My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gary Burr

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Borderline’

Released in March 1987, Borderline marked Conway’s return to MCA after five year interlude with Elektra/Warner Bros. Frankly, other than the Lost In The Feeling album, I really had consistently disliked his recent output.

I received this album as a birthday present in April 1987. While I had high hopes for a return to the earlier Twitty sound my hopes were dashed when I read the back of the album and saw the following:

Musicians:

James Stroud – Drums
Emory Gordy, Jr. – Bass
John Jarvis – Piano
David Innis, Mike Lawler – Keyboards
Richard Bennett – Acoustic Guitar
Reggie Young, Fred Newll – Electric Guitar
Background Harmonies – Vince Gill and Conway Twitty

That’s right – no John Hughey, or any other steel guitar player for that matter.

My expectations suitably lowered I put the album on the turntable and played it. The album opened up with the first single release, John Jarvis-Don Cook song “Julia” which topped out at #2. This song is bland 80s ballad with cocktail lounge production. The song itself is not bad, but the production ruins it for me.

Brent Mason and Jim McBride collaborated on “Lonely Town”, a mid-tempo song about a one night stand. I would have picked this song as for single release. By the standards of this album, this was a country song

She gave into him last night
She thought he was Mr. Right
But he left like all the others
Before the morning came around

Same old story in lonely town
The sun comes up, the heart goes down
She’s tried everything she knows

Come so far and yet so close
She keeps searching for the magic
But it’s nowhere to be found
But that’s how it is in lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone

The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone
The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

Track three was “I Want To Know Before We Make Love” by Candy Parton and Becky Hobbs. Good advice no doubt – no point getting involved with a sociopath – but I think this song works better from the femine perspective. This song also reached #2.

Track four is the title track “Borderline” a decent song marred by cheesy 80s production. Walt Aldridge wrote this song. He wrote several #1 records for the likes of Earl Thomas Conley, Ronnie Milsap, Alabama and Travis Tritt.

Track five (the last track on side one of the vinyl album) concludes with “Not Enough Love To Go Around”  a slow R&B ballad that is nice but ultimately uninteresting.

Track six is “Snake Books”, written by Troy Seals. Troy wrote many great songs, but this wasn’t one of them. This is followed by “I’m For A While” by Kent Robbins, a generic song about a man who swears that he is not looking for a one night stand.

Most songs written by committees stink, but “Fifteen To Forty-Three” by Don Goodman, Frank Dycus, Mark Sherrill and John Wesley Ryles is a terrific ballad about a fellow sorting through a box of memories and regrets. This has a very country feel to it and would have made a great single.

<blockquote>I just cut the string
On a dusty old shoe box
And opened a door to the past
Now I’m sittin’ here with my souvenirs
And these faded old photographs.

Fightin’ back tears
Lookin’ back through the years
And wonderin’ why dreams fade so fast
Now the young boy I see
Don’t look like the me
Reflected in this old looking glass.

The man in the mirror
Sees things so much clearer
Than the boy in the pictures
With his eyes full of dreams
Oh, the men that I’ve tried to be
From fifteen to forty-three
Never believed that they’d end up like me.

The ninth track “Everybody Needs A Hero” was written by Troy Seals and Max D Barnes. It’s a great song that Gene Watson released as a single. Although Conway does a nice job with the song, it is not quite as nice as Gene’s version (I like the production on Gene’s record better).

The album closes with Gary Burr’s “That’s My Job”, the last single released from this album. The single reached #6 but deserved a better fate. It is one of the best songs Conway ever recorded

I woke up crying late at night
When I was very young.
I had dreamed my father
Had passed away and gone.
My world revolved around him
I couldn’t lay there anymore.
So I made my way down the mirrored hall
And tapped upon his door.

And I said “Daddy, I’m so afraid
How will I go on with you gone that way?
Don’t want to cry anymore
So may I stay with you?”

And he said “That’s my job,
That’s what I do.
Everything I do is because of you,
To keep you safe with me.
That’s my job you see.”

Borderline was one of Conway Twitty’s last big hit albums, reaching #25, higher than any subsequent Conway Twitty studio album would reach. There are some good songs on this album, but the filler truly is filler and the production sounds as phony as most late 1980s country production. This album is somewhere between a C and a C+.

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘I Turn The Page’

After leaving RCA, Don released a pair of albums on independent label American Harvest Records. He then moved to Giant, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, and released this album for them in 1998. It was produced by label president Doug Johnson, a longterm fan who had taken the decision to sign the artist after being enthralled by his performance at the Nashville Songwriters Association International Banquet. While the sad reality was that Don was too old at 59 for country radio to be prepared to pay any attention, the album was well received by critics.

There was one, non-charting single, the sweet, upbeat story song ‘Cracker Jack Diamond’, written by Ronny Scaife and Neil Thrasher abut a true love which develops from a meeting at the age of 14. Recorded by, say George Strait, this would have been a surefire hit. At the other end of life, ‘Harry And Joe’ is a sympathetic portrait of two old men who are both widowed just after moving to Florida to retire, and become best friends.

David Hanner’s ‘Pancho’ is about impending mortality, but with characters inspired by the 1950s children’s TV western ‘The Cisco Kid’. Hanner and his partner in the Corbin/Hanner Band, Bob Corbin, wrote ‘How Did You Do It’, addressed to an ex who is coping better with the breakup than the protagonist.

Don revived Tony Arata’s ‘A Handful Of Dust’, which will be familiar to Patty Loveless fans. Don’s version is much lower key and less forceful, with a nice folky feel. The two versions are different enough that they don’t really compete with one another, but it certainly suits Don.

He co-wrote one song with Gary Burr and Doug Johnson, ‘I Sing For Joy’, a touching tribute to Joy, his wife of almost 40 years. A very pretty melody and tasteful string arrangement provide the right setting for the autobiographical lyrics and sincere vocals. The song provides the album title.

On a similar theme, Johnson’s song ‘Her Perfect Memory’ is a sweet and lightly amusing tribute to a wife of many years:

I remember how we struggled
When we first started out
She recalls we had it all
Not what we did without
I think back on those hard times
She remembers only love
Who am I to say that’s not
Exactly how it was?

That’s how she remembers it
She was the lucky one
Just take a look at both of us
And you tell me who won
If she thinks I hung the stars
If that’s what she believes
Then who am I to tamper with
Her perfect memory….

If I made all her dreams come true
As far as she can see
Who am I to tamper with
Her perfect memory?

He also wrote ‘Ride On’, an interesting song about childhood innocence challenged by parental failures:

Some people just lose control,
Some people hit overload
Some people act like some people
They never thought they’d be
So why can’t we all see
The only antidote
The only way to cope
The only true hope is love

Gary Burr and Don Schlitz wrote ‘From Now On’, a thoughtful ballad about baggage and finding love late in life. ‘Take It Easy On Yourself’, written by Bill La Bounty and Steve O’Brien, is my favorite track. A laid back tune combining a love song with advice about not making life too stressful, with a soothing melody and tasteful strings, it is rather lovely.

A cover of Scottish folk-pop-rock duo Gallagher & Lyle’s ‘Elise Elise’ Is okay in its way but not really classic Don Williams. Kevin Welch’s ‘Something ‘Bout You’ is more successful, catchy and charming.

This is definitely a mature album, and a very good one.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Revelations’

Wynonna_Judd_-_RevelationsIn the three years between Tell Me Why and Revelations, Wynonna took a much-deserved break in which she scandalously had a child out of wedlock and was four months pregnant with another when she finally married their father. She was absent from radio for the entirety of 1995, a first since she debuted twelve years earlier.

In January 1996, Wynonna put the focus back on her music. She launched her return with the Gary Burr and Mike Reid penned “To Be Loved By You,” a lush yet masterful ballad. The song quickly topped the charts and put her back in the good graces of the country music mainstream.

The only problem was Revelations was unlike anything Wynonna had recorded to date. Gone was the straightforward country she brought to her other solo albums. She instead gifted us with an ambitious album that embraced not only a spiritual longing, but also the bluesy rock she’d hinted at with “No One Else on Earth.”

Country radio didn’t have a place for the record and the subsequent singles began her downward trend. I’ve always adored “Heaven Help My Heart,” and despite its length, thought it deserved to peak higher than #14. She covered similar territory on the R&B tinged “My Angel Is Here,” which peaked at #44 despite having zero country bonafides. She turned up the electric guitars on the fiery “Somebody To Love You” and had even less success. The single peaked at #55.

Wynonna fully surrendered to her gospel tendencies on her revelatory cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which came from a tribute album released two years earlier. She also succeeds brilliantly with her version of “Change The World.” The pop classic would have its due via Eric Clapton that summer although Wynonna recorded and released her version first.

“Love By Grace” is a sparse ballad that puts her voice front and center. “Don’t Look Back” follows the same trajectory, but with flourishes of steel guitar throughout, is the album’s biggest missed opportunity. If it had been released as a single, it likely would’ve faired much better with country radio than “My Angel Is Here” ever could have.

“Old Enough To Know Better” is straight bluesy rock with an arrangement better suited for the stage than the recording studio. “Dance, Shout” is in the same vein and lets Wynonna take her voice to places it hadn’t yet been.

If you listen to Wynonna’s vocal performances from her earliest Judd recordings until now (1996 in this case), you’d hear an artist coming into her own by discovering the booming grit deep down in her soul. Revelations was the first time she gave into it fully on a record and the results were spectacular. This isn’t a country album by any stretch of imagination, which is a good thing because it allows her to grow into her own as an artist. This is the style that separates the music of Wynonna from that of The Judds. She’ll always be the singer of simple country songs. That will never go away. But Revelations proves she can also be so much more.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Jo Dee Messina’

jo dee messinaThis album is one of those that has stuck with me over the years, even thou the herself artist didn’t. That’s not usual in that many artists have one great album or perhaps a few great songs in them or have managed to accumulate a few great songs from other sources. After that they struggle to find material.

For instance I always regarded the debut albums of Clint Black, Randy Travis and Charley Pride as being their best albums (of course these three went on to much further success). Others have been but a flash in the pan.

Jo Dee falls somewhere between long term super star and flash in the pan. Thus was not her most successful album (subsequent albums received more promotional push from Curb), but song for song, I think it is her strongest album.

The album opens with Jo Dee’s second single, “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore”, a Zack Turner – Tim Nichols composition which reached #7. A mid-tempo ballad and a bit of a cautionary tale, well sung.

He said “I grew up in Wichita
In a Mayberry kind of town”
He never liked overalls
Or haulin’ hay ’til sundown
He said he dreamed about L.A.
As he plowed away the day on an old John Deere
I said “Boy let me warn you
In southern California there’s some fast trains here”

You’re not in Kansas anymore
Can’t be too careful that’s for sure
City lights will led you on
Morning comes and they’ll be gone
So write my number on your wall
You can call me anytime at all
I’m so happy now boy
You’re not in Kansas anymore

Next up is “On A Wing and A Prayer”, written by Walt Aldridge and Jo Dee about a relationship that is unraveling. This tune is another mid-tempo ballad.

“He’d Never Seen Julie Cry’ comes from redoubtable songsmiths Leslie Satcher and Max T Barnes. THis song is about a relationship untended too long, a slow ballad that was the fourth single from the album, reaching #64.

His heart was tougher than a piece of leather
Had a will carved out of stone
He was stallion who had thrown every rider
No woman could seem to hang on
He didn’t know that it was over
He thought, he could make it right
But then again, he’d never seen Julie cry

He never thought that love would hit him
Like a train comin’ out of the dark
He never thought a friend would hand him back
The keys to his own heart

“Do You Wanna Make Something of It” comes from the pens of Terry Anderson and Bob DiPiero. This is both the first track on the album in which the steel guitar prominently figures into the mix and the first up-tempo song on the album. This song was released as the third single on the album and only reached #53, which at the time stunned me as I thought it had top ten written all over it. It did reach #29 on the Canadian country charts. This may be Jo Dee’s best vocal performance on the album.

There’s a little bitty flame burnin’ deep in my heart
You wanna make something of it?
Oh, do you feel the same, maybe just a little spark?
You wanna make something of it?
Do you wanna turn it into somethin’
That’s a burnin’ like a ragin’ fire out of control?
Well, I’m waitin’ for you tell me what you wanna do
You wanna make something of it?

“Let It Go” by Jamie Kyle, Ron Bloom, and Will Rambeaux, is a mid-tempo philosophical ballad ballad about moving on after the end of a relationship. Not bad but nothing special.

“Heads Carolina, Tails California”, a Tim Nichols – Mark D. Sanders was Jo Dee’s debut single and for my money, her best song. The song went to #1 at radio stations throughout the mid-Atlantic area and reached #2 on Billboard’s national country chart, #3 on the Canadian country chart and also hit Billboard’s all-genre Hot 200 at #111. The song is an up-tempo semi-rocker in which the narrator just wants to get out of town and head somewhere else – anywhere will do as long as her lover comes with her.

Baby, what do you say, we just get lost
Leave this one horse town like two rebels without a cause
I’ve got people in Boston, ain’t your daddy still in Des Moines ?
We can pack up tomorrow, tonight, let’s flip a coin

Heads Carolina, tails California
Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer
Up in the mountains, down by the ocean
Where it don’t matter, as long as we’re goin’
Somewhere together, I’ve got a quarter
Heads Carolina, tails California

“Walk To The Light” written by Walt Aldridge is not a religious song but it has something of a religious feel to it. The song is a medium fast ballad about moving forward after a breakup

I’ve never been one to believe much in ghosts
But to tell you the truth now, my mind is not closed
I’ve heard there are souls that are lost in between
Somewhere they’re goin’ and the places they’ve been
That sounds a lot like a woman I know
Her love is long gone but she will not let go
Somebody oughtta take her by the hand and tell her
Don’t be afraid, just walk to the light
Let go of the past and get on with your life
Someone is waiting out in the night
Ashes to ashes, walk to the light

“I Didn’t Have to Leave You” is a slow ballad written by Jill Wood about a woman trying to fight off the efforts of her lover’s ex to try to win him back. The song is very strong and would have made a good single.

Remember me
The one who picked up all the pieces, me
The one whose love for you increases everyday
And it won’t go away like she did
Remember her

The one who left your heart abandoned, her
Well she’s back again and I can’t stand it
It hurts ’cause with her tears all glistening
She’s got you listening to her promises
Well remember this

I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to lose you first to want you more than ever
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to see if I could tear your world apart
And still win back your heart
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I loved you from the start

“Every Little Girl’s Dream”, written by Dave Loggins and Kenny Mims is a nice medium-fast song, a little too superficial but a nice album track.

The album closes with “Another Shoulder At The Wheel” an upbeat song from Gary Burr and John Jarrard. Nice country production with tasteful steel guitar and a truly meaningful lyric about the way life should be

In my path, there are stones
I could never roll away alone
There are times when I wake
And my knees will tremble and shake
But there’s someone who cares
And when I need you, you’ll be there
Another shoulder at the wheel to see me through
When the road is long and the tears are real
When I’m past the point of giving up
There’s nothing like the feel, of another shoulder at the wheel

At the time I purchased this album in February 1996, I found myself hoping against hope that she would not give in to pressures to make her sound less country. The electric guitars on this album are more rock than country guitars but they are subdued. The steel guitar and dobro of Sonny Garrish and fiddle of Glen Duncan are appropriately spotlighted.

Jo Dee would go on to have some #1 singles and more successful chart albums but this remains my favorite. I have heard all of Jo Dee’s albums, but other than her Greatest Hits album released in 2003, this would be the last Jo Dee Messina album I would purchase (someone gave me Delicious Surprise for Christmas in 2005 because they remembered I had like Joe Diffie’s “My Give A Damn’s Busted” on his 2001 album In Another World).

The songs, vocal performance and production combine to make this album a very solid A.

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘In Pieces’

Garth In PiecesStarting with No Fences, Garth Brooks achieved a level of sales that had previously been unheard of in country music. It propelled him to international superstardom, and the pressure on him and producer Allen Reynolds to sustain that level of success must have been overhwhelming. Having reached a significant number of people outside the usual country music audience, it was perhaps inevitable that he would tailor his sound to accomodate them. As a result, his albums became increasingly eclectic — and inconsistent in quality. This trend began with 1992’s The Chase and continued with 1993’s In Pieces.

The album spawned five singles, two of which reached #1. The first was “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til The Sun Comes Up”, a Garth co-write with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams. Though it was more country than most of the singles from The Chase, it has more of a rock edge than his earlier work, and while I don’t intensely dislike the song, it’s not one of my favorites. It was followed by another #1 hit, “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”, which is aimed squarely at the country audience. It’s meant to be in the same vein as “Friends In Low Places”, but tries a little too hard and lacks the charm of that earlier hit. “Standing Outside the Fire” is better, though I still wouldn’t rank it among Garth’s best work.

“One Night A Day”, written by Gary Burr and Pete Wasner is one of Garth’s least country-sounding songs. Completely lacking in country instrumentation, the piano and saxophone-led track leans towards jazz and seems to have been an attempt at a crossover hit. It did not chart outside the country charts, where it peaked at #7. While some artists can successfully pull off an occasional venture beyond the confines of country music, Garth Brooks, to my mind, has never been one of them. He seems to have thought otherwise, as he tended to test the non-country waters fairly regularly. I’ve never thought that his voice or delivery were particularly suited to this type of song. He seems equally out of his comfort zone on the bluesy “Kickin’ and Screamin'”.

The album’s final and best single is a cover version of the Dennis Linde-penned “Callin’ Baton Rouge”. Originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys in 1978, it was later covered by New Grass Revival, who released it as a sigle in 1989. Their version peaked at #37, but Garth’s version, on which members of New Grass Revival sang and played, reached #2. It is one of the two great tracks on the album, the other being the album’s closing track, “The Cowboy Song”, a low-key number that is much more suited to Garth than some of the overblown power-ballads he seemed so fascinated with during this phase of his career.

“The Red Strokes”, while not released as a single in the US, became Garth’s biggest hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at #13 on the British pop charts. It’s not surprising that one of his more pop-leaning recordings was successful in a country not normally known for embracing country music, but artistically, the track is one of his poorer efforts.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with this album when it was first released, and was somewhat surprised to find that I like it a lot better now than I did then. However, that says more about the current state of country music than it does about the current state of country music than it does about the quality of this album. I’m tempted to say that it’s worth downloading “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “The Cowboy Song” and skipping the rest, but this is Garth Brooks we’re talking about, so single-track downloads aren’t an option. Pick up a cheap used copy if you haven’t heard this one.

Grade: B

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Holly Dunn’

HollyDunnIn the mid 1980s country music was in a state of transition as the Urban Cowboy sound began to fall out of favor with radio and fans. Artists like George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and The Judds had begun to pull the music back to its traditional roots but it wasn’t until Randy Travis’ big breakthrough in 1986 that the last nail was finally driven into the Urban Cowboy coffin. Holly Dunn’s eponymous debut album was released during this transition, and although it has its traditional moments, the album is mostly in the fading but not yet dead pop-country vein of the day.

Produced by Tommy West, the album contains ten songs, half of which were either written or co-written by Holly. Interestingly, none of five tracks in which Holly had a hand in writing were collaborations with her brother Chris Waters and Tom Shairo, although Tom and Chris did write one song, “That’s A Real Good Way To Get Yourself Loved”, with Michael Garvin. The album opens with “Two Too Many”, one of Holly’s compositions which was also her first single to crack the Top 40, landing at #39. It’s a lightweight but catchy number, and though not particularly noteworthy, it is actually one of the album’s better tracks. It was of course, completely overshadowed by the album’s second single, “Daddy’s Hands”, Dunn’s first bonafide hit and the song for which she is best remembered today.

Unfortunately, aside from “Daddy’s Hands” there is nothing particularly memorable about this album at all, despite some impressive names among the songwriting credits. “Burnin’ Wheel”, a Radney Foster co-write with Billy Aerts and Mickey Cates is a piece of lightweight fluff, and “My Heart Holds On” is certainly one of Hugh Prestwood’s poorer efforts. I like Gary Burr’s “Someone Carried You” a little better, but it isn’t an example of his best work, either.

Although the material certainly could have been stronger, the album’s main flaw is the production. Already falling out of favor in 1986, the pop-country arrangements that permeate every track except “Daddy’s Hands” sound terribly dated today. The album does have its bright spots; I rather like “Your Memory (Won’t Let Go Of Me)” and “The Sweetest Love I Never Knew”, but I wish they had been recorded a few years later after Holly had begun to co-produce her albums and had moved away from the Urban Cowboy sound.

None of this is to say that Holly Dunn is a bad album; it certainly has its enjoyable moments but it pales in comparison to most of her later work, beginning with her next album, 1987’s Cornerstone. I quite liked Holly Dunn back in 1986 but it hasn’t aged well. The album is long out of print and virtually impossible to find, but only “Daddy’s Hands” is essential listening and it is available elsewhere. The rest of the album is interesting only as a footnote in the Dunn discography and as a snapshot of her career in its earlier stages.

Grade: B

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘The Long Way’

Unknown2002’s The Long Way was Doug Stone’s first post-major label collection of mostly new material. Released in September by Audium Entertainment, the album was co-produced by Stone and Chet Hinesley, it consists of seven new songs and three newly recorded versions of Doug’s earlier hits for Sony. Though listenable, all of the re-recordings are inferior to the original versions.

As is often the case with albums that are released after an artist’s artistic peak, the material on The Long Way is inconsistent. It opens with the pretty ballad “Losing You”, which is a little too schmaltzy and AC-leaning for my taste, despite the inclusion of some nice steel guitar work. The mid-tempo title track is more contemporary than most of Doug’s work, but it is bland and forgettable. I like the Gary Burr and Cynthia Weil number “One Heartache At A Time” about an insensitive husband whose actions are slowly driving his wife away, much better. “POW 369”, written by Steven Dale Jones, though a bit sentimental, is the album’s best song. The album’s sole single, it tells about the remorse felt by the protagonist, upon learning that the motorist that just cut him off is an ex-prisoner of war. The single did not chart.

Doug wrote the bluesy and uptempo “Poor Man’s Boulevard” with co-producer Chet Hinesley. It’s a good but not great song that isn’t particularly suited to Doug’s voice or style. Another artist might have been able to better do it justice. The more country sounding uptempo “Bone Dry” is much better. Doug also co-wrote the ballad “Lying To Myself”, in which he can’t accept that the love of his life is gone. It’s more typical of his usual style, though he seems to be singing at the high end of his register and straining just a bit.

All in all, The Long Way is a pleasant but not particularly memorable listening experience. Cheap copies are readily available but it’s not an essential purchase except for diehard fans.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘More Love’

more love1993 saw Doug move to a new producer, commercial powerhouse James Stroud. The result was a competent album, but one which largely failed to reach the heights of Stone’s best work.

The lead single, ‘I Never Knew Love’, written by Larry Boone and Will Robinson, just missed the top of the charts, but with a #2 peak it was the album’s biggest hit. A gentle piano ballad, it reflects on the experience of real love for the first time.

The up-tempo ‘Addicted To A Dollar’, bemoaning an 80 hour work week for low pay, is quite good, although this style isn’t Doug’s real strength as an artist. It was however a successful single, peaking at #4.

The last single, the title track, peaked another couple of spots lower. Exploring a man’s regrets over a lost love, it is melodic and sweetly sung but may seem a bit drippy to some. Along with the bland ‘Dream High’ it appeared on the soundtrack of the children’s film Gordy (about a runaway pet pig), in which Stone made his acting debut playing a country singer. The connection which was proudly advertised on the album cover, but the movie was not well received, so this probably didn’t help Doug’s career momentum.

The best track is the sad ballad ‘That’s A Lie’, written by Doug with Randy Boudreaux and Sam Hogin about a man denying his own broken heart, which is beautifully sung.

The plaintive ‘She Used To Love Me A Lot’, co-written by Doug with Dean Dillon, is rather charming, as the protagonist broods in bewilderment over the unexpected and sudden end of a relationship. The tune is pretty and there is some lovely fiddle. I also liked ‘Small Steps’, written by Gary Burr and Henry Edwards, a tastefully understated ballad about working on getting over a relationship.

My least favorite tracks were the teenage memory of a girlfriend dressed in ‘Little Sister’s Blue Jeans’ (which is catchy but tacky) and the boring ‘Wishbone’ which sounds as though it was included to cater to the linedance craze which was one of the worst aspects of 90s country music. The mid-tempo ‘Love, You Took Me By Surprise’ is forgettable filler.

Overall, this isn’t a bad record, and one with some good tracks alongside the weaker ones. It isn’t available digitally, but if you can get a cheap used copy it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Doug Stone – ‘From The Heart’

DougfromheartDoug Stone was riding high with the success of his platinum selling sophomore album when he began feeling dizziness, arm & chest pain, and feelings of disorientation while on tour. He canceled his appearance at the 1992 ACM Awards and underwent Quintuple Bypass Surgery. Stone changed his eating and exercise habits in order to quickly resume his tour schedule.

His third album, the aptly titled From The Heart, was released that August with Doug Johnson producing once again. Upon its release critics had a field day with the irony of the album’s title in the wake of his medical issues.

Lead single “Warning Labels” was released in June. The uptempo shuffle, written by Kim Williams and Oscar Turman, casts Stone as a broken man in a barroom observing that “they ought to put warning labels on those sad country songs” coming from the jukebox. It’s an excellent and memorable lyric, but the production comes off forceful (and dated 21 years later), a little too in-your-face, and drowns out Stone’s vocal at times. The single was his seventh top-five hit in two years and peaked at #4.

Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw wrote “Too Busy Being In Love,” which topped the charts in early 1993. Like most of Stone’s trademark ballads, “Too Busy Being In Love” plays like a cheesy Lifetime movie, down to the slick piano-laced production. That being said, Stone’s tender vocal coupled with the production is still a winning combination to my ears, no matter how cheesy and horrid this sounds today.

“Made for Loving You” broke Stone’s streak of top five singles when it peaked at #6 (his second song to do so) in mid-1993. Previously recorded by both Clinton Gregory and Dan Seals, and written by Sonny Throckmorton and Curly Putman, the track is very similar in style to “Too Busy Being In Love,” though not nearly as polished, or hook-laden.

Stone returned to #1 with the album’s finale single, Paul Harrison and Bob McDill’s “Why Didn’t I Think of That.” A regretful uptempo honky-tonker, in which a man plays his last relationship out in his head after she’s moved on, is the album’s best single because it gets everything right – vocal, lyric, and production. It is also Stone’s most played (and remembered) recurrent single and the only one from this record that’s aged gracefully. It’s one of my favorite things Stone has ever done.

“Leave The Radio” exemplifies one of country music’s worst trends from the era, the clichéd breakup song with a woman packing her suitcase, leaving her man, etc. This variation has him begging her to leave him the radio. It’s nothing more then a horrid piece of embarrassing filler. “Left, Leaving, Going, or Gone” boasts a better execution, but is still as tired as “Leave The Radio” thematically. “She’s Got A Future In The Movies” (another Burr and Shaw co-write) is one of those novelty songs you hear once and like, but it grows grating on repeated listenings.  Meanwhile, “Working End of a Hoe,” an ode to farming cotton fields, has a nicely restrained production that works well. The chugging beat, laced with harmonica, works nicely with Stone’s twangy vocal.

Thankfully the remaining ballads are of a much higher quality. Stone co-wrote neo-traditional weeper “This Empty House” and brings palpable pain to his vocal performance. This would’ve been a home run if the steel had been more pronounced and heavier while Stone’s vocal is a bit too quiet.

The most outstanding and easily the strongest of the album cuts is Bucky Jones, Red Lane, and Royce Porter’s “Ain’t Your Memory Got No Pride At All.” The neo-traditional production is fabulous and Stone delivers one of the project’s strongest vocals. This should’ve been the single in place of “Made for Loving You,” and I bet it would’ve done really well.

There’s nothing wrong with an album that ties itself this closely to mainstream trends per se, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to From The Heart. Stone and Johnson highlight the worst of commercial country, forgoing any attempts to create a project with a long shelf life. Considering his contemporaries released everything from Hearts In Armor (Trisha Yearwood), I Still Believe In You (Vince Gill), The Chase (Garth Brooks), and A Lot About Livin’ (and A Little ‘Bout Love) (Alan Jackson) that same year, this is as mailed in as efforts get.

Grade: B- 

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Sweet Danger’ (plus her SinuCleanse commercial at the end)

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For the last decade Suzy Bogguss has been focusing on making music her own way, leaving behind country music in favor of jazz and folk. She’s been releasing new music about every four years and it’s some of the most compelling she’s ever made. Sweet Danger, Bogguss’ follow-up to Swing, was released in the fall of 2007 via Loyal Duchess Records. The album, co-produced by her longtime friend Jason Miles and featuring seven songs co-written by Bogguss, is a beautiful jazz/coffeehouse fusion that does a much better job of showcasing her evolved sound than Swing, which I didn’t care for at all.

The centerpiece of the album is the stunning “In Heaven,” written by Bogguss’ husband Doug Crider. It details the story of a widow who’s finally moved on with her life after her husband’s passing:

I can’t see you anymore,
I found somebody new
I love with all my heart
And he feels that way, too;
I think you’d really like him
If you ever got to know him;
I just had to close this door
So I could let another open;

I gonna give my life to him,
But I’d like to have your blessing—
I’m in heaven here on earth,
…and you’re in heaven.

“In Heaven” is the closet Bogguss has ever come to recreating the magic of “Aces,” (the song) and she brings the track to life with her emotion filled vocal and Miles’ perfect musical accompaniment. It remains one of my all-time favorite of her recordings to date.

For longtime Bogguss fans Sweet Danger is littered with fine moments that showcase she still has it after all these years. “The Bus Ride,” a Gary Burr co-write, is a wonderful (and lush) story song about second chances. “One Clear Moment,” a co-write with Kathy Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner, is an honest tale of a couple’s love that musically recalls “Love At The Five And Dime.” Another excellent number is Bogguss’ own “Baby July,” a tale about innocence.

Her son Ben was the inspiration behind the oddest song choice on the record, a cover of Chicago’s 1976 hit “If You Leave Me Now.” She wanted to capture the vulnerable feeling her son brought to the lyric when he stripped down the proceedings. The results are spectacular. I love how Bogguss and Miles capture the essence of the lyric and keep from incorporating any vocal gymnastics.

I am amazed I adore the bulk of this record as much as I do seeing as it tends to lean kind of sleepy, but when the songs are of this high a quality I can forgive the arrangements. That’s certainly true of the title track, a tale of forgoing inhibitions that boasts a fantastic hook, “Here’s my disclaimer/I’m throwing caution to the wind/Yeah, I’m falling in, sweet danger.”

The remaining tracks on the project aren’t bad by any means – they just didn’t grab my attention as strongly. “Everything” is a bit too progressive, “No Way To Go” is too poppy, “Chain Lover” and “Even If That Were True” are too quiet, while “Right Back Into the Feeling” and “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today” lean too Jazz.

It’s kind of too bad because if Miles had put some tempo behind Bogguss the pace of Sweet Danger would be a lot more forgiving on the ear. But that being said, there are many moments that rank among the best of Bogguss’ career both lyrically and vocally. For fans of her 90s work, this is the closest she’s come to recapturing that magic on original material in years. I urge you to pick up a copy as it’s well worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

A commercial for SinuCleanse came out around the release of the album, starring Bogguss. She’s also shown singing “One Clear Moment:” 

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Spitfire’

spitfireLeAnn Rimes’ chart fortunes have been wildly inconsistent since she emerged on the country scene as a 13-year old. Her turbulent private life has also exposed her to a great deal of public criticism in recent years with her romance with new husband Eddie Cibrian breaking up two existing marriages and the home of two small children. Her excellent Vince Gill-produced covers album reignited my interest in her as an artist, and now she returns with her first records of all-new material in some years. She wrote many of the songs with her co-producer and frequent collaborator Darrell Brown, and it is the most personal and honest material she has ever recorded. She acknowledges that on the album cover, giving it the subtitle “the truth, in no particular order”. In other words, it is effectively a concept album about her affair, divorce and remarriage – meaty reality-based material which makes it a rare example of its kind in today’s market. Musically it’s not as traditional as Lady And Gentlemen but it is recognizably country music, with breathing space for LeAnn’s vocals.

The best songs are the more reflective ones where she shows some self-awareness. Candid cheating songs used to be a staple of country music but have fallen out of favor in recent years. ‘Borrowed’ is a guilt-ridden cheating song set during the affair, this one addressed to her new lover and dealing with her jealousy of his wife.

The remorseful ballad ‘What Have I Done’ (perhaps the outstanding song on the album) addresses the wrong she has done to her first love, who is “not her last”. It is an excellent song with a beautiful melody, with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski adding harmonies and subtle steel and fiddle.

What have I done?
I broke the sweetest heart
Of the only man that’s ever loved me

I don’t know what I’ve become
I need to get back to where I’m from
Gotta smash every mirror in this empty house
Cause like you I don’t want to see myself
Oh, what have I done?

Both of these songs were released as singles late last year, but have failed to chart.

The haunting ‘Where I Stood’ (written by Australian AC singer-songwriter Missy Higgins) tackles the same theme, opening with the words “I don’t know what I’ve done” as she faces the loss of her husband and contemplates his finding someone new.

A heavy drumbeat leads into the less subtle ‘I Do Now’, which again addresses her cheating, but with less evident remorse, with LeAnn taking comfort in listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard but unfortunately not borrowing from them stylistically, instead going for a rock-influenced mid-tempo sound without much melody.

‘A Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind’ is another fine song written by LeAnn, as she ponders over her choices. It is one of the most traditional sounding songs on the album. Her diction is a bit muddy on this one (a problem she has sometimes suffered from in the past) so it takes some concentration to decipher the story, but it recounts the protagonist’s regret at separating from husband or lover:

I threw him out like the trash one night
The dumbest thing I’ve ever done
He was the best thing that I’ll ever find
Yeah, a waste is a terrible thing to mind

Darrell Brown contributed ‘Who We Really Are’ (a co-write with Sarah Buxton), a pretty ballad on which Leann’s vocals sound nice but again the words (about discovering oneself through the vicissitudes of love) are hard to make out.

The aggressive ‘Spitfire’ lets loose against a rival in love, and is a little spiteful, calling her rival not only a “dirty little liar” but a brainless one. It’s a brave choice as the album opener and title track as it doesn’t paint LeAnn in the best light and the obviously autobiographical nature of the material elsewhere makes this open to interpretation as a personal attack on her husband’s former wife, so making it the entry into the album could antagonize some listeners (but perhaps those most offended won’t be listening anyway, on principle?). Divorced from its likely context, it’s not a bad song in assertive vein.

She definitely addresses her husband’s ex-wife elsewhere, claiming to be ‘Just A Girl Like You’, acknowledging “he may break my heart too”, but I didn’t like this one much – it feels a bit disingenuous, there is far too much vocal noodling and the instrumentation has a slightly tinny feel. ‘You’ve Ruined Me’ also sounds a bit over-produced and over-wrought vocally.

Buddy and Julie Miller’s frenetic ‘Gasoline And Matches’ is done as a duet with rock singer Rob Thomas, and is quite entertaining, although it definitely leans more in the rock direction than country; rock guitarist Jeff Beck also guests. In the context of this album, it presumably reflects the passion wrought by her relationship with her new husband.

The equally fast-paced ‘You Ain’t Right’ written by Liz Rose with another husband-and-wife team, Chris Stapleton and Morgane Hayes, has a hardworking woman complaining about her layabout man’s lack of effort. It’s a good song, but lacks melody and feels out of place thematically.

I assume the judgmental ‘God Tales Care Of Your Kind’ is an older song as it was written with Leann’s ex-husband Dean Sheremet; it too seems a curious choice for this record unless she is addressing it to herself. Finally ‘Bottle’ is surprisingly bland for a Gary Burr tune.

It seems fairly clear that LeAnn’s personal life has caused a backlash against her music, and this album (apparently her last for Curb) will probably not get the radio play it needs to do well commercially. However, it is a serious artistic work rooted in real life. Perhaps a little too much so at times.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘I Think About You’

Rayethink1995 was a good year for Collin Raye. Coming off the success of Extremes, he released I Think About You in late August. Like its three predecessors, it received a platinum certification and retained John Hobbs as producer (Ed Seay and Paul Worley co-produced).

I Think About You was instrumental in shaping my country music identity as it was one of the first country projects I was exposed to as a kid, and remains my third favorite country album to this day (behind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dixie Chicks Home). The hits from this project have a special quality I’ve never been able to duplicate with any other artists’ work.

Mark Alan Springer and Shane Smith co-wrote the #2 peaking lead single, “One Boy, One Girl,” a fantastically touching ballad centered around the full-circle love affair between a couple. The ending of the story is a bit predicable, but Raye gives the type of touching performance only he could bring to a ballad, and both Dan Digmore and Paul Franklin drench the number in gorgeous pedal steel.

Even better is “Not That Different,” Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott’s song about indifference that climbed to #3. I love how the song builds, starting out as a simple piano ballad and building to its drum-infused conclusion with the bridge. The lyric, both simple and brilliant, is fine testament to the powers of fate, and probably my favorite on the whole album:

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Extremes’

extremesMainstay John Hobbs was joined by Ed Seay and Paul Worley to produce Collin’s third album, extremes. There was a concerted effort to expand Collin’s range with more rocking material, an artistic mistake in my opinion, but it was rewarded with commercial success, with five top 10 hits and platinum sales.

Collin screams out the first single, Lee Roy Parnell’s ‘That’s My Story’, a husband’s attempts to brazen out blatant lies to his wife. The amusing tale would have worked well for Parnell (and the arrangement and production are very much in his style, but it really doesn’t suit Collin’s voice, even though it was a #6 hit for him. The album’s only chart-topper, the fourth single, ‘My Kind of Girl’ is also a screamer, but a lyrically boring one.

Happily, the album also contains some beautiful ballads more in Collin’s style. Although it peaked just short of the top slot on the charts, ‘Little Rock’ may be the most important song ever recorded by Collin Raye, with its abashed, clear sighted depiction of a recovering alcoholic doing his best to cope with the loss of his wife as well as maintaining his sobriety. Written by Tom Douglas, perhaps it could do without the swelling strings, although the song’s strength is undiminished.

My favorite track is the melancholy lost love ‘Man Of My Word’, which peaked at #8. Written by Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr, it is a beautiful song in which the protagonist’s fidelity outlasts her loss (perhaps her death), gently paced and set to a lovely melody, with a subtle interpretation by Raye.

I’ll go to my grave with this torch held high
But just once I wish I’d told you a lie

When I said my love would last for all time
And no one would take your place
Well, if that promise was the last sound you heard
Well, you know I kept it
I’m a man of my word

The final single, #4 hit ‘If I Were You’ is a big ballad written by Hobbs with Chris Farren with a heavily strung arrangement. It’s quite prettily done, but not very memorable.

The best of the up-tempos is the fast story song ‘To The Border And Beyond’, which Collin wrote. Some wildly sawing fiddle backs up a frenetic vocal as Collin spits out the story of the outlaw Dugan. ‘Nothin’ A Little Love Won’t Cure’ is another rocker, and is an okay song written by the curious partnership of Rick Bowles, Don Cook and Larry Boone.

Written by Craig Wiseman and James Dean Hicks, the warm-hearted tale of a mother’s farewell gift of ‘A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home’ to a teenager leaving home with Nashville dreams, is tenderly sung and a definite highlight.

A cover of the classic ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ sounds very pretty, while ‘Angel Of No Mercy’ is another love song with a lovely melody, both ideally suited to Collin’s voice.

Despite some missteps Extremes is still a worthwhile purchase, especially as it can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Love’s Gonna Get Ya!’

Ricky Skaggs’ career can be said to have reached its peak in 1985, when he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Randy Travis scored his big breakthrough and the New Traditionalist movement exploded. Ironically, that same year, Ricky Skaggs’ career began to show the first signs of decline. Although it reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country chart, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! failed to produce any #1 hits and became his first release for Epic not to earn gold certification.

Like its predecessors, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! was produced by Ricky himself, but it doesn’t contain the bluegrass flourishes that hallmarked most of his earlier work, with the exception of the spiritual tune “Walking In Jerusalem”. “Love’s Gonna Get You Someday”, written by Carl Chambers, was the album’s first single. The Western-swing flavored tune was a bit of a departure for Ricky, but it was well received by radio and made it to #4 on the Billboard country singles chart. The Don Everly-penned “I Wonder If Care As Much”, which had been a #2 pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958, didn’t fare as well. Reaching #30, it was the lowest-charting single of Skaggs’ major label career up to that point. With its double-track harmony, it’s instantly recognizable as an Everly Brothers tune, and though it may have been an artistic stretch for Ricky, it was a decent effort. He rebounded with the next single, a Cajun-flavored duet with his wife Sharon White called “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which reached the Top 10, albeit barely. It’s my favorite track on the album.

There are some fine cuts among the album tracks, many of them written by some of Nashville’s finest songwriters, such as Larry Cordle, Jim Rushing, and Gary Burr. The production is occasionally dated, particularly the use of the synthesizer on “I Won’t Let You Down” and the James Taylor duet “New Star Shining” — not atypical of the era but unusual on a Ricky Skaggs album — but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the album. Rushing’s “Hard Row To Hoe”, one of many country songs dealing with the plight of the American farmer, was perhaps inspired by the first Farm Aid concert which had been held a few months before this album’s release. “Artificial Heart”, written by Johanna Hall and John Hall, suffers from some contrived lyrics but its excellent steel guitar solo more than compensates.

It’s a bit ironic that having been a key player in bringing country music back to its roots, Skagg became a victim of the success of the New Traditionalist movement. Having to compete with a new crop of talent for sales and airplay may partially account for this album’s relative lack of success compared to his earlier work. However, it’s a fine album that deserves a second listen — or a first one if you missed it the first time around. The original Epic version is out of print but it was re-released on a 2-for-1 CD along with Comin’ Home To Stay. This is probably the most economical way to acquire both albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘All I Want’

Once Tim had made his commercial breakthrough, he was able to be a little more adventurous with his third album in 1995. This marks the point at which one can call Tim McGraw an artist rather than just a singer. The song quality was good, but the production (orchstrated as before by James Stroud and Byron Gallimore) lacks subtlety and leans a little too heavily to electric guitars front and center. Although sales were less than for its predecessor, Tim had found a firm place on country radio, as evidenced by five top 5 singles, two of them #1s.

Lead single, the silly but somehow irresistibly catchy ditty ‘I Like It, I Love It’ (complete with a nod to the Big Bopper), was Tim’s third #1. It also had some pop airplay. The singalong nature of the song for once makes crowd noise acceptable. This song should probably fall in the guilty pleasure category, but I don’t even feel guilty about it.

The rather good emotional string-laden ballad ‘Can’t Be Really Gone’, written by Gary Burr, fell just short, peaking at #2. Tim is not one of the best vocalists around, but this is one of his better efforts, with a real emotional commitment to this song about a man in denial about the permanence of his wife’s leaving. Title track ‘All I Want Is A Life’ is an up-tempo rocker without much melody and with too-loud and now dated sounding production, but a relatable lyric about struggling with poverty and aspirations for something more. It was the least successful of the album’s singles, but still peaked at #5.

Also a bit heavily produced but less obtrusively so, ‘She Never Lets It Go To Her Heart’ was another chart-topper, written by the hitmaking team of Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters. The mid-tempo ‘Maybe We Should Just Sleep On It’ (written by Jerry Laseter and Kerry Kurt Phillips) also did well, peaking at #4. These two are okay but not outstanding, and there was better material on the album, such as the relatively understated ballad ‘The Great Divide’, written by Brett Beavers. This is a very good depiction of a couple trapped in a tired marriage, who would rather pay attention to their respective book and TV show than one another. There is still hope their love can be rekindled.

‘I Didn’t Ask And She Didn’t Say’ is a nicely observed song, written by Reese Wilson, Van Stephenson and Tony Martin. Flight delays lead to an awkward encounter with a long-past ex, where the real questions remain unanswered. Tim’s voice has an urgency in it betraying the protagonist’s suppressed passion as he recalls past happiness, before they part with everything unresolved:

We said our goodbyes
Swore we’d stay in touch
Then we went our separate ways
Knowing no one ever does

‘When She Wakes Up (And Finds Me Gone)’ is another mature song with complex emotions which is well sung by Tim, but would have worked better for me with more stripped down production. The extended electric guitar solo at the end is excessive and adds nothing worthwhile. ‘Don’t Mention Memphis’ is another good song about a breakup, written by Bill LaBounty and Rand Bishop, but the rhythm is abit jerky and the track is over-produced. The impassioned ‘You Got The Wrong Man’ is also quite entertaining if rather processed sounding, as Tim tries to persuade a woman burnt by love before that he isn’t like the man who broke her heart.

Then there are a couple of real missteps. ‘Renegade’ is a boring rocker with Tim unconvincing as a rebel. ‘That’s Just Me’ is a southern/country boy pride number written by Deryl Dodd which sounds musically a little like a slightly slower ‘Indian Outlaw’. Dodd recorded it himself a couple of years later when making his Columbia Records debut.

Overall, the material selected here was a major advance for Tim McGraw, but the production choices are less palatable. Tim had found his musical direction, and if it was a long way from the traditionalism of his first album, it held a lot of appeal for country radio and cemented his fanbase. Triple platinum sales meant this was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it is a better, more mature work. Better still, from Tim’s point of view, while topuring in support of the album, he fell in love with opening act Faith Hill, and by the time his next album came out he would be a husband and father.

Used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘It’s All Good’

Joe Nichols is one of Music Row’s underrated journeymen performers. His sixth studio album, released last week is a mostly quiet affair, more rooted in tradition than the music of most his contemporaries, with a few concessions to contemporary tastes that should give him a shot at some radio airplay. As with his last few albums, he’s opted not to put all his eggs in one basket by using just one producer. This time around Mark Wright shares the honors with Buddy Cannon, with each contributing five tracks.

Things get off to a rocky start with the lead single, “Take It Off” a mediocre number that attempts but does not succeed in recreating the winning formula of 2005’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”. Written by Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorey, and Kelly Lovelace, the song is ultimately done in by the lack of subtlety in the lyrics, namely the part that goes:

You’re a pretty little country thing
But giddy under them cut-off jeans
Take ’em off, come on mama, take ’em off

Presumably these words of poetry are the handiwork of Kelly Lovelace, since they sound like something we’d normally hear from Brad Paisley. Released in August and reviewed by J.R. Journey shortly thereafter, “Take It Off” is currently at #25 on the charts.

The second track, “The More I Look” is a little better. It doesn’t contain any tasteless lyrics, but the production is a little cluttered and loud for my liking. Thankfully, this is the only production misstep on the album. I imagine that this track is earmarked for release as a single at some point, since it seems more radio friendly than most of the other songs on the album. Another likely single is “Somebody’s Mama”, a tune written by David Lee Murphy and Kim Tribble that finds Joe in the midst of covering up a tattoo that reminds him of an old flame. The couple apparently split up because Joe wasn’t ready to settle down:

She used to say all she wanted was babies
And I was too young to slow down
But I figure she’s probably somebody’s mama by now.

He goes on to speculate that she’s also dripping in diamonds and driving an expensive car, which seems odd because nothing else in the lyrics suggests that she was particularly materialistic. On the contrary, the fact that “she used to say all she wanted was babies” suggests quite the opposite. Still, it’s a pleasant song that stands a reasonable chance of success on the charts.

Things improve considerably from the fourth track on, with Joe sounding a lot at times like a younger George Strait, in both his vocal style and choice of material. The Strait influence is particularly evident with the title track written by Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman. “It’s All Good” is the most traditional and the best song on the album and probably not what radio wants, so it will likely linger in obscurity as an album cut. “No Truck, No Boat, No Girl” is also quite good and slightly more radio-friendly. The mood continues to get more mellow as the album progresses, with inoffensive filler like “Never Gonna Get Enough” and “She’s Just Like That.” The closing track “How I Wanna Go”, is a particularly laid-back tune that finds Joe contemplating an easy life on a sailboat with his guitar and lady, and again sounding very much like King George.

Nichols has had inconsistent success on the singles charts and there’s probably not anything here that is going to change that. It’s All Good is not an outstanding album, but it is very good above-average effort that deserves a listen. It is currently on sale for $5.99 at Amazon MP3.

Grade: B

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Pain To Kill’

Released in 2003, after the relatively disappointing commercial performance of Fearless, Pain To Kill marked a change in producer for Terri, with the recruitment of Byron Gallimore, perhaps the leading commercial country producer of the day. It looks as though the label was hedging its bets with regards to the direction of the album, with Gallimore working on half the album, and old standby Keith Stegall being brought back in for the remainder of the material. Byron Gallimore applied a fairly sophisticated pop-country sound to mainly outside songs, and successfully balances Terri’s voice with a radio-friendly sheen.

Keith Stegall, meanwhile, tackled the bulk of Terri’s own songs, with a sound more in keeping with her past work. Gallimore’s tracks front load the set listing (and provided all three of the singles), with most of the Stegall tracks relegated to the second half of the set. Throughout the album, Terri’s vocals sound great and very committed to the material, and there is an overarching theme of relationship troubles and moving on which helps give a cohesive feel to the set as a whole.

The contemporary sounding lead single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Mad’, written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller, made a good start with radio, peaking at #2 in 2002. It is my favorite of the single choices from this album with its convincing and mature lyric about a couple married for seven years (when “some days it feels like 21”) and squabbling over the little things, while affirming the underlying strength of their relationship:

I think I’m right
I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just wanna be mad for a while

The woman-on-the-verge-of-leaving whose story is conveyed in ‘Three Mississippi is less successful. While well sung, it’s a rather pop-leaning song written by Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges and Angelo, whose rather uninteresting tune and overdone production drains the emotion from the lyric. It was closer to a flop, only just making the top 30. The life-affirming ‘I Wanna Do It All’ is better, if not very memorable. It took Terri back to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #3.

The title track is a radio-friendly mid-tempo number written by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard, with a cheery approach to partying away the troubles of life. The very contemporary Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song ‘Working Girl’ (comparing an ordinary working woman’s life to glossy media images) was previously recorded by Loretta Lynn. It suits Terri better than it did Loretta, but is still one of my least favorite Terri Clark recordings.

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Single Review: Emily West feat. Keith Urban – ‘Blue Sky’

Emily West is one of my favorite new faces to country music.  Unfortunately, her material hasn’t matched her talent on her past releases.  Fortunately, that’s not the case here.  This biting goodbye ballad is not only a stunning vocal, but also a brilliant lyric.  West co-wrote the song with Nashville hit-machine Gary Burr.

Turning in her finest vocal to date, West shines throughout the song.  She did a fine job on this song on her digital EP release, but I think she just nails it here. Keith Urban is featured mostly as a soft harmony singer in the latter half of the song.  Urban has made a habit of blending his voice wonderfully with some of the most distinctive voices in contemporary country.  West adds her name to the list that includes Dolly Parton, Trisha Yearwood, and Lee Ann Womack, among others.  When the strings swell on the bridge, and the song goes into full power ballad mode, West proves she’s capable of reaching for the ceiling with the best of them.

A faint piano opens with West’s subdued emotive vocal.  The piano is the driving instrument in the song throughout this tale of a woman saying her final goodbyes to a man who’s not treating her right.  The lyrics are too vague as to describe an abusive relationship, but the implications are there, leading the listener to draw their own conclusions.  The first verse finds the man returning, hat in hand.  He’s ready to say he’s sorry, but the narrator has only one thing to say, and that’s goodbye.  She won’t be a shoulder to lean on, and she won’t be taking in anymore.

It was these kinds of smart, elegant ballads that drew me to country music.  I wish we had more of them.  In the meantime, these nearly four minutes of audible candy are a gentle reminder of why I love country music.

Grade: A

‘Blue Sky’ is available digitally at iTunes. Watch Emily perform the song (sans Urban) at the Grand Ole Opry here, or listen to the single at Emily’s MySpace page.

Album Review: Gary Alan – ‘Smoke Rings In The Dark’

Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.

The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:

I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark

The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark

I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark

This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.

His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.

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Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Old Things New’

Old Things NewA few years ago, Joe Nichols looked to be one of the brightest young country stars, with an interestingly textured voice and a sound with genuinely country roots which still worked on country radio, thanks to some very good songs. His career seems to have gone off track since them – no doubt not helped by a spell in rehab just after the release of his last album, Real Things, two years ago. That album produced a couple of top 20 singles, but no major hits. In some ways, then, this album is something of a comeback attempt. It is mainly produced by Joe’s longterm producer Brent Rowan, with three tracks courtesy of Mark Wright.

Leadoff single ‘Believers’ performed relatively poorly, peaking at #26 on Billboard, despite an obviously sincere vocal praising those with faith in something, whether that’s a matter of politics, love or religion, with some gospel-style backing vocals on the last chorus which fortunately do not overwhelm it, and are at least in keeping with the subject matter. The song might have more impact if it concentrated on one of the three stories it touches on. The current single, the oddly spelt ‘Gimmie That Girl’ (co-written by 90s chart artist Rhett Akins with Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip) is a warmhearted but over-produced love song lauding the narrator’s girlfriend au naturel. It is one of three tracks produced by Mark Wright, and is as close as the album gets to pop-country (with one glaring exception, of which more later).

‘The Shape I’m In’ is another Akins/Davidson/Hayslip song produced by Wright, but is much better than the single. The protagonist is suffering both a literal hangover and a metaphorical one, the after-effects of a failed relationship, but is starting to feel better, commenting:

I’m doing alright
For the shape I’m in

The third Wright-produced track is ‘Man, Woman’, written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, a midtempo song about a guy who realizes his heartbreak is worse than he had thought it would be, with some nice fiddle from Aubrey Haynie. Joe does have a engagingly warm and fairly distinctive voice with inflected edges which can make average material sound better than it is, and he does that on songs like this pleasant if undistinguished song. Similarly, ‘We All Go Home’, written by Jimmy Melton, Neal Coty and Michael Mobley, is quite a nice song about being reminded of one’s childhood home. It doesn’t break new ground, but is very well sung, which also features Mac McAnally on acoustic guitar,and is another possible single. Its main flaw is unnecessary and slightly overpowering gospelly backing vocals at the end.

‘This Bed’s Too Big’, written by Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw, is a tenderly sung love song about needing to stay really close to the protagonist’s loved one, but it sounds a little dull.

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