My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Craig Wiseman

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Some Things Are Meant To Be’

Sometimes life just isn’t fair. Linda Davis was beautiful, a talented and versatile vocalist and had two stints on major labels but basically nothing ever really worked out for her. Ironically, her daughter Hillary Scott, a far less talented vocalist, would have a big career as part of the band Lady Antebellum.

This album, her second for Arista Records would prove to be her highest charting album reaching #26 on Billboard’s county albums chart. Released in January 1996, three singles were released from the album, including the title track, her most successful solo single reaching #13.

“Some Things Are Meant to Be” is a nice contemporary ballad from the pens of Michael Garvin & Gordon Payne. It strikes me as more adult contemporary than country but it is a great performance. Since this song couldn’t get Linda into the top ten, it figures that nothing else could either.

 I know that you’ve got feelings

For me like I got feelings for you

So shouldn’t you be reaching

For me like I keep reaching for you

Save yourself a lot of trouble

Trying to fight it

There’s just no way you can

 

No, you can’t stop the river from rollin’ to the ocean

It’s a destiny that the good Lord put into motion

Like a baby’s tears and a mother’s devotion

Some things are meant to be

And one of them is you and me

“A Love Story in the Making” by Al Anderson & Craig Wiseman is a decent ballad that Linda sings well. The song was the second single from the album reaching #33 (our Canadian country neighbors liked it more, sending it to #22). The song sounds much more country than the title track and should have been a much bigger hit.Jenny’s got a trailer on the county line

Jenny’s got a trailer on the county line

Satellite dish working overtime Watchin’ those movies on a

Watchin’ those movies on a 30 inch screenDreamin’ about places she’s never seen

Dreamin’ about places she’s never see

 

She’s in the diner by five o’clock

Playin’ Elvis on the old juke box

Staring out the window at nothing in sight

As she sings ‘Are you lonesome tonight’

 

Every time some stranger walks in through that door She can’t help but wonder if he’s the one she’s been waiting for

She can’t help but wonder if he’s the one she’s been waiting for

It’s a love story in the making

It’s a love story in the making
Something that was meant to be
A heart patiently waiting for a little bit of destiny
A sweet love story is all she needs

“Walk Away” by Marc Beeson& Robert Byrne was the third single from the album and it stiffed completely, not even charting (the Canadians had it reach #80). The song is a bland ballad that wasn’t really single-worthy although Linda sings it well

What do I do now that our love’s come to such a bitter end
We’ve been through too much together for me to be your friend
And I can’t pretend
I’m sure I’ll see you, but when I do I will

Walk away
And hope my feet don’t fail me
Walk away
As far as they will take me
Long before you have a chance
To look into these eyes
I’ll be gone and you won’t see me cry
If I walk away

Harry Stinson is a very talented fellow, singer, songwriter, drummer, who I think could have been a big star if only he had wanted to be,   “Always Will” is a terrific song that I would have released as a single:

If time is a train rollin down the tracks
Every minute is a box car that don’t come back
Take a look around you it’s all gonna change
Whatever you see ain’t neve gonna stay the same
Except for the rain and the wind in the trees
And the way I feel about you and me

And the way I feel when I’m with you
It’s like the roll of the ocean
And the calm quiet of the moon
And when you hold me time stands still
It always has and it always will

“Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”by Jim Weatherly was a big po[p hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips back in the early 1970s. It was covered as a county hit by Bob Luman, reaching #7 while the Knight version was on the pop charts. Linda sings the song well, but it is strictly an album track

Nancy Lee Baxter ‘s “She Doesn’t Ask” is a typical ‘wronged woman waiting for her man to show up’ song – in other words, nothing special

“Cast Iron Heart”, written by Dennis Linde had been a single twice – for Pearl River in 1992 and for Blackhawk in 1995. Since neither of the above two bands released this song as a single, it might have been a decent single for Linda. it would have been grittier than anything else she had released as a single

 Go on and cry, but you won’t change my mind

Your pain and troubles don’t concern me

I gave you my love, but it was not enough

I was just your bridge and girl you burned me

 

So don’t hand me no hard luck story

Hopin’ I’ll just fall apart

Remember you’re the one who left me

With nothin’ but this cast iron heart

The album closes with “There Isn’t One” (writers Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ, Stephony Smith), “What Do I Know” (another Majeski, Russ, Smith collaboration) and “If I Could Live Your Life”(writers Tim Nichols, Mark D. Sanders), all competently performed (the latter song with Reba McEntire) but none of them especially singles worthy .

“If I Could Live Your Life” is a melodramatic pop ballad, without much of anything to make it a standout track

 You jet from coast to coast

Dressed in designer clothes

When you appear somewhere

Your chauffeur drives you there

I would think twice

If I could live your life

 

You see your friends at the store

Your sister lives next door

You kiss your babies goodnight

Your husband’s there at your side

I’d love to give it a try

If I could live your life

Linda would issue an album on Dream Works about three years later, and then a few albums on independent label Center Hill from 2003-2007, before disappearing from recording for a decade. She can sing anything and perhaps she could have become a major adult contemporary star if promotional efforts (and record production) had been pointed in that direction. As it was she was caught somewhere in-between without being given her best chance at stardom.

On the whole, I like this album. While it teeters between adult contemporary and country, it is a pleasant album to listen to (it could use more fiddle and steel and a few more up-tempo tracks) and I have listened to this album a few times over the last few years and would give it a B.

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Album Review: Ty England – ‘Two Ways To Fall’

Ty turned to Byron Gallimore and James Stroud to produce his second RCA album in 1996. It was filled with positive, mainly up-tempo material, without a broken heart in sight.

The lead single, the energetic up-tempo blue-collar love song ‘Irresistible You’ is, if not quite irresistible, quite enjoyable, although the production is a bit too busy. Written by Billy Lawson, it peaked at #22. The second and final single ‘All Of The Above’, written by Chris Waters and Jon Robbin, failed to crack the top 40, but I actually prefer it. It’s a little fluffy lyrically, with its multiple choice test with no wrong answers, but Ty’s earnest vocal sells it as a sweet love song.

Ty was generally more at home on the upbeat material. The frantic opener ‘It Starts With L’, written by Sandy Ramos, is very catchy and could have been a single. ‘Never Say Never’ (by Al Anderson and Craig Wiseman) has a similar vibe.

The title track, written by husband and wife team Barry and Holly Tashian with Mark D Sanders, is a nice mid paced song about the ups and downs of love, although the arrangement does sound a little dated now.

‘I’ll Take Today’ is a nice ballad about an encounter with an ex he no longer regrets losing, and affirming his love for his present partner. ‘Sure’ is another pleasant love song.

‘The Last Dance’, written by Tony Martin, Reece Wilson and Roger Springer, is a lovely midpaced story song on the lines of Rhett Akins’s 1995 hit ‘She Said Yes’, with a shy boy finding love at a high school dance, and then marrying the girl:

Nervous and scared I asked you for a dance
All of my buddies said “Yeah, right, fat chance
She’ll never go for a good ol’ boy like you”
But somewhere between my stutter and stammer
Before I could ask you had already answered
And to my surprise you said that you’d love to

And they all laughed when I stepped on your toes
But they got quiet when you moved in close
They lost their smiles when they knew they’d lost their chance
My two left feet couldn’t do a right thing
I looked like a fool but I felt like a king
Oh, they got a laugh
But look who got the last dance

Nervous and scared after saying “I do”
All of my buddies made fun of the new groom
As they stood in line waiting to kiss the bride
They kept us apart dancing with you all night long
But when the band started into their last song
I was the one standing by your side

I really like this song. The same writing trio provided ‘Kick Back’, a bright western swing tune about accepting life.

The highlight of the record, though, is ‘Backslider’s Prayer’, a touching story song about a man struggling with life and faith who ends up praying out loud in a crowded diner:

He said “I know this ain’t the time or place
But Lord, I need to talk”
In a business suit in a corner booth
In a crowded little restaurant

We all tried not to listen
We all tried not to look
But a whole room full of customers
And the waitress and the cook
All stopped what we were doing
When he bowed his head
In that silence we heard every word he said

“I’ve been trying to do things my way
Down here on life’s highway
Slippin’, slidin’ sideways
Between no way and nowhere
If I could only gain a foothold
Up there on your high road
Lord, if you hear me help me
I’ll do anything you tell me to
All I’ve got to offer you is this
Backslider’s prayer

Well, the waitress made the first move
When she filled his coffee cup
She said “You ain’t alone here, mister
You’re speaking for the rest of us”
I heard some scattered Amens
And a couple of “I’ve been theres”
Then things got back to normal
The dishes and the silverware
Were clanging in the kitchen
Like an angels’ band
As I took my place in line
To shake his hand

While a perfectly capable singer, Ty was not at all distinctive as a vocalist, and the lack of emotional depth and variety on this album is another drawback. It’s not a major surprise that radio lost interest, and RCA pulled the plug on his record deal after this album. It remains pleasant listening, but not essential.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Water & Bridges’

In 2006 Kenny Rogers once again found himself signed to a major label — an interesting turn of events for an almost 70-year-old artist. Water & Bridges was released by Capitol and produced by Dann Huff, who is not my favorite producer but I was pleasantly surprised by the fruits of their labors. Like most Kenny Rogers albums, this is a pop-country collection, but unlike a lot of his earlier work, there are no blatant pop songs. Everything is targeted for the mainstream country audience, such as it was a little over a decade ago. The production is polished, but not tastefully restrained.

The title track, which opens the album is a somber ballad written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, about life’s regrets and the need to accept them and move on. It was too serious for consideration as a single, but a very good song nonetheless. It had previously been recorded by Collin Rate a few years earlier. “Someone Is Me” is a bit of social commentary written by Josh Kear and Joe Doyle, which urges people to take action to correct the things that are wrong with this world instead of waiting for someone else to do it. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a little too slickly produced for my taste, but Sarah Buxton harmonizes well with Kenny. This song would later be recorded by Pam Tillis and Kellie Pickler, who took it to #49 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s best song is its lead single “I Can’t Unlove You” which took Kenny to the Top 20 one last time. Peaking at #17, this break-up ballad would have been a monster hit if it had come along during Rogers’ commercial heyday. “The Last Ten Years (Superman)” was the next single. True to its title, it refers to a number of events that were in the news during the previous decade (1996-2006), making reference to events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Y2K hysteria, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as name-checking several celebrities that passed away during that time, from Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and actor Christopher Reeve. It’s a very good song, but as a stripped-down, serious ballad focusing on mostly unhappy events, it didn’t perform particularly well at radio, topping out at #56. “Calling Me”, a mid tempo number featuring a Gospel-like piano and duet vocal by Don Henley fared slightly better, peaking at #53. It’s a little more pop-leaning than the rest of the album but it deserved more attention than it received. It marks Kenny Rogers’ last appearance (to date) on the Billboard country singles chart.

Kenny’s voice shows some signs of wear and tear at times, but for the most part he is in good vocal form and I enjoyed this album a lot more than I expected to. It might have benefited from a little more uptempo material, but overall this is a solid effort. It’s available for streaming and worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Big Dog Daddy’

big dog daddyBig Dog Daddy represents a new step in Toby Keith’s career, being the first of his albums that Toby produced entirely on his own. Released on Toby’s Show Dog Nashville label, in June 2007, the album debuted at #1 on both Billboard’s Country and Top 200 (all genres) chart; however, the album only reached Gold sales status whereas nine of his eleven previous albums went at least Platinum.

This album featured Carter’s Chord (sisters Becky, Emily and Joanna Robertson) doing the harmony vocals. Sonically it’s a nice album, but I don’t regard any of the songs on the album as being among Toby’s strongest efforts.

The album opens up with the first single, the #3 hit “High Maintenance Woman”. Written by Toby with Tim Wilson and Danny Simpson, the song is typical Toby fare

I see you laying by the poolside every day
She ain’t got a lot on
She ain’t got a lot to say
She wouldn’t look my way
But buddy what’d you expect?
I’m just the fix-it-up boy at the apartment complex
And she’ll go out dancing ’bout 7:15
Climb into the back of a long limousine
I know where she’s going
She’s going downtown
I’m going downtown too
And take a look around

She’s my baby doll
She’s my beauty queen
She’s my movie star
Best I ever seen
I ain’t hooked it up yet
But I’m trying as hard as I can
It’s just a high maintenance woman
Don’t want no maintenance man

The second track, “Love Me If You Can” was also the second single and it deservedly went to #1 . One of only two songs not written by Keith (Craig Wiseman and Chris Wallin wrote it) this tender ballad is the best song on the album.

Sometimes I think that war is necessary
Every night I pray for peace on Earth
I hand out my dollars to the homeless
But believe that every able soul should work

My father gave me my shotgun
That I’ll hand down to my son
Try to teach him everything it means

I’m a man of my convictions
Call me wrong, call me right
But I bring my better angels to every fight
You may not like where I’m going
But you sure know where I stand
Hate me if you want to
Love me if you can

Fred Eaglesmith penned “White Rose”, a song that rides the line between folk music and country music. I like the song and appreciate that Toby recognized the merits of the song which is nostalgic about such diverse elements as full service gas stations and teenage angst. I think this song should have been a single.

Yeah the whole town came out to watch
The day they paved the parking lot
Somebody hung a ribbon up and then they cut it out
And that big white rose up on that sign put innocence in all our lives
We could see it’s neon light half a mile down
Gas was 50 cents a gallon and they put it in for you
They bumped your tires then checked your oil and wash your windows too
And we shined those cars bright as bright we go park
Underneath that light staring at the prairie skies there was nothing else to do

Track four is the final single from the album, “Get My Drink On”. The song topped out at #11 and while it is an up-tempo and catchy song it is also silly and trivial. Toby co-wrote this song with Scotty Emerick and Dean Dillon. It is probably the most country sounding song on the album.

I

‘m gonna get my drink on, I wanna hear me a sad song.
My baby just left home, I didn’t treat her right.
Right here’s where I belong, I’m gonna stay ’till the money’s gone.
If it takes me all night long, I’m gonna get my drink on.

Well I got some little problems and the only way to solve ’em is the sure-fire way I know.
And when the going gets tough, well the tough get going to the little bar down the road.

Toby had a hand in writing the remaining tracks on the album. Toby’s “Big Dog Daddy” really rocks but it is rather generic. Still I could see releasing it as a single:

Hey Daddy!
Oh yeah
Well I’m a big dog daddy you know my face
And the joint starts rockin’ when I walk in the place
The band starts stompin those rhythm guitar
And the dance floor is jumpin’ through the back of the bar
Everybody looks better in the neon lights
When a plan comes together on a Saturday night

Yeah, the parking lot is packed and that’s a pretty good sign
I take it right in the back I don’t stand in line
The boys all lookin’ and a hittin’ the spot
Sayin’ the girls start shaking everything that they got
When a little cat momma gets ready to ride
I got Lincoln continental waitin’ right outside

The remaining tunes with writers in ( ) are:

“Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya” (Keith, Emerick)
“I Know She Hung the Moon” (Keith, Emerick)
“Pump Jack” (Keith, Bobby Pinson)
“Burnin’ Moonlight” (Keith, Emerick, Dillon)
“Walk It Off” (Keith, Emerick)
“Hit It” (Keith, Wiseman)

I own most of Toby’s albums and this album is the one I pull out least. For some reason, this album feels like Toby was coasting a bit or perhaps distracted by the demands of establishing his record label. There are no duds but no real gems either, other than the two songs from outside writers. Toby is in good voice throughout. He would issue better albums and singles in the years to follow. As for this album, I’d give it a B.

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘I Made It’

i made itIt has been several years since Diamond Rio were last in the studio, and more since they made a country record (their last effort was a Christian Contemporary effort which lacked the band’s signature harmonies). Their self-released return was an unexpected surprise.

Unfortunately, a couple of songs in, I was wondering if they had lost the plot completely. The opening ‘I Love This Song’ is a piece of mid-tempo fluff which would be bearable if forgettable, but is marred by bizarre vocal interjections; it was previously an unsuccessful single for its co-writer Marcel. ‘Ride The Range’ is a weird self-indulgent experimental melange; it has country instrumentation, but does not sound country structurally or melodically , with semi-spoken vocals and a rudimentary lyric. I strongly disliked it, and scheduling the record’s worst songs at the start unbalances it as a whole. Luckily, things improve.

The pop-country ‘Crazy Life’ is not very interesting, despite a perky arrangement, with oddly syncopated vocals. ‘Lay Your Lovin’ On Me’ has a similar bouncy feel but is much catchier and more entertaining, and I rather enjoyed it.

The title track is much better. Co-written by band member and album producer Jimmy Olander with Josh Shilling and Michael Dulaney, it is a charming ballad reminiscing about Olander’s arrival in Nashville as an aspiring musician, which turns half way through into an AC-leaning love song to his wife. The romantic ‘I Can’t Think Of Anything But You’ (a Skip Ewing co-write) is a cover of a song formerly recorded as a duet by Sammy Kershaw and Lorrie Morgan, and is quite nicely done.

The album’s outstanding song does see the group back at their best. ‘Beckett’s Back Forty Acres’ is a delightful story song with an acoustic arrangement, about a local farmer who makes it big by a secret (and illegal) crop – but eventually gets hauled away by the police. Ashley Gorley, Michael Rossi and Hugh Bryan Simpson wrote the song, and this track is well worth downloading.

The love song ‘If You’re Willing’ is typical Diamond Rio mid-tempo fare, an enjoyable track written by Jason Sellers and Stewart Harris. ‘I’ll Wait For You’ is also quite attractive.

‘Findin’ My Way Back Home’ was the single released from Lee Ann Womack’s ‘lost’ unreleased album in 2006. LAW’s version of the Craig Wiseman/Chris Stapleton song had something of an Americana-meets-pop feel to it which didn’t really work. The Diamond Rio version is a bit more more organic, and more successful.

The beautiful ‘Walking By Beauty’, written by Patrick Jason Matthews and Jason White, was inspired by an experiment undertaken in 2007 by acclaimed classical violinist Joshua Bell, when he busked in a Washington DC Metro station to see who would pay attention. Bell guests on the track, whose profits are devoted to the doTerra Healing Hands Foundation.

This is definitely a mixed bag, but on the whole the good outweighs the bad.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘We All Get Lucky Sometimes’

we all get lucky sometimesLee Roy Parnell’s fourth album saw him repeating the pattern of the records which had seen him enjoy commercial success. There was one backroom change, though: a sideways move from Arista proper to the subsidiary imprint Career Records.

The lead single ‘A Little Bit Of You’ is a mid-tempo love song with a radio-friendly tune, written by hitmakers Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman. It just missed the top spot on the charts, peaking at #2. ‘When A Woman Loves A Man peaked ten spots lower, at #12, but I think it’s a better song. A classy soulful ballad, it features Trisha Yearwood’s backing vocals, although they’re quite low in the mix.

‘Heart’s Desire’ was another big hit, reaching #3. It’s an excellent example of one of Parnell’s slower numbers, rhythmic and blusey but not overwhelmingly so, with a mellow feel. ‘Givin’ Water To A Drownin’ Man’ proved to be Parnell’s last top 20 hit. It’s another strong track in Parnell’s wheelhouse, although the Merle Haggard namedrop seems rather random. The title track also got some airplay but didn’t make the top 40. It’s a mid-to-up-tempo chugger, stronger on groove than substance, but enjoyable enough.

‘Saved By The Grace Of Your Love’ is a gentle ballad written by Parnell with Mike Reid, which is very pretty. ‘I Had To Let It Go’ is a pretty good story song involving losing a loved one and giving up booze.

The Delbert McClinton/Gary Nicholson song ‘Squeeze Me In’ is best known to country fans from Trisha Yearwood’s version. Parnell’s take is okay (and there’s some great piano), but I like Trisha’s better.

‘Knock Yourself Out’ has a blues groove which is quite catchy with call-and-response vocals and is quite enjoyable without being very memorable. It would have worked well live. ‘If The House Is Rockin’ is a straightforward slice of rock ‘n roll with exuberant honky tonk piano.

The album closes out with an instrumental; featuring accordion great Flaco Jiminez. Not my thing, but impressive playing.

Overall, a solid album which should appeal to anyone who likes the singles.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Getting It Dunn’

HollyDunnGettingItDunnA year after releasing her first retrospective, Holly Dunn returned with the album that would serve as closure to the commercial phase of her career. Getting It Dunn was released in June 1992 and spawned four singles, none of which cracked the top 40 on the charts.

Mel Tillis’ mid-tempo honky-tonker “No Love Have I,” served as the first single, peaking at #67. Despite a generous helping of steel, and Dunn’s impeccable vocal, the track didn’t chart higher although it deserved to. The Dunn/Chris Waters/Tom Shapiro penned “As Long As You Belong To Me” charted next, peaking at #68. The mid-tempo rocker had a confident vocal from Dunn, although it just wasn’t commercial enough to pop in the current radio climate. “Golden Years,” the third and final single, did slightly better, peaking at #51. A co-write by Gretchen Peters and Sam Hogin, the track is wonderful despite the somewhat sappy string section heard throughout.

The album’s other notable track is “You Say You Will,” composed by Verlon Thompson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Dunn’s version of the bluesy Dobro infused number appeared just two months before Trisha Yearwood’s take on her own Hearts in Armor album. Both versions are remarkably similar and equally as good, although Yearwood turned in a slightly more polished take, which helped the pensive tune reach #12 in early 1993. Warner Brothers didn’t release Dunn’s version as a single.

Dunn’s usual co-writers Waters and Shapiro helped her write a few other tunes for the project. “Let Go” is somewhat light, with an engaging drumbeat and muscular electric guitar heard throughout. Steel and synth ballad “I’ve Heard It All” is a revelation, with Dunn playing the part of a jilted lover done with excuses. “You Can Have Him,” marks similar territory and is the best of three, with an engaging beat, and polish that had it ripe to be a single.

Shapiro teamed up with Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones to write “I Laughed Until I Cried,” a fabulous break-up power ballad with one of Dunn’s most emotion filled vocals on the whole album. Craig Wiseman co-wrote “If Your Heart Can’t Do The Talking” with Lynn Langham. The steel and dobro infused mid-tempo number is excellent and wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Yearwood’s early albums. Wally Wilson and Mike Henderson composed “Half A Million Teardrops,” another mid-tempo number and one more example of the excellent recordings found on Getting It Dunn. Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp’s “A Simple I Love You” rounds out the album, and Dunn provides the project’s standout vocal. I love the steel on this, too, although the rest of the production is a touch heavy-handed.

Holly Dunn will always be a quandary to me. Her vocal and songwriting abilities are outstanding, but the production on her records was always lacking in that little bit of extra polish that would’ve sent her over the top to the leagues of say a Trisha Yearwood or a Kathy Mattea. But that isn’t to suggest her music was lacking in any particular way to be less than excellent, it just wasn’t always embraceable by country radio and their standards at the time. But, thankfully, commercial prospects aren’t everything, and Getting It Dunn is another glorious addition to her already wonderful discography.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001’s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

Grade: B

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Thunder & Roses’

35224855The most significant musical moment of Pam Tillis’ 2001 Thunder & Roses is “Waiting In The Wind,” which marks the first time in the span of six studio albums that she properly duets with her father Mel. The track, about a dad’s reaction to his daughter leaving the nest, conveys the emotion perfectly, but is bogged down by a poppish string section and phrases like ‘rise to every challenge’ and ‘catch your dreams’ that are generic and overwrought.

With Thunder & Roses Tillis also returns to the multi-producer format and forgoes a producing credit of her own for the first time since Homeward Looking Angel. The production change stems from the disappointing commercial success of Every Time, which yielded one top 15 hit in two singles. The move towards a more mainstream sound didn’t reverse Tillis’ dwindling relationship with country radio, but she gained her final chart hit in the leadoff single.

“Please,” written by John Hobbs, Michael Dulaney, and Jeffery Steele tells the story of an anxious single mother getting ready for a date hoping he’ll “be the dad, the friend, the man” and cherish her for “who I am.” Tillis, a twice married single mother herself, brings her own life experiences to her brilliant vocal, half talking, half singing at just the right moments to perfectly articulate the woman’s own doubts and fears. The title track, a pop/country confection, was the first single of Tillis’ career that failed to chart.

The album itself leans in a more mainstream direction, forgoing the fiddle, steel, and dobro flourishes that peppered Tillis’ music until this point. The move is an answer to the trends that were popular at country radio in the early 2000s, but the pandering didn’t reignite Tillis’ career. At the time I’d chalked it up to behavior – Tillis seemed to be acting kind of weird (I remember when she presented Brooks & Dunn with a Vocal Duo CMA award as though the other four acts in the category didn’t exist) and the music followed suit.

Songs like “Space” and “Be A Man” just don’t fit Tillis’ musical persona. She almost seems uncomfortable vocally, with breathy phrasing that go against the way she usually sings. There’s nothing innately wrong with “I Smile” lyrically, but the in-your-face production swallows any attempts at subtly in Tillis’ voice. Same goes for “If I Didn’t Love You,” which is bombast turned up to eleven. Brett James and Troy Verges’ “Tryin’” is a lot better, but I could do without the unnecessary background singers that clutter up the track with unnecessary noise.

The album isn’t a dud by any means as Tillis thankfully saves the day with some quality tracks thrown in to balance out the more sonically progressive numbers. Though the song would’ve been stellar with a far more traditional arrangement, “It Isn’t Just Raining” works because of Tillis’ confident voice throughout. Even better is “Which Five Years,” a Craig Wiseman and Lisa Drew composition about a woman’s insecurities towards growing older in which she wonders “So which five years would I lose/Which lessons would I choose to have to learn again/I wonder/Just to seem a little younger?” I also adore Stephanie Bentley and Chris Lindsey’s “Jagged Hearts,” a wonderful torch ballad and Tillis’ shinning moment.

Thunder & Roses is Tillis’ Strong Heart – an attempt at going mainstream that lessens the traditional strings, but doesn’t completely forgo the artist’s ability at picking some truly great songs. So I can forgive Tillis for pandering to radio since she didn’t loose her identity in the process. Thunder & Roses may be her most uneven effort to date, but I’ve certainly heard a lot worse (and far more desperate) attempts at fitting in with the cool kids.

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Extremes’

extremesMainstay John Hobbs was joined by Ed Seay and Paul Worley to produce Collin’s third album, extremes. There was a concerted effort to expand Collin’s range with more rocking material, an artistic mistake in my opinion, but it was rewarded with commercial success, with five top 10 hits and platinum sales.

Collin screams out the first single, Lee Roy Parnell’s ‘That’s My Story’, a husband’s attempts to brazen out blatant lies to his wife. The amusing tale would have worked well for Parnell (and the arrangement and production are very much in his style, but it really doesn’t suit Collin’s voice, even though it was a #6 hit for him. The album’s only chart-topper, the fourth single, ‘My Kind of Girl’ is also a screamer, but a lyrically boring one.

Happily, the album also contains some beautiful ballads more in Collin’s style. Although it peaked just short of the top slot on the charts, ‘Little Rock’ may be the most important song ever recorded by Collin Raye, with its abashed, clear sighted depiction of a recovering alcoholic doing his best to cope with the loss of his wife as well as maintaining his sobriety. Written by Tom Douglas, perhaps it could do without the swelling strings, although the song’s strength is undiminished.

My favorite track is the melancholy lost love ‘Man Of My Word’, which peaked at #8. Written by Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr, it is a beautiful song in which the protagonist’s fidelity outlasts her loss (perhaps her death), gently paced and set to a lovely melody, with a subtle interpretation by Raye.

I’ll go to my grave with this torch held high
But just once I wish I’d told you a lie

When I said my love would last for all time
And no one would take your place
Well, if that promise was the last sound you heard
Well, you know I kept it
I’m a man of my word

The final single, #4 hit ‘If I Were You’ is a big ballad written by Hobbs with Chris Farren with a heavily strung arrangement. It’s quite prettily done, but not very memorable.

The best of the up-tempos is the fast story song ‘To The Border And Beyond’, which Collin wrote. Some wildly sawing fiddle backs up a frenetic vocal as Collin spits out the story of the outlaw Dugan. ‘Nothin’ A Little Love Won’t Cure’ is another rocker, and is an okay song written by the curious partnership of Rick Bowles, Don Cook and Larry Boone.

Written by Craig Wiseman and James Dean Hicks, the warm-hearted tale of a mother’s farewell gift of ‘A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home’ to a teenager leaving home with Nashville dreams, is tenderly sung and a definite highlight.

A cover of the classic ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ sounds very pretty, while ‘Angel Of No Mercy’ is another love song with a lovely melody, both ideally suited to Collin’s voice.

Despite some missteps Extremes is still a worthwhile purchase, especially as it can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘No More Looking Over My Shoulder’

TNomorelookingovermyshoulderravis Tritt changed producers once again, replacing Don Was with Billy Joe Walker, Jr for 1998’s No More Looking Over My Shoulder. His sixth studio album, it was his least successful release to date spawning three singles that didn’t peak any higher than #29 on the charts.

The #29 peaking single was the first, “If I Lost You,” which Tritt co-wrote with Stewart Harris. The beautiful piano led ballad is a charming story about a man’s undying love for a woman and his feelings if he should loose this person. The record is near perfection; from the tasteful production to Tritt’s sensitive vocal. Even the video was excellent as it served as the conclusion to his Mac Singleton trilogy, a fitting tribute to the five year old daughter Mac shares with now deceased wife Annie.

I also thoroughly enjoy the Craig Wiseman and Michael Peterson penned title track, which served as the second single, peaking at #38. An excellent sing-a-long mid-tempo rocker, the song has an engaging energy and I love the acoustic guitar riffs throughout.

Unlike the majority of Tritt’s rockin’ anthems, third and final single “Start The Car” doesn’t have many overly dated elements within the production track, and Tritt adds a strong, confident vocal performance to the mix. The rock elements don’t bother me either at all but the whole thing comes off very underwhelming thanks to Jude Cole’s inability to add anything memorable to the lyrics. It’s the type of song you forget the second you’ve heard it, which likely accounts for its poor chart performance (it peaked at #52).

The rest of the project isn’t as bland as I was expecting, but as a whole the album doesn’t really get off the ground. There just isn’t that standout track needed to raise the album above just okay. It’s solid, but nothing really special.

The best album cut is probably the weakest lyric, saved only by the production, which feels heavy influenced by Patty Loveless’ seminal When Fallen Angles Fly. “Girls Like That” boasts a nice, rollicking dobro that recalls “Half Way Down” and “Handful of Dust.” It’s too bad the lyric is beyond inane, as Tritt could’ve had a showstopper here. You’d think he and co-writer Bruce Ray Brown could’ve tried to put in some effort, and not resorted to a three-minute list of attributes talking about “Girls Like That.”

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EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Honky Tonk Boots’

Released in June 2006, Honky Tonk Boots reunited Sammy Kershaw with Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, the duo who had produced his early albums for Mercury. But instead of being a back to basics project, the album unfortunately stands as an example of how artists past their commercial peak — particularly those who tend not to write their own material — have difficulty accessing quality songs. Honky Tonk Boots has its good moments but it relies too heavily on novelty songs and second-rate material.

Things get off to a rocky start with the opening track and lead single “Tennessee Girl”, in which Sammy is at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get vanity license plates in order to impress his latest love interest. It’s a fluffy number with repetitious lyrics, clearly not meant to be taken too seriously. It would probably be nitpicking to point out that “Tennessee Girl” is too long to fit on a license plate. The Bob DiPiero and Craig Wiseman tune was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #43.

I like the title track a little better (but just a little). It’s another beat-driven boot-scootin’ boogie style song with lightweight lyrics and sounds like a throwback to the line-dancing craze of the 90s. Things pick up considerably with the third track “One Step At A Time”, which while not quite in the same league as “Yard Sale”, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” or “Politics, Religion and Her”, is the best song on the album.

Among the better tracks on the album are two faithful-to-the-original cover songs, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” and “The Battle”. The former had been a #1 hit for Mel McDaniel in 1985. Sammy’s version was released as a single but did not chart. The latter had been an under-performing single for George Jones in 1976, peaking at #16. Jones is the singer to which Kershaw is most frequently compared and the influence is apparent here, but good though Sammy’s performance is, even he can’t out-possum the Possum.

The remainder of the album is dominated by either filler or silly novelty tunes such as “Mama’s Got a Tattoo”, which attempts to use humor to stir up feelings of patriotism, and “Cantaloupes on Mars”, which is a series of “when hell freezes over” type cliches about the end of a relationship.

His only release for the independent Category 5 label, Honky Tonk Boots is decidedly a mixed bag. It does have its moments but is badly marred by inferior material. It’s not a terrible album, but it is definitely not essential listening. Inexpensive copies are easy to find should you decide to seek it out.

Grade: B-

Album Review: ‘Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors’

Nearly a decade into his recording career, Tim McGraw broke with the usual Music City practice of using studio musicians for his eighth album. Instead, he opted to get of town and took his road band to a studio in upstate New York where Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors was created. On the relatively rare occasions when country artists do use their road bands in the studio, it usually results in a reasonable replication of how the artist and musicians sound in concert. In this case, however, the production on most tracks is very layered and wall-of-sound-like, making it difficult to assess the actual contributions of the Dancehall Doctors. There’s nothing really distinctive about their sound or style of playing, so I’m not really sure what the purpose of using them was, except as a marketing tool or perhaps a vanity indulgence on Tim’s part.

Tim and co–producers Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith use the album as an occasion to branch out a bit stylistically, opting for a more soft-rock or AC rather than country sound for the most part, a move that I suspect was prompted by the tremendous success his wife Faith Hill was having on the pop charts at the time. While he deserves credit for his willingness to try something different, the experiment largely falls flat and serves to highlight his shortcomings as a vocalist, rather than present him as a versatile artist. To be fair, this isn’t a 100% pop album, as Tim does make a number of concessions to his country fans.

The first single to be sent to radio was one of the more country-sounding numbers, “Red Rag Top”, a song that I have never been able to enjoy partially because because I find the subject matter to be repugnant, but mostly because of the dismissive attitude of the narrator in the aftermath of the termination of his girlfriend’s unwanted pregnancy. It was a gutsy move to release a song about abortion to conservative country radio. I don’t recall much of a backlash at the time, but enough stations refused to play it that it broke McGraw’s string of consecutive #1 hits. Still, it peaked at a very respectable #5.
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Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Set This Circus Down’

Our first taste of Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album came when he sang “Things Change” at the CMA Awards in 2000. A poignant tale, the song dealt with changing attitudes over time within the music industry. While it wasn’t an official single, the song ended up charting via unsolicited airplay peaking at #31.

“Things Change” resonated with fans and spoke candidly about the growing frustration between traditional country and pop country:

Now some say it’s too country

Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll

But it’s just good music

If you can feel it in your soul

And it doesn’t really matter

It’s always been the same

Life goes on, Things Change

I always thought McGraw was singing that verse about the controversy surrounding his wife Faith Hill’s more pop-heavy Breathe album. There was a growing dissatisfaction with her attempts to reach a wider audience and many who felt she was leaving country music.  Nonetheless I love the song and the pop/rock heavy production for being a little slice of commentary without coming off too bitter or preachy.

The first official single, “Grown Men Don’t Cry” was released in March 2001 and topped the chart in June.  A moody piano ballad, it stuck me the first time I heard it as it marked a distinct departure for McGraw – his first real foray into pop ballad territory. It took a while for me to warm up to since I wasn’t used to this kind of song from him, but Tom Douglas and Steve Seskin pinned one of the finest singles of McGraw’s career. I also thought the twist in the title (grown men really do cry) was very clever.

A cover of Bruce Robinson’s “Angry All The Time,” a song he originally recorded with his wife Kelly Willis on his Wrapped album in 1998, followed. This tale of a crumbling marriage marked another step in McGraw’s evolution as an artist and the background vocals from Hill only add more nuance to the track. The song works on every level – Robinson has crafted a brilliant lyric that allows listeners to feel the pain of a strained union and Bryon Gallimore brought it over the top with the tasteful acoustic production. Another number one, it topped the charts in November 2001.

Third single, “The Cowboy In Me” would continue McGraw’s hot streak on the charts, hitting number one in March 2002. The song opened the album with soft acoustic guitar riffs over steel guitar and fiddle before morphing into a rock ballad on the chorus. The change in production did cause McGraw to shout on the chorus, but it was the opening verses that resonated with me most clearly. I’ve always felt like Al Anderson, Craig Wiseman, and Jeffery Steele were writing my story:

I don’t know why I act the way I do

Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

I got a life that most would love to have

But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad

At where this road I’m heading down might lead

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

McGraw would see the top of the charts again when fourth and final single “Unbroken” hit number one in September 2002. Easily the most forgotten single from this album, it paled in comparison both lyrically and sonically to the ones that proceeded it. But that wasn’t for lack of trying, as “Unbroken” was perfect radio fodder and catchy enough to stick in your head, at least during its chart run.

Set This Circus Down is widely considered the strongest album of McGraw’s career and it’s easy to see why. In a rare feat, all of the singles topped the charts. But what sets it apart from his previous work is the stellar album cuts. Continuing the trend from A Place In The Sun, he left out disposable filler and found some truly stellar songs.

The rock heavy “Angel Boy,” written by Danny Orton, was given the music video treatment although it wasn’t a single. A story about a man who had dealings with the devil, it was always a favorite track of mine, despite the heavy production and somewhat muddy vocal. It was something cool and different and stuck out to me because of that.

My other favorite songs are the Spanish influenced “Let Me Love You,” which McGraw sang with Hill during the Soul 2 Soul tour in 2000, and the journeyman’s anthem “Telluride.” Both are lyrically strong and could’ve easily been radio singles. The latter was indeed a single, for Josh Gracin, and peaked at #34 in 2008. Another highlight is the steel guitar heavy “When You Get Used To Somebody” which shows off a more traditional country sounding McGraw and the title track, a fiddle-laced country rocker.

Overall, Set This Circus Down is another highpoint from McGraw and my second favorite album of his career. It was nice to see, in 2001, he was finally making albums and not just singles. This is another strong set and if you don’t have it, it’s easily found on Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Everywhere’

By the time Everywhere saw the light of day in June 1997, Tim McGraw was an established hit maker but not a superstar. His music was mostly cast aside as nothing more than novelty and he had yet to prove he was more than just another 90s hat act. That all would change here as Everywhere would go on to sell four million copies and win McGraw the respect of the industry. He was finally a force to be reckoned with at both country radio and on the road.

Lead single “It’s Your Love,” a massively successful duet with his wife Faith Hill, would take on a life of its own spending six weeks at #1 and winning boatloads of awards from the ACMs and CMAs. It would also be named Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1997.

The romantic ballad, pinned by Stephony Smith, worked because the chemistry between McGraw and Hill was enough to sell the song. The nicely restrained arrangement, complete with the light acoustic guitar and organ flourishes, is also a stunning moment for commercial country in those days.

The title track would follow also peaking at #1. While not as massive a hit, “Everywhere” was even more important – it proved McGraw could sell subtlety and emotional depth through further developing the promise he showed with “Can’t Be Really Gone.” Written by Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman, “Everywhere” is easily my favorite song on the whole album and sounds as fresh today as it did back then.

I love the story here – a man’s regretting the end of a relationship and sees his ex wherever he goes – and the brilliance of the songwriting. Reid and Wiseman spend much of the song focused on the man’s travels, but smartly take a second to ground his journey with the line:

Cause you and I made our choices

All those years ago

Still I know I’ll hear your voice

And see you down the road

I can’t even begin to imagine how poorly “Everywhere” would be written by today’s standards (especially by the Peach Pickers). In conjunction with the lyrics, the soaring arrangement complete with fiddle, steel guitar, and gorgeous acoustic guitars nicely compliment the vastness of the many places this man has been.

The third single, the irresistibly catchy “Just To See You Smile” would match the success of “It’s Your Love” by spending six weeks at #1 and becoming Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1998. The banjo driven arrangement complete with pedal steel and acoustic guitar make it one of those sunny songs you have to turn up when it comes on the radio. I love this one as well and can’t believe how good it sounds all these years later.

Fourth Single “One Of These Days” may be the best ballad of McGraw’s career. Written by Marcus Hummond, Monty Powell, and Kip Raines, it would peak at #2 in the spring of 1998. I always regarded it as a love song until writing this review – I never saw the whole picture (a man’s journey towards self-forgiveness for bullying a boy who “was different/he wasn’t cool like me”) until listening to it again this week. It’s a stunning lyric and just may be the best thing McGraw has ever recorded, let alone his best ballad.

Following the “One of These Days” juggernaut was another McGraw standard and multi-week #1 “Where The Green Grass Grows.” Written by Jess Leary and Craig Wiseman, it may be the most lyrically dumb of any of the singles from Everywhere but the fiddle and drum heavy melody are so infectious, you cannot help but sing along.

But “Where The Green Grass Grows” is actually more insightful than meets the eye. A entry into the “couturier than thou” linage, it succeeds by taking the protagonist back to small town living without hitting us over the head with grass is better than concrete imagery. His move out of city life finds him naturally following his heart.

The sixth and final single, “For A Little While” would peak at #2 in spring 1999. Composed by Steve Mandie and Jerry Vandiver along with country singer Phil Vassar, it was a simple love song about a romance not able to last more than a few months:

And I laugh every time I start to think about us

We sent that summer out in style

And she’s gone but she let me with a smile

‘Cause she was mine for a little while

She wasn’t one to be tied down – which he wasn’t looking for anyway – but he’ll always have the memories of their times together. The execution is flawless here; the fiddle, drum, and piano laced production work perfectly to frame the love story contained within.

Of the non-singles on the album, the majority are typical album filler you would’ve expected to populate a country album in the late-90s. There isn’t much there to grasp onto except for “I Do But I Don’t” written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, the team behind “Just To See You Smile.” The fiddle and steel guitar laced ballad is quite strong and wouldn’t have been out of place on Mark Wills’ Wish You Were Here album.

Taking another listen, it’s easy to see why Everywhere won the 1998 CMA Album of the Year award and put McGraw’s career into overdrive. The singles are some of the strongest of his career to date with not a bad one in the bunch.

I have very found memories of this project as well. Each of these songs displays a little piece of my third and fourth grade childhood. So listening to them again brings back fond memories of those years. And it’s also nice to see how well the songs have held up after fifteen years time, even if they display how sharply commercial country music has declined since.

If you don’t have a copy they can be easily found on both iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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