My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dan Hill

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Higher Ground’

tammywynette_highergroundTammy Wynette spent the better part of the late 1970s and 1980s seeing her commercial fortunes begin to wane. Actress Annette O’Toole portrayed Wynette in a television movie, Stand By Your Man, in May 1981. Her singles were routinely charting top twenty during this time and she returned to the top ten when her cover of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” a duet with Mark Grey, peaked at #6 in 1985.

Our coverage resumes in 1987, which found mainstream country deep in the throngs of a traditional renaissance. Wynette followed suit accordingly with Higher Ground, her twenty-eighth album, produced by Steve Buckingham. While any momentum she may’ve gained from her previous album had cooled, it didn’t stop Epic from pushing ahead with three singles from the set.

The dobro drenched “Your Love,” a mid-tempo ballad featuring Ricky Skaggs hit #12. The neo-traditional “Talkin’ To Myself Again,” with an assist from The O’Kanes, peaked at #16. Both are very good although not memorable enough to stand out amongst iconic hits from the era.

They hit the artistic jackpot with final single “Beneath A Painted Sky,” which found Wynette in perfect harmony with Emmylou Harris. The somewhat kooky lyric details the true love of a daddy to his little girl:

There never was a little girl more wanted than me

I had all the love a child could ever want or need

Daddy gave me everything he could afford to buy

An’ on the ceilin’ in my room, he painted me a sky

 

Beneath the painted sky, that’s where I want to be

A place to go when this old world gets the best of me

A place where dreams come true

And no one ever says ‘goodbye’

Oh, I wish that I could live again, beneath the painted sky

The remainder of the album finds Wynette assisted by a plethora of country’s finest. Gene Watson provides harmony on “Tempted” while Vince Gill, in one of his earliest solo performances, lends his signature falsetto to “I Wasn’t Meant to live my Life Alone.” Ricky Van Shelton, among others, helps liven up the proceedings with the jovial “A Slow Burning Fire.” The Gatlin Brothers are the perfect accompaniment to the title track, a song that feels tailored to their trademark style.

Higher Ground, as a whole, is a gorgeous album. Wynette is still at her peak and the arrangements haven’t aged in the least. I would’ve liked songs that were more memorable, though, or even packed more of a punch. Despite her status as an icon, it’s easy to see how this album fell under the radar – her contemporaries were releasing stronger music that was easier to get noticed. But this is an album that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s well worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?