My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Don Henley

Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley – ‘The Heart Of It All’

Released at the heart of the New Traditional era in 1988, The Heart Of It All did not stray too far from ETC’s accustomed wheelpath, although producers Emory Gordy Jr and Randy Scruggs made sure the arrangements were a bit less AC than previously. He was still a reliable hitmaker beloved by country radio, with singles destined to reach #1, and the first four singles from this album followed the pattern.

The lead single is a nice ballad written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison about a woman tied to an unworthy husband, who she loves regardless. ETC’s hushed vocals are lovely, and the production fairly restrained.

Harmonies from Emmylou Harris make any song better, and the next single was the lovely duet ‘We Believe In Happy Endings’, another McDill song about keeping a marriage going, but a more positive one. It had been a top 10 solo hit for Johnny Rodriguez a decade earlier. This is one of my favorite ETC recordings.

‘What I’d Say’, written by Robert Byrne and Will Robinson, is another excellent ballad. This one faces up to the immediate afterbreak of a breakup, with the protagonist uncertain how he would react if he met her unexpectedly.

What would prove to be Earl’s very last #1 hit was Thom Schuyler’s ‘Love Out Loud’. A more upbeat tempo enlivens a sincerely sung song about an inarticulate man who nevertheless loves his lady. It is my least favorite of the singles from this album, but not a bad song.

The long run of #1 and 2 hits, dating back to 1982’s ‘Somewhere Between Right And Wrong’ was to come to a juddering halt with this album’s fifth single, which peaked at a very disappointing #26. It was the first time ETC had attempted more than four from one album, but the main problem may have been the underlying shifts in country radio. He would experience only two more top 10s, one of which was a posthumous duet with Keith Whitley. ‘You Must Not Be Drinking Enough’ is actually a fine song which deserved better, and more traditional sounding than much of ETC’s oeuvre (despite being a Don Henley cover). A soulful vocal is backed up with steel guitar as ETC offers advice to a lovelorn friend, or perhaps himself:

You keep telling yourself she means nothing
Maybe you should call her bluff
You don’t really believe it
You must not be drinking enough …

You keep telling yourself you can take it
Telling yourself that you’re tough
But you still want to hold her
Must not be drinking enough

You’re not drinking enough to wash away old memories
And there ain’t enough whiskey in Texas
To keep you from begging “please, please, please”
She passed on your passion, stepped on your pride,
Turns out you ain’t quite so tough
Cause you still want to hold her
You must not be drinking enough

The rambunctious ‘Finally Friday’ would be a single for George Jones a few years later. ETC’s version is more restrained, but the accordion-led production lends it a happy Cajun feel which works pretty well.

ETC co-wrote three songs, two of them with producer Randy Scruggs. The title track, ‘Too Far From The Heart Of It All’, is quite a pretty ballad on a religious theme although the meaning is not very clear. ‘Carol’ is a tender, thoughtful ballad about a man who regrets having left his wife years ago:

If I could turn back time to yesterday
I’d be coming home this time to stay …
I guess I never felt this way before
Feeling like a stranger at my own door
I wouldn’t have to ask you how you’ve been
And I wouldn’t have to fall in love again

Carol
No one has replaced you
I’ve never looked a day beyond goodbye
And Carol
Time could not erase you
It’s only made me wish I’d never tried

Guess some of us just don’t know when to stop
Reaching out for something we ain’t got

‘No Chance, No Dance’, written with Robert Byrne, is a brassy uptempo tune about not playing things safe.

Byrne teamed up with Tom Brasfield to write ‘I Love he Way he Left You’, an AC leaning ballad hoping a woman who has been hurt by a previous relationship will end up with him.

This is one of ETC’s best albums and it is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: A-

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EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Water & Bridges’

In 2006 Kenny Rogers once again found himself signed to a major label — an interesting turn of events for an almost 70-year-old artist. Water & Bridges was released by Capitol and produced by Dann Huff, who is not my favorite producer but I was pleasantly surprised by the fruits of their labors. Like most Kenny Rogers albums, this is a pop-country collection, but unlike a lot of his earlier work, there are no blatant pop songs. Everything is targeted for the mainstream country audience, such as it was a little over a decade ago. The production is polished, but not tastefully restrained.

The title track, which opens the album is a somber ballad written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, about life’s regrets and the need to accept them and move on. It was too serious for consideration as a single, but a very good song nonetheless. It had previously been recorded by Collin Rate a few years earlier. “Someone Is Me” is a bit of social commentary written by Josh Kear and Joe Doyle, which urges people to take action to correct the things that are wrong with this world instead of waiting for someone else to do it. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a little too slickly produced for my taste, but Sarah Buxton harmonizes well with Kenny. This song would later be recorded by Pam Tillis and Kellie Pickler, who took it to #49 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s best song is its lead single “I Can’t Unlove You” which took Kenny to the Top 20 one last time. Peaking at #17, this break-up ballad would have been a monster hit if it had come along during Rogers’ commercial heyday. “The Last Ten Years (Superman)” was the next single. True to its title, it refers to a number of events that were in the news during the previous decade (1996-2006), making reference to events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Y2K hysteria, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as name-checking several celebrities that passed away during that time, from Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and actor Christopher Reeve. It’s a very good song, but as a stripped-down, serious ballad focusing on mostly unhappy events, it didn’t perform particularly well at radio, topping out at #56. “Calling Me”, a mid tempo number featuring a Gospel-like piano and duet vocal by Don Henley fared slightly better, peaking at #53. It’s a little more pop-leaning than the rest of the album but it deserved more attention than it received. It marks Kenny Rogers’ last appearance (to date) on the Billboard country singles chart.

Kenny’s voice shows some signs of wear and tear at times, but for the most part he is in good vocal form and I enjoyed this album a lot more than I expected to. It might have benefited from a little more uptempo material, but overall this is a solid effort. It’s available for streaming and worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Daytime Friends’

Released in July 1977, Daytime Friends was Kenny’s third album as a solo act, and his second album to go platinum. For the most part, this starts out as a solid country album with such stalwarts as Billy Sanford, Dave Kirby, Jerry Shook, Jimmy Capps, Jim Colvard, Johnny Christopher, Larry Keith and Reggie Young on guitar; Pete Drake on pedal steel guitar; Bob Moore, Joe Osborn and Tommy Allsup on bass; and Pig Robbins on piano to help keep things country for the first half of the album. The album would reach #2 on Billboard’s Country Album chart and crack the top forty on the all genres album chart. I suspect that Kenny’s actual position on the all genres chart would have been much better had Sound Scan been around.

I remember Kenny from his days with the First Edition (they even had a television show) and while Kenny’s first few country singles had a strong country feel, I always felt that he would drift into being a lounge, pop or pop-country balladeer. Unfortunately, I was correct and his output became less country as he went along. After 1979’s “You Decorated My Life”, it would be a long time before I really cared about any of Kenny’s recordings.

The opening track was the title track, written by Ben “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” Peters, and the first single released on the album, giving Kenny his second #1 country single. This song is a modern take on an ancient theme:

And he’ll tell her he’s working late again
But she knows too well there’s something going on
She’s been neglected, and she needs a friend
So her trembling fingers dial the telephone

Lord, it hurts her doing this again
He’s the best friend that her husband ever knew
When she’s lonely, he’s more than just a friend
He’s the one she longs to give her body to

Daytime friends and nighttime lovers
Hoping no one else discovers
Where they go, what they do, in their secret hideaway
Daytime friends and nighttime lovers
They don’t want to hurt the others
So they love in the nighttime
And shake hands in the light of day

Next up was a rather lame take on the Glenn Frey-Don Henley composition. I’ve heard many better versions, including Johnny Rodriguez’s #5 country single from earlier in 1977. I’ve always thought of this as a song about desolation and was disappointed that Kenny’s producers gave this a cocktail lounge arrangement. Kenny sings the song well, and with a little more muscular arrangement I would have really liked this song

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses,
Come down from your fences- open the gates.
It may be rainin, but there’s a rainbow above you.
You’d better let somebody love you,
LET SOMEBODY LOVE YOU.
You’d better let somebody love you,
before it’s too late.

Kenny O’Dell is probably best remembered as the composer of the Charlie Rich smash “Behind Closed Doors”, but “Rock and Roll Man” is a respectable effort as well. A mid-tempo ballad with some pop trappings, Kenny handles the vocals well.

“Lying Again” was written by respected Nashville producer/songwriters Chips Moman and Larry Butler. Kenny does a nice job with this song about cheating, misgivings and regrets.

“I’ll Just Write My Music and Sing My Songs” fits within the context of the album, but is nothing more than a passable album track.

“My World Begins and Ends With You” would be a #4 hit in 1979 for Dave & Sugar [Dave Rowland, Sue Powell, Vickie Baker]. Kenny handles this love song well but I actually prefer the Dave & Sugar version.

My world was no more than a dream
And waitin’ on a dream can sure get lonely
Your love just fell right into place
And filled and empty space to overflowing, overflowing

My world begins with havin’ a friend when I’m feeling blue
My world would end if ever I heard you say we were through
Just don’t know what I’d do
‘Cause my world begins and ends with you

Kenny wrote “Sweet Music Man”, the second single released from the album. Rather surprisingly, the single stalled out at #9 on the US country charts, while reaching #1 on the Canadian country and adult contemporary charts:

But nobody sings a love song quite like you do
and nobody else could make me sing along
and nobody else could make me feel
that things are right when I know they’re wrong
( that things are right when you’re wrong with the song )
nobody sings a love song quite like you.

Larry Keith’s “Am I Too Late” points the pop/schlock direction Kenny’s music would take. The song is drenched in strings and has a very cocktail lounge feel to it. In fact the last four songs all lean a pop direction (“We Don’t Make Love Anymore”, “Ghost of Another Man” and “Let Me Sing For You”), although “Let Me Sing For You”, written by Casey Kelly and Julie Dodier has an interesting lyric and rather gentle folk-pop arrangement:

One bright, sunny day I set on my way to look for a place on this Earth.
My life was a song just 3 minutes long. And, that’s about all it was worth.
I wandered around. Unlost and unfound, unnoticed and misunderstood.
Each thing that I tried just lessened my pride. Guess I didn’t do very good.
Then I saw you lookin’ just like I felt. So, I walked up to you and I said.

Let me sing for you.
It’s not much to ask after all I’ve been through.
Let me sing for you.
At least there’s still one thing I know that I know how to do.

I found you alone, no love of your own. I gave you a shiny new toy.
I made you feel good as best as I could. And, I was your rainy-day boy.
I held you so near. But, you held this fear. And, felt like you’d been there before.
The spell that was cast was too good to last. Soon the toy wasn’t new any more.
So, I asked for some time. And, you gave me a watch.
If it’s that late already again….

Let me sing for you.
It’s not much to ask after all we’ve been through.
Let me sing for you.
At least there’s still one thing I know that I know how to do.

It is tough for me to evaluate this album. I liked, in varying degrees, the first seven songs, but by the time I got to “Am I Too Late” I was getting bored with the album. The tempos tend to be rather similar throughout, and the last songs on the album tend to be more pop, less country and, other than the last song, less interesting. I would give this album a B, but it is a very uneven B as far as I am concerned.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

As I’ve mentioned before, I generally find it easier to compile a list of any given year’s top albums, as opposed to a list of top singles, since I don’t listen to country radio. This year I had a more difficult time than I expected putting together my albums list; surprisingly, I didn’t listen to a whole lot of new music this year. So, here is my list, along with a resolution to do a better job keeping up with current music in 2016:

81qQyIJ7gjL._SX522_10. Sammy Kershaw — I Won’t Back Down

I was somewhat underwhelmed with this album when it was first release, and my initial feelings haven’t changed. It’s included simply because I was having trouble finding a tenth album that I didn’t intensely dislike to put on my list.

814d6MygkiL._SX522_9. Daryle Singletary — There’s a Little Country Left

Released this past summer, this independent release is a good example of what I wish contemporary mainstream country music sounded like — the type of music we’d likely be getting if hick-hop, R&B and the bros hadn’t completely hijacked the genre. The track “Too Late to Save the World” says it all: “It might be too late to save the world, but can’t we still save country music?” I sure hope so.

61TTBEi0Q3L8. Dwight Yoakam — Second Hand Heart

This collection is infinitely better than 2012’s disappointing 3 Pears. It’s a throwback to Dwight’s polished 90s country-rock-pop hybrid music. It was very enjoyable but I’d have preferred something more traditional, in the vein of Guitars, Cadillacs, Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room, and his other great 80s music.

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_7. Clint Black — On Purpose

Clint Black’s first full-length album in seven years was a solid, but play-it-safe collection. There are no surprises or artistic stretches, but it sure was good to hear from him again.

the blade6. Ashley Monroe — The Blade

Country radio in recent years has not been welcoming to female artists, particularly traditional-leaning ones. Ashley Monroe is one of the best of today’s crop of artists, though she has yet to garner much attention for her solo work. I keep hoping that her big breakthrough is right around the corner.

81BsXZt8UsL._SX522_5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — The Traveling Kind

The second collaboration between Harris and Crowell is not quite as good as its predecessor, but topping 2013’s Old Yellow Moon would be no mean feat. The fact that it doesn’t in no way diminishes its enjoyment. This is one of the few albums released in 2015 that I kept coming back to.

images4. Chris Stapleton — Traveller

The former SteelDrivers’ lead singer’s solo debut album turned out to be the year’s biggest commercial surprise. Although his soulful, rough-edged voice isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Traveller is just what is needed in a genre that has become stale. Whether or not its success is a one-off or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen.

cold beer conversation3. George Strait — Cold Beer Conversation

George Strait’s retirement from the road seems to have had a positive effect on his recording career, at least from an artistic standpoint. Cold Beer Conversation, his first collection produced by Chuck Ainlay is his best effort in quite some time, even if radio is no longer paying attention.

angels and alcohol2. Alan Jackson — Angels and Alcohol

Like Clint Black’s latest offering, Angels and Alcohol doesn’t offer much in the way of anything new or different, but it’s vintage Alan Jackson and that is more than good enough.

cass county1. Don Henley — Cass County

If Chris Stapleton’s Traveller was the year’s biggest commercial surprise, then Cass County is the year’s biggest artistic surprise. Country music is notoriously suspicious of artists who “visit” from other genres, with some justification. But Henley got his tribute to country music right — putting together a collection of solid songs and guest artists. Those who call the genre home would be well advised to follow his example. I hope a second volume is in the works.

Album Review: Don Henley – ‘Cass County’

cass countyI was more than prepared to dislike this album. I haven’t liked Henley’s previous solo endeavors, nor the efforts of his band mates such as Glenn Frey, and I never liked Henley’s band the Eagles. Nevertheless, the song titles on the album intrigued me so I agreed to review the album.

Over the years many outsiders have attempted to enter the country music genre in an effort to revitalize flagging careers. There have been some outsiders who proved to have bona fide country credential, most notably Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chris Hillman and Vince Gill.

Most, however are imposters peddling a brand of faux country (Jessica Simpson and Bret Michaels come to mind. Imagine my surprise, when I listened to this album and found that I enjoyed it as much as the new George Strait and Clint Black albums. While I wouldn’t describe this as 100% country, I would call it 100% very good!

Yes, Henley has brought in a bunch of country superstars to assist him in this endeavor, but they really were not needed, not that I don’t appreciated the talents of Miranda Lambert , Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Allison Krauss.

Cass County opens up with Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose,” with Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger joining Henley. While I don’t think Jagger adds anything positive to the mix, neither does he destroy it.

Next up is a Henley composition “Cost of Living”. Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard, a somber ballad about the price of living and the challenges of growing older. I really don’t know much about Henley but Haggard surely knows these lessons as well as anyone, and maybe more so.

“Take A Picture Of This” is an odd song about a couple looking back on the past. The twist on the song is that that by the song’s end the man realizes that he doesn’t really know his wife anymore and decides to leave her.

“Waiting Tables” tells the tale of a young girl who grew up in a timber town, got married too young and wound ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and hoping for a new love that will be more than a one night stand. This song is a nice example of songwriting craftsmanship.

The least country song on the album follows, the rockin’ blues number titled “No, Thank You” follows. The song advises the importance of viewing everything with a skeptical eye.

The pedal steel guitar dominates “Praying For Rain”, a song about drought stricken farmers hoping the rains will come soon. The stark realism of the song hits home.

“Words Can Break Your Heart” is slower and emotional. I regard the feel of the song as album filler, but if you listen closely to the lyrics, it is clearly more than that.

I haven’t anything from this album on the radio but it is my understanding that the first single from the album was “That Old Flame”. The song features Martina McBride in the role of an old flame wishing to make new acquaintance of a love from long ago. He wonders about her motives.

The album contains twelve songs with the deluxe edition containing sixteen songs and while I won’t comment on all of the remaining songs, I will comment on two songs that proved Henley’s bona fide credentials within the genre:

The Louvin Brothers were never massive sellers or hit makers but their influence ran both deep and wide. Dolly Parton joins Don on the Louvin’s “When I Stop Dreaming”. If this recording doesn’t stir your soul, just head for the morgue – you’re already dead and just hadn’t bothered to fall down.

The other song that Henley recorded that really interested me was the lovely “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”. I think it is my favorite song on the album. Anyone who can dig out “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” has more than a passing familiarity with country music. I have the song on a late 60s Dillards album but I am not sure who else may have sung it, although I have heard the song performed at bluegrass festivals. I think this song is only on the deluxe edition of the album; if that’s the case spend the extra money – it’s worth it!

I give this album an A and hope Don Henley hangs around the genre a little longer.

Song Review: Don Henley featuring Dolly Parton – ‘When I Stop Dreaming’

Don-Henley-Dolly-Parton-Kevork-Djansezian-Rick-DiamondFew people expressed surprise when Don Henley announced plans to release a country album; he has dabbled in the genre before, collaborating on projects with Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire. And though The Eagles were not country band, there is no denying that they greatly influenced the genre. Add to that the fact that country music has long been a dumping ground for pop and rock acts past their commercial primes, and the decision to record an album in Nashville seemed to be a logical one.

Cass County is slated to be released next month. A few tracks have been made available for download via iTunes: the non-(country) charting “Take a Picture of This” and a duet with Martina McBride called “That Old Flame”. Neither can be described as hardcore country; they are middle-of-the-road AC-type songs with just enough country elements to keep the natives happy — about what one would expect from a side-project by a rock artist.

What is a surprise, however,is the third track to be pre-released from the album: a remake of the 1955 classic “When I Stop Dreaming”. That a rock act would cover The Louvin Brothers at all is in itself amazing, and is a gesture of respect for the genre on the part of Henley. One wonders how many of today’s “country” acts even know who Ira and Charlie were. I certainly can’t imagine the likes of Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean doing something this. Nor do I particularly want to. But I digress.

Dolly Parton is Don’s duet partner. Both Henley and Parton are pushing 70 — ancient in this youth-obsessed business, but they sound great and as they show the current generation of young artists (who are probably not paying a bit of attention) how it’s done. The steel guitar and the harmonies are beautiful — even if Dolly can’t sing quite as high as she did when she provided the harmony vocals to Emmylou Harris’ definitive 1977 version of the song. This will probably never be released as a single — and radio wouldn’t play it if it were, but it deserves to be heard and is worth downloading. Or you can listen to it here. This isn’t the best version of the song I’ve ever heard, but it’s easily one of the best recordings I’ve heard out of Nashville this year. Now if we could only get someone to write new songs this good.

Grade: A

Fellow Travelers: Creedence Clearwater Revival / John Fogerty

john fogertyFor a Californian who had never resided in the southeastern United States, John Fogerty sure sounded like someone from that region of the country and his band reeked of a swamp-rock vibe. For a few years, Creedence was an overwhelming force on both Billboard’s singles and albums pop charts. After an acrimonious break up, Fogarty soldiered on alone, continuing his successful ways

Who Were They?

Creedence Clearwater Revival was basically a garage band with a very talented singer-songwriter in John Fogerty. The real breakthrough for CCR came with the 1968 single “Proud Mary” which hit #2 in the US and Canada (and reached #1 in Austria). The next single “Bad Moon Rising” also reached #2 (#1 in Great Britain). This was followed by “Lodi” (#52), “Green River” (#2), “Down On The Corner” (#3), “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (#2) and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” (#2). Curiously , CCR never had a #1 single in the US although various singles went to #1 outside of the US.

CCR’s first six albums were all certified by the RIAA as platinum or multiple platinum. Their final album, released in 1972 was certified gold.

By 1973 the group was no more, racked by internal disagreements and squabbles with their record label. Their label, Fantasy, continued thereafter reissuing various hit collections and anthologies.

John Fogerty had considerable success as a solo artist issuing a number of successful singles and albums

What Was The Connection to County Music?

While CCR only landed one single on the country charts (a reissued album track “Cotton Fields” in 1982), country acts recorded many of their songs as singles and album tracks. Anthony Armstrong Jones had a country hit with “Proud Mary”, Buddy Alan Owens hit the country charts with “Lodi”, and such stalwarts as Dave Dudley recorded “Bad Moon Rising” and Proud Mary”. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” established CCR’s country credibility with the lyric:

There’s a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearing high heels
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn
Dinosaur Victrola, listenin’ to Buck Owens
Doot doot doot lookin’ out my back door

John Fogerty was never afraid of anything as he battled record labels and bandmates over the years. He also, at a time country wasn’t cool, wasn’t afraid to show his country roots. In fact his first solo album (a one-man band effort) titled THE BLUE RIDGE RANGERS featured John singing a bunch of classic country songs, including the 1973 single “Jambalaya” which charted in 1973.

Fogarty would wait awhile before doing another country album but 2009’s BLUE RIDGE RANGERS RIDE AGAIN proved worth the wait. In some ways this album was better than the original as he eschewed the one-man band gimmick and used some of the genre’s finest sidemen in addition to having some vocal partners like Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen.

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Twenty Years And Change’

twenty years and changeAfter exiting Epic, Collin Raye signed to independent label Aspirion, and four years after the release of his last Epic album, he went back into the studio. Unfortunately, the result was his most pop-AC styled records to date, and also his worst.

The album opens with the bland moral advice of ‘I Know That’s Right’, written by Bob DiPiero, Rivers Rutherford and Tom Shapiro. It was released as a single but failed to chart, as did the up-tempo ‘Hurricane Jane’, which is frankly pretty bad.

Band member and co-producer Gene Lesage (whose tragic death was reported a couple of weeks ago) contributed several songs, the best of which is the melodic piano ballad ‘We’ll Be Alright’, which has a sweet, sincere delivery. ‘Heart’ is quite pleasant, while ‘Forgotten’ sounds nice enough but is a little dull.

Collin himself wrote a couple of songs. The drippy ballad ‘All I Can Do Is Love You’ is a co-write with pop/AC singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester; the title track, written by Collin on his own, is a story song with a melody reminiscent of a Beatles song.

Rory Feek’s Civil War story song ‘Josephine’ is dramatic, but perhaps a little over-emoted; Feek’s own more understated recent version ends up being much more effective and memorable.

There is one absolutely outstanding and unmistakably country track, ‘You’re Not Drinking Enough’. In this gem, the protagonist offers cynical advice to a lovelorn friend:

You keep telling yourself you can take it
You keep telling yourself that you’re tough
But you still want to hold her
So you must not be drinking enough

You’re not drinking enough
To wash away old memories
And there ain’t enough whiskey in Texas
To keep you from begging
“Please, please, please”

She passed on your passion
She stepped on your pride
It turns out you ain’t quite so tough
Cause you still want to hold her
You must not be drinking enough

It is a cover of a song originally recorded in 1984 by the Eagles’ Don Henley and a minor hit for Earl Thomas Conley in 1989 under the title ‘You Must Not Be Drinking Enough’; surprisingly it broke Conley’s hot streak of chart toppers but it is a great song which deserved better success. Colin’s version is very good, and by far the best track on this otherwise disappointing effort.

There are some better-known covers, including two pop hits for artists with country careers. The Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Let Your Love Flow’ works quite well but is even less country than the original, Conway Twitty’s pop hit ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ is a bit overwrought. AC ballad ‘The Search Is Over’ has nothing to do with country music (it is a cover of a hit for 80s rock band Survivor), but is one of the better tracks, thanks to a smooth vocal.

Although it is available cheaply, this is really not a worthwhile purchase. Download ‘Youre Not Drinking Enough’, and leave it at that.

Grade: D+

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘This Is Country Music’

Brad Paisley was our Spotlight Artist last November, and he has produced some outstanding material in the past. His last few releases, however, have been on a downward spiral, and sadly his latest release accelerates the trend. He cowrote almost all the material with a variety of partners, most often including Kelley Lovelace and/or Chris Dubois. To be frank, he would have been well advised to look elsewhere, because so much of this is just plain uninspired.

Thhe three outside songs provide the most worthwhile tracks. The spiritual ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ former is the record’s sole nod to the traditionalism which marked Brad’s early career, and features guest vocals from Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. ‘A Man Don’t Have To Die’, written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson, is the album’s highlight for me, although the story’s set-up is not as well set up as it might be. The song is largely addressed to a preacher, “new around here”, but it isn’t clear what he’s been saying to his flock to prompt this response:

It don’t really scare us when you yell and shake your fist
You see we already know that Hell exists

The body of the song is much more effective, with its depiction of the hell on earth of being laid off by a ungrateful employer, “six months short of 30 years“, struggling to repay a mortgage, or a broken marriage. The chorus has effective harmonies, but the track is marred by out of place and very irritating wordless backing vocals in the second half possibly intended to be the voices of angels.

The charmingly playful ‘Toothbrush’ (written by Joel Shewmake, Jon Henderson and Danny Simpson) details the growth of romance, and this track boasts an imaginative arrangement which makes it the best sounding track on the record. Brad’s composition ‘Eastwood’ is a rather good atmospheric Western style instrumental with Clint Eastwood adding a few words at the beginning and end. Brad’s little boys gurgle a few words as well, and are less irritating than most intrusions of child voices.

None of Brad’s songs here is up to the standard of his earlier work, but I still quite like the title track’s tribute to the inclusiveness of country music, which I reviewed last autumn – at least until it collapses into an uninspired litany of (much better) song titles. The current hit, ‘Old Alabama’ is a fair tribute to the band of that name, but far less effective as a song in its own right, even when Randy Owen joins in, and it is over-produced to boot.

Also acceptable is the rueful ‘I Do Now’ which has the protagonist looking back at his wedding and regretting breaking the promises he made then. It starts out very well indeed, with an understated regret imbuing the first verse, but the chorus is predictable and the later verses don’t take us anywhere unexpected. ‘New Favorite Memory’ is a pleasant but slightly dull evocation of domestic bliss. The affectionate wedding-set ‘Love Her Like She’s Leavin’’, complete with advice (from the bride’s Uncle Bill) of how to keep the relationship going, has a very pop-influenced melody and a pleasant but cliche’d lyric. The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony.

On a similar theme, the new single ‘Remind Me’, the duet with Carrie Underwood (reviewed recently by J.R. Journey) is actually a pretty good song about a couple longing for the sweetness of the early days of a love affair which has become a stale marriage, but Carrie oversings her parts, sounding too intense where the lyric seems to call for wistfulness, and overwhelms Brad when they are singing together, while the track is too heavily produced. It will probably be a monster hit.

‘One Of Those Lives’ is a well-meaning and earnestly sung pieces comparing the protagonist’s petty problems with more serious ones faced by others, but it is awkwardly phrased and generally feels a bit forced, and I don’t care for Brad’s ventures into a falsetto.

Brad includes his usual brace of songs intended to be funny but which don’t raise a smile. Of these, the silly novelty ‘Camouflage’ with yelled call-and response backing vocals reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s worst moments at least makes an impact, if not a positive one. The Mexican vacation-set ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, a duet with Blake Shelton, falls completely flat and is a waste of both men’s talent. ‘Working On A Tan’ is a boring beach song which sounds very poppy with Beach Boys style harmonies. ‘Be The Lake’ is equally dull, as Brad leches over his love interest.

This is a disappointing offering from an artist who seems to have run out of steam creatively. Unless he manages to recharge his batteries, I suspect this will be the last Brad Paisley album I’ll buy.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Single Review: Brad Paisley with Carrie Underwood – ‘Remind Me’

No less than six of the fifteen tracks on Brad Paisley’s This Is Country Music album, released Monday, feature guest vocalists. Paisley trots out Alabama, Don Henley, Blake Shelton, Marty Stuart, and even Clint Eastwood to join him in song, but the biggest country music name he’s corralled is Carrie Underwood. Does the pairing of two of country’s leading personalities fulfill the potential of its level of starpower, or even match Brad and Carrie’s first duet “Oh Love” from Paisley’s 2007 5th Gear album? Not at all.

Lately, Paisley’s singles have taken on a classic-country-meets-today’s-technology feel. He’s made it a point to insert the kind of new-fangled studio tricks usually foreign to country music and hold on to the hot string of traditionalism he’s made a name with. Unfortunately, it’s all been very formulaic up to this point, and “Remind Me” doesn’t serve to change that. From the electronic hue of Paisley’s vocals at the front of the song, to Underwood’s unflattering falsetto, both singers deliver one of their weakest performances yet; neither party’s pipes are flattered here, and neither sounds terribly engaged. A bed of guttural electric guitar leads their misguided performances, and Paisley of course allows for his self-indulgent solo.

A less balls to the wall approach would certainly have suited the song better. With frequent cowriters Chris DuBois and Kelley Lovelace, Paisley has crafted a clever song commenting on the rekindling of a love affair. But it’s really hard to hear the spackling of melody meeting manuscript above all this noise. This could never have been a classic, but it sure could have been a lot better.

Grade: C-

“Remind Me” isn’t available as an individual download without buying the album.  Get it at itunes.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood ft Don Henley – ‘Hearts In Armor’