My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dean Dillon

Classic Rewind: Rodney Hayden covers Dean Dillon’s ‘You Sure Got This Ol’ Redneck Feeling Blue’

The song was a hit for George Strait in 1985.

Album Review: Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon – ‘Those Were The Days’

those were the daysRCA gave the duo of Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon another chance to break through, although they were relegated for their second release to a six-track EP known as a mini-LP, which the label was using in the mid 1980s as a marketing manoeuvre for new acts. Stewart and Dillon were actually one of the first acts to release one, and the series later launched the careers of the Judds, Vince Gill and Keith Whitley. Dillon wrote or co-wrote all six songs, many of them with Stewart.

The reflective title track was the album’s lead single, and it got some radio play but did not crack the top 40. It is a pair of hellraisers’ wistful look back at teenage memories of a time when “dreams could still come true”. It is a pretty decent song (written by the duo alongside Rex Huston), although the vocals are a bit messy. It seems oddly appropriate, given the pair’s reputation as heavy drinkers, that one of the fondest memories is of getting drunk for the first time.

The second single (the duo’s last), ‘Smokin’ In The Rockies’, is a fast paced celebration of the pair’s life as touring musicians. A live cut, it namechecks a number of the top country stars of the period. It is quite entertaining, although the lyrics are hard to make out at times. It was written by the duo with Frank Dycus and Buddy Cannon, and was later covered by Sawyer Brown.

The rebellious ‘Misfits’ is dominated by wailing (and not always comprehensible) vocals and equally wailing fiddle. The mid-tempo ‘Living On The Ragged Edge’ is a solo Dean Dillon composition about those straying from the strait and narrow path at risk to themselves. He takes the lead vocal.

The best song on the album, ‘Hard Time For Lovers’ is an excellent if very downbeat song (which Dean revived for his solo album debut at the end of the decade). A string arrangement is a little too sweet, but Dean Dillon’s delicate vocal is his best on the album as he compares the stories of various friends and family members whose love lives are in crisis, with his own happy relationship.

Gary Stewart leads on ‘Lovers And Losers’, which the pair wrote with Mack Vickery and Rex Huston. This is another depressed ballad with strings and a vulnerable vocal.

There were some good songs on this mini-album, but it wasn’t a very commercial one.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: George Strait – ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’

Album Review: Dean Dillon & Gary Stewart – ‘Brotherly Love’

0124albums018The pairing of Dean Dillon with Gary Stewart seems an odd one; often these types of collaborations are meant to garner some attention for a newcomer or revive the flagging career of a veteran. But in 1981, neither artist had the commercial pull to carry the other; Dillon was still a newcomer hoping for a breakthrough and Stewart’s career was on a downward spiral. 1982’s Brotherly Love did nothing to change the commercial fortunes of either artist, but nevertheless it is a good — though not great — collection of songs.

Brotherly Love features duets as well as solo efforts by both artists. The title track was co-written by both artists and released as a single in advance of the album in 1981. The duet is not the Keith Whitley and Earl Thomas Conley hit that appeared a decade later. Rather it is about two brothers planning for a night out on the town with two sisters from the local honky tonk. Although pleasant, it lacks subtlety and is ultimately not very memorable. It was the album’s highest ranking single, peaking at #41. The uptempo “Play This Working Day Away” finds the pair trying to remedy their situations of all work and no play. It reached #74. It was followed by a pair of solo efforts from each: Dillon’s rather dull “You To Come Home To” which climbed to #65 and Stewart’s “She Sings Amazing Grace”, which is by far the best song on the album, despite petering out at #83.

“Honky Tonk Crazy”, a Dillon co-write with Frank Dycus, will be familiar to George Strait fans; his cut was included on his sophomore disc Strait From The Heart which was also released in 1982. “Suburban Life”, about a pair of newly divorced men about to embark on a night on the town — trading “the suburban life for the bourbon life” is less rowdy than the lyrics suggest and for that reason it doesn’t quite work.

What is perhaps the most surprising about this album is its reliance on outside songwriters. Dillon had a hand in writing only four of the album’s tracks, and Stewart co-wote two. I was expecting more original material, and perhaps some versions of Dillon’s songs that later went on to be hits for other artists, but in all likelihood he was still cutting his teeth as a songwriter and many, if not most, of his most memorable songs were still to be written. Overall, the material on Brotherly Love isn’t quite as strong as it ought to be, but the production — though a bit dated — isn’t as heavy-handed as most of Nashville’s output during that era. Brotherly Love wasn’t a huge commercial success, but Dillon and Stewart paired up for another collaborative effort Those Were The Days the following year. Both albums are available on a 2-for-1 disc, but the $20.99 price tag seems a little high considering that neither album produced any major hits.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: George Jones – ‘Tennessee Whiskey’

Classic Rewind: Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius – ‘Lying In Love With You’

This was one of Dean Dillon’s early cuts.

Spotlight Artist: Dean Dillon

dean dillonIn his classic 1973 album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies, Bobby sings a song titled “Sure Hit Songwriter’s Pen”, a story of how the narrator wrote hit song after hit song, until he lost his pen. After that he could no longer write any hits. I’m not sure that is what happened to Bare, but after this album, which featured two #1 singles, Bobby Bare never again had a top ten record.

Rest assured that the pen, although lost, wasn’t destroyed. It eventually found its way into the hands of our April artist of the month Dean Dillon. Dean studied his craft and associated with the best songwriters going (Frank Dycus, Hank Cochran, Linda Hargrove and Vern Gosdin among them). He mastered the art of co-writing but remained capable of writing a song completely himself. Although he had aspirations of being a country music star with hit records and grand tours, at some point Dean realized that for him, fame and fortune would come in the form of writing hits for other artists.

Born in 1955 as Larry Dean Flynn, Dean Dillon first came to the consciousness of the American public through a pair of collaborative albums on RCA with fading honky-tonk renegade Gary Stewart. Brotherly Love, released in 1982, reached #23 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and Those Were The Days, released in 1983, reached #54. A total of five singles were released from the two albums – all of them charted, but none of them cracked the top 40.

After leaving RCA, Dean would be a few years before he landed another record deal. Meanwhile, he paid the rent and the groceries through his successful songwriting. In the late seventies Dean did the unthinkable and pitched his best songs to an unknown artist making his first album for MCA. That unknown artist, George Strait, wound up recording six of Dean’s songs for his debut album, including his first hit “Unwound”, which reached #6. Over the course of time, Strait would record many of Dean’s songs. As of October 2013, the total was 54 songs, many of them huge hits for Strait.

Another of his early efforts was a co-written song (with Hank Williams Jr, Gary Stewart and Tanya Tucker) titled “Leave Them Boys Alone”. Released in 1983, the song reached #6 for the unlikely trio of Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb. Another song, “Tennessee Whiskey”, was a hit twice, once for David Allen Coe and once for George Jones.

During his early years Dean still had aspirations of being a successful performer, but his first four solo albums didn’t sell, his singles only charted in the lower reaches of the chart and his live performances weren’t grossing the money he had hoped. In 1992, Dean had high hopes for the song “Easy Come, Easy Go”, a track on one of his Atlantic albums; however, up to this point in his career none of Dean’s singles had charted at higher than #25 (“Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” in 1980 – later a #1 hit for Strait in 1986) and nothing since 1980 had charted higher than #39.

Married with small children that he didn’t see nearly enough, Dillon found himself at a crossroads in his career. When George Strait asked for the rights to “Easy Come, Easy Go” for release as a single, Dean did the math and determined that a George Strait single that reached #1 was worth $100K+ whereas a Dean Dillon single charting in the mid-50s was worth almost nothing. Accordingly, Dean gave George the song, gave up his recording contract and settled into becoming a full time songwriter. It was a very wise decision. Dean Dillon is not a bad singer but I am certain that the many George Strait recordings of Dean Dillon songs are all better than Dean’s recordings of the same songs are or would have been. Dean would probably agree.

Below is a partial list of the songs Dean Dillon has had a hand in writing: Read more of this post

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

Man_Against_Machine_coverExcluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

Miller, it’s worth noting, took over production duties from Brooks’ right hand man Allen Reynolds, who Brooks revealed has retired from the music business. His touch gives the album a fresher feel, but doesn’t hide the fact that Man Against Machine contains tracks far more country than anything released on a major label this year.

It’s no secret that western-themed songs are Brooks’ favorite as he includes at least one on every album. Man Against Machine has two that differ greatly on quality. “Rodeo and Juliet,” which Brooks co-wrote, has an underwritten lyric about a cowgirl on the racing circuit that comes off cutesy despite a pleasing western swing styled production. “Cowboys Forever” falls on the opposite end, standing up against anything he’s ever recorded on the subject. Dean Dillon’s co-written lyric is excellent, using a cowboy theme to relay a greater message about camaraderie.

The idea of a euphemism manifesting a larger message is also tackled in “Fish,” a conversation between a fisherman and a workaholic. The former teaches the latter about the importance of life; all while continuing to live the easy life he’s carved for himself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Fish” is the most sonically country song on whole album. “Wrong About You” follows close behind, with a jaunty banjo/dobro beat that roots the mid-paced number in an organic backbeat. “Midnight Train” comes off as the pop version of a country shuffle.

The majority of Man Against Machine is made up of songs that bring a bit of muscle into the conversation. A prime example is “Cold Like That,” a song that begins quietly but turns bombastic by the chorus. Brooks has the voice for it, but the production doesn’t offer any interesting flourishes to hook the listener. “Tired of Boys” is much better, with Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal coming in loud and clear. I do wish Miller had given it more of a 90s throwback vibe, which would’ve elevated the overall track just that much more. “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is more of the same, a ballad with light steel guitar that sill manages to use power to sell its story.

“All-American Kid,” a tune about a college-bound football star, is a very different song for Brooks both in subject matter and lyrical structure. I’m still debating whether I feel this kind of song is right for him or I’m just taken aback at him trying something new. Either way it isn’t a bad song and I like the ample use of fiddle.

“Tacoma” is Brooks’ bluesy moment, which he executes really well. I don’t usually go for this type of song, so that hinders my enjoyment of it, but people who enjoy these sorts of things will probably love it. The only truly puzzling song is the title track, which puts Brooks back in his faux-rock persona. It’s just too much power and muscle for me, no matter the quality of the lyrics.

Man Against Machine is a bizarre album. Brooks’ classic persona is undeniably present, but nothing here feels like essential listening. With the exception of “Mom” this whole album feels like filler to me, with too much eighties rock, not enough organic sounds, and very little passion on Brooks’ part. I expected more after thirteen years, from both Man Against Machine and his whole comeback extravaganza.

I also never dreamt mainstream country music would erode like it has, so I guess the joke may be on me. While the formula is here (cowboy songs, Yearwood on backing vocals, fiddles and steel) it just wasn’t executed with a timeless feel. Brooks, in his heyday, proved he is much, much better than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Tracy Byrd’

Tracy byrd debut

Most of Tracy’s self-titled debut album, released in 1993, was produced by Keith Stegall in solidly neotraditional vein. However when the pleasant but somewhat anonymous initial single, ‘That’s The Thing About A Memory’ failed to make much traction, and he went back into the studio with label head Tony Brown to add three further tracks, which included the next two singles.

A cover of Johnny Paycheck’s hit ’Someone To Give My Love To’ (like the previous effort) showed off his deep voice and underlined his traditionalist credentials, but didn’t quite crack the top 40, and like its predecessor it didn’t really stand out. The big break came with single number three, ‘Holdin’ Heaven’ becoming the artist’s first charte topper. A very commercial rhythmic number with line dance potential it is not particularly memorable now

A fourths ingle, ‘Why Don’t That Telephone Ring’ then flopped just inside the top 40. That’s a shame because it’s an excellent mature ballad about man clinging on to a forlorn hope that his relationship is not over, which is the best of the three singles to my ears.

‘An Out Of Control Raging Fire’ (the third track produced by Tony Brown) is a duet with Dawn Sears, who was another rising star at the time. Both vocalists sing beautifully on the tune (which was later recorded by Patty Loveless with Travis Tritt).

My favorite trick, however, is the fabulous shuffle ‘Hat Trick’, written by Jim Weatherly and Glenn Sutton. The protagonist responds with wry resignation as he gets thrown out by his ex:

Now I ain’t no magician
Can’t change the way things are
I can’t make you love me if its not in the cards
I can’t wave a magic wand and make you want me near
But I can do a hat trick
I’ll put it on and disappear

I quite liked his cover of the western swing ‘Talk To Me Texas’, although it lacks the character of Keith Whitley’s version. Much the same goes for ‘Back In The Swing Of Things’, which was written by Vern Gosdin, Dean Dillon and Buddy cannon, and which Gosdin later cut himself.

At this stage of his career Tracy had not quite found his own voice as an artist. In particular the regret-filled ‘Why’ and ‘Edge Of A Memory’ are both excellent songs which sound as though Tracy is trying a little too hard to sound like George Strait (one of his big influences).

While this is not an essential purchase, it was a promising debut, and you can find used copies very cheaply. Or just download ‘Hat Trick’.

Grade: B

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘In the Vicinity of the Heart’

sheanndoahBy 1994 Shenandoah was once again looking for a new label. This time they landed at Liberty. At the time they were nearing completion on a new album which RCA allowedthe band to take with them. At Liberty they recorded one new track with guest vocalist Alison Krauss. “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” was a much bigger hit than its peak chart position (#7) suggested. It won the CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year in 1995 and also won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. In addition, it provided Krauss with her first Top 40 hit and her first major exposure outside of the bluegrass world.

Like its predecessor Under the Kudzu, In the Vicinity of the Heart was produced by Don Cook. On the strength of its title track, it became Shenandoah’s fastest-selling album, though it ultimately failed to earn any certifications. The second single “Darned If I Don’t (Danged If I Do)” is an upbeat, radio friendly tune that was penned by Ronnie Dunn and Dean Dillon. Peaking at #4, it gave Shenandoah their last Top 10 hit.

A few of the album’s tracks have been recorded by other artists. Dennis Linde’s “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)” had previously been recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, and “I Wouldn’t Know”, which was co-written by Shenandoah member Mike McGuire was later covered by Reba McEntire. Though not a religious song, “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready) has got a gospel flavor that is well suited to the Oaks’ four part harmonies, and ultimately the Shenandoah version, which reached #24, cannot compete. I prefer Shenandoah’s version of “I Wouldn’t Know” to Reba’s more crossover-oriented take. “She Could Care Less” was also later covered by Joe Nichols on his debut album, but neither version of this somewhat pedestrian number is particularly memorable. Ditto for “Every Fire” which was later covered by Jason Sellers and Restless Heart.

“Always Have, Always Will” was the album’s fourth and final single. By this time Shendanoah’s chart decline was apparent; the song stalled at #40 and all of their subsequent releases charted even lower. I would have liked for “Cabin Fever”, a Marty Raybon co-write with Bud McGuire and Lonnie Wilson, to have been released as a single. The upbeat number allows the band to showcase their harmonies and it is reminiscent of their earlier work on Columbia.

In the Vicinity of the Heart was Shenandoah’s only album for Liberty Records. By the time of the band’s next release Now and Then, the label had reverted back to its former name Capitol Nashville. Now and Then contained some new songs and some re-recordings of some of their Columbia hits. A Christmas album was released by Capitol in 1996, shortly before Marty Raybon’s departure from the band.

At the time of its release, In the Vicinity of the Heart was criticized in some quarters for playing it too safe, and while it’s true that it doesn’t contain any artistic stretches or surprises, it is a solid piece of work and a grim reminder how even an album that was only considered average 20 years ago knocks the socks off most the today’s top sellers. It isn’t available for download, but cheap used copies are easy to find. Fans of 90s country may want to pick up a copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘More Love’

more love1993 saw Doug move to a new producer, commercial powerhouse James Stroud. The result was a competent album, but one which largely failed to reach the heights of Stone’s best work.

The lead single, ‘I Never Knew Love’, written by Larry Boone and Will Robinson, just missed the top of the charts, but with a #2 peak it was the album’s biggest hit. A gentle piano ballad, it reflects on the experience of real love for the first time.

The up-tempo ‘Addicted To A Dollar’, bemoaning an 80 hour work week for low pay, is quite good, although this style isn’t Doug’s real strength as an artist. It was however a successful single, peaking at #4.

The last single, the title track, peaked another couple of spots lower. Exploring a man’s regrets over a lost love, it is melodic and sweetly sung but may seem a bit drippy to some. Along with the bland ‘Dream High’ it appeared on the soundtrack of the children’s film Gordy (about a runaway pet pig), in which Stone made his acting debut playing a country singer. The connection which was proudly advertised on the album cover, but the movie was not well received, so this probably didn’t help Doug’s career momentum.

The best track is the sad ballad ‘That’s A Lie’, written by Doug with Randy Boudreaux and Sam Hogin about a man denying his own broken heart, which is beautifully sung.

The plaintive ‘She Used To Love Me A Lot’, co-written by Doug with Dean Dillon, is rather charming, as the protagonist broods in bewilderment over the unexpected and sudden end of a relationship. The tune is pretty and there is some lovely fiddle. I also liked ‘Small Steps’, written by Gary Burr and Henry Edwards, a tastefully understated ballad about working on getting over a relationship.

My least favorite tracks were the teenage memory of a girlfriend dressed in ‘Little Sister’s Blue Jeans’ (which is catchy but tacky) and the boring ‘Wishbone’ which sounds as though it was included to cater to the linedance craze which was one of the worst aspects of 90s country music. The mid-tempo ‘Love, You Took Me By Surprise’ is forgettable filler.

Overall, this isn’t a bad record, and one with some good tracks alongside the weaker ones. It isn’t available digitally, but if you can get a cheap used copy it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’

Pam-Tillis-Sweethearts-DanceWhen the time came for Pam Tillis to record her third album for Arista Nashville, she knew she wanted more say over the project. Tillis lobbied with her label and got their permission to co-produce the project with Steve Fishell instead of using Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her previous work. As a result, Sweetheart’s Dance became the most successful of her studio projects to date.

The main element that threaded the songs on Sweetheart’s Dance is the thematic diversity among the ten tracks. Unlike her previous work, and that of her contemporaries, Sweetheart’s Dance is a joyously upbeat affair that relies on a remarkably sunny disposition for most of its thirty-four minutes.

For most, relying on a singular emotion would be a downfall but Tillis is an astute enough songsmith to understand the delicate art of balance. The lead single is one of only three ballads, and relays a biting conversation between two female friends – one is in desperate search for true love while the other acts as moral support, having been there herself. “Spilled Perfume,” which Tillis co-wrote with Dean Dillon, is masterful in its simplicity but its Tillis’ vocal, tender and without underlying judgment that brings the song to elevated heights.

The lead single would peak at #5, but Tillis would have greater success with the next two releases. A cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In The Room” would peak at #2. Covering 60s pop hits is always a risk, but Tillis presents the track in a new light, turning it into a slice of country-pop that aptly shows everyone else how it’s done. She’d finally score her only Billboard #1 with the next single, Tex-Mex rocker “Mi Via Loca (My Crazy Life).”

Tillis’ abruptly chose to end her winning streak when she pulled Layng Martine Jr’s “I Was Blown Away” in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. If circumstances had been different, this could’ve been her second #1. The fiddle drenched number peaked at #16.

The highlight of the project is “In Between Dances,” a gorgeous waltz by Craig Brickhardt and Barry Alfonso and the best song (next to “Maybe It Was Memphis”) Tillis has ever recorded. A tale of a woman between relationships, the writers brilliantly place her in a dancehall between partners, waiting for the right time to rejoin the action – “The partners are chosen, look at them waltzing away/
The tempo gets slower, closer and closer they sway
/I’ve had my moments when I could get lost in the sound
/But when the song ended the one in my arms let me down.”

Matraca Berg and Mike Noble co-wrote the excellent “Calico Plains,” a track Berg herself recorded on Lyin’ To The Moon four years earlier. It tells the story of a young girl who worships her older sister, whose dreams of a grander life are cut short by an unexpected pregnancy. The urgency by which Tillis brings the song to life only heightens the track’s beauty; accentuated by beautiful dobro riffs.

The detours into pain and longing are few, but those three ballads help ground the album. The title track is a fabulous country shuffle and one of the best fiddle tunes of the modern era. She revs up again on the delightful bluegrass inspired “Till All The Lonely’s Gone,” a joyous song about death that references Hank Williams, Sr in the opening verse – Well Hank made a living out of lonely/he sang liek a freight train whistle moan/Said “You’ll never get our of this world alive”/as if he’d always known.

Sweetheart’s Dance is flawless from start to finish, a classic in every sense of the term. Even the tracks that somewhat pander to trends – “They Don’t Break ‘Em Like They Used To” and “Better Off Blue” are exceptional examples of modern country done right in that era. This is an artist truly on top of her game at a time when such material was getting massive airplay on country radio. If you don’t own this album, I suggest you rectify that immediately – it’s easily one of the best country albums I’ve ever heard.

Grade: A+

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘Strong Enough’

strong enoughAfter the comeback marked by Down The Road I Go, Tritt’s second Columbia album, released in 2002, was a reversion to the mixed bag of previous years in terms of material (although sound-wise there is more of a straight contemporary country sound and less of either the Southern rock or traditional elements), and it was generally less well received.

The title track and lead single ‘Strong Enough To Be Your Man’ is a love ballad written by Travis addressing the concerns of a lover (‘a complicated lady’) who has doubts about the durability of the relationship. The song is solid but unexciting, but it is lifted to a higher level by the convincingly tender vocal which is generally excellent; surprisingly it peaked at an unlucky #13.

There was only one more single for this album, ‘Country Ain’t Country No More’, which made it into the top 30, but deserved better. The song, written by Casey Beathard, Teresa Boaz and Carson Chamberlain, is an ironic, mostly regretful look at modern changes to farming and rural life. A farmer’s son has gone to law school as well as college, and on one of his rare visits home urges his dad to “Catch up with the times, nowadays people trade heifers online”. The song’s sympathies clearly lie with the father who has had to sell off his land to a housing developer to cope with economic problems, and is sad to see the loss of traditional values which have followed.

Opener ‘You Can’t Count Me Out Yet’ is an assertive mid-tempo rocker with Tritt defying doubters in his career by trumpeting about the success of his comeback. It’s not awful, but the tone of the lyric is too vainglorious for my taste. ‘You Really Wouldn’t Want Me That Way’, written by Tritt with Walt Aldridge and Casey Beathard, is another song about a man who has no intention of changing, and is okay but unremarkable. ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothin’’ is more nuanced, and hence much more interesting. Written by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles, it is the half-rueful confession of a man who has to learn his life lessons the hard way.

I also liked the vibrant up-tempo ‘If You’re Gonna Straighten Up (Brother Now’s The Time)’, written by Tritt with Dennis Robbins and Bob DiPiero. Travis offers words of advice for a neglectful husband about to run out of time to change.

The introspective downbeat Dean Dillon/Tritt co-write ‘I Don’t Ever Want Her To Feel That Way Again’ is rather good, with a man brooding over the way he has hurt his loved one (and damaged their love) with harsh words he wishes he could take back.

‘Doesn’t Anyone Hurt Anymore’ is a pretty good ballad written by Tritt with Troy Seals and Dennis Robbins, with the narrator complaining about all the happy love songs on country radio. ‘Now I’ve Seen It All’ is a pleasant love song.

‘Time To Get Crazy’ (written with Gary Nicholson) is the obligatory fast paced rocker and is nothing special. Closer ‘Can’t Seem To Get Over You’ is the equally obligatory Marty Stuart co-write, and is an okay but forgettable mid-tempo number.

Travis Tritt has rarely recorded anything with a religious element. ‘God Must Be A Woman’, written by Vernon Rust, is a rare example, although it is really more of a love song, comparing God’s unconditional love to that of the protagonist’s wife. The melody is pretty but the lyric will put off some, and I find it slightly awkward myself.

This is a fair album but one lacking any real standouts, and came as a real disappointment after Down The Road I Go. Used copies are available cheaply enough to be worth checking out.

Grade: B

Occasional Hope’s Top Singles of 2012

Although the official charts seem less and less listenable, I have found quite a number of excellent singles were released this year. While none of them was a smash hit, many of them enjoyed some airplay. Here are my favorites. Oddly, while my albums list consisted of almost all male vocalists, my singles list has a majority of female singers.

10. Ex-Old Man – Kristen Kelly
The top 30 hit for the promising new Arista artist (inspired by her own divorce and written by Kristen with Paul Overstreet) shows how good contemporary country can be. I’ll be looking out for more from her.

9. Merry Go Round – Kacey Musgraves
The young Texan singer-songwriter’s debut Mercury single is a very interesting song about the down sides of rural poverty, when getting married and settling down young is virtually the only option, and portrays a family all seeking escape in a different kind of sin. Kacey isn’t the best singer, but her gentle vocal here is very effective and the song is surprisingly catchy. The record reached the top 30.

8. The Wind – Zac Brown Band
Bluegrass never gets much of a hearing from the mainstream, and they were hostile even to consistent if eclectic hit makers the Zac Brown Band when they sent this excellent track to radio. But it’s an excellent record with sparkling musicianship and an interesting lyric with a northern setting.

gwen sebastian with mentor blake shelton7. Met Him In A Motel Room – Gwen Sebastian
I was previously unimpressed by this artist, who has been around for a few years on minor labels. She recently tried a stint on The Voice reality competition with Blake Shelton as her mentor, and although she did not get very far on the show, she then released this single. A compelling story song about a desperate woman on the verge of suicide who finds another way out when she finds a Bible, it really made me sit up and pay attention to her music.

6. You Go Your Way – Alan Jackson
Classic Alan Jackson.

ashley monroe5. Like A Rose – Ashley Monroe
Critical favorite and part-time Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe has come up with a fine lead-in for her Vince Gill-produced new album on Warner Brothers, due early next year. Vulnerable vocals and a pretty melody with delicate production suit the song beautifully.

4. We Can’t Be Friends – Joanna Smith
The relative newcomer’s third single really made me pay attention to her for the first time. A delicately understated plaintive vocal and a subtle song about the difficulties of staying in contact with an ex when a clean break makes more sense, make for a real winner. While she hasn’t yet made a chart breakthrough, it is encouraging that an artist like this is still on a major label.

joey + rory thumbnail3. When I’m Gone – Joey + Rory
The duo’s third Sugar Hill album was their most inconsistent, but there were a few gems, including this exceptional song offering a kind of comfort to the soon-to-be bereaved. A beautiful, tender vocal from Joey is perfectly judged. Even in a better radio climate this would never have been likely to be a hit single, but it is absolutely exquisite – true heartbreak yet utterly beautiful.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore – Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson’s singles are sometimes hit and miss, but this year he released one of the finest singles of his career. A subtle, understated, and perfect delivery, tasteful production, and outstanding lyric were just too good for radio, with the record peaking at a disappointing #25. It only just missed my #1 spot.

strait thumbnail1. Drinkin’ Man – George Strait
After 30 years at the top, in recent years George Strait has occasionally seemed to be going through the motions. But his best single for years is a clear-eyed confessional from a lifelong alcoholic, who has never managed more than nine days straight sober. Never asking for pity, but truly conscious of his failings, this song is a modern masterpiece, written by Strait himself, his son Bubba, and the great Dean Dillon. It says a lot (and none of it good) about today’s country radio that it got so little airplay, peaking at #37.

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Pure BS’

purebsBlake Shelton’s unfortunately-titled fourth album finds him pushing the envelope just a bit, exploring new sounds and expanding his production team. Brent Rowan and Paul Worley joined Bobby Braddock, who had produced Blake’s previous three releases. Like his earlier albums, Pure BS achieved gold-level sales, but also continued his inconsistent pattern with country radio, missing the Top 10 on two of the album’s three singles.

The album opens with the somewhat overproduced “This Can’t Be Good”, which Blake co-wrote with Timothy DeArmitt. The track gets off to a good start, with a strong and energetic vocal performance, but the electric guitars become more and more intrusive as the song continues, and eventually overwhelm it. It is followed by the lead single “Don’t Make Me”, which sound radio-friendyl enough but surprisingly topped out at #12. The second single, “The More I Drink”, written by David Lee Murphy, Chris DuBois, and Dave Turnbull likewise underperformed on the singles chart, peaking at a disappointing #19. Perhaps alarmed by radio’s tepid response (or perhaps it was just typical major-label greed), Warner Bros. released a deluxe version of the album with three new tracks in early 2008. One of the new tracks was “Home”, a cover of the Michael Buble pop hit. The strategy worked, wince Blake’s version, which features backing vocals from his then girlfriend Miranda Lambert, became his fourth #1 country hit. Though I’m not usually a fan of pop songs remade for the country market, I do quite like this performance.

My favorite song on the album is “I Don’t Care”, written by Dean Dillon and Casey Breathard. It borrows a theme from the Victorian-era tune “After The Ball”, in which the narrator catches his sweetheart with another man, who later turns out to be her brother. “I Don’t Care” has a happier ending, however, as the misunderstanding is resolved more quickly and the couple presumably lives happily ever after.

Even before the Deluxe Edition release and the success of “Home”, Shelton appears to have had some crossover ambitions with this album, which contains more pop-leaning material than his earlier releases. It works in some cases better than others; his performance on “What I Wouldn’t Give” is a bit over the top and the entire track is a little too AC-leaning for my liking, but the more restrained “Back There Again” works pretty well. While much of the material showcases Blake the ballad singer, the uptempo “The Last Country Song”, which laments the demise of a popular roadhouse to suburban sprawl, is one of the album’s highlights. The closing track to the original album, it features cameo appearances by John Anderson and George Jones.

Pure BS is one of the stronger entries in the Shelton discography, allowing him to branch out a bit creatively, but before his song selection choices became too spotty. The album is still easy to find, but expect to pay close to full price, unless you’re looking to buy the original non-deluxe version.

Grade: B+

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011’s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

Classic Rewind: George Strait – ‘Down And Out’

One of George Strait’s very first hits, this song was written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Posted in memory of Dycus, who died last week:

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+

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