My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dickey Lee

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Saddle The Wind’

The rise of the New Traditionalists in the late 1980s meant that the sooth pop-country which had served Janie well earlier in the decade was sounding dated. Janie was also now over 40, as younger artists came forward, and radio abandoned her, with no really successful singles from her 1987 album After Midnight. She took on the challenge with gusto, adapting to a much more traditional country style for 1988’s Saddle The Wind, with the help of producer Steve Buckingham. She was still, incidentally, using the new spelling of Frickie, which she had adopted for Black And White.

There were three singles to promote this album. Unfortunately, none did very well, but they are all excellent songs, beautifully sung and unmistakeably real country. ‘Where Does Love Go (When It’s Gone)’ is a brisk Peter Rowan song with a bright upbeat feel despite a lyric pondering the reasons for a breakup.

‘I’ll Walk Before I’ll Crawl’ is a lovely mid-paced ballad (written by Gidget Baird and Linda Buell) gives a cheating husband an ultimatum. The third and last single, ‘Heart’, was written by the ultra-successful writing team of Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet. It is an excellent song about a woman desperately tempted to cheat on her husband.

On a somewhat similar theme, Hank Cochran’s classic ‘Don’t Touch Me (If You Don’t Love Me)’ explores the draw of sexual desire knowing the loved one cannot offer what the protagonist needs:

Your hand is like a torch each time you touch me
That look in your eye pulls me apart
So don’t open the door to heaven if I can’t come in
No, don’t touch me if you don’t love me, sweetheart

Your kiss is like a drink when I am thirsty
Oh and I’m thirsty for you with all my heart
But don’t love me, then act as though we’ve never kissed
Oh, don’t touch me if you don’t love me, sweetheart

Janie’s intense vocal is superlative on this song.

Several other classic covers are also included. Willie Nelson’s ballad The Healing Hands Of Time’ is another true classic song given an exquisite vocal, with some tasteful steel and piano. The album opens with a sprightly version of the Western Swing ‘Sugar Moon’ which is delightful, and Janie also revives the up-tempo ‘Crazy Dreams’, one of Patsy Cline’s lesser known early recordings.

‘I’m Not That Good At Goodbye’, a much recorded song written by Bob McDill and Don Williams, has another excellent vocal from Janie. ‘If I Were Only Her Tonight’, written by McDill with Bucky Jones and Dickey Lee, is another fine song about unrequited love and the pull of an old flame.

There is a Marty Robbins Mexican flavor to the title track, with Spanish guitar accompanying a story song written by the album’s producer Buckingham, about a star-crossed border romance with a bandido.

Janie had a truly lovely voice, but at her commercial peak she was too often buried under poppy production. In this album she finally married her voice to great production and songs, making this by far her best work. I would recommend it to anyone.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘You’re My Best Friend

Don’s fourth album, released in April 1975, found Don sharing the producer’s chair with Allen Reynolds, along with writing (or co-writing) four of the album’s ten songs.

The album opens with the title track, written by Wayland Holyfield. This was the first single released from the album and it soared to #1 on the US and Canadian country charts. It also hit internationally reaching the pop charts in the UK (#35) and Australia (#50).

“Help Yourselves to Each Other” is next up. A Bob McDill/Allen Reynolds collaboration, this song is a slow ballad about mutual dependency as part of the human condition:

What a time to turn your back on someone
What a day to be without a friend
What a shame when no-one seems to bother
Who will offer shelter to candles in the wind

And it follows we are only helpless children
Ever changing like sunlight through the trees
It’s a long road we must cling to one another
Help yourselves to each other,
That’s the way it’s meant to be

“ I Don’t Wanna Let Go” is yet another slow ballad from breaking up, this time from the pen of Jim Rushing. I cannot see this song ever being released as a single by anyone but it fits nicely within the context of the album:

Sweet bitter dreams gather gently inside me
As I roll with the earth finding nothing to hide me
For my love was my shelter my shore and my home
How can time repay what I gave away
When I don’t wanna let go

Don picks up the tempo (slightly) with “Sweet Fever”, from the pens of Dickey Lee and Bob McDill. The song features some nice steel guitar from Lloyd Green. I think we have all been here:

I don’t know what happens but you come walking by
I can’t speak my knees get weak I feel half paralyzed
My temperature keeps rising my head is feeling light
I sing love songs all day long I toss and turn all night

I got a sweet fever comin’ all over me
I got a sweet fever I wonder what can it be
I got a sweet fever comin’ all over me
I got a sweet fever I wonder what can it be

Dickey Lee and Bob McDill also collaborated in writing “Someone Like You”. I think this would have made an excellent single for Don, but the song was resurrected in as a single by Emmylou Harris in 1984, reaching #26. By 1984, Emmylou’s career as a singles artist had already slowed down, which is too bad as the song deserved to be a big hit for someone.

Others have touched me soft in the night
And others have kissed me and held me tight
Good times and lovers I’ve had a few
But I was just waiting for someone like you.

Others have loved me before your time
Some who were gentle, some who were kind
Don’t it seem funny I never knew
I was just waiting for someone like you.

“Turn Out the Light and Love Me Tonight” is another Bob McDill classic that Don took to #1. I love the imagery of the song. Some of the younger listeners may remember the song as an album track on Kenny Chesney’s 1996 album Me and You. Kenny did a nice job with the song but this version is the classic version. Don penned the next song, “Where Are You”, a slow ballad that makes a good album track.

Al Turney’s name shows up occasionally on Don’s early albums. The Alabama native’s “Tempted” is handled as a mid-tempo ballad by Don. While not released as a single, it received a little airplay here in Central Florida and apparently elsewhere as well. I feel this should have been released as a single:

Tempted, tempted, tempted to fall in again
Tempted, tempted, I’m tempted to fall in love again.

Sometimes love, can hurt you bad
Make you stop and wonder what you really had
But I guess it’s all part of the master plan
To be tempted to fall in love again.

Tempted, tempted, tempted to fall in again
Tempted, tempted, I’m tempted to fall in love again.

The album closes with a pair of Don Williams compositions “You’re The Only”, a mid-tempo ballad, and “Reason to Be” a philosophical, very slow ballad of introspection.

First I was love, then I came to be
I had a heart inside of me
And though my heart was working I found
Still there was something it had not found

So I went away, hoping to see
Maybe I’d find what’s missing in me
Knowing so well but not knowing why
If I didn’t find this something I’d die

And then I came to where I had been
I knew the first was still not the end
What I had left was not what I found
Because there was you, because there I found

First I was love, then I came to be
I had a heart inside of me
And though my heart is still part of me
You give my heart its reason to be

This album is not quite up to the standard of Don’s first three albums, but it is still an excellent album that I would give an A-

Ensemble:
Don Williams – acoustic guitar, vocals, producer
Jim Colvard & Jerry Stembridge – electric guitar, acoustic guitar
Joe Allen – bass / Lloyd Green – steel guitar, dobro
Shane Keister – keyboards / Danny Flowers – harmonica
Kenny Malone – drums, marimba, congas

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Live At Cobo Hall Detroit’

live at cobo hallAfter fifteen assorted albums in roughly a five year period, MGM finally got around to releasing a live album on Hank Jr. Released in July 1969, MGM SE-4644 was the third of five albums MGM would release in 1969. To my knowledge the album has never been released in any digital format, although Polygram did reissue it on vinyl a few years later.

Cobo Hall (now the Cobo Center) in Detroit might seem a strange venue in which to record a country album, but judging from the album that emerged from the concert it was just fine. Built in 1960 and named for Albert E Cobo (Detroit Mayor 1950-1957), Cobo Hall was one of the nation’s first really large convention centers and I believe that Hank Williams Jr. – Live At Cobo Hall was the first time a major recording label had recorded an album at such a venue.

This 1969 album catches Hank Jr. at a time when he was beginning to be his own man, and not merely a clone of his famous father. While the album has the obligatory Hank Sr. songs, it also features his own hit “Standing In The Shadows” and some covers of more recent material
Side One of the album opens with “Jambalaya”, one of Hank Sr.’s hits. Written by Hank Sr. (possibly with Moon Mullican as co-writer although not so credited) Hank Jr. tackles the song with the proper tempo and enthusiasm.

Next up is the Mel Tillis – Danny Dill classic “Detroit City” which was a hit twice in 1963 by Billy Grammer (under the title “I Wanna Go Home”) and by Bobby Bare. Hank does a nice job with the song.
Hank shows his total comfort with rock songs on his fast take on the Joe South composition “Games People Play”. This would have made a good single but Freddy Weller, a member of the rock group Paul Revere & The Raiders who was attempting to forge a career in country music, beat Hank to the punch taking the song to #1 on the Cashbox and Record World country charts a few months earlier.

That Hank chose to record the song at all was a harbinger of things to come in country music. Until 1968 what some would describe as songs of social consciousness had been rare in country music, in fact aside from Johnny Cash’s songs, they been virtually non-existent. In 1968 three songs, Roy Clark’s “Do You Believe This Town”, Henson Cargill’s “Skip A Rope” and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”, had cracked the door open further for this kind of material:

Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean

While they wile away the hours
In their ivory towers
Till they’re covered up with flowers
In the back of a black limousine

Chorus
La-da da da da da da da
La-da da da da da de
Talking ’bout you and me
And the games people play

Oh we make one another cry
Break a heart then we say goodbye
Cross our hearts and we hope to die
That the other was to blame

But neither one ever will give in
So we gaze at an eight by ten
Thinking ’bout the things that might have been
And it’s a dirty rotten shame

It would be unthinkable for Hank to have done a live album without showcasing one of this own hits, so “Standing In The Shadows” is up next. The song got a rousing ovation from the audience.

I know that I’m not great
And some say I imitate
Anymore I don’t know
I’m just doing the best I can

After all I’m standing in the shadows
Of a very famous man

The band is feature on an instrumental, the recent Flatt & Scruggs hit (from the movie Bonnie and Clyde)”Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It is a good rendition although the banjo player is definitely not in Earl Scrugg’s league. Snippets of several other songs are performed within this track (in jazz they call these ‘signatures’).

Side One closes out with an effective version of another Hank Sr. classic “You Win Again”.

Side Two opens with a classic George Jones song penned by Dickey Lee Lipscomb & Steve Duffy, “She Thinks I Still Care”. Hank Jr. isn’t George Jones (who is?) but he handles the song quite well.

Conway Twitty had a many #1 records in his illustrious career but “Darling You Know I Wouldn’t Lie” (#1 Cashbox / #1 Record World / #2 Billboard) is barely remembered today. Hank’s version opens with a nice steel guitar intro – in fact, the steel dominates the whole arrangement. This Wayne Kemp-Red Lane classic is the kind of song Conway Twitty really excelled at, and I really like Hank’s take on the song:

Here I am late again for the last time
And like I promised I just told her goodbye
Please believe me for this time it’s really over
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

Didn’t I come and tell you about her
How temptation lured she and I
Now I know it was only fascination
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

I had to let her down easy as slow as I could
After all she’s got feelings too
But it took a little longer than I thought it would
But this time she knows we’re really through

She wanted to hold me forever
And this lipstick shows her final try
And these tears on my shoulders are proof that she failed
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

The album closes with three Hank Sr. songs. In his earliest recordings Hank Jr. tried to be a clone of his father, but by now he was putting his stamp on the material.

There are many who consider “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as the greatest country song ever written (personally I’m torn between this song, “El Paso”, and “The Last Letter”), but it is a great song, even if Hank Jr.’s version does not live up to his father’s version (no one else’s version does either). It’s a great song and should be appreciated for what it is.

This is followed by “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; again Hank Jr. cannot quite get that lonesome sound in his voice that his father does, but he does a fine job. For whatever reason, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is not listed on the album cover, which caused me to think this was a shorter album than is actually the case.

The album closes with “I Saw The Light”. Country albums and live country shows frequently closed with gospel songs during this period of time. Unfortunately that tradition faded away in the 1970s
Unfortunately I was unable to find definitive information on the musicians playing on this album. Even PragueFrank’s website did not provide any information. Suffice it to say, it’s a very good band with a proficient steel player, a competent banjo and an excellent honky-tonk style pianist. I hope someday this gets released in a digital format with the missing tracks restored as bonus tracks. By the time this album was issued Hank Jr. had already scored a few more hits on non-Hank Sr. material, so I presume he might performed a few of them.

A few years ago I did an article on the twenty-five greatest live country albums. At that time, I placed this album sixteenth on my list, docking it a bit for the short playing time (based on the album’s back cover). The actual playing time is actually around thirty-two minute, which still seems too short – the album ended with me wanting more.

Obviously I give this album a solid A.

Week ending 11/28/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

dicky11955 (Sales): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose — Little Jimmy Dickens (Columbia)

1975: Rocky — Dickey Lee (RCA)

1985: I’ll Never Stop Loving You — Gary Morris (Warner Bros.)

1995: Check Yes or No — George Strait (MCA)

2005: Better Life — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2015: Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton (Mercury)

2015 (Airplay): I’m Comin’ Over — Chris Young (RCA)

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘Doug Stone’

dougstoneReleased towards the end of the New Traditionalist movement, Doug Stone’s eponymous debut is his best and most traditional album. The Epic album was produced by Doug Johnson and featured top-notch songs and an impressive roster of musicians including Mark O’Connor, Mac McAnally, and Paul Franklin. The album’s first single was the superb country weeper “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)”, an indulgent tale of self-pity written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark. Songs like this are the reason many people dislike country music, but they are also the reason so many of us love it so passionately. Stone knocked it out of the park on his first try; although he released many songs after this that I thoroughly enjoyed, nothing ever matched this masterpiece. It peaked at #4 but deserved to go to #1, and I’ve often thought it might have become a top charter if it had been held back and released after Stone had built up some name recognition, instead of being the first out of the box. But chart position aside, it’s a great record.

The rest of the album is almost as good. Doug’s follow-up single “Fourteen Minutes Old” is another break-up song despite its uptempo arrangement. Written by Dennis Knutson and A.L. “Doodle” Owens, it topped out at #6. The Harlan Howard tune “These Lips Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”, another favorite of mine, fared slightly better by reaching #5. Stone finally reached #1 with the album’s fourth and final single, “In A Different Light”, which was written by the great Bob McDill along with Dickey Lee and Bucky Jones. It is the album’s least traditional song, but its biggest hit, perhaps foreshadowing country music’s imminent shift back to a more pop-oriented sound. It also allowed Stone to showcase his skills as a balladeer and it cast the template for many of his future hits.

I’ve often second-guessed record label choices for singles, but in the case of this album I think that Epic got it right. The album’s remaining songs are good, but not as strong as the ones sent to radio. “Turn This Thing Around” is not quite as good as Keith Whitley’s version from the year before. “High Weeds and Rust”, my least favorite song here, was later covered by its songwriter David Lee Murphy. Producer Doug Johnson’s “We Always Agree On Love” isn’t quite as strong as the rest of the album, but I really liked Randy Boudreux’s “My Hat’s Off To Him” and “It’s A Good Thing I Don’t Love You Anymore” by Bobby P. Barker and Keith Palmer.

I was still in college when this album was released and it certainly does not seem like nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then. In listening to the album again, though, it’s age is sometimes betrayed by the electronic keyboard arrangements, which were considered cutting-edge at the time but seem quite dated today. Thankfully, producer Doug Johnson avoided being too heavy-handed with them, and they are not as intrusive as the keyboard arrangements on other records of the era. It is however, the album’s sole flaw, albeit a minor complaint overall. Albums this good were not uncommon in the early 90s, and thus were sometimes easy to take for granted. This one is especially worth dusting off and listening to again, particularly for those fans who have become disillusioned with the current state of mainstream country. Inexpensive copies of Doug Stone are easy to find.

Grade: A

Album Review – Heather Myles – ‘Untamed’

HeatherMylesUntamedHeather Myles continued with producer Bruce Bromberg for her sophomore album released on HighTone records in early 1995. Like its predecessor Untamed didn’t yield any hit singles and marked the end of Myles’ tenure on the label. The change led her to Rounder where she would release her next couple of albums.

In the same fashion as Just Like Old Times, Myles had a hand in writing the majority of the album, penning seven songs solely and co-writing another. “When You Walked Out on Me” is a classic mid-tempo honky-tonker and a perfect showcase for Myles’ voice. “Until I Couldn’t Have You” is more modern, with an acoustic guitar and drum led arrangement that gives the track a more polished feel, although it was still retro by 1995 standards. “Indigo Moon,” a southwestern flavored track, is a love letter to New Mexico and features a wonderful twangy guitar and drum accompaniment that gives the track a nice groove. “It Ain’t Over” features another wonderfully upbeat production perfect for Myles’ voice, but the repetitive chorus feels lazy and underdeveloped.

Western swing rocker “Cadillac Cowboy” may be the most traditional of the self-penned numbers, complete with a nice dose of fiddle and steel guitar. “Come Back To Me” is a fabulously sparse ballad that allows the ache in Myles’ vocal to shine through perfectly. The neo-traditional leaning number is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Also excellent is the title track, a mid-tempo ballad serving as a call to action for conservation (“We have ourselves to blame. If you want it to remain, then let it go untamed.”)

Myles co-wrote the breakneck honky-tonker “Gone Too Long” with Dickey Lee of “9,999,999 Tears” fame. It’s an excellent number for its rapid-fire pace alone, with the gorgeous twangy guitar serving as an added bonus to the proceedings. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a cover of Marty Robbins’ “Begging You,” which has Myles channeling Patsy Cline. The country shuffle serves her quite well and allows Myles room to showcase the power of her voice.

Jack Rymes wrote “And It Hurts,” another of the more modern sounding tracks on Untamed. I love the beat and Myles’ vocal on this one as well. Another of the more traditional sounding songs is “Just Leave Me Alone,” which Eddy Raven co-wrote with legendary country songwriter Sanger D. Shafer. The track is good, but doesn’t stand out from other similar tracks on the album.

I must admit that Untamed marks my formal introduction to Myles’ music and I quite liked it. She covers a lot of ground here from traditional to honky tonk and modern country with an ease most singers couldn’t pull off. Untamed isn’t a revelatory album by any means, but it’s a nice pleasant listen just the same.

Grade: A

Album Review – Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – ‘Cheater’s Game’

MI0003484229If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music.

Grade: A+ 

Classic Rewind: Dickey Lee – ‘9,999,999 Tears’

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Dickey Lee and Barbara Mandrell – ‘Never Ending Song Of Love’

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 5

For part five of this series, as always, just some songs I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit, (although I feel free to comment on other songs by the artist).

Let’s All Go Down To The River” – Jody Miller & Johnny Paycheck (1972)

A nice country cover of an old gospel song – how could you go wrong with this duo? Jody Miller would have a number of hits during the 1970s, although her single biggest record was in 1965 when “Queen of The House” (an answer song to Roger Miller’s “King of The Road”) went #12 pop / #5 country. I don’t know that Jody viewed herself as a country singer, but she had a sassy & sexy voice and was quite easy on the eyes.

Tom Green County Fair” – Roger Miller (1970)

Roger Miller’s career had largely run out of steam by this time, but the imagery in this song makes it one of my favorites. Alas, this song only reached #38. Roger would experience a significant renaissance in the mid-1980s writing the music for the Broadway play Big River.

Music Box Dancer” – Frank Mills (1979)

I have no idea why this song charted country as Frank Mills was an orchestra leader and this instrumental song was no more country than Lady Gaga. It was a huge pop hit reaching #3 and selling millions in the process.

Pure Love” – Ronnie Milsap (1974)

Written by Eddie Rabbitt, this was Ronnie’s first #1. How can you not like a song that contains a line like “Milk and honey and Captain Krunch and you in the morning?”

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Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Full Circle’

This Is Me, the follow-up to Wind In the Wire, revived Randy’s career after that side-project, with four top 10 hits including the chart-topping ‘Whisper My Name’. Surprisingly, though, his next album was a commercial disappointment, with none of the singles doing at all well. Released in August 1996, Full Circle was produced as usual by Kyle Lehning, but the sound is a little fuller than on their previous work together. Randy’s resonant baritone is at its best, and the material is generally high quality.

The first two singles, ‘Are We In Trouble Now’ and ‘Would I’ both faltered in the 20s. The former is a well-written ballad about falling in love which was rather surprisingly written by British rock guitarist Mark Knopfler. (Knofler has had a longstanding interest in country music, and has recorded albums with Emmylou Harris and Chet Atkins.) Randy gives it a sensitive, tender delivery worthy of a much bigger hit. The up-tempo ‘Would I’, on the other hand, is pleasant but forgettable, and frankly makes me think of the songs criticised in Alan Jackson’s ‘Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song’ from a few years later.

‘If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another’ is a much more entertaining, personality-infused up-tempo number, co-written by Joe Stampley (best known for his Moe & Joe duets with Moe Bandy), and not picking this as a single feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. It could have made the basis of an amusing video too.

The excellent ‘Price To Pay’ (written by Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman) was perhaps just a little too downbeat to succeed in a period when pop influences were once more gaining ground on country radio. A cheating song, the remorseful protagonist regrets having ever let it start, when it would have been so much easier to call a halt:

Your heart wasn’t mine to take
Mine wasn’t mine to give
And love wasn’t ours to say
I shoulda let you go when I could
When the memories weren’t so many or so good
And one night was such a small price to pay

It barely charted despite being the best of the three singles, and that signalled the end of Randy’s time with Warner Brothers, at least for a while.

The atmospheric opener ‘Highway Junkie’, written by blue-collar singer-songwriter Chris Knight with Sam and Annie Tate, sets the portrait of a trucker using his focus on life on the road to get over heartbreak against a muscular beat. The song namechecks Roger Miller and his classic ‘King Of The Road’, and quite fittingly later in the record there is a loping cover of that very song, which also appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Traveller.

Another very good song is ‘Long On Lonely (Short On Pride)’, written by venerable songwriting team of Bob McDill, Dickey Lee, and Bucky Jones. The weary protagonist appeals to his former lover:

I won’t say I love you, don’t know if it’s true
I will say I need you, God knows I do

Randy revived an old song he had written (with John Lindley) and recorded back in the Randy Ray days, ‘The Future Mister Me’. This mournful response to a failed relationship was well worth revisiting, and is quite beautifully sung by a defeated sounding narrator, who has obviously caused his share of problems for his ex wife but is now wishing her luck with her new man. He also wrote two more songs for the album. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ (written with Ron Avis, the driver of Randy’s tour bus) is excellent. In this intense ballad, the protagonist is desperate for his chance-met ex not to see him crying at the sight of her with her new love. The tender love song ‘I Can Almost Hear Her Wings’ was written with Buck Moore and Eddie Lee, and is lovely.

The beaty ‘Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me’ is enjoyable enough, but lacks much of a melody and is one of the weaker moments. The album closes with the philosophical and relaxed sounding ‘Ants On A Log’, written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees.

Full Circle is easy to find cheap. Although it was not a commercial success for Randy, it is underrated and worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.

The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.

Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.

The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.

If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,

The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high

is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.

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Album Review: George Jones – ‘Walls Can Fall’

George’s second MCA album was released in 1992, and showed he was still capable of competing with the younger artists musically, although he was getting squeezed out of radio playlists. Producer Emory Gordy Jr gives the up tempo tracks a muscular rhythmic backing adapted to contemporary radio trends, but the ballads get a more subtle treatment. Gordy’s wife Patty Loveless sings backing vocals, together with Vince Gill.

A select group of younger stars provided backing vocals on the age-defying ‘I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair’, with Vince and Patty joined by Garth Brooks, Joe Diffie, Pam Tillis, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black. George and friends were rewarded with the CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year, in 1993, although the single was only moderately successful, peaking at #34. Written by Billy Yates, Kerry Kurt Phillips and Frank Dycus, the song has never been a favorite of mine despite its accolades. Lyrically it is dangerously close to a novelty song, with slightly overbearing production.

I prefer the cheerfully rebellious ‘Wrong’s What I Do Best’ (written by Dickey Lee, Mike Campbell and Freddy Weller), the vibrant second single, although it flopped at radio, failing to rise above the 60s. It may have been a mistake not to release the closing track, ‘Finally Friday’ (previously recorded by Earl Thomas Conley). George roars and growls his way through this insistently rhythmic ode to the end of the working week in what is in many ways a more successful defiance of age than ‘I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair’.

A ballad was picked for the final (and sadly noncharting) single, but not one of George’s heartbreak specials. The title track is also an older man’s song but a more dignified one, expressing gratitude for a love breaking through the barriers the protagonist has erected over the years, for which Yates and Dycus were also responsible (together with Bruce Bouton). It is a nice but not outstanding song, and there is better fare of the album, including the album’s other love song, veteran Wayne Kemp’s beautiful ‘Don’t Send Me No Angels’.

In the ironic ‘Drive Me To Drink’, George tells his cheating wife to drop him off at the bar on her way to meet her lover:

You’ll be in his arms again
And I’ll be off the road
The highway will be safer
And they’ll have you to thank
If you’re gonna drive me crazy, baby
Drive me to drink

The storyline may be an implausible spin on the phrase which inspired it, but George sells it vocally, and this is probably my favorite of the up-tempo numbers.

One of the standout tracks is ‘What Am I Doing There’, written by Buddy Brock and Zack Turner, a classic sounding slow sad song as fantasies about a lost love imperil a new relationship, with lonesome fiddle backing up George’s sorrowful and guilt-ridden emoting which recalls his very best:

I no longer know what’s real anymore
In the back of my mind I have opened the door
That leads to the past & the love we once shared

How could I explain to the one lying here,
She’s loving me now
What am I doing there?

It is just beaten to the title of my personal favorite on this album by a perfectly structured Gene and Paul Nelson song, ‘There’s The Door’, also recorded by Stacy Dean Campbell, where a man faces a stark choice. Having tried his wife’s patience by staggering home past midnight once too often, he is faced with her ultimatum:

She took a sip of coffee and softly said to me,
“There’s the mantel where we keep our wedding picture
There’s the bedroom where we made both love and war
There’s the ring keeps on slipping off your finger
There’s no reason we should go on anymore
There’s the door”

So I’m back here on this barstool my whole world blown to hell
Behind the bottle there’s a mirror where a fool can see himself
If I were the man I should be and not the one I am
I would go back there this minute and beg for one more chance

There’s the jukebox where I wasted all those quarters
There’s a lady trying to get me out on the floor
And there’s a chance the one I love would still forgive me
It’s a step that I just never took before
There’s the door

I particularly like the fact that we don’t get told whether he makes the choice, and whether that door remains closed or not. My feeling is that he doesn’t, but there is that glimmer of hope.

Also fantastic is the regretful ‘You Must Have Walked Across My Mind Again’, written by Kemp with Warren Robb, which sounds like classic George, as the protagonist wakes up in prison after a drunken brawl which he blames on memories of his ex. George also covers the Haggard classic ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’.

Years of abusing his body with alcohol notwithstanding, George entered his sixties in pretty good shape vocally, and although perhaps his voice was starting to show slight signs of deterioration, his interpretative ability was still second to none. He may have been starting to struggle to compete with younger stars at radio, but this album showed he was still capable of making great music. And although I started out by saying I didn’t much like ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’, its chart success helped make this Goegre’s first gold-seller since Wine Colored Roses.

It’s still easy to find, and worth adding to your George Jones collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘It’s All Happening’

Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics.  He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters.  Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel.  James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.

The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set.  The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:

There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke

It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart

And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar

That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool

Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:

I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight

I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight

Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Sleepless Nights’

Sleepless NightsPatty Loveless was dropped by Epic following disappointing sales and minimal airplay for her last album for the label, Dreamin’ My Dreams. She was in no hurry to make her next move, taking some time off the road to move down to Georgia, and dealing with family deaths and illness, but in 2008 she signed with the independent label Saguaro Road, and in September that year she released a new album, produced as usual by husband Emory Gordy Jr. She cast aside thoughts of regaining her chart-topping status, and instead recorded a tribute to traditional country music. It was heralded as a kind of companion piece or counterpart to 2001’s Mountain Soul, as it was billed on the cover as “the traditional country soul” of Patty Loveless. What resulted was even better than we could have expected. Sleepless Nights is a masterpiece.

Classic cover albums have a tendency to fall into one of two main categories: excessively cautious tributes where the artist sounds frankly overwhelmed by the thought of competing with a much-loved original, and ends up producing a carbon copy or high quality karaoke; and trying too hard to put their own stamp on the material in such a way that the merits of the original song are stifled. Sleepless Nights triumphantly avoids either pitfall. Patty sounds thoroughly invested in the material and style, and makes it sound alive. Her versions of each of these songs sounds as though it could have been the original classic version.

George Jones is a very challenging artist to risk comparison with, although perhaps it is less dangerous for a female vocalist where the comparisons will inevitably be less deleterious. Patty had already successfully tackled one Jones classic in the form of ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ back in the early days, and she chose to open Sleepless Nights with George’s first hit single (in 1955), the honky tonking ‘Why Baby Why’ (with a couple of minor lyric changes to fit the change in gender) which also served as the single released to promote this album. Sadly, if predictably, it was far too traditional for today’s country radio, but it is a perfect opening to the album as Patty tears into the song, the most up-tempo on the set.

Patty also picked three more Jones songs, including a truly lovely version of one of his greatest classics (written by Dickey Lee). ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ is altered here to ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. There is a fantastic take on ‘Color Of The Blues’ on which Patty actually achieves the almost impossible: improving on a song once recorded by George Jones as she infuses the lyric with pain. The most obscure Jones cover is ‘That’s All It Took’, from one of his 1960s duet albums with pop singer Gene Pitney, which is probably best known today from the 1970s cover by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Patty’s version features her former guitarist, Australian Jedd Hughes, on harmonies.

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