My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Garth Brooks

Week ending 9/16/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On — Jerry Lee Lewis (Sun)

1957 (Disc Jockeys) (tie): Fraulein — Bobby Helms (Decca)
My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You — Ray Price (Columbia)

1967: My Elusive Dreams — David Houston & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1977Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue — Crystal Gayle (United Artists)

1987: Make No Mistake, She’s Mine — Kenny Rogers & Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1997: She’s Got It All — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2007: More Than a Memory — Garth Brooks (Big Machine/Pearl)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Small Town Boy — Dustin Lynch (Broken Bow)

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Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Redneck Man’

Released in 2010, Robert Mizzell’s seventh album Redneck Man contains 15 songs, the majority of them covers, but some of them relatively obscure songs. Mizzell has a strong baritone voice which does justice to the material, and he is effectively backed by an excellent band performing mostly traditional country arrangements.

Although not a songwriter himself, the one original song on the album draws directly on Mizzell’s own life story. ‘Mama Courtney’, specially written for him by Irish songwriter Henry McMahon, is a moving tribute to the loving foster parents who helped to raise him in Louisiana when his birth mother “lost her way in life”.

Us kids are all now grown up and gone our separate ways
I look back on my childhood of many happy days
And when I go back to Shreveport I place flowers on her grave
And I thank Mama Courtney for all those kids that she saved

There are many children in this world that suffered hurt and shame
I thank all the Mama Courtneys that took away their pain
God works in mysterious ways
I believe this is true
Though she had no children of her own she fostered 32…

God rest you Mama Courtney
I’ll always love you

This is a genuinely moving song, and was understandably a success for the artist on Irish country radio.

Another single for him was a duet with US country star Collin Raye on ‘Murder On Music Row’. The two singers swap lines rather than harmonising except on the odd chorus line, but they contrast well, and both sing with feeling. Perhaps as a nod to Raye, Mizzell covers ‘I’m Gonna Love You’, a fluffy novelty song written by Robert Elis Orrall, which Raye cut on his children’s album Counting Sheep. It isn’t a very good song, and adds nothing to the album.

Much better is an entertaining cover of ‘Ol’ Frank’, a tongue in cheek story song about a young trophy bride who cashes in after “he died with a smile on his face”, which George Jones recorded in the 80s. Another late Jones cut, the up-tempo ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’, is pleasant but definitely filler (plus it’s far too cavalier about missing pets).

Another excellent track is ‘More Behind The Picture Than The Wall’, a traditional country ballad written by Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Don Miller, about a father remembering happy times past after the death of his soldier son in action. Mizzell’s vocals do the poignant nostalgia of the song (previously recrded by bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver) justice.

Too soon our little family was scattered to the winds
You fell out of love with me and wouldn’t fall back in
I was sleeping by myself the night I got that call
Yeah, there’s more behind this picture than the wall

Casey died a hero, that’s what the chaplain said
We couldn’t find sweet Lorrie, I doubt she knows it yet
You and I still tortured by the memories we recall
But there’s more behind this picture than the wall

Four happy loving faces, back then we had it all

Also very good is Mizzell’s version of ‘Someone To Hold Me When I Cry’, a great Wayland Holyfield/Bob McDill song which was a hit for last month’s Spotlight Artist, Janie Fricke and has also been recorded by Don Williams and Loretta Lynn.

He adds a soulful tinge to Jamey Johnson’s ‘She’s All Lady’, a married singer’s polite but firm rebuff to a potential groupie.

Thanks for coming out to see me
I hope you liked the show
Yeah, that’s right, I settled down about six months ago
No, she ain’t here tonight, she stayed at home
Yeah, it sure does get lonely out here on the road

By looking in your eyes, I can tell what’s on your mind
Yeah, I’d love to drive you home and’ hold your body close to mine
You’re everything a man could dream of, baby
Cause you’re all woman
But she’s all lady

I met her at a Baptist church in Tennessee
She was looking for someone
I was prayin’ it was me
No, she never thought she’d fall in love with a guitar man
Oh, it took some gettin’ used to
She does the best she can
No, she don’t like to stay at home alone
No, I don’t need your number
She’s probably waitin’ by the phone…

No, it ain’t you, Lord knows you’re a sight
Yeah, I probably could
But I could never make believe it’s right
I’d rather be alone, and I know that sounds crazy
‘Cause you’re all woman
But she’s all lady
You’re all woman, but she’s my lady

The album’s title comes from a briskly delivered version of Alan Jackson’s early single ‘Blue Blooded Woman’, which opens the album. Loaded with fiddle, this is a strong cut. Darryl Worley’s minor hit ‘Tennessee River Run’ is bright and pleasant. ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ is a bit more well worn; Mizzell’s warm vocal sells it convincingly, but gets a little overblown towards the end.

Also on the less successful side, John Denver’s ‘Love Is Everywhere’ is forgettable, while ‘Two Ways To Fall’ once recorded by Garth Brooks sideman Ty England is quite a good song but suffers from dubious production choices with the first couple of lines horribly muffled and echoey.

Mizzell was already a reasonably well established star on the Irish country scene by this point, and in 2009 he acted as mentor to Lisa McHugh, another of the artists we are spotlighting this month, on a TV talent show. She guests here on a duet of the Randy Travis hit ‘I Told You So’; this is quite nicely sung but feels inessential. The same goes for ‘I Swear’; Mizzell sings with emotion but the arrangement feels a bit dated.

Overall I was very pleasantly surprised by this album. Mizzell has a strong voice and interprets the songs well; it’s just a shame that there was not more original material available.

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Country & Irish

Although country music is often dismissed as an art form that only appeals to North Americans, its popularity around the world is well documented. In addition to following the big Nashville stars, many countries have their own homegrown versions of country music as well. This month will take a look at three artists who are currently popular in Ireland, although, ironically, none of them were actually born there.

Robert Mizzell was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 21, 1971 and did a stint in the US Army after graduating from high school. When his love interest decided to return to her native Ireland, he followed there and tried his hand at a variety of jobs including construction and selling insurance. He did not grow up listening to country music, but the huge international success of Garth Brooks in the early 1990s inspired him to give it a try. His first major hit, “Kick Ass Country” led to a stint on an X-Factor style program called Let Me Entertain You. Although he is largely unknown in his native USA, he has an extensive following throughout Europe and Australia, thanks to hits such as “Say You Love Me”, “Mama Courtney” and cover versions of hits by Nashville stars.

Lisa McHugh was born on August 16, 1988 in Glasgow, Scotland to Irish parents. She grew up listening to Dolly Parton, Martina McBride and Garth Brooks. In 2009 she relocated to Letterkenny in her mother’s native county of Donegal, and eventually she settled in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. To date she has released four studio albums and one live album. She appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 2012.

Like Lisa McHugh, Nathan Carter is also a UK native of Irish ancestry. He was born in Liverpool, England on May 28, 1990 to parents who both hailed from the city of Newry, which straddles the border between counties Aramagh and Down in Northern Ireland. His debut album, the aptly-titled Starting Out was released in 2007. Shortly thereafter he relocated to Ireland. In 2012, he released a version of the Bob Dylan chestnut “Wagon Wheel” which made him a household name in the Emerald Isle. He has recorded a total of nine studio albums, the last four of which were released by Decca Records.

Some of the music that we’ll be reviewing this month will be new to you, while some of it will be more familiar, albeit with a different twist. We hope you’ll enjoy it.

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

Album Review: Varous Artists: ‘Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams’

Don Williams had a very successful career in Country Music and is pretty much beloved throughout the English-speaking world. Don would have a long run of chart singles (46 as a solo artist) that would run from 1973 to 1992, and he would continue to release albums of new music through 2014.

With such a long discography, the task is twofold: (1) find artists whose styles are sympathetic to the honoree’s style without being mere imitations, and (2) find some interesting catalog songs rather than simply covering the biggest hits. Moreover, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag with some of them being very good, and others merely star vehicles for current stars rather than genuine tributes. Gentle Giants is a genuine tribute to Don.

This project succeeds in both respects. The artists cover a broad range of styles and while the songs are mostly big hits, a few lesser known songs are covered as well.

The album opens up with the Pistol Annies’ version of “Tulsa Time” a song written by Danny Flowers, one of Don’s band members. The arrangement of this 1979 #1 record for Don is considerably funkier than Don’s arrangement.

“I Believe In You” was written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, hitting #1 in 1980. This was probably Don’s biggest international hit, even reaching #4 on New Zealand’s pop charts. Brandy Clark does a decent job of the song, although it probably should have been tackled by a more grizzled artist than young Brandy.

“We’ve Got A Good Fire Going” was not one of Don’s bigger hits, only reaching #3 in 1986. Written by master songsmith David Loggins, the song seems perfectly suited for a vocal trio such as Lady Antebellum. The arrangement is very gentle with a light string accompaniment.

There’s a storm rollin’ over the hill
And the willow trees are blowin’
I’m standin’ here starin’ out the window
Safe and warm
I feel her put her arms around me
And it’s a good feelin’ that I’m knowin’
Oh, I’ve got a good woman and we’ve got a good fire goin’

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” comes from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. The song reached #1 in 1977, Dierks Bentley gives the song an acoustic, nearly bluegrass arrangement. I love the song and I love Dierks’ performance of the song.

While there are no complete misfires on the album, “Amanda” seems ill suited for the duo of Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton. I really like Chris but his voice is just wrong for this song. His version is acceptable but both Don and ol’ Waylon did far better versions of the song.

Similarly Alison Krauss makes the mistake of slowing the tempo in “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”. Since all of Don’s songs are taken at slow to medium slow tempos, reducing the tempo on any of Don’s songs is a mistake. Alison provides a gorgeous vocal, but the song just seems to drag. Don co-wrote this song with Wayland Holyfield, his fourth #1 from back in 1976.

I regard John Prine as a talented songwriter but a poor vocalist with his vocal efforts ranging from mediocre to terrible. Somehow “Love Is On A Roll” works. It was a good idea to pair him with Roger Cook, especially since Prine and Cook were the writers on the song. Don took this song to #1 in 1983.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, as sung by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because Amanda Shires is no Emmylou Harris as a harmony singer. I think the song originally was an Emmylou Harris single featuring Don Williams since it was released on Warner Brothers, which was Emmylou’s label. The song only reached #3 but I thought it was an outstanding effort by Don and Emmylou.

“Maggie’s Dream” missed the top ten when released in 1984 but by then Don was staring to lose momentum as a singles artist. Also the album from which the song came, Cafe Carolina, was Don’s least successful album in a decade. Written by David Loggins and Lisa Silver, Trisha Yearwood does a masterful job with the song. I think it has one of the more interesting lyrics that Don ever tackled:

Maggie’s up each morning at four am
By five at the counter at the diner
Her trucker friends out on the road will soon be stopping in
As the lights go on at Cafe Carolina

Maggie’s been a waitress here most all her life
Thirty years of coffee cups and sore feet
The mountains around Ashevill,e she’s never seen the other side
Closer now to fifty than to forty

Maggie’s never had a love
She said she’s never had enough time
To let a man into her life
Aw but Maggie has a dream
She’s had since she was seventeen
To find a husband and be a wife

I am not that familiar with Keb Mo’ but he nailed “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, adding a very sincere vocal to an arrangement that is nearly a clone of Don’s original. The song was written by Dave Hanner, best known for his role in the Corbin/Hanner Band. The song reached #1 in 1981.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me”, written by Bob McDill is probably my favorite Don Williams song and Garth Brooks version tells me that Garth definitely grew up on and was inspired by Don’s songs. Billboard had this song dying at #2 but Cashbox and Record World both had it reaching #1.

All said, this is a pretty nice album. Don Williams was a pretty laid back artist and I wish someone had selected some of the more up-tempo songs (admittedly, there were not that many from which to choose). Other than Leon Redbone and Bobby Bare, no one was as good at laid-back as Don Williams.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Three Good Reasons’

51qlwdksrjl1992’s Three Good Reasons was Crystal Gayle’s final major label album, released during the time that Capitol Nashville was known as Liberty Records. It was a last-ditch effort to get back on the radio. It appeared two years after her last album and six years after her last Top 10 record. Despite exceptionally strong material that was tailor made to appeal to the then-current trends at radio, it was a case of too little, too late. Radio had moved on to younger artists, and Liberty Records at that time neglected everyone on its roster who was not Garth Brooks. As a result, the album received only half-hearted promotion from the label. Only one single — the title track — was released and it did not chart.

The album was produced by Buzz Stone, who had previously produced an album for Riders In The Sky as well as Nanci Griffith’s live album a few years earlier. Whereas Ain’t Gonna Worry had largely been a throwback to Crystal’s early 70s sound, Three Good Reasons was an attempt to modernize her sound. With the possible exception of I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out of My Eyes, which was a compilation of her early work for Decca, it is her most country-sounding album. The fiddle and pedal steel can be heard prominently throughout the album and unlike its ballad-heavy predecessor, it contains plenty of upbeat material.

The title track did receive a fair amount of airplay on my local country radio station. It is an uptempo number about a young mother escaping from a bad marriage, citing “three good reasons to survive” — namely, her two children and herself. It was written by Don Schlitz and David Wingo and probably would have been a big hit if it had been released by a younger artist — or by Crystal herself a few years earlier. The album’s other divorce song, “A Rose Between Two Thorns” is a heartbreaking ballad about a child that feels caught between her feuding parents. “Living In Tears” is another very nice ballad.

Most of the other songs are uptempo numbers from Jackson Leap’s “Why Cry” and Mark Wright and B James Lowry’s “Love To, Can’t Do” to “The Trouble With Me (Is You)” a swing number written by L. Davis Lewis and Kim Williams. Despite the album’s traditional feel, Crystal had not totally abandoned her pop leanings: the mid-tempo “If The Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” had been a minor country and AC hit for Jimmy Buffett in 1985, and “One Less Set of Footsteps” had been a pop hit for its author Jim Croce in 1973. Crystal’s versions of both songs are well within the bounds of what was considered country in the early 90s.

Three Good Reasons is a perfect example of why commercial success should never be used to evaluate the quality of music. From an artistic standpoint, it is one of her strongest albums and as was pointed out in one of our prior discussions, if she’d changed musical direction a little earlier, she might have extended her chart tenure by a few more years. It’s a shame that this album didn’t succeed because I would have liked to have heard more in this vein from her.

Although Three Good Reasons marked the end of Crystal’s major label career, she did continue to record after she exited Liberty. She recorded a few religious albums, a few albums of traditional pop standards (one of which wa a very worthwhile tribute to Hoagy Carmichael), and a children’s album. An album of classic country covers is reportedly supposed to be released later this year.

Three Good Reasons probably escaped the notice of many fans. It is well worth seeking out. The tracks can be streamed on YouTube, and used copies are available for purchase.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘White Christmas Blue’

loretta-lynn-white-christmas-blue-1476726333The crop of Christmas albums has been hit or miss this year with big band affairs aptly showcasing Chris Young and Brett Eldridge’s vocal prowess and Kacey Musgraves’ continued decent into her own quirkiness. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood had the most disappointing record, a haphazard affair unbecoming from an artist (Yearwood) with impeccable song sense who knows better.

Loretta Lynn has released the years most intriguing holiday record, White Christmas Blue, which comes a full fifty years since her Owen Bradley produced Country Christmas. The album is a full-on traditional affair and a delight at every turn.

I usually find fiddle and steel out of place on a Christmas album, but White Christmas Blue is changing that perception for me. The album is mostly comprised of holiday standards, with jovial renditions of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Jingle Bells” sitting comfortably along side “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus,” one of the album’s strongest cuts and a personal favorite of mine. “Blue Christmas,” a full-on honky-tonker in Lynn’s hands, is also excellent.

The ballads don’t hit as hard. It may be the starkness she brings to “Away In A Manger,” “Silent Night” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” that didn’t do it for me or the fact I’ve heard them so often, in so may different versions, their simple beauty has begun to wear thin. “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” was a complete surprise, a perfect way to end the album.

White Christmas Blue also boasts two original numbers. “Country Christmas” is a rerecording of the title track from the last album and Lynn hasn’t lost any of the spunk she brought to the original. The other, the title track, is a rather somber affair, which finds Lynn with everything she wants – except her honey:

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m still all alone

It’ll be Christmas day when you come home

Icicles hanging from the eves, snow is glistenin’ from the trees

My Christmas time with you is over due

 

You turn into my white Christmas blue

You turn into my white Christmas blue

I should be saying ho ho ho instead of bu bu bu

Oh Santa Claus would no want you to break my heart in two

You turn into my white Christmas blue

I cannot recommend this album enough.

Grade: A-

Christmas Album Review: Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood – ‘Christmas Together’

christmas-togetherSuperstar Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood have been talking about recording a duet album together for years, especially since they came out of retirement. It was something of a surprise, though, to find they had chosen a Christmas album.

The opening ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ is a bit too jazzy and cutesy for me. It is a true duet. ‘Marshmallow World’ is too sweet. The pair work together best on the playful ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is my favorite track by far.

Garth takes the lead on the silly novelty ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’, and on a boring attempt at the Mexican ‘Feliz Navidad’. ‘Merry Christmas Means I Love You’ is bland and tries too hard to be inclusive. Almost the entire record is purely focussed on the secular side of Christmas, the one exception coming with the thoughtful and rather lovely ‘What I’m Thankful For’, which is a duet between Garth and singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Trisha is, quite literally, unrecognisable on the vampish ‘Santa Baby’. Infinitely better is a gorgeous reading of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, although it gets a tiny bit self-indulgent towards the end. ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, from the Dolly Parton movie ‘Best Little Whorehouse In Texas’ does have a musical theater vibe about it, but is beautifully sung. ‘Her version of ‘The Man With the Bag’ is also very well done, and I enjoyed it a lot despite its lack of any country elements.

I was very disappointed by this album as a whole, but there are a few bright spots.

Grade: C

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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Single Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance’

baby-lets-lay-down-and-dance-cover-artI might as well just come out and say it – The return of Garth Brooks over the past two years has been one of the most infuriating “comebacks” in recent memory. He began by announcing his gargantuan world tour, which I would’ve been excited about, except for the fact it features Trisha Yearwood and doesn’t give her the full performance slot she deserves. He subjected us to Man Against Machine, which was crap, and announced his long-awaited duets album with Yearwood would consist of…Christmas songs. I haven’t even mentioned GhostTunes, which he’s now abandoned since it provided diminishing returns.

Brooks is attempting to re-write the narrative with a deal through Target which consists of an exclusive edition of his new album Gunslinger packaged in a bloated ten-disc boxed set entitled The Ultimate Collection. This is purely a marketing and sales move, but even he has to be smarter than to rehash his hits in another form at this point. I’m only invested because of Yearwood and her contributions to this new material, which are slight, to say the least.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Brooks. His material has consistently been top notch and his ability to captivate a crowd is unlike anything country music has ever seen (especially in that combination). He knows music and I’m confident his heart is in the right place. But even I’ve had enough of his overblown ego and sense of importance. He craves relevancy, which is totally understandable, but his desperation is more than OLD.

Which leads us to “Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance.” Quite frankly, the song is terrible. There’s nothing to latch onto lyrically and the production feels like it was generated rather than played. This is “Wrapped Up In You” minus the heart, soul and personality.

“Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance” may be inoffensive uptempo radio fodder that doesn’t try to overreach and claim some big substantive payoff. But it also doesn’t give the listener anything to latch onto and is as empty as anything currently on country radio. This may give Brooks the hit he craves, but it more than damages his credibility as a songsmith and boasts very poorly for the quality of Gunslinger.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1994’

merle-haggard-album-19941994 was the second of Merle Haggard’s three albums for Curb Records. It was released four years after Blue Jungle, the biggest gap between projects of Haggard’s career. James Stroud was brought in to produce the album, in an attempt to reverse Haggard’s declining commercial fortunes. At the time, Stroud was one of Nashville’s hottest producers and he seemed to be trying to modernize Merle’s sound for 90s audiences, many of whom were new country fans, introduced to the genre by Garth Brooks. Gone for the most part were the jazz influences that characterized his later releases for Epic, replaced by more mainstream and radio-friendly arrangements. The result was a very solid album, but it was unfortunately not enough to revitalize Merle’s chart career. He had two big strikes against him: his advancing age in an era when more emphasis as being placed on youth and good looks, and his record label, which put little effort into promoting the album. Curb didn’t even want to foot the bill for decent cover art. Many have commented that the album’s cover resembled a tombstone.

Only one single was released from the album, “In My Next Life”, the story of a farmer and his wife looking back on a lifetime of disappointments, written by Max D. Barnes. This is my favorite song on the album, and it probably would have been a Top 10 hit had it been released a few years earlier before veteran artists were swept off the charts. It topped out at #58 and was the second and final Merle Haggard single released by Curb.

Also written by Max D. Barnes is the album’s opening cut “I Am an Island”, which is given a Jimmy Buffett style treatment. It’s a decent song, despite being a bit light on the lyrics, but it’s not really a good fit for Merle, who seems a little out of place singing it. Barnes teamed up with Merle to write the excellent “Way Back In the Mountains” and the filler track “Solid As a Rock”, which would be covered a year later by George Jones and Tammy Wynette for their reunion album.

Merle indulged his penchant for Dixeland jazz on two numbers: the self-penned and very enjoyable “What’s New In New York City” and “Set My Chickens Free”, a good but not great co-write with Richard Smith.

The album closes with an ill-advised remake of Merle’s 1977 hit “Ramblin’ Fever”. This version, with its heavy-handed production, sounds as though it were made to appeal to line-dancing fans. It’s just not impossible to improve on the original recording and Haggard and Stroud really shouldn’t have tried. I probably would have enjoyed it if I’d never heard the original.

In the end 1994 was, like its predecessor Blue Jungle, a commercial disappointment that underscored the sad reality that Haggard’s hitmaking days were behind him. While it does not quite reach the very high standards set by Merle’s earlier work, it is a very good album. The production seems a bit dated here and there but for the most part it has aged well. This is another one of those albums that fans may have overlooked, and as such it is another good opportunity to hear something “new” from Merle while he was still in good voice.

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Merle Haggard in the 1980s and 1990s

merle-haggard-2Our May Spotlight Artist will be Merle Haggard in the 1980s and 1990s. Not only is this the period in which most of our readership first started following country music, but also the reality is that Haggard’s career is too enormous to cover in one or two spotlight months.

Going into the year 1980, Merle was already forty-two years old and seemingly still in the middle of an extended hot streak dating back to 1966. Through 1979 Haggard had charted sixty songs on the Billboard country charts with thirty-one songs reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts. Moreover, he may have been the biggest single factor in triggering western swing and Jimmie Rodgers revivals.

Haggard would remain hot through 1985 with another fourteen #1 records. Haggard’s last single of the 1970’s -“My Own Kind of Hat”- reached #4. His first single of the 1980s, “The Way I Am” got to #1 on Cashbox and Record World and #2 on Billboard.

After 1985 Haggard’s career on the singles charts would cool down considerably with only one more #1 record and only a few more top ten singles.

Merle’s last solo chart hit would occur in 1990, by which time he was fifty-two years old, a rather advanced age for any country artist to be experiencing chart success. Although many fans believe that Merle’s tenure on Curb Records killed his chart career, my belief is that the “New Traditionalist” movement, which started in 1986 and really flowered in 1989 with Clint Black, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, ultimately killed off the chart success of the country music veterans. Moreover, because of the proliferation of music videos, the industry sought pretty girls and handsome hunks as its standard bearers. The relatively short and grizzled Haggard did not meet up to either standard.

Although Merle largely disappeared from country radio after 1990, he continued to have successful album releases. During the 1980s Haggard released about an album per year of new material (eleven solo albums during the decade) – these albums continued to chart well and were full of good and great songs and performances. There also were a bunch of duet albums with the likes of George Jones and Willie Nelson and a gospel album and some compilations.

Curb only released three albums of new material on Haggard during the 1990s, but these too were really good albums.

We will be covering the best of Merle’s albums of the 1980s and 1990s this month. I really enjoyed all of these albums as they came out and I am sure, that as you run through them, you will find many treasures along the way.

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime’

MI0000488716Wynonna released her only solo live album to date, Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime, in September 2005. The project was recorded live at the Grand Ole Opry House that winter. The concert traced her musical journey as one half of The Judds to her solo career and beyond.

It’s easy to view Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime as just another live album, with little stylistic reinterpretation and little new to offer the longtime listener. But to cast it aside is to miss Wynonna at her most confident and self-assured, digging into her vocal prowess like never before. The double album is a rich tapestry perfectly encapsulating her personality through song and story.

Wynonna opened with a gorgeous rendition of “Dream Chaser,” a brilliant album cut that should’ve been a Judds single. She uses her refined grit to full effect on the plucky “Girls Night Out” and adds some bluesy charm to “Love Is Alive.” Wynonna reflects on the Mayberry-esque nature of Judds music before “Young Love” and Carl Perkins’ electric contributions to “Let Me Tell You About Love.”

For her solo music, Wynonna thanked the crowd for helping “She Is His Only Need” hit #1. She remarked on the acts (Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Billy Dean, etc) that were opening for her as “Tell Me Why” was climbing the charts. A quick story about changing diapers on the tour bus proved a poignant into to “To Be Loved By You.” There wasn’t a story, but she did elevate “No One Else on Earth” to full-fledged arena rock.

My favorite of her solo-revisions is “That Was Yesterday,” a song I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard before. Wynonna told the audience of a fan who finally had the courage to leave her abusive husband and as an explanation left that song playing as a loop in the CD player. It’s my favorite vocal on the whole album, a reminder of why Wynonna is one of the greatest singers country music has ever produced. Her control is spellbinding.

Wynonna took liberties with the remainder of the set list. She performed many choice album cuts and a few cover songs. A few of the tunes, “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis,” “Burnin’ Love” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” came from her What The World Needs Now Is Love album. She reprised “Don’t You Through That Mojo On Me” from The Other Side along with a quick anecdote about Ray Benson’s role in introducing her to the blues (along with giving her, her stage name).

The covers were, not surprisingly, excellent. Wynonna’s tone lends perfectly to Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One” and Tina Turner’s “The Best.” Just as good is “Help Me,” the Joni Mitchell classic she originally recorded on New Day Dawning.

It wouldn’t be a Wynonna album without a spiritual bent. She becomes her most personal, talking about the father she never met, when introducing “I Can Only Imagine.” I used this recording in college for a presentation on spirituality. She also included “When I Reach The Place I’m Going” (From Wynonna) and “Peace In This House.”

After listening to Her Story, you feel like you know Wynonna just a little bit more. The conversational style she brought to this album brilliantly sets it apart from those cash-grabbing live projects most singers release throughout their careers. This is a full concert and is treated as such. What that in mind it does become cumbersome to listen to the tracks individually and hear the talking before the music. But that’s a small price to pay for the magical night she’s committed to tape. This is the shining example of Wynonna the singer, warts and all.

Grade: A

Week ending 3/19/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-Louvin_Brothers1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train — Elvis Presley (Sun)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby — The Louvin Brothers (Capitol)

1966: Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: The Roots of My Raising — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1986: I Could Get Used To You — Exile (Epic)

1996: The Beaches of Cheyenne — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2006: Living In Fast Forward — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): We Went — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘The New Frontier’

317WDCAR5NLPaulette Carlson’s departure was only the first of many changes that Highway 101 underwent in the early 90s. Guitarist Jack Daniels left in 1992 and the following year the remaining band members found themselves on a new label. They’d also parted ways with Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had produced all of the band’s albums at to that point. Curtis Stone and Cactus Moser took over production duties along with Chuck Howard.

The changes were not for the better. While Worley and Seay had surprisingly managed to keep much of Highway 101’s signature sound intact, despite the change in lead singers, the Highway 101 heard on 1993’s The New Frontier sounds like a completely different band. The band members took over more of the songwriting responsibilities — Moser and/or Stone had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten songs. The New Frontier is less traditional than the band’s previous work; the more contemporary stylewas more beat-driven (as opposed to lyrically driven). This style was often marketed as “New Country”, “Young Country” or “Hot Country” in the early 90s. While not a terrible album, the material is noticeably weaker than their earlier efforts. Not that it mattered very much; by this time that band had slipped into commercial irrelevancy. The final nail in the coffin was the new label to which the band was signed. Liberty Records had made Garth Brooks its one and only priority — to the detriment of every artist on the label, including Paulette Carlson, whose lack of success as a solo artist was partially blamed on Capitol/Liberty’s lack of promotion.

“You Baby You” was the album’s lead single and the band’s last single to chart, landing at #67. The second single, “Who’s Gonna Love You”, a Curtis Stone song, is surprisingly unmemorable despite having been co-written by Matraca Berg. I prefer “Fastest Healin’ Broken Heart”, a Stone co-write with Pat Bunch, which comes the closest to the band’s previous musical style. It’s one of a handful of songs on the album that I truly liked, along with “Home on the Range” and “I Wonder Where The Love Goes”, a very nice ballad that closes out the album. This one must have been a particular favor, because it was later re-recorded during Chrislyn Lee’s stint as lead singer.

I intensely disliked the rock-tinged “Love Walks”, “You Are What You Do” and “No Chance To Dance”, the latter two being attempts to capitalize on the popularity of line dancing. The rest of the album’s songs are strictly forgettable.

As noted earlier, the writing was already on the wall, so it came as no surprise that The New Frontier was Highway 101’s one and only release for Liberty. It was also the band’s last recording for a major label. It is not essential listening and not particularly worth seeking out unless you are a completist music collector, in which case used copies can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: C

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfield last year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Week ending 10/24/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-Johnnie_Wright_19641955 (Sales): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): That Do Make It Nice/Just Call Me Lonesome — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Hello Vietnam — Johnnie Wright (Decca)

1975: Hope You’re Feelin’ Me (Like I’m Feelin’ You) — Charley Pride (RCA)

1985: You Make Me Want To Make You Mine — Juice Newton (RCA)

1995: She’s Every Woman — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2005: Better Life — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2015: Strip It Down — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Lose My Mind — Brett Eldredge (Atlantic)

Spotlight Artist: Toby Keith

toby-keith-1Our October spotlight artist is one of the few remaining commercial links to the 1990s and one who arguably was the face of country music during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Toby Keith Covel was born in Clinton, Oklahoma on July 8, 1961. His interest in music was sparked during summers spent with his grandmother, who owned a supper club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He played football in high school and played semi-professionally after graduation. During that time he was also a member of the Easy Money Band, which played in local bars, but the oil industry, where he worked as a derrick hand, paid the bills.

Covel dropped his surname for professional purposes and moved to Nashville in 1990, with the goal of obtaining a recording contract by his 30th birthday. With the self-imposed deadline looming, Keith was about to give up and return to Oklahoma, when he was signed to Mercury Records by Harold Shedd. His first single for the label, “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” quickly climbed to #1. He spent the next five years being shuffled around between Mercury and its sister labels Polydor and A&M. His records consistently made the Top 10 and he regularly achieved platinum level sales, yet he struggled to stand out from a pack that was dominated by artists such as Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt.

All of that would change when Keith left Mercury in 1998 to sign with the fledgling DreamWorks Nashville label. The following year he released his breakthrough single, the in-your-face “How Do You Like Me Now”, which he had co-written with Chuck Cannon some years earlier, but Mercury had not let him record. The suits at DreamWorks also had some reservations, but they quickly abated when the record spent five weeks at #1 in the spring of 2000.

Keith became a label exec himself, founding the Show Dog Nashville imprint when DreamWorks closed its doors in 2005. Show Dog Nashville has since merged with Universal South and is now known as Show Dog-Universal Music. By this time, Toby’s bombastic personality and his political views were beginning to overshadow his music. His response to the events of September 11, 2001, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” played to country music’s conservative base and earned him the contempt of the political left, as did 2003’s pro-military “American Solider”. Both records were multi-week #1s, and eventually led to a very bitter public feud with The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines.

Although radio has cooled towards Toby Keith in the past few years, he remains one of country music’s most visible and prolific artists. His latest album 35 MPH Town, will be released on October 9th, providing us with the opportunity to look back at Toby’s career so far.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B