My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Don Sampson

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesUpon learning that Chris Stapleton had penned a solo deal with Mercury, I assumed that the resulting album would be an eclectic and decidedly non-commercial one in the Americana vein – the sort of thing I like to listen to occasionally for a change of pace but not on a regular basis. Now that Traveller has finally been released I have to say that it comes as a somewhat of a surprise — and a pleasant one at that. While he does cover a number of musical styles, it is a much more polished affair than what I was expecting. Afew years ago it would have been considered a mainstream effort, though Stapleton’s voice is a bit too rough to enjoy widespread commercial success in any era.

Produced by Dave Cobb, Traveller consists of a generous 14 tracks, twelve of which were written or co-written by Stapleton. Among the two that he didn’t write are a bluesy cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26”, a Don Sampson composition that sounds like it would have been at home on Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song album. Although his rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t quite in alignment with my taste, Stapleton deserves credit for putting his own stamp on the song rather than doing a note-for-note reproduction of George Jones’ classic 1983 recording.

Longtime readers will not be surprised to hear that my favorite tracks are the more country-leaning ones. I particularly liked the stripped-down “Whiskey and You”, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, and “Nobody To Blame” which sounds like a rediscovered Travis Tritt recording from the 90s. The album’s best track is “More of You” a beautiful mandolin-laced ballad which features a harmony vocalist that sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the Southern rock numbers “Parachute”, “Might As Well Get Stoned” and “Outlaw State of Mind”, although I can’t actually say that I didn’t enjoy these songs.

I don’t expect Traveller to spawn any big radio hits but I think it’s one of those albums that might sell well despite a lack of airplay. I certainly hope so because it deserves to be heard.

Grade: A

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

Man_Against_Machine_coverExcluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

Miller, it’s worth noting, took over production duties from Brooks’ right hand man Allen Reynolds, who Brooks revealed has retired from the music business. His touch gives the album a fresher feel, but doesn’t hide the fact that Man Against Machine contains tracks far more country than anything released on a major label this year.

It’s no secret that western-themed songs are Brooks’ favorite as he includes at least one on every album. Man Against Machine has two that differ greatly on quality. “Rodeo and Juliet,” which Brooks co-wrote, has an underwritten lyric about a cowgirl on the racing circuit that comes off cutesy despite a pleasing western swing styled production. “Cowboys Forever” falls on the opposite end, standing up against anything he’s ever recorded on the subject. Dean Dillon’s co-written lyric is excellent, using a cowboy theme to relay a greater message about camaraderie.

The idea of a euphemism manifesting a larger message is also tackled in “Fish,” a conversation between a fisherman and a workaholic. The former teaches the latter about the importance of life; all while continuing to live the easy life he’s carved for himself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Fish” is the most sonically country song on whole album. “Wrong About You” follows close behind, with a jaunty banjo/dobro beat that roots the mid-paced number in an organic backbeat. “Midnight Train” comes off as the pop version of a country shuffle.

The majority of Man Against Machine is made up of songs that bring a bit of muscle into the conversation. A prime example is “Cold Like That,” a song that begins quietly but turns bombastic by the chorus. Brooks has the voice for it, but the production doesn’t offer any interesting flourishes to hook the listener. “Tired of Boys” is much better, with Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal coming in loud and clear. I do wish Miller had given it more of a 90s throwback vibe, which would’ve elevated the overall track just that much more. “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is more of the same, a ballad with light steel guitar that sill manages to use power to sell its story.

“All-American Kid,” a tune about a college-bound football star, is a very different song for Brooks both in subject matter and lyrical structure. I’m still debating whether I feel this kind of song is right for him or I’m just taken aback at him trying something new. Either way it isn’t a bad song and I like the ample use of fiddle.

“Tacoma” is Brooks’ bluesy moment, which he executes really well. I don’t usually go for this type of song, so that hinders my enjoyment of it, but people who enjoy these sorts of things will probably love it. The only truly puzzling song is the title track, which puts Brooks back in his faux-rock persona. It’s just too much power and muscle for me, no matter the quality of the lyrics.

Man Against Machine is a bizarre album. Brooks’ classic persona is undeniably present, but nothing here feels like essential listening. With the exception of “Mom” this whole album feels like filler to me, with too much eighties rock, not enough organic sounds, and very little passion on Brooks’ part. I expected more after thirteen years, from both Man Against Machine and his whole comeback extravaganza.

I also never dreamt mainstream country music would erode like it has, so I guess the joke may be on me. While the formula is here (cowboy songs, Yearwood on backing vocals, fiddles and steel) it just wasn’t executed with a timeless feel. Brooks, in his heyday, proved he is much, much better than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Long Black Train’

Josh Turner came to the attentions of country fans with a bang in 2003, when his second single ‘Long Black Train’ was released, shortly before the album of the same title, which was produced by Mark Wright and Frank Rogers.

The dark gospel warning against sin of the title track made a massive and well-deserved impact for Josh, who also wrote the song, inspired by a vision. It was quite different from anything else on radio with its metaphorical lyrics and brooding feeling, and is probably still Josh’s signature song. It peaked at an unlucky #13, but its impact was far greater than that suggests, winning a nomination for the CMA Song of the Year. It also sold well, being certified gold at a time when country digital single sales hadn’t quite taken off. Josh’s deep tones are ideally suited to bring gravitas required of a song like this, perhaps more so than anyone since Johnny Cash, and it seems rather a waste that much of his subsequent material has been fluffily positive in comparison.

An earlier single, ‘She’ll Go On You’, which had not made the top 40, was also included on the album. It is a sweetly delivered if sentimental warning (written by Mark Narmore) to take care of the females in a man’s life: a daughter in the first verse, a wife in the second, and an aged mother in the third:

Better cherish her every second of your life
Better take her in your arms and do her right

While it is a little cliche’d, with a little too much going on in the heavily strung arangement, it is the kind of song which country radio usually eats up, and would probably have been a hit had it followed ‘Long Black Train’ rather than preceding it. Instead, the follow-up single was the bitter up tempo look at love – or rather, ‘What It Ain’t’, written by Tim Mensy and Monty Criswell. Perhaps it seemed lightweight after ‘Long Black Train’, and it didn’t make the top 30, although I like it quite a bit.

My other favorite is the Jamie O’Hara song ‘Unburn All Our Bridges’, a mature plea for forgiveness on both sides, with a beautiful tune, as he affirms,

Love is much stronger than anger or pride

The melodic but mournful ‘I Had One One Time’, written by Harley Allen and Don Sampson, is a lovely song with a homeless man wistfully recalling past possessions: a car, a job, friends, a loving wife, all now gone. There is a tasteful string section on the understated arrangement. Also pretty good is Bobby Braddock’s ‘The Difference Between A Woman And A Man’, a tenderly delivered love song.

Josh shows a more playful side with his cover of Jim Croce’s 70s pop hit ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, a story song about a pool hustler/tough guy and the country boy who challenges him. Josh’s version is entertaining and a rare venture for him away from the moral and family friendly, the message here being one of physical force.

Also fun is the up-tempo ‘Good Woman Bad’ written by Pat McLaughlin and Roger Younger, in which the protagonist complains about the bad girl he is involved with, and is starting to wonder if he needs someone different. The rhymes are a bit obvious, but the overall effect is entertaining:

Now when I asked her to go to Sunday school
She went and called me a damned old fool

A few of the songs are less essential listening, but even these sound good – a trademark of Josh’s records. His own ‘Backwoods Boy’ (about the joys of hunting) has a nice banjo-led arrangement but is of limited interest to me. The tune of ‘Jacksonville’, written by McLaughlin with Josh, has a downbeat feel, but it actually has a positive message about unexpectedly falling in love on vacation and maybe staying. It is pleasant listening but not particularly memorable.

‘In My Dreams’ is a bit dull, almost heavy sounding, although Josh’s vocal sounds convincing.

This was a bright start for Josh, revealing him as one of the finest male vocalists out there, with an unusually keen ear for melody and a voice which can lift mediocre material. The album has been certified platinum, and its success won him nominations for the ACM Top New Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award in 2004. He lost both to Gretchen Wilson, hot off the success of ‘Redneck Woman’, but in the event, Josh’s career has proved to be deeper rooted.

Ther album is easy to find, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love)’

Alan Jackson followed up — and eventually eclipsed — the quadruple-platinum success of Don’t Rock The Jukebox with his third studio release, A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love) in the autumn of 1992. Once again he teamed up with Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks, with Stegall taking on the lion’s share of the production duties (Hendricks’ sole contribution to the album was co-producing the track “Tonight I Climbed The Wall”).

The first single, “She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)” was one of the products of a series of 1991 writing sessions between Jackson and Randy Travis. Among the other songs from those sessions are “From A Distance”, from Don’t Rock The Jukebox, and “Forever Together”, “A Better Class of Losers”, and “I’d Surrender All”, which were all included on Travis’ 1991 album High Lonesome. With its R&B flavored arrangement, “She’s Got the Rhythm” was originally written with B.B. King in mind, but Jackson ended up keeping the song for himself. This decision paid off when the tune easily soared up the charts, despite its stylistic departure from Alan’s earlier work. It became his sixth #1 hit in December 1992.

The next single, “Tonight I Climb The Wall”, is one of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Unlike “She’s Got The Rhythm”, this one is pure, straight unadulterated country, and an instant, if somewhat underrated classic. Despite peaking at #4, it was excluded from his Greatest Hits Collection, though it did resurface on his second greatest hits volume a few years later.

It was the third single — “Chattahoochie” — that became the breakout hit from this collection. Not only did it provide the line that became the title of the album, it received the CMA Awards in 1993 for Single of the Year and Song of the Year. Its release in April 1993 was timed to allow it to become a huge summertime hit, which it did. It became the first Alan Jackson single to earn gold certification, as well as his seventh #1. It’s a pleasant enough light-hearted tune, but one that hasn’t aged as well as the rest of Jackson’s catalog. It would be a stretch to say that I actively dislike the song, but I have grown weary of it over the years and wouldn’t miss it if I never heard it again.

Alan followed up this blockbuster with another summertime smash, “Mercury Blues”, a remake of a song written in 1949 and recorded by K.C. Douglas, who co-wrote it with Robert Geddins. Before Alan Jackson got to the song, it was recorded by the Steve Miller Band in 1976, David Lindley in 1991 and Finn Pave Maijanen in 1987, and it was subsequently recorded by Meat Loaf in 2003 and Dwight Yoakam in 2004. Jackson’s version, which peaked at #2, is by far my favorite. A slightly retooled version of Jackson’s rendition was featured in commercials for Ford trucks,with “Ford truck” being substituted for “Mercury”.

“(Who Says) You Can’t Have It All” was the fifth and final single from this set. Written by Alan with Jim McBride, it is another straight-country, George Jones-influenced number in the vein of “Tonight I Climb The Wall”, and just like that tune, this one peaked at #4 in Billboard. This is the type of song at which Jackson excels; I hope that there is a song or two like this on his new album.

As far as the non-single tracks go, “I Don’t Need The Booze (To Get A Buzz On)” is the weakest song, which means it would probably be the lead single if this album were released today. “Up To My Ears In Tears”, written by Jackson with Don Sampson is a Texas dancehall number that would sound right at home on a George Strait album from the 80s. “Tropical Depression”, also written by Jackson and Sampson, along with Charlie Craig, is an early example of Alan Jackson in his Jimmy Buffett mode, not lyrically or melodically deep, but a pleasant light-hearted number that hasn’t worn out its welcome like “Chattahoochie” has.

Overall, I don’t like this album quite as much as Don’t Rock The Jukebox, but it’s a much stronger collection than some of Jackson’s more recent work. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified six-times platinum, making it Jackson’s best-selling studio album. It is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection, if you don’t own it already.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’

Alan’s second album, released in May 1991, transformed him from a rising star to a fully fledged superstar, selling 4 million copies, with four of its five singles heading to the top of the charts and winning the title of the ACM Album of the Year. Alan co-wrote almost every song, the results ranging from good to great, although at times Alan seems to rely a little too strongly on the pun as inspiration. The production (from Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks) is excellent, always serving the song and artist sympathetically. The music is solid country in every note, and the songs too draw strongly on the traditions and heritage of country music, with specific tribute paid to George Jones and Hank Williams.

The title track and first single (and ACM Single of the Year) was a ‘heartbroke hillbilly”s appeal for some hurting country music, George Jones rather than the Rolling Stones (picked for the rhyme), set to some tinkling honky tonk piano, steel and fiddle, whose rhythm makes it sound cheerful despite the downbeat lyrics, written by Alan with producer Keith Stegall and veteran writer Roger Murrah:

I ain’t got nothin’
Against rock and roll
But when your heart’s been broken
You need a song that’s slow
Ain’t nothin’ like a steel guitar
To drown a memory

‘Just Playin’ Possum’, written with Jim McBride and Alan’s future manager Gary Overton, is a similarly playful take on turning George Jones records to mend a broken heart. Jones himself offers a cameo at the end (and gets thanked in the liner notes for making ‘a dream come true’, but the theme was too similar to ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ to allow it to be a single, although I like it a little better:

I could cry on my best friend’s shoulder
But there ain’t no use
I need an expert on
The pain I’m going through
So I’ll keep George on the old turntable
Til I’m over you

My personal favourite track is the second single, ‘Someday’, one of two lovely ballads Alan wrote with Jim McBride. It is an understated and gently regretful look at a failed marriage where the disillusioned wife has accepted that the “someday” he’s always promising is never going to come:

I said someday
I’ll get my life straight
She said it’s too late
What’s done is done
I told her someday
She said I can’t wait
Cause sometimes someday just never comes

The protagonist’s regret is never spelled out, but underscores every line in Alan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.

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