My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Frank Dycus

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ’11 Months 29 Days’

Johnny Paycheck released his first outlaw album, 11 Months 29 Days in 1976. He hadn’t yet caught on in this vein, proven by the fact the album spawned four low-charting singles and peaked at #40 upon release.

Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston wrote the lead single, “The Feminine Touch,” an odd critique on manhood. The dreary arrangement and Paycheck’s vocal are eerily reminiscent of George Jones, which I can’t tell is on purpose or not. The track itself just isn’t very good. It peaked at #56.

“Gone At Last,” the second single, is better although I could’ve done without the dated female voices on the chorus. I did enjoy the jaunty melody, which is brimming with flourishes of harmonica. The track stalled at #49.

The title track, which hit #44, was the album’s next radio offering. The prison-themed lyric, which Paycheck co-wrote with Billy Sherill, is very good. The track itself is dated beyond repair, with what sounds like an annoying horn throughout the proceedings.

The final single, “I Can See Me Loving You Again” was a Jerry Foster and Bill Rice co-write that reached #44. It’s nice ballad that makes good use of Paycheck’s honest and tender vocal performance. The production, complete with piano, is dated to modern ears, but the track is very good.

As for the remaining songs, the album finally kicks into high gear with “The Woman Who Put Me Here,” an excellent barroom anthem complete with a welcomed backing of steel guitar. “I Sleep With Her Memory Every Night” is another high point, a ballad, complete with nice touches of fiddle to accompany a lyric about a lost love. “I’ve Seen Better Days,” also another ballad, is slightly dreary but very good as well.

11 Months 29 Days is an average album at best, with songs that may be okay on their own but are taken down by dreary uninviting production trappings. While I didn’t like this one very much, it may appeal to Paycheck collectors’ more than average fans.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Someone to Give My Love To’

While the Little Darlin’ Recordings served to get Johnny’s name known, at some point the label lost steam and was folded by Aubrey Mayhew. In fact the last of the Mayhew-Paycheck collaborations was released on the Certron label. Once again Paycheck found himself on the outside looking in.

There´s an old saying that ‘The honky-tonk life kills off the honky-tonk singers’, In Johnny Paycheck’s case, that almost proved to be true as the twin demons of alcohol and drug abuse momentarily brought his career to a halt. Fortunately for Johnny, a talent as formidable as he was, rarely stayed forgotten in Nashville during the early 1970s. While he was drying out, the country music genre was undergoing some changes. Bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Byrds, Poco and Pure Prairie League were adding country sounds to their forms of rock music. Meanwhile, former rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were experiencing success on country radio. Hoping to capitalize on the new energy affecting country music, CBS record executive and fan Nick Hunter tracked Paycheck down (there are stories of him sleeping under freeway bridges and on park benches). Hunter brought Paycheck to the attention of producer Billy Sherrill, who signed him to Epic Records and recorded him as a straight-ahead country balladeer. Success came immediately as the first single “She’s All I Got” reached #2 Billboard/#1 Cashbox/#1 Record World, and the album of the same name reached #4 upon its release in December 1971.

Someone To Give My Love To was Johnny’s second release for Epic, released in May 1972. The title track, released as the first single from the album replicated the success of his first Epic single reaching #1 on Record World (#2 Cashbox /#4 Billboard). This song was written by the successful songwriting team of Bill Rice and Jerry Foster. Paycheck would record many more of their songs.

I could search from now till the end of time
And never find another you
I’m so glad because I know you’re mine
Someone to give my love to

Now I believe my love that you’re one of a kind
For there’s no one else like you
You’re the light of my life so let it shine
Someone to give my love to

[Chorus]
I found happiness is loving you
And I’ll do my best to make your dreams come true
I will follow you to the end of the earth
For my place will be with you
I have taken you for better or worse
Someone to give my love to

Tracy Byrd would cover this song 30 years later.

Next up is “Smile Somebody Loves You”, a generic ballad that makes a decent album track. “Something” by English songwriter George Harrison is a song that has been covered hundreds of times. Welsh torch singer Shirley Bassey had a huge hit with the song while I was living in England, reaching #4 on the UK pop charts while being a top ten record in numerous other countries. Johnny does a nice job with the song, but with the exception of a little steel guitar, the arrangement is nearly a clone of Bassey’s recording.

Johnny wrote “Your Love Is The Key To It All”. A nice ballad that has a generic instrumental backing that sounds like it was intended as a Tammy Wynette track.

The sun always shines in my world down even when the rain should fall
The light of happiness is always shining and your love is the key to it all
One day you just walked into these arms of mine
Lift me up and with your love made me stand tall
Now I know what happiness in life is all about and your love is the key to it all

Your love is the key that fits every lock to every single door in failure’s wall
Now I’m strong enough to do anything I have to and your love is the key to it all
One day you just walked…
Your love is the key to it all

Jerry Jeff Walker never had any real hit records, but he sure wrote a winner in “Mr. Bojangles”. Walker has said he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail, after he was jailed for public intoxication. Contrary to popular belief the song was not inspired by famed black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but by a homeless white man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police.

Walker’s own 1968 recording of the song died at #77, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pushed the record to #9 on the US pop charts (and #2 on the Canadian pop charts) and performers such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and William Shatner have performed the song. Paycheck’s version is performed in a straight-forward manner – it makes a nice album track.

“Love Is A Good Thing” is another song from the Foster-Rice songbook. According to Billboard the song only reached #12 (#13 Record World/#11 Cashbox). Given how frequently I heard the song on country radio, I suspect that the song was more popular in some areas than others. It is a great song

Girl, you give your precious love to me and we’ve got a good thing goin’
There’s no end in sight that I can see cause our love just keeps on growin’
Bring on happiness let us sing love is a good thing
We can take what life may offer us and when trouble comes around
There’s no way it’s gonna break us up nothing gets a good love down
Bring on sunshine let us sing love is a good thing
Yeah love is a good thing let us sing love is a good thing

“A Heart Don’t Need Eyes” and “She’ll All I Love For” are a pair of Paycheck’s compositions, both decent album tracks. The former is a standard weeper that would have made a decent, but not great single for Paycheck (or George Jones for that matter.) The latter is a upbeat love song to his wife .

“The Rain Never Falls In Denver” is a mid-tempo upbeat Foster & Rice love song. It could have made a decent single for someone but as afar as I know, it was never released by anyone as a single.

Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
‘Cause you make the sun shine all the time
Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
Since you came along and brought your love to this heart of mine

One time in Chicago, Illinois
A pretty woman turned my head around
That city woman said she love this poor country boy
Any cloudy in Chicago and the rain came pouring down

But the rain never falls in Denver
‘Cause you make the sun shine all the time
Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
Since you came along and brought your love to this heart of mine

“High On The Thought of You” is a interesting song about a love that is gone. Johnny does an effective job of singing the song

I don’t need the help of the red wine in the glass to ease my mind
I found out the way to forget the way you left me here behind
I drink up a mem’ry and it takes me back to places that I’ve been
I just think about you and I’m high on the thought of you again

The album closes with “It’s Only A Matter of Wine”, the title a takeoff on the title of an old Brook Benton classic. The song itself, written by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston, has nothing to do with Benton’s song.

They’re stackin’ the chairs on the table again they block down the Budwiser sign
`Soon they’ll be callin’ a taxi for me it’s only a matter of wine
Yes it’s only a matter of wine till I’m something that words can’t divine
Yes she’ll soon be out of my mind and it’s only a matter of wine

Outside a big truck is washing the street leaving our dream world behind
While inside I’m washing your mem’ry away cause it’s only a matter of wine
Yes it’s only a matter of wine…
Yes it’s only a matter of wine

Johnny Paycheck was a very distinctive vocalist whose voice could occasionally (but only rarely) be mistaken for George Jones – but for no one else. His ability to put across emotion could be matched by few and exceeded by none. The albums released by Epic are generally very good, but that distinctive instrumental sound and style of the Little Darlin’ years had been lost, replaced by the “country cocktails” sound of Billy Sherrill. Unfortunately, album covers from this era did not routinely list musician credits and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere.

On a few of the tracks, it sound as if tracks were produced first; then a vocalist selected to sing the song. With an artist as distinctive as Paycheck, the vocals cut through the clutter and produce recordings worth hearing.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Sawyer Brown’

Sawyer Brown’s eponymous debut album, released in 1984 was their highest charting entry on the Billboard Country Albums chart, peaking at #2 and he most successful of their 1980s albums, in no doubt aided by their winning appearance on Star Search. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and spawned three hit singles: “Leona” (#16), “Step That Step” (#1) and “Used To Blue” (#3). The first two were catchy uptempo numbers that set the template for most of their subsequent singles for the next several years. “Used To Blue” proved that they could also handle ballads, though they were not generally associated with ballads in those days.

In addition to writing the band’s first #1 hit, the fluffy but catchy “Step That Step”, lead singer Mark Miller also wrote “Broken Candy”, a very nice ballad about heartbreak, loneliness and trying again. He also co-wrote the uptempo “Feel Like Me” and “It’s Hard to Keep a Good Love Down” with Randy Scruggs.

Some impressive names appear among the songwriting credits: the bluesy “Used To Blue” was written by Fred Knobloch and Bill LaBounty, “Smoking In The Rockies” — which they had performed on Star Search — was written by Buddy Cannon, Gary Stewart and Frank Dycus and “Staying Afloat” was a Don King co-write with J.D. Martin. Sawyer Brown’s origins can be traced to its members’ stint as Don King’s road band. “The Sun Don’t Shine on the Same Folks Every Time” — one of the more country sounding numbers was co-written by Mark Gray with Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate. Gray had secured a record deal with Epic around the same time and is best remembered for “Sometimes When We Touch”, his duet with Tammy Wynette.

Although the album is not particularly country sounding for the most part, it is well within the realm of what was considered country at the time. Although there are no fiddle and steel and just an occasional touch of harmonica, the album is not overproduced like a lot of other music from that era. Only occasionally do the synthesizers betray the album’s age. Sawyer Brown was not particularly taken seriously by the industry at the time and was somewhat unfairly labeled as a “bubble gum” band. It’s true that there’s nothing here as deep as “The Walk” — a big hit that they would enjoy almost a decade later — but the rest of the album is neither more nor less lightweight than anything else that was on the charts at the time. It is a highly enjoyable and solid first effort that for the most part has aged well.

Grade: A

Album Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca’

porter wayne and dolly rebeccaPorter and Dolly’s fourth album together was released in March 1970. Like its predecessors it was produced by Bob Ferguson.

There were two hit singles, both reaching the top 10. The duo’s version of country standard ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’ is one of the several definitive takes on the song, and although the production feels just a little dated, Dolly’s lead vocal backed by Porter’s harmony is perfect. In comparison, Dolly’s composition ‘Tomorrow Is Forever’ is forgotten today, but it is pretty good. It is a plaintive sounding love song about moving on together after some separation.

It is one of no less than six Parton tunes on the album, signalling Porter Wagoner’s debt to his young musical partner was not just for her singing or her glamorous stage presence. The melody of ‘Mendy Never Sleeps’ has a minor keyed folky-Beatles melancholy, and is about a teenage wild child who comes to a tragic end, written from the point of view of her parents. It’s an interesting perspective for Dolly (then only 24 herself) to choose to explore. ‘Silver Sandals’ is also a lament for a dead child, in this case a sentimental religious tune about a physically disabled girl which may try a little too hard to pull on the heartstrings.

The sassy ‘Run That By Me One More Time’ is charming as a married couple bicker, and my favourite track after ‘Someone I Used To Know’:

Run that by me one more time
To make sure that I heard you right
I hope you don’t expect me to believe that line
I might be crazy, but I ain’t dumb
And I know a lie when I hear one
Would you run that by me one more time?

Dolly: Well, you’re late again, I see
What’s your excuse this time?
Don’t you try to kiss and make up
When you smell so strong from wine

Porter: Well, I’m not late, the clock is wrong
You need to wind Big Ben
Honey, that’s not wine you smell
That’s aftershave for men

Also very good is ‘I’m Wasting Your Time And You’re Wasting Mine’, as another couple decide to call it quits.

Dolly and her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope co-wrote ‘It Might As Well Be Me’, a good song about an impending breakup. Dorothy Jo also wrote the earnest ‘We Can’t Let This Happen To Us’, about a couple determined to save a marriage threatened by their busy lives. Uncle Bill Owen contributed ‘No Love Left’, a pleasant mid-tempo song about accepting that a relationship has reached its natural end.

The nostalgic ‘Forty Miles From Poplar Bluff’, written by Frank Dycus, is reminiscent of some of Dolly’s own songs about her childhood, although the story’s Missouri setting is less desperately poor, and there is a more robust arrangement complete with horns.

The pretty ‘Each Season Changes You’ has bluegrass origins, but gets a more polished arrangement here (with yet more horns).

While the album is not available digitally, the tracks are all to be found on the second disc of the superb Bear Family box set.

Grade: B+

Classic Review: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry’ (1981)

stars of the grand ole opryDuring the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s major labels trimmed their rosters, shedding veteran artists who were no longer cranking out the hits or generating decent album sales. Sometimes these veteran artists would find another major label deal but mostly these artists wound up on minor / independent labels. Even those artists who managed to find a major label deal found their stay at the new label to be a short one that lead to landing on a minor label (for example, Jimmy Dickens: Columbia > Decca > Gusto / Charlie Walker: Columbia > RCA > Plantation).

While on the minor / independent labels, most of the veteran artists recorded very little new material, usually producing an album or two of dreary remakes of their older hits with perhaps some covers of other big hits from artists (it is astounding how many artists issued albums listing songs such as “San Antonio Rose”, “There Goes My Everything” and “There Stands The Glass” among their greatest hits).
Most of these albums featured low budget production, thin sound, and were recorded with minimal numbers of disinterested musicians accompanying a bored vocalist singing songs sung literally thousands of times before.

First Generation Records was owned by Pete Drake (1932-1988), one of the great steel guitar players, and a musician who was not about to settle for the bored and tired performances described above. Producing the records himself, and often playing steel guitar on the recording sessions, Pete gathered a group of excellent musicians to play on his recording sessions. Rather than merely re-recording an artist’s older hits, Pete’s Stars of the Grand Ole Opry series generally featured five songs new to the artist (and often simply new songs) followed by five of the artist’s older hits but with a difference, that difference being energized singers and musicians. Among the artists featured on the series were Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard, Vic Willis, Stonewall Jackson, Billy Walker, Ernest Tubb, George Hamilton IV, Ray Pillow, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and Charlie Louvin. While all were decent to very good albums, the album with Stonewall Jackson is the standout among the series.

Prior to this album, Stonewall Jackson has not spent much time in the recording studios since his last new Columbia album was issued in 1971. There had been an album in 1976 for GRT (I think the tracks were leased from MGM, intended for a never released 1973 album) reprising his Columbia hits in the manner of most remake albums, plus a deplorable new song from Foster & Rice titled “Herman Schwartz”. There was a pair of 1979 albums for Little Darling with little to recommend them. One of the Little Darlin’ albums was remakes and the other was largely undistinguished new material, although two of the songs had clever song titles, “The Pint of No Return” and “The Alcohol of Fame”.

For Stonewall Jackson’s First Generation sessions, in addition to playing steel himself, Pete gathered up an all-star lineup of Nashville session men including Jimmy Capps, Billy Sanford, Pete Wade and Bill Hullett (guitar), Jimmy Crawford and John Hughey (steel), Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Bobby Emmons (piano), Tommy Williams (fiddle), Bob Moore and Randy Best (bass).

The album opens up with the Billy Joe Shaver composition “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”, a very recent hit for John Anderson (I think it is possible that Jackson’s version pre-dates Anderson’s recording, but I’m not certain); Billy Joe’s album also hit the streets in 1981. Whatever the timing, I feel that the Stonewall Jackson recording is the best recording I’ve ever heard of the song, far better than Billy Joe’s version and slightly better than John Anderson’s version. Stonewall sings the song with great enthusiasm as the lyric fits the ‘hardscrabble-pull up your own bootstraps’ upbringing of Stonewall’s youth:

Hey, I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue, pure, perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
At last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

R.J. Jones and M. Kosser wrote “Full Moon, Empty Pockets”, a song that several artists subsequently recorded. The song tells a tale of woe that many of us have encountered – time on our hands but no money.

Full moon empty pockets
Stone broke on a Saturday night
Full moon empty pockets
Won’t a lady treat a cowboy right

Next up is “There Are No Shortcuts (To Get Me Over You)”, a good heartbreak ballad that of the kind that Stonewall Jackson always tackled well. This is followed by a song from Ben Peters and Curly Putman, “Breaking Up Breakdown”, a song that I could see as a successful single had it been issued in 1966 rather than 1981. The song is an up-tempo barroom ballad in which the narrator asks for the band to keep playing that song about breaking up.

The last of the newer songs is ”Let The Sun Shine On The People” by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston. Frank Dycus, of course, wrote some of George Strait’s hits and Larry Kingston provided a number of songs to Johnny Bush and other singers.

At this point the nostalgia trip begins, but with an enthusiastic Stonewall Jackson leading the way on excellent new versions of some of his classic hits, starting off with his biggest hit (#1 Country / #4 Pop) “Waterloo”. For those familiar only with the ABBA hit of the same name, this song is a bit of a romp through history referencing Adam, Napoleon and Tom Dooley:

Now old Adam, was the first in history
With an apple, he was tempted and deceived
Just for spite, the devil made him take a bite
And that’s where old Adam met his Waterloo

Chorus
Waterloo, Waterloo
Where will you meet your Waterloo
Every puppy has his day and everybody has his day
Everybody has to meet his Waterloo

Waterloo was such a big hit that Homer & Jethro took the time to spoof it:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode the trail
Catching Outlaws and putting them in jail
But the Ranger shot Tonto for it seems
He found out what ‘kemosabe’ means

Perhaps Stonewall’s most enduring song, “Don’t Be Angry,” is up next. Written by Stonewall’s brother Wade Jackson, not only was it a big hit for Jackson, but Donna Fargo took the song to the top during the 1970s and the song has been covered by many artists and remains in the active repertoires of county bar bands across the USA.

Don’t be angry at me darling if I fail to understand
All your little whims and wishes all the time
Just remember that I’m dumb I guess like any foolish man
And my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine

Well, I recall the first time that I flirted with you dear
When I jokingly said come and be my bride
Now that time has turned the pages it’s the sweetest joke on earth
That I have you near forever by my side

Joe Babcock authored the next Stonewall Jackson classic “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”, which also was a major hit for pop crooner Pat Boone and has also been a favorite of the R&B crowd and many of the rock & roll crowd as well, including Elvis Presley and Johny Rivers

I was born in Macon Georgia
They kept my daddy over in Macon jail
He told me if you keep your hands clean
You won’t hear them bloodhounds on your trail

Well I fell in with bad companions
Robbed a man, oh up in Tennessee
They caught me way up in Nashville
They locked me up and threw away the key

Chorus
I washed my hands in muddy water
Washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
Tried to do what my daddy told me
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Next up is Bill Johnson’s “A Wound Time Can’t Erase”, a sad and tender ballad that was a big hit for Stonewall and later for Gene Watson.

The fifth and final Stonewall Jackson classic is the Melvin Endsley / Stonewall Jackson composition “Why I’m Walkin’”, a song Ricky Skaggs covered during the 1980s. Melvin Endsley was a disabled person who wrote several classic country songs including “Singling the Blues” and “Knee Deep In The Blues”. Some readers may remember an alternate title “Got My Angel On My Mind”, but however you label this ballad, it’s a good one.

I’ve got an angel on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’
There’s such an aching in this old heart, now I ain’t talkin’
The little hand that held mine tight, just waved goodbye tonite
I’ve got her sweet love on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’

This album is still readily available on CD, as are most of the other albums in the series. Unfortunately, Pete Drake began experiencing health problems in 1985 and passed away in 1988. I would like to have seen Pete issue new albums on the next generation of veteran artists released by the major labels. It would have been much better music than much of what was actually released by other minor/ independent labels over the next decade. Anyway, almost unique among this class of minor label albums by veteran artists, this album rates a solid A, the first album for Stonewall in many years that I would rate that highly.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Heart On The Line’

hot country and singleIn 1990 a documentary on country music songwriters entitled Heart On The Line was filmed in Nashville for British TV’s Channel Four, directed by Northern Irish documentary maker John T Davis. One of the sequences followed Dean Dillon and co-writer Frank Dycus working on writing the title song, which was about songwriting. I remember seeing it and finding it fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available to watch nowadays. The song stayed on the shelf for a while before Dillon revisited it for his fourth solo album in 1993. It sees writers dreaming of touching listeners’ hearts with his words and music, but finding raw honesty does not always bring acceptance:

When you lay your heart on the line
You bare your soul till they can read your mind
And they don’t always love what they find, oh no
When you lay your heart on the line

A gentle melody and vulnerable vocal are exactly right for the song.

The album’s title track was its only single, and peaked at #62. Written with John Northrup, the title was a play on the country singles chart title, and depicts a female country fan heading out for a good time. It was the last time Dillon sent a single to country radio, as the planned follow up, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ (a co-write with Aaron Barker) was picked up by George Strait. It’s actually not one of my favourite songs, but its valedictory message is oddly appropriate given that the decision to let it go meant the end of Dillon as a wannabe artist.

The delicately melancholy ‘Old News’, written with Pam Belford, sees the protagonist wistfully reflecting on a former lover moving on. ‘Some Days It Takes All Night’, written with Donny Keys, is a slowish honky tonker about getting over someone with the help of alcohol. The steel-drenched ‘Everybody Knows’, which he wrote with Steve Oliver, is positively self-pitying about the protagonist’s broken heart:

I just can’t hold my head up in this old town any more
Everybody knows I’m not the man I was when I was yours
But sometimes things don’t work out quite the way you plan
Everybody knows – but no one understands

Everybody knows I’m drinkin’ again
I’m back on the bottom, on the outside lookin’ in
They all know I’ve lost you and I’m back out of hand
Seems like everybody knows
But no one understands

Ain’t it funny how people want to kick you when you’re down
Be your friend until you need one
Then no one’s around
They watch you go to pieces and never offer a hand
Everybody knows – but no one understands

Less mournfully, he defies a woman about to dump him by saying he’ll be ‘Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk’ is a rhythmic number written with Dycus and Blake Mevis, which was a #40 single for Joe Sun in 1982. The vivacious ‘I Just Came In Here To Have A Good Time’ is much more positive about a Friday night out on the town:

I didn’t come in here drunk to lose my mind
I just came in here to have a good time
It’s my night out and I wanna unwind

The plaintively ironic ‘When Hell Freezes Over’ has a clueless protagonist hoping his wrathful ex didn’t really mean what she said:

If she cares enough to abuse me this much
I guess she must love me deep down
She said when hell freezes over she’s gonna be mine
But she didn’t say never so that’s a good sign
The more hell I go through the colder she gets
But it’s not really over ‘cause hell might freeze over yet

Dillon sings it quite straight.

‘What’ll I Do With It Now’ is a rather charming little song of a boy growing up feeling the lack of a role model due to the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Presents are no use without daddy’s presence to help him make the most of them. There is a bitter little twist in the last verse when, as a teenager, he is lost as to how to treat his first love interest, and a still bitter mother points out that dad was no good at relationships anyway.

i really like this album, mainly for the song quality. While Dillon was a better writer than singer, the songs here are so good his more limited vocals don’t matter much, plus several of them are in a conversational style in any case.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘I’ve Learned To Live’

i've learned to liveMost fans will know Dean Dillon as a fine songwriter, who cranks out hits for other artists. Unfortunately, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. By the time this album came along in 1989, Dillon had already largely figured out his fate in life (although he still harbored some delusions of grandeur as a singer) and mostly had quit trying to save his best material for himself. I’ve Learned To Live consists largely of material he had not been able to pitch elsewhere. That is not to say that there aren’t some good songs here, just that the material with real hit potential had already been channeled to George Strait, Vern Gosdin and other top-shelf artists. That said, I really enjoyed this album, which I regard as his best solo effort.

The album opens up with “Just In Time” an up-tempo song co-written with Frank Dycus. There is some nice mandolin playing on the track by Randy Scruggs.

“Changes Comin’ On” is a slow ballad that probably is the best song on the album. Co-written with Jimmy Darrell and Buddy Cannon. Alabama and Gene Watson recorded this song on albums.

Well, I’m still hooked on Haggard
But the Beatles can’t come back like we hoped they would
In Memphis, Tennessee, King is gone
As I put my kids to bed, oh, I wonder what lies ahead for them to see
‘Cause I can feel the change comin’ on

I can feel changes comin’ on
People still are singin’ different songs
They’re searchin’ for the place where they belong
I can feel changes comin’ on

“Who Do You Think You Are”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that would have made a good single for someone.

“Don’t You Even Think About Leaving” features the great Tanya Tucker duetting with Dean. The song is quick, sassy and well suited for a duet. Johnny Gimble plays fiddle as only he can.

“I’ve Learned To Live”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that Shelby Lynne also recorded. Dean does a nice job with the song

Like a child lost in the wilderness I knew not where to go
Surrounded by the emptiness of a love that left me cold
I stumbled through the darkness of nights that have no stars
And days that have no sunshine to warm my naked heart

Like a bird in flight brought down by stones from an unknown assailant’s sling
A stranger took you from my arms and I lost everything
In days to come I nearly ran out of ways to stay alive
But through it all I never lost the will to survive

But I’m not over you and I doubt that I’ll ever be
So I’ve learned to live and you won’t be the death of me oh no
Yes I’ve learned to live and I’m doing well but I’m not over you

“It’s Love That Makes You Sexy” was one of two singles issued from the album. It’s not a bad song (actually the Dean Dillon / Frank Dycus pairing didn’t write any bad songs) but Dean just wasn’t a marketable singer. Despite Sonny Garrish’s nice steel guitar work, this one died at #61 in 1989.

The next single “Back In The Swing of Things” fared even worse, dying at #89 (it reached #70 on the Canadian Country charts). Dean’s version of the song really does swing – with Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Sonny Garrish on steel, how can it not swing? Co-writer Vern Gosdin also recorded the song on an album. The song really should have been a hit – I would rate it as the second best song on the album.

Hank Cochran collaborated with Dean on “Summer Was A Bummer”. It’s a nice song but nothing special.

“Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” sounds like a country song from the 1965-1975 period with the steel guitar serving as the lead instrument with Johnny Gimble lending a few flourishes with his fiddle. Glenn Martin co-wrote this song and also wrote a bunch of hits for people like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, either of whom would have had a hit on this song during their heydays.

Her thinkin’ I’m a doin’ her wrong
Ain’t a doin’ me right

The album closes with “Holdin’ Pattern, a nice ballad that Dean sings well.

Dean’s prior album Slick Nickel reeked of 1980s production values. In contrast, this album has more authentically country production with but slight traces of the sound that characterized the early 1980s. He has an ace fiddle player in Johnny Gimble, a superb steel player in Sonny Garrish, a multi-instrumental wizard in Randy Scruggs, and a solid second fiddler in Paul Anastasio. Unfortunately, if this album couldn’t produce any hits for Dean, it would seem unlikely that he could ever break through as an artist. I’d give this album a B+.

Album Review: Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon – ‘Those Were The Days’

those were the daysRCA gave the duo of Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon another chance to break through, although they were relegated for their second release to a six-track EP known as a mini-LP, which the label was using in the mid 1980s as a marketing manoeuvre for new acts. Stewart and Dillon were actually one of the first acts to release one, and the series later launched the careers of the Judds, Vince Gill and Keith Whitley. Dillon wrote or co-wrote all six songs, many of them with Stewart.

The reflective title track was the album’s lead single, and it got some radio play but did not crack the top 40. It is a pair of hellraisers’ wistful look back at teenage memories of a time when “dreams could still come true”. It is a pretty decent song (written by the duo alongside Rex Huston), although the vocals are a bit messy. It seems oddly appropriate, given the pair’s reputation as heavy drinkers, that one of the fondest memories is of getting drunk for the first time.

The second single (the duo’s last), ‘Smokin’ In The Rockies’, is a fast paced celebration of the pair’s life as touring musicians. A live cut, it namechecks a number of the top country stars of the period. It is quite entertaining, although the lyrics are hard to make out at times. It was written by the duo with Frank Dycus and Buddy Cannon, and was later covered by Sawyer Brown.

The rebellious ‘Misfits’ is dominated by wailing (and not always comprehensible) vocals and equally wailing fiddle. The mid-tempo ‘Living On The Ragged Edge’ is a solo Dean Dillon composition about those straying from the strait and narrow path at risk to themselves. He takes the lead vocal.

The best song on the album, ‘Hard Time For Lovers’ is an excellent if very downbeat song (which Dean revived for his solo album debut at the end of the decade). A string arrangement is a little too sweet, but Dean Dillon’s delicate vocal is his best on the album as he compares the stories of various friends and family members whose love lives are in crisis, with his own happy relationship.

Gary Stewart leads on ‘Lovers And Losers’, which the pair wrote with Mack Vickery and Rex Huston. This is another depressed ballad with strings and a vulnerable vocal.

There were some good songs on this mini-album, but it wasn’t a very commercial one.

Grade: B-

Spotlight Artist: Dean Dillon

dean dillonIn his classic 1973 album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies, Bobby sings a song titled “Sure Hit Songwriter’s Pen”, a story of how the narrator wrote hit song after hit song, until he lost his pen. After that he could no longer write any hits. I’m not sure that is what happened to Bare, but after this album, which featured two #1 singles, Bobby Bare never again had a top ten record.

Rest assured that the pen, although lost, wasn’t destroyed. It eventually found its way into the hands of our April artist of the month Dean Dillon. Dean studied his craft and associated with the best songwriters going (Frank Dycus, Hank Cochran, Linda Hargrove and Vern Gosdin among them). He mastered the art of co-writing but remained capable of writing a song completely himself. Although he had aspirations of being a country music star with hit records and grand tours, at some point Dean realized that for him, fame and fortune would come in the form of writing hits for other artists.

Born in 1955 as Larry Dean Flynn, Dean Dillon first came to the consciousness of the American public through a pair of collaborative albums on RCA with fading honky-tonk renegade Gary Stewart. Brotherly Love, released in 1982, reached #23 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and Those Were The Days, released in 1983, reached #54. A total of five singles were released from the two albums – all of them charted, but none of them cracked the top 40.

After leaving RCA, Dean would be a few years before he landed another record deal. Meanwhile, he paid the rent and the groceries through his successful songwriting. In the late seventies Dean did the unthinkable and pitched his best songs to an unknown artist making his first album for MCA. That unknown artist, George Strait, wound up recording six of Dean’s songs for his debut album, including his first hit “Unwound”, which reached #6. Over the course of time, Strait would record many of Dean’s songs. As of October 2013, the total was 54 songs, many of them huge hits for Strait.

Another of his early efforts was a co-written song (with Hank Williams Jr, Gary Stewart and Tanya Tucker) titled “Leave Them Boys Alone”. Released in 1983, the song reached #6 for the unlikely trio of Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb. Another song, “Tennessee Whiskey”, was a hit twice, once for David Allen Coe and once for George Jones.

During his early years Dean still had aspirations of being a successful performer, but his first four solo albums didn’t sell, his singles only charted in the lower reaches of the chart and his live performances weren’t grossing the money he had hoped. In 1992, Dean had high hopes for the song “Easy Come, Easy Go”, a track on one of his Atlantic albums; however, up to this point in his career none of Dean’s singles had charted at higher than #25 (“Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” in 1980 – later a #1 hit for Strait in 1986) and nothing since 1980 had charted higher than #39.

Married with small children that he didn’t see nearly enough, Dillon found himself at a crossroads in his career. When George Strait asked for the rights to “Easy Come, Easy Go” for release as a single, Dean did the math and determined that a George Strait single that reached #1 was worth $100K+ whereas a Dean Dillon single charting in the mid-50s was worth almost nothing. Accordingly, Dean gave George the song, gave up his recording contract and settled into becoming a full time songwriter. It was a very wise decision. Dean Dillon is not a bad singer but I am certain that the many George Strait recordings of Dean Dillon songs are all better than Dean’s recordings of the same songs are or would have been. Dean would probably agree.

Below is a partial list of the songs Dean Dillon has had a hand in writing: Read more of this post

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘San Angelo’

san angeloSan Angelo was Aaron Watson’s sixth album and his first album to reach Billboard’s Country Albums chart, peaking at #60 in 2006. From this point forward all of Aaron’s albums would receive nationwide exposure.

The album opens up with “Heyday Tonight” a good up-tempo country honker that would have fit in the repertoire of any dance hall band of the period. Aaron composed this song as he did the second song on the album “Good Thing Going” about a good love that got away due to the narrator’s failure to tend to business. It’s a bit lightweight in terms of lyrics, but it is pleasant listening.

The third song finds Aaron covering a Frank Dycus – Jim Lauderdale composition “In Harm’s Way” that could easily have been a hit for someone. Frankly, I would have expected George Strait to have wound up with this song.

I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way
I couldn’t see the truth
Till it was in my face
If I’d seen it coming
I could have turned away
I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way

Aaron co-wrote “3rd Gear & 17” with Drew Womack, another song of lost love, this one with a football backdrop about a fellow who left to play college football, losing the girl he left behind.

“Unbelievably Beautiful” is another Aaron Watson composition, with a laid-back, almost jazzy vibe to it. While I don’t think the song had any potential as a single, it makes a nice change of pace within the context of the album.

“Haunted House” is another Watson composition, this one a fine mid-tempo exposition of a love gone wrong.

Willie Nelson has written many fine songs in his long career. “I’m A Memory” wasn’t a huge hit for Willie (#28 for Willie on RCA in 1971) but it was always one of my favorite of his songs. Aaron does the song justice with an arrangement similar to Willie’s arrangement but with steel guitar and fiddle added to the mix.

I’m a game that you used to play
And I’m a plan that you didn’t lay so well
And I’m a fire that burns in your mind
So close your eyes I’m a memory

The title track “San Angelo” is one of those hard-edged about love and heartbreak that Aaron writes so convincingly. The medium-slow tempo fits the song perfectly.

She said time would heal my broken heart
And I’d find a true companion for my soul
You know she was right, we were wrong
Nothing more than a pretty song
About a boy who loved a girl
In San Angelo

“Except For Jessie” is Aaron’s wonderful tribute to Waylon Jennings and his lady Jessi Colter . The song is a four minute biography of Waylon’s life. Although a bit of a novelty, with a sound reminiscent of some of Waylon’s songs, it is an effective song. I doubt Waylon ever got to hear the song (I don’t know when it was written) but he surely would have approved.

Well, before she came along he was lonesome, on’ry and mean
It was his way or the highway
But she had a way that he’d never seen
He’d been livin’ hard and fast
All his takin’ was takin’ it’s toll
And it took a good hearted, hard headed angel
To help him gain control

Bruce Robison wrote the slow ballad “Blame It On Me”. It’s a nice song, and Aaron gives the song a proper reading.

‘All American Country Girl ” is the worst song on the album, a lightweight piece of fluff that is would work well on the dance floor. It’s not bad – I’d give the song a C+ – but the rest of the album is better.

Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” was an interesting choice for Aaron to cover. I am afraid that Buddy is slowly being forgotten as I hear no trace of his influence in today’s country music whereas through the 1980s it was fairly common for his songs to pop up on country albums. Mickey Gilley’s cover of this song in 1980 went to #1 and Peter & Gordon had a #14 pop hit with the song in 1965. I really like Aaron’s recording which nicely combines fiddle and steel as well as featuring more piano that the rest of the album.

Aaron co-wrote “Nobody’s Crying But The Baby” with Gary Nicholson. I think this song would have made an effective single for someone:

With her little one in one arm
And the laundry in the other
She could sure use a helping hand
But that’s just the life of a single mother

Somebody’s calling on the phone
Somebody’s knocking at the door
She forgets and burns the dinner
Throws it across the kitchen floor
And for a moment she wants to give up and break down

But nobody’s crying but the baby
She ain’t far from going crazy
And there are times she wonders how she’s going to make it
But she’s got to be strong enough for two
She’s gotta do what he wouldn’t do
No time for tears around here
Nobody’s crying but the baby

I thoroughly enjoy this album from start to finish each time I pull it out to play. I’d give it an 4.5 stars. Ray Benson produced the album, and this is a country album – no doubt about it.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Jim Lauderdale – ‘I’m A Song’

Jim-Lauderdale-070114-300x300Jim Lauderdale, recording once again for Sky Crunch Records, has gifted us with a self-produced double album to follow-up his acclaimed Buddy & Jim duets project from 2012. I’m A Song, his 26th album, spans twenty songs over a single disc of pure honky-tonk bliss with not a clinker in the bunch.

For this project Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote every song, opting to self-pen eight of the album’s tracks. For these numbers he mainly focuses on different aspects of relationships, from the hopeful beginnings of “Lets Have A Good Thing Together” to a woman’s uniqueness in “You’ve Got A Way With Yours.” “There’s No Shadows In The Shade” confronts what we tend to hide from one another in relationships, while the title track cleverly compares a romance to different aspects of a song. All are excellent, with gorgeous twangy guitar, drum, and pedal steel based arrangements that nicely complement Lauderdale’s southern drawl.

Much like “There’s No Shadow In The Shade,” “Hope and Find” has a very modern, and somewhat heavy, accompaniment the builds along with the sinister lyric. “The Day The Devil Changed” is the exact opposite – sunny and bright, despite a lyric about a man’s desire to course correct his troubled past. “We Will Rock Again” closes the album by echoing the honky-tonk beat of opener “Lets Have A Good Thing Together,” but presenting it as straight up rock. The lyric, about endings that aren’t goodbye, is in its chosen spot given its appropriateness as an album ending song.

Lauderdale teamed up with Jimmy Richie and Mark Irwin for “Past It,” in which the guy is eternally hopeful that he and his woman may be over the ‘rough patch that we’re on.’ The jaunty beat nicely aids in his optimism, while his cynical vocal suggests otherwise. Newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Bare shares co-writing credits on “This Feeling’s Hanging On,” a glorious straight-up traditional number bursting with steel and fiddle. “End of the World Rag” is one of the louder numbers, a doomsday lament that’s rock in every way.

Odie Blackmon, probably best known for writing Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” collaborated with Lauderdale on three cuts. “Neon Hearts” is a lonely man’s ode to drinking in bars, “Makin’ Honey” is a jarringly happy love song that seems somewhat out of character for the album, and “The World Is Waiting Below” concerns a very happy couple who are so in love they haven’t come down to earth yet. Of these three, which are all good, “Neon Hearts” is a cut above the rest, a wonderful bar song that gets to the heart of why we sometimes just need a stiff drink to wash away our troubles. Matt Warren and Gary Allan (along with Lauderdale) co-wrote “I Wish You Loved Me,” a fabulous honky-tonk number about unreciprocated love.

Womack provides harmony vocals on two of the four duet tracks on I’m A Song. Co-written with Robert Hunter, “A Day With No Tomorrow” is an excellent mid-tempo traditional country ballad about a recently heartbroken man. Even better is “Doin’ Time In Bakersfield” a Frank Dycus co-write about a man behind bars in the aforementioned California city. I wish Womack could’ve done more than harmonize here, making it a true duet, but her contributions only add to the outstanding quality of the track.

A collaboration with Patty Loveless on the self-penned “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays” is given the same harmonizing treatment as the Womack numbers, and while it’s a great song with a flawless production, I would’ve liked to have seen Lauderdale give her some lines to sing solo. Their voices sound sharp together, too, as the both have distinct twangy vocals that keep them from harmonizing perfectly, like he was able to do with the sweeter voiced Womack. The Buddy Miller partnership on his Elvis Costello co-written “I Lost You” works the best given the format, as they are essentially a duo anyways.

“The King of Broken Hearts,” which George Strait brought prominence with the Pure Country soundtrack and Womack cut on Call Me Crazy gets recorded here by its writer twenty-three years after his original release since that project is long out of print. A staple of his shows and easily his most popular song, its revival here is a welcomed treat.

Most times when an artist opts to gift their fans twenty songs on a single disc, the results are uneven at best, and often wrought with wide sweeps of varying styles meant to please each and every sector of the audience. Lauderdale smartly forgoes that in favor of crafting a pure honky-tonk project as cohesive as any album could aspire to be. While not a fault of his own the track do tend to run together a bit, but the standout numbers (“Doin’ Time in Bakersfield,” “Neon Hearts,” and “The Day The Devil Changed”) stand out loud and clear.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: George Strait – ‘Down And Out’

One of George Strait’s very first hits, this song was written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Posted in memory of Dycus, who died last week:

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Tim McGraw’

Tim’s debut album saw him presented as one of the myriad “hat acts” who swarmed all over country radio in the early 90s, inspired both by the neotraditional movement and the monster success of Garth Brooks. Producers James Stroud and Byron Gallimore make the music far twangier and more traditional than his more recent work, but also rather more generic. Still in his early 20s, Tim had not quite managed to find his own voice or artistic identity, and he did not stand out from the competition.

Having said that, though, the songs themeslves are pretty solid. Tim’s debut single ‘Welcome To The Club’ failed to make the top 40 but makes quite a pleasant mid tempo opener, with Tim empathizing with a similarly heartbroken friend. Much better is the up-tempo ‘Memory Lane’, one of two Joe Diffie co-writes on the album, which had previously been recorded by Diffie soundalike Keith Palmer on his self-titled Epic release in 1991. Like Palmer, Tim’s version reflects Diffie’s vocal inflections, and although it is an enjoyable track, it lacks individuality. Much the same goes for the heartbreak ballad ‘Tears In The Rain’, also co-written by Diffie, which the man himself finally got around to recording on his underwhelming Life’s So Funny set in 1995.

The third and last single, honky tonk dance tune ‘Two Steppin’ Mind’ is quite enjoyable but was another flop. It’s commonplace these days to deplore the business practices of Curb Records, but they did keep supporting Tim’s career when he was struggling to break through when many other labels would have let him go after three failed singles, never to be heard from again.

The best song on the album is ‘The Only Thing That I Have Left’, an excellent ballad written by Clay Blaker, and which George Strait had cut on his Strait From The Heart album back in 1982. Tim sings it with commitment, with its lyric about a washed up singer clinging to love no doubt ringing true after he had spent the last few years touring small venues while building up his career. It is not unfair to say that he was no Strait, and perhaps he was also a little too young to entirely convince on this number.

Also good, ‘You Can Take It With You (When You Go)’ is bouncily cheerful and radio friendly western swing, written by Frank Dycus and Kerry Kurt Phillips. This wry response to a woman leaving a man with nothing, taking the entire contents of their home, might have been a good single choice, as it has more personality than most of the tracks.

Well, she took everything but the kitchen sink
If I had me a glass Lord, I’d pour me a drink …

I oughta call somebody but I ain’t got a phone
Just goes to show you can take it with you when you go

‘What Room Was The Holiday In?’ was the first Tim McGraw track I ever heard, and I’m still rather fond of it, with its banked harmonies, play on words, and outraged sarcasm addressed at a cheating lover:

You’ve got a glow that’s not a suntan
And a new gleam in your eyes
Oh, it must have been one great vacation
Girl you look so satisfied

Tell me what room was the holiday in?
Was I out of your mind when you turned to him?
What a good time it must have been
Tell me, what room was the holiday in?

You said you needed a small vacation
Just a couple of days all by yourself
So off you went in a new direction
And what you found was someone else

This track was produced by Doug Johnson.

The wearied farmer’s lament ‘Ain’t No Angels’, written by Billy Montana and Brad Davis, is another very good song, but one which Tim was not quite up to vocally at this stage in his career. ‘What She Left Behind’ and ‘I Keep It Under My Hat’ are filler rounding out the tracklist – not unlistenable by any means, but not demanding repeat listens.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of radio success, the album did not sell particularly well. Not an essential purchase by any means, but not bad if you can find it cheaply enough (and used copies are very cheap), it may be of interest to Tim’s most diehard fans, but also those who have cooled on his more recent direction but missed out on this when it came out. I admit that I hadn’t listened to it in several years before revisiting it when we decided to cover Tim as this month’s Spotlight Artist, but I enjoyed it much more than I remembered, generic though it may be – and definitely more than his latest effort.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Shawn Camp – ‘1994’

Singer-songwriter Shawn Camp originally recorded this album back in the year of its title as the follow-up to his self-titled debut for Reprise Records (which I must confess I never heard, although I enjoyed his independent 2001 release Lucky Silver Dollar). Produced impeccably by Emory Gordy Jr and loaded with fiddle and steel, it proved too traditional in its stylings for the label, who reportedly dropped Shawn after he declined to remake it with more pop-country trappings. It has re-emerged after the boss of parent label Warner Bros Nashville ran into Shawn, now a successful songwriter, at an industry event, discovered he had this unreleased record sitting in the company vaults, and decided to give it a rather belated release. The original debut, Shawn Camp, is also getting a re-release.

To be brutally frank, enjoyable though I’m finding this record, I can see why Shawn’s career didn’t take off. His songs are good, and the production pleasing, but his voice, while pleasantly quirky and distinctive, does not compare well with some of the fine male vocalists signed to Nashville labels in the early 90s, particularly on ballads.

Shawn co-wrote almost all the material, with the exceptions all well-chosen. The sparkling opening track ‘Near Mrs’, for instance, penned by Steve Hood and Karl Hasten (both unfamiliar names to me) is a charmingly playful set of romantic misadventures explaining why the protagonist never quite got to the altar with any of the ladies in his life, which is highly entertaining and one can imagine this as a lost hit single. Even better is ‘In Harm’s Way’ which is one of the highlights here, a plaintive fiddle-and-steel-laced lament with Patty Loveless on harmonies, about being blindsided by heartbreak. This song was recorded by Jim Lauderdale (who wrote it with Frank Dycus) on his excellent 1998 release Whisper (possibly my favorite of his very varied catalog), and I do prefer the vocals on that version.

Also lovely, and perhaps better suited to Shawn’s voice, is the rueful admission of ‘Clear as A Bell’ (written by Shawn with Will Smith), as the protagonist gets a reminder that his childhood sweetheart’s wedding to another is underway:

In that far off chapel, church bells ring for someone else
And though I hate to say it I can only blame myself

Sometimes things happen way too fast
When you try to reach for love
It’s out of your grasp
Oh, sometimes it’s over and you can’t even tell
But sometimes it’s clear as a bell

This has a very pretty melody and is my favorite track.

The dejected ‘My Frame Of Mind’, written with John Scott Sherrill, also has a pretty tune and some haunting fiddle which underlines the melancholy feel, with the protagonist in even more despairing mood:

And I don’t know or care
Just what tomorrow brings
Cause if she’s not here
Tell me what good is anything?

John Scott Sherrill also cowrote the plaintive and catchy mid-tempo ‘Worn Through Stone’, another of the highlights, as Shawn broods over what went wrong in his relationship with his ex, with none other than Bill Monroe (in what may have been his last ever recording session) among the call-and-response backing vocals, although his contribution is not very prominent.

The quirky ‘Stop, Look And Listen (Cow Catcher Blues)’ is co-written with Guy Clark, and features train rhythms and Shawn on both fiddle and mandolin, as he plays the drifter who can’t outrun heartache. This is uncommercial but highly entertaining, and would be great live.

‘Since You Ain’t Home’ is a lovely traditional George Jones-styled heartbreak ballad about living in a house without the loved one who made it home, which Shawn wrote with Dale Dodson and Ken Mellons, and which would have been ideal for Mellons himself who was just embarking on his own major label career at the time. Patty Loveless guests on harmony.

The joyfully ironic uptempo ‘Movin’ On Up To A Double Wide’ is written with Gary Harrison. The protagonist has apparently been fired but is making his own silver lining:

Honey all our dreams are finally coming true
We’re gonna start living like the rich folks do
We’re movin’ on up to a double wide
Parkin our pickup every day with pride
Think we’ve got it made for the rest of our lives

Some of Shawn’s compositions included here did eventually find an audience. The best of these, ‘The Grandpa That I Know’, written with Tim Mensy (who had already recorded it himself), was subsequently recorded by both Joe Diffie and Patty Loveless. Shawn’s version has a hushed personal quality to it which lends an authenticity which makes up for the more limited vocal prowess compared to the rival versions. There is one interesting lyrical variation, with Shawn singing “my fiddle” rather than “a fiddle” as the music his grandfather would have liked, although he does not in fact play on this track. Shawn does play fiddle on ‘Little Bitty Crack In Her Heart’, which he wrote with Jim Rushing. This song suffers more from its delayed emergence, as it has been cut by both Sammy Kershaw and Randy Travis, both of whom are better singers than Shawn, but this version is still fun.

I strongly commend Warner Brothers for finally getting round to releasing this – and not only digitally. I hope it sells well enough for the experiment to be repeated and encourages other good music to be made available.

Grade: A-

Album Review: George Jones – ‘Walls Can Fall’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Who Was That Stranger?’

Although the movie had brought Loretta mainstream attention, her musical career was winding down in the 1980s. She had enjoyed only one top 10 hit that decade (‘I Lie’ in 1982), and her last single to reach the top 40 was the #19 ‘Heart Don’t Do This To Me’ in 1985. The neotraditional revival of the late 80s may have brought country sounds back to country radio, but older artists were, by and large, jettisoned along with the pop-country stars of the mid 80s. This album, Loretta’s swan song for MCA, was released in 1988. It was coproduced by Loretta herself with label president Jimmy Bowen and Chip Hardy.

She was not as prolific a songwriter as she had been earlier in her career, writing only two tracks here, the very short (just under two minutes) and bouncy up-tempo ‘Mountain Climber’, a look at working your way up the hard way with a tart sideswipe at those who want to start at the top, and the affectionate portrait of a old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone rural preacher, ‘Elzie Brooks’. It should come as no surprise that he was a real person, the preacher whose services Loretta attended as a child in Butcher Holler; she notes in her book Coal Miner’s Daughter that he never took a penny for his ministry, and in this song compares him to TV preachers with their demands for money. These are both bright and entertaining if less memorable than Loretta’s classics.

The title track and lead single faltered at #57 on Billboard. A brightly delivered tale about rescuing a tired marriage written by Curly Putnam, Max D Barnes and Don Cook, the production sounds a bit dated now and I must confess even after a number of listens I’m slightly unclear whether this is intended to depict a marriage which only comes alive after dark, or a complete fantasy. The follow-up single, the gospelly ‘Fly Away’, penned by Frank Dycus and featuring Bela Fleck’s banjo, did not chart at all, and that marked the end of Loretta’s long association with MCA and its predecessor Decca.

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Album Review: Gary Alan – ‘Smoke Rings In The Dark’

Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.

The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:

I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark

The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark

I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark

This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.

His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Strait From The Heart’

straitfromtheheartGeorge Strait’s sophomore effort finds him repeating the same winning formula of his debut, from teaming up once again with producer Blake Mevis, to working a pun based on his last name into the album title. Released in June 1982, Strait From The Heart attempts to strike a balance between Strait’s traditional country roots and the Urban Cowboy sound that was prevalent in the early 80s.

“Fool Hearted Memory”, written by Byron Hill and Blake Mevis was the album’s first single. Released a month in advance of the album, this mid-tempo number holds the distinction of being the first in what was to become a very long string of #1 hits for George Strait. It was his fourth single release in total, and the third to peak inside the Top 10. By this time, Strait was beginning to develop a solid reputation as a traditionalist singer, so the next single release, took some by surprise. “Marina Del Rey” was written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus, and no one was more surprised than they when Strait fell in love with the song. They’d figured he wouldn’t be interested in this contemporary-sounding romantic ballad. A big departure from Strait’s previous work, “Marina Del Rey” employed a full string section, while the fiddle and steel that had figured so prominently on his earlier singles took a back seat. Despite being more in line with what radio was playing at the time, “Marina Del Rey” didn’t perform quite as well on the charts as Strait’s previous two singles, missing the Top 5, but still peaking at a very respectable #6. Though it was a pivotal record in Strait’s career at the time, “Marina Del Rey” hasn’t aged as well as most of his other hits; the production sounds dated to modern ears, particularly the singing seagull sound effect employed at the end, which is something that Strait objected to at the time. “Blake promised me that he would take the singing bird out at the end of it, which he didn’t do,” Strait said. ” And I’ve always hated that.”
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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Strait Country’

Strait CountryIt was clear right from the start that George Strait was going to be a big star, when his very first MCA single, ‘Unwound’, was a top 10 hit in 1981. It was one of no fewer than six songs on his debut album, Strait Country, to be co-written by Dean Dillon, then a young singer-songwriter with a handful of minor hits of his own on rival label RCA. He was to become the songwriter most associated with Strait’s early success. ‘Unwound’ and the second single, ‘Down And Out’, which was a little less successful, only reaching #16, were both written by the songwriting partnership of Dillon with Frank Dycus, whose contribution has probably been overlooked in comparison.

Both singles were uncompromisingly country, at a time when pop-influenced sounds were battling with more traditional ones after the success of the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. ‘Unwound’ is a hard country lament shot through with piercing fiddle, as the narrator sets in for a night’s drinking in response to his wife seeing through all the lies, complaining “that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound”. The wilder ‘Down And Out’ continues the theme, with the protagonist really settling in to his night’s drinking, as he explains:

“Well, I’m out on a tear, ’cause she’s tearin’ me apart
If I look rough on the outside you oughta see my heart.”

Dillon and Dycus also wrote the closing track, ‘Her Goodbye Hit Me In The Heart’, a less memorable but still decent song about a tough guy who finds a woman leaving hits him harder than he expected. They also teamed up with the album’s producer, Blake Mevis, to write ‘Friday Night Fever’, a good-humored tale of a husband enjoying a weekly night out while his homebody wife stays in watching Dallas on the TV.

The couple in ‘She’s Playing Hell Trying To Get Me To Heaven’, written by Dean Dillon again, this time with Charles Quillen and David Wills, are more conflicted about their differing tastes in life, as our protagonist tells us without much regret:

“Well, I promised to go to church with her about a month of Sundays ago
Well, here it is, Sunday again, and I ain’t been once in a row ….

There’s only 10 commandments but I’ve broke at least 11
She’s playing hell trying to get me to heaven.”

I’m a big fan of Dean Dillon as a songwriter, but he probably got one credit too many on this album, with the inclusion of ‘I Get Along With You’. The only remarkable thing about this pleasant but forgettable song is that it took five writers, including Dillon and Dycus, to create, and while George’s vocal is warm, the backing vocals on the track are rather dated.

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