My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Dean Dillon

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Is It Raining At Your House’

A Dean Dillon song:

Classic Rewind: Gary Stewart – ‘An Empty Glass’

Dean Dillon wrote this for his old duet partner’s comeback attempt in 1988.

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Heart On The Line’

hot country and singleIn 1990 a documentary on country music songwriters entitled Heart On The Line was filmed in Nashville for British TV’s Channel Four, directed by Northern Irish documentary maker John T Davis. One of the sequences followed Dean Dillon and co-writer Frank Dycus working on writing the title song, which was about songwriting. I remember seeing it and finding it fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available to watch nowadays. The song stayed on the shelf for a while before Dillon revisited it for his fourth solo album in 1993. It sees writers dreaming of touching listeners’ hearts with his words and music, but finding raw honesty does not always bring acceptance:

When you lay your heart on the line
You bare your soul till they can read your mind
And they don’t always love what they find, oh no
When you lay your heart on the line

A gentle melody and vulnerable vocal are exactly right for the song.

The album’s title track was its only single, and peaked at #62. Written with John Northrup, the title was a play on the country singles chart title, and depicts a female country fan heading out for a good time. It was the last time Dillon sent a single to country radio, as the planned follow up, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ (a co-write with Aaron Barker) was picked up by George Strait. It’s actually not one of my favourite songs, but its valedictory message is oddly appropriate given that the decision to let it go meant the end of Dillon as a wannabe artist.

The delicately melancholy ‘Old News’, written with Pam Belford, sees the protagonist wistfully reflecting on a former lover moving on. ‘Some Days It Takes All Night’, written with Donny Keys, is a slowish honky tonker about getting over someone with the help of alcohol. The steel-drenched ‘Everybody Knows’, which he wrote with Steve Oliver, is positively self-pitying about the protagonist’s broken heart:

I just can’t hold my head up in this old town any more
Everybody knows I’m not the man I was when I was yours
But sometimes things don’t work out quite the way you plan
Everybody knows – but no one understands

Everybody knows I’m drinkin’ again
I’m back on the bottom, on the outside lookin’ in
They all know I’ve lost you and I’m back out of hand
Seems like everybody knows
But no one understands

Ain’t it funny how people want to kick you when you’re down
Be your friend until you need one
Then no one’s around
They watch you go to pieces and never offer a hand
Everybody knows – but no one understands

Less mournfully, he defies a woman about to dump him by saying he’ll be ‘Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk’ is a rhythmic number written with Dycus and Blake Mevis, which was a #40 single for Joe Sun in 1982. The vivacious ‘I Just Came In Here To Have A Good Time’ is much more positive about a Friday night out on the town:

I didn’t come in here drunk to lose my mind
I just came in here to have a good time
It’s my night out and I wanna unwind

The plaintively ironic ‘When Hell Freezes Over’ has a clueless protagonist hoping his wrathful ex didn’t really mean what she said:

If she cares enough to abuse me this much
I guess she must love me deep down
She said when hell freezes over she’s gonna be mine
But she didn’t say never so that’s a good sign
The more hell I go through the colder she gets
But it’s not really over ‘cause hell might freeze over yet

Dillon sings it quite straight.

‘What’ll I Do With It Now’ is a rather charming little song of a boy growing up feeling the lack of a role model due to the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Presents are no use without daddy’s presence to help him make the most of them. There is a bitter little twist in the last verse when, as a teenager, he is lost as to how to treat his first love interest, and a still bitter mother points out that dad was no good at relationships anyway.

i really like this album, mainly for the song quality. While Dillon was a better writer than singer, the songs here are so good his more limited vocals don’t matter much, plus several of them are in a conversational style in any case.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Set Em Up Joe’

Dean Dillon was one of the writers of this classic:

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind’

31zL+wHAa1LIt isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Dean Dillon never became a major recording star; as it has been noted by others several times already, at times he sounds like George Strait and, at other times, Keith Whitley, but he is a decidedly less distinctive vocalist than either of them. He’d also discovered that it was more lucrative to pitch his best material to country music’s heavy hitters, rather than saving them for himself. The combination of a lesser vocalist and less than first-rate material is hardly a formula for success.

Nevertheless, none of this means that Dillon’s recordings are not worthwhile; on the contrary, most his albums contain at least a handful of enjoyable tracks. 1991’s Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is a prime example. Co-produced with Blake Mevis, it was Dillon’s first release for Atlantic Records and his highest-charting solo album, peaking at #58. Because of his close ties with George Strait, Dean Dillon’s name is associated with traditional country music. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to hear the pop influences that permeate many of the album’s tracks. Synthesized keyboards – which I thought were pretty much out of vogue by 1991 – are quite prominent on many songs, including the opening track “Friday Night’s Woman”, a somewhat dull number that was the collection’s only single to crack the Top 40 (landing at #39), as well as the schmaltzy “Best Love Friends”, which is a Dillon co-write with Buddy Cannon and Vern Gosdin. The saxophone-laced “She Knows What She Wants” sounds like something Dan Seals might have recorded during his “Bop” era. The more traditional “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, which preceded “Friday Night’s Woman” as the album’s first single, draws more comparisons to Keith Whitley but unfortunately every time I listen to it I can’t help thinking that Whitley would have done a much better job with the song.

Fortunately, despite getting off to a rocky start, the album does pick up by the fifth track. “Holding My Own”, arguably the album’s best track, preceded the better-known George Strait version by a year. It’s a decent effort, but again, the keyboards make the track sound instantly dated. “Don’t You Even (Think About Leaving’)” is a pleasant, though not terribly memorable song that at least doesn’t cause the listener to think about other singers. It was the album’s third and final single, peaking at #62. “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doing Her Wrong (Ain’t Doing Me Right)” is another Keith Whitley type number but unlike “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, it is a great song and it’s a bit surprising that someone else didn’t come along and have a hit with it.

“A Country Boy (Who Rolled The Rock Away)” is a surprisingly effective Buddy Holly tribute; “You Must Be Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind” is superior to any of the album’s singles.

Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is not a great album, but it is an above-average effort that recovers nicely after the first three tracks, with a few moments (“Holding My Own”, “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” and the title track) that approach greatness. There is nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here, but it’s worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Dean Dillon – ‘The Chair’

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘I’ve Learned To Live’

i've learned to liveMost fans will know Dean Dillon as a fine songwriter, who cranks out hits for other artists. Unfortunately, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. By the time this album came along in 1989, Dillon had already largely figured out his fate in life (although he still harbored some delusions of grandeur as a singer) and mostly had quit trying to save his best material for himself. I’ve Learned To Live consists largely of material he had not been able to pitch elsewhere. That is not to say that there aren’t some good songs here, just that the material with real hit potential had already been channeled to George Strait, Vern Gosdin and other top-shelf artists. That said, I really enjoyed this album, which I regard as his best solo effort.

The album opens up with “Just In Time” an up-tempo song co-written with Frank Dycus. There is some nice mandolin playing on the track by Randy Scruggs.

“Changes Comin’ On” is a slow ballad that probably is the best song on the album. Co-written with Jimmy Darrell and Buddy Cannon. Alabama and Gene Watson recorded this song on albums.

Well, I’m still hooked on Haggard
But the Beatles can’t come back like we hoped they would
In Memphis, Tennessee, King is gone
As I put my kids to bed, oh, I wonder what lies ahead for them to see
‘Cause I can feel the change comin’ on

I can feel changes comin’ on
People still are singin’ different songs
They’re searchin’ for the place where they belong
I can feel changes comin’ on

“Who Do You Think You Are”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that would have made a good single for someone.

“Don’t You Even Think About Leaving” features the great Tanya Tucker duetting with Dean. The song is quick, sassy and well suited for a duet. Johnny Gimble plays fiddle as only he can.

“I’ve Learned To Live”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that Shelby Lynne also recorded. Dean does a nice job with the song

Like a child lost in the wilderness I knew not where to go
Surrounded by the emptiness of a love that left me cold
I stumbled through the darkness of nights that have no stars
And days that have no sunshine to warm my naked heart

Like a bird in flight brought down by stones from an unknown assailant’s sling
A stranger took you from my arms and I lost everything
In days to come I nearly ran out of ways to stay alive
But through it all I never lost the will to survive

But I’m not over you and I doubt that I’ll ever be
So I’ve learned to live and you won’t be the death of me oh no
Yes I’ve learned to live and I’m doing well but I’m not over you

“It’s Love That Makes You Sexy” was one of two singles issued from the album. It’s not a bad song (actually the Dean Dillon / Frank Dycus pairing didn’t write any bad songs) but Dean just wasn’t a marketable singer. Despite Sonny Garrish’s nice steel guitar work, this one died at #61 in 1989.

The next single “Back In The Swing of Things” fared even worse, dying at #89 (it reached #70 on the Canadian Country charts). Dean’s version of the song really does swing – with Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Sonny Garrish on steel, how can it not swing? Co-writer Vern Gosdin also recorded the song on an album. The song really should have been a hit – I would rate it as the second best song on the album.

Hank Cochran collaborated with Dean on “Summer Was A Bummer”. It’s a nice song but nothing special.

“Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” sounds like a country song from the 1965-1975 period with the steel guitar serving as the lead instrument with Johnny Gimble lending a few flourishes with his fiddle. Glenn Martin co-wrote this song and also wrote a bunch of hits for people like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, either of whom would have had a hit on this song during their heydays.

Her thinkin’ I’m a doin’ her wrong
Ain’t a doin’ me right

The album closes with “Holdin’ Pattern, a nice ballad that Dean sings well.

Dean’s prior album Slick Nickel reeked of 1980s production values. In contrast, this album has more authentically country production with but slight traces of the sound that characterized the early 1980s. He has an ace fiddle player in Johnny Gimble, a superb steel player in Sonny Garrish, a multi-instrumental wizard in Randy Scruggs, and a solid second fiddler in Paul Anastasio. Unfortunately, if this album couldn’t produce any hits for Dean, it would seem unlikely that he could ever break through as an artist. I’d give this album a B+.

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Miami, My Amy’

Album Review – Dean Dillon – ‘Slick Nickel’

51noFXwA3hLFive years after his second duets album with Gary Stewart, Dean Dillon struck out on his own. His first solo album, Slick Nickel, was released via Capitol Records in 1988. Although it contained some minor radio hits, the album itself failed to chart.

“The New Never Wore off My Sweet Baby” hit #51, “I Go To Pieces” peaked at #39, and “Hey Heart” stalled at #58. All three are excellent neo-traditional numbers, although “Hey Heart” has a bit of synth added into the mix. They richly deserved the heavy rotation status they never received.

The majority of Slick Nickel perfectly encapsulates the contemporary side of late 1980s mainstream country – slightly watered down and synth-drenched. This production choice gives the album a glossy feel that’s actually quite enjoyable, even if considerably ages the record almost thirty years later.

“When The Feeling’s Right” is a perfect example of the late 1980s sheen, while “Hard Time for Lovers” illustrates the limitations of the sound. A slow-paced ballad, the track bares no resemblance to actual country music and sounds like a wasted album cut from an Eddie Rabbitt recording. From a tempo standpoint, “Still Got A Crush on You” is a marked improvement. But the track, marred by a weak lyric and uninteresting production, fails to leave an impression. “Station to Station” does leave an impression, although it’s not memorable enough to stand out.

“Appalachia Got to Have You Feelin’ In My Bones” returns Dillon to actual country music with a brisk paced honky-tonker led by twangy lead guitars. The production still makes concessions to album’s slick sound, and could’ve used ample banjo, but it’s good in comparison to the majority of the album.

The longest track on Slick Nickel gives the album a stunning conclusion. “Father Son and Holy Ghost” is a sparse ballad about a family coming together for their loved one’s funeral, told though the eyes of the deceased man’s son. Dillon’s vocal is a masterclass of hurt and longing that conveys the drunken ways of the father and son. The ballad could’ve used flourishes of steel guitar, but it works well despite it, too.

I’d never listened to a Dean Dillon album before writing this review, and I expected more from the man who practically built George Strait’s legendary career from the ground up. Dillon, who wrote or co-wrote three tracks for Keith Whitley’s L.A. To Miami three years earlier, seems to be borrowing too heavily stylistically from Whitley’s record. Slick Nickel is little more than a mainstream country album, a collection of songs that pander to a fraction of the country radio pie. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the tracks were artistically strong, but they’re not. Slick Nickel isn’t a terrible album, just horribly middle of the road.

Grade: B-

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-

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