My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: David Ball

Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘Livin’ the Dream’

Liverpool native Nathan Carter’s latest collection was released in June of this year, and as is typical of summer releases, it has its fair share of upbeat, fun songs. Though not strictly a country album — it is a mixture of country, pop and traditional Irish folk — disenfranchised American country fans will find a lot to like here, among them very nice covers of Lee Greenwood’s “Holdin’ a Good Hand” and David Ball’s “Riding with Private Malone”, about a young man who buys a 1966 Corvette that once belonged to a solider who was killed in battle.

My favorite track is Carter’s take on “Ned of the Hill”, a traditional Irish ballad about Edmund Ryan, a seventeenth-century earl whose estates were confiscated in retaliation for his support of the deposed James II’s attempt to reclaim the British throne — a quest that ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an event which also marked Britain’s final conquest of Ireland:

Young Ned of the Hill has no castle or hall
No bowmen or spearmen to come at his call
But one little archer of exquisite skill
Has loosed a bright shaft for young Ned of the Hill
It is hard to escape to this young lady’s bower
For high is the castle and guarded the tower
But where there’s a will there’s always a way
And young Eileen is gone with young Ned of the Hill

On a more contemporary note, “Jealous of the Angels” is a nice contemporary ballad about a young man who is mourning the loss of his wife or girlfriend. A sentimental piano-led ballad with a gentle string section, it is the type of song that used to be a staple on country radio in the US.

The album ends with a live version of another contemporary ballad “Summer in Dublin”, which is not even remotely country, but is still quite enjoyable. The rest of the album consists mostly of fluffy-upbeat material, some of which I would not have liked at all in the hands of a less capable vocalist. One — “Me and You” — to my disappointment was not a remake of one of the very few Kenny Chesney songs that I truly liked; it’s a bit of uptempo ear candy that would be better without the overbearing background singers and their”nah-nah-nah’s”. I also expected “Rollin’ Home” to be ballad in the “prodigal has returned” vein, but it too is an uptempo number that has a Cajun feel thanks to the accordion that is thrown into the mix. It also has good bit of saxophone, an instrument I tend to dislike. I suspect that I might have enjoyed this one better with different production. On the other hand “Caribbean Feeling” was a lot better than I expected, having developed an aversion to beach music thanks to Kenny Chesney.

Livin’ the Dream may not be a masterpiece from start to finish but it has more than its share of great moments.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: David Ball – ‘Riding With Private Malone’

The song starts about 2.40 in.

Christmas Rewind: David Ball – ‘It’s Christmas Time In The Blue Ridge Mountains’

Classic Rewind: David Ball – ‘Riding With Private Malone’

Classic Rewind: David Ball – ‘Thinkin’ Problem’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music.’

real country musicWhile his commercial success never equalled his prowess, Gene Watson is one of the great country singers. Furthermore, of all the veterans still performing, his voice has held out the best, and almost unbelievably, he still sounds glorious at over 70. Gene’s producer for the last few projects, Dirk Johnson, does his usual sterling job – few album titles are as accurate about the contents as this one. The songs are all older ones, making this album something of a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and are almost all emotional ballads about lost love, which play to Gene’s strengths as a vocalist.

One does not normally expect to hear a Gene Watson album opening with swelling strings, but his voice soon takes over, and the remainder of the album comprises familiar country arrangements featuring fiddles and steel guitars. ‘Enough For You’ is an excellent Kris Kristofferson tune which first appeared on the latter’s Jesus Was A Capricorn album in 1972. Gene says he first heard it in 1980 in the form of Billie Jo Spears’s cover (from her 1975 album Billie Jo), and has wanted to record it ever since. The suicidal cuckold’s lament is perfectly suited to Watson’s perfectly judged vocal, and is the first single.

‘She Never Got Me Over You’ is the last song Keith Whitley wrote before his untimely death (with the help of Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran). A powerful song about love and obsession, it was recorded a few years ago by Mark Chesnutt, but Gene makes it sound as if it was written just for him. If you want to check out Keith’s original demo, it’s on youtube.

There are two covers of Larry Gatlin songs, both of which were recorded by Elvis in the 70s. The gospel ballad ‘Help Me’ is delicately understated (and may serve as a taster for a new religious album Gene plans to release later this year). ‘Bitter They Are, Harder To Fall’ is a classic heartbreak ballad which Gene actually recorded many years ago on his early album Because You Believed In Me.

Gene revisits a number of other songs he has previously recorded on this album. ‘Old Loves Never Die’ was never a single, but as the title track of one of his most successful albums is perhaps the most familiar to fans. The melancholic ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was on his excellent but often overlooked 1987 alDbum Honky Tonk Crazy (his final Epic release). He covered the superb ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’ (previously cut by George Jones) on his now hard to find 1997 album A Way To Survive; this new steel-led recording is beautiful. He cut Bill Anderson’s ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’ on his Sings set in 2003; another jealous man’s pain-filled take on love lost but still deeply felt, this is magnificently sung.

A little less familiar is ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ – not the classic song of that name, but a David Ball song from the latter’s underrated 2004 album Freewheeler. A subtly sad, slow song about poignant memories of lost love with the steel guitar to the fore, it fits nicely with the other material. ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’ is a wonderful song written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah which was one of Conway Twitty’s last few singles. Nat Stuckey’s emotional All My Tomorrows’ is another fine song and recording.

The one song not fitting the pattern of slow sad songs is a honky tonker previously recorded by Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘I’ll Find It Where I Can’. One venture away from country territory is a cover of the Nat King Cole hit ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. Although there have been country covers of the song before, none was a big hit. Gene’s version is nice, and he certainly mnages to make it sound like a country song, but insofar as this album has a weak spot, this is it.

This is a superb album of excellent songs by one of the genre’s all time great singers, who is, thankfully, still in possession of his golden voice.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Fayssoux – ‘I Can’t Wait’

fayssouxFayssoux Starling McLean is best known to country fans for her gorgeous harmonies on some of Emmylou Harris’s iconic 70s recordings like ‘Green Rolling Hills Of West Viginina’. She was silent for years, but re-emerged in 2008 with a well-received solo album. The follow-up, on Red Beet Records, is a lovely country-folk confection mixing some well-chosen covers with her own new songs. Her rich, warm voice is tastefully supported by acoustic backings.

The soothing title track is a lovely inspirational song written by Kieran Kane (once of The O’Kanes) with Sean Locke and Claudia Scott. The ballad ‘When The Thought Of You Catches Up With Me’ was previously recorded by its writer David Ball, but Fayssoux brings a new delicacy and sweetness to it which works beautifully.

A lovely understated version of ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ is a real highlight, with Fayssoux convincingly selling the story as though it was her own. Donna Ulisse’s delicate harmony is the perfect ornamentation. ‘Some Things Are Too Good To Last’, written by Jim Lauderdale, is another fine song with sweet harmonies.

‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’ a very charming folky duet with Tom T Hall, who wrote it. This is another favorite track for me.

‘My Brain’ has a jazz rhythm and the vocal is a bit breathy. ‘Hell On A Poor Boy’ (written by poet R B Morris) is bluesy in a wistful way.

Fayssoux wrote a number of the songs with musician/journalist Peter Cooper and/or Thomm Jutz. ‘Golightly Creek’ is a nicely observational song about finding peace by returning to her birthplace.

‘Running out Of Lies’ is a melancholy depiction of the permanent damage caused by earlier heartbreak:
A temporary fix left a scar that’s everlasting

‘The Last Night Of The War’ has an authentic traditional folk feel with its post-Civil War setting.

She wrote ‘Find Your Own Light’ solo, and this is a deeply introspective song about finding oneself. ‘Ragged Old Heart’ is a little more upbeat with a bright tempo, although it too deals with a damaged individual.

This is a lovely record, drawing deeply from the wells of the best country and folk music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: David Ball – ‘Sparkle City’

I’ve always liked David Ball’s music, but it’s been a while since he saw any chart action; 2001’s ‘Riding With Private Malone’ was his only hit after 1995 and he is now recording for the independent Red Dirt Music Company/E1. His last album was a tribute to the classic sounds of country music, dating from the 1950s to the late 80s, with only one original song, but this time he has composed all the material himself.

The overall feel of the record leans to a jazzy swinging Texas groove without much variation. It would go down well live (and is probably a good representation of his live show, not least because he is backed by a core of his own touring band, the Pioneer Playboys, supplemented by outside musicians where required). However, it sounds a little samey over the length of a record with too many of the songs blending together, particularly when coupled with a lack of variety in the subjects tackled. Many of the lyrics are variations on a theme of the restless drifter unwilling ever to settle down, but none of the songs resonates as much as, say, the similarly themed ‘Freewheeler’, title track of David’s last original record in 2004 and one of my favorites of his.

The album opens with the entertaining but unsubtle double entendre of ‘Hot Water Pipe’, which was a winter single for David.  The following ‘Country Boy Boogie’ (my least favourite track) has a good groove but is not very interesting lyrically and has annoyingly shouty background vocals in the chorus.

The repetitive ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ is back to the slight jazzy western swing feel as the protagonist makes an unconvincing suggestion that maybe tomorrow he’ll change his restless ways (although I like the line playfully blaming his restless ways on being “born under a green traffic light”) . ‘Smiling In The Morning’ has the frankly unlikable protagonist leaving a short-term lover (not to mention the country – a rather extreme way of avoiding commitment), although I do like the tune.  ‘Back To Alabama’ is better, with its prodigal protagonist dreaming of going home, and a sultry bluesy feel, but by the time we get to the forgettable ‘On Top Of The World’ the groove is sounding a bit tired and very far from sparkling.

There are a few songs which break from the template. I like the rambler’s defence, ‘Just Along For The Ride’, with its loping western feel and melancholy undertones to David’s vocal (even when he talks of winning in Las Vegas), which is reminiscent of the best of David’s past work. There is a similar feel to the lovely ‘Tulsa’, overtly relaxed but layered with an underlying sense of regret, with a musician planning to up sticks and move to LA, “chasing a dream” and wistfully saying,

I hope someday they say good things about me and my song
Hope LA’s glad to see me
Tulsa won’t even know I’m gone

Most of the songs are solo compositions, but three were co-written with L Russell Brown, and they are among the best on the record.  ‘What’ll I Do If I Don’t Have You’, a plaintive last-ditch appeal to a lover planning to leave, has a simple charm and irresistibly sing along melody, and a subtle string arrangement adds to the effect.  The Tex-Mex ‘Houston Again’ may be yet another song about a rambling man not wanting to settle down, but is more interesting than the rest with an actual story – the narrator is running away from Houston because there’s a pretty girl and potential father-in-law there hoping to “rope me in and tie me down”.  It scans badly with an awkward line break in the middle of the word grandchildren, but that aside is one of my favorite tracks.

The last of the co-writes, ‘So Long’ closes the album appropriately with an attractive sounding temporary goodbye song.

I am enjoying listening to this record, but its doesn’t appeal as much as David Ball’s older music.

Grade: B

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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The bottle that pours the wine: Songs about songwriting

Stephanie DavisIt’s always about the song in country music. Whether the writer sings the song or not, a topic Razor X raised last week, the song itself is what everything else ultimately depends on. One of the things I love about country music is the range of subjects it tackles, but the thing most songwriters know the most about is, of course, writing songs.  So it should come as no surprise that some writers have chosen to reflect on that process within their work: the nature of inspiration; the way lives and pain are transmuted into art; and complaining about or celebrating the state of the music industry. Self-referential, perhaps – but also a fascinating insight into songwriters’ thoughts about the songs they write. So here are some of my favorite songs on the theme.

‘Sixteenth Avenue’, the ultimate tribute to the professional songwriters of Music Row, written by one of their own, Thom Schuyler, and made famous by Lacy J Dalton, speaks briefly of the magical moment of inspiration when some struggling writer finds the perfect words:
One night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words rolled off someone’s tongue

Another nod to the idea that the music comes from some place beyond is expressed in David Ball’s lovely ‘The Bottle That Pours The Wine’, which he wrote with Allen Shamblin for his 1996 album Starlite Lounge, as he answers a young fan asking where the songs come from:
“I’m just a bottle that pours the wine
A fragile vessel for melody and rhyme

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1989 Album Review: George Strait – ‘Beyond The Blue Neon’

beyondtheblueneonIf you’re looking for a solid classic George Strait album with some pleasant variety that’s cleanly country without all the over production, this one’s for you. Released the winter of 1989 in the year he received both the ACM and CMA Entertainer of the Year awards, Beyond The Blue Neon is King George’s 12th album and another #1 on Top Country Albums.

‘Neon’ produced a significant number of popular singles, 3 of which went to #1 themselves, and has been certified platinum. It’s got a mix of Western swing, ballads, tear-in-your-beer and dance tunes. It feels as though this one came straight out of a juke box somewhere, or better yet, you’ve picked up a recording of a live session in a honky tonk.

The title song sets that juke box, honky tonk, pool hall tone with a pleasant slow jazzy tune that features George at his best – crooning. This gem written by Larry Boone and Paul Nelson gives the album its cover image in the first verse:

‘Swingin’ doors
Sawdust floors
A heartache drowns as the whiskey pours
There’s a hole in the wall
From some free for all
The ringin’ crack of that old cue ball’

Larry recorded it first on his 1988 Swingin’ Doors, Sawdust Floors album.

Next up is the wonderful, dry humored ‘Hollywood Squares’. It’s a fun, pure-country novelty number featuring some great fiddle and a hook to make you smile: I got so many ex’s and owe so much/I ought to be on Hollywood squares. Though it was never released as a single, it charted at #67 and was included on a couple of later collections as a favorite.

The third song, and coincidently the third single, ‘Overnight Success’ reached #8 in 1990. Weeping steel highlights this traditional sad one’s hook: And if you planned on hurtin’ me/you’re an overnight success. What’s kept George at the top for so many years is his selection of songs, and this one’s a perfect example of a winning combination of a great song and his understated style.

‘Ace in the Hole’ is an upbeat swing tune with great instrumentation featuring the band and back up singers subtly doing their stuff to give George an awesome platform, but shining on a wonderful solo section. Appropriately, ‘Ace in the Hole’ features the band since it also bears the name of the band, and was one of George’s aces with a #1 on the charts. It’s one of my favorites – love the swing numbers on this album.

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