My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Don Cook

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Next To You’

next-to-youThe singles from Higher Ground were to prove to be Tammy’s final top 40 country hits as radio moved on to a new generation of singers. She turned to veteran Norro Wilson to produce her next album, 1989’s Next To You.

There were two singles from the album. The title track peaked just outside the top 50; it is a subdued, rather downbeat ballad about finding love again, with some rather pretty fiddle. The nostalgic midtempo ‘Thank The Cowboy For The Ride’ (about childhood playmates turning to lifelong love) did even less well, and may be a little too sweet for some despite a little humor.

‘The Note’ is a passionate ballad about heartbreak previously recorded by Gene Watson (and later covered by Daryle Singletary). It is a great song, but the production on Tammy’s version somewhat cloaks it with excessive backing vocals. ‘You Left Memories Layin’ (All Over The Place)’ is in much the same style as the wife left behind.

Even better known was ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, a Dallas Frazier/Doodle Owens song which was one of Charley Pride’s biggest hits. Tammy’s version is delightful, and the song itself is so perfectly constructed it cannot fail.

‘If You Let Him Drive You Crazy (He Will)’is an excellent song written by Curly Putnam, Don Cook, and Max D Barnes. The jaundiced lyric about the failings of men, as seen through the eyes of a mother giving advice to her daughter just embarking on life, tells volumes about her own married life:

The man always gets what he’s after
Then leaves you just over the hill
You oughta understand why it’s over
If you let him drive you crazy, he will

There isn’t a real resolution, just the suggestion that the daughter’s trust in her own boyfriend might be plagued by doubt. Rather more positively, ‘We Called it Everything But Quits’ is a good-humored reflection on surviving hard times and an enduring marriage.

‘I Almost Forgot’, written by Karen Staley, is a very nice song about an encounter with an ex briniging up painful memories. ‘Liar’s Roses’ is a delicate ballad written by Bill and Sharon Rice about a woman who is not fooled for an instant by her cheating husband:

The doorbell rings
It’s flowers for me
Roses again
It’s the third time this week
What kind of fool
Must he picture me to be
To be blinded by a dozen liar’s roses?

Guilt-stained words on beautiful cards
But not a single one that comes from the heart
He’s seein’ her again
‘Cause that’s when he starts
Sendin’ me these lovely liar’s roses

Oh, I’m sleepin’ in a bed of liar’s roses
While he dreams of somebody else
He lies to me and thinks that I don’t know it

‘When A Girl Becomes A Wife’ written by Tammy and husband George Richey is deliberately old fashioned in its lyric, but it feels odd even in the 1989 context, let alone 2016.

Tammy’s voice was showing signs of strain, but this is generally a solid album with the odd misstep.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Crazy Nights’

600x600Lonestar released their second album, and last with John Rich, in June 1997. Crazy Nights continued in the tradition of their debut by keeping Don Cook and Wally Wilson at the helm.

The bright, effervescent and otherwise excellent “Come Cryin’ To Me” led the album and became the band’s second #1 single. The perfectly styled tune, with Cook’s signature percussion beats, was one of four tunes co-written by Rich.

They followed with “You Walked In,” a mid-tempo ballad that stalled at #12. The song, co-written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is sexy without being overt:

Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the supermodel world

Cindy, Naomi and that whole bunch of girls

Redheads, brunettes and blondes with blue eyes

They come in every shape yea they come in every size

You know I love everything they do

I check ’em out on every Pay-Per-View

Oh, but honey that was way before I met you.

And then

***

You walked in with legs up to your neck

You walked in I’m a physical wreck

You walked in I’ve lost my cool babe

But what’d you expect

When you walk in baby love begins

When you walk by baby ooh my my

When you come around, my jaw hits the ground

When you shake your thing I jump outta my skin

When you cross the floor I scream “more baby more”

When you flash your smile you drive me wild

Yea, yea, yea, yea, yea

***

Everybody’s checkin’ out the glossy magazines

Madonna, Diana, you know the whole scene

The covergirls, the centerfolds and every movie star

And all those pretty ladies down there at the local bar

I couldn’t think of nothin’ better to do

Than checkin’ out a little wiggle or two

Oh, but honey that was way before I met you

“You Walked In,” may’ve been too left of center for country radio at the time, but it’s laughably tame in comparison to what the likes of Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban and Sam Hunt have gotten away with in the past few years. Piano ballad “Say When,” another Rich co-write faired just as poorly, peaking at #13.

They regained their stride with the album’s final and strongest single, the Richie McDonald co-written “Everything’s Changed.” The song tells the story of a woman returning to a now unrecognizable town and the man she left behind who still lives there. It’s not only my favorite song they’ve ever done, it’s their finest recorded moment to date:

Funny you should show up after all of these years

Yeah things sure have changed around here

Seen a lot of strangers since they put that interstate through

No this ain’t the same town that we once knew

***

They put up a plant where we used to park

That ol’ drive-in’s a new Wal-Mart

The caf¨¦ is closed where our names were carved on that corner booth

Yeah, everything’s changed except for the way I feel about you

***

That westbound to Santa Fe don’t stop here anymore

You were one of the last to get on board

That street that we grew up on you wouldn’t recognize

Girl nothing’s been the same since you said good-bye

Rich, who was still known as the band’s other lead singer, took the helm on two of the three non-singles he co-wrote. “John Doe on a John Deere” has all the tropes now associated with bro-country expect the woman isn’t treated like an object. Meanwhile “What Do We Do With The Rest of the Night” is simply pure fluff. His final co-write, the title track, has forceful production but not much passion either lyrically or vocally from McDonald.

“Keys To My Heart,” which McDonald co-wrote, is a pleasant contemporary rocker with ample fiddle and steel. The song doesn’t have any meat lyrically, so while it’s enjoyable to listen to, it’s just not a great song overall.

“Cheater’s Road,” which was co-written by Jason Sellers, saw a second life when Chalee Tennison included it on 2003’s Parading In The Rain. I like her version much better than theirs, although it’s truly not that compelling of a song to begin with. The final cut, “Amie” is a by-the-books cover of the Pure Prairie League classic that works surprisingly well.

Crazy Nights will forever be known as the final album before everything changed. Not only would Rich exit the group, but they would ditch their producers and cowboy hats for a more mainstream sound and their greatest success. Here is the band just two years before the craziness, with a clear direction and a couple of worthy songs.

I will always regard this era, 1995-1999, as Lonestar at their best – the songs were smart and interesting and Cook’s signature style fit them well. McDonald, though, was clearly the stronger singer. While John has shown improvement with Big & Rich, he clearly isn’t in top vocal form, here. I don’t blame BNA for pushing McDonald as the face of the band at all.

As an album, Crazy Nights is good but not great. There’s nothing truly essential beyond the lead and final singles.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonestar’

lonestarLonestar kicked off their recording career with the eponymous album Lonestar. Released in October 1995, the album hit the streets on the strength of the successful single “Tequila Talkin’” which was released in August 1995 and reached #8. There would be four more singles issued after the album was released. The album received mixed reviews upon its release, more than a few critics viewing the band as a lightweight version of Shenandoah, a comparison I did not feel to be very valid.

The album was definitely decent honky-tonk country music, with the band augmented by a solid corps of Nashville session men such as Bruce Bouton (pedal steel ), Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar), Brent Mason (electric guitar) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) and such distinguished vocal harmonists as Curtis Young and John Wesley Ryles. Unless otherwise stated, Richie McDonald handles the vocals on the singles.

The album opens up with the up-tempo ballad “Heartbroke Every Day” from the pens of Bill LaBounty, Cam King and Rick Vincent. This album track featured John Rich on lead vocals, and would be the fifth single released, reaching #18. I like Rich’s vocal, which has a bit of a bluegrass feel to it.

Why do I do this to myself
Why do I want the one that wants somebody else
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Why do I always take the fall
I’d rather have you hurtin’ me than not have you at all
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could
If I could
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Track two was the first single released, “Tequila Talkin’” penned by Bill LaBounty and Chris Waters (the brother of Holly Dunn). This single reached #8, the first top ten recording for the group:

I don’t know what they put in Cuervo that got me to say those things
Usually I wouldn’t care so much or make such a scene
But seeing you there in that dress you were wearing just drove me right out of my head
So don’t hold me responsible for anything I might’ve said

It was just the tequila talkin’
When I told you I’m still not over you
I get a little sentimental when I’ve had one or two
And that tear in my eye was the salt and the lime
Not the memory of you walkin’
If I said I’m still in love with you
It was just the tequila talkin’

John Rich, Don Cook and Wally Wilson wrote “I Love The Way You Do That’ – a good song but the intro sounds too much like the intro to track two.

“Running Away With My Heart” was penned by Michael Britt, Sam Hogin and Mark D Sanders. This would be the third single released from the album and would reach #8. This song is a mid-tempo ballad, which features some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Hey Buddy can you get me some faster wheels
I got a heartache nippin’ at my heels
I’ll be hurtin’ if she gets a big head start
First that girl stole my attention
Not to mention all my affection
Now she’s running away with my heart

“What Would It Take” was written by Billy Lawson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson, and is a slow ballad with heavy Nashville Sound string accompaniment of the kind that Billy Sherrill used with George Jones and David Houston. I think that this song, issued 15-20 years earlier, could have been a big single, but by 1995 it was very much an anachronism.

I held the world in my arms
I threw away the moon for the stars
Couldn’t see the forest for the trees
Couldn’t see the love in front of me

What would it take to take me back
Rebuild that bridge, retrace my tracks
I would give all I own
For one little stepping stone
What would it take to take me back

The redoubtable trio of John Rich, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson contributed “Does Your Daddy Know About Me”, an up-tempo honky-tonk song with solid steel and fiddle accompaniment that would have made a good single:

Well you say your daddy is a real cool dude and you keep no secrets from him
Well he knows you got a wild hair, knows your kinda out there and knows about your crazy friends
And he done found out about the night you snuck out with the Cadillac keys
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Well he knows you been skippin’ them Sunday School meetings
He’s heard how fast you drive
Knows you got an attitude, seen your little tattoo, but he lets all that slide
And I bet my boots that he think he knows you from A to Z
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Billy Lawson’s “Ragtop Cadillac” probably was very popular with line dancers. The lyrics are nothing special but it has a rhythm and feel very similar to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”.

“No News” was the second single and the first #1 record for the group reaching #1 in both the US and Canada. The song was written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders, and tells the story about a man whose woman has left him without telling him.

She said “It’s just a woman thing” and pulled out of the drive
I said not to worry I’m an understanding guy
I’ve heard that when you love someone you gotta let ’em go
She hollered “When I find myself you’ll be the first to know”
Ooh no news

I learned to do the laundry, feed the cat, and clean the house
I promised to be patient while she worked her problems out
When she packed her bags, her destination wasn’t clear
But I sensed that her intentions were honest and sincere
Ooh no news

Chick Rains has written a number of fine songs, but “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” is nothing special, a dance number that makes for a decent album track.

Richie McDonald and Kyle Green co-wrote “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance”, the only song McDonald had a part in writing. The song was the fourth single from the album reaching only #45 (but #18 in Canada). I don’t think I would have released this song as a single, although it makes a decent enough album track.

This would be one of two albums issued by the original lineup of Richie McDonald (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Rich (bass, vocals), Michael Britt (lead guitar, background vocals), Keech Rainwater (drums), and Dean Sams (keyboards). Other than John Rich’s contributions, the band relied on outside writers for material. Richie McDonald would emerge as a co-writer on subsequent albums, but I have doubts as to how essential were his contributions to the process.

I would give this album a B+. Of five Lonestar studio albums in my collection, this one is the one I listen to with the greatest frequency as it is the most consistently good album of the bunch.

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Paint the Town’

51uqPseH44L1989’s Paint the Town, the third entry in Highway 101’s discography, was the band’s final full length album before Paulette Carlson’s departure as lead singer. Like its two predecessors it was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The songwriting credits boast a number of prestigious names including Kix Brooks, Matraca Berg, Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, Gretchen Peters, and Roger Miller. While not quite as commercially successful as their previous albums, the material is top notch and it received a warm reception from country radio.

“Who’s Lonely Now”, written by Don Cook and a pre-Brooks & Dunn Kix Brooks was the lead single, and it quickly became the last of Highway 101’s four chart toppers. It was followed by my all-time favorite Highway 101 song, “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”, which was written by Justin Tubb and the great Roger Miller, who made a memorable guest appearance in the song’s video. Despite the mournful sounding title and subject matter, it’s a bouncy uptempo tune with plenty of pedal steel. It peaked at #4 and was the band’s last excursion into the Top 10. “This Side of Goodbye” just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11.

The rest of the album is a mix of contemporary and traditional country. On the contemporary side are the opening track “I Can’t Love You Baby” and “Rough and Tumble Heart”, a Pam Tillis co-write that Tillis would cover herself a few years later. More traditional are the plaintive Gretchen Peters-penned “I’ll Paint the Town” (blue, not red — this is no party song) and a gorgeous, version of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, which closes the album. Featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica, a touch of pedal steel and a stellar vocal performance by Paulette Carlson, the track is simply stunning and a good example of why it pays to dig a little deeper into any artist’s catalog to find the hidden gems that are overshadowed by the radio hits.

The album is a mere ten tracks, which was standard for the day, and plays for just over 33 minutes. Though lean and mean it may be, the songs are all winners, with just one dud. “Midnight Angel” had been a Top 20 hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1976. I’ve always liked the song very much and at first it seemed like a number that Carlson could easily nail, but the Highway 101 version is surprisingly lackluster. It’s probably my least favorite track on any of the band’s first three albums. That one misstep aside, however, Paint the Town is top-notch affair that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first released 26 years ago.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘Music For All Occasions’

MusicforAllOccasionsIn the wake of their landmark What A Crying Shame, the Academy of Country Music named The Mavericks Top New Vocal Group for 1994, and Top Vocal Group in 1994 and 1995. The Country Music Association followed suit, with Vocal Group honors in 1995 and 1996.

Amidst the praise from the industry, they released Music For All Occasions, in the fall of 1995. Co-produced by Don Cook and Ralo Malo, the LP peaked at #9 and contains two of the most beloved singles they’ve ever released.

The Malo and Kostas penned “Here Comes The Rain” peaked at #22. The mid-tempo ballad became an instant classic despite it’s lack of airplay, and won the band their lone Grammy – Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal – in 1996.

The catchy as hell second single “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” was their most unconventional single to date at the time, with an unapologetic Tex-Mex vibe courtesy of featured accordionist Flaco Jiménez. The bright sing-along nature of the track, combined with Malo’s distinctive twangy vocal, helped the song soar to #13.

With The Mavericks’ biggest radio hit yet under their belt, MCA chose the astonishing string and steel soaked ballad “Missing You” as the final single. Despite another brilliant vocal from Malo, the track criminally stalled at #54.

Like “Missing You,” the majority of Music For All Occasions is a melting pot of 60s pop mixed with elements of the Nashville Sound and neo-traditional country. Album opener “Foolish Heart” is a prime example as are “One Step Away,” “My Secret Flame,” “Loving You” and “I’m Not Gonna Cry for you.” They also go honky-tonk with “The Writing On The Wall” and “If You Only Knew,” gifting listeners with rip-roaring pedal steel and a swinging attitude.

To make one more left-of-center statement, The Mavericks close the record with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Something Stupid.” A duet between Malo and Trisha Yearwood, the track features a Spanish-influenced lead guitar mixed with flourishes of harmonica. Like everything Yearwood graces, the results are outstanding.

Music For All Occasions is a revelation that moves the genre forward by bucking all popular trends, nodding to the past, and flawlessly executing on all fronts. The album brilliantly captures a group at the height of their prowess, creating magic at every turn. It pains me to think it sold roughly half of What A Crying Shame because this is music that desperately needs to be heard.

I urge everyone to seek out a copy. Music For All Occasions redefines the idea of essential listening and sounds just as fresh and exciting today as it did twenty years ago.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘What A Crying Shame’

51C7p4ENGmL._SS2801994’s What A Crying Shame was The Mavericks’ third album overall, their second for a major label and the first to have any significant commercial impact. It paired them for the first time with Don Cook who would produce (or co-produce with Raul Malo) all of the group’s albums for MCA from this point forward.

The Mavericks made their first chart appearance in 1992 with a remake of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking'”, which peaked at #74. “What A Crying Shame” did significantly better, reaching #25. There were four additional singles released from the album. two of them – “O What A Thrill” and “There Goes My Heart”, reached the Top 20. “I Should Have Been True” reached #30 and the final single “All That Heaven Will Allow” topped out at #49.

As noted in some other discussions, The Mavericks were largely considered to be a “fringe” act; however, What A Crying Shame is bonafide country with plenty of fiddle and pedal steel — albeit with glossy production and highly polished vocals from Raul Malo that are often reminiscent of Roy Orbison. It is solidly within what was considered mainstream country at the time, which makes radio’s tepid response a bit puzzling. I can only speculate that it is because there was a lot of formidable competition in the 90s. Perhaps in another era The Mavericks would have made more of an impact.

What A Crying Shame may not have received a lot of support from radio, but it did connect with fans, and generated platinum-level sales. It’s a shame that it didn’t get more airplay because it is an excellent album from start to finish. Most of the songs have a 60s feel to them. Raul Malo had a hand in writing seven of the album’s eleven tracks, teaming up on several of them — including the title track and my favorite “There Goes My Heart”, with Kostas, who was one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville at the time.

In addition to Raul Malo and Kostas, What A Crying Shame boasts some impressive songwriting credits, including Jesse Winchester who wrote “O What A Thrill”, Bruce Springsteen who wrote “All That Heaven Will Allow” and the great Harlan Howard who co-wrote “Ain’t Found Nobody” with Kostas.

Even though it sold more than a million copies in the US, the album’s limited radio airplay means that few outside of the million people that bought it have heard most of these songs, and younger fans are unlikely to have heard them at all. I strongly recommend that anyone who hasn’t heard the album pick up a copy; this is exactly the sort of country music that Nashville should be making today.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Raybon Brothers – ‘The Raybon Brothers’

raybon brosAfter leaving Shenandoah, Marty decided to team up in a duo with his brother Tim. MCA released their one and only album together, a self-titled effort, in 1997.

Even Marty Raybon’s committed soulful vocal can’t save the gooey sentiment of ‘Butterfly Kisses’, the duo’s first single. The song had been a big AC hit for its writer, Bob Carlisle, but the Raybon Brothers’ country cover was less successful with radio, just creeping into the top 40. It may not have helped that another rival country cut was around at the same time (by Jeff Carson), although that one performed even more poorly; and the original itself also got some country airplay. However the exposure did propel the single to high sales figures, and it achieved gold certification.

‘The Way She’s Lookin’’ is a bouncy up-tempo number which while fairly generic is much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a flop when it was released as the second single; a shame, as it deserved to do better than ‘Butterfly Kisses’.

The final attempt at a single was a real misstep. ‘Falling’ is a very boring and not terribly good AC-styled duet with Olivia Newton-John – a curious choice whose shortlived country career was long since over. It didn’t chart at all, and didn’t deserve to.

The best track on the album is ‘Every Fire’, a ruefully tender ballad written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski in which the protagonist regrets that the pain of losing his ex has stopped him from moving on:

It’s still raining in my heart
And that’s been putting out every fire I’ve tried to start

Also great is the Don Cook/Al Anderson penned ‘Trying To Keep The Woman I’ve Got’, a charming, up-tempo polite rejection of a woman coming on to him in a bar. This is like vintage Shenadoah.

‘Baby Blue’ is an average song, but has a pleasant melody and some lovely close sibling harmonies. The brothers wrote ‘Your Love’ with Mike Curtis, and this is quite a good sunny up-tempo number reminiscent of Shenandoah.

Tim was allowed to sing lead on a few tracks. He shows himself a competent vocalist with a big meaty voice, but not in his brother’s class. His vocal on ‘Gettin’ Ready For The World To End’ is loud and unsubtle, while he gives a solid but somewhat anonymous performance on his own ‘Hello Love’, which is quite a nice song. ‘Tangled Up In Love’ is a limp pop number co-written by Keith Urban.

The brothers’ musical partnership having failed to set the charts on fire, the duo disbanded, and Marty turned to a solo career. there are enough bright spots to make this worth picking up if you can find it cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Now and Then’

MI0000088499Change was in the air for Shenandoah as the 90s rolled to their mid-point. Liberty, the label upon which they released In The Vicinity of the Heart, had a name change back to Capitol Records Nashville. Marty Raybon released a solo gospel project in November 1995, and the band contributed “Can’t Buy Me Love” to Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles that same year. Stan Thorn and Ralph Ezell, two of Shenandoah’s founding members, exited the group around this same time as well.

Amidst the upheaval they were able to deliver a new album, with the band now a trio. Now and Then, a record consisting of five new songs and eight re-recordings of their biggest hits for Columbia, dropped in 1996 with Don Cook producing once again.

Album opener “All Over But The Shoutin,’” a rockilin’ honky-tonker was the first and only single, peaking at #46. The production on the track is listenable, but Raybon’s rapid-fire lyrical delivery is awful and leaves the track without room to breathe. “Lonely Too Long” isn’t much better with a dated line dance-esque sound and cliché ‘country boy meets city girl’ lyrics. “Nowhere To Go But Back” hardly reverses the trend, serving up more nondistinctive dreck.

“I Got You,” with it’s fiddle heavy production sounds like it came from a completely different album. Raybon sings with his trademark-relaxed twang here, and it’s a nice change of pace. The only ballad among the new tracks, “Deeper Than That” is okay, but suffers from a rudimentary lyric and bland production.

The rest of Then and Now, except for inclusion of “Somewhere In The Vicinity of the Heart,” which closes the album, consists of the aforementioned re-recordings. I’m not a fan of this practice at all, especially in the age of digital downloads where the re-recording is often the only available version of a song. I understand why artists do it, so their songs are available again, but it’s still an annoyingly cheap ploy to scam the fans that don’t know any better.

I don’t think I’d mind this practice as much if the songs were nicely updated, but they’re just cheap carbon copies of the originals. Only “Mama Knows” actually sounds good. The others, particularly “Two Dozen Roses” and “Sunday In The South” lack the magic of the originals.

As a whole, Now and Then is a weak, weak album deficient in quality songs with tasteful arrangements. As the final album for the band in its semi-original form (they formally disbanded in 1997) it’s a shame their ten-year career closed on such a sour note. With all the hits they gave us in their prime, they and their fans deserved so much better than weak re-recordings and mailed in original tunes. Download “I Got You” and leave the rest in the dust. You’ll be better for it.

Grade: D 

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Under The Kudzu’

220px-Shenandoah_-_Under_The_KudzuShenandoah released their second album for RCA Records (and fifth overall) in the summer of 1993. Don Cook, known at the time for producing Brooks & Dunn, helmed Under The Kudzu. The hope was a little of the Brooks & Dunn magic would rub off on Marty Raybon and the boys, and while the album wasn’t successful at a superstar level, it did keep them in favor with country radio.

Legendary songwriter Dennis Linde penned the album’s first single, the decidedly upbeat “Janie Baker’s Love Slave.” While the drum heavy production was right in line with the trends twenty years ago, the song is an awful mess, and one of Shenandoah’s weaker single offerings. Radio somewhat agreed, and the track peaked at #15.

Sentimental piano ballad “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” a story song about a guy’s longing to enjoy a lengthy marriage to his true love, returned the band to the top 5, when the song peaked at #3 in late 1993. While the song is a marked improvement over “Janie Baker’s Love Slave,” and boasts nicely understated production behind Raybon’s sincere vocal, it’s a little too schmaltzy.

They return to form with “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can To),” my favorite of the album’s singles, and one of their strongest radio offerings (it was the band’s final #1, too). Raybon co-wrote the tune with Mike McGuire and Bob McDill after seeing line dance instructional videos advertized on TV, and while the concept is clearly dated, the whole things works because Cook backs Raybon’s vocal with twangy guitars that are as ear catching as the song’s hook.

“I’ll Go Down Loving You,” a contemporary piano balled composed by Chapin Hartford, Sam Hogin, and Monty Powell, was the album’s finale single and the first song of the band’s career to miss the top 40 since their debut. This track would’ve been a bigger hit apparently, and it was good enough that it deserved to be so, if the band hadn’t partied ways with RCA shortly after the single’s release.

Linde wrote the title track as well. “Under The Kudzu” references the kudzu plant, which is a vine-like weed from Asia that’s become invasive in the Southeastern United States. The mid-tempo drum driven number is actually much stronger then I expected, although the melody is very reminiscent to Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of my Double Wide Trailer.”

“Nickel In The Well” is another similar sounding uptempo number but Cook smartly helps it stand out thanks to the heavy dose of dobro heard throughout. “Say The Word,” a contemporary mid-tempo number is also good, even if it lacks the extra magic to help it stand out.

“The Blues Are Comin’ Over To Your House” is an excellent more traditionally styled number that Cook wrote with Kix Brooks. It’s one of the album’s stronger songs, and while it hasn’t held up perfectly with time, it should’ve been released to radio, where it would’ve likely been a big hit. “That’s The Kind of Woman I Like,” another up-tempo number co-written by Cook, packs on the charm but lacks a little in the lyric department. It’s darn catchy, though, which is more than enough to help it stand out. Raybon co-wrote “It Takes Every Rib I’ve Got,” and it’s just plain uptempo filler, nothing great, and kind of dumb lyrically.

Under the Kudzu is nothing more than a contemporary country album designed to attract maximum airplay thanks to abundance of uptempo numbers heavy on the drums and somewhat catchy hooks. Cook’s production was very ‘of the moment’ and thus lacked the universal appeal that would help this project age gracefully. There are still some wonderful songs in the mix that keeps the album listenable, but Under The Kudzu is little more than a product of its time.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Tracy Lawrence – ‘The Coast Is Clear’

CoastisclearTracy Lawrence continued with his usual team of Flip Anderson and Don Cook when he entered the studio to record his fifth album The Coast Is Clear, released in early 1997. Sans his trademark mustache and mullet, Lawrence updated his sound to fit the changing tides at radio with varying results.

Lead single “Better Man, Better Off” was Lawrence’s most progressive to date with muscular guitars and crashing drums framing his twangy vocal. The results paid off, with the track just missing the top of the charts. Second single “How A Cowgirl Says Goodbye” hit #4 and remains one of my favorite of his songs to date. Both, though, are equally excellent.

The next three singles didn’t fare as well and were the first of Lawrence’s career to miss the top fifteen. The title track, an effecting yet boring traditional ballad, peaked at #26. Somewhat dated (would’ve worked better in 1995) mid-tempo rocker “One Step Ahead of the Storm” became Lawrence’s first single not to chart, and excellent final single “While You Sleep” petered out at #46.

“Any Minute Now” is an excellent uptempo number, and the kind of song that hits my country music sweet spot. I also enjoy “Hit The Ground Crawlin,’” a mid-tempo honky-tonker and above average drinking song. The sinister vibe and excellent use of fiddle elevate “As Lonesome As It Gets” while “In A Moment of Weakness” works thanks to its tasteful traditional production and Lawrence’s beautifully confident vocal. The only song I didn’t care for was “Livin’ In Black and White,” an island theme number complete with steel drums and a somewhat clichéd lyric.

As a whole The Coast Is Clear didn’t do enough to match the updated sound of “Better Man, Better Off” so while it’s an enjoyable listen, it isn’t the ripe radio fodder Lawrence needed to keep his career afloat. His voice also sounds terribly nasally throughout, which dampens my enjoyment of the project, but at least the material is very, very good.

Grade: B 

Album Review – Tracy Lawrence – ‘Time Marches On’

51ikhsAYYjL._SY300_It was business as usual when Tracy Lawrence brought Don Cook and Flip Anderson into the studio with him to record his fourth album Time Marches On. A mix of traditional ballads and uptempo shuffles, the album fit squarely within the popular trends of 1996 and thus scored four huge top five hits.

Lawrence followed the excellent “If The World Had A Front Porch,” with another equally wonderful tune “If You Love Me.” Written by Paul Nelson and Tom Shapiro, the piano-led ballad represents everything I love about country music from that era (“If You Love Me” hit radio in December 1995) – clean tasteful production and nice twangy vocals. Given that ballads are a tough sell I’m surprised the track peaked at #4, which is more than deserved.

Bobby Braddock’s classic “Time Marches On,” a multi-generational story of a family living through the 1960s and beyond, was the second single and Lawrence’s biggest hit yet, peaking at #1 for three weeks. It’s one of my favorite country singles of all-time, and a good representation of what country music means to me.

Lawrence was on fire, deservedly so, and could seemingly get anything up the charts. “Stars Over Texas,” a ballad he co-wrote with Nelson and Larry Boone, came next and soared to #2. He clearly knew what he was doing because “Stars Over Texas” is a fabulous song with a nice traditional arrangement. I’m not surprised radio would play it, just that it would catch on enough to hit #2. Like “If You Love Me” the track warranted all the airplay it received.

Fourth and final single was the upbeat “Is That A Tear,” which featured a wonderful dose of fiddle throughout. The track was perfect for country radio and peaked at #2. The music video was also a trip, featuring Lawrence in a caper complete with car chases (he in a stolen taxi cab) and a prominent role by his then wife who would later accuse him of, among other allegations, domestic battery.

If Atlantic Records wanted to stretch the project to five singles, which was unheard of in those days, “Speed of a Fool,” co-written by Boone and Nelson, was a good candidate. The upbeat rocker boasts a wonderful mid-90s arrangement complete with a good helping of fiddle and steel guitar. The track is a favorite, and fits right in my sweet spot.

“Excitable Boy” is a throwaway rocker reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s music at the time, but suffers from a spastic arrangement and weird half singing/half-whispering vocal from Lawrence. He’s clearly going for an effect here, but he doesn’t reach it. Boone, Nelson, and Lawrence teamed up for “What We Give” and like their other collaborations on the album, it’s excellent. The song’s another upbeat rocker, but I love the ribbons of steel thrown in to add some sunny touches to the arrangement.

The can-do-no-wrong team of Boone and Nelson teamed up with Anderson for “A Different Man,” another upbeat tune that makes for a wonderful album track. The production is far too loud, and could stand a lot more breathing room, but other than that, it’s a very good song. Lawrence joined Boone and Nelson again to write (can you see a pattern here?) yet another winning track, “Somewhere Between The Moon and You.” It’s excellent but lacks the commercial sheen of “Stars Over Texas” so I can easily see why the latter was the ballad chosen instead. “I Know That Hurt By Heart” is just okay.

Time Marches On is very similar to Pam Tillis’ 1994 release Sweetheart’s Dance in that it’s a very radio friendly effort that’s also an artistic powerhouse. Except for two songs (“Excitable Boy” and “I Know That Hurt By Heart”) the project is near flawless, and a fine representation of the mid-90s sound in country music. Although the album is out of print (I bought mine around it’s original release), cheap copies are available, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Aces’

acesThe first time I heard Suzy Bogguss sing, I was sure that she was on the verge of becoming country music’s next big female superstar. It was, therefore, both surprising and disappointing when her first two albums and the singles released from them all performed poorly on the charts. Her commercial fortunes began to change in 1991 when she teamed up with her Capitol labelmate Lee Greenwood for a duet, the Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook-penned “Hopelessly Yours”, which rose to #12, her best performance to date on the Billboard country singles chart. The record’s success proved to be the breakthrough she needed and paved the way for her subsequent solo recordings.

Suzy was always a bit of a folkie at heart, as opposed to a hardcore country traditionalist, and the song selections on Aces, her third album for Capitol Nashville, reflect that preference. The album’s advance single was a revival of Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s “Someday Soon”, which had been recorded numerous times by a number of artists, including Judy Collins and Moe Bandy. Suzy’s excellent version reached #12, matching the success of “Hopelessly Yours.” Suzy and co-producer Jimmy Bowen slowed down the tempo ever so slightly on Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane”, giving the song more mainstream appeal than Griffith’s original and more quirky recording from a few years earlier. “Outbound Plane”, which peaked at #9, found Suzy cracking the Top 10 for the first time. Recognizing that the folk connection was proving successful, Capitol selected the album’s title track, written by folk singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, as Suzy’s next single. Like “Outbound Plane”, it reached #9 and is one of the songs for which Suzy is best remembered today.

The album’s fourth single — and its most successful was the more conventional “Letting Go”, written by Suzy’s husband Doug Crider and Matt Rollings. A tale about leaving home and the adjustments required by both parent and child, it peaked at #6 in the fall of 1992 and made an appearance on Suzy’s next album Voices In The Wind.

More often than not, I find that there are always one or two songs on every album that should have been a single, but for one reason or another, was not. Tony Arata’s “Part of Me” falls into that category this time around, although for the most part, Capitol showed good judgement in its selection of singles. There’s nothing particularly memorable about “Yellow River Road”, which is noteworthy only because it is the album’s only song in which Suzy had a hand in writing. The bluesy numbers “Save Yourself” and “Let Goodbye Hurt” require more soulful performances than Suzy was able to provide, and her version of “Still Hold On”, though good, cannot compare with Tanya Tucker’s grittier performance from a few years earlier.

Aces was the best and most successful of Suzy’s major label albums, and the only one to earn platinum certification. Inexpensive copies are easy to obtain.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Extremes’

extremesMainstay John Hobbs was joined by Ed Seay and Paul Worley to produce Collin’s third album, extremes. There was a concerted effort to expand Collin’s range with more rocking material, an artistic mistake in my opinion, but it was rewarded with commercial success, with five top 10 hits and platinum sales.

Collin screams out the first single, Lee Roy Parnell’s ‘That’s My Story’, a husband’s attempts to brazen out blatant lies to his wife. The amusing tale would have worked well for Parnell (and the arrangement and production are very much in his style, but it really doesn’t suit Collin’s voice, even though it was a #6 hit for him. The album’s only chart-topper, the fourth single, ‘My Kind of Girl’ is also a screamer, but a lyrically boring one.

Happily, the album also contains some beautiful ballads more in Collin’s style. Although it peaked just short of the top slot on the charts, ‘Little Rock’ may be the most important song ever recorded by Collin Raye, with its abashed, clear sighted depiction of a recovering alcoholic doing his best to cope with the loss of his wife as well as maintaining his sobriety. Written by Tom Douglas, perhaps it could do without the swelling strings, although the song’s strength is undiminished.

My favorite track is the melancholy lost love ‘Man Of My Word’, which peaked at #8. Written by Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr, it is a beautiful song in which the protagonist’s fidelity outlasts her loss (perhaps her death), gently paced and set to a lovely melody, with a subtle interpretation by Raye.

I’ll go to my grave with this torch held high
But just once I wish I’d told you a lie

When I said my love would last for all time
And no one would take your place
Well, if that promise was the last sound you heard
Well, you know I kept it
I’m a man of my word

The final single, #4 hit ‘If I Were You’ is a big ballad written by Hobbs with Chris Farren with a heavily strung arrangement. It’s quite prettily done, but not very memorable.

The best of the up-tempos is the fast story song ‘To The Border And Beyond’, which Collin wrote. Some wildly sawing fiddle backs up a frenetic vocal as Collin spits out the story of the outlaw Dugan. ‘Nothin’ A Little Love Won’t Cure’ is another rocker, and is an okay song written by the curious partnership of Rick Bowles, Don Cook and Larry Boone.

Written by Craig Wiseman and James Dean Hicks, the warm-hearted tale of a mother’s farewell gift of ‘A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home’ to a teenager leaving home with Nashville dreams, is tenderly sung and a definite highlight.

A cover of the classic ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ sounds very pretty, while ‘Angel Of No Mercy’ is another love song with a lovely melody, both ideally suited to Collin’s voice.

Despite some missteps Extremes is still a worthwhile purchase, especially as it can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘In This Life’

inthislifeCollin Raye’s sophomore disc is slightly more polished and less neotraditional than his debut effort. John Hobbs returned to co-produce the album, this time with Garth Fundis, who replaced All I Can Be’s co-producer Jerry Fuller. The title track and lead single was an obvious — and successful — attempt to capitalize on the success of “Love, Me” and cement Raye’s reputation as a ballad singer. “In This Life”, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin spent two weeks at #1 in the autumn of 1992. It also reached #21 on the Adult Contemporary chart and might have been considered Raye’s career record had he not already recorded “Love, Me”.

If “In This Life” helped solidify Collin’s credentials as a balladeer, the next single “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” was meant to ensure that he didn’t get pigeonholed. The uptempo number has just a bit of a rock edge, but the vocal is a little shouty and it doesn’t quite work for me. It is my least favorite track on the album and possibly my least favorite of all of Raye’s singles. While it did not chart as high as the three records that preceded it, it managed to peak at a respectable #7. “Somebody Else’s Moon”, another ballad, saw him return to the Top 5, as did “That Was A River”, yet another ballad which is just a little too syrupy and one of the weakest tracks on the album.

It will come as no surprise to longtime readers that my favorite song on the disc is also its most traditional. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a suprisingly upbeat number about an unraveling relationship; Collin tells his soon-to-be ex:

When I gave you my heart, I gave it forever
But you can’t take it with you when you go.

The Texas two-step number was written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Chick Rains and features some excellent fiddling by Rob Hajacos. Stylistically, it would have been more at home on Collin’s first album. It should have been released as a single, and so should Hugh Prestwood’s “Latter Day Cowboy”, another one of my favorites from this collection.

The collection also includes a pair of remakes. Collin covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, which is a decent effort, but Raye is no Man In Black. His rendition of the pop standard “Let It Be Me”, which closes the album, is more suited to his voice.

Like its predecessor, In This Life earned platinum certification in the US and gold status in Canada. While not quite as good as his debut album, it is one of the stronger entries in his discography. Cheap copies are readily available and worth purchasing.

Grade: A-

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Greatest Hits’ (MCA)

Steve’s move to MCA in 1985 helped him to become a mainstay of country radio, just as the same move worked for Reba McEntire and, a few years later, Vince Gill. None of his first three albums for the label is readily available on CD or digitally, but a good overview can be gained from his second Greatest Hits compilation, released in 1987. The sound was a little less poppy than his RCA work, but still definitely contemporary rather than traditional. Steve’s smooth vocals sound great even on the lesser material.

Steve’s MCA career kicked off with a bang, with ‘What I Didn’t Do’ reaching #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985. Written by Wood Newton and Michael Noble, this remorseful look back at mistakes made by a workaholic husband who failed to pay attention to his wife (left “planning her nights by the TV Guide”) is a fine song, sensitively interpreted.

The up-tempo pop-country ‘Heart Trouble’ (written by Dave Gibson and Kent Robbins) also reached the top 10, but is not very memorable. The last single from One Good Night Deserves Another, Steve’s first MCA album, was a vast improvement, and was to become his second #1. A forlorn ballad about unrequited love, ‘Some Fools Never Learn’ was written by John Scott Sherrill, and Steve sings it beautifully, as the central character faces his loved one’s

Heart like a stone
And a wandering eye

He admits to himself, while he finds a second-best alternative relationship with a girl in the same boat,

It’s no good to pretend it won’t happen again
‘Cause it’ll happen again
Some fools never learn
Play with the fire and you’re gonna get burned
It’s only love when you’re loved in return

This is my favorite of the songs included here.

The lead single from Steve’s second MCA album (and his second album of 1985) was ‘You Can Dream Of Me’, which he wrote with John Hall. It was another #1 hit for him. A mellow sounding cheating song with an attractive melody, the soaring, pure vocal belies a less romantic message, about a married man telling his ex-lover he can’t offer her a full-time or “real” love and she will have to settle for the odd phone call, flowers and dreams.

Next up was that album’s title track, the piano-led mid-tempo ‘Life’s Highway’ written by Richard Leigh and Roger Murrah (and covered by Catherine Britt on her RCA album a few years ago). It was Steve’s fourth #1 hit, and had the most traditionally country instrumentation of his early singles. Carl Jackson and Mac McAnally sing backing vocals, and the track features Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mark O’Connor on mandolin.

The last single was the ballad ‘Starting Over Again’ (written by Don Goodman and John Wesley Ryles), with gospelly piano and soothingly sweet vocals about a constant loser who never loses faith that someday things will work out. It peaked at #4.

Life’s Highway was actually a solid modern country album (by far the best of his early work) which displayed discriminating song selection, including early versions of ‘Back Up Grinnin’ Again’ (soon afterwards cut by Kathy Mattea) and Rodney Crowell’s 1988 #1 hit ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving’. Steve’s somgwriting was also developing, and he wrote five of the ten tracks. It really deserves to be re-issued.

The third album, 1987’s It’s A Crazy World, was a bit of a step backward artistically, although each of the singles reached #1. The first of these was the pleasant but fairly forgettable New York-set ‘Small Town Girl’ (written by John Barlow Jarvis and Don Cook), singing the praises of domestic bliss with the protagonist’s wife, the small town girl of the title. Steve sounds very good on the vivaciously beaty ‘Lynda’, written by Bill LaBounty and Pat McLaughlin, and makes a throwaway ditty worth listening to.

The last single, ‘The Weekend’ was the first Steve Wariner record I ever heard. Written by Bill LaBounty again and Beckie Foster. The protagonist laments having fallen in love with his weekend fling, who is not interested in reciprocating:

You had some fun for the weekend
But I’ll be in love for the rest of my life

..and if I can’t have you tonight
At least I had the weekend

Some will find this ballad a little wimpy, but as a teenager who was new to country music, I loved it and thought it extremely romantic, and I still can’t help liking it and Steve’s sweet interpretation.

The nine solo hits (three from each of Steve’s first three albums on MCA) are rounded out with ‘That’s How You Know When Love’s Right’, a duet with Nicolette Larson which was a top 10 hit in 1986. Nicolette was a country-rock singer with a husky alto voice who had some pop success in the 70s. Her country connections included singing backup on Emmylou Harris’s version of the classic ‘Hello Stranger’, and in the mid 80s she made a concerted effort at a country career of her own. She released two pretty good albums, but this was to be her only hit single – making this the first time Steve’s talents lifted another artist to their greatest commercial success. The production sounds a bit dated now, but not overbearingly so, and the vocals work well enough to overcome this. The two singers’ voices work well together on a pleasantly tuneful if rather generic pop-leaning ballad about falling in love, swapping solo lines in the chorus, harmonising on the chorus, and both sound earnestly sincere. The song was written by Wendy Waldman and Craig Bickhardt. Oddly, the selection omitted another hit from this period, Steve’s duet with Glen Campbell on ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’, a tribute to mothers everywhere.

Grade: B

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply, and the individual tracks can be downloaded.

Album Review: Curly Putman – ‘Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome’

Curly Putman, now 80 years old, is one of the great country songwriters. This record (apparently released via Curly’s publishing company Sony/ATV), allows him to offer his own interpretations of some of his classic songs. While his aging voice is not up to much technically, I always enjoy hearing songwriters deliver their own material, and he can still hold a tune better than some of today’s big names. His phrasing is perfect (as one might expect given that these are his own songs), and he is able to convey the emotions effectively. The album is well produced by Curly himself with percussionist Adam Engelhardt in traditional country style, with some fine musicians backing him and plenty of fiddle and steel. And the quality of the material is absolutely exceptional, with a focus, as the album title suggests, on the sad songs that form the heartblood of country music.

There are three duets with female vocalists, which are among the highlights. 80s star turned successful Music Row songwriter Deborah Allen joins Curly on a downbeat and tuneful version of ‘Only Oklahoma Away’, where the male protagonist’s longing is palpable. Dolly Parton sounds lovely on the tender love song ‘Made For Loving You’, one of the few positive-themed numbers. Sarah Johns is a revelation as the duet partner on ‘My Elusive Dreams’, a semi-autobiographical song which Curly released as a single back in 1967, just before Tammy Wynette and David Houston’s classic version. This is one of my favourite tracks, with Curly’s abraded voice (redolent of failed ambition) contrasting with Sarah’s pure, sweet voice (much better here than on her 2008 solo album Big Love In A Small Town, where she sometimes sounded shrill). It makes me hopeful for new music from Sarah in the future.

The tragic drama of ‘Radio Lover’ with its spoken verses and sung chorus, and the heartbreaking ‘Wino The Clown’ (also partly-spoken) were both written with Bucky Jones and Ron Hellard and recorded by George Jones in the mid-80s. Curly’s versions work well and are extremely convincing (although I think he was probably wise to avoid tackling his very best known George Jones cut, ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’).

My favorite track is the tragic prisoner’s dream ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’, one of Curly’s most recorded, and greatest, compositions. There is a long and delicate instrumental intro leading into a low-key mournful vocal which sounds doomed right from the start, with every word sounding as though it comes straight from the heart. Technically speaking, I have heard better versions of the gorgeous sad ballad ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’, but once more, Curly’s version does effectively convey the intensity of the protagonist’s despair.

Opening track ‘Older The Violin’ (a late hit for Hank Thompson in 1974) is a sprightly lightly swinging defiance of middle age (the protagonist is 45) along the lyrical lines of the Johnny Paycheck 80s classic ‘Old Violin’, with the protagonist telling the woman who seems to be putting him out to grass in favour of a younger rival:

The older the violin, the sweeter the music
These specks of gray that’s in my hair
Just make me look distinguished
That don’t mean I’m over the hill
Baby I’m not extinguished

There are a few songs I hadn’t heard before, including the last-mentioned. Of the others, ‘That Runaway Woman’ is a Caribbean-flavored tale of a man chasing through various beach destinations after the woman who has left him, and fetching up in a bar somewhere to drink away the pain, which Curly wrote with Don Cook. ‘Magnolia In The Snow’ is a slow and rather depressing song about leaving Colorado for the sun, and regretting what has been left behind, which seems to include a dead child.

Ending the album on a more positive note, there is a moving expression of absolute faith in the face of a troubled life, in the emotionally sung religious closing track ‘Foot Prints’, a co-write with Don Cook and bluegrass singer Ronnie Bowman (who, with his wife Garnet, sings harmonies throughout):

I sail my ship in deep and troubled waters
I drift so far I cannot see the shore
Sometimes my soul feels lost at sea
And all my hope is gone
He left His footprints on the water
So I can find my way home

Before I knew, my heart believed
He loved the broken heart of me
He sacrificed His precious life
So He could give me mine

The proceeds of the sales of the album are partly devoted to the Sean Putman Memorial Fund at Cumberland University, Lebanon, TN, in memory of Curly’s grandson who died of cancer as a child, and to whom the record is dedicated.

This is a fascinating example of one of the greatest living country songwriters singing some of his best songs, and given his age, perhaps the last opportunity to do so.

Grade: A-

It is available on iTunes, or as a hard copy CD from CDBaby or Amazon.

You can sample some of the songs via Curly’s Facebook page.

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘The Guitar Song’

Jamey Johnson’s much-anticipated follow-up to That Lonesome Song was finally released last week, laying to rest the fears expressed by some that he would be unable to match that dark 2008 masterpiece. The two discs in the set are grouped loosely by theme into the “black” and “white” albums, the former supposedly comprised of darker, more menacing songs like its predecessor, and the latter made up of more positive fare. In reality, this seems to be more marketing hype than anything, as the definition of what is dark and menacing as opposed to positive turns out not to be so — well, black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun. After listening to a digital copy of the first disc, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d just heard the black or white album. The issue of which songs belong on which disc, however, is a minor quibble that in no way detracts from the listener’s enjoyment.

Like its predecessor, The Guitar Song is made up of mostly original material — Johnson wrote or co-wrote 20 of the 25 tracks — and a handful of covers of country classics. His band, The Kent Hardly Playboys are once again present and credited as producers, with Dave Cobb and Arlis Albritton listed as co-producers on a few selected tracks.

The black album opens with “Lonely At The Top”, written in 1988 by Don Cook, Chick Rains and the late Keith Whitley. A demo of Whitley’s version exists, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time the song has been commercially recorded and released. It tells the tale of a rising country music star who complains about the pressures of fame and fortune to a stranger in a bar. The stranger accepts the singer’s offer of a drink, responding:

… Thanks, I’ll have a double
I’ve worked up a powerful thirst
Just listening to all your troubles
And while he makes that drink,
I’ll smoke one, if you’ve got ’em
It might be lonely at the top
But it’s a bitch at the bottom.

The next track, “Cover Your Eyes”, written with Wayd Battle and Bobby Bare, is decidedly darker fare, in which the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend over the telephone. “Poor Man Blues” is sounds like something David Allan Coe would have sung back in his heyday. The tune, though not the lyrics, are reminiscent of Coe’s 1983 hit “The Ride.” Next is Johnson’s tribute to the late, great Vern Gosdin, a cover of “Set ‘Em Up Joe”, the highlight of the first disc.

“Can’t Cash My Checks”, which Jamey wrote with James Otto, Jason Cope, and Shannon Lawson, is a timely tale of a man struggling in hard economic times, to which many listeners will unfortunately be able to relate. Of all the tracks on the first disc, this one seems the most likely to be released as a single at some point.

Nothing on the black disc was as bleak and desperate as the songs on That Lonesome Song. Based solely on the marketing hype, I was expecting to want to slash my wrists after listening to it; however, I found it much more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn’t think that the white disc could possibly live up to the high standards set by the black disc and after hearing the first track on Disc 2, the slightly disappointing “By The Seat Of Your Pants” — which is a bit more Southern Rock for my taste, it appeared that I was correct. However, things began to improve with track #2, “California Riots” — which seems like it should have been on the black disc — and the unusual “Dog In The Yard”, which I really liked. The title track, on which Johnson is joined by co-writer Bill Anderson, is a gem. It is followed by the best song in the collection, “That’s Why I Write Songs”, a stripped-down song consisting solely of Johnson singing lead vocals and playing an acoustic guitar. Recorded at The Ryman Auditorium, it gives the listener a rare glimpse of Johnson’s sensitive side, as he pays tribute to the great songwriters who inspired him — a list that includes Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer, Bill Anderson, and Hank Cochran.

Things swing back into Southern Rock mode with “Macon” and back into Outlaw Country with “Good Times Ain’t What They Used To Be”, on which Johnson channels Waylon Jennings. This is followed by a surprisingly good cover version of “For The Good Times”, the Kris Kristofferson classic made famous by Ray Price. It’s worth listening to if only for Eddie Long’s magnificent steel guitar work.

Overall, this is a very satisfying album, without the pop pretensions and overwrought production that mar so many contemporary country releases. The utilization of Johnson’s road band gives the album a more live feel than most studio recordings. The band often breaks into lengthy jam sessions at the end of certain tracks — a bit too lengthy at times, bordering on self-indulgence. Fans of bubble-gum pop country will find little here to appeal to them, but those who yearn for the type of country music that Nashville used to produce with regularity, will be more than satisfied. This is without a doubt one of the best albums of 2010, and one that deserves a home in any country fan’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.