My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Garth Brooks

Week ending 1/6/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales): Great Balls of Fire — Jerry Lee Lewis (Sun) 

1958 (Disc Jockeys): The Story of My Life — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1968: For Loving You — Bill Anderson & Jan Howard (Decca)

1978: Take This Job and Shove It — Johnny Paycheck (Epic)

1988: Somewhere Tonight — Highway 101 (Warner Bros.)

1998: Longneck Bottle — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2008: Our Song — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018 (Airplay): Like I Loved You — Brett Young (Big Machine)

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Week ending 12/30/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): My Special Angel — Bobby Helms (Decca)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): My Special Angel — Bobby Helms (Decca)

1967: For Loving You — Bill Anderson & Jan Howard (Decca)

1977Here You Come Again — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1987: Somewhere Tonight — Highway 101 (Warner Bros.)

1997: Longneck Bottle — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2007: Our Song — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2017: Meant to Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Warner Bros.)

2017 (Airplay): I’ll Name the Dogs — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 12/23/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): My Special Angel — Bobby Helms (Decca)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: For Loving You — Bill Anderson & Jan Howard (Decca)

1977Here You Come Again — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1987: Do Ya — K.T. Oslin (RCA)

1997: Longneck Bottle — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2007: Our Song — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2017: Meant to Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Warner Bros.)

2017 (Airplay): Light It Up — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Christmas Rewind: Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks – ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Gospel Roots’

Gene Watson has released a gospel album previously (Jesus Is All I Need, in 1997, repackaged under various titles since), but his new release in that vein is his best in a religious vein. Still a stunningly good singer belying his seven decades, he has selected some excellent songs, and avoided too much well worn material. The arrangements are as traditional country as one would expect from one of Gene’s secular records, and Dirk Johnson, who has been producing his music for some years, is in charge again this time.

The best song is the high lonesome ‘Fit For A King’, a story song about a homeless preacher, which was written by Jim Rushing and Carl Jackson, and previously recorded by a number of artists, most famously Garth Brooks. Gene’s version of this modern classic is tenderly observed and ornamented by beautiful harmonies from co-writer Jackson and the bluegrass singer Val Storey. Wonderful.

The promotional single, ‘Old Roman Soldier’ gives a voice to one of the soldiers present at the Crucifixion. A somber story with an inspirational twist, it is beautifully delivered by Gene, assisted again by Jackson and Storey. Another highlight is an exquisite reading of the emotional plea ‘Help Me’, which is repeated from Gene’s last album.

Some of the songs are old favorites which Gene remembers singing at church as a boy. The Southern Gospel hymn ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ is sung with careful sincerity. The beautiful ‘In The Garden’, another hymn from early 20th century America, gets a fuller more orchestrated arrangement.

The traditional ‘Swing Wide Them Golden Gates’ picks up the pace and is very catchy with some lively piano backing. Gospel standard ‘Satisfied’ is taken at a brisk pace. ‘Clinging To A Saving Hand’, another classic country gospel tune, is very nicely done.

‘Praying’ was originally written by Hazel Houser for the Louvin Brothers, and also recorded by Gene’s peer Vern Gosdin in the 80s. It is a sweet song about a sinner who is the subject of his poor mother’s prayers. ‘Til The Last leaf Shall Fall’ is an obscure Sonny James song which is pretty good.

‘Call Me Gone’ is a passionate ballad about longing for Heaven, which is a cover of a song by the Southern Gospel group The Hinsons. It features another outstanding vocal from Gene. The Isaacs provide harmonies on the Dottie Rambo-penned ballad ‘Build My Mansion (Next Door To Jesus)’, which is very pretty. ‘He Ain’t Gone For Good’, a new song co-written by producer Johnson, is a solid song about the Resurrection.

This album is thoroughly recommended to anyone who likes religious music.

Grade: A+

Week ending 12/16/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): My Special Angel — Bobby Helms (Decca)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You — Ray Price (Columbia)

1967: It’s the Little Things — Sonny James (Capitol)

1977Here You Come Again — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1987: The Last One to Know — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1997: From Here to Eternity — Michael Peterson (Reprise)

2007: So Small — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2017: Meant to Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Warner Bros.)

2017 (Airplay): Ask Me How I Know — Garth Brooks (Pearl)

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Garth Brooks – ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’

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)

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+