My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘One Good Well’

Don Williams released his first album on RCA Records, One Good Well, in April 1989. The album, produced as per usual by Garth Fundis, prolonged his career with a series of very successful radio offerings.

The title track, a mid-tempo love song composed by Mike Reid and Kent Robbins, was issued as the lead single. It was followed by Bob McDill’s “I’ve Been Loved By The Best,” a gently rolling ballad about a love for the ages. Both songs, of superior quality, peaked at #4.

The third single, “Just As Long as I Have You,” which covered similar ground both thematically and sonically, also peaked at #4. The song, written by Dave Loggins and J.D. Martin, had originally peaked at #72 when Loggins released his own version with Gus Hardin in 1985.

The fourth and final single, “Maybe That’s What It Takes,” was slightly slower and a bit more lush than its predecessors. It stalled at #22 despite a well-written lyric by Beth Nielsen Chapman.

“Learn To Let It Go” is a jaunty pace changer, written by Reid with Rory Bourke. The arrangement, accented with dobro and fiddle, feels so tailor made to Keith Whitley I had to double check he wasn’t one of the track’s co-writers. Williams, unsurprisingly, wears the style well.

He goes uptempo again on “Why Get Up,” co-written by Bill Carter and Ruth Ellsworth. The track, complete with honky-tonk piano and an ear-catching lyric, is reminiscent of “It Must Be Love.”

Williams himself contributed “Cryin’ Eyes,” a gorgeous ballad concerning the reasons couples drift apart. Another of his solely-written numbers, “We’re All The Way” is more optimistic, tackling the well-worn theme of commitment. “Broken Heartland,” by Gene Nelson, keeps the pace slow on a ballad about feeling deflated when love doesn’t work out.

McDill and Bucky Jones are responsible for the album’s final song, “Flowers Won’t Grow (In Gardens Of Stone).” The somber ballad is an excellent steel drenched number, one of the album’s best.

One Good Well is, like all of Williams’ albums, a masterful recording. There isn’t a flaw I can find among these ten songs. I don’t think I’ve encountered another artist who is truly this timeless. You can listen to a Williams recording of any era and feel like it was just recorded today. He is easily one of the most remarkable country singers I have ever heard.

But if I was going to nitpick, I would call out One Good Well for not being memorable enough to stand out. While every song is indeed excellent, there’s nothing truly transcendent among these ten tracks. It’s a slight criticism, which I won’t hold against him, that is worth noting. Only Williams could get away with not taking any chances.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Don Williams: ‘Traces’

Traces was the second of a pair of albums that Don recorded for Capitol during the mid-to-late 1980s.   He co-produced the set with Garth Fundis.  Never one to follow trends, Don began his solo career singing songs with simple, stripped down production in an era when countrypolitan, with its lush string sections and vocal choruses, ruled the day.   By the mid-80s Randy Travis had brought country music back to its roots, with most other mainstream artists following suit.    Don Williams chose this time, however, to release an album that delved a little further into the pop realm.  The difference in sound is sometimes subtle, as is the case on “I Wouldn’t Be a Man”, the sultry lead single that reached a #9 peak.   At other times, it is more pronounced; a prime example is his cover of “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore”.   Originally an R&B hit for Ben E. King in 1968, it was introduced to country audiences by Dottie West and Don Gibson in 1970. In 1990, Billy Joe Royal would take it to #2 on the country charts.  While it works well for a genre-straddling artist like Royal, it is a bit of a stretch for the usually traditional Don Williams. Even more of a stretch is the trainwreck that is “Running  Out of Reasons to Run”, a filler song written by Jim Rushing and Martin Gerald Derstine with a jarring horn section.   It was better suited for Sawyer Brown, who recorded their own version a year later, but it is not a good vehicle for Williams.   “Looking Back”, a 1950s-style pop song is better.

Fortunately there are also plenty of country songs on the album.  The detour into pop occurs about halfway through and is preceded by three solid country numbers and followed by three more.   One of the best is “Another Place, Another Time”, a Bob McDill-Paul  Harrison tune that was released as the album’s second single, peaking at #5.   It was followed by the excellent upbeat “Desperately”, written by Kevin Welch and Jamie O’Hara, which reached #7.  The poignant (and extremely well-written) piano and string ballad “Old Coyote Town”, about a small town that has fallen on hard economic times, was the fourth and final single, which also reached #5.   One minor quibble:  I would have made this the closing track instead of giving that designation to the pleasant but pedestrian “You Love Me Through It All”.   A rather sedate rendition of “Come From the Heart”, preceding Kathy Mattea’s hit version by two years, is a pleasant surprise.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could possibly point to Traces as the beginning of Don’s chart decline; it was his first album since 1974’s Volume Two not to produce at least one #1 hit, although the four singles all performed respectably.  According to Wikipedia, the album did not chart, which I find hard to believe considering that it produced four Top 10 hits.  It is a solid album that I enjoyed but due to a few missteps, I have to rank it a little lower than his earlier work.  It is available on a 2-for-1 CD along New Moves, Don’s other album for Capitol.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘New Moves’

Don’s last studio album for MCA, Café Carolina, was released in 1984, although the label continued t package compilations of his work for them for some years. He was still a consistent hit maker, but the label was keen to introduce new stars, and Don may have felt less well promoted than he had done previously, and in 1985 he signed a deal with Capitol Records. The first album for Capitol, released in January 1986, was appropriately entitled New Moves, although there were no significant changes in his music – he even retained an existing co-production partnership with Garth Fundis from his last MCA album. Half the album’s tracks ended up being promoted as singles, and all reached the top 10, proving that there was still a place for Don Williams at the top even as the younger neotraditionalists were sweeping other older artists aside.

The lead single, the Dave Loggins-penned ‘We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin’’, is a very nice love song about the comforts of a settled relationship, with a subtle arrangement, although there are unnecessary and slightly intrusive choir-style backing vocals in the second half of the song. It peaked at #3. The album’s biggest hit, the mid-paced ‘Heartbeat In The Darkness’ (another Loggins song, this time co-written with Russell Smith) was Don’s last ever chart topper, but has not worn very well, with production which now sounds a little dated, although the song itself is pleasant enough.

The pace lifts still further with the lively ‘Then It’s Love’, which peaked at #3. It was written by Dennis Linde, best known for writing Elvis’s ‘Burning Love’, and has a saxophone-dominated arrangement with Don trying out a bit of an Elvis impression at the end, which is quite fun and not typical of Williams’ usual music.

The mainly spoken story song ‘Senorita’, written by Hank De Vito and Danny Flowers, performed less well, but was still a top 10 hit. I found it rather boring. The final single, ‘I’ll Never Be In Love Again’ (written by Bob Corbin) reached #4. To my ears it is the best of the singles, a classic Don Williams gentle ballad about surviving (more or less) the loss of love, with a delicate accompaniment featuring flute and harmonica. Lovely.

A number of artists have recorded Bob McDill’s ‘Shot Full Of Love’ ranging from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (my favorite take) to Billy Ray Cyrus, but I don’t think it’s ever been the hit it deserves to be. It’s a very good song, but the lyric, about an outlaw type who has broken a lot of hearts in his time but is unexpectedly felled by love, doesn’t really fit Don’s good guy persona or smooth voice. It still makes pleasant listening, but is not entirely convincing. (The McCarters’ beautiful sounding version ha few years later had the same flaw.) Another McDill tune, ‘We Got Love’, is a pleasant love song but not very memorable.

‘Send Her Roses’, written by Pat McLaughlin, who plays mandolin on the track, is a perky number about abandoning a travelling life (with several allusions to other songs) for a settled home with the protagonist’s wife. It is highly enjoyable.

Don’s own ‘The Light In Your Eyes’ is a pretty romantic piano-led ballad, which is very nice indeed. The mid paced ‘It’s About Time’, another love song, is also pretty good.

Grade: B+

The album has been packaged with Don’s other Capitol album Traces on a 2-4-1 CD.

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Expressions’

Don Williams released his eighth album, Expressions, in August 1978. He co-produced the album, once again, with Garth Fundis.

Expressions contains three of Williams’ most iconic singles. “Tulsa Time,” written by Danny Flowers, is a honky-tonk barnburner that took Williams out of his signature sound with ease and sophistication. He was back in his comfort zone for the beautiful self-penned “Lay Down Beside Me,” one of his most beloved ballads. The final single, Bob McDill’s “It Must Be Love” was another gorgeous uptempo number. “Tulsa Time” and “It Must Be Love” hit #1 while “Lay Down Beside Me” peaked at #3.

The singles each have versions by other artists. Eric Clapton and Pistol Annies both have versions of “Tulsa Time” and Alan Jackson brought “It Must Be Love” back to #1 in 2000. Kenny Rogers lent his voice to “Lay Down Beside Me,” as did Alison Krauss, in an ill-advised duet with rock singer John Waite.

“I Would Like to See You Again” is a lovely mid-tempo ballad accented beautifully with gentle mandolin flourishes. “You’ve Got a Hold on Me,” about a love gone by, is an AC-leaning mid-tempo number with nice accents of steel.

“Tears of the Lonely” is a lush ballad with striking piano and ear-catching percussion. “All I’m Missing Is You” picks up the tempo nicely and tells the story of a guy who does the things he used to do with an old love, missing her all-the-while. “Give It to Me” is a nice, lush song about love. He showcases his exceptional talents as a vocalist on the masterful “When I’m With You,” one of the strongest of the album’s ten songs.

Expressions captures a master at the height of their prowess when the artistic and the commercial are in near perfect balance. He also won his only industry awards as a result of this album – CMA Male Vocalist of the Year (1978) and ACM Single Record of the Year (“Tulsa Time,” 1979).

Expressions is as close to a flawless album as I’ve ever heard, from an artist who has never hit a sour note in his career. It’s just an exceptional record through and through.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Somebody Loves You’

51jizvcqjml-_ss500After several years of struggling, Crystal Gayle finally enjoyed her breakthrough Top 10 hit with 1974’s “Wrong Road Again”. The two subsequent singles from her debut album both failed build on that success, however, which must have been cause for concern at the time. She rebounded nicely, however, with her sophomore album, which was released in 1975. “Somebody Loves You”, one of three tracks penned by producer Allen Reynolds, reached #8. The album’s second single, “I’ll Get Over You”, the first of several hits written for her by Richard Leigh, became her first chart-topper in early 1976. The simple melody and lyric, beautifully sung, has always been one of my favorites.

Somebody Loves You followed the same basic formula as Crystal’s prior album — more polished than the music that hardcore traditionalists like big sister Loretta were putting out — but still quite country in comparison to Crystal’s later work. Allen Reynolds’ songs are among the best in the collection: the traditional-leaning “Before I’m Over You” and the oft-recorded “Dreaming My Dreams With You” which was made famous by Waylon Jennings. Crystal branches out a bit with the bluesy “Sweet Baby On My Mind”, which sounds very similar to “Night Life”, a 1963 hit for Ray Price penned by Willie Nelson. “I Want To Lose Me In You” by Jim Rushing and Marshall Chapman is a pretty but lyrically light number. The same could be said about “High Time”, which is little more than catchy album filler, but Lloyd Green’s steel guitar gives it a little extra oomph. Crystal and her husband Bill Gatzimos wrote one track for the album, the pleasant but forgettable “Coming Closer”.

Somebody Loves You was an important album in Crystal Gayle’s discography. It finally set her on track for consistent commercial success; during the next decade only two of her singles missed the Top 10. The album is also notable for some of its session personnel: the aforementioned steel guitar great Lloyd Green and background vocalists Janie Fricke, who would go on to have a successful solo career of her own, and Garth Funds, who later became a famous producer for Keith Whitley and Trisha Yearwood, among others.

This is a good album for those who are interested in hearing Crystal’s music before she started enjoying crossover success.

Grade: A

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

When looking back, 2014 will be remembered as the year country music morphed into the biggest radio format in the land while pondering to never ending bro-country schlock and diminishing the efforts of solo female artists not named Miranda or Carrie. The genre also lost its biggest star, Taylor Swift, to world domination.

But I’ll remember a statistic far more puzzling. In the eighteen years I’ve been following the genre, I’ve never witnessed this big a turnover at the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart. How is it that seemingly every new male artist, either solo or in a group/duo, seems to be notching number one hits out of the gate? Everyone from Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Parmalee, and Maddie & Tae are routinely racking up chart topping singles without having to fight for their chance to land on playlists. Watching the Billboard Country Airplay chart these days has become more than ridiculous.

My choices, as usual, prove radio doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the story of quality country music in 2014. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but if you know where to look (Americana) the goods are definitely there.

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

After nine years of flexing their individual creative muscles, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile reunited to celebrate Nickel Creek’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The time apart has only made them a stronger unit together, which boosts well for this plucky romp led by Sara’s wailing lead vocal. She’s done with her man and leaves no doubt she’s moving on to bigger and better things.

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

519z2FHhvCL._SL500_AA280_Leave it to Crowell to have the strongest opening line to any song in recent memory – ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.’ The blistering lead single from Tarpaper Sky only gets better from there, led by distinctive electric guitar and Crowell’s brilliant lyric. After 38 years in the business he proves he’s still on top of his game with no signs of slowing down.

8. I’ll Be There In The Morning – Don Williams

2468428_20140212162413_199149415The reason it’s so difficult to write an authentic love song is because the imagery has become so overdone, it borders on disingenuous parody. Simple sentiments like “You complete me” or the straightforward “I love you” have become so commonplace in our society, they mean almost nothing anymore.

Don Williams and producer Garth Fundis smartly avoid those trappings by looking forty-six years in the past and resurrecting Townes Van Zant’s elegant promise to his woman – no matter what trials and tribulations may arise on our journey, I’ll be next to you each time the sun rises to greet another day. A woman couldn’t ask more from her man and we couldn’t ask more from Williams, who imparts this wisdom as a man of seventy-five reflecting on the devotion of long-lasting love.

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleFinally back to form, Bentley leaves alcohol and frat parties in the dust for a melancholy ballad about a man pleading with the woman who won’t commit to their relationship, even after he begs her to ‘let those words roll off your tongue.’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes – buy her drinks, force her to lie, heck he wants her to lead him on – but she just won’t budge. Bentley hasn’t been this satisfying in years.

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

PrintAn epic ballad about the bonds of friendship set over a weekend at an empty NASCAR track, “Talladega” expertly illustrates Church’s storytelling prowess through Jay Joyce’s delicate production. When Church is on, there isn’t a more interesting or enjoyable male country singer scoring major hits today.

5. Meanwhile Back At Mama’s – Tim McGraw Featuring Faith Hill

 Tim-McGraw-Meanwhile-Back-At-MamasYou have to go back seven years to find Tim McGraw’s last truly outstanding single, the military-inspired “If You’re Reading This.” After years of screaming for relevancy he surrenders the fight and returns to form with a gracefully constructed lyric about home and the important role of family in our lives.

4. California – Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11I couldn’t have willed this song to exist if I tried. ‘Can’t you hear California calling your name? A siren song, once you hear it, you’ll never be the same.’ Those nineteen words sum up exactly how I feel about the Golden State since visiting there repeatedly over the past few years. Foster has composed a stunner – part love story, part tourist battle cry.

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

 Kacey Musgraves’ genius lies in her ability to craft songs that on the surface seem littered with country clichés but are actually witty commentaries about the state of society as a whole. The two women depicted here may live in a trailer park, but they’re no different than any bickering neighbors setting up lives in suburbia. We all have that nosy neighbor, the one we wish would stay on their side of the fence and keep those damn mini-blinds closed.

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

2522282_20140722163600_696746334Even as far back as six years ago, country singers abided by the cardinal rule – balance. For every uptempo ditty, artists would release a slice of substance to give themselves credibility. That concept, thank goodness, hasn’t been lost on Owen. “What We Ain’t Got” is a classic example of the kind of song that would’ve been all over 90s country radio.

Without a dousing of steel, it’s an almost perfect record about humans innate nature to always be searching for something that leaves us only wanting more. The almost non-existent production allows Owen to lay down a powerfully naked vocal that hits the listener like a sermon to the soul. Kudos to Travis Meadows and Travis Jerome Goff for pulling off the near impossible and Owen for driving it home like he should.

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertAutomaticThe lead single from Platinum and CMA Single of the Year winner is without a doubt my favorite single of the year and easily a contender for one of the strongest country singles of the decade. Lambert, Nicolle Galyon, and Natalie Hemby have crafted a brilliant anthem capturing a shining testament to the days before social media, cell phones, and binge-watching overtook our lives.

There’s very little soul left in our modern world, a fact Lambert is thankfully self-aware enough to take to task. Even as a millennial, I’ll be 27 on Dec 31, I’m dying to get back to a time when media had half a brain and country music wasn’t run by rap influenced hooligans shamelessly flaunting their tatted up arms in tight wife beaters. The class is gone and without it, there’s nothing left. Lambert may have tamed her aggression, but she isn’t done standing up for what she believes in.

Single Review: Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson – ‘PrizeFighter’

PrizefighterArguably the most exciting news in country music this year was the recent announcement that Trisha Yearwood had inked a deal with RCA and was releasing a new single. “PrizeFighter” is her first single since 2008’s “They Call It Falling For A Reason”. It reunites her with her longtime producer Garth Fundis and with her pal Kelly Clarkson who provides harmony vocals on the track. The two had previously collaborated, along with Reba McEntire, on a recording of “Silent Night” for Clarkson’s 2013 Christmas collection.

I was so glad to hear that Yearwood was back, that the song itself almost didn’t matter to me. The tune, which was written by Jessi Alexander, Sarah Buxton, and Ross Copperman, is a midtempo empowerment anthem which stands as a metaphor for the uphill battle Trisha faces to get back on the charts and country radio. In lesser hands the overall “Yes, we can” message might sound trite. But her voice is as beautiful as ever, meshing well with Clarkson’s harmony vocals and that more than compensates for the lightweight lyrics. The production is tasteful, just layered enough to sound contemporary without being intrusive. It is not particularly country but Trisha was never a traditionalist. It is stylistically close enough to her big hits from the 90s that longtime fans will not be disappointed. It is in many ways, a play-it-safe choice, but that is understandable given the obstacles Yearwood faces as she attempts to relaunch her recording career.

The big question mark is whether country radio will welcome back into the fold a female artist whose last Top 10 hit was 13 years ago, and who turns 50 years old in a little more than two weeks’ time. If this record is successful, Yearwood will become one of a very select number of female artists to score a hit after the age of 50. This is presumably why the much younger Clarkson is credited as a featured guest, to appeal to younger audiences. Hopefully the strategy will work, because although “PrizeFighter” doesn’t rise to the level of Yearwood’s very best work, hers is still a voice that deserves to be heard. Hopefully we’ll be hearing much more from her in the near future.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘Pride – A Tribute to Charley Pride’

prideNeal McCoy has never been one of my favorite artists as his taste in material at times has been questionable. The Neal McCoy songs that I like, I tend to like quite a lot; the ones I dislike, I tend to really dislike. That said, I’ve seen him in concert and he is an excellent and quite high energy performer.

Neal was a protégé of sorts of Charley Pride and toured with Charley for a number of years. While there is very little of Charley’s influence in Neal’s singing, particularly in songs like “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On”, “24/7/365” and “The Shake” , Neal has always spoken highly of Charley Pride and of the positive influence Charley has been on his career

Until 2005, Neal had never recorded any of Charley’s songs. Then in 2005, he recorded a live duet with Charley on “You’re My Jamaica” that appeared on Neal’s That’s Life album. Since then, nothing more of Charley songs had been recorded – until now.

Given good material, Neal is a fine singer. Charley Pride, who was not himself a songwriter, recorded one of the greatest catalogues of songs during his long and successful career with RCA so it stands to reason that a Charley Pride tribute could prove to be an artistic success.

Neal does not attempt to clone Charley’s vocal style or song arrangements, a wise move since Charley Pride can truly be said to be inimitable. Moreover, Neal could never be described as a stone-cold traditionalist. Instead, Neal McCoy makes these songs over to fit his own singing style, updating some of the songs with a modern take on the traditionalist arrangements Charley used, and in other cases going for something entirely different. Neal wisely stays away from Charley’s “poor boy” songs, going mostly for Charley’s post-1970 songs.

Neal kicks off the album with a rockin’ version of “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone” that probably owes as much to Doug Sahm’s later version as to Charley’s version. Instead of the staccato violins of Charley’s rendition, harmonica tends to dominate this recording.

“I’m Just Me” was Charley’s second biggest hit. Neal gives it a pretty straight-forward vocal treatment, but the instrumental background is mixture of zydeco and country, which really works. That extra male voice you hear on this track is Raul Malo of the Mavericks.

It takes a brave man to tackle Charley’s signature song “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”. You don’t want to do a carbon copy of Charley’s arrangement, but since everyone with any interest in country music knows the song, you don’t want to take too many liberties with the song. Neal slows the song down very slightly and extends the song by allowing the musicians somewhat longer instrumental breaks than on the original recording which used short ‘turn-arounds’. Darius Rucker joins Neal on this track.

“Kaw-Liga” was Charley’s first #1 record reaching the top on Cash Box. The song, itself a cover of one of Hank Williams’ songs (the other side of Hank’s single was “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) is Neal’s only misstep on the record. The arrangement is a bit melodramatic and Neal can’t quite get Charley’s sound effects going vocally. It’s not a bad track (I’d give it a C+) but it’s not up to the rest of the album.

Most people have forgotten about “You’re So Good When You’re Bad”, one of Charley’s last #1 records from 1982. The song was about as close to R&B as Charley let his records get, and Neal relaxes the tempo a bit and gives in to that soulful R&B groove. Piano seems to be the predominant instrument on this track.

“It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer” had more twang to it than did any other major label single released in 1972. Released in late spring, radio stations everywhere played the song constantly, many playing it every hour as the pent up demand for real country sounds cascaded upon disk jockeys. The song spent three weeks at #1 with lead guitar, steel guitar and fiddles twanging away in unison through the choruses and instrumental breaks. Neal gives the song a very heavy-handed hard country approach but uses a more acoustic sound featuring harmonica, piano and dobro to achieve the effect. I love this recording.

Charley Pride focused on heart songs for much of his career, particularly after getting past the ‘poor boy’ classics of the mid to late 1960s. Rarely did he till the pastures of nostalgia, but when he did, he did so effectively. “Roll On Mississippi” from 1981 was one of those efforts. The song reached only #7 on Billboard, breaking a string of 35 consecutive songs to reach #1 on Billboard, Cashbox and/or Record World. It is, however, a nice song with Neal ably assisted by Trace Adkins.

“Just Between You And Me” was Charley Pride’s first chart hit reaching #9 in early 1967. Written by the legendary Jack Clement and released after a couple of singles that didn’t chart but were well received, it kicked off a long string of top ten records that wouldn’t end (excluding a gospel record and a special Dallas Cowboys tribute limited release) for the next 52 records. Neal gives the song a modern traditionalist treatment with piano and fiddle on the verses and tasteful steel guitar on the choruses and instrumental breaks. The relaxed tempo suits Neal’s voice well and the track is a standout.

“Mountain of Love” was written by Harold Dorman, who had a decent sized hit with the song in 1960 and enjoyed the royalties from a number of successful covers. This song is not necessarily identified as being a Charley Pride song so Neal’s somewhat rockin’ blues rendition isn’t likely to bother Charley’s fan too much.

“Someone Loves You Honey” is a quintessential Charley Pride heart song from 1978 which Neal pairs with a classic ‘Nashville Sound’ arrangement complete with steel guitar shadings and a rather languid delivery that suits the song perfectly. I consider this the best track on the album.

Neal closes out the album with his take on Charley’s #1 record from 1979, “You’re My Jamaica”. Charley’s take on the song had a very Caribbean feel to it and Neal has focused more heavily on the Caribbean elements of the song.

One thing that has changed since the time Charley Pride recorded these classics is the length of the tracks. Other than “You’re my Jamaica”, none of Charley’s recording ran more than 3:06 and most were in the 2:15 to 2:45 range. In contrast only two of these tracks are less than three minutes long, the shortest track being “It’s Gonna Take A little Bit Longer” at 2:46 (Charley’s version ran 2:35). On average Neal’s recordings are about 45 seconds longer than the Charley Pride originals.

Garth Fundis was the producer of this project which is fitting since he was a studio engineer on many of Charley’s earliest recordings. Between Neal’s vocals and Garth’s production, they have achieved what any tribute album should seek to achieve: a properly respectful but not imitative album chock full of good music. This album will stay in my CD player for quite a while.

Grade: A

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘In This Life’

inthislifeCollin Raye’s sophomore disc is slightly more polished and less neotraditional than his debut effort. John Hobbs returned to co-produce the album, this time with Garth Fundis, who replaced All I Can Be’s co-producer Jerry Fuller. The title track and lead single was an obvious — and successful — attempt to capitalize on the success of “Love, Me” and cement Raye’s reputation as a ballad singer. “In This Life”, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin spent two weeks at #1 in the autumn of 1992. It also reached #21 on the Adult Contemporary chart and might have been considered Raye’s career record had he not already recorded “Love, Me”.

If “In This Life” helped solidify Collin’s credentials as a balladeer, the next single “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” was meant to ensure that he didn’t get pigeonholed. The uptempo number has just a bit of a rock edge, but the vocal is a little shouty and it doesn’t quite work for me. It is my least favorite track on the album and possibly my least favorite of all of Raye’s singles. While it did not chart as high as the three records that preceded it, it managed to peak at a respectable #7. “Somebody Else’s Moon”, another ballad, saw him return to the Top 5, as did “That Was A River”, yet another ballad which is just a little too syrupy and one of the weakest tracks on the album.

It will come as no surprise to longtime readers that my favorite song on the disc is also its most traditional. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a suprisingly upbeat number about an unraveling relationship; Collin tells his soon-to-be ex:

When I gave you my heart, I gave it forever
But you can’t take it with you when you go.

The Texas two-step number was written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Chick Rains and features some excellent fiddling by Rob Hajacos. Stylistically, it would have been more at home on Collin’s first album. It should have been released as a single, and so should Hugh Prestwood’s “Latter Day Cowboy”, another one of my favorites from this collection.

The collection also includes a pair of remakes. Collin covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, which is a decent effort, but Raye is no Man In Black. His rendition of the pop standard “Let It Be Me”, which closes the album, is more suited to his voice.

Like its predecessor, In This Life earned platinum certification in the US and gold status in Canada. While not quite as good as his debut album, it is one of the stronger entries in his discography. Cheap copies are readily available and worth purchasing.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘And So It Goes’

In the eight years since Don Williams released My Heart To You he seemed to go comfortably into retirement. His warm baritone and mellow style, indicative of the 1970s and 1980s where he found major success, was far out of touch with the beer chugging and hot girl chasing boys who’d taken over country radio, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame aside, there was no real incentive to return.

So it’s a welcome surprise to see And So It Goes, Williams’ new ten-song collection out on Sugar Hill Records. Produced by his longtime wingman Garth Fundis (who should be hard at work on Trisha Yearwood’s next album), it comes across as a visit from an old friend, that never forgotten person from your past who you’re so glad to see again, someone who hasn’t changed a bit.

By sticking to the familiar, Williams has created an impressive collection of songs that perfectly display his distinct and mellow style, all wrapped in his warm baritone (an instrument that hasn’t shown any distinct wear and tear). Each of these songs would also stand up nicely against any of Williams’ classic recordings.

A few even rank among the strongest songs released this year. “I Just Come Here For The Music” a gorgeous duet with Alison Krauss, finds their voices blending effortlessly on a gentle weeper about a man in a barroom for the music, only to find a woman instead. “Hearts of Hearts,” enhanced by Vince Gill’s backing vocal, is a quiet reminder to live from truth and “She’s With Me” is the song every woman wants to hear from their man, a sentiment about true love.

And So It Goes abounds with relationship-centric tunes, from the lasting-love anthem “Infinity” to the out-of-love title track, a Williams co-write. “She’s A Natural” finds Williams pleased by everything his woman does and “Imagine That” finds him pining for a life he can visualize but one that hasn’t yet come true.

All are expertly crafted and treated with the respect they deserve, but framing them in the same mellow, dobro and fiddle heavy production can make the listening experience a bit dense and they tend to run together, hard to distinguish. That more than illuminates “Better Than Today” and “What If It Worked Like That,” noticeable for their driving guitar and use of drums.

“What If It Worked Like That,” is also the biggest breath of fresh air lyrically, somewhat of a sequel to his classic hit “I Believe In You.” He wonders aloud about his ideal version of the world, a place where beer would make a person thin and the world gave a little back after we’ve taken so much.

Both melodically and lyrically, it ranks with “I Just Come Here For The Music” as my favorite tracks on the project, both unique in nature from the rest of the album, and the two that have stuck with me the most.

All and all And So It Goes is another fine collection of songs and a stellar return from Williams, who in just under 36 minutes schools all of us in the creation of authentic and genuine country music. He could’ve, however, stood to vary the tempo a tad more, tapping into his “Tulsa Time” groove on more tracks. A more frequent change of pace would’ve helped the songs sink in deeper and keep from running together.

But nonetheless, this is still one of the top releases from 2012 and a suburb collection of songs.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sugarland – ”Twice The Speed Of Life’

Sugarland’s debut album burst on an unsuspecting world in October 2004. Produced by Garth Fundis with a bright and punchy modern sound, this is the only Sugarland album to feature former member Kristen Hall (on guitar and backing vocals). Third member Kristian Bush plays mandolin and another acoustic guitar, with additional vocals. The then trio also collaborated on writing most of the songs, but the dominating element is undoubtedly Jennifer Nettles’s strong and distinctive voice. It is thoroughly contemporary with obvious rock and pop influences, but the quality of the songwriting and singing is what makes it resonate.

The lively debut single, ‘Baby Girl’, written by the trio with Troy Bleser, is based around a young woman’s difficulties trying to make it in Nashville, and her eventual triumph, but what it is really about is a child’s love for her parents . The story unrolls through her letters home, with her first asking for money and then able to return the favor. The single was an instant success for the group, peaking at #2.

Also just missing the very top spot was the follow up, the vibrant ‘Something More’, which opens the album with a shouted “Come on“, as Jennifer launches into her frustration with an ordinary urban life and a boring job, declaring:

I could work my life away but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more

The third single was a Kristen Hall solo composition which is the best song on the album, the excellent ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, This powerful ode to the power of love to help through the hard times and to outlast doubts was another top 10 hit for the group, and has one of Jennifer’s finest vocal performances to date. It remains one of my favorite Sugarland recordings. My least favorite of the four singles was the up-tempo romp ‘Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)’ about breaking away from the domestic routine with some friends; this one is lacking in both melody and subtlety, but it has an undeniable energy.

The radio-friendly and rather poppy sounding ‘Tennessee’ was written by Hall and Bush with David Labruyere, and has a radio call-in request “from a boy in love to a girl called Tennessee” who he regrets having let slip away from his fear of commitment. It has a great vocal from Jennifer, and only the gimmicky name of the girl that mars the otherwise charming song.

The reflective ‘Hello’ sounds autobiographical, with a wistful almost folky feel to its reminiscences of young love and youthful surroundings revisited; I can imagine the band’s fellow Georgian Trisha Yearwood (also often produced by Fundis) covering this successfully. ‘Fly Away’ was written by Bush and Hall with Corri English and Billy Gewin (probably while they were still based in Atlanta), and expresses the restlessness of a dissatisfied small town girl who wants to make her own path in life. The gentle acoustic ‘Small Town Jericho’ offers a fonder and more reluctant farewell to childhood surroundings with Jennifer stretching out the word goodbye until it is almost un recognisable at times. Kristen and Jennifer’s catchy ‘Speed Of Life’, which provides the album title, is an older woman’s reminiscences about a runaway teenage marriage with a happy ending:

It’s hard to slow it down when it feels so right…
We’re travelling at twice the speed of life

The closing track ‘Stand Back Up’ is a dignified acoustic ballad about resilience in the face of adversity:

I’ve been beaten up and bruised
I’ve been kicked right off my shoes
Been down on my knees more times than you’d believe
When the darkness tries to get me
There’s a light that just won’t let me
It might take my pride and tears may fill my eyes
But I’ll stand back up

The only song I don’t really care for on this album is ‘Time, Time. Time’, which is a little dull, but overall this was a very strong debut. It stretches the boundaries of country music, but in a palatable way. The album appealed to country listeners as much as the singles did to radio programmers, and it has been certified triple platinum. It is also, as noted above, the only evidence of Sugarland as a trio rather than today’s duo, as Kristen Hall left the group in December 2005, before they returned to the studio.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love’

Following 2001’s Inside Out, Trisha Yearwood took a four-year break from recording, before reuniting with longtime producer Garth Fundis for 2005’s somewhat lackluster Jasper County. Two singles were released from that collection; both failed to crack the Top 10, though the album did sell enough copies to earn gold certification. Shortly thereafter Yearwood signed with the newly-formed Big Machine Records, ending a sixteen-year stint with MCA Nashville. When an artist leaves the label where he or she scored his or her greatest achievements, it can mark the beginning of a period of renewed vigor or the beginning of declining commercial fortunes. In Trisha’s case, both are true; 2007’s Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is the finest album of her career, but unfortunately, it is also her least commercially successful.

The album opens with the title track and lead single, an uptempo rockabilly number with a dash of blues and gospel, reminiscent of the type of song The Judds had become known for two decades earlier. It seemed like the perfect vehicle to reestablish Yearwood at country radio, and with the heavy promotion expected for a debut single on a new label, it seemed assured to become a smash hit, but surprisingly it stalled at #19.
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Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Where Your Road Leads’

It’s somewhat surprising that Trisha Yearwood never had any major crossover success, considering that much of her material seems to have been tailored to appeal to listeners outside the country market. However, in an era when hits by her contemporaries Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride were climbing the pop and adult contemporary charts, Yearwood’s success was strictly limited to the country charts. After five successful albums with Garth Fundis, she teamed up with Tony Brown, with whom she shared production duties on ten of the eleven tracks of her sixth release. The result, 1998’s Where Your Road Leads, found her mostly moving further in a mainstream pop direction, with a few play-it-safe nods to country radio.

The change in producers was barely noticeable in the first single release, the mid-tempo “There Goes My Baby”. Similar in style to her previous single “Perfect Love”, and virtually indistinguishable from much of Trisha’s work with Garth Fundis, “There Goes My Baby” climbed to #2 in May of 1998. It was followed by the somewhat overblown title track, which despite being hyped as “the” duet with Garth Brooks and produced by Brooks’ producer Allen Reynolds, “Where Your Road Leads” is a Yearwood vehicle, with Brooks solely in a supporting role and never taking the lead vocal. Written by Victoria Shaw and Desmond Child, it had less chart success than the previous Yearwood-Brooks collaboration, the prior year’s #2 hit “In Another Eyes”. Despite the obvious star-power of both both performers, “Where Your Road Leads” peaked at #18.

Yearwood returned to the Top 10 with the album’s third single, the fiddle and steel charged and somewhat fluffy “Powerful Thing”, which reached #6. Despite its lightweight lyrics, it is one my favorite tracks on the album. The fourth and final single release, Diane Warren’s “I’ll Still Love You More” appears to be an attempt to recreate the success of the previous year’s “How Do I Live”. However, “I’ll Still Love You More” is a bit too saccharine for my taste, and despite having reached #10 on the charts, it is one of the more forgettable hits in Trisha’s catalog.

Like the singles, the album cuts are somewhat hit or miss. The dreamy-sounding “Never Let You Go Again” is rather tedious and my least favorite song on the entire album. “I Don’t Want To Be The One”, written by Carole King and Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady, is also a bit lackluster. The pop-leaning “Heart Like A Sad Song”, however, is a standout, as is my favorite track among the non-singles, “Bring Me All Your Lovin'”, written by Doyle Primm, Allison Moorer and Kenny Greenberg.

Overall, Where Your Road Leads is an uneven effort, dull at times, with occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s worth noting, however, that Trisha’s magnificent vocal performance often overcomes the sometimes mediocre material. Nevertheless, it doesn’t rank among her best work.

Where Your Road Leads reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, and was the last Trisha Yearwood album to earn platinum certification. It is available inexpensively from third-party sellers at Amazon.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Everybody Knows’

After four fine albums, Trisha’s fifth effort, released in 1996, was a bit of a disappointment for me. She was in her usual fine vocal form and Garth Fundis produced as usual, but the record overall feels just a little too tasteful at times. The overall mood leans towards AC, and is rather ballad-heavy with a few nods to radio.

The lead single was the radio-friendly ‘Believe Me Baby (I Lied)’, written by Kim Richey, Angelo, and Larry Gottlieb, which hit #1. The bright production belies the regret-filled lyric and passionate vocal as the protagonist admits she never really wanted her man to leave.

It was followed by the broadly similar #3 hit ‘Everybody Knows’, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, with the protagonist this time fighting with all her friends and family members’ well-intentioned advice about how to cope with her broken heart. Opening track ‘I Want To Live Again’ fits into the same sophisticated mid tempo contemporary radio friendly template with broad commercial appeal.

The third single, ‘I Need You’, flopped in the 30s. The downbeat ballad about a neglected wife pleading for her husband’s renewed attention is a fine song with a beautifully delivered vocal, but it was perhaps a little too subtle or bitter for casual listeners as she comments,

The television seems to be your life’s ambition

And begs for a return to:

That boy
The one that chose me over every other choice

I like all the singles, but my favorite track is the Kevin Welch story song ‘Hello, I’m Gone’, a fiddle-led number about a woman leaving a man in Texas with nowhere particular in mind to go, and nothing but one suitcase, a broken down pickup truck, and a gun:

Man, she’s just running
It don’t matter where
She figures she’ll know where she is when she’s there
And she didn’t leave nothin’ she can’t do without
That’s enough reason for leavin’ no doubt
She turns down the window, turns up a song
Laughs at the weather and says
Hello, I’m gone

Almost as good is the delicately sung AC ballad ‘Maybe It’s Love’, written by Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman about the uncertain feelings at the start of falling in love with someone after a period of having frozen her heart. Trisha’s lead vocal and Vince Gill’s harmony are exquisite.

The other highlight is the bitter ‘A Lover Is Forever’, written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. This is a rejected lover’s diatribe against the man who is leaving her to wed another:

You think a ring upon your hand
Will solve your insecurity…

I know you think you’re so damn clever
You can marry any time you want
But a lover is forever

There is little overt to criticize with the remainder of the material, but it tends to blend together rather. Songs like the soothing ‘It’s Alright’, written by Jamie O’Hara and Gary Nicholson, with husband Robert Reynolds’ Mavericks bandmate Raul Malo on harmony, and ‘Little Hercules’ are the epitome of tasteful production, beautiful singing and thoughtful lyrics that somehow manage to end up less than the sum of their parts. A little more interesting is ‘Under The Rainbow’, written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs about finding domestic contentment in the real world.

The international version of this album boasted three additional tracks, the delicately sung portrait of ‘Even A Cowboy Can Dream’, the boring ‘Find A River’, and the cheery up-tempo ‘The Chance I Take’ (my favorite of the three), but none of these really adds substantially to the album.

The album is easily and cheaply available.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Thinkin’ About You’

Released in February 1995, Trisha Yearwood’s follow-up to the platinum-selling The Song Remembers When is in some respect a back-to-basics project. Like its predecessor, Thinkin’ About You is highly polished, though not overproduced, and allows Yearwood to kick up her heels just a bit more than the ballad-heavy Song Remembers When.

Garth Fundis once again assumes production duties, with Harry Stinson acting as co-producer on the album’s advance single, “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl).” Written by Matraca Berg and Alice Randall, “XXX’s and OOO’s” became Trisha’s second #1 hit, and her first since her debut single “She’s In Love With the Boy” nearly four years earlier. MCA had stopped promoting The Song Remembers When after sending only two singles to radio. “XXX’s and OOO’s” raced up the charts more quickly than anyone expected, leaving the label with somewhat of a dilemma when there was no album ready to cash in on the single’s success. Five months after “XXX’s and OOO’s” reached the top spot in Billboard, an album was finally released. Fortunately, the delay did not result in any loss of sales momentum, thanks to the success of the title track, which was released as the album’s second single. It also reached #1.

The next single, a cover of Melissa Etheridge’s “You Can Sleep While I Drive” didn’t fare as well on the charts, stalling at #23. It’s somewhat similar to Trisha’s earlier hit “Walkaway Joe”, and perhaps for that reason it didn’t have a lot of traction at radio. Or perhaps there were too many other ballads on the charts at the time; at any rate, it is one of the album’s highlights, beautifully sung and tastefully produced, and it deserved more attention than it received.

Trisha returned to the Top 10 with “I Wanna Go Too Far” which reached #9. This is one of those songs that is forgotten as soon as it falls off the charts; I didn’t even remember that it had been a single until I started preparing for this review. The album’s fourth and final single, a cover of Gretchen Peters’ “On A Bus To St. Cloud” died at #59, becoming the first Trisha Yearwood single to peak outside the Top 40. A critical favorite, it is a well-crafted record that was probably a poor choice for a single. Piano led, and with a string section provided by The Nashville String Machine, it’s not the type of song that historically has done well at country radio. However, Yearwood and MCA deserve some credit for thinking outside the box and sending an atypical choice to radio.

Travel is a recurring theme throughout this album — by car, as seen in “You Can Sleep While I Drive”, by bus as seen in “On A Bus To St. Cloud”, and by train on “O Mexico”, which would have been one of my choices for a single release. The production is understated, and Trisha resists falling into the trap of oversinging. One can easily imagine this song being performed more loudly and bombastically by, say, Faith Hill or Martina McBride, but Yearwood’s subtle interpretation is extremely effective in conveying the protagonist’s sense of loneliness and solitude to the listener.

On several occasions, The Song Remembers When came dangerously close to adult contemporary territory. The production on Thinkin’ About You is just as glossy, but it finds Trisha more firmly in the country camp. This is most evident on the tracks “The Restless Kind”, which is my favorite on the album, and the album closer, a tasteful cover of the Tammy Wynette classic “Till I Get It Right”, which resurfaced a few years later when it was included on a tribute album following Wynette’s death. It was one of a few standouts on that somewhat disappointing collection, and it is the perfect note on which to end Thinkin’ About You.

Though its singles performed inconsistently at radio, Thinkin’ About You did well at retail, reaching #3 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, and earning platinum certification for sales in excess of one million units. It is still widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.


Grade: A-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Trisha Yearwood’

To kick off our run-down of Trisha Yearwood’s albums, here’s a guest contribution from long-time friend of My Kind of Country, Michael Allan. Stay tuned for more on Trisha Yearwood this month. – J.R. Journey

Produced by Garth Fundis and released on the premier country label of the 90s, MCA, Trisha Yearwood’s eponymous debut album is also her most commercially successful studio release. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, #31 on the all-genre Billboard 200 and is certified double platinum. It also served as an excellent predictor of what was to come over the next couple of decades and remains one of the strongest debut albums ever released by a masterful song interpreter.

The album kicks off with her debut single, “She’s in Love with the Boy” which rocketed to the top of the charts, making Yearwood only the second female to ever score a #1 hit with her debut single. Driven by an instantly memorable chorus, “She’s in Love with the Boy” is an up-tempo story song about the small town love of Katie and Tommy. Rejected by Kenny Rogers before finding its way to Yearwood, I can’t think of a better example of the right song finding the right artist. An immediate classic, it unfortunately also seems to be the only memory many radio stations seem to have of her catalogue today. Too bad; they’re missing out on the more than 100 great songs that followed this track over the next 20 years and will be reviewed as Trisha Yearwood month continues at MKoC.

Fourth single and second track on the album, “The Woman Before Me”, covers the effect the titular character has had on our vocalist’s man. With a slight AC feel to it, Yearwood’s voice is in fine form and “The Woman Before Me” is fairly representative of what many of her ballad hits sound like.  The third track was also the album’s third single. “That’s What I Like About You” is a fun number, sort of like the lyrics of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” meeting the sound of Yearwood’s own “Wrong Side of Memphis”.

The second single released from the album is up next. Written by Pat Alger and Garth Brooks, with the latter also singing background vocals, “Like We Never Had a Broken Heart” is a tender, piano laden love song. As a listener, one might even feel like they’re intruding on something sexy. Perhaps a sign of what lay ahead for the future couple?

Co-written by Hal Ketchum and one of the most commercially successful songwriters of the decade (and whose well she would revisit later), Kostas, “Fools Like Me” is a bluesy, smoldering piece that I can almost envision Yearwood singing in a smoky lounge somewhere. The song has the vibe of a torch song from another era.

Written by Brooks and Mark D. Sanders, “Victim of the Game” rivals Brooks’ own version from his No Fences album. The aspects of heartbreak are universal and there’s a twist at the end a la Tanya Tucker’s “It Won’t Be Me”. The themes are classic, but Yearwood sells them as new.  “When Goodbye Was a Word” is a ballad with a dreamlike, fantastical essence to it and the clarity of Yearwood’s voice is impressive.

In “The Whisper of Your Heart” Yearwood’s powerhouse vocals again sell some rather unremarkable lyrics. They’re good, but in lesser hands, the song’s common “Daddy/Grandpa/Bartender/Wise Old Man Told Me So” theme might fall flat.

After the feisty “You Done Me Wong (And That Ain’t Right)”, “Lonesome Dove” closes the album. The track is a final display of Yearwood’s ability to sing with conviction, perfect tone and pitch and to go from whisper to full throttled wail in a matter of seconds.

Recorded in 1990 and released in the summer of 1991, it’s hard to believe that Trisha Yearwood was only in her mid twenties at the time of her debut. The astounding control of her instrument on some well-chosen songs is a pretty good description of Trisha Yearwood’s career. This was only the beginning.

Grade: B+

The album is still widely available at amazon.