My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Don Schlitz

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Saddle The Wind’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janie’s intense vocal is superlative on this song.

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘I Turn The Page’

After leaving RCA, Don released a pair of albums on independent label American Harvest Records. He then moved to Giant, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, and released this album for them in 1998. It was produced by label president Doug Johnson, a longterm fan who had taken the decision to sign the artist after being enthralled by his performance at the Nashville Songwriters Association International Banquet. While the sad reality was that Don was too old at 59 for country radio to be prepared to pay any attention, the album was well received by critics.

There was one, non-charting single, the sweet, upbeat story song ‘Cracker Jack Diamond’, written by Ronny Scaife and Neil Thrasher abut a true love which develops from a meeting at the age of 14. Recorded by, say George Strait, this would have been a surefire hit. At the other end of life, ‘Harry And Joe’ is a sympathetic portrait of two old men who are both widowed just after moving to Florida to retire, and become best friends.

David Hanner’s ‘Pancho’ is about impending mortality, but with characters inspired by the 1950s children’s TV western ‘The Cisco Kid’. Hanner and his partner in the Corbin/Hanner Band, Bob Corbin, wrote ‘How Did You Do It’, addressed to an ex who is coping better with the breakup than the protagonist.

Don revived Tony Arata’s ‘A Handful Of Dust’, which will be familiar to Patty Loveless fans. Don’s version is much lower key and less forceful, with a nice folky feel. The two versions are different enough that they don’t really compete with one another, but it certainly suits Don.

He co-wrote one song with Gary Burr and Doug Johnson, ‘I Sing For Joy’, a touching tribute to Joy, his wife of almost 40 years. A very pretty melody and tasteful string arrangement provide the right setting for the autobiographical lyrics and sincere vocals. The song provides the album title.

On a similar theme, Johnson’s song ‘Her Perfect Memory’ is a sweet and lightly amusing tribute to a wife of many years:

I remember how we struggled
When we first started out
She recalls we had it all
Not what we did without
I think back on those hard times
She remembers only love
Who am I to say that’s not
Exactly how it was?

That’s how she remembers it
She was the lucky one
Just take a look at both of us
And you tell me who won
If she thinks I hung the stars
If that’s what she believes
Then who am I to tamper with
Her perfect memory….

If I made all her dreams come true
As far as she can see
Who am I to tamper with
Her perfect memory?

He also wrote ‘Ride On’, an interesting song about childhood innocence challenged by parental failures:

Some people just lose control,
Some people hit overload
Some people act like some people
They never thought they’d be
So why can’t we all see
The only antidote
The only way to cope
The only true hope is love

Gary Burr and Don Schlitz wrote ‘From Now On’, a thoughtful ballad about baggage and finding love late in life. ‘Take It Easy On Yourself’, written by Bill La Bounty and Steve O’Brien, is my favorite track. A laid back tune combining a love song with advice about not making life too stressful, with a soothing melody and tasteful strings, it is rather lovely.

A cover of Scottish folk-pop-rock duo Gallagher & Lyle’s ‘Elise Elise’ Is okay in its way but not really classic Don Williams. Kevin Welch’s ‘Something ‘Bout You’ is more successful, catchy and charming.

This is definitely a mature album, and a very good one.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Don’t Fence Me In’

dont-fence-me-inThe singles from Wishes would prove to be the peak of Lari White’s popularity. The followup album, Don’t Fence Me In, which saw her stretch her wings artistically, was less successful in the marketplace.

The first single, ‘Ready, Willing And Able’, is quite a good mid-tempo song about being open to falling in love, which Lari delivers with commitment. It was written by Jess Leary and Jody Alan Sweet, and reached the top 20.

The only other single, the vivacious up-tempo ‘Wild At Heart’, failed to make the top 40, and combined with unspectacular sales of the album led to RCA dropping Lari. Lari wrote it with Al Anderson, and it’s pretty good and well performed.

‘Ain’t Gonna Worry About Love No More’ (written by Michael Noble) is in a similar contemporary up-tempo vein.

Lari wrote three songs with her husband Chuck Cannon. The best of these, ‘Something Blue’, is a bluesy torch song about a marriage in the course of disintegrating:

Our love is something old
Her kiss is something new
And now we live on borrowed time
Cause all that’s left is something blue

The upbeat poppy ‘Do It Again’ affirms the narrator’s past choices and mistakes. ‘Next To Love’ is fairly forgettable filler.

‘Ghost Of A Chance’, written by Lari with Chuck Jones, is a low key soulful ballad about fighting the unseen rival of her partner’s ex, with some nice fiddle. This is excellent, and my favourite track.

I also like another ballad, ’The Test’ (written by Don Schlitz and Billy Livsey), although it feels a little bit contrived. A married woman reviews the strength of her relationship on paper, listing all the fights and bad times, which makes her think it must be over – but set against that she has just one positive: she loves him.

‘I’ve Been Waiting For Your Love’ is a pretty AC-leaning ballad written by Stephony Smith and Terry Burns, with some nice fiddle. ‘Woman Of The World’ is an upbeat song about women as survivors.

Rather pretentiously, two tracks have short teasers earlier in the set list. The title track is the Cole Porter-penned standard. Right at the start of the album Lari sings the first chorus fairly straight, with harmony singers Trisha Yearwood and SShelby Lynne, but with old dusty vinyl sound effects. Then almost at the end of the album she launches into a speeded up rockabilly take on the song. It doesn’t really work for me.

Similarly, ‘Soul Searchin’ Blues’ starts out randomly inserted three quarters of the way through with one verse, and then continues right at the end. This is a straight blues tune.

The record is not particularly country, and certainly not traditional, but Lari White was a very talented singer and songwriter, and if you like a slightly poppy/jazzy/AC edge to your country, this album is well worth while.

Although Lari would enjoy one more top 20 hit with ‘Stepping Stone’ on a new label, Lyric Street , and then a top 20 duet with Travis Tritt, that was the end of her mainsteam success.

Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Album Review: Alabama – ’40 Hour Week’

40 hour weekIf I’m not mistaken, 40 Hour Week was the first album to be released as a CD on initial release, rather than only on vinyl and/or cassette, a strong indicator of just how popular the band had become. In 1985 relatively few country acts were being released on CD.

40 Hour Week was the band’s sixth RCA album and also represents a creative turn for the band in that earlier albums had focused on love songs and songs of the idyllic rural South, whereas 40 Hour Week is somewhat grittier and opens with two anthems celebrating the working person, before reverting to the usual pattern.

The album opens with the title track, written by the redoubtable trio of Dave Loggins, Lisa Silver & Don Schlitz. An excellent song that soared to #1 on August 3, 1985, giving Alabama its 17th consecutive #1 single (breaking the previous Billboard record held by Sonny James. The song is definitely a salute to working people:

There are people in this country
Who work hard every day
Not for fame or fortune do they strive
But the fruits of their labor
Are worth more than their pay
And it’s time a few of them were recognized.

Hello Detroit auto workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line

Hello Pittsburgh steel mill workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line.

Track two is “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down”, written by Bob Corbin, whose Corbin-Hanner band had some marginal success during the early 1980s.The song was the third single released from the album and reached #1.

Track three, “There’s No Way”, written by Lisa Palas, Will Robinson and John Jarrard, was the first single released from the album and reached #1 , becoming Alabama’s 16th consecutive #1, tying Sonny James; record for consecutive #1s.

As I lay by your side and hold you tonight
I want you to understand,
This love that I feel is so right and so real,
I realize how lucky I am.
And should you ever wonder if my love is true,
There’s something that I want to make clear to you.

There’s no way I can make it without you,
There’s no way that I’d even try.
If I had to survive without you in my life,
I know I wouldn’t last a day.
Oh babe, there’s no way.

Next up is “Down On Longboat Key”, a pleasant piece of album filler written by Dennis Morgan and Steve Davis. The song is a jog-along ballad about where a guy promised to take his girl.

She sits and stares out the window at the water
Every night down at Longy’s Cafe
All alone she sips her Pina Colada
Talking to herself dreaming time away
The story is that a dark haired sailor
Stole her heart many years ago
He promised her he’d come back and take her
Around the world, bring her hills of gold

“Louisiana Moon”, a Larry Shell – Dan Mitchell composition is more album filler. It is pleasant enough, mildly reminiscent of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” in both subject matter and sound, but not nearly as funky.

The sixth track, “I Want To Know You Before We Make Love”, was written by Becky Hobbs and Candy Parton and would have made a good single for Alabama. The song is a romantic ballad that, for whatever reason, remained an album cut. Hearing its hit potential, the great Conway Twitty took it to #2 in 1987.

Sometimes all you need is someone to hold you
Sometimes that’s all you’re looking for
But I’d like to take the time to get to know you
‘Cause I don’t want this time to be like all the times before.

I want to know you before I make love to you
I want to show you all of my heart
And when I look into those eyes
I want to feel the love inside, you
I want to know you before we make love.

I’ve learned from all those lonely nights with strangers
It takes time for real love to be found
I feel the invitation of your body
But I’d like to look inside your soul before I lay you down.

I didn’t sense any fireworks in Alabama’s recording of “Fireworks” . I regard this as the weakest song on the album.

Jeff Cook delivers the lead vocals on “(She Won’t Have A Thing To Do With) Nobody But Me”, a good mid-tempo ballad written by Dean Dillon, Buzz Rabin & “Flash” Gordon. Jeff’s vocals seem a bit off from his usual standard on this particular performance. It is still worth hearing, as is the slow ballad “As Right Now” on which co-writer Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals.

The album closes out with the John Jarrard – Kent Robbins penned “If It Ain’t Dixie (It Won’t Do)” an ode the South that closes with an extended jam at the end. It’s a good song but the excessive length guaranteed that it would not be released as a single. I think shortening the song and increasing the tempo would have greatly improved the song. As a lifelong Southerner, I identify with the lyrics but the execution was off a bit as far as I’m concerned

O

h, I love those Colorado Rockies
And that big starry Montana sky
And the lights of San Francisco
On a California night
Enjoyed those ballgames in Chicago
On those windy afternoons
It’s a big beautiful country
But I’m never home too soon
If it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do

If it ain’t Dixie, it don’t feel quite like home
My southern blood runs deep and true
I’ve had good times
North of the line
I’ve got a lot of good friends, too
But if it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do
It won’t do

My memory may be failing me, but I seem to recall that all of the singles released had accompanying music videos. I don’t think that was true of any of their other albums

I would give this album an A-. While I regard the three singles released to all be A+ material, the rest of the album would rate a B+ in my estimation. My opinion notwithstanding, this was the top selling country album of 1985.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Temptation’

temptationAfter three albums had failed to break Shelby Lynne, she parted ways with Epic. Her music had always been a little more eclectic than most of her peers, but now she began to experiment more. Although it was still marketed as country music and recorded in Nashville with seasoned session musicians, her work with producer Brent Maher for her new label Morgan Creek (in association with Mercury Records) drew more deeply from the wells of jazz and big band than even the countrypolitan end of country music.

She was still marketed as a country artist, but unsurprisingly the country radio which had been unreceptive to her more conventional material was even less so to her new direction. Lead single ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’ got minimal airplay, peaking at a dismal #69 on the Billboard country chart, although it has a catchy tune and arrangement and is quite enjoyable. Interestingly, Brent Maher wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs, most of them with Jamie O’Hara.

‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, one of the two outside songs, didn’t chart at all, although it is a very nice Patsy Cline style ballad written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and is beautifully sung.

Even better is my favourite song on the album (not coincidentally, the only other song Brent Maher had no hand in). ‘I Need A Heart To Come Home To’ is a lovely sad ballad written by John Barlow Jarvis and Russell Smith about loneliness and the temptation of reconnecting with an old flame:

Something happened the night you kissed me
My will to love was born again
Your tenderness has convinced me
What a lonely fool I’ve been

I need a heart to come home to
Give me all the love I never knew
I need a heart to hold on to
I need a sweet sweetheart like you

Both song and performance are excellent, and the track featured on the soundtrack of hit movie True Romance.

Shelby co-wrote the title track with Maher and Jamie O’Hara, and this bold, brassy tune is a bit lacking in melody or real emotional impact, with an assertive attitude which doesn’t quite fit the self-searching lyric. The trio also wrote the similarly styled ‘Some Of That True Love’, where the swing arrangement fits the song better.

The understated mid-tempo ‘Little Unlucky At Love’, written by Maher and O’Hara, is quite good, but the pair’s ‘Come A Little Closer’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, written by Maher alone, are forgettable big band.

I disliked the bluesy, soul-influenced ‘The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away’ (written by Maher with Don Potter and Don Schlitz, mainly for its annoying spoken segments. However the sophisticated minor-keyed jazz ballad ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is very well done.

This is one of those records which is tough to assign a letter grade to. It is well sung and played, and Shelby sounds thoroughly engaged with her material, but most of it is not really to my personal tastes. As a jazz-inflected record for a general audience, it is very good; but it has little to do with country music other than the personnel.

Grade: B

Album Review: Jim Ed Brown – ‘In Style Again’

in style againI can’t tell you when Jim Ed Brown last issued a solo album of new material. The last one I recall was It’s That Time Of The Night on RCA in 1974, After that there were some duet albums with Helen Cornelius, but even the last of those albums came in 1980. There may have been something after that but I don’t recall anything.

Anyway, it truly is a pleasure to have some new material from Jim Ed. The voice isn’t quite as smooth as it was in 1954 or 1974, but it is still a good voice with warmth, depth and character.

While not specifically designated as a ‘concept album’ , the general theme of the album is that of an older person looking back at life.

The album opens up with “When The Sun Says Hello To The Mountain” a wistful older song I’ve heard before. Famous French-Canadian singer Lucille Starr had a huge hit with this record singing the original French lyrics. Marion Worth had a country hit with it in 1964, and Mona McCall (Darrell Mc Call’s wife) does a fine version of the song (using mixed French and English lyrics under the title “The French Song”), but Jim Ed nails the song and makes it his own. It’s a lovely ballad with a beautiful melody. Jim Ed is joined by his sister Bonnie Brown and the song sounds like a song the Browns could have recorded in their heyday. Chris Scruggs plays Hawaiian-style steel guitar on the track.

When the sun says hello to the mountains
When the night says hello to the dawn
I’m alone with my dreams on the hilltop
I can still hear your voice although you’re gone

I hear at my door
The love song in the wind
It brings back sweet memories of you.
I’m alone dreaming only of you.

“Tried and True” was written by the album’s producer Don Cusic, one of six songs Cusic wrote for this album. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, a love song about the kind of love the singer bears for his true love.

“In Style Again” was produced by Bobby Bare and issued as a single a year or two again. It wasn’t really part of this album project, (there is no overlap among the musicians used on this track and the rest of the album tracks) but it was added to the album and fits in nicely with the general theme of the album. It should have been a hit, but of course, radio won’t play songs by octogenarians, no matter how high the quality.

I’d like to be in style again someday
No one wants to feel like they’ve been thrown away
Yes, nothing lasts forever but it hurts to be replaced
By a younger fresher pretty face
So if only for a while
I’d like to be in style again

Don Cusic penned “Watching The World Walking By” a mid-tempo ballad of the life as seen through older eyes.

“You Again” was a #1 hit for The Forester Sisters in 1987. Jim Ed is joined by Cheryl & Sharon White on this slow ballad, another retrospective love song. Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote this song.

Looking at my life
Through the eyes of a young man growing older all the time,
Maybe just a little wiser
I can clearly see
All my mistakes keep coming back to visit me
Pointing out the roads not taken
So much I’d like to change but one thing I’d do the same

I’d choose you again, I’d choose you again
If God gave me the chance to do it all again
Oh, I’d carefully consider every choice and then
Out of all the girls in the world
I’d choose you again

Jim Ed digs into the song bag of Hall of Famer Cindy Walker for “I Like It”. It’s another mid-tempo ballad as is the next track, probably the most famous song on the album, “Don’t Let Me Cross Over”, a song which spent eleven weeks at #1 in 1962 for Carl & Pearl Butler. Jim Ed is joined here by his former duet partner Helen Cornelius. They still sound great together although Jim Ed and Helen don’t sing with the exuberance of the original. This song does not quite fit the general theme of the album since it’s an old-fashioned (almost) cheating song.

“Older Guy” is another song from the pen of Don Cusic, this one another mid-tempo ballad comparing the energy of younger guys to the wisdom of older men. This song straddles the line between jazz and country. “It’s A Good Life”, also written by Don Cusic continues the narrative of the album, which is the view of life through the eyes of an older man.

Bill Anderson chips in with “Lucky Enough” , probably the most up-tempo song on the album. In this song the singer recounts the thing in life that really represents good luck. If you’re lucky enough to be in love, you’ve already won – you’re lucky enough! Sometimes we forget that.

“Laura (Do You Love Me?” is yet another slow ballad from Cusic, this one the tale of a person left Ireland long ago separating himself from his one true love , thinking of her often and wondering if she still thinks of him.
“The Last One” is another slow ballad, this one ruminating about the emotions of end of life situations. It’s rather a sad song and one that could never sound sincere in the hands of a younger artist.

“Am I Still Country” is another Don Cusic song, a wry tongue-in cheek ballad that pokes fun of bro-country and poses the essential question ‘Am I Still Country Or I Have I Gone Too Far?’ I love the song and think that in different circumstances the song could have been a hit.

Meatloaf and cornbread are both mighty fine
But I like Chinese with a glass of French wine
I watch NASCAR and football but never shot a deer
Sometimes I kick back and watch Masterpiece Theater
I love to hear Chet play jazz guitar
Am I still country or have I gone too far

I like to go to parties and have a good time
But I’m usually home and in bed by nine
Me and my lady find sweet romance
With champagne, Sinatra and a real slow dance
I like a martini with real cigar
Am I still country or have I gone too far

The production on this album features a good dose of fiddle (Glen Duncan) and steel guitar (Chris Scruggs). The album clearly is aimed at older listeners as the younger listeners mostly won’t relate to these songs, although these songs chronicle what eventually will happen to most of us. Younger listeners may not relate to these songs but they certainly could learn a lot from this album.

The producer of this album, Don Cusic, has had an interesting and distinguished career covering most aspects of country music. His story can be found at www.doncusic.com.

Although it is early in the year, this may be the best album of 2015. Certainly it will be in the running – a solid A +

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Partners, Brothers And Friends’

partners brothers and friendsBy 1985 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were confident in their mainstream country/country-rock style, and released the excellent Partners, Brothers And Friends, a fine collection of mainly up-tempo, mainly positive songs which shows the band at their best.

The lead single, ‘Modern Day Romance’ was their second country chart topper. It is an early Kix Brooks songwriting credit (alongside Dan Tyler), and is a solidly enjoyable story song about a roadside pickup which turns into a wild weekend and a broken heart when the girl leaves him stranded:

I tried to love her without any strings
But a modern day romance has left me some old fashioned pain

The wistfully nostalgic ‘Home Again in My Heart’ then hit #3, with the banjo most prominent in the mix helping to give it a rustic feel. The charming ‘Old Upright Piano’ (written by Don Schlitz and Rhonda Kye Fleming) also looks back fondly to childhood memories of the narrator’s grandparents, and allows Bob Carpenter to shine on the piano.

There is a similar mood to Jimmy Ibbotson’s song ‘Telluride’ (not the song of that name later recorded by Tim McGraw but a cover of a song Ibbotson had written in the 1970s. Its poetically folky lyrics about a 19th century gold miner and his love for his wife are counterpointed by a more contemporary arrangement.

The autobiographical title track (written by Jimmy Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna) peaked at #6, but is one of my favourites of their records as it cheerfully chronicles the ups and downs of their career.

There are a number of enjoyable upbeat numbers, any of which would have been possible singles. The exuberant ‘Redneck Riviera’ (witten by Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter) is an early version of the country beach song, but it’s quite entertaining and rooted in real life. Hanna, Ibbotson and Steve Goodman wrote the catchy ‘Queen Of The Road’, a joyful tribute to a tough girl biker. The breezy cowboy song ‘Other Side of The Hill’ (sometimes also known as ‘Cadillac Cowboy’ and recorded by a number of other artists) is another enjoyable cut.

Slowing things down for a moment, ‘As Long As You’re Loving Me’ is a love song with a pretty melody written by Don Schlitz, Lisa Silver and Russell Smith.

They close up with the dramatic saga of ‘Leon McDuff’, a farmer who loses his riverside farm to floods, an unhelpful bank and an unscrupulous tax official who grabs his land for his own benefit. The song is structured as the defence lawyer’s speech at his trial for murdering the sheriff sent to evict Leon and his family:

I’m asking you to be the judge of when enough is enough

The band’s instrumental playing on this track is spectacular.

This album sees the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at their best. It is strongly recommended (and can be found as part of a 2-4-1 CD with its predecessor.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Plain Dirt Fashion’

plaindirtfashionIn 1982, The Dirt Band, as they were then known, reverted back to their former name and moved toward a more mainstream country sound. They scored their first Top 10 country hit in 1983 with “Dance Little Jean”. A year and a label change later, they solidfied their reputation as a mainstream country band with all of their singles through the end of the decade reaching the Top 10.

Plain Dirt Fashion was the band’s first album for Warner Bros., and in the summer of 1984, the song from which the album’s title was derived became the first of their three number one country hits. Written by Rodney Crowell, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” is a nostalgic look back at an impovershed but happy childhood and my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band single. With tight harmonies and plenty of fiddle, it is one of their most traditional efforts, foreshadowing the upcoming New Traditionalist movement which would take off in earnest about a year later. It was followed by the upbeat “I Love Only You”, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz, which reached #3. “High Horse”, penned by Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, became the album’s third single. It peaked at #2 in early 1985. All three singles were tailor-made for country radio without any of the rock elements that had been the hallmark of much of the band’s earlier work. Two album cuts, however, are covers of old rock-and-roll hits — Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch and Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, neither of which is particularly memorable.

In general, while the singles are timeless and have managed to avoid sounding dated, the album cuts haven’t aged as well, mainly due to the somewhat heavy-handed — and typical of the era — use of the drum machine, which mars “Cadillac Ranch”, “Run With Me” and “‘Til The Fire’s Burned Out”. “Video Tape”, the album’s closing track, gives away the album’s age by its reference to a now-obsolete medium. It asks, “wouldn’t you be in good shape if your life was on video tape?” a question that would never be asked in the era of iPhones and social media when so many have regretted having their actions recorded. The one truly great non-single cut is “The Face On The Cutting Room Floor”, about a has-been (or more accurately, never-was) actress who fails to make it in Hollywood after refusing to sleep her way to the top. The tune was written by Steve Goodman with band members Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.

In addition to the band members themselves, the album credits list some marquee names as additonal musicians, with Steve Gibson, Mark O’Connor, and Ricky Skaggs all lending their talents to the project.

Although it occasionally shows its age, Plain Dirt Fashion is still an enjoyable album and worth a listen if you haven’t already heard it. It is available for download or on a 2-for-1 CD with the band’s next project Partners, Brothers and Friends.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White – ‘Hearts Like Ours’

skaggs whiteThe Skaggs and White families have been performing and recording together for decades, so it’s a little surprising that up to now there was never an full-length collaborative album featuring just Ricky and Sharon. They seek to rectify that oversight with the release of Hearts Like Ours, which became available on September 30th. There aren’t any real surprises in this release which fails to break any new ground, despite being a solid effort with many enjoyable efforts.

Produced by Ricky and released on the Skaggs Family Records imprint, the album consists of mostly duets, with a few Sharon solo numbers and plenty of fiddle and steel. The overall message is positive; there are no drinking, cheating or three-hanky songs to be found, although the album might have benefited from one or two of those. It opens with an excellent cover version of “I Run To You”, which doesn’t stray far from the original Marty Stuart and Connie Smith version. Almost as good is their rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, which was a Top 5 hit for Emmylou Harris and Don Williams in 1981. The couple also covers their own 1986 hit “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which is well done, but as is usually the case with re-recordings, it does not compare to the original version.

Neither “When I’m Good And Gone” nor “I Was Meant To Love You” is a duet; Sharon takes the lead and Ricky sings harmony on both songs which were written by Leslie Satcher; the former being co-written with Buddy Jewell who had brief shot at country stardom in the early 2000s. Another former country star, Barbara Fairchild wrote “It Takes Three”, which is a little too saccharine for my taste. Although I enjoyed the title track, another Marty Stuart/Connie Smith composition that features lead vocals from Sharon and harmony from Ricky, it was not quite as good as I thought it would be. I’d like to hear the songrwiters perfrom this one.

The songwriting team of Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote some of my favorite songs back in the 80s, so it is no surprise that their “Hold On Tight (Let It Go)” is the best song on the album (with “I Run To You” running a close second). “No Doubt About It”, the album’s sole bluegrass track, is also quite good. The two Christian-themed songs, “Reasons To Hang On” and “Be Kind”, have to be classified as missteps, albeit slight ones. I enjoy religious music, but the Skaggses have an unfortunate tendency to venture into contemporary Christian territory when more traditonal gospel would play more to their strengths.

Though I wanted to like this album a little more than I did, overall its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and fans of Ricky Skaggs and The Whites will find much to enjoy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Blue Smoke’

blue smoke albumI raved about the title track of Dolly Parton’s new album when I first heard it a couple of months ago, and in the time since it has not lost its charms for me. The album is a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of the range of musical styles, but Dolly is still a great singer and songwriter. She sounds enthusiastic and invested throughout, and has written some very good new songs for the project.

‘Miss You – Miss Me’ is an excellent song from the point of view of a child begging her warring and separated parents to reconcile for her sake. A delicately understated arrangement of mandolin, guitar and piano supports Dolly’s vulnerable vocal.

‘Unlikely Angel’ is a sweet love song addressed to someone who has rescued the protagonist from a bad situation. It is very charming, set to a pretty melody with an attractive acoustic arrangement and delicately delivered vocal. The impeccably played and sung ‘If I Had Wings’ has a high lonesome bluegrass feel and a gospel message.

The upbeat and nostalgic ‘Home’, which Dolly wrote with her producer Kent Wells, has a little busier production, as Dolly cosily remembers (a sanitized version of) her childhood, without any mention of the poverty she has written about in earlier (and better) songs. ‘Try’ is an inspirational number which comes across a little too much like a self-help book about overcoming adversity, with intrusive backing vocals, but the intense sincerity of Dolly’s vocals helps to sell it.

Dolly exercises her playful pop-country side with a rebuttal to a potential lover who isn’t in it for the long run, only wanting a temporary ‘Lover Du Jour’. It is wittily written and charmingly performed with Dolly showing off a pretty good French accent, but the poppy production and backing vocals verge on the irritating with repeated listens.

Two duets see Dolly teaming up with fellow veterans. ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ is a warm hearted tribute to friendship written by Don Schlitz, Caitlyn Smith and Ryan Hanna King, perfectly sung by both Dolly and Kenny Rogers. The production is fuller than it is on the acoustic numbers, with a string arrangement as well as electric instruments but still tasteful and understated. Another old friend, Willie Nelson helps out on Dolly’s own song ‘From Here To The Moon And Back’, a melodic and tender crooned ballad.

An eclectic selection of covers round out the songlist, with variable results. She has written additional lyrics to the traditional ‘Banks Of the Ohio’ to create a framing narrative with herself as a journalist interviewing the incarcerated killer– an inspired addition to the song. She sings it beautifully, supported by the harmonies of Val Storey and Carl Jackson, the latter also taking the odd solo line. An arrangement featuring acappella sections, Stuart Duncan’s fiddle and John Mock’s harmonica at various points combines with the vocals to make this the highlight of the album and one of my favourite versions of this much-recorded tune.

She makes Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t think Twice, It’s Alright’ sound like one of her own songs, and it gets a pretty acoustic arrangement. Rather less successful is Dolly’s attempt at rock-gospel with a cover of Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, where the accompaniment is just too loud and drowns Dolly out, although she makes a decent stab at attacking the song vocally until she gets over-excited and starts shouting at the end.

If you get your copy at Walmart, you get four extra tracks, which are generally weaker than those that made the cut for the main release. There is a remake of her ‘Early Morning Breeze’, plus three new songs: the idealistic and inclusive ‘Olive Branch’, the poppy upbeat ‘Get Up, Get Out, Get On’ which I didn’t like, and the Celtic-tinged ‘Angels In The Midst’.

Grade: A

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘The Blue Rose of Texas’

HollyDunnTheBlueRoseofTexasShortly after the dissolution of MTM Records, Holly Dunn landed a contract with Warner Bros. and her career enjoyed a resurgence from both an artistic and commercial standpoint. Her Warner Bros. debut, 1989’s The Blue Rose of Texas was produced by Holly and her brother and songwriting partner Chris Waters, and is by far the finest album of her career. Her first single for her new label was “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” which she wrote with Waters and Tom Shapiro. The uptempo number, which finds her frustrated by an overly cautious new love interest, became her first Billboard #1 hit in May 1989. It’s one of the few concessions to radio in what is mostly a very traditional album. Another uptempo number “There Goes My Heart Again”, which features background vocals by Joe Diffie who co-wrote the tune with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry, was the album’s second single, which peaked at #4.

Suprisingly, Warner Bros. opted not to release any further singles from the album, despite a warm reception from radio. One track, “No One Takes The Train Anymore”, a ballad beautifully written by Chris Waters and exquisitely performed by Holly, was included on her 1991 greatest hits package Milestones. It became a single in 1991 in the aftermath of the “Maybe I Mean Yes” debacle, but overshadowed by controversy of its predecessor, it became the first Holly Dunn single not to chart. Despite its lack of commercial success, it has always been one of my favorites. It finds Dunn pondering an impending breakup and lamenting the fact that the fast pace of modern life, which includes traveling by car or plane rather than sea or rail, leaves little opportunity for the party that is leaving to change his mind.

The album’s remaining songs are exceptionally strong, even though none of them were released as singles. Approximately half of them were written by one or more members of the Dunn/Waters/Shapiro team with the rest being supplied by some well known outside songwriters. It’s hard to pick favorites, but if pressed I would narrow the list down to three: the Dunn/Waters/Shapiro-written title track, which includes some excellent electric guitar work, the Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet song “There’s No Heart So Strong”, and “Most of All, Why”, which contains some beautiful harmonizing by its writer Dolly Parton. Originally included on Dolly’s 1975 album The Seeker/We Used To, the regret-filled ballad asks the poignant questions:

How did we get here,
Where did it start,
When did we walk out of each other’s hearts?
Where did we lose it,
How did love die,
When, where and how, but most of all, why?

I like all of Dunn’s albums, but this is the one that I play all the way through most often. It’s one of the ten essential albums I’d want with me if I were stranded on a desert island and I’ve never quite understood why it didn’t sell better than it did. I don’t think it is still in print, but copies are still available on Amazon. Pick one up while you still can.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Cornerstone’

cornerstoneHolly’s second album for MTM, released in 1987, built on the success of ‘Daddy’s Hands’ and a hit duet with Michael Martin Murphey (the charming ‘A Face In The Crowd’), and saw her cementing her status as a rising star for the fledgeling label.  Her high soprano voice is well suited to the songs selected.

The mid-tempo ‘Love Someone Like Me’, which Holly wrote with Radney Foster, was the lead single, and it only just missed the top spot on the country chart.  It had previously been recorded bluegrass style by the group New Grass Revival; Holly’s version is a little more on the pop-country side and the production has dated a bit, but it isn’t bad, thanks mainly to her vocal.

Better is ‘Only When I Love’, a post-breakup number in which the protagonist is mostly okay – until she falls for someone else.  It was one of a brace of songs written by Holly with her most frequent writing partners, Tom Shapiro and her brother Chris Waters, and reached #4.

Holly and Chris wrote the third and last single ‘Strangers Again, a rueful ballad about the pain of a breakup, in which they are left

not even friends.

Wistful fiddle backs up Holly’s emotional vocal, making this by far my favorite of the singles.

The Dunn/Waters/Shapiro team also wrote one of my favorite tracks, ‘Why Wyoming’, in which a cowboy’s jilted sweetheart bemoans the competition of the wide open spaces:

He’s the only cowboy that I’ve got

And you’ve got all you need

He could never love a woman

Like he loves being free

Tell me, why, Wyoming

Do you take him from me?

 

The beautiful ballad ‘Fewer Threads Than These’ (also recorded by Dan Seals) is another highlight, with Holly supported by a sympathetic harmony vocal.

Jim Croce’s ‘Lover’s Cross’ is a pretty sounding but angsty ballad about breaking away from a difficult relationship:

It seems that you wanted a martyr

Just a regular girl wouldn’t do

But I can’t hang upon no lover’s cross for you

The small town lifestyle is often idealised in country songs, and the big city seen as a poor alternative.  Holly offers a more jaundiced view with her vibrant reading of ‘Small Towns (Are Smaller For Girls)’.  This winsome depiction of the limitations of small town life for a restless teenager was written by Mark D Sanders, Alice Randall and Verlon Thompson.  The protagonist feels stifled and restricted by a life where:

Everybody that she knew knew every move she made

So she stood behind the backstop playing sweet 16

While the boys were stealing bases and pitching for their dreams

She knows that there’s gotta be more

Small towns are smaller for girls

She learned to dance around desire

And act like the nice girls act

So the boys found out about love with the girls across the tracks

While their souls burned holes through the heat of the southern night

She was reading about New York City with her daddy’s flashlight

Holly hedges her bets a little though, with her fond tribute to a ‘Little Frame House’, with the Whites singing harmony vocals.  The title track is an idealistic eulogy to the central importance of love, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz.

The production on the up-tempo ‘Wrap Me Up’ (a Radney Foster co-write) sounds a bit tinny now, and this is the only track I really don’t like.

This is not easy to find at a reasonable price these days (partly because it was on a label which lasted only a few years), but it is a fine album which is well worth checking out if you can find it.

Grade: A

Album Review – Alison Krauss – ‘Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection’

220px-Alison_Krauss_-_Now_That_I've_Found_YouIn 1994, Alison Krauss was tapped to take part in Keith Whitley: Tribute an album marking five years since the singer’s tragic death in 1989 at age 33. Along with her band Union Station Krauss recorded Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz’s “When You Say Nothing At All,” a #1 hit for Whitley in 1988. Krauss gave a delicate reading of the song that helped it stand out and get her noticed as one of the best vocalists and song interpreters in Nashville. Capitalizing on unsolicited airplay, BNA Records released Krauss’ version as a single in January 1995. Peaking at #3 Krauss had a monster hit on her hands and mainstream exposure for the first time.

The track was also included on Krauss’ own Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection, a ‘Greatest Hits’ album of sorts that was comprised of tracks from her previous Rounder releases that were fan favorites and a few newly recorded numbers. Thanks to the come-from-nowhere success of “When You Say Nothing At All,” the album was a big hit, eventually selling more then 2 million copies.

The success of the single and album carried over to the 1995 CMA Awards, where Krauss was nominated for Single of the Year (“When You Say Nothing At All”), Vocal Event of The Year (“Somewhere In The Vicinity of The Heart” her #7 peaking duet with Shenandoah) and both Horizon and Female Vocalist. Krauss would go on to win in each of her categories. Originally, though, the Country Music Association also had Now That I Found You: A Collection up for Album of The Year, which she no doubt would’ve won except for a slight problem – the album is a collection and was therefore deemed ineligible. The sixth album on the voter’s list, Patty Loveless’ When Fallen Angels Fly replaced Krauss on the ballot and much to everyone’s surprise, walked away with the trophy.

The album was worthy in its own right, a collection or not. “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” a bluegrass cover of the Foundations’ classic served as the lead single and while it wasn’t a radio smash, the track has become very popular over the years. Similar in style to “When You Say Nothing At All” it worked thanks to it’s unfussy straightforward manner. Krauss very deservedly won a Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy for her recording.

The second and final single was “Oh, Atlanta,” composed by Bad Company guitarist Mick Ralphs. More rootsy country than bluegrass, “Oh, Atlanta” allows Krauss to give a twang-filled vocal that was a marked departure for her. The results are stunning, with Krauss showing she can easily pull off just about any vocal style with ease. I’ll admit I had a harder time getting into this one at first, but it’s damn near a revelation.

The final newly-recorded number is Sidney and Suzanne Cox’s “Broadway,” a beautiful rootsy ballad about a singer reflecting on how far they’ve come since moving to Nashville and getting their start on Music City’s famed Broadway. Solely due to execution this may be one of the strongest recordings of its ilk thanks to the winning combination of the Cox’s lyric and Krauss’ brilliant delivery. “Broadway” is the forgotten gem of the new tracks on Now That I’ve Found You swallowed by the more famous title track and “When You Say Nothing At All.” It’s unfortunate because of all the new songs on the album, it’s easily the best hands down.

In March 1995, Krauss gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times where she spoke about the success she was experiencing:

“It’s a freak thing. It’s kinda ticklin’ us all. We haven’t had anything really chart before. At all. Isn’t it funny though? We don’t know what’s goin’ on….The office said, ‘Hey, it’s charting,’ and we’re like, ‘Huh?'”

Now That I Found You: A Collection did mark the turning point in Krauss’ career, allowing her to branch our artistically in the coming decades adding her voice to many a movie soundtrack and even singing at the Academy Awards. Unlike most singers who chase fame, Krauss hasn’t changed at all; she’s just added some new colors and dimensions to her already impressive catalog. But Now That I Found You is an excellent album in its own right and a must have for any fan of Krauss’ music.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘All of This Love’

PamTillisAllofThisLoveIn the wake of the success of Sweetheart’s Dance – a platinum selling album that nabbed her the coveted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1994 – Pam Tillis decided to produce the follow-up record by herself, and became the first woman on a major label to do so. The stakes were high when All of This Love hit with a bang in November 1995.

The main reason I enjoy the women of 90s country so much is their dedication to their music. Most were often too smart for mainstream radio, thus enjoying relatively short commercial careers while reaping the rewards artistically. Tillis is one of these artists and she proved it with All of This Love, an album that had little to do with the bouncy sound of its predecessor. Instead the project was somber, moody, and alienated the casual fans that loved hits like “Mi Via Loca.”

Well, it was their loss because All of This Love produced some brilliant singles. “Deep Down,” a mournful fiddle drenched tune, peaked at #6. The song is the rare record where the juxtaposition of mournful lyric and upbeat melody comes together to create magic. Tillis co-wrote another tour de force, “It’s Lonely Out There,” with her now ex-husband Bob DiPiero. It’s a ferocious lyric, with a woman letting her man go, only to warn him “Go on and get your share/But believe me baby/It’s lonely out there.” The song may’ve only hit #16, but of all her singles, it’s left the biggest impression on me. One of my all-time favorite songs from the moment I first heard it all those years ago.

In between them, Tillis sent the album’s centerpiece to #8. “The River and the Highway,” written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz, is a poetic masterwork about two people trying to find comfort in each other. That Tillis could get such a left of center ballad into the top 10 speaks to her strong relationship with country radio at the time.

She wasn’t so fortunate on the final single, which became her first for Arista to miss the top 40. Despite or may be even in spite of its innate stupidity, I’ve always liked “Betty’s Got A Bass Boat.” The lyric is generic and the production has aged horribly, but the Bernie Nelson and Craig Wiseman-penned tune got me to purchase this album in the first place. Much like Julie Roberts’ misguided cover of Saving Jane’s “Girl Next Door,” it’s Tillis’ attempt at scoring a big hit with ripe radio fodder. In both cases the experiment failed, proving that trying to fit in just isn’t worth the embarrassing effort.

Tillis is much better when she’s not being guided by radio, and she proves it with a stellar cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain,” which features Marty Stuart playing the bluegrass staple. The collaboration is a gorgeous marriage of my favorite musical instrument and Tillis’ otherwordly voice. She’s similarly excellent on the mandolin, fiddle, and steel guitar soaked country shuffle title track, a Chapin Hartford song about a woman saving all her love for the man she has yet to meet. “Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” is an underappreciated Kim Richey number about budding love that’s as effervescent and sunny as the vivacious fiddle throughout suggests.

It’s easy to compare All of This Love with its predecessor, given all eyes were on Tillis (a budding superstar) at the time of its release. Most will refer to it as a lesser album given how it isn’t as radio friendly nor as appealing for casual fans (the songs could be looked at as not being ‘instantly catchy’ enough) but it’s certainly just as good but in many ways better than Sweetheart’s Dance. This is where Tillis came into her own as a powerhouse selector of material and while the two albums that followed weren’t nearly as strong, she’s bounced back in the last decade.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Kentucky Thunder’

By 1989 Ricky Skaggs was no longer the hottest commodity in country music; the New Traditionalist movement had produced a lot of new and younger competition, and Ricky’s sales and radio airplay figures suffered as a result. However, he closed out the decade of his greatest commercial success with one of the finest albums of his career.

For the first time, he worked with a co-producer — Steve Buckingham — perhaps in part because Ricky was busy producing Dolly Parton’s White Limozeen album at the same time. Dolly’s chart resurgence seems to have rubbed off on Ricky; shortly after her album dropped he scored a #1 hit with “Lovin’ Only Me”, his first chart topper since “Cajun Moon” three years earlier. It was also to be the last #1 hit of his career. However, he did reach the Top 5 one last time with Kentucky Thunder’s second single “Let It Be You”, an excellent ballad written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson.

Skaggs was seemingly back in the good graces of country radio, but his renewed success proved to be only temporary. From this point on, none of his records cracked the Top 10. There were, however, three more singles released from Kentucky Thunder: “Heartbreak Hurricane”, which reached #13, “Hummingbird”, which peaked at #20, and the #25-charting “He Was On To Something (So He Made You).” All of them are quite good but my favorite of the three is the energetic “Hummingbird”, which had appeared a few years earlier on a Restless Heart album. One of that band’s more country sounding numbers, it was written by band member Greg Jennings with Tim DuBois.

As far as the tracks that weren’t released as singles are concerned, the best are the grass-is-always-greener themed “The Fields of Home”, “Lonesome For You” (both written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell), “Casting My Shadow In The Road”, and the ballad “When I Love”, which was written by Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet, one of the hottest songwriting teams in country music at that time.

Kentucky Thunder
lacks the bluegrass flourishes of Ricky’s earlier work, but it is an excellent example of late-80s traditional country. It briefly reversed his decline on the singles chart, it did little to improve his sales figures. Its sole flaw is its brevity; it clocks in at just under 30 minutes, despite the inclusion of an atypical-for-the-era eleventh track (the spiritual “Saviour, Save Me From Myself”). It’s difficult to find, except at absurd prices, but presumably it will join Ricky’s other Epic albums in re-release on Skaggs Family Records. When it does, grab it; it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Live Like You Were Dying’

2004 saw the release of Tim’s eighth studio album, Live Like You Were Dying.  It proved to be something of a return to form after the disappointing Dancehall Doctors album, thanks to much better material, although Tim kept that production team of himself, band leader Darran Smith and Byron Gallimore, with the Dancehall Doctors again providing backing.  The album’s making was overshadowed by the death of Tim’s father Tug at the beginning of the year, and it can be no coincidence that much of the material here is about contemplating loss and death and the sum of one’s life.  Although Tim did not contribute to any of the songwriting, the overall feel is of a very personal selection of material.

The title track served as the lead single, and it was exceptionally successful, hitting #1 and selling a million copies.  Written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, it tells the story of a 40something man who is spurred by a potentially terminal diagnosis to experience various things on his “bucket list” before it is too late.  The underlying Hallmark card message about living life to the full was obviously inspiring to many listeners, and touchingly it’s about being a good friend and husband as well as just having fun and engaging in dangerous sports (not something most people would actually be able to do if suffering a fatal illness).  The nostalgic but even more cliche’d ‘Back When’ was, surprisingly, the album’s second straight chart topper, although it is the album’s least imaginative song, and one that makes Tim sound like an old man grumbling about changing times and new uses of words.  It’s also rather disconcerting to hear the far-from-traditional McGraw complaining about “pop in my country”.

The much better ‘Drugs Or Jesus’ then faltered just inside the top 15.  It’s an interesting song about being trapped in a small town, where religion and illegal highs offer the only escape:

In my hometown

You’re either lost or found

It was probably too bleak and challenging an approach to be embraced by country radio, too often inclined to the comfortably self congratulatory when examining rural or small-town life.  The protagonist in this case has been fleeing from God, but seems to accept Him at the end.

The sour post-divorce tale of ‘Do You Want Fries With That?’ took him back to the top 5.  It’s an entertaining if slightly cartoonish tale (written by Casey Beathard and Kerry Kurt Philips) of a man financially ruined by the breakup of his marriage and reduced to a second job serving fast food, who encounters and rails against the man who has taken his place in the family home:

Your ketchup’s in the bag
And her check is in the mail
I hope your chicken’s raw inside
And I hope your bun is stale
I’m supposed to tell you
“Please come back!”
But how ‘bout this instead?
I hope you both choke on a pickle
Man, that would tickle me to death

The final single, the reflective ‘My Old Friend’, about an old friend who has died, is quite good, but would have been more appealing given a stripped down production.  It peaked at #6.

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Album Review: Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘One Time, One Night’

The duo’s sophomore album, released in 1988, continues largely in the same vein as their successful debut disc — combining elements of country and rock with tight harmonies that proved very popular with radio programmers and listeners. Like its predecessor, One Time, One Night was produced by Steve Buckingham, but co-producer Hank DeVito was nowhere to be found this time around. Janis Gill continued to hone her songwriting skills, contributing two compositions co-written with Don Schlitz and one with Gail Davies. Among the collaborations with Schlitz was the album’s lead single “Satisfy You”, an uptempo Cajun-flavored number that continued the Sweethearts’ string of Top 10 hits. It peaked at #5, as did the next single, “Blue to the Bone”, which allowed them to showcase some impressive harmony singing that was somewhat reminiscent of a female version of the Everly Brothers, whose “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” is covered here. The Sweethearts are joined by Vince Gill for what is, in my opinion, one of the very best versions of this song, aside from the 1960 original. It is one of the standout tracks on the album and one of my favorites.

The duo also pay homage to the Beatles with their cover version of the Fab Four’s “I Feel Fine”, which they took to #9. It was the Sweethearts’ seventh consecutive Top 10 hit and they seemed to be on an unstoppable commercial roll when they suddenly and unexpectedly lost their momentum. Their next single, the Don Schlitz/Craig Bickhardt number “If I Never See Midnight Again” fizzled out at #39. This is a beautiful song with gorgeous harmonies that deserved to chart much higher. The song could quite possibly be about the same character in the duo’s earlier hit “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town”, also written by Don Schlitz, after she’s sown her wild oats. Now a little older and wiser, she’s found true love and is ready to forsake the party scene forever:

Now I don’t care if the party starts without me
And when the clock strikes twelve, drink a toast to this old friend.
I’ll be sleeping with my darling’s arms around me
And I don’t care if I never see midnight again.

At the time I thought that, as the album’s fourth and final single, the record might not have received the same promotional push from the label as the earlier releases had. That is still a possibility, but the fact remains that it marked the end of the duo’s winning streak, and they would never chart inside the Top 20 again.

Among the album cuts, “Gone Again”, the tune that Janis wrote with Gail Davies, is the most interesting. It talks about the whirlwind pace of life on the road and the personal sacrifices that come along with fortune and fame, something that the Sweethearts could likely very easily relate to at the time. “You Never Talk Sweet”, which is the other Gill/Schlitz song on the album, is also quite good. The album’s sole misstep is the Wally Wilson/Kevin Welch number “We Won’t Let That River Come Between Us”, which seems a bit forced and doesn’t quite work for me.

The Sweethearts of the Rodeo did not enjoy a long run at the top of the charts. They released two more albums for Columbia, 1990’s Buffalo Zone and 1992’s lackluster Sisters. Neither produced any hits and they were dropped from the Columbia roster. One Time, One Night is the best of their four major-label releases. It is not available digitally, but inexpensive CD copies are easy to find. It’s worth seeking out, along with their debut disc.

Grade: A