My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Frank Rogers

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Deep South’

After numerous delays, Josh Turner fans finally have a new album to listen to, nearly five years after the release of his previous effort Punching Bag. Deep South, produced by Turner’s longtime producer Frank Rogers, arrived last week.

The current climate at country radio is a difficult one for traditional-based artists. MCA was reluctant to release the album until they were sure they had a hit single on the charts. As a result, I awaited this release with some trepidation, expecting it to be a compromise to the demands of the label and radio and not necessarily the album Josh would make if left to his own devices. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it sounds like, although after learning that Turner wrote or co-wrote five of the album’s elven songs, it’s difficult to say for sure exactly where the blame lies.

The underperforming lead single, 2014’s “Lay Low”, which climbed to #28 sounds like a bland Keith Urban song,and the follow-up single about a “pretty little homegrown Hometown Girl”, currently residing at #10 on the charts is a similarly trite effort. I recognize that songs like this are a necessary evil for artists to get on the radio so that their albums can be released. But I do expect that when the album eventually appears that there will be some deeper cuts, and that is where Deep South falls short. The Turner-penned title track is a funky-sounding list of cliches about Southern life — fried chicken, back roads,et al. “All About You”, another Turner composition, is much the same, with the word “girl” used gratuitously throughout the song. “Southern Drawl” combines the southern life and hot chick themes:

She’s as pretty as South Georgia peaches
And as hot as any Tennessee June
She’s a treasure underneath that Carolina kudzu
She still outshines a Mississippi moon
When she walks into a room

Her kiss sure drives me crazy
I melt when she says my name
Just one touch can make this old heart sing
But it ain’t the blue sky in her blue eyes
It ain’t good looks at all
It’s the way she says I love you that makes me fall, y’all
In that sweet, soft, slow southern drawl

I was bored by most of this album, which would have put me right to sleep in the hands of a less capable vocalist. It’s disappointing that after a five-year gap between albums that Turner apparently has so little to say. These songs are shallow, dull and cliche-ridden. It wasn’t until the final track “Hawaiian Girl” that I found a song that I could truly enjoy. It’s not deep either, but it has a throwback sound with plenty of pedal steel and is at least a change of pace.

I’ve long maintained that Josh Turner was a gifted artist who was continually let down by less than stellar material. Deep South unfortunately does nothing to change that assessment and if anything, is a big step in the wrong direction.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Love Will’

lovewillI never know what to expect from Trace Adkins these days. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of such a talented vocalist whose musical output is so wildly inconsistent. Love Will, his latest effort, while not quite a return to his traditional roots, at least avoids obnoxious songs in the vein of “Chrome”, “Hillbilly Bone” and the infamous “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

He teams up with a variety of producers this time around: Frank Rogers, Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Mickey Jack Cones and Kenny Beard, most of whom he has worked with in the past, and for the most part the results are quite good. The opening track “When I Stop Loving You”, is a catchy number that would be a good choice for a late summer single. It was written by Even Stevens and Marty Brown, who had a brief recording stint with MCA in the early 90s.

Things move in a decidedly more pop direction beginning with the second track “So What If I Do”, which may very well be the first Trace Adkins recording to ever feature a saxophone. “Come See Me”, written by Kenny Beard and Exile members J.P. Pennington and Sonny LaMaire. This song sets the stage for a cover of an Exile song, on which some of the band members appear as guest artists (more on this a little later). I actually didn’t mind the pop leaning songs up to this point, but by the time we get to the overproduced “Altar of Your Love”, the only Adkins co-write on the album, it begins to wear a little thin. And then there’s the cover of “Kiss You All Over”, which was a #1 pop hit for Exile in 1978, which sounds very much like a product of the era in which it originated. Its inclusion on the album seems pointless: Exile spends as much (or perhaps more) time singing as Adkins, and if he had to cover an Exile song, there are much better ones to choose from than this.

Fortunately, things improve dramatically after this. “If The Sun Comes Up” is an excellent number that sounds like vintage Adkins. “Say No To A Woman” is a more respectful look at the fairer sex than some other songs in Trace’s catalog. The current single “Watch The World End”, a duet with pop-singer Colbie Caillat is enjoyable, although the string section is somewhat intrusive. Likewise, I could have done without the strings and choir on the Chris Stapleton and Tim James-penned title track, which closes out the album.

Love Will is more pop-leaning than most of Trace’s other albums, which may be an attempt to remain relevant at country radio. It is however, a more mature sound for him, and the absence of tasteless and sexist redneck anthems is a most welcome change.

Grade: B

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Wheelhouse’

wheelhouse“Southern Comfort Zone”, the lead single from Brad Paisley’s newly-released album Wheelhouse is a fish out of water tale that makes the case that pushing the envelope and venturing outside one’s familiar territory can be a very positive thing. It’s a very appropriate message from an artist who has been pushing his own boundaries, with varying degrees of success, beginning with 2009’s American Saturday Night. Wheelhouse is Paisley’s most ambitious project to date; he wrote or co-wrote all of its songs, and produced the album itself. Unfortunately, the material is very uneven in quality and even the better tracks serve as evidence that up to now Paisley has benefited immensely from the guidance of Frank Rogers, who produced all of his previous albums.

With its references to Billy Graham and Martha White, “Southern Comfort Zone” is a celebration of southern culture, complete with audio clips from The Andy Griffith Show, and makes the case that travel broadens the mind. It’s an appropriate opening track to an album that takes the listener on a long (sometimes too long) musical journey that has a few twists and turns along the way. It is followed by Paisley’s current single, “Beat This Summer”, a feel-good summertime tune with not-too-deep lyrics, that suffers from production that is too cluttered and overwhelming.

Brad is joined by an eclectic roster of guest artists, including Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes, Charlie Daniels, the late Roger Miller, and rapper LL Cool J. Of these collaborations, the Bentley/Hayes/Miller one, “Outstanding In Our Field” is the most interesting, though the inclusion of Miller’s vocals seems gimmicky and unnecessary. “Karate”, featuring Daniels, is about a battered wife who takes her revenge by studying the martial arts. It sounds too much like a party anthem for such serious subject matter. But the album’s true zenith comes with “Accidental Racist”, in which Paisley apologizes to a Starbucks barista for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, as well as all the social injustices of the last 150 years. LL Cool J provides the other side of the conversation, which is an admirable (I suppose) attempt at a serious dialog about race, but instead comes across as pandering.

There is a fair sampling of songs that are more vintage Paisley — such as “Death of a Single Man” and “Runaway Train” (the one track on the album that I truly enjoyed), but even these are marred by overwrought production and Paisley’s attempts to sing at the top of his vocal register. Many of the album’s songs contain background vocals from annoying choruses that mimic the “oohing” and “ah-ing” of area rock concert audiences.

In addition to the standard album, there are two extended versions of Wheelhouse — the Deluxe and Cracker Barrel editions, which each containing different sets of bonus tracks, that I found more enjoyable than most of the songs on the main part of the album. The Cracker Barrel edition, which oddly enough is available for download from Amazon, contains an acoustic version of “Beat This Summer” which is far superior to the original. “Only Way She’ll Stay” and “She Never Quite Got Over Him” both deserved slots on the main part of the album.

It’s hard to fault Paisley for trying to expand his horizons, but by and large Wheelhouse does not succeed on an artistic level, and since his fingerprints are all over the project as its producer and main songwriter, the fault clearly lies with him. After the somewhat disappointing This Is Country Music, I’d hoped for a return to form. I still think Brad Paisley has a lot of good music left in him, but not enough made it into this collection. Here’s to hoping that his next album will be a bit less self-indulgent and more conventional.


Grade: C-

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Punching Bag’

Josh Turner’s deep burnished baritone is one of the most distinctive on today’s country radio, but his choice of songs has sometimes let him down.  Happily, this time he has found a better selection of material than on his last effort, the disappointingly pedestrian Haywire, much of it written or co-written by the artist.  Frank Rogers’ attractive production puts the vocals at the heart of the record, in a restrained but firmly country setting.

A silly novelty spoken introduction on a boxing match theme by real-life ring announcer Michael Buffer leads into the title track, written by Josh with Pat McLaughlin.  The song itself is thankfully much better, a well-written driving up-tempo number which uses boxing effectively as a metaphor about dealing with difficulties in life, specifically heartbreak:

She broke her promise and now she’s gonna leave me
She floated like a butterfly, it stung me like a bee
She took off the gloves and took a cheap shot
And she left me hanging in a pretty tough spot
I’m a punching bag

This is great fun and it could be a good single choice with obvious video possibilities.  It is certainly more interesting than Josh’s current top 20 hit, the unexciting ‘Time Is Love’, which is pleasant listening but nothing more.

Josh teamed up with Mark Narmore to write two songs.  The better of these is the very good ‘Cold Shoulder’, the plaint of a bewildered man struggling to understand why his wife is freezing him out when he has done nothing wrong.  Some lovely steel guitar from Steve Hinson dominates the backing, while the vocal is excellent.  ‘Good Problem’ is less memorable but still a pretty good song about a man getting ready to settle down to married life and give up his freedom with no regret, with an interesting arrangement.

‘Find Me A Baby’, written by Josh with Frank Rogers, is another good-sounding take on finding true love, but this time clearly autobiographical drawing its details from Josh’s real life and featuring his wife Jennifer and their small children on faintly embarrassing “na-na-na”s, something I normally hate, but the good humor of the song as a whole just about carries it off.

Ben Hayslip is not a bad writer when separated from his Peach Picker friends, and he helped Josh with ‘Left Hand Man’ (yet another take on committing to getting married but one which benefits from a playfully charming arrangement) and the lyrically slight but catchily melodic ‘Whatcha Reckon’.

Josh alone wrote the album’s standout track, the mournful ‘Pallbearer’.  Iris DeMent adds a harmony vocal and Marty Stuart plays mandolin on this take on love lost for good:

She don’t call and she don’t try to
And my prayin’ can’t bring her back
My eyes are wide open watchin’ my future
My eyes are wide open watching my future fade to black
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer
Walkin’ down the aisle
Travelin’ to the graveyard counting down the miles
With every earth filled shovel they dig that eternal bed
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer carrying the dead

I’ve pondered trading places with the man layin’ in that hearse
I try to hold my head up but her leavin’ is like a curse

Josh’s deep bass-baritone has a natural gravitas showcased at its best on serious songs like this with emotional weight rather than the more frivolous fare radio prefers.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the religious ‘For The Love Of God’, contributing mandolin, an instrument described as a cello banjo and harmonies to the bright acoustic treatment of a heartfelt if slightly moralistic song about living the right way and for the right reasons.  This was another solo composition by Josh.

Also very well done is the album’s other religious song, ‘I Was There’, written by Tim Menzies and Monty Criswell, where Josh reverently portrays the voice of God.

‘Deeper Than My Love’ is a nice love song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller with some great growly bass vocals from Josh and cool banked backing vocals which give the track a life and individuality perhaps missing in the relatively obvious lyrics.

The redundant deluxe version  just adds live versions of ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Time Is Love’ and some of Josh’s bigger past hits, which add little to the recorded versions.

Overall this is an enjoyable album which is a definite step back in the right direction after Haywire.  Some of the material is still lacking in lyrical depth, with the melodies generally stronger, but the whole package is solid.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

Album Review: ‘Brad Paisley Christmas’

The following review was written by MKOC reader and commenter Ken Johnson:

My favorite holiday albums are those that reflect the true style and sound of the individual artist. Nothing has been more disappointing than when my favorite country star abandoned their distinctive style to morph into Nat “King” Cole or Bing Crosby complete with a lush orchestra and chorus. Brad Paisley did not make that mistake. His 2006 Brad Paisley Christmas CD mixed all-time standards with original holiday songs to perfectly mirror his style, personality, humor and versatility. Those are also the very qualities that helped Brad to win the Entertainer Of The Year Award from the CMA this year.

A bright and twangy “Winter Wonderland” leads off the collection. Brad modified the lyrics by adding lines about fellow Grand Ole Opry member Jim Ed Brown. He gave nods to two of Jim Ed’s best known hits: “Pop A Top” and “The Three Bells.”

In the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is Jim Ed Brown.
We’ll sing “Pop A Top” with Mr. Snowman with chapel bells a-ringing all around.

“Santa Looked A Lot like Daddy” revives the Buck Owens – Don Rich 1965 holiday classic. Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt both recorded versions for their Christmas albums during the 1990’s that have kept this song alive on country radio holiday playlists. Brad doesn’t spare the twang here either by adding extended improvisational instrumental solos.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” begins with the song’s often deleted original intro.

I am dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do.
And although I know it’s a long road back, I promise you
I’ll be home for Christmas…

Brad’s laid back vocal blends perfectly with understated orchestration punctuated by outstanding lead guitar solos and smooth steel guitar and fiddle fills. This is my favorite track on the CD.

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Single Review: Josh Turner – ‘I Wouldn’t Be A Man’

Josh Turner has had a spotty track record with country radio over the past eight years. During that time frame, he’s released eleven singles, most of which have peaked inside the Top 20, but only five of those made it to the Top 10. The five that made the Top 10 all peaked at either #1 or #2. He seems to have found his commercial niche with his latest release Haywire, a decent but somewhat uneven album which has spawned two #1 singles so far. Turner and his label are hoping that they can make it to the top of the charts three times in a row, with the release of his newest single “I Wouldn’t Be A Man.”

Originally a Top 10 hit for Don Williams in 1987, “I Wouldn’t Be A Man” is less traditional than most of Wiliams’ hits and it is one of his less remembered songs today. It was revived in 1996 by Billy Dean; his version stalled at #45 on the charts, and deservedly so. Turner’s version is more faithful to Williams’ original than Dean’s cover. Dean’s producers went for a completely contemporary — for the time — arrangement; Josh’s version prominently features the pedal steel guitar throughout, which helps keep the R&B-flavored tune rooted in country music.

The tune was written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and the record was produced by Frank Rogers. The sultry lyrics work well with Turner’s bass, which gives the record a sexy feel that should appeal to female listeners:

There’s a slow moon risin’
It’s shining on your skin.
The way your body moves me,
I know there’s no holding back:
No holding back

I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this.
I wouldn’t be a man if a woman like you,
Was anything I could resist.
I’d have to be from another planet,
Where love doesn’t exist.
I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this.

Turner’s rendition doesn’t quite pack the same punch as Williams’ version, but expecting him to do so would be setting the bar unreasonably high. Many of today’s fans are likely unfamiliar with the original, which should help Turner avoid any unfavorable comparisons.

The past few years have provided a tough environment for traditionalists like Turner, who have struggled to be relevant at radio while still staying true to their country roots. Josh’s inconsistent performance on the airplay charts reflects this struggle. A record like this one seems like a good compromise; it’s contemporary enough that it should appeal to radio programmers, but not so contemporary that it will alienate country fans.

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Part II’

Released in 2001, Brad Paisley’s sophomore album would continue Paisley’s run of success with 4 top 10 radio hits, including a chart-topper.  The album itself would go onto be certified platinum.  Again with the help of producer Frank Rogers, Part II doesn’t stray far from the traditional sound of his debut release, though it does show off the sense of humor that would come to dominate Brad’s single releases in recent years.

Following the ballad success from his debut album. the like-minded hit ‘Two People Fell In Love’ found its way to the top 5 as the album’s lead single. The influence of George Strait can be heard of the album’s third single, the jamming ‘Wrapped Around’, which found its way to a #2 peak.

‘I’m Gonna Miss Her’, a clever novelty tune in which a man chooses the fishing hole over a happy home, became Brad’s second chart-topper. In the same vein is the catchy and memorable ‘Come On Over Tonight’, which finds a smitten fellow inviting the lady of his affections over, after swearing off love for good.

Highlights include the final single, ‘I Wish You’d Stay’, written by Brad with Chris Dubois. Here, the narrator is aching for his love to stay, but offers his blessings on her departure, as well as several favors and help along the way.  Also essential is Paisley’s melodic take on ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’, an oft-recorded modern-day masterpiece.

‘Too Country’ features a guest vocal from George Jones, Bill Anderson, and Buck Owens in a simple fiddle and acoustic guitar arrangment of a song that begs to ask “what is too country?” The album closes with a live recording from the Grand Ole Opry on the sacred hymn ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, which features an opening from Little Jimmy Dickens.

Paying tribute to tradition was surely a factor for Brad when recording Part II, and that shows throughout. The neo-traditional arrangement on every track not only shows his love and respect for the genre’s traditions, but also his own talent in reproducing them, making Part II essential listening for any fan of neo-traditional country.

Grade: A-

Part II is still widely available. Buy it now at amazon.

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Who Needs Pictures’

When Brad Paisley’s debut album was released in 1999, it was a real breath of fresh air with its mix of comedy and serious numbers. Frank Rogers gave it a nicely railed back production. Brad wrote every song (most often working with Chris DuBois) with the exception of a sincere sounding version of the hymn ‘The Garden’ which closes the set, and he showed off his instrumental prowess by playing acoustic, electric and bass guitars. There is even a showy instrumental cut but ‘The Nervous Breakdown’ doesn’t do a lot for me.

Brad emerged on the scene with the fine title track, which peaked at #12 on Billboard. The protagonist’s wistful memories of happier times are sparked off by the unexpected discovery of a (pre-digital) camera with undeveloped film of vacations with a lost love, but he concludes:

Who needs pictures, with a memory like mine?

It has a tasteful string arrangement.

Brad followed this up with his breakthrough hit and first #1, the charming and genuinely touching ‘He Didn’t Have To Be’, a tribute to a loving stepfather which Brad wrote with Kelley Lovelace, whose own family background inspired the song. It opens with the apt observation,

When a single mom goes out on a date with somebody new
It always winds up feeling more like a job interview
My mama used to wonder if she’d ever meet someone
Who wouldn’t find out about me and then turn around and run

The protagonist grows up to measure himself as a potential father against the man who took them “from something’s missing to a family“. This is still one of my favorite Brad Paisley songs.

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Spotlight Artist: Brad Paisley

A presence at the top of the country charts for more than a decade now, singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso Brad Paisley has frequently been heralded as the savior of traditional country music. While that may be overstating the case a bit, there is no doubt that he has played a key role in keeping the traditional sound alive, having built a reputation for combining contemporary country elements with humor, while showing a deep and profound respect for country music’s past.

The Glendale, West Virginia native was born on October 28, 1972. His interest in country music was sparked at age eight when his grandfather gave him his first guitar. Shortly thereafter he began singing in church. He wrote his first song at age 12 and formed his first band when he was 13. When he was in junior high school, he was invited to perform on Jamboree USA, a Wheeling, West Virginia radio program that is the second oldest country music broadcast in the United States, after the Grand Ole Opry. He became a regular cast member, performing with superstars such as Ricky Skaggs, George Jones, and The Judds.

After high school, Brad attended West Liberty University in West Virginia for two years before transferring to Belmont University in Nashville on a fully-paid scholarship. While at Belmont, he met Frank Rogers, who would one day become his record producer, as well as Kelly Lovelace and Chris DuBois, who became his songwriting partners.

Paisley spent the first few years following his graduation from Belmont as a staff songwriter for EMI Music Publishing, before signing with Arista Nashville in 1998. From that point, success came quickly. His first single “Who Needs Pictures” was released in February 1999. Released at a time when country music was becoming more pop-oriented, the record struck a chord with audiences who yearned for more traditional-sounding music. “Who Needs Pictures” climbed to #12 on the charts, and the follow-up release “He Didn’t Have To Be” made it all the way to #1. In 2000 he won the CMA’s Horizon Award and the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Male Vocalist award. He was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2001.

Brad married actress Kimberly Williams in 2003, following her appearance in one of his music videos. They are now the parents of two young sons and live in Franklinville, Tennessee.

In the almost dozen years since his debut, Paisley has racked up 27 charting singles, 15 of which have made it to #1, as well as seven studio albums, five of which have been certified platinum or better, and one that has been certified gold. A double-disc greatest hits package, containing both the studio recordings and previously unreleased live versions of his hits, will be released this week. We hope you’ll enjoy our look back at the accomplishments of this talented performer as we spotlight the career of Brad Paisley throughout the month of November.

Album Review: Darius Rucker – ‘Charleston, SC 1966’

The best thing about Darius Rucker’s second country album is what was most marked about his first: the singer’s gravelly yet flexible voice. More notable this time is the solid and often inventive contemporary country production helmed by Frank Rogers, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite mainstream producers, with an excellent ear for the right instrumentation for any given song, and balancing commercial considerations with artistic merit. Rogers also currently produces Josh Turner (whose latest, Haywire, sounds gorgeous despite some lacklustre material) and Brad Paisley, who makes a guest appearance here. Where it falls down a little is with the lack of ambition and limited emotional palette, and it is interesting that all of these artists (each of them lucky enough to be happily married in real life) seem to have a reluctance to tackle much heartbreak or darkness in their music. Darius co-wrote every song, most frequently collaborating with Rogers, and although the material is pretty good, and more consistent than that on Learn To Live, there are no modern classics here. Possibly a few outside songs would have raised the bar. The album’s title (Darius’ place and date of birth) is an obvious nod to Radney Foster’s superb Del Rio, TX, 1959 – a rather rash idea, as it raises expectations it cannot deliver. Instead of aiming for excellence, Darius is apparently happy to settle for something that is merely good: well-performed, mainly mid-tempo, mainly positive, radio-friendly material in the center of today’s country music. And he does succeed in that rather better than many of his contemporaries.

Opening track ‘This’ is very reminiscent of much of Brad Paisley’s recent material, a paean to current domestic happiness along the lines of ‘Bless The Broken Road’:

Thank God for all I missed
Cause it led me straight to this

Written with Rogers and pop writer (and outgoing American idol judge) Kara DioGuardi, it is a perfectly competent and aurally pleasing but perhaps rather unambitious number which really epitomises this album. Also rather Paisleyesque in its domesticity is the sweet married love song ‘Might Get Lucky’ which Darius wrote with his hero Radney Foster and Jay Clements. This has a warmth and genuineness which is rather appealing. Both songs should find a ready home on country radio. ‘The Craziest Thing’ is another love song to a wife, which is less successful, managing to make walking on fire sound rather dull, despite a bouncy production. Paisley himself duets with Darius on the mildly witty carefree vacation song ‘I Don’t Care’, which the two wrote together with Chris DuBois; this breaks no new ground but is likeable and a surefire hit single in the making for next summer.

There is a welcome change of pace, and equally welcome move to something more emotionally ambivalent, with the languid ballad ‘Whiskey And You’, a love song which compares the protagonist’s need for his woman to a need for alcohol:

Ain’t nothing I can do
But come crawling back to
Whiskey and you
I never asked you to love me
I never begged you to stay
But I never want you to leave me

Also very good, and a bit more complex emotionally than the rest of the album, is ‘Things I’d Never Do’, written by Darius, Rogers and Clay Mills, with its wistful feel. The mortified protagonist, stuck in a hotel room, regrets past choices to do the kind of the things he would never have thought himself capable of:

I’d never leave the perfect girl
Or rip apart the perfect world
Just up and leave in the middle of a song

This is very effectively and subtly done, and my favorite track. Mills also cowrote ‘I Got Nothin’, a resigned response to a failing marriage where there just might be something to revive, which I also like. ‘We All Fall Down’, written with Kim Tribble, is a subdued and rather downbeat acknowledgment of inevitable and universal failure, which is another highlight for me, although it is certainly not commercial.

Closing track ‘In A Big Way’, written with Casey Beathard, expresses a traveler’s longing for home and family, and sounds possibly autobiographical (and it’s nice to hear someone namechecking Charley Pride alongside George Jones rather than one of the usual suspects). The tuneful and good-humored ‘Southern State Of Mind’, written with Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois, is partly another homesick ode to home,

“where they drink sweet tea and they raise you to be polite”

and partly a declaration that he takes his southernness with him wherever he goes.

Lead single and #1 hit ‘Come Back Song’, written with Chris Stapleton and Casey Beathard, is quite a nice plea for forgiveness and reconciliation. I like it more than Darius’s last few singles, but it is not one of the more memorable songs on this album. ‘Love Will Do That’ is a nice example of Frank Rogers’ production, with some nice banjo from Bela Fleck and mandolin from Sam Bush, but is lyrically uninteresting. ‘She’s Beautiful’ is flat out boring and might have been dropped from the set with no ill effect.

This is in many ways a safe record. It is well made, pleasant to listen to, and should yield another brace of hits for Darius, but he doesn’t really take any chances with the material. I’m not sure I’ll remember it all that long after it’s left my current releases playlist. It seems disappointing in comparison to what I believe Darius is capable of (or to Del Rio, TX, 1959), but taken purely on its own merits it’s a pretty good record, particularly when set against many of his chart rivals.

Grade: B

Single Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Anything Like Me’

In his comedy routine Bill Cosby used to refer to the Mother’s Curse: “I hope that when you get married you have children that act the same way that you act.” Brad Paisley explores that theme in his latest single, “Anything Like Me.” The narrator of the song is an expectant father who envisions the future — and his own past — upon learning that his unborn child will be a son. He reminisces about his own formative years, about climbing trees and playing football, as well as getting grounded for skipping class and his first broken heart, and speculates that “it’s say to say that, I’m gonna get my payback, if he’s anything like me.”

Produced by Frank Rogers and written with Dave Turnbull and Chris DuBois, “Anything Like Me” finds Paisley traveling in familiar territory. The song is strikingly similar to “Letter To Me”, which also dealt with an adult protagonist reflecting on his youth, but lacks the 2007 hit’s emotional punch. Comparisons between the two songs are inevitable, and that can only work to “Anything Like Me’s” detriment because a recycled theme is never as effective the second time around. It is not a bad song by any means; it is well written and the production is tasteful and understated. However, I can’t help but think that it is a focus group-driven product calculated to appeal to a key demographic of country radio listener, as well as a blatant and artistically lazy effort to tap into the success of an earlier record. Maybe I’ve spent too much time listening to Jamey Johnson’s new album this week, but I’d rather hear Paisley do something with a little more of an edge to it.

Grade: C+

Listen to “Anything Like Me” here.

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Your Man’

The title track and lead single to Josh Turner’s sophomore effort Your Man was released in August 2005 and saw him reaching the Top 10, as well as the #1 spot on the charts, which was no mean feat for a traditionally-based artist in the early part of the 21st century. The album that followed shortly thereafter in January 2006, was also a commercial success. Frank Rogers was once again on board as producer, without Mark Wright this time. Turner had a hand in writing five of the album’s eleven tracks.

The album opens with “Would You Go With Me”, which was the second single released from the set. Like its predecessor, the Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill composition reached #1. it is followed by another Camp song, with Herb McCollough as co-writer, the surprisingly upbeat-sounding “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama.” The lyrics read like a three-hanky tale about a broken marriage, but this is no crying in your beer song. Turner sounds anything but devastated and even winds up the song by commenting that he is glad that his ex took her Chihuahua with her. Both “Would You Go With Me” and “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama” prominently feature the dobro, by Mike Johnson on the former and Steve Hinson on the latter track.

“No Rush” is a more lushly-arranged, bluesy style song that initially seems like an odd choice for Turner, but it works surprisingly well. Stylistically, it reminds me of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and sounds like something that Ray Price would have sunk his teeth into in the early 70s.

Some marquee guest artists are on hand for a couple of tracks: members of Diamond Rio supply the background vocals to “Me and God” a religious number written by Turner, in the same vein as his earlier hit “Long Black Train.” The legendary Ralph Stanley also makes a cameo duet appearance, sounding a lot like Roy Acuff in his later years. The track became the album’s third and final single. Peaking at #16, it did not fare as well as the album’s previous two singles, but it performed respectably for a religious-themed record. More star power is on display with “White Noise”, written and performed with John Anderson. Surprisingly it is one of the weaker tracks on the album, and as its title implies, it is merely filler that name-checks Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and the Grand Ole Opry.

The most fun track on the album, and one on which Josh sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself is Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders’ “Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln”, which finds Turner fantasizing about buying a car once owned by the Coal Miner’s Daughter and cruising around Nashville in it with her and Dolly Parton. It’s just not possible to dislike this song.

My favorite track on the album is Josh’s cover version of the Don Williams classic “Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy”. It easily rivals the original version and deserved to be released as a single. You just can’t go wrong with a Bob McDill song.

The album closes with Turner’s “Way Down South”, a satisfying if slightly self-indulgent tribute to home. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, it turns into a jam session towards the end. While not one of the stronger songs on the album, it is an enjoyable listen that would have been better had it been pared down by a minute or so.

Overall, Your Man is a very satisfying collection of songs from one of today’s better artists, albeit one that is still struggling to break away from the rest of Nashville’s current pack of male singers. It is Turner’s most successful album to date, earning double-platinum certification for sales in excess of two million units. Two of the album’s singles, “Your Man” and “Would You Go With Me” were certified gold for sales exceeding 500,000 units each.

Grade: A-

Your Man is readily available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection.

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Long Black Train’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is much stronger than anger or pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-