My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dean Dillon

Album Review: Natalie Hemby – ‘Puxico’

Natalie Hemby, Dean Dillon to Miranda Lambert’s George Strait, released her debut album back in January. The album, seven years in the making, is the musical accompaniment to a documentary she produced about her hometown of Puxico, Missouri. Hemby solely composed each of the project’s nine songs.

Hemby opens the album wonderfully, with the folksy tones of “Time-Honored Tradition,” a jaunty uptempo number about her longing for “kindred town filled with good company.” Said town ultimately goes through a “Grand Restoration,” in which the past and present beautifully collide to bring a sense of history into the modern day. She gets the sentiment right on “Worn,” a characteristic she gives to “the finer things worth keeping,” but I could’ve done with a more interesting execution. Similarly rudimentary is lead single “Return,” which details the idea that you need to get away in order to fully appreciate your life back home.

“Lovers On Display” is one of many relationship-centric tunes on Puxico. The simplistic ballad is an appealing dissertation on love, using carnival imagery to evoke innocent romance. The ambiguous steel drenched “This Town Still Talks About You” is a brilliantly heartbreaking reminder that a person’s presence can be alive and well even if they aren’t physically present. Our minds aren’t so lucky, as Hemby points out in “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me,” which says memories fade but we never forget love.

The love, or really praise, for “Cairo, IL” is a big reason why I decided to finally listen to Puxico. The gorgeous ballad, a tribute to a long abandoned ghost town, is considered one of the best country songs released this year:

All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51

Illinois is coming ’cross the bridge where the Old Ohio was

Don’t look away, it will be gone

 

Kentucky and Missouri, a trinity of states

Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks

Oh nothing moves but nothing stays

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

 

She used to be a beauty back in 1891

After Fort Defiance, now she’s weathered by the river and the sun

She’s still around but she is gone

 

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

The lyric is simple, and the song itself is very quiet, but the hook does pack a nice punch. I probably enjoy “Ferris Wheel,” a track Faith Hill recently featured in her Instagram Stories when Hemby was scheduled to open up for her and Tim McGraw on a recent Soul2Soul tour stop, even more. The steel-drenched ballad, which has a lovely and inviting melody, is far and away my favorite track on the album.

On the whole, Puxico is a very strong album and a wonderful introduction to Hemby and her personal style. I just found it to be a bit too sing-song-y in places and some of the songs could’ve been more complex. I kept comparing her, in my head, to Kacey Musgraves, which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But, that being said, this is an album well-worth checking out.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Toby Keith – ‘A Few More Cowboys’

a few more cowboysOne of Toby Keith’s biggest hits was the Western themed ‘Shouldve been A Cowboy’. His latest single revisits that territory, but using the metaphor to tackle some of today’s social issues.

Written by Keith with Bobby Pinson and Dean Dillon, the lyric is in the main a celebration of Texas and an idealized cowboy ethos, with some more questionable elements. Some of it is conventional and likeable enough:

There’d be a bunch more daddies sons could be proud of
We’d have half the crime, we’d have twice the fun
With a few more cowboys, be a lot less outlaws
With a few more amens, be a lot less bad calls
With a few more yes ma’ams and a lot less yes man
This world would be a better place to live in
With a few more cowboys

He strikes a chord with the current anti-politics mood by making jabs at professional politicians:

If the White House was in Texas, man, we’d get a straighter answer

Although I’m not sure his alternative of “more fist fights” is much of an improvement, it’s hardly a surprise coming from Toby. Naturally there’s a bit of trade protection and an allusion to beating the enemy, again archetypal Keith:

Met ’em at high noon, hell, it’s about high time
We looked ’em in the eye, got our head out of the sand
Hit ’em with a big John Wayne, by God they’d understand

Production is beefed up, but recognisably country; there is a prominent electric guitar but it is not too intrusive, and Keith’s robust vocals are solid (when he actually sings). It’s quite an enjoyable tune with a pleasant mid paced melody. The lyric video is quite good fun, especially the image which accompanies the fist fights line.
But there is one element to the lyric which is fundamentally misjudged, and as it comes in the second line, and is then repeated in as portentous drawl at the end of the song, it can’t be overlooked as a passing thought – it’s a central point of the song:

If they’d let us smoke what we want, we’d have a lot less cancer

Um, really? While I understand there are some trials using parts of the cannabis/marijuana plant, that’s a far cry from actually smoking it being beneficial. This isn’t the place for that debate; suffice it to say that it significantly mars the song for me.

Grade: B- (it would be B+ without the line I objected to)

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Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Craig Morgan’

CraigMorganAlbumIt is hard to believe that Craig Morgan’s debut album, released by Atlantic Records, came way back in 2000. While this album proved to be a false start for the 36 year old Morgan in that Atlantic shut down its Nashville operations in 2002, the resulting album revealed the US Army veteran to be a fine singer capable of drawing both on past experiences and imagination in selling a song.

The album opens up “Paradise”, a song written by Craig with Harley Allen. The initial military cadence sets the song apart from any other song I’ve heard recently. The song tells of Craig’s experience as a soldier and how it affected his outlook on life. As the chorus to the song notes:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die

Now I’m a little older and not afraid to try

Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive

When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life

Is paradise

“Paradise was the second single released and topped out at #46, more a reflection of Atlantic’s promotional efforts than the song’s merits.

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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: Randy Rogers Band – ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

41c2t4yC8TL._SS280After a decade on the dark side chasing mainstream success, The Randy Rogers Band has returned to its indie roots with Nothing Shines Like Neon, their first album in nearly three years. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the band’s back catalog, although I did thoroughly enjoy Randy Rogers’ side project with Wade Bowen (Hold My Beer, Vol. 1), which was reviewed by Occasional Hope last year. Though not as traditional as Hold My Beer, Neon is reportedly more rootsy than any of the Band’s four releases for Mercury and MCA, which ought to please fans who had been complaining that the band had lost its edge during its tenure in Nashville.

One of the problems with music that falls under the Americana/alt-country Red Dirt umbrella is that much of it really isn’t country and much of it is a wasteland of non-commercial material sung by those with vocals that are too rough to have any kind of mass appeal. There is always some wheat among the chaff, though it can often be difficult to separate the two. The effort is worth it, though, when an album like this one comes along. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s more polished than I expected. The most surprising thing about it is that 10 or 15 years ago it would have been solidly within the realm of the mainstream, though it would definitely be out of place on today’s radio next to the Sam Hunts and Jason Aldeans.

Randy Rogers co-wrote seven of the album’s tracks, two of them with producer Cannon, but the album’s best cuts are the ones contributed by outside songwriters, starting with the opening track, the fiddle-led “San Antone” written by Keith Gattis. I particularly enjoyed “Things I Need to Quit”, which follows the tried-and-true theme of comparing an ex-lover to bad habits that need to be broken, in the vein of Patty Loveless’ “A Thousand Times a Day”. The mid-tempo “Old Moon New”, a Rogers co-write with Lee Thomas Miller and Wendell Mobley, sounds like something Collin Raye might have released early in his career.

The album’s best track is “Look Out Yonder”, which features beautiful harmonies by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski. Jamey Johnson joins the band on “Actin’ Crazy”, a number about the morning after a night of tying one on, and fellow Texan Jerry Jeff Walker joins in on “Takin’ It As It Comes”, a party number that probably works better live in concert than it does on record.

The album’s weaker moments come when the band tries to be too middle-of-the-road; “Rain and the Radio”, “Neon Blues” and “Tequila Eyes” (a Cannon and Rogers collaboration with Dean Dillon) all fall into this trap. It was a little surprising to find songs like these on a Texas indie release. Perhaps the band hasn’t fully freed itself of Nashville’s shackles. Nevertheless, Nothing Shines Like Neon is a solid effort that refugees from bro-country and radio’s other atrocities are sure to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Razor X’s top 10 singles of 2015

Compiling a list of the year’s best singles has become one of my least favorite tasks. It seems as though with each passing year country radio gets a little worse. I stopped listening to it in 2007; there is plenty of good music available outside the mainstream, but non-mainstream artists don’t always bother releasing singles to radio. Twenty years ago I’d have had trouble paring my list down to just ten songs; nowadays it is challenge to find ten singles that I like. But in the end, I always manage to find a little wheat among the mountain of chaff. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers to discover that my list is dominated by old favorites who are mostly past their commercial peaks. In fact, my list contains only one bonafide hit, and even that hit #1 without much help from country radio:

fae8ca732384cd6a272747f48c4ebbe010. I Met a Girl — William Michael Morgan

In a stronger year, I wouldn’t have taken much notice of this song but it stands out from the pack because it is a legitimate attempt to get country music back on track without all the hip-hop, bro-country and R&B influences that have come to all but drown out traditional country sounds. It peaked just outside the Top 40, but Morgan has got a good voice and is an artist I’m keeping an eye on for the future.

9. Boy and a Girl Thing — Mo Pitney

Like “I Met a Girl”, this tune is a bit generic but it’s a step in the right direction towards bringing the genre back to its roots. It failed to make the Top 40, but Pitney is an artist that deserves to be heard. Hopefully his music won’t be held hostage by his record label (Curb)

8. Time For That — Clint Black

Clint Black was one of a handful of my old favorites who made a comeback in 2015. It was a shame, but no surprise, that this single did not chart. But regardless of its commercial performance, it sure was good to hear from Clint again.

ashley-monroe-48th-annual-cma-awards-2014-arrivals_44470897. On to Something Good — Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe is a very talented artist whose shot at stardom has been hampered by bad timing; she’s had the ill fortune to come along at a time when female artists — particularly traditional-leaning ones — are not given much consideration by country radio. The Blade, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, is one of the year’s best albums. This single, which got stuck at #53, makes some compromises in an attempt to be heard. Hardcore country it is not, but it is very good, and in another era it would have been a big hit.

6. Cold Beer Conversation — George Strait

The title track of an album that took everyone by surprise proves that drinking songs don’t have to be mindless party songs. It also unofficially marks the beginning of Strait’s post-radio career. After an impressive 35-year-run at the top of the country singles charts, this is his fourth consecutive record not to make the Top 20, and as such, as forced his fans to finally acknowledge that even King George is no longer welcome at country radio.

5. Jim and Jack and Hank — Alan Jackson

This catchy kiss-off tune would have been a big hit during the 90s line-dancing craze. It’s a little light in the lyrics department but is an example of what passed for a fun song on the radio before country music became one big frat party in a cornfield.

lwomack4. Send It On Down — Lee Ann Womack

A beautifully crafted ballad that is a prayer to the Almighty for the strength to make it through adverse times.

3. If I Was Over You — Amanda Watkins feat. Jamey Johnson

This independent release is an interesting pairing between Amanda Watkins (formerly of the pop-country Miss Willie Brown) and Jamey Johnson, which works surprisingly well. It is a stripped down, beautifully produced and well-sung ballad, that can’t possibly have been expected to succeed commercially. However, if Watkns’ forthcoming album is as strong as the lead single, she could be well poised to be country music’s next critics’ darling.

2. Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton

I surprised myself by ranking this one so highly. When I reviewed Traveller last spring, I commented that Stapleton’s bluesy take on this Dean Dillon tune that was previously recorded by David Allan Coe and a hit for George Jones, was not to my taste. While I still greatly prefer Jones’ version, Stapleton’s remake has grown on me. It is the only decent song to make it to #1 this year, having been driven up the charts by download sales after Stapleton’s CMA wins, and without much help from country radio. It’s a ray of hope that mainstream country may finally start to improve before too much longer.

images-91. I Remember You — Trisha Yearwood

Trisha Yearwood is another old favorite who finally released some new music in 2015. This beautiful, stripped down ballad, on which her sister sings harmony, is a tribute to their late mother, and shows that although radio may have left Trisha Yearwood behind, she can still deliver the goods. This is about as good as it gets.

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: Toby Keith – ‘White Trash With Money’

white trash with money2006’s White Trash With Money marked a departure for Keith, as it was the first release on his own Show Dog label. Another change involved recruiting the female singer songwriter Lari White as his co-producer; this was the first time a woman had ever produced a male artist in mainstream country music. The title, at once self-deprecating and proud, was inspired by an insult offered to his daughter Krystal by a wealthy friend’s snobbish mother. Happily, it also marks a step back from the over-reliance on pandering patriotic material.

As usual Keith wrote or co-wrote all the material, but this time he had only two collaborators: Scotty Emerick on most of the songs, and quite frequently Dean Dillon. This works well, with a good set of songs all fitting well together.

The lead single was the brassy working man’s ode to the weekend when he can ‘Get Drunk And Be Somebody’, which reached #3 on the Billboard country chart. Follow-up ‘A Little Too Late reached #2. A ballad swathed with sweeping strings, it is a good song about the aftermath of a failed relationship.

The final single, ‘Crash Here Tonight’, peaked at #15. A sweet and tender ballad about being on the verge of falling in love with a friend and not wanting to scare her off, I like it a lot.

The ironic ‘Can’t Buy You Money’, which turns an old saw on its head, with money troubles not derailing the protagonist’s happy home life:

Yeah, we’d save it all up for a rainy day but it’s always sunny
Guess all the happiness in the world can’t buy you money

Now, I ain’t got no money, Lord
I’m knee deep in debt
We must be livin’ on love from above
We ain’t hit bottom yet

In the tongue-in-cheek ‘Grain Of Salt’ the protagonist defies a broken heart with the help of several tequilas, and seems to be too hungover to care when she comes back again:

I took your leavin’ with a grain of salt,
Tequila and a slice of lime,
Yeah the minute you left
Me and the boys went out and had a real good time,
It’s nice of you to check up on me,
Just to see how I was gettin’ along
But I’d already gotten over it baby,
Before you were even gone

By now you’ve observed
I was a little over-served last night,
I need to catch a few Z’s
Baby please
Turn off that bedroom light

The self-deprecating ‘Note To Self’ sees the collapse of a marriage thanks to bad decisions and things left undone. ‘Hell No’ is on similar lines:

Oh, she didn’t say no
But in her eyes I could see
Ah, this wouldn’t turn out to be
The fairytale ending I thought it might be
I sure found out
I got a long way to go
She didn’t say no
She said
“Hell no”

‘I Ain’t Already There’ is about a booty call which is part of a long term on-off relationship, and in which anticipation trumps the reality.

More seriously, the subdued ‘Too Far This Time’ is a downbeat ballad in which the protagonist faces the fact that his wife is cheating.

The somber ‘Ain’t No Right Way’ ponders moral choices: a teenage girl facing motherhood or giving up the baby for adoption, a father who beats his children in the name of discipline, and the controversy over prayer in schools. It’s a little muddled in places, with the three stories not quite hanging together with each other or the chorus, but the gentle melody and Toby’s obvious sincerity make it work.

The fluffy happy birthday wish of ‘Brand New Bow’ sounds like a personal gift for Toby’s wife, but has less resonance for other listeners.

This album is one of Keith’s more solid efforts. Almost every song would have been an effective single. It’s no real surprise that this was Toby at his commercial peak. Unfortunately, he can’t leave things there, and includes the gratuitously offensive ‘Runnin’ Block’, about a double date with a pair of overweight women. This aside, the album is recommended to all Toby Keith casual fans.

Grade: A

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Honkytonk University’

81C7OI6WDuL._SX522_2005’s Honkytonk University was Toby Keith’s last album for DreamWorks Nashville. It performed respectably, reaching platinum status, but sold considerably less than its two immediate predecessors’ 4 million units, possibly because the label was about to fold. It’s unfortunate because it is a much better — and certainly less confrontational — collection than either Shockin’ Y’all or Unleashed. Nevertheless, a million copies sold is hardly a failure and the album’s three singles all performed well at radio, with all of them reaching the Top 10.

The autobiographical “Honkytonk U” was the first track sent to radio. It recounts Toby’s summers at his grandmother’s supper club in Arkansas, his days of playing football, working in the oil industry, and his early days in Nashville. It deserved to rise a little higher than its peak of #8. The follow-up was the excellent “As Good As I Once Was”, with Toby playing the part of an aging but not quite ready to be put out to pasture good ol’ boy. A co-write with Scotty Emerick, it spent six weeks at #1, matching the success of “Beer For My Horses”. “Big Blue Note”, another Emerick co-write, was the album’s final single. It peaked at #5, and although I don’t actively dislike it, it’s never been one of my favorites. I much prefer the album’s other song that casts Toby in the role of abandoned spouse — the tongue-in-cheek “You Ain’t Leavin’ (Thank God Are Ya)”, which finds him glad to see the back of his departing wife. Dean Dillon shares the songwriting credit with Keith and Emerick on this one, as he does on the ballad “Knock Yourself Out”. Toby gets dumped again in “She Left Me”, another humorous number that states the obvious: “We’d still be together but she left me”. Once again he seems to be taking things in stride.

Honkytonk University is one of Keith’s more solid and consistent efforts; there are no bad tracks, and certainly no cringe-inducing moments like Shockin’ Y’all’s “Sweet”, but if pressed to name a highlight, the honor would go to the Merle Haggard duet “She Ain’t Hooked On Me No More”. It’s a pity it wasn’t released as the album’s fourth single. Perhaps it would have been had DreamWorks been in better financial shape at the time, but it remains a hidden gem in the Toby Keith discography. Lacking any obnoxious moments and more consistently country than some of Keith’s work, I highly recommend this album.

Grade: A

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alabama – ’40 Hour Week’

40 hour weekIf I’m not mistaken, 40 Hour Week was the first album to be released as a CD on initial release, rather than only on vinyl and/or cassette, a strong indicator of just how popular the band had become. In 1985 relatively few country acts were being released on CD.

40 Hour Week was the band’s sixth RCA album and also represents a creative turn for the band in that earlier albums had focused on love songs and songs of the idyllic rural South, whereas 40 Hour Week is somewhat grittier and opens with two anthems celebrating the working person, before reverting to the usual pattern.

The album opens with the title track, written by the redoubtable trio of Dave Loggins, Lisa Silver & Don Schlitz. An excellent song that soared to #1 on August 3, 1985, giving Alabama its 17th consecutive #1 single (breaking the previous Billboard record held by Sonny James. The song is definitely a salute to working people:

There are people in this country
Who work hard every day
Not for fame or fortune do they strive
But the fruits of their labor
Are worth more than their pay
And it’s time a few of them were recognized.

Hello Detroit auto workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line

Hello Pittsburgh steel mill workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line.

Track two is “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down”, written by Bob Corbin, whose Corbin-Hanner band had some marginal success during the early 1980s.The song was the third single released from the album and reached #1.

Track three, “There’s No Way”, written by Lisa Palas, Will Robinson and John Jarrard, was the first single released from the album and reached #1 , becoming Alabama’s 16th consecutive #1, tying Sonny James; record for consecutive #1s.

As I lay by your side and hold you tonight
I want you to understand,
This love that I feel is so right and so real,
I realize how lucky I am.
And should you ever wonder if my love is true,
There’s something that I want to make clear to you.

There’s no way I can make it without you,
There’s no way that I’d even try.
If I had to survive without you in my life,
I know I wouldn’t last a day.
Oh babe, there’s no way.

Next up is “Down On Longboat Key”, a pleasant piece of album filler written by Dennis Morgan and Steve Davis. The song is a jog-along ballad about where a guy promised to take his girl.

She sits and stares out the window at the water
Every night down at Longy’s Cafe
All alone she sips her Pina Colada
Talking to herself dreaming time away
The story is that a dark haired sailor
Stole her heart many years ago
He promised her he’d come back and take her
Around the world, bring her hills of gold

“Louisiana Moon”, a Larry Shell – Dan Mitchell composition is more album filler. It is pleasant enough, mildly reminiscent of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” in both subject matter and sound, but not nearly as funky.

The sixth track, “I Want To Know You Before We Make Love”, was written by Becky Hobbs and Candy Parton and would have made a good single for Alabama. The song is a romantic ballad that, for whatever reason, remained an album cut. Hearing its hit potential, the great Conway Twitty took it to #2 in 1987.

Sometimes all you need is someone to hold you
Sometimes that’s all you’re looking for
But I’d like to take the time to get to know you
‘Cause I don’t want this time to be like all the times before.

I want to know you before I make love to you
I want to show you all of my heart
And when I look into those eyes
I want to feel the love inside, you
I want to know you before we make love.

I’ve learned from all those lonely nights with strangers
It takes time for real love to be found
I feel the invitation of your body
But I’d like to look inside your soul before I lay you down.

I didn’t sense any fireworks in Alabama’s recording of “Fireworks” . I regard this as the weakest song on the album.

Jeff Cook delivers the lead vocals on “(She Won’t Have A Thing To Do With) Nobody But Me”, a good mid-tempo ballad written by Dean Dillon, Buzz Rabin & “Flash” Gordon. Jeff’s vocals seem a bit off from his usual standard on this particular performance. It is still worth hearing, as is the slow ballad “As Right Now” on which co-writer Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals.

The album closes out with the John Jarrard – Kent Robbins penned “If It Ain’t Dixie (It Won’t Do)” an ode the South that closes with an extended jam at the end. It’s a good song but the excessive length guaranteed that it would not be released as a single. I think shortening the song and increasing the tempo would have greatly improved the song. As a lifelong Southerner, I identify with the lyrics but the execution was off a bit as far as I’m concerned

O

h, I love those Colorado Rockies
And that big starry Montana sky
And the lights of San Francisco
On a California night
Enjoyed those ballgames in Chicago
On those windy afternoons
It’s a big beautiful country
But I’m never home too soon
If it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do

If it ain’t Dixie, it don’t feel quite like home
My southern blood runs deep and true
I’ve had good times
North of the line
I’ve got a lot of good friends, too
But if it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do
It won’t do

My memory may be failing me, but I seem to recall that all of the singles released had accompanying music videos. I don’t think that was true of any of their other albums

I would give this album an A-. While I regard the three singles released to all be A+ material, the rest of the album would rate a B+ in my estimation. My opinion notwithstanding, this was the top selling country album of 1985.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Mountain Music’

mountain musicThe band’s third album for RCA, 1982’s Mountain Music, was produced by the band with Nashville veteran Harold Shedd. It continued the recipe as before, with similarly successful results.

All three singles were chart toppers, starting with the title track. Opening with the strains of a solo harmonica (played by Michael Douchette), and then a short verbal imitation of an elderly countryman by the band’s roadie Bob Martin, Randy Owen’s song, inspired by his memories of growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Alabama, paints an idyllic picture of a rural Southern childhood. It is an unexpectedly charming mixture of country-rock and bluegrass influences, with bright effervescent fiddle alongside the electric guitar. There are great harmonies, with Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook getting a few solo lines to boot.

The second single was competently performed but not at all country sounding (and not to my taste). ‘Take Me Down’ was a cover of a failed pop single by the band Exile (who soon afterwards decamped to country music) also got some pop airplay for Alabama, reaching the top 20 on that chart.

Finally, ‘Close Enough To Perfect’ is a very nice romantic ballad, with a sweet string arrangement.

There are a couple of excellent songs among the remaining tracks. The dramatic ‘Words At Twenty Paces’, which applies Western movie metaphors to a troubled romance, was written by troubadour High Moffatt:

Just like a Western movie
A challenge has been made
A shot was fired in anger
And pride stepped off the train
Won’t we ever stop this
Killin’ me and you,
Till our hearts are up on Boot Hill
And there’s nothing we can do.

Words at twenty paces,
Anger at high noon
This house ain’t big enough for both of us
it’s comin’ soon
We’ll finish off our happiness
And run hope out of town
With words at twenty paces, Lord,
It’s love we’re gunnin’ down.

How did we ever lose
The dreams we used to share?
The gentle touch, the words of love,
The way we used to care
Sometimes your words
Cut like a bullet in my side
Oh, which is more important
Wounded hearts or wounded pride?

I got my ammunition
I know you got yours too
We know each other’s weakness
Lord, the damage we can do
Why can’t we just step aside
And put our guns away
Let love come like a cavalry
Ride in and save the day

Had it been recorded a few years later, it would have been prime fodder for a video treatment. The arrangement is contemporary country, and works well.

‘Changes Comin’ On’ was written by Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon and Jimmy Darrell, and chronicles the changes in music and American society since the 1960s. It is an excellent song, and Alabama’s version is great – for the first three and a half minutes. Unfortunately, the track then goes “on and on and on” (as they sing themselves) for the same length of time again, without actually going anywhere. Pointless and self indulgent.

Jeff Cook’s vocals are mediocre compared with those of his cousin Randy Owen, but he got his chance to sing lead on two songs here, both heavier of the rock than country. His own ‘Lovin’ You Is Killin’ Me’ is no better than average, while a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River’ is dull. Neither song is helped by the monotonous vocal.

Teddy Gentry takes the lead on his own ‘Never Be One’, a sentimental ode to a toddler daughter, which is sweet to the border of saccharine. The child makes a small cameo appearance. In a complete change of tone, the faux sexy ‘You Turn Me On’ (written by Gentry and Owen) features an overdone Conway Twitty impersonation (although Randy sings the verses pleasantly enough).

The record closes with the enjoyably rowdy ‘Gonna Have A Party, written by Kieran Kane (future member of The O’Kanes’), 60s rocker Bruce Channel, and Cliff Cochran.

Mountain Music was the group’s first album to hit the platinum mark, and has now sold five times that. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of material, but has some pretty good tracks.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Sunrise’

sunriseShelby Lynne was teamed up with veteran producer Billy Sherrill for her first album in 1989. Her duet with George Jones and a cover of Buck Owens’ ‘Under Your Spell Again’ which had been her solo single debut were left off the tracklisting, which leans a little less traditional than either of those tracks. Shelby was only 20 when the album was released, but sounds considerably older.

Her big booming voice was front and center in ‘The Hurtin’ Side’, the album’s lead single, which just cracked the country top 40. Written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, it’s a solid song about facing heartbreak. Reid and Bourke wrote two additional songs on the album, one of which is my favourite: ‘Till You Were Gone’, also recorded by John Conlee, is an agonized expression of regret at love discovered too late:

Every night right about now
I grow uneasy
Kinda restless somehow
It starts out like thunder on a slow steady roll
And I hit the floor half out of control

Baby I wonder if you look the same
Do you have children?
What are their names?
Does the one that you’re with
Need you all night long?
Like I never did
Until you were gone

Their third song, ‘Your Love Stays With me’ is a big ballad, more AC than country, and although it is well performed it doesn’t have a big impact.

The album’s only other single, ‘Little Bits And Pieces’ is a fine ballad recalling a broken relationship, penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, but unfortunately it did not catch on at radio. It is quite heavily strung and Shelby emotes intensely, perhaps a little too much. ‘Thinking About You Again’ is a slightly more understated but still deeply emotional ballad with a despairing lyric abut failing to move on after a breakup, written by Stephony Smith and Mike Porter.

Sherrill contributed one song, ‘This Time I Almost Made It’, an older song previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, cited by Shelby as one of her big influences. A yearning cheating song, it had also been recorded by Tammy Wynette with Billy Sherrill at the helm, so perhaps it was his choice for Shelby, whose version stands up well to her illustrious predecessors.

The assertive ‘What About This Girl’, written by Randy Boudreaux with Madeline Stone, picks up the tempo but is not particularly country. The same goes for the bluesy ‘That’s Where It Hurts’, which starts out slow and then turns bold and brassy as she belts out a tale of heartbreak wherever she goes.

A languid jazzy take on Floyd Tillman’s classic ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’ is effective, but the similarly jazz-inflected version of standard ‘I’m Confessin’’ is a little dull and feels self-indulgent.

Shelby’s voice and emotional intensity belied her youth, and this was an interesting debut. Although she did draw on the heritage of country music, her eclectic tastes and the fact that her retro tastes leaned more to the Nashville Sound and other genres, I wonder if she would have done better if she had been five or ten years older rather than making her debut during the heyday of the neotraditional movement. If you have eclectic tastes this is worth picking up: the vocals are strong, the songs pretty good, and the production suits her. But it was a little out of place in 1989.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Twenty Years And Two Husbands Ago’

Classic Rewind: John Conlee – ‘A Lot Of Things Different’

This Bill Anderson/Dean Dillon song is probably best known by Kenny Chesney.

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘All The Good Ones are Gone’

Classic Rewind: Ronnie Dunn – ‘I’ll Never Forgive My Heart’

Brooks & Dunn enjoyed a hit with this Dean Dillon song.