you crushed her plans
She never even knew she had a choice
That’s what happens
When the only voice she hears is tellin’ her she can’t
Stupid boy

Berg also helped to write (together with Jeremy Stover and Georgia Middleman) Sarah’s debut single, the sweetly nostalgic look back at lost ‘Innocence’, which is full of charm as she reminiscences about teenage romance and the girl she was. The vocals sound a little compressed, though, at times on this track.

The former single ‘Space’ is delivered a little breathy but is a fine song with a bitter edge, written by Sarah with husband-and-wife team Lari White and Chuck Cannon, about a man unwilling to commit:

Does it make you feel free
Make you feel young
How does it feel not to need anyone
You say you want space
Well, I’ll give you space

You need your own bed
You need your own room
How about an island
I bet you could find one
On the dark side of the moon

Then you won’t have to deal
With anything real
Cause I won’t be here
I’ll just disappear

This is by far my favorite track.

Australian Jedd Hughes is prominently billed singing harmony on a number of tracks here, with a full-scale duet on his own pretty love song ‘Big Blue Sky’ which closes the set and is the only song not written or co-written by Sarah. ‘Wings’, another of the songs with Jedd on harmony, is pleasant but forgettable.

I like the optimistic autobiographical opening track ‘American Daughters’ which Sarah wrote with Bob DiPiero. It strikes a nice balance between country and pop influences, with a pretty tune, although the spoken list of places borders on shouting.

The bright recent single ‘Outside My Window’ (Sarah’s biggest hit to date) is a bit too far in the pop direction for me, and the newly recorded ‘Radio Love’ (with Jedd) and ‘For Real’ are even more so, and over-produced to boot, and do not interest me at all. ‘Love Like Heaven’ (featuring Sarah on harmonica) meanwhile is warmer and more engaging although it is not the strongest of lyrics. I don’t care for the self-consciously chirpy and occasionally shouty ‘That Kind Of Day’ with its too-many squealed heys and yeahs, although Sarah sounds engagingly like Dolly when she sing-speaks, and the lyric is better than the production. This track palls quickly.

Sarah is a very talented artist with a distinctive sound who deserves to do well, even if her chosen style is not altogether to my taste. It is hard to see where her career will lead her, though, as the best tracks on this album have already been released to radio and failed to make a major impact.

Grade: B-

Sarah’s debut is available everywhere, in CD form and digitally from amazon for only $5.99.