My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dennis Linde

Album Review: The Forester Sisters – ‘I Got A Date’

What was to prove to be the girls’ final secular album was released in 1992.

‘What’ll You Do About Me’ is a vivacious up-tempo song written by Denis Linde. It had been recorded by a number of artists before, most notably Randy Travis on his best selling Always And Forever album, and as an early single for Steve Earle, but had not been a hit when the Forester Sisters tried it as the lead single for this album. Their version is entertaining but feels a little lightweight, and it was largely ignored by country radio. The song was revived a few years later to become a hit at last for Doug Supernaw, who got it to #16.

The title track was the only other single, although again it had limited success. Written by Dave Allen and Tim Bays, it is a rather contemporary jazzy pop tune with little to do with country music, but one with a lot of individuality as the newly single protagonist embarks on dating again. I could imagine this song doing well if someone like Shania Twain had recorded it a few years later. While not to my taste musically, it is well performed and the lyric is nicely observed.

Another up-tempo track with radio potential was ‘Show Me A Woman’, written by the legendary ‘Doodle’ Owens and Doug Johnson. It was later covered by Joe Diffie. The Foresters’ version is rattled out very fast:

Show me a woman who left a man
And I’ll show you a man with a drink in his hand
Doing all he can to survive
I’ll show you a man
You better not let drive

‘Redneck Romeo’ (written by Craig Wiseman and Dave Gibson and later covered by Confederate Railroad) is a tongue in cheek portrait of a good old boy looking for love:

He’s got a hundred keys hangin’ off his jeans
He knows they fit somethin’
But he don’t know what
He’s no cheap date
Spend his whole paycheck
Buyin’ drinks and playin’ that jukebox
Out on the floor he ain’t no square
He’s a romancin’ slow dancin’ Fred Astaire

The Caribbean-tinged story song ‘Wanda’ was written by K T Oslin and Rory Michael Bourke, and is about a women getting over a breakup by going on vacation.

As they often did, the girls included an old pop standard, in the shape of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’.

Much more to my taste is ‘Another Shoulder At The Wheel’, a lovely ballad written by Gary Burr and John Jarrard which is the best track on the album. ‘Help Me Get Over You’, written by Lisa Angelle and Walt Aldridge is another ballad, delicately sad. ‘Their Hearts Are Dancing’, written by Tony Haselden, is a sweet story of an elderly couple whose love has endured. ‘She Makes It Look Easy’ is an admiring, empathetic portrait of a single mom’s life.

This is perhaps my least favorite Forester Sisters album personally, but there are some attractive ballad and the rest is undoubtedly fun, and well done for what it is.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Lee Greenwood — ‘This Is My Country’

Lee Greenwood released his seventh studio album, This Is My Country, 31 years ago today in 1988. This was his second to be co-produced by him and Jimmy Bowen.

The album’s first single, the excellent ballad “I Still Believe” peaked at #12. The second single, “You Can’t Fall In Love When You’re Cryin,” another wonderful ballad, stalled at #20. “I’ll Be Lovin’ You,” which is extremely dated to modern ears, but still a great song since it was co-written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, peaked at #16.

Although it may seem puzzling at first, Greenwood actually does a good job covering The Captain and Tennille’s “Do That To Me One More Time.” He also does well with his take on “Tennessee Waltz,” although the string-focused arrangement is a bit too heavy and slow. “Ruby” is a piano based torch song, which Greenwood interrupts well, co-written by Mitchell Parish and Heniz Roemheld.

“Lola’s Love,” written by Dennis Linde, is the only real uptempo song on the album and a good one at that, with a wonderfully infectious melody. “I’ll Still Be Loving You,” which isn’t the Restless Heart classic, is also very strong with a melody to match. “As If I Didn’t Know,” is a slow ballad and “Mountain Right” is contemporary pop.

This Is My Country doesn’t have much by way of actual country music on it, but that doesn’t dampen the listening pleasure. It’s still an enjoyable above average album from beginning to end.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Fly’

NOTE: This is the second time we’ve done a feature on Fly. Check out Chris’ take on the album from March 2009, which was formed as a discussion around whether or not the album deserved to be legendary, by clicking HERE. Also, his post promoted a 27 comment discussion well worth reading. 

Dixie Chicks built on the phenomenal success of Wide Open Spaces with Fly, their second album for Monument Records. It was released in late August 1999 and established them as the foremost superstars of the era, on par with Shania Twain.

The ambitious set redefined how a country album could sound both melodically and lyrically. This is when they began courting controversy, painting outside the lines, and rewriting the rules of Nashville. There wasn’t a single artist at the time or since that has perfected or improved upon the formula they perfected with Fly — a solid foundation of traditional country mixed with a pop sensibility with a collection, and this is the key, of intelligent well-written songs. Fly is an album of talent and substance absent of fluff or filler.

A sign that the Dixie Chicks were heading places came in June 1999 when the album’s lead single “Ready To Run” was subsequently featured as a single from the soundtrack to the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere RomCom Runaway Bride. The Celtic flavored tune, co-written by Martie Seidel and Marcus Hummon, hit #2.

They shot back to the top of the charts with the album’s instantly iconic second single “Cowboy Take Me Away,” also co-written by the pair. The title was inspired by the slogan used in commercials for Calgon and the lyric was in tribute to Emily’s marriage to Charlie Robison. It’s a brilliant record from start to finish, with Sediel’s gorgeous fiddle riffs and Robison’s banjo licks proving the perfect backdrop for Natalie Maines’ passionate vocal. It’s one of the band’s signature songs and rightfully so.

What followed was a black comedy detailing the saga of Marianne and Wanda, the latter of who met and married a man named Earl, who physically abused her. The song, written by Dennis Linde, brings the women’s fight for justice to the forefront as they murder Earl and bury him in a shallow grave. The subject matter of “Goodbye Earl” proved a tough pill for country radio to swallow and the track stalled at #13.

They rebounded with their version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which was originally recorded (separately) by Suzy Bogguss and Joy Lynne White in 1992. Commenters on country blogs have favored the other women’s versions more, but since I’m only intimately familiar with the trio’s take on the song, which hit #4, and it’s the version I heard first, it’s the one I’ll always prefer.

“Without You,” the album’s second #1, is purely pop with country instrumentation. Maines co-wrote it about the demise of her first marriage, and while it isn’t as sharp as “You Were Mine,” it still soars with heartache. Maines’ vocal, which allows her stretch and use her lower register, is a revelation.

You’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten any of the remaining singles released from the album. Although it hit #3, their take on Matraca Berg’s “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” isn’t terribly memorable. The album’s eighth and final single, “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” has a nice groove and works well live, but falls into the same territory. It hit #7.

Sandwiched between them is arguably one of the strongest songs they ever sent to country radio. “Heartbreak Town” is Darrell Scott’s take on making it in music city and tells the story of a couple and their baby heading to Nashville and getting rejected by the industry. The record, which hit #23, is a masterpiece:

Hugged your friends

Kissed your mama goodbye

Baby in your arms and a tear in your eye

Twelve hundred miles and you never asked why

From me

 

Me and the baby and you side by side

We all knew we was in for a long hard ride

Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide it seemed

We honked the horn when we crossed the

State line

Woke up the baby and she started to cry

She must’ve known

What we were going to find

 

This ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

Square people in a world that’s round

And they watch you dancin’ without the sound

It ain’t nothin’ no nothin’

You take your number and you stand in line

And they watch to see how high you’re gonna climb

Pat on the back and better luck next time

It ain’t nothin’ no it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

 

Stardust well it’s a funny thing

It can make you cuss

It can make you sing

And the need to touch it gets hard to explain some days

 

I’ve seen ’em rise

I’ve seen ’em fall

Some get nothin’

And lord some get it all

Some just run

While others crawled away

 

Hold my hand baby don’t let go

I’ve got some front money

And I’ve got a next show

And I’m, I’m gonna need you

Down this yellow brick road

The album tracks are almost as iconic as the singles, especially “Sin Wagon,” which got its origins from the movie Grease. The film is one of Maines’ favorites, and she co-wrote the bluegrass barnburner with Emily Erwin and Stephony Smith. The lyric caught the attention of the trio’s record label, who objected their use of the term ‘mattress dacin’ in the second verse. Maines doubled down and repeated the line for emphasis, a sign that as far back as 1999 she wasn’t going to make nice with anyone.

“Hello Mr. Heartache” is the album’s most traditional number and another masterful record. “Let Him Fly” is their first association with Patty Griffin, Maines’ favorite singer-songwriter of all time. “Hole In My Head” was written by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller and showed off their Americana leanings.

Fly is simply one of the greatest contemporary commercial country records ever made. It rightfully won them both the Grammy for Best Country Album and the CMA for Album of the Year. It’s gone on to sell more than ten million copies and inspired their first headlining trek in 2000, the year they were crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year. They richly deserved every accolade that came their way.

Grade: A+ 

 

Album Review: Brandon Rickman – ‘Things Kids And Dogs Know’

Brandon Rickman, best known as a member of the Lonesome River Band, released an excellent solo album almost a decade ago. At last the follow up has arrived, and he mixes country and bluegrass to similar effect.

He opens with a nice cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Black Rose’. If anything it is a little too pretty and not quite forceful enough vocally, but the arrangement is a bluegrass delight.
The self-styled ‘front porch philosophy’ and faith of ‘Prayers Go Up’ is warmly sung and sweetly positive, and is very pleasing. The title track is also rather charming, celebrating simple values:

I think we’d all be a lot better off
If we thought with our hearts and gave our minds some time off
If we did what we did ‘cause we love what we love
Living would never get old
Then we would know things kids and dogs know …

Monsters are real
Magic is real
And car rides are better with your head out the window

‘By His Hands’ is a religious song and very nicely done.

‘Tunnel Tunnel’ is a vibrant bluegrass story song about a prisoner who tires to dig his way out of prison, with fatal results when it caves in on him and the warders seal it up behind him.

‘Lowdown Blues’ is one of those bluegrass songs which sound upbeat musically despite downbeat lyrics. ‘It’s In My Mind To Wander’ is about a man who has tired of roaming and sounds like a traditional tune.

‘It’s Easy As Sin’ is a western swing love song with some lovely fiddle. ‘One Step, Two Step’ is a charming Texas dancehall delight.

‘Train Long Gone’ is a Dennis Linde song Randy Travis recorded on his 2004 album Passing Through. The lovely ballad ‘Hearts Aren’t Made To Break’ (written by Roger Murrah and Steve Dean) was a hit for Lee Greenwood in the 80s.

This is a really appealing record with a lot to offer fans of both bluegrass and country.

Grade: A

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Some Things Are Meant To Be’

Sometimes life just isn’t fair. Linda Davis was beautiful, a talented and versatile vocalist and had two stints on major labels but basically nothing ever really worked out for her. Ironically, her daughter Hillary Scott, a far less talented vocalist, would have a big career as part of the band Lady Antebellum.

This album, her second for Arista Records would prove to be her highest charting album reaching #26 on Billboard’s county albums chart. Released in January 1996, three singles were released from the album, including the title track, her most successful solo single reaching #13.

“Some Things Are Meant to Be” is a nice contemporary ballad from the pens of Michael Garvin & Gordon Payne. It strikes me as more adult contemporary than country but it is a great performance. Since this song couldn’t get Linda into the top ten, it figures that nothing else could either.

 I know that you’ve got feelings

For me like I got feelings for you

So shouldn’t you be reaching

For me like I keep reaching for you

Save yourself a lot of trouble

Trying to fight it

There’s just no way you can

 

No, you can’t stop the river from rollin’ to the ocean

It’s a destiny that the good Lord put into motion

Like a baby’s tears and a mother’s devotion

Some things are meant to be

And one of them is you and me

“A Love Story in the Making” by Al Anderson & Craig Wiseman is a decent ballad that Linda sings well. The song was the second single from the album reaching #33 (our Canadian country neighbors liked it more, sending it to #22). The song sounds much more country than the title track and should have been a much bigger hit.Jenny’s got a trailer on the county line

Jenny’s got a trailer on the county line

Satellite dish working overtime Watchin’ those movies on a

Watchin’ those movies on a 30 inch screenDreamin’ about places she’s never seen

Dreamin’ about places she’s never see

 

She’s in the diner by five o’clock

Playin’ Elvis on the old juke box

Staring out the window at nothing in sight

As she sings ‘Are you lonesome tonight’

 

Every time some stranger walks in through that door She can’t help but wonder if he’s the one she’s been waiting for

She can’t help but wonder if he’s the one she’s been waiting for

It’s a love story in the making

It’s a love story in the making
Something that was meant to be
A heart patiently waiting for a little bit of destiny
A sweet love story is all she needs

“Walk Away” by Marc Beeson& Robert Byrne was the third single from the album and it stiffed completely, not even charting (the Canadians had it reach #80). The song is a bland ballad that wasn’t really single-worthy although Linda sings it well

What do I do now that our love’s come to such a bitter end
We’ve been through too much together for me to be your friend
And I can’t pretend
I’m sure I’ll see you, but when I do I will

Walk away
And hope my feet don’t fail me
Walk away
As far as they will take me
Long before you have a chance
To look into these eyes
I’ll be gone and you won’t see me cry
If I walk away

Harry Stinson is a very talented fellow, singer, songwriter, drummer, who I think could have been a big star if only he had wanted to be,   “Always Will” is a terrific song that I would have released as a single:

If time is a train rollin down the tracks
Every minute is a box car that don’t come back
Take a look around you it’s all gonna change
Whatever you see ain’t neve gonna stay the same
Except for the rain and the wind in the trees
And the way I feel about you and me

And the way I feel when I’m with you
It’s like the roll of the ocean
And the calm quiet of the moon
And when you hold me time stands still
It always has and it always will

“Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”by Jim Weatherly was a big po[p hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips back in the early 1970s. It was covered as a county hit by Bob Luman, reaching #7 while the Knight version was on the pop charts. Linda sings the song well, but it is strictly an album track

Nancy Lee Baxter ‘s “She Doesn’t Ask” is a typical ‘wronged woman waiting for her man to show up’ song – in other words, nothing special

“Cast Iron Heart”, written by Dennis Linde had been a single twice – for Pearl River in 1992 and for Blackhawk in 1995. Since neither of the above two bands released this song as a single, it might have been a decent single for Linda. it would have been grittier than anything else she had released as a single

 Go on and cry, but you won’t change my mind

Your pain and troubles don’t concern me

I gave you my love, but it was not enough

I was just your bridge and girl you burned me

 

So don’t hand me no hard luck story

Hopin’ I’ll just fall apart

Remember you’re the one who left me

With nothin’ but this cast iron heart

The album closes with “There Isn’t One” (writers Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ, Stephony Smith), “What Do I Know” (another Majeski, Russ, Smith collaboration) and “If I Could Live Your Life”(writers Tim Nichols, Mark D. Sanders), all competently performed (the latter song with Reba McEntire) but none of them especially singles worthy .

“If I Could Live Your Life” is a melodramatic pop ballad, without much of anything to make it a standout track

 You jet from coast to coast

Dressed in designer clothes

When you appear somewhere

Your chauffeur drives you there

I would think twice

If I could live your life

 

You see your friends at the store

Your sister lives next door

You kiss your babies goodnight

Your husband’s there at your side

I’d love to give it a try

If I could live your life

Linda would issue an album on Dream Works about three years later, and then a few albums on independent label Center Hill from 2003-2007, before disappearing from recording for a decade. She can sing anything and perhaps she could have become a major adult contemporary star if promotional efforts (and record production) had been pointed in that direction. As it was she was caught somewhere in-between without being given her best chance at stardom.

On the whole, I like this album. While it teeters between adult contemporary and country, it is a pleasant album to listen to (it could use more fiddle and steel and a few more up-tempo tracks) and I have listened to this album a few times over the last few years and would give it a B.

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Kenny’

Kenny followed the crossover success of ‘The Gambler’ with another self-titled album, filled with songs intended to attract the non-country audience. Indeed, listening to most of the record I was hard pressed to hear any country elements at all.

The lead single, ‘You Decorated My Life’, is a pleasant but definitely AC ballad ornamented with a heavy string arrangement. It was another big hit for Kenny, hitting #1 country, #2 Adult and #7 pop. The album’s sole nod to reasonably straight country was a return to the story songs which had been so successful for him before, in the shape of ‘Coward Of The County’. Set to the same rhythm as ‘Lucille’, the somewhat melodramatic story is of a boy who eschews violence after his criminal father dies, until his girlfriend is assaulted. It proved to be an enormous international hit, Kenny’s only #1 other than ‘Lucille’ in the UK (where for some reason ‘The Gambler’ did not chart). It’s not as good, or believable, as ‘Lucille’, but is definitely memorable and the best song on this album.

A couple of other songs are in a country-pop vein. ‘Goodbye Marie’ is a well-written song (by Mel McDaniel and Dennis Linde’ about a man planning on leaving, but with a somewhat cluttered production. It definitely had single potential, and in fact was subsequently a minor hit for Bobby Goldsboro, and Kenny’s version was eventually released as a spoiler single in 1986, after he had moved to a rival label. ‘One Man’s Woman’, written by Kenny’s keyboard player Steve Glassmeyer, is a pretty good cheating song, and is well sung by Kenny, although the strings dominate the arrangement too much for my taste.

The standard ‘Old Folks’ is not country at all, but quite nicely done with a sensitive vocal interpretation, although the keyboard sound is now very dated and there are more strings.
‘I Want To Make You Smile’ is a tender ballad written by Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. I like this despite the overbearing strings, apart from a hideous falsetto note or two near the end.

‘Tulsa Turnaround’, which Kenny had previously recorded with The First Edition, is more of a dirty blues rocker which is well done but a bit loud and busy for me. ‘You Turn The Light On’ is very pop with a hard beat, and ‘She’s A Mystery’ is syncopated pop; while ‘Santiago Midnight Moonlight’ and the even more dreadful ‘In And Out Of Your Heart’ are outright disco.

This is not an album I can recommend to country fans.

Grade: D

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Love or Something Like It’

Kenny Rogers’ fourth album, Love or Something Like It, was released in July 1978. The record marked his fifth time working with Larry Butler, who would serve as his producer until 1980. This was his fourth consecutive number one album.

The album produced just one single, the title track, which Rogers co-wrote with his bandmate, Steve Glassmeyer. It’s a mid-tempo number with pleasing percussion and a nice groove. The song spent just ten weeks on the chart before cresting. Deryl Dodd subsequently covered it on Stronger Proof in 2005.

Three more of the album’s tracks were rich with alternative versions by other artists. B.J. Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tom Jones have also recorded the contemplative ballad “We Could’ve Been The Closest of Friends.” “Sail Away,” which features light touches of R&B, was originally released by Sam Neely in 1977 and again by The Oak Ridge Boys, who took it to #2, in 1979. Far too many artists have sung “Even a Fool Would Go” through the years to list them here, but the string and piano-laced ballad is probably most familiar to country fans courtesy of Charlie Rich, who released it as a single under the direction of Billy Sherill in 1977.

Another notable track, “Momma’s Waiting,” was originally recorded by Rogers with the First Edition in 1970. The intriguing ballad, which Rogers co-wrote with Terry Williams, casts him as a prison inmate saying goodbye to his mother as he’s led off to his execution. The song is both haunting and effective. “Momma’s Waiting” serves as the B-Side to “The Gambler.”

One theory as to why United Artists let Love or Something Like It die after one single is “I Could Be So Good for You,” co-written by Dennis Linde. The track was Rogers’ feeble attempt to cash in on the disco craze, with diminishing returns.

“There’s A Lot of That Going Around” is a solid ballad, with pleasing percussion. The arrangement on “Starting Again” is far more tasteful and country-leaning. The trend continues with “Buried Treasure,” which actually feels like it fits within similar uptempo country songs from the era.

“Something About Your Song” is progressive but inoffensive. The funky “Highway Flier” is a lot to handle and ranks among the weaker tracks, despite committed performances from the session musicians.

Love or Something Like It is a mixed bag with little material worth seeking out. “Momma’s Waiting” is the standout track and while others are good to very good, nothing here is remarkable or rises above the characterization of filler. It doesn’t help matters that the album, forty years in, hasn’t aged well.

Rogers is better than this, which he more than proved with the output he released (including the duets albums with Dottie West) around the time of crafting this album. I’d skip this one, except for “Momma’s Waiting,” and seek out the stronger material from his other late 1970s recordings.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Love Lies’

I always regarded Janie Fricke as primarily a singles artist, and the market apparently agreed as Love Lies, Janie’s eighth album (ninth album if you include the Greatest Hits album released in October 1982) was the first of her albums to reach the top ten of Billboards Country Albums chart, punching in at #10. This would prove to be rarefied air for Janie as only one more album, Black and White, in 1986, would reach the top ten.

Released in late 1983 and produced by Bob Montgomery, Love Lies was the second album he produced for Janie. Love Lies would see three singles released, “Tell Me A Lie” (#1), “Let’s Stop Talking About It” (#1) and “If The Fall Don’t Get You” (#8). “If The Fall Don’t Get You” was the first single to not go top four after eight consecutive such successes.

In the past I had described Janie’s earlier singles as ‘lovey-dovey drivel’ but perhaps I was a bit harsh. Today I would describe her previous singles as ‘confections’. I would not describe any of the singles on this album using such terms. These are more mature songs.

The album opens with “If The Fall Don’t Get You”, a biting commentary on love, co-written by Van Stephenson, who later was a member of BlackHawk.

So you say you’re thinking of falling in love
Going way out on a limb
And it seems like push is coming to shove
Just look at the shape that I’m in

I have paid the price for love
And it ain’t cheap
Better take a long hard look
Before you leap

If the fall don’t get you, baby
And your fading heart is beating still
If the fall don’t get you
Baby, the heartache will

Next up is “Have I Got A Heart For You”, a mid-tempo song which sells the virtues of a heart on the rebound. Written by Keith Stegall, the song is a decent album track.

I would also describe track three “How Do You Fall Out of Love”, a slow ballad of heartbreak as a decent album track. The Nashville String Machine is a little obtrusive but Janie’s voice cuts through the clutter.

“Love Lies” was an early single for Mel McDaniel, reaching #33 in 1979. It would be a few more years before Mel’s career caught fire, but I though his performance of the song was excellent. For whatever reason, the song never made it to one of Mel’s albums, so I am glad that Janie covered the song; however, she should have released it as a single.

Side one of the original vinyl album closed with “Tell Me A Lie”, a song carried over from the previous album It Ain’t Easy. Columbia during the 1970s and 1980s had this annoying habit of pulling songs from an existing album, releasing it as a single, then adding it to the next album. Since albums during this period only had ten songs, this meant that if you purchased both albums, you would get only nineteen different songs at rough two and a half minutes per song. This cover of a Lynn Anderson album track (and later a top 20 pop hit for Sami Jo) reached #1 for Janie.

Tell me a lie
Say I look familiar
Even though I know
That you don’t even know my name

Tell me a lie
Say you just got into town
Even though I’ve seen you here before
Just hangin’ around

Umm, tell me a lie, say you’re not a married man
Cause you don’t know I saw you slip off your wedding band

Side two of the vinyl album opens up with “Let’s Stop Talking About It”, an up-tempo that reached #1. The song was written by the dynamic trio of Rory Bourke, Rafe Van Hoy & Deborah Allen, who collectively authored many hit singles. You can give your own interpretation to what the lyrics mean:

We’ve had a lot of conversations
We’ve analyzed our situation
There’s only so much that words can say
After awhile they just get in the way

So let’s stop talking about it
And start getting down to love
Let’s stop talking about it
We’ve already said enough

This is followed the Troy Seal-Mike Reid collaboration “Lonely People”, a quiet ballad that makes for a decent album track.

Written by Dennis Linde and Alan Rush, “Walkin’ A Broken Heart” would be released as a single by Don Williams in 1985, reaching #2. Janie does a really nice job with the song and I think the song could have been a big hit for her. I slightly prefer Don’s version but it’s a thin margin of preference.

Walkin’ down this midnight street
Just the sound of two lonely feet
Walkin’ a broken heart
Walkin’ a broken heart

Empty city, not a soul in sight
And a misty rain falls on a perfect night
To walk a broken heart
To walk a broken heart

And I know that you’re thinkin’
This couldn’t happen to you
But you’re a fool for believing
Dreams don’t fly away, cause they do.

Another slow ballad follows in “I’ve Had All The Love I Can Stand”. Janie sings it well, but the song to me is a bit overwrought and not of much interest. The Nashville String Machine is prominent in the arrangement.

The album closes with “Where’s The Fire”, a nice upbeat melody camouflaging a song of angst as the narrator asks her love why he’s in such a hurry to leave.

For me this album is a bit of a mixed bag. Janie is in good voice throughout, and I appreciated the more mature lyrics but I’d like to hear more fiddle and steel. That said, this album is quite worthwhile.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘New Moves’

Don’s last studio album for MCA, Café Carolina, was released in 1984, although the label continued t package compilations of his work for them for some years. He was still a consistent hit maker, but the label was keen to introduce new stars, and Don may have felt less well promoted than he had done previously, and in 1985 he signed a deal with Capitol Records. The first album for Capitol, released in January 1986, was appropriately entitled New Moves, although there were no significant changes in his music – he even retained an existing co-production partnership with Garth Fundis from his last MCA album. Half the album’s tracks ended up being promoted as singles, and all reached the top 10, proving that there was still a place for Don Williams at the top even as the younger neotraditionalists were sweeping other older artists aside.

The lead single, the Dave Loggins-penned ‘We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin’’, is a very nice love song about the comforts of a settled relationship, with a subtle arrangement, although there are unnecessary and slightly intrusive choir-style backing vocals in the second half of the song. It peaked at #3. The album’s biggest hit, the mid-paced ‘Heartbeat In The Darkness’ (another Loggins song, this time co-written with Russell Smith) was Don’s last ever chart topper, but has not worn very well, with production which now sounds a little dated, although the song itself is pleasant enough.

The pace lifts still further with the lively ‘Then It’s Love’, which peaked at #3. It was written by Dennis Linde, best known for writing Elvis’s ‘Burning Love’, and has a saxophone-dominated arrangement with Don trying out a bit of an Elvis impression at the end, which is quite fun and not typical of Williams’ usual music.

The mainly spoken story song ‘Senorita’, written by Hank De Vito and Danny Flowers, performed less well, but was still a top 10 hit. I found it rather boring. The final single, ‘I’ll Never Be In Love Again’ (written by Bob Corbin) reached #4. To my ears it is the best of the singles, a classic Don Williams gentle ballad about surviving (more or less) the loss of love, with a delicate accompaniment featuring flute and harmonica. Lovely.

A number of artists have recorded Bob McDill’s ‘Shot Full Of Love’ ranging from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (my favorite take) to Billy Ray Cyrus, but I don’t think it’s ever been the hit it deserves to be. It’s a very good song, but the lyric, about an outlaw type who has broken a lot of hearts in his time but is unexpectedly felled by love, doesn’t really fit Don’s good guy persona or smooth voice. It still makes pleasant listening, but is not entirely convincing. (The McCarters’ beautiful sounding version ha few years later had the same flaw.) Another McDill tune, ‘We Got Love’, is a pleasant love song but not very memorable.

‘Send Her Roses’, written by Pat McLaughlin, who plays mandolin on the track, is a perky number about abandoning a travelling life (with several allusions to other songs) for a settled home with the protagonist’s wife. It is highly enjoyable.

Don’s own ‘The Light In Your Eyes’ is a pretty romantic piano-led ballad, which is very nice indeed. The mid paced ‘It’s About Time’, another love song, is also pretty good.

Grade: B+

The album has been packaged with Don’s other Capitol album Traces on a 2-4-1 CD.

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Wide Open’

1988’s Wide Open was Sawyer Brown’s fifth studio album and their least successful up to that time. Peaking at #33, it was their first album that failed to crack the Top 40 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It also failed to produce any Top 10 hits. Like its predecessor Somewhere in the Night, it was produced by Ron Chancey, who was best known for his work with The Oak Ridge Boys.

From an artistic standpoint, Wide Open is a mixed bag. It is, for the most part slickly produced — bucking the commercial trends of the day which had begun to favor more traditional sounds. None of the album cuts are particularly noteworthy or memorable. The three single releases, however, are a different story. The first was a spirited version of Dennis Linde’s “My Baby’s Gone”, which had been recorded a few years earlier by The Judds. It seems tailor made for Sawyer Brown; the lyrics tell a sad story but the song’s fast tempo gives it a more upbeat feeling. It reached #11 and I can’t imagine why it didn’t manage to crack the Top 10. It certainly deserved to chart higher. “Old Pair of Shoes”, written by Mark Miller, is good but not great. The metaphor of a comfortable but worn old pair of shoes for a relationship is hardly original. Many other songs have done a better job getting the same point across, but the song is certainly better than its #50 chart peak suggests.

The album’s best song by far is the third single, Skip Ewing’s Christmas classic “It Wasn’t His Child”, which examines the relationship between Jesus and his foster father St. Joseph. It only reached #51, but that is understandable since Christmas singles typically don’t chart very high. It’s a beautiful song that has been recorded many times. Sawyer Brown’s version more than holds its own against the others. It is however, a little out of place on this album and might have been better suited for a multi-artist Christmas compilation.

As far as the album cuts go, “What Am I Going To Tell My Heart” written by Sawyer Brown members Bobby Randall and Gregg Hubbard is the best, the Mark Miller-penned “Blue Denim Soul” is the worst and the rest are all forgettable filler that fall somewhere in between.

Aside from its singles, Wide Open is not essential listening. I recommend downloading “My Baby’s Gone” and “It Wasn’t His Child” and perhaps “Old Pair of Shoes” and skipping the rest. Or if you want to hear it in its entirety, this one is a good candidate for streaming.

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Joy Lynn White – ‘Wild Love’

51rfk9fctwlReleased in August 1994, Joy Lynn White’s second album for Columbia basically tanked, not charting at all. Moreover, only one of the two singles released charted at all with the title track reaching #73. To this very day, I remain mystified as to why this album was not her breakthrough to commercial success.

The album opens with “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”, a song the Dixie Chicks would take to #6 Country/ #46 Pop in 1999.  Composed by Mary Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, I think Joy Lynn gives the song its definitive reading.

Next up is “Bad Loser”, a Bill Lloyd – Pam Tillis tough girl composition that I don’t think Pam ever recorded. Joy Lynn definitely nails the performance. The sing was released as the second single and failed to chart. Although I like the song, I don’t think I would have picked it as a single.

You’re bringing out a side of me I never knew was there
I took pride in cut’n dried goodbyes I never wasted a tear
Living in an easy come easy go world
Look what you’ve done to this girl

I’m a bad loser when love’s worth fightin’ for
I’m a bad loser don’t wanna ever see you walkin’ out my door
This love of ours took me by surprise it wasn’t part of my plans
Hey ain’t it easy sittin’ on the fence and ain’t it hard to make a stand
You took me farther than i’ve ever been
And baby now i’m playing to win

“Too Gone to Care”, written by John Scott Sherrill, is a tender ballad that demonstrates that Joy Lynn can handle more subtle, less rambunctious lyrics as well as she can handle the tougher songs

You see that big old yellow cab is always just a call away
And you can catch a Greyhound just about anytime of day
And all along the harbor ships are slipping out of town
Way out on the runway that’s where the rubber leaves the ground
She keeps thinking that it’s too hard to fake it
When it isn’t there

He’s gonna tell her he’ll be too late to make it
But she’ll be too gone to care
They got trains down at the station you know they run all night
They got tail lights on the highway that just keep fading out of sight   

 

The next song asks the eternal question “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”. This is another John Scott Sherrill song ballad, but this song has very traditional country instrumentation (the prior song was a little MOR), but in any event, Ms White again nails the song:

I’ve put away all the pictures
All the old love letters too
There’s nothin’ left here to remind me
Why can’t I stop loving you?
Got back into circulation
Till I found somebody new
But there was always something missing
Why can’t I stop lovin’ you

“Whiskey, Lies and Tears” is the only song on this album that Joy Lynn had a hand in writing. The song is an up-tempo honky-tonker of the kind that Highway 101 sometimes did, and which has disappeared from country radio these days. Joy Lynn strikes me as a better vocalist than either Paulette Carlson or Nikki Nelson.  I wonder if Highway 101 ever considered Joy Lynn for the role. This song would have been my pick for the second single off the album.

The last time I said next time is the last time
And the last time came stumbling in last night
So now it’s time to say goodbye forever
To the whiskey your lies and my tears
Well I’ve almost gone insane…
All the whiskey your lies and my tears

“Wild Love” has bit of a heavy backbeat – I would describe it as more rock than country but it is well sung and melodically solid.   Then again, Dennis Linde always produced solid songs.

Pat McLaughlin wrote “Burning Memories”. This song is not to be mistaken with the Ray Price classic of bygone years, but it is sung well. I would describe the song as a sad country ballad.

“On And On And On” was written by “Whispering Bill” Anderson, one of country music’s great songsmiths. Joy Lynn gives a convincing and timeless interpretation to the song:

And this loneliness goes on and on and on
All the things come to an end
Yes that means we’ll never love again
The end of our love the end of my dreams
The end of almost everything it seems
Except these heartaches these teardrops
And this loneliness goes on and on and on

I’ve heard Bill Anderson sing the song, and Connie Smith recorded the song on her 1967 album Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson. Connie’s version has the full ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings applied to it. Although Smith is the better vocalist, most modern listeners would probably prefer Joy Lynn White’s version.

The penultimate song is Jim Rushing’s “You Were Right From Your Side”. The song has interesting lyrics and Joy Lynn does a good job with it:

Starin’ out an airport window on a morning hard as stone
Watchin’ a big Delta Bird taxi through the dawn
A lonely chill sweeps over me as that smokin’ liner climbs
You were right from your side I was left from mine
Now you’re gone you’re flying high above the clouds
And I must walk my tears through this faceless crowd
And in the goodbye atmosphere I can hear a thousand times
You were right from your side I was left from mine

The album closes with “I Am Just a Rebel” written by the redoubtable trio of Bob DiPiero, Dennis Robbins and John Scott Sherrill. The trio wrote the song while they were in the band Billy Hill in the late 1980s. Confederate Railroad recorded the song later, but I prefer Joy Lynn’s version to any of the other versions

Being a hillbilly don’t get me down
I like it like that in fact you know it makes me proud
Yeah I’m American made by my ma and pa
Southern born by the grace of God
And I’m bound to be a rebel till they put me in the ground
I am just a rebel can’t you see
Don’t go looking for trouble it just finds me
When I’m a walking down the street people stop and stare
I know they’re talking about me they say there goes that rebel there

Wild Love  enabled Joy Lynn White to show all sides of her personality from tender to tough , from rocker to honky-tonker. With a crack band featuring Paul Worley and Richard Bennett (guitars); Dennis Linde (acoustic & electric guitar, clavinet); Dan Dugmore (electric & steel guitar); Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar); Dennis Robbins (slide guitar); Mike Henderson (guitar); Hank Singer, Blaine Sprouse (fiddles); and  featuring  Harry Stinson, Pat McLaughlin, Cindy Richardson, Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffith, Suzi Ragsdale (background vocals), Wild Love should have propelled Joy Lynn White to the top.

It didn’t propel her career, but I still love the album and would grade it as a solid A, very close to an A+

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Come As You Were’

come as you wereFor his third album, T Graham Brown moved to a new producer, Ron Chancey. The mixture of country, blues, soul and rock was similar to his previous work, but with a little more country mixed in. The production does feel a little dated, particularly the backing vocals, but the song quality is high, and the vocals are great.

The plaintive mid-paced love song ‘Darlene’ was the first single. It was very successful, becoming Brown’s third and last #1 hit, and although the production sounds a bit dated now, the vocal is solid and the song quite nice. The Paul Craft-penned title track, an excellent soulful ballad previously recorded by both Jerry Lee Lewis and Barbara Mandrell, is given an emotional delivery by Brown, backed up by a brass section, and peaked at #7.

The last single. ‘Never Say Never’ flopped in comparison, topping oyt at #30. A rather shouty blues/rock style number reminiscent of Eddy Raven, it has little to do with country music and sounds very dated today. This and the R&B ‘You Left The Water Running’ are the only tracks I don’t like at all on the album.

The remaining ballads are much more country sounding than any of the singles, and are all excellent songs. The slow agonised ‘This Wanting You’ was written by Brown with Bruce Bouton (a legendary steel player) and Bruce Burch, and is a highlight with relatively stripped down production. ‘I’ll Believe It When I Feel It’, also written by Brown, is another very good downbeat ballad with a little more of a bluesy feel as the protagonist fails to get over someone. The waltz-time ‘The Time Machine’ (a great Dennis Linde song) refers to a jukebox whose songs remind the protagonist of happier times with a lost love.

One of the best songs on the album, ‘The Best Love I Never Had’ is a regretful cheating song written by Kent Blazy and Jim Dowell:

We came so close
So close I thought I had her love – for a time
She could never break the ties that bind
She was never really mine

And I never will forget those nights
The taste of stolen love is sweet but never right
I’d face the fires of Hell just to hold her tight
But I wanted her that bad
Oh, but she belonged to someone else
I knew, but oh, I couldn’t help myself

The protagonist of the midpaced ‘I Read A Letter today’ (another Brown tune) gets a nasty surprise when he discovers his beloved is planning on leaving by opening her message to her secret love. A great song and passionate lead vocal is somewhat let down by dated production.

‘She’s Okay And I’m Okay’, written by Harlan Howard, revisits a failed relationship.

While certainly no New Traditionalist, T Graham Brown brought interesting diversity to country radio in the late 1980s, and this album is a good example of his style. Some of the production sounds dated now, but his vocals are always strong.

The album is unfortunately not available digitally, but it’s worth finding a cheap used CD.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Love and Honor’

Love_and_Honor_(Ricky_Van_Shelton_album_-_cover_art)Twenty years ago, Ricky Van Shelton was in a period of transition. His seventh album of original material, Love and Honor was his first without longtime producer Steve Buckingham. It also marked his final project for Columbia Nashville, his label home for seven years, and stands as his most recent album to place on Billboard’s Country Album’s Chart.

By now, Shelton’s mainstream popularity had begun to fade. He hadn’t scored a number one hit in three years, and while he scored big with a soundtrack single in 1992, he was a regular fixture just inside the top 30. As per usual mainstream trends had changed, moving away from the neo-traditional sounds that dominated in the early part of the decade and replacing them with a contemporary sound mixing numbers primed for line dancing along with lush balladry and pop-influenced compositions.

So Buckingham was swapped out for Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, who placed him squarely within that sound. “Wherever She Is,” the first single, was a slice of rock-influenced country not unlike the type of material Lee Roy Parnell was known for at the time. The efforts in modernization didn’t pay off and the James House/John Jarrard written tune stalled at #49.

Radio didn’t bite on the second and final single either. The Dennis Linde-penned “Lola’s Love” suffered because it wasn’t a commercial country recording at all with its Elvis-like rockabilly beat. The track itself is rather enjoyable and Shelton commits fully with his energetic vocal.

As is his trademark, Shelton includes a couple of nods to the genre’s past. “Thanks A Lot” is his version of the Ernest Tubb classic. Shelton speeds up the melody, and while the production doesn’t allow his vocal to truly shine, he gives the lyric a fine reading. “Love and Honor,” a cover of the early 1970s Merle Haggard song, doesn’t make a single concession and is therefore excellent. The traditional-minded arrangement is glorious, with ample steel and fiddle to frame Shelton’s pitch-perfect vocal. Originally recorded by George Jones and Vern Gosdin, “Where The Tall Grass Grows” is a simple story song with a slight list-like feel that doesn’t appeal to me lyrically but has a nice steel laced production.

Jarrard also contributed “Been There, Done That” a typical for the period honky-tonk number that served as filler. Larry Boone, who worked with the likes of Don Williams and Tracy Lawrence, wrote “Then for Them” a somewhat cheesy ballad that would’ve been better suited for an artist looking to launch their career, and likely would’ve been a big hit. Shelton handles the song very well although the generic production pulls him down quite a bit.

Deryl Dodd, who would release his debut album two years later, co-wrote “I Thought I’d Heard It All,” a traditional leaning ballad that would’ve been a standout album track on an Alan Jackson album, but comes off middle of the road in Shelton’s hands. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but Jackson would’ve given the lyric far more passion. Russell Smith, who penned Shelton’s “Keep It Between The Lines,” shows up here with “Baby, Take A Picture,” a fiddle-heavy line-dance number. The brisk tune is excellent even if Chancey and Worley didn’t account for the passing of time.

“Complicated” is a Bill LaBounty rocker in line with the type of track Shelton excels in selling wonderfully. The harmonica heavy production and Shelton’s vocal are perfect, but the lyric underwhelms and feels filler-y. “Love Without You” is a beautiful sentiment that Shelton, along with the heaping fiddle and steel, conveys excellently.

Love and Honor was an above average album for its time and sounds mostly pleasing today with the fiddle and steel that abound on almost every track. It’s surprising how Columbia Nashville chose the radio offerings, as there were far more radio-friendly numbers than the ones chosen. But with Shelton’s weaning popularity, he probably wouldn’t have been able to regain his footing anyways. On the whole, Love and Honor is a very good collection of songs and worth a listen even just for the nostalgia trip of reminding yourself how far country music has eroded in such a short amount of time.

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘In Pieces’

Garth In PiecesStarting with No Fences, Garth Brooks achieved a level of sales that had previously been unheard of in country music. It propelled him to international superstardom, and the pressure on him and producer Allen Reynolds to sustain that level of success must have been overhwhelming. Having reached a significant number of people outside the usual country music audience, it was perhaps inevitable that he would tailor his sound to accomodate them. As a result, his albums became increasingly eclectic — and inconsistent in quality. This trend began with 1992’s The Chase and continued with 1993’s In Pieces.

The album spawned five singles, two of which reached #1. The first was “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til The Sun Comes Up”, a Garth co-write with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams. Though it was more country than most of the singles from The Chase, it has more of a rock edge than his earlier work, and while I don’t intensely dislike the song, it’s not one of my favorites. It was followed by another #1 hit, “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”, which is aimed squarely at the country audience. It’s meant to be in the same vein as “Friends In Low Places”, but tries a little too hard and lacks the charm of that earlier hit. “Standing Outside the Fire” is better, though I still wouldn’t rank it among Garth’s best work.

“One Night A Day”, written by Gary Burr and Pete Wasner is one of Garth’s least country-sounding songs. Completely lacking in country instrumentation, the piano and saxophone-led track leans towards jazz and seems to have been an attempt at a crossover hit. It did not chart outside the country charts, where it peaked at #7. While some artists can successfully pull off an occasional venture beyond the confines of country music, Garth Brooks, to my mind, has never been one of them. He seems to have thought otherwise, as he tended to test the non-country waters fairly regularly. I’ve never thought that his voice or delivery were particularly suited to this type of song. He seems equally out of his comfort zone on the bluesy “Kickin’ and Screamin'”.

The album’s final and best single is a cover version of the Dennis Linde-penned “Callin’ Baton Rouge”. Originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys in 1978, it was later covered by New Grass Revival, who released it as a sigle in 1989. Their version peaked at #37, but Garth’s version, on which members of New Grass Revival sang and played, reached #2. It is one of the two great tracks on the album, the other being the album’s closing track, “The Cowboy Song”, a low-key number that is much more suited to Garth than some of the overblown power-ballads he seemed so fascinated with during this phase of his career.

“The Red Strokes”, while not released as a single in the US, became Garth’s biggest hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at #13 on the British pop charts. It’s not surprising that one of his more pop-leaning recordings was successful in a country not normally known for embracing country music, but artistically, the track is one of his poorer efforts.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with this album when it was first released, and was somewhat surprised to find that I like it a lot better now than I did then. However, that says more about the current state of country music than it does about the current state of country music than it does about the quality of this album. I’m tempted to say that it’s worth downloading “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “The Cowboy Song” and skipping the rest, but this is Garth Brooks we’re talking about, so single-track downloads aren’t an option. Pick up a cheap used copy if you haven’t heard this one.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’

bangbangbang1999’s Bang, Bang, Bang was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sole release from DreamWorks Records, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the band’s decade-long commercial decline. Emory Gordy, Jr. and Steve Fishell were brougnt in to co-produce with Josh Leo. The result was an album that relied more heavily on outside songwriters than most of their earlier work and a more mainstream country-pop sound instead of the country-rock for which they had become well known. As the title suggests, Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t their most substantive collection of songs, but it still has its enjoyable moments.

The opening track “If This Ain’t Love”, written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a big departure for the group. The horns are a bit jarring but the tune is catchy and contains plenty of steel guitar in the mix, which is a very welcome inclusion — remember this was the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill when many artists had one eye on the pop charts. The title track, which was the album’s sole single, is a disappointing piece of fluff. It died at #52 when it was originally releasd in 1998. The following year’s re-release fared even worse, recaching only #63. Even more disappointing is the Steve Bogard/Rick Giles tune “Forget The Job (Get A Life)”, an extremely annoying number that sounds like something Shania Twain rejected. I don’t know what they were thinking when they recorded this one but everyone involved should have known better. “It’s About Time” isn’t a first-rate song but it is saved by a nice harmony vocal provided by Matraca Berg.

Things get better with a nice cover of Mac McAnally’s “Down The Road”, which I prefer to the original. “Singing To the Scarecrow”, about a Kentucky farm girl who dreams of stardom, is one of two Dennis Linde compositions and is also quite good. Even better is “Dry Town”, an uptempo Gillian Welch-Jown Rawlings number. The novelty tune “The Monkey Song”, written by Jimmy Ibbotson, is the album’s sole song written by a NGDB member.

While Bang, Bang Bang ultimately did nothing to relaunch the band’s recording career, and it may not be the best remembered entry in their discography, it is certainly worth a listen. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Acoustic’

220px-NGDB-AcousticTwenty years ago, when their string of radio singles came to end, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned their roots with a collection entitled Acoustic. Like other similarly titled projects through the years, this isn’t re-recordings of past hits, but rather an album of all-new material.

While the album didn’t spawn any singles, it’s most notable for introducing the world to “Bless The Broken Road,” a Jeff Hanna, Marcus Hummon, and Bobby Boyd co-write that would top the charts for Rascal Flatts ten years later. Not many know the song began as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tune, with a lush piano drenched arrangement not too far removed from Rascal Flatts’ hit recording.

Jimmy Ibbotson had a hand in writing a few of the album’s tunes. “Sara In The Summer” is a harmonica laced folksy country shuffle, “How Long” is a mid-tempo love song, and “One Sure Honest Line” is a song about songs. All are excellent, showcasing the band’s tight harmonies set to clean, appealing production. Ibbotson co-wrote “This Train Keeps Rolling Along,” a fantastic story song with Jim Photoglo and Vince Melamed.

Bob Carpenter was another prominent songwriter on the album. He co-wrote Harmonica ballad “Let It Go,” America-like “Badlands,” and harmony rich “Love With Find A Way.” While all of the tracks are good, “Love With Find A Way” is the highlight, sounding like The Eagles from their Desperado era in the early 1970s.

Dennis Linde contributed “Hello, I Am Your Heart” a slice of filler that really doesn’t go anywhere. Jimmy Fadden had two cuts. “Cupid’s Got A Gun” is a plucky ballad while “Tryin’ Times” is heavy on mandolin yet light on social commentary, as the title suggests.

If anything, Acoustic is too polished. The album still sounds impeccable but the immaculate arrangements hinder any chance for letting loose, which a lot of these songs could benefit from. It’s still a great album, though, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

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: Aaron Tippin – ‘Tool Box’

toolboxAaron Tippin’s 1994 album Lookin’ Back At Myself showed some signs that Tippin the songwriter’s well of ideas was beginning to run dry. Though it earned gold certification, it failed to produce any Top 10 hits, so for his next effort, 1995’s Tool Box, Tippin finally relented and recorded some songs from some outside songwriters. This time around he only had a hand in writing two of the album’s songs, not including “Country Boy’s Tool Box”, which originally appeared on his previous album. The less said about that song, the better. Steve Gibson was back on board as producer.

Opening the door to other songwriters had little commercial impact — Tool Box reached gold status, matching the sales level of Lookin’ Back At Myself — but it did provide a fresh perspective that had been lacking from the prior year’s album.

The album opens with a catchy Dennis Linde number, “Ten Pound Hammer”, which would have been an excellent choice for a single. It was covered two years later by Barbara Mandrell for her final album. It is followed by the album’s first single “That’s As Close As I’ll Get To Loving You”, a slightly slicker-sounding number than what we had usually heard from Aaron up to this point. The record managed to reverse Aaron’s chart decline; it reached the #1 spot, becoming his first record to crack the Top 10 in two years. The album’s subsequent singles did not fare as well, however. “Without Your Love” only reached #22, while “Everything I Own” peaked at #51 and “How’s The Radio Know” a Tippin co-write with Michael P. Heeney stalled at #69. “How’s The Radio Know” is the album’s most traditional-sounding single; that and perhaps declining promotional support from the label may account for its poor chart performance.

There are some pleasant surprises among the album cuts. One of my favorites is “A Real Nice Problem To Have”, a Rick Bowles co-write with Tom Shapiro. Tippin also dusts off Billy Swan’s 1973 hit “I Can Help”. It’s not the type of song I’d expect Aaron Tippin to cover, but he pulls it off reasonably well. “You Gotta Start Somewhere”, another Tom Shapiro effort co-written by Bob Regan, is also quite good.

The album’s sole dud is the psuedo-title track, which, as noted earlier, was carried over from Tippin’s previous album. It is included here as an eleventh song. Had it been omitted, the album would not have suffered. Why it was resurrected is a mystery; I suspect that it was included because someone took a liking to “Tool Box” as an album title.

Tool Box
was Tippin’s final album for RCA. As such, the label probably had little interest in promoting it too heavily with radio programmers. Nevertheless, it sold well and Aaron proved that he had a few more hits left in him when he moved to Lyric Street Records for his next release. Tool Box is a definite improvement over Tippin’s previous few albums; inexpensive copies are easy to find and worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Haunted Heart’

Sammy Kershaw’s sophomore effort reunited him with producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, whose collaboration had helped Don’t Go Near The Water achieve platinum-level sales. 1993’s Haunted Heart continues in a similar vein. It too achieved platinum status, but it also improved upon its predecessor’s inconsistent success with country radio; all of Haunted Heart’s four singles landed in the Top 10, unlike Sammy’s previous effort which had produced only two Top 10 hits.

Straight out of the box, the catchy lead single “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful”, written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison, rose all the way to #1, becoming the first and only chart-topper of Kershaw’s career. The upbeat title track was the album’s worst performing single, peaking at #9, while the similar sounding “Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer” performed slightly better, reaching #7. The latter song, written by Dennis Linde, is marred by somewhat cliched and silly lyrics, but its catchy beat makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The fourth and final single, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” is the best of the group and ranks right up there with “Yard Sale” as one of Kershaw’s best singles.

Aside from the hit singles, Haunted Heart is noteworthy for some of its supporting personnel. The legendary Weldon Myrick, famous for his work with Connie Smith, plays steel guitar on that album, and one of the background vocalists is Sammy’s labelmate, the then largely unknown Shania Twain. She can be heard most prominently on the excellent Dean Dillon and Danny Kees composition “What Might Have Been”. It’s too bad that Shania’s own discography doesn’t contain material like this. Another standout track is the beautiful ballad “Still Lovin’ You”, which despite its inclusion on Sammy’s 1995 The Hits: Chapter 1 compilation, was never released as a single. The steel guitar track and Melonie Cannon’s harmony vocals are beautiful.

However, not all of the album’s material is stellar; there are two duds in particular — the novelty tune “Neon Leon” which really wears thin with repeated listenings, and “You’ve Got A Lock On My Heart”, which was written by producer Buddy Cannon with Larry Bastian. Heavy on electric guitar, it’s the least traditional song on the album. Another artist might have made it work, but it’s a stretch for Sammy and it really doesn’t fit well with the rest of the album. All is forgiven however, with the closing track, a contemporary take on the Bill Monroe classic “Cry, Cry Darlin'”. Unlike the original, this version does not have a bluegrass arrangement; the electric guitar is a bit intrusive at times, but the pedal steel and harmony vocals are superb.

Casual Sammy Kershaw fans may be content to own just his hits compilations, but there are enough gems among this collection’s album cuts to make it worth purchasing. It can be easily obtained at bargain prices.

Grade: A-