My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gary Nicholson

Album Review: Lonesome River Band – ‘Mayhayley’s House’

The Lonesome River Band are a veteran band on paper, but have seen many changes of personnel over the years. As one expects from this band, the instrumental playing is brilliant but tasteful, with banjo star Sammy Shelor anchoring the sound. Both the current lead singers are outstanding too – the smoky characterful baritone of Brandon Rickman (one of my favorite singers across country and bluegrass) almost matched by the strong, if less distincive, tenor of Jesse Smathers.

A number of well known country songs get a bluegrass treatment . Crystal Gayle’s early hit ‘Wrong Road Again’ is delightful. The Don Williams hit ‘Old Coyote Town’ is given an absolutely beautiful reading by Brandon Rickman. Western Swing classic ‘Ida Red’ becomes a pacy bluegrass romp. A less well known cover, ‘Hickory Hollow Times & County News’ was on Charley Pride’s 2011 album Choices. Rickman’s warm vocals suit the song’s sweet nostalgia.

‘As The Crow Flies’, a plaintive Billy Yates/Melba Montgomery love song which Yates has recorded, has another lovely vocal from Rickman. The lyric refers to both the title bird and to blackbirds, both of which make a more ominous appearance in ‘Blackbirds And Crows’, an excellent murder ballad about a possesive husband and restless wife he just can’t bear to let go:

Blackbird sat on a fence line
Crow flew through the sky
I whispered low into Eva’s ear
Eva you’re gonna die

She’s a half a mile out, a quarter across
Beneath those wheatfield rows
And no one knows who put her there
But the blackbirds and the crows

Folks come by and we sit around
And I tell them how she’s gone
I tell them how she packed her bags
And wrecked our happy home
Lord I tell them she’s down in Atlanta
Doin’ cocaine and God only knows
But Eva’s not gone
She’s here with me
Right here where she’ll always be
With the blackbirds and the crows

It was written by Don Humphries.

The atmospheric title track, an Adam Wright song based on a true story, is about a rural Georgia psychic from the mid 20th century, to whom the album as a whole is dedicated.

‘Diggin’’ is a pretty good mid-tempo song about struggling to make ends meet that manages to sound bright despite the despairing lyric. The similarly upbeat ‘As Lonesome As I Am’, written by Matt Lindsey and Shawn Camp, is a more overtly optimistic song about expecting things can only get better. ‘I Think I’m Gonna Be Alright’ sees the protagonist coping well enough with a breakup.

Some fantastic fiddle (from Mike Hartgrove) leads the fast paced ‘Lonesome Bone’. ‘It Feels Real Good Goin’ Down’, written by Gary Nicholson and Shawn Camp, is a vibrant drinking-away-the-pain song. Thw album closes with a frenetic arrangement of the bluegrass standard ‘Fly Around y Pretty Little Miss’.

This is an excellent album which should appeal to country fans with an interest in bluegrass.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘I’m Already There’

im-already-thereThe band’s fourth album was released in June 2001. Producer Dann Huff gave the somewhat generic rock-pop-country hybrid music a commercial sheen which appealed to fans, but has already dated.

The title track, a soaring ballad which shows off Richie McDonald’s voice at its best, was another big hit for them – not only a chart topper, but selling over half a million copies. An emotional song about a loving father stuck working on the road with a pretty melody and swelling strings, the passionate vocal just saves it from sentimentality. McDonald also gets a songwriting credit, alongside Gary Baker and Frank Myers (who had a shortlived attempt at a country career as a duo in the 90s). Unfortunately it is by far the best song on the album.

Follow up ‘With Me’ broke Lonestar’s streak of five straight #1s, only just squeezing into the top 10. Unsurprising, because it really isn’t a very good, or country, song. Unsubtle, intrusive production doesn’t help a boring lyric without much of a tune.

‘Not A Day Goes By’ was back to the ballads, and was much more successful, reaching #3. A wistful song about the power of a memory, McDonald sings it beautifully. It is more AC than country, but very well done.

The final single, Mark McGuinn’s ‘Unusually Unusual’ made it to #12. Huff’s production and arrangement choices are intrusive; the song itself tries to depict a charmingly quirky girl, but falls a bit flat for me.

‘I Want To Be The One’ is quite a good song about unrequited love, written by Chuck Cannon, Lari White and Gary Nicholson, but very pop backing vocals dominate it.

Most of the other tracks have strong rock leanings, with even the ballads loud, and are not particularly interesting.

The remains their second best seller, after the ‘Amazed’-spurred monster success of Lonely Grill. However, I would only bother downloading ‘I’m Already There’, and perhaps ‘Not A Day Goes By’.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Live, Laugh, Love’

live laugh loveAs the 90s drew to an end, Clay stopped working with former producer James Stroud. His blandly titled 1999 album was co-produced by the artist with Doug Johnson, and saw the artist moving in a more R&B direction.

Lead single ‘She’s Always Right’ (written by Lonestar’s Richie McDonald with Ed Hill and Phil Barnhart) is a rather bland contemporary ballad about a happy marriage. Clay sings it soulfully, but the song isn’t at all memorable. It reached #16 on the Billboard country chart. The theme is repeated later on the album with the very similar ‘Woman Thing’, written by Larry Boone, Tracy Lawrence and Paul Nelson.

The beachy title track was a little more successful, peaking just outside the top 10. Written by Gary Nicholson and Allen Shamblin, it has Caribbean instrumentation and a syncopated vocal which haven’t worn well.

The album’s biggest hit at #3, ‘The Chain Of Love’, written by Rory Lee Feek and Jonnie Barnett, marked returned to more conventional country territory. The warm hearted story song offers a sweet tale of kindness from strangers.

The self penned big ballad ‘Once In A Lifetime Love’ wasn’t really a country song, and although Clay sings it well, at the turn of the millennium that was still enough to deny it any chart action when it was the album’s last single. Clay and his co-writer Jason Greene also contributed the pleasant but dull ‘Lose Some Sleep Tonight’ and the disastrously ill-judged ‘Cold Hearted’, a feeble attempt at an R&B song which falls completely flat.

‘This Time Love’ is a soul-drenched ballad which is okay on its own terms, but has nothing to do with country music.

‘If A Man Ain’t Thinking (‘Bout His Woman)’, written by Buddy Brock, Debi Cochran and Jerry Kilgore, on the other hand, is a country song, and very good. The mid-paced ‘It Ain’t Called Heartland (For Nothin’)’ is also quite enjoyable.

The best song is a cover of Earl Thomas Conley’s ‘Holding Her And Loving You’. Clay doesn’t bring anything new, but he sings it with emotion.

Clay sings with great commitment and enthusiasm on this album, but not much of it can really be classified as country. Listeners with more eclectic tastes may like this better than I did.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘The Other Side’

the other sideWhile mother Naomi Judd always had strong country sensibilities, daughter Wynonna was always an awkward fit in country music. The Other Side, Wynonna’s fourth solo studio album, finds Wynonna attempting to reposition herself as a bluesy rocker along the lines of Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball or Lou Ann Barton.

Wynonna has a very strong voice, more than suitable for the material but somehow this album isn’t all that convincing. I’m not sure if Wynonna was simply finding her footing with this album, or if the somewhat lackluster material is to blame.

The album opens with “When Love Starts Talkin'”, written by Brent Maher, Gary Nicholson and Jamie O’Hara. Released as a single (it reached #13), this up-tempo rocker works fairly well and is probably my second favorite song on the album.

I thought I had my life worked out
I thought I knew what it was all about
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

I had my mind on the open road
I thought I knew where I wanted to go
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

Kevin Welch wrote “The Other Side”, a rather bland ballad. It’s not bad just nothing special. I think I would like the track better without the vocal background singers.

So, you’re at the end of your wits
The end of your rope
You just can’t fix
Everything that’s broke
Got to turn it loose, babe
Hey, just let it ride

“Love Like That” (Gary Nicholson, Al Anderson, Benmont Tench) is much better, a mid-tempo rocker that failed to chart when released as a single, which mystifies me since it my favorite track on the album. The song features some nice slide guitar work by Steuart Smith.

You might tell me to mind my business
But I’ve been watchin’ and I’ve been a witness
To the things you do and say and the games you play
You better start cutting the man some slack
Or he’s gonna leave and he won’t be back
One day you’re gonna chase him away
If you keep on yankin’ that chain
Honey, if I was in your shoes
I tell you what I would do

CHORUS
If I had a love like that
A real fine love like that
I’d be treatin’ him right
And never do him any wrong
If you’re gonna do like that
With a good love like that
Sister, just like that you’re gonna wake up
And find him gone

“The Kind of Fool Love Makes” (Brenda Lee, Michael McDonald, Dave Powelson) is a dull ballad, pleasant but nothing more.

“Troubled Heart And A Troubled Mind” (Wynonna Judd, Brent Maher, O’Hara) is a nice up-tempo blues that would have made a good single. Again Steuart Smith shines on guitar

A troubled heart and a troubled mind
Is all I’m gonna leave behind
I’m movin’ on down the line
Don’t shout me down I’m doin’ fine
You’ve been hard and heavy on my soul
Gotta lighten the load and let you go
Life’s too short, ain’t got the time
For a troubled heart and a troubled mind

“Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me” (Mark Selby, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tia Sillers) features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on electric guitar and has Wynonna harmonizing with herself. I think this song would have made a good single.

“Come Some Rainy Day” (Billy Kirsch, Bat McGrath) was released as a single and reached #14. A gentle ballad, this may be Wynonna’s most effective vocal on a slower song. For my money, Wynonna’s better songs tend to be the faster songs. While I am not a big fan of the Nashville String Machine, the use of the NSM is subdued and greatly augments Wynonna’s vocal on this song.

“Love’s Funny That Way” (Tina Arena, Dean McTaggart, David Tyson) finds Wynonna over-singing the song slightly. At 4:46, the song is about a minute too long, since the dragging ending adds nothing to the song.

“The Wyld Unknown” (Cliff Downs, David Pack) is a mid-tempo rocker is that Wynonna sings effectively. I can’t say that the lyrics say anything important but it makes for a good album track.

Next up is “Why Now” (Downs, Pack, James Newton Howard) is another slow ballad dragging in at a flatulent four minutes and forty-nine seconds. A trimmed down version of this song would probably be better. The lyrics are actually pretty decent:

Somewhere off
In a distant dream
You were long ago
Like a memory

Now you’re back
Standing here
Sayin’ all the words
You think I want to hear

Did you finally realize
What I knew all along
That you never needed me
Until I was gone

“We Can’t Unmake Love” (Will Robinson, Aaron Saine) finds Wynonna singing a duet with John Berry, an artist with an excellent voice but somewhat addicted to tediously slow ballads. Having said that, I must admit that this is a pretty nice effort.

“Always Will” (Harry Stinson, John Hadley) was released as a single, reaching #45. The song has a very Celtic feel to it with Tammy Rogers on fiddle and Hunter Lee on Uillean pipes. At nearly five minutes, the song was a bit too long for radio to have had much interest in the song.

For me this album was a very mixed bag. The one word I would not use to describe it is “country”. I would give it a C+ but it is a very up and down C+. Some songs I like a lot, others I found boring. There was nothing on the album I loved, and nothing I hated.

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘New Day Dawning’

17b866fff09f6964b58b058adcbefa861429d7fde0f7d12d9aefacb45755f8ea_500x500It’s a scenario that’s familiar to every country music fan: an up-and-coming artist breaks through with a traditional record and is heralded as a “savior” that will return the genre to its roots. In interviews, he/she pays homage to Haggard and Jones, etc., etc. Then a few albums down the road, the same artist moves to a more mainstream pop (or at least less country) sound in order to expand his/her commercial appeal. The artist denies doing so, even though it’s blatantly obvious to everyone what’s going on.

Wynonna Judd began distancing herself from country music as soon as The Judds disbanded. It can be argued that The Judds themselves were becoming less traditional with their last two studio albums, but the the process got underway in full when Wynonna launched her solo career. 1997’s The Other Side was a completely non-country album and the same can be said of its follow-up New Day Dawning, which was released in 2000. In Wynonna’s defense, the change in musical styles seems to be less of a crass grab for pop airplay and more of a reflection of her true musical tastes. Unfortunately, her tastes are at odds with mine, which makes New Day Dawning difficult to review fairly. I’ll admit to feeling irritated while listening to it, not so much because it isn’t country, but because it was marketed as country. While artists have every right to experiment with other styles, it would be nice if they would occasionally throw a bone to the country fans who supported them from the beginning by including one or two more traditional songs on their albums. It rarely happens, though, and it certainly does not happen here.

New Day Dawning finds Wynonna working with a new production team — James Stroud and Gary Nicholson — and sharing production duties for the first time. This is not a country album, nor is it an Americana or roots album. It’s mid tempo soft rock similar to what is played on the radio stations playing in the background in any dentist’s office. If you like synthesizers, saxophones and horns, this is the album for you. While there are some country elements on the opening track and the album’s second single “Going Nowhere”, but they are drowned out by the “nah-nah” background vocals. Still, it is catchy and the logical choice for a single. Country radio wasn’t impressed; the single stalled at #43.

Overall, I liked the album’s ballads better than the mid- and up-tempo numbers. “Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do)” is a pretty, AC-leaning number that served as the album’s lead single. It seems like an odd choice for a lead single, though, and it only peaked at #31. “Learning to Live With Love Again”, written by Gary Nicholson and Mike Reid is also quite good, and so is “Who Am I Trying To Fool”, although I would have greatly preferred it without the intrusive synthesizer.

The title track is one of the album’s better uptempo cuts — more Memphis than Nashville — but the background vocals sometimes border on bombastic. I disliked the funky “Chain Reaction”, another Nicholson co-write, even though it actually has some fiddle on it. Before I even heard “Tuff Snuff”, I was annoyed by the spelling. It’s a remake of a 1986 song by the blues rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Wynonna’s voice is too husky on this one; she seems to be singing at the very bottom of her register, the complete opposite of her syrupy vocals on her remake of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”. I would not have been able to identify the singer of this song if I hadn’t already known. I intensely disliked the closing track “I Can’t Wait To Meet You”, a spiritual number co-written by R&B singer Macy Gray.

Overall, I did not enjoy this album and I do not recommend it. To be fair, though, it isn’t a bad album, just not my cup of tea. It was Wynonna’s first album not to earn gold or platinum certification and marks the acceleration of the commercial decline that began with The Other Side. The original pressing of the album included a four-song EP of The Judds, which I have not heard but I assume is much better than the main album.

Grade: C

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Cheap Seats’

cheap seatsI guess the end of the road comes for everybody and in this case the end of the road is actually the end of the #1 singles for Alabama, with “Reckless” being the band’s final Billboard #1 and “Cheap Seats” being the first single in fourteen years to miss the top ten.

Cheap Seats was produced by Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, and was released in October 1993, with three singles released from the album (“Reckless”, “T.L.C. A.S.A.P.” and “The Cheap Seats”). The album was the second consecutive album to miss the top ten on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, reaching only #16, their worst showing to-date on RCA. Although the next four albums would chart better, even reaching the top ten in two instances, it was becoming clear that Alabama was no longer a dominant force in country music.

Despite this, I really like this album, as some of the songs personally resonate with me.

The album opens with the Rick Bowles-Josh Leo composition “Still Goin’ Strong”, a moderate rocker, that features Jim Horn on tenor sax.

Next up is “T.L.C.A.S.A.P” a song penned by the Baker-Myers duo. This song only reached #7 but likely would have been a number one a few years earlier.

Well, we work real hard six days a week,
Honey, this is somethin’ we both need…

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
A little TLC ASAP.

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
I need TLC ASAP.

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

“Katy Brought My Guitar Back Today” is a tender slow ballad that had little potential for use as a single. Ditto for the Mark Alan Springer ballad “On This Side of The Moon”.

The title track “The Cheap Seats” is the outstanding track on the album, even though it only reached #13. The song, a perfectly crafted uptempo ‘slice of life’ by Randy Sharp and Marcus Hummon tells it like it is in many small towns. Believe me, I’ve lived this story many times growing up:

This town ain’t big, this town ain’t small
It’s a little of both they say
Our ball club may be minor league, but at least it’s triple A
We sit below the Marlboro man, above the right field wall
We do the wave all by ourself
Hey ump, a blind man could’ve made that call
We like beer flat as can be
We like our dogs with mustard and relish
We got a great pitcher what’s his name
Well we can’t even spell it
We don’t worry about the pennant much
We just like to see the boys hit it deep
There’s nothing like the view from the cheap seats

“Cheap Seats” was the only song from this album that was made into a video.

“Reckless”, written by Jeff Stevens and Michael Clark, was actually the first single released from this album and would prove to be Alabama’s last #1 single. The song, a mid-tempo rocker, is a typical ode to restless youth:

Let’s take my Thunderbird and leave tonight,
I’ll keep the pedal to the floor till we see the morning light.
They can’t live our lives for us,
If we let them we’ll lose our love.
And love dies hard in this Texas sun,
I’d rather be reckless and on the run

Let’s roll the windows down, turn the radio up
Let the wind blow through our hair
There’s a moon tonight and a road outside, baby
We’re gettin out of here.
I could care less where it leads us
Love is reckless, let’s get reckless tonight

Teddy Gentry, Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler collaborated on “That Feeling”, a lovely ballad that would have made a good single. I consider this song to be the unearthed gem of this album:

I’ve made some decisions
Never not the best
Against my better judgment
I must confess
I went astray so many ways
So my dreams fall apart
And came a day I’m glad to say
I followed my heart

That feeling the one I’m feeling now
Oh that feeling that turned me all around
That feeling oh what love can do
That feeling that never let’s me down
Oh that feeling that always come around
I never need another
It’s gonna last my whole life through
That feeling I’m feeling for you

Jeff Cook had a hand in writing “This Love’s On Me” a kind of generic up-tempo rocker that, this time featuring Jim Nelson on tenor sax. Jeff Cook handles the lead vocals on this track.

“Clear Water Blues” , another Gentry- Rogers-Fowler collaboration, was not on the cassette version of this album, but was on the CD version as a ‘bonus’ track. The song is a gentle jazzy ballad which features harmonica, banjo, organ and trumpet as integral parts of the arrangement. Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals on this song and does an excellent job of it.

“A Better Word For Love” is another track not found on the original cassette release, but available as a CD ‘bonus track’. The song was written by Andy Anderson (of NRBQ) and Gary Nicholson and is yet another gentle ballad. NRBQ would record the song on one of their albums.

The final song, Becky Hobbs’ excellent “Angels Among Us” has an interesting history. Unlike the rest of the album, this track was produced by Teddy Gentry. Not only did Becky Hobbs include the song on her excellent 1994 album The Boots I Came to Town In, but the Alabama album track received considerable attention at county radio and twice entered the country charts from unsolicited airplay: reaching # 54 in 1994, and later clocking in at # 28 in January 1995. The sonmg charted again for Alabama at #22 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart in January 1996. Maybe Alabama should have issued the song as an official single! The choir on this song was provided by the Sanctuary Choir & Young Musicians Choir of First Baptist Church, Fort Payne, Alabama.

I was walkin’home from school
On a cold winter day,
Took a short cut through the woods
And I lost my way.
It was gettin’ late, and I was scared and alone.
Then a kind old man took my hand, and led me home.
Mama couldn’t see him,
But he was standing there,
And I knew in my heart
He was the answer to my prayer.

[Chorus]
Oh, I believe there are Angels Among Us,
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love.

This wasn’t Alabama’s best album but a strong album worth a B+. I liked all three released singles, and while “Angels Among Us” wasn’t released as a single, I have several friends who consider the song to be their favorite Alabama song. Since the album tracks were all at least passable, and most very good, no one should be disappointed with this album.

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘In Time’

in timeAfter almost a decade ploughing their individual furrows, the Mavericks reunited in 2012 and released a much-anticipated comeback early in 2013 on Valory Records. Arrangements are generally heavy on the horns, and the songs, all written or co-written by Raul, don’t quite stand up with the best of their earlier material, but it is a solid record filled with energised performances by a band clearly happy to be back together.

The lead single ‘Born To Be Blue’ is quite good, but didn’t crack the top 40 on the country airplay chart. The only other single, ‘Back In Your Arms Again’, a co-write with Gary Nicholson and Seth Walker, has a strong Latin influence, and didn’t chart at all.

‘Lies’ is an up-tempo country rocker, written with Al Anderson and Bob DipIero. It’s an excellent song lyrically, but lacks melody and the arrangement or mix is too loud and relentless. ‘Come Unto Me’, sung partly in Spanish, with a full-on Spanish version tacked on to the end of the record, incorporates Latin and rock aspects, and is pretty good. ‘As Long As There’s Loving Tonight’ and ‘Dance In The Moonlight’ are examples of the band’s feelgood party numbers – enjoyable and no doubt even more so live.

By far my favourite track, ‘In Another’s Arms’ is a tender ballad showcasing Raul’s voice at his soaring best and is tastefully produced. The languid ‘Forgive Me’ is another beautifully sung ballad.

‘Amsterdam Moon’ and ‘That’s Not My Name’ have a retro pop feel which is not my cup of tea, but well done. I enjoyed ‘Fall Apart’, which has a bouncy polka-style accordion-led accompaniment backing an unrepentant lyric about risking hurt for the sake of love. ’All Over Again’ has a similar joie de vivre, and a lyric about defying a helpless love for the woman who insists on breaking his heart repeatedly.

At over eight minutes, ‘Call Me When You Get To Heaven’ is far too long while not really getting anywhere interesting, and feels self-indulgent to me.

This isn’t a particularly country album, but is it is an enjoyable one which fans of the band should catch up on if they missed it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘San Angelo’

san angeloSan Angelo was Aaron Watson’s sixth album and his first album to reach Billboard’s Country Albums chart, peaking at #60 in 2006. From this point forward all of Aaron’s albums would receive nationwide exposure.

The album opens up with “Heyday Tonight” a good up-tempo country honker that would have fit in the repertoire of any dance hall band of the period. Aaron composed this song as he did the second song on the album “Good Thing Going” about a good love that got away due to the narrator’s failure to tend to business. It’s a bit lightweight in terms of lyrics, but it is pleasant listening.

The third song finds Aaron covering a Frank Dycus – Jim Lauderdale composition “In Harm’s Way” that could easily have been a hit for someone. Frankly, I would have expected George Strait to have wound up with this song.

I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way
I couldn’t see the truth
Till it was in my face
If I’d seen it coming
I could have turned away
I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way

Aaron co-wrote “3rd Gear & 17” with Drew Womack, another song of lost love, this one with a football backdrop about a fellow who left to play college football, losing the girl he left behind.

“Unbelievably Beautiful” is another Aaron Watson composition, with a laid-back, almost jazzy vibe to it. While I don’t think the song had any potential as a single, it makes a nice change of pace within the context of the album.

“Haunted House” is another Watson composition, this one a fine mid-tempo exposition of a love gone wrong.

Willie Nelson has written many fine songs in his long career. “I’m A Memory” wasn’t a huge hit for Willie (#28 for Willie on RCA in 1971) but it was always one of my favorite of his songs. Aaron does the song justice with an arrangement similar to Willie’s arrangement but with steel guitar and fiddle added to the mix.

I’m a game that you used to play
And I’m a plan that you didn’t lay so well
And I’m a fire that burns in your mind
So close your eyes I’m a memory

The title track “San Angelo” is one of those hard-edged about love and heartbreak that Aaron writes so convincingly. The medium-slow tempo fits the song perfectly.

She said time would heal my broken heart
And I’d find a true companion for my soul
You know she was right, we were wrong
Nothing more than a pretty song
About a boy who loved a girl
In San Angelo

“Except For Jessie” is Aaron’s wonderful tribute to Waylon Jennings and his lady Jessi Colter . The song is a four minute biography of Waylon’s life. Although a bit of a novelty, with a sound reminiscent of some of Waylon’s songs, it is an effective song. I doubt Waylon ever got to hear the song (I don’t know when it was written) but he surely would have approved.

Well, before she came along he was lonesome, on’ry and mean
It was his way or the highway
But she had a way that he’d never seen
He’d been livin’ hard and fast
All his takin’ was takin’ it’s toll
And it took a good hearted, hard headed angel
To help him gain control

Bruce Robison wrote the slow ballad “Blame It On Me”. It’s a nice song, and Aaron gives the song a proper reading.

‘All American Country Girl ” is the worst song on the album, a lightweight piece of fluff that is would work well on the dance floor. It’s not bad – I’d give the song a C+ – but the rest of the album is better.

Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” was an interesting choice for Aaron to cover. I am afraid that Buddy is slowly being forgotten as I hear no trace of his influence in today’s country music whereas through the 1980s it was fairly common for his songs to pop up on country albums. Mickey Gilley’s cover of this song in 1980 went to #1 and Peter & Gordon had a #14 pop hit with the song in 1965. I really like Aaron’s recording which nicely combines fiddle and steel as well as featuring more piano that the rest of the album.

Aaron co-wrote “Nobody’s Crying But The Baby” with Gary Nicholson. I think this song would have made an effective single for someone:

With her little one in one arm
And the laundry in the other
She could sure use a helping hand
But that’s just the life of a single mother

Somebody’s calling on the phone
Somebody’s knocking at the door
She forgets and burns the dinner
Throws it across the kitchen floor
And for a moment she wants to give up and break down

But nobody’s crying but the baby
She ain’t far from going crazy
And there are times she wonders how she’s going to make it
But she’s got to be strong enough for two
She’s gotta do what he wouldn’t do
No time for tears around here
Nobody’s crying but the baby

I thoroughly enjoy this album from start to finish each time I pull it out to play. I’d give it an 4.5 stars. Ray Benson produced the album, and this is a country album – no doubt about it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘The Next Right Thing’

nextrightthingThe second album of the post-major label phase of T. Graham Brown’s career was 2003’s The Next Right Thing, which he co-produced with Gary Nicolson. It was released five years after Wine Into Water, and puts less emphasis on soul and R&B and more on mainstream country than his hits for Capitol.

The album’s only single was a remake of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1977 hit “Middle Age Crazy”, which was written by Sonny Throckmorton. Brown’s faithful-to-the-original version reached #58 on the charts. It may have been the only single released from the album but it is far from the only quality track. The album’s highlight is “Bag of Bones” about an aging war veteran, featuring a guest vocal by George Jones, who sings from the point of view of the song’s subject. These aren’t two artists one would immediately think to pair together, but it is an effective and inspired partnership. The Celtic-flavored “Tools for the Soul”, Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues” and “Which Way To Pray”, a Brown/Nicholson composition about a survivor of incest are also quite good.

This album is quite different from the music Brown made during his hit-making days, which may slightly disappoint his fans from that era. The rockabilly number “Still Out of the Woods” written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a little closer to Brown’s major-label releases, and “Use The Blues” and the self-penned “Monkey”, which I did not like at all, has him reclaiming that R&B edge that is lacking from most of these tracks. Throughout much of the album, his voice sounds familiar, but if one didn’t already know who was singing, it might be difficult to identify him. A lot of the time he sounds surprisingly similar to Travis Tritt. That’s not a complaint because overall I quite enjoyed this album. It’s too bad he didn’t more of this type of music when he still had a shot at getting radio airplay.

The album concludes with “Wine Into Water”, the title track of Brown’s previous album, a (semi) autobiographical number about a recovering alcoholic still struggling to overcome his addiction.

Cheap copies of The Next Right Thing are readily available and worth obtaining.

Grade: A-

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Wine Into Water’

wine into waterBrown had fought a longstanding battle with alcohol, and this intensified after he lost his deal with Capitol. Having overcome it with the support of his wife Sheila, he returned to music in 1998 with the independent Wine Into Water, co-produced by his old friend Gary Nicholson.

The title track is stunning, perhaps the best thing Brown has ever cut, and drawing deeply on his own experiences. It is a moving plea from an alcoholic struggling with his compulsions, and begging God for help one last time:

So many times I’ve hurt the ones I love
I pushed them to the edge of giving up
They stood by me but how much can they stand
If I don’t put this bottle in your hands

Tonight I’m as low as any man can go
I’m down and I can’t fall much farther
Once upon a time you turned the water into wine
Now on my knees I’m turning to you Father
Could you help me turn the wine back into water?

I shook my fist at Heaven for all the hell that I’ve been through
Now I’m begging for forgiveness
And a miracle from you

The song was a big success o the Christian country charts, but the lack of major label muscle stopped it from repeating the feat on mainstream radio.

Almost as good is the melancholic ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away’, a wonderful Paul Craft song once recorded by Linda Ronstadt and also by Willie Nelson. Brown’s version features Marty Stuart on mandolin and showcases his own emotional vocals.

Nothing else is quite as good, but I enjoyed ‘Happy Ever After’ (a non-charting single for Gail Davies in 1990). Brown’s version is beefier, both in terms of the production and his vocals, but the latter give it a real emotional heft, focussing on the slog of building a love into a life together. I also liked the rockabilly piano-led ‘Hide And Seek’ and the soulful ‘Accept My Love’. ‘A Better Word For Love’ is a jazzy loungy ballad which makes an interesting change of pace.

‘Good Days, Bad Days’ is a bit dull. ‘Never In A Million Tears’ is very powerfully sung but an average song. ‘How Do You Know’ is a black gospel tune which is also well done.

The funky and partly spoken ‘Memphis Women And Chicken’ comes across as self-indulgent to me, but will appeal to those who like that style. The shouty ‘Livin’ On doesn’t do anything for me either.

This album contains two great tracks, and a number of good ones, and is Brown’s usual mixture of stylings.

Grade: B

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Bumper To Bumper’

bumper to bumperT. Graham Brown took on production duties for his fourth album, released in 1990, alongside Barry Beckett. The production is mellow with strong blues/soul influences, but quite tastefully done.

The lead single, ‘If You Could Only See Me Now’, written by Susan Longacre and Rick Giles, peaked at #6. It was a ballad with a strong vocal about a man who has changed his life around too late to save his marriage. The second single, a more mellow ballad ‘Moonshadow Road’ looks back fondly at teenage romance. It was a top 20 hit, and although heavily loaded with saxophone it is a very nice song.

The third and last single, ‘I’m Sending One Up For You’, written by Brown with Gary Nicholson and Ray Kennedy, unfortunately flopped. It is a sincerely delivered love song about praying for a former lover’s happiness.

The mid tempo ‘You Can’t Make Her Love You’ is a great song about an elusive woman, written by Jerry G. Ward and effectively sung. ‘I’m Expecting Miracles’ is a prettily melodic romantic ballad written by Brown with Verlon Thompson and Gary Nicholson.

The second half of the album is pretty much entirely blues/soul rather than country. A cover of soul classic ‘I’ve Been Loving You Long’ is quite well done. Brown’s idealistic ‘Bring A Change’ is in similar vein musically, with a very long sax solo.

I like ‘Blues Of the Month Club’, which is atmospheric and cleverly written but goes on a bit too long. ‘Eyes Wide Open’ and ‘For Real’ are boring all the way through. The closing ‘We Tote The Note’ is about touring as a musician but is definitely too blues for me.

This is a difficult record to grade because it is objectively very good. It just isn’t all that country,

Grade: B-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Scarecrow’

scarecrow2001’s Scarecrow was the last full-length studio album that Garth released before his long sabbatical from music, and like most of his albums, it is an eclectic collection encompassing a variety of styles, although there seems to have been more of an effort to appeal to country fans than on past projects.

The lead single, “When You Come Back To Me Again” was originally included on the soundtrack to the film Frequency. Written by Garth and Jenny Yates, it is an AC-leaning ballad, and despite the overwrought string arrangement, it’s one of Garth’s better non-country efforts. It was apparently a little too-AC for country radio. It peaked at #21, becoming one of a very few number of Garth Brooks singles to miss the Top 20.

Before the album was released, Capitol dug back into its archives and went back to Garth’s 1990 collection No Fences, and released “Wild Horses”, with a newly recorded vocal track, as his next single. Then it was back to Scarecrow for the catchy and sparsely produced “Wrapped Up In You”, which became the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #5. It was the only single from Scarecrow to reach the Top 10. It was followed by a shouty duet with future wife Trisha Yearwood, the Delbert McClinton-Gary Nicholson tune “Squeeze Me In”, which reached #16. Garth makes his best attempt at a Delbert McClinton impersonation, but sounds out of his element here. Trisha sounds slightly more at home. “Thicker Than Blood”, a nice midtempo number again penned by Garth and Jenny Yates, deserved more attention than it received. It peaked at #18.

Like much of Garth’s work, Scarecrow is a mixed bag. It’s a very incohesive album as Garth attempts to appeal to every niche of his vast fanbase, and in doing so often comes across as insincere. There is the exaggerated twang on the more country numbers like “Beer Run”, a novelty duet with George Jones that wears thin after the first listen, the complete lack of a twang on the overblown power ballads like “Mr. Midnight” and “The Storm” and the awkward attempt to be a bluesman on “Squeeze Me In”. It all leaves the listener wondering just who the real Garth Brooks really is and what kind of music would he really have made had he not been so obssessed with breaking sales records.

That being said, Scarecrow has more than its fair share of enjoyable moments. “Pushing Up Daisies” is a nice cover of a Kevin Welch tune from 1995 and should have been released as a single. “Don’t Cross The River” is a countrified version of a song originally recorded in 1972 by the pop group America. The arrangement features a lot of banjo, dobro and fiddle and it works surprisingly well, and “Rodeo or Mexico” is a very enjoyable number written by Garth with Paul Kennerley and Bryan Kennedy.

Scarecrow is probably one of Garth’s more forgettable albums but on average the plusses outweigh the minuses. Garth fans will like it and even more casual listeners will find plenty to enjoy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’

bangbangbang1999’s Bang, Bang, Bang was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sole release from DreamWorks Records, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the band’s decade-long commercial decline. Emory Gordy, Jr. and Steve Fishell were brougnt in to co-produce with Josh Leo. The result was an album that relied more heavily on outside songwriters than most of their earlier work and a more mainstream country-pop sound instead of the country-rock for which they had become well known. As the title suggests, Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t their most substantive collection of songs, but it still has its enjoyable moments.

The opening track “If This Ain’t Love”, written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a big departure for the group. The horns are a bit jarring but the tune is catchy and contains plenty of steel guitar in the mix, which is a very welcome inclusion — remember this was the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill when many artists had one eye on the pop charts. The title track, which was the album’s sole single, is a disappointing piece of fluff. It died at #52 when it was originally releasd in 1998. The following year’s re-release fared even worse, recaching only #63. Even more disappointing is the Steve Bogard/Rick Giles tune “Forget The Job (Get A Life)”, an extremely annoying number that sounds like something Shania Twain rejected. I don’t know what they were thinking when they recorded this one but everyone involved should have known better. “It’s About Time” isn’t a first-rate song but it is saved by a nice harmony vocal provided by Matraca Berg.

Things get better with a nice cover of Mac McAnally’s “Down The Road”, which I prefer to the original. “Singing To the Scarecrow”, about a Kentucky farm girl who dreams of stardom, is one of two Dennis Linde compositions and is also quite good. Even better is “Dry Town”, an uptempo Gillian Welch-Jown Rawlings number. The novelty tune “The Monkey Song”, written by Jimmy Ibbotson, is the album’s sole song written by a NGDB member.

While Bang, Bang Bang ultimately did nothing to relaunch the band’s recording career, and it may not be the best remembered entry in their discography, it is certainly worth a listen. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Every Night’s A Saturday Night’

LeeroysaturdayLee Roy Parnell released his fifth album, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, in June 1997. Parnell co-produced the project, his second release for Arista imprint Career Records, along with his touring band The Hot Links.

The album produced three singles yet failed to generate any top ten hits. Parnell and Gary Nicholson co-wrote “Lucky Me, Lucky You,” which peaked at #35 and “All That Matters Anymore,” which stalled at #50. Sandwiched between them was “You Can’t Get There From Here,” written by Tony Arata, which reached #39. While I’m not crazy about the final single, the other two are excellent, and deserved to further Parnell’s radio career for at least another year.

George Strait covered Parnell and Cris Moore’s “One Foot In Front of the Other” on It Just Comes Natural in 2006. Parnell’s vocal on the original is far less energetic than Strait’s, but the overall track is quite good. Trisha Yearwood joins Parnell on “Better Word for Love,” a surprisingly tender ballad. Her background vocal contributions to the track are wasted as she’s barely audible, and the song wouldn’t demand a close listen if she wasn’t a part of it.

Parnell dives back into the Bob McDill songbook and pulls out “Tender Touch,” a steel and electric guitar soaked mid-tempo ballad that lacks the special touch McDill usually gives his compositions. He also revives Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” from 1974. Parnell presents his version in Jam Band style, complete with electric guitar, but also stays true to Haggard’s original. It’s an excellent cover based on his mix alone.

Guy Clark co-wrote “Baton Rouge,” an excellent country shuffle that suffers from Parnell’s unexpectedly weak vocal. The title track is a typical workingman’s rocker and the album’s lone instrumental, the bluesy “Mama Screw Your Wig On Tight,” was nominated for a Grammy.

Judging from the co-producing credit from Parnell’s road band, I expected Every Night’s A Saturday Night to retain the live energy of a concert, thus being excessively rock in nature. That’s probably a fact of the changes within the genre in the past seventeen years. I was pleasantly taken aback by how clean this album sounds, crisp and comfortable. Not every lyrical composition is a memorable masterpiece, but the overall quality of Parnell’s fifth album is very high.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘We All Get Lucky Sometimes’

we all get lucky sometimesLee Roy Parnell’s fourth album saw him repeating the pattern of the records which had seen him enjoy commercial success. There was one backroom change, though: a sideways move from Arista proper to the subsidiary imprint Career Records.

The lead single ‘A Little Bit Of You’ is a mid-tempo love song with a radio-friendly tune, written by hitmakers Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman. It just missed the top spot on the charts, peaking at #2. ‘When A Woman Loves A Man peaked ten spots lower, at #12, but I think it’s a better song. A classy soulful ballad, it features Trisha Yearwood’s backing vocals, although they’re quite low in the mix.

‘Heart’s Desire’ was another big hit, reaching #3. It’s an excellent example of one of Parnell’s slower numbers, rhythmic and blusey but not overwhelmingly so, with a mellow feel. ‘Givin’ Water To A Drownin’ Man’ proved to be Parnell’s last top 20 hit. It’s another strong track in Parnell’s wheelhouse, although the Merle Haggard namedrop seems rather random. The title track also got some airplay but didn’t make the top 40. It’s a mid-to-up-tempo chugger, stronger on groove than substance, but enjoyable enough.

‘Saved By The Grace Of Your Love’ is a gentle ballad written by Parnell with Mike Reid, which is very pretty. ‘I Had To Let It Go’ is a pretty good story song involving losing a loved one and giving up booze.

The Delbert McClinton/Gary Nicholson song ‘Squeeze Me In’ is best known to country fans from Trisha Yearwood’s version. Parnell’s take is okay (and there’s some great piano), but I like Trisha’s better.

‘Knock Yourself Out’ has a blues groove which is quite catchy with call-and-response vocals and is quite enjoyable without being very memorable. It would have worked well live. ‘If The House Is Rockin’ is a straightforward slice of rock ‘n roll with exuberant honky tonk piano.

The album closes out with an instrumental; featuring accordion great Flaco Jiminez. Not my thing, but impressive playing.

Overall, a solid album which should appeal to anyone who likes the singles.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Lee Roy Parnell’

Lee Roy Parnell’s debut album on Arista Records in 1990 was very different from the neotraditional style which was then at its peak, although not really unique (T Graham Brown was making quite similar music at the time, and doing well). The album was produced by Barry Beckett, a Nashville session man and producer whose roots lay in Muscle Shoals soul, and the combination of producer and artist was a good fit.

Lee Roy’s rise coincided with the fall from favour with country radio of T Graham Brown, who had similar influences and musical stylings. Perhaps there was only room for one, and the newer guy would win out soon, but at the time of this release, Brown was still at his peak.

Lee Roy’s first single, ‘Crocodile Tears, crept into the top 60. It’s a pretty good mid-tempo tune which he wrote himself, in which the protagonist rebuffs his wife’s insincere protestations of love, and at another time might have done better on country radio.

Only marginally more successful, the second single. ‘Oughta Be A Law’ is a chugging mid-tempo country-blues-rock number written by Gary Nicholson with Dan Penn, with a prominent brass section. It is quite catchy, but not very country, and I can see why it didn’t catch on.

Final single ‘Family Tree’ was even less of a success, which is a shame because it is my favourite of the singles. It is a cheerful uptempo song about a family’s prodigal son, who:
Went out on a limb and fell off the family tree.

I quite like ‘Fifty Fifty Love’, a solid tune written by Parnell and Nicholson, with a rhythmic groove which moves along nicely, although the horns are out in force again.

‘Mexican Money’ is an entertaining song about a blue-collar Texan planning to abandon the US, where he can’t make ends meet, to live with his Mexican sweetheart.

The solemn ballad ‘Where Is My Baby Tonight’, written by Troy Seals and Graham Lyle, slows the pace, as does the bluesy love song ‘Down Deep’. ‘Let’s Pretend’ is a soul ballad. ‘You’re Taking Too Long’ picks up the tempo again, but isn’t very interesting. The closing ‘Red Hot’ is old fashioned rock n’ roll.

Overall, this album is well done in its way, but it has quite a loose connection to country music and isn’t really my cup of tea with far too much brass rather than steel guitar. Fans of Lee Roy Parnell may be interested in exploring his earliest recorded work, but it probably isn’t the place to start.

Grade: B

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Band of Brothers’

bandofbrothersIn era in which most artists only release new albums every two or three (or more) years, the ever-prolific Willie Nelson is back with a new collection, a mere eight months after the release of To All The Girls … Like all of Nelson’s recent releases for Legacy Recordings, Band of Brothers was produced by Buddy Cannon. It consists of fourteen tracks, eight of which were written by Willie and Cannon.

Band of Brothers is vintage Willie. He thankfully makes no attempts to chase current commercial trends, but manages to make the songs sound fresh and bold, without sounding retro. He serves notice that he’s ready to take on just about anything with the album’s opening track “Bring It On”. “Guitar on the Corner” sounds like a song you think you’ve heard before, but it’s a brand new composition. “The Wall” sounds like the aftermath of “Bring It On”, the bravado having worn off and the protagnist realizing that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. “Wives and Girlfriends” is aperhaps a semi-autobiographical, tongue-in-cheek and slightly (but only slightly) exaggerated account of an apparent glutton for punishment who has had more love affairs than most of us have had hot dinners.

In addition to the aforementioned Nelson/Cannon original compositions, Willie also enlists some help of a few prominent outside songwriters, including Gordie Sampson, Bill Anderson and Billy Joe Shaver. Sampson and Anderson contribute “The Songwriters”, which compares tunesmiths to heroes, schemers, drunks, and dreamers. It’s a perfect vehicle for Willie, one that I mistakenly assumed he’d written himself the first time I heard it. Jamey Johnson joins Willie on Billy Joe Shaver and Gary Nicholson’s “The Git Go”, which although well crafted, is a little too cynical for my liking. I prefer Shaver’s other submission “Hard To Be An Outlaw”, which again is a good match for Nelson.

I’ve often said that Willie Nelson’s voice is an acquired taste and I will readily admit to not being a huge fan when I first became interested in country music in the early 80s. I remember having a conversation with someone who told me to take a moment to appreciate Willie’s skill as a guitarist. It wasn’t enough to win me over as a Willie fan at the time, but over the years I’ve come to realize that the person who told me this was right. Willie remains one of music’s most distinctive pickers and it more than compensates for the occasional moments when his 81-year-old vocal chords let him down. He sounds pretty good on most of the uptempo and midtempo numbers, but the wear and tear is apparent on the ballads, most notably his cover of Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around”. This type of song needs a prettier voice than Willie’s but his guitar picking helps to salvage the track.

Band of Brothers serves notice that Willie Nelson still has plenty to offer in the way of songs that are well played, well written, well produced and mostly well sung.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Clay McClinton – ‘Bitin’ At the Bit’

bitin at the bitLegendary blues rocker Delbert McClinton has had a number of connections with country music, particularly as a songwriter but also duetting with Tanya Tucker and touring with Willie Nelson.  His son Clay, based in Texas, recruited country songwriter and producer Gary Nicholson to produce his latest solo album, and while it is an eclectic album, it draws strongly on his country influences, with Tex-Mex, blues and jazz thrown in the mix.

Clay isn’t as distinctive a vocalist as his father, but his rough-edged voice works well on his material.  It has a naturally melancholy tinge which is at its most effective on the wearied waltz ‘A Woman That Can’t Be Explained’, which has a slightly ragged 70s outlaw country feel which is very attractive.  One of a number of Nicholson/McClinton collaborations, this is my favorite track.  The protagonist is as puzzled by his sweetheart’s many contradictions when they split as when they first get together.

The pair’s laid-back ‘Wildflowers’ admires free-spirited women in a more straightforward way.

The cheerful honky tonker ‘Beer Joint’ (co-written with dad Delbert, and featuring backing vocvals from 60s rocker Bruce Channel) is another favourite, in which the protagonist turns down an expenses-paid exotic trip in favour of a party at his local bar.

The rueful ‘Hydrated’ faces a hangover with witty resolve and the hair of the dog:

Everything I read says you need at least 8 glasses a day

So put a little more ice in your drink and you might get enough that way

I ain’t no nutritionist but let’s make one thing clear

There’s a whole lot of corn in alcohol and there’s a whole lot of water in beer

Drink plenty when you exercise

Drink plenty out in the sun

I get my electrolytes mixing Gatorade and rum

It was written by Clay and Nicholson with Tom Hambridge, as was the very different ‘Sound Of A Small Town’, a gently understated and beautifully detailed portrait of life in a rural community.  ‘Bound For Glory’ is a fine tribute to American folk pioneer Woody Guthrie.

‘Stories We Can Tell’ is a co-write with dad Delbert, and has the bluesy groove typical of the latter’s work.  A sultry cover of 60s pop hit ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ is in similar vein.  Bluesy mid-tempo love song ‘Nobody Knows My Baby’ is a bit dull.

Delbert helps out vocally on a sturdy version of his classic song ‘Victim Of Life’s Circumstances’.  a number of other covers are also included.  The country classic ‘Poison Love’ (a hit for Johnnie & Jack in 1951) gets an enjoyable Tex-Mex makeover with joyful fiddle and accordion work, which works really well.  ‘What A Little Love Can Do’, written by producer Nicholson with Stephen Bruton for the Crazy Heart soundtrack, is quite good

I was very pleasantly surprised by this album, particularly the quality of the songwriting.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Woman I Am’

picklerI wasn’t terribly impressed with Kellie Pickler when she first arrived on the scene and quickly wrote her off as a marginal talent without a lot of staying power. I was forced to reassess my opinion of her with the release of last year’s surprisingly good 100 Proof, which found her eschewing the trappings of contemporary country in favor of a more traditional sound. Predictably, 100 Proof’s singles received little support from radio and the album sold poorly. Pickler’s contract with BNA Records was terminated shortly thereafter, and I figured that the artistic growth she showed on 100 Proof was just a one-off. But once again Pickler proved me wrong. She signed with Black River Entertainment last fall, and The Woman I Am, her first album for the indie imprint, was released just this month.

Like 100 Proof, The Woman I Am was produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. Unlike 100 Proof, it is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, serving notice that though Kellie may no longer be a major label artist, she still has her eye on the charts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider most of today’s mainstream releases unlistenable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this album. It has a couple of weak songs and some questionable production choices at times, but from beginning to end it maintains a semblance to actual country music and never dissolves into the lackluster Lite-FM sound that mars so much of today’s country music.

Two singles have been released so far. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a decent ballad that I probably would have liked a lot more if I’d never heard Pam Tillis’ version. The uptempo “Little Bit Gypsy” is Kellie’s current single. I quite enjoyed this one, despite the slightly cluttered nature of the production towards the end. Sadly, neither single has garnered much attention from radio. I don’t know how aggressively Black River will continue to promote this project, but there are several other worthy contenders for future single release.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Pickler is no exception as she opts to hock her engagement ring rather than return it to her two-timing ex-fiance in “Ring For Sale”, which was written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton. “Bonnie and Clyde”, on which Kellie shares a co-writing credit with Kyle Jacobs and Liz Rose, is also quite good, despite a somewhat heavy-handed “Indian Outlaw” like arrangement. It is the ballads, however, on which Pickler truly shines, particularly on the lovely title track, which she also co-wrote, and “Tough All Over”, a Gary Nicholson and Leslie Satcher composition and not the 1990 Shelby Lynne song of the same name. “Buzzin'” is pleasant but lyrically shallow, and “No Cure For Crazy” quickly disintegrates into a too loud and too cluttered sonic mess.

The Woman I Am isn’t an outstanding album, but it is a very good one that proves that 100 Proof wasn’t just a fluke and that there is more substance to Kellie Pickler than one might have guessed based upon her first two albums and the dumb blonde shtick she engaged in at the time. The Woman I Am deserves a listen, even if like me, you weren’t a huge fan of Kellie’s early efforts.

Grade: B+