My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Fred Koller

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Nanci Griffith – ‘Lone Star State of Mind’

Nanci Griffith made her major label debut as part of a marketing campaign that MCA Records labeled “country and eastern”, a moniker which also included Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and the Desert Rose Band. All were on the fringes of the mainstream and hoped to find acceptance at country radio. None of them enjoyed any long-term success, however, and the genre is poorer off as a result. Griffith barely made a dent in the country charts as a recording artist, but she released a handful of very well crafted albums during her tenure with MCA, the first of which was 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind, which she co-produced with Tony Brown.

Up to this point Griffith had released several successful country-flavored folk albums which were released on the independent Philo label. To the extent that she was known to mainstream audiences it was for having written “Love at the Five and Dime”, which had been a Top Five hit for Kathy Mattea in 1986. Lone Star State of Mind consisted of six songs that she wrote or co-wrote, and five other songs penned by outside writers. A conscious effort was made to appeal to country fans by incorporating a generous amount of fiddle and pedal steel into the mix. Though it sold only modestly, the album was Griffith’s most successful during her tenure in Nashville.

The title track, written by Fred Koller, Pat Alger and Gene Levine was the album’s first single. Upbeat and featuring an energetic vocal performance, it rose to #36, becoming Nanci’s highest charting single on the Billboard country chart. It was followed by one of Nanci’s own compositions, “Trouble In The Fields”, which was co-written by Rick West. It tells the story of a farmer and his wife, on the brink of financial ruin due to a drought, and draws comparsions to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But despite the hardships they face, the couple is determined to soldier on and save their farm from foreclosure:

All this trouble in our fields,
If this rain can fall, these wounds can heal,
They’ll never take our native soil.
And if we sell that new John Deere,
And we work these crops with sweat and tears,
You be the mule, I’ll be the plow,
Come harvest time we’ll work it out,
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields.

This is a beautiful song, my favorite of anything Nanci has ever done, but sadly it only reached #57. Irish singer Maura O’Connell later covered the song, bringing it to the attention of international audiences. The album’s third and final single, “Cold Hearts/Closed Minds”, another Griffith composition, is more folk than country. It too was more or less ignored by radio and topped out at #64.

Surprisingly, the song for which Nanci is best known was not released as single in the US. She was the first artist to record Julie Gold’s “From A Distance”, which four years later would become a major pop hit for Bette Midler. Nanci’s version is virtually unknown to American audiences, but it became a huge hit in Ireland where it topped the charts and established Nanci as a major star in that country.

“Ford Econoline”, another one of my favorites, is a light-hearted number about a controlling husband who makes the mistake of buying his wife a car, which she promptly uses to escape his clutches and start a singing career. The more contemplative “Nickel Dreams”, written by Mac McAnally and Don Lowery, had been recorded by Reba McEntire a few years earlier. Tanya Tucker would borrow the title for autobiography a few years later, despite never having recorded the song.

The album closes on a very personal and introspective note. “There’s A Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)” is a re-recording of the title track of Griffith’s 1978 debut album. She uses the occasion to address a childhood friend and to reminisce about key events of their lives, including meeting Nanci’s boyfriend John, and his subsequent death in a motorcycle accident shortly after their senior prom.

Nanci’s sometimes quirky vocal style may not be to everyone’s taste, and this may have been a factor in hampering her commercial success. She did, however, write and record many literate and substantive songs, some of which went on to become hits for other artists. Lone Star State of Mind reached #23, making it Nanci’s highest charting album on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Regrettably, commercial success continued to elude her and she eventually moved in a more pop direction and had her contract transferred to MCA’s L.A. division. Shortly thereafter she departed the label altogether and began to revisit her folk roots on Elektra Records.

Lone Star State of Mind
is easy to find on CD and in digital form. New copies tend to be expensive, but used copies are quite inexpensive.

Grade: A