My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: George Teren

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Time Flies’

After he was dropped by Warner Brothers. JMM released one further album, 2008’s Time Flies, on independent label Stringtown Records. Recorded in his brother Eddie’s home studio, it was produced by Byron Gallimore with, for the most part, his trademark sheen and lack of subtlety.

The lead single (or at least the first song released, as it did not chart), ‘Mad Cowboy Disease’, is a tongue in cheek country rocker written by Jamey Johnson, Jon Maddox and Jeremy Popoff. JMM sings it with a commitment which carries off a sometimes silly lyric, and there’s even a fun nod to Mel Tillis in the song. Next up was ‘If You Ever Went Away’, an emotional ballad written by Randy Houser and Daryl Burgess. It is a nice song which JMM sings well, but a bit over-produced. ‘Forever’, which was an actual radio single and made it into the top 30, is a very boring AC song.

Jamey Johnson contributed another pair of songs. ‘What Did I Do?’ (written with George Teren) is a rocking love song – not bad but over-produced. ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is quite a pleasant ballad which Johnson wrote with Arlis Albritton and Jeremy Popoff.

‘Loving And Letting Go’, written by Greg Barnhill and Gary Hannan, is a rather dull AC ballad. ‘Fly On’ is better, a wistful ballad about loss.

Luke Bryan’s own career has led to considerable (and often justified) disdain from more traditional country fans, but his cowrite with Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller included here, ‘With My Shirt On’ is actually rather good, with a wryly amusing lyric about noticing the ravages of middle age:

Remember Key West spring break
We were 21, in perfect shape
We stayed oiled up and half naked all week long
But that was 10 years and 20 pounds ago
Girl, you’re still a 10 but I’m somewhere below
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on?

Now you say our love has grown beyond the physical
And you tell me that you think I’m irresistible
Today I had a salad but I gave in and ate a roll
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on

The best tracks all cluster at the end of the set, with Gallimore reining it back a bit. The best is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, a powerful Chris Stapleton song which Stapleton himself finally recorded in 2017. JMM’s vocal is much less intense but it is a pretty good performance of a great song which feels believable, and there is a tasteful steel-laced arrangement.

‘All In A Day’ is a warmly sung song about the passage of time as a beloved grandfather comes to the end of his life, set to a soothing melody. Written by Daryl Burgess and Dan Denny, it provides he album’s title.

JMM co-wrote the charming autobiographical ‘Brothers Til The End’, about growing up playing country music in a family band with his parents and brother Eddie, and thein their rival country music careers, “chasing each other up and down the charts”.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Alabama – ‘Southern Drawl’

southern drawlI was concerned that Alabama’s long-awaited comeback album would pander too much to the current state of country radio, and the first single did nothing to change that. Fortunately there are some bright spots and one outstanding song.

The title track and lead single sounds like a straight rock song. It’s actually not bad for what it is, apart from the woeful rap section and the very, very cliche’d picture of the South it paints. Somehow it took four writers to create it. The song at least has an insistent groove and the band sound as if they are enjoying themselves. It is not the worst track on the album; that dubious honor goes to the resolutely uncatchy ‘Foot Stompin’ Music’, whose title alone probably tells you all you need to know. The only good thing about it is the fiddle break at the end.

I was intrigued by the quirky title, ‘Hillbilly Wins The Lotto Money’, written by Randy Owen’s son Heath. It is an interesting story song with a bluesy arrangement which grew on me with repeated listens. The perky ‘Back To The Country’ features the obligatory token banjo to accompany a lyric about feeling out of place in the city and longing for a rural home. The clichés are saved by Randy Owen’s believable delivery. The mid-tempo country-rock ‘American Farmer’ pays tribute to its subjects’ hard work.

‘No Bad Days’ took six writers including James Otto, Jerry Jeff Walker’s son Django, and Jeff Cook, but is a pretty good song in folk-rock vein sung by Cook. Teddy Gentry leads on the more urgent ‘It’s About Time’ .

The ballads tend to lean AC rather than country. ‘Wasn’t Through Lovin’ You Yet’ just feels a little uninspired. ‘This Ain’t Just A Song’, written by Tim James, Rivers Rutherford and George Teren, is quite pleasant; and the Randy Owen-penned ‘As Long As There’s Love’ has a pretty melody and idealistic lyric.

‘One On One’ has Randy Owen doing his familiar laughably over-the top Conway Twitty impersonation, but the parts which are actually sung rather than spoken in an attempt to sound sexy, are pretty good.

The gentle ‘Come Find Me’ is very pretty indeed, and features Alison Krauss on fiddle and harmony vocals, although the latter are rather low in the mix. It was written by Tony Lane and David Lee. By far the best song here, though, is left to the end of the set. The beautiful ‘I Wanna Be There’ is addressed to a newborn baby girl, with the besotted new father expressing his hopes that he will experience all the joys of fatherhood in the years to come. It was written by Paul Overstreet and Harley Allen, and is genuinely moving. This alone makes a distinctly patchy album worthwhile, and I recommend both it and ‘Come Find Me’ to be downloaded even if you pass on the rest.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Burn’

Jo_Dee_Messina-BurnAfter making history as the first woman to score three consecutive multi-week number one hits, bringing a cover of an old Dottie West tune to number two, and winning the CMA Horizon Award, expectations were unbelievably high for whatever Jo Dee Messina would do next.

The world got their answer in May 2000, when the decidedly very pop “That’s The Way” was shipped to country radio. The track, which was soaked in mandolin, soared to #1. Penned by Annie Roboff and Holly Lamar, “That’s The Way” is undeniably infectious and one of the strongest examples of turn-of-the-century pop-country done right.

When Burn hit stores in August, it became Messina’s first record to top the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Produced once again by Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw, Burn was distinctively different than it’s predecessors in that it favored bright hooks that would help Messina appeal to a more mainstream audience.

The epic title track, a stunning mid-tempo power ballad, hit radio in October. Written by Tina Arena, Steve Werfel and Pam Reswick, “Burn” was a cover of Arena’s 1997 single, which exploded in her native Australia. Messina took her version to #2.

The third single, “Downtime,” returned Messina to uptempo territory. Written by Phillip Coleman and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the track peaked at #5. Like “That’s The Way,” “Downtime” succeeds on it’s infectious melody, which is more reliant on drums and guitars than her previous upbeat single. It’s excellent none-the-less.

Messina would return to #1 with the fourth single, a lush pop ballad entitled “Bring On The Rain.” A song about not surrendering to grim circumstances, the Billy Montana and Helen Darling penned number is probably most notable for finally teaming Messina with McGraw, who provides a harmony vocal that gives the song the perfect amount of added texture.

Final single “Dare To Dream,” which came as the album cycle was dying down, fared the worst peaking at #23. Another rollicking uptempo, “Dare To Dream” employs the wall-of-sound production technique and even though Messina sells it hard, it’s not a very strong song.

When Burn came out fifteen years ago, I actually wrote a pretend review for it and noted the album had a heavy reliance on uptempo tracks, which I viewed as a negative for the overall listening experience. I still agree with that assessment. Burn is the type of album where once you’ve heard one uptempo, you’ve really heard them all. The lack of variety might work from a commercial prospective, but it drags the album down.

That being said, my favorite album cut is George Teren and Tom Shapiro’s “If Not You,” another infectious pop-country rocker not to far removed from the singles in this vein. There’s nothing spectacular about the lyric or anything, but the song has stuck with me all these years.

It’s very easy to see why Burn is such a let-down in the wake of Jo Dee Messina and I’m Alright. With significant effort dedicated to eradicating the depth she showed on her previous projects, Burn becomes nothing more than a pandering mainstream product.

What ultimately saves it, though, is the crispness of the production and Messina’s commitment to give her all on every track. There’s nothing overly loud or obnoxious about Burn. Do drum machines replace fiddles and steel guitar? Of course they do. But this is turn-of-the-century commercial country music at it’s finest. What you see is what you get, a time capsule of the sounds that drove the genre in 2000.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Shakin’ Things Up’

shakin things upFor 1997’s Shakin’ Things Up, for the first time Lorrie shared in the production duties, being credited alongside James Stroud. The production has a glossy sheen to it, in keeping with the contemporary direction of country radio, but it is not appreciably different from her previous record stylistically. While Lorrie is in good voice, this is definitely an album of two halves: the first half is commercial and just a little dull, the second half has much better material.

The vivacious lead single ‘Go Away’ is quite poppy, but frivolous fun. Its radio friendly style led it to a top 5 chart peak and it was in fact to be Lorrie’s last top 10 hit. The even more pop oriented (but with little more lyrical substance) ‘One of Those Nights Tonight’ peaked at #14.

I liked the assertive rejoinder to a parting lover, ‘I’m Not That Easy To Forget’, quite a bit, but even though it sounds like a hit, country radio was less impressed, and the song failed to make into the top 40. It was written by Chris Waters, George Teren and Stephanie Bentley.

The best single from the album was the least successful of all: a lovely cover of the underrated Bobbie Cryner’s ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’. If you’re not familiar with Cryner, check her out now – she released two excellent albums on major labels in the mid 90s, but for some unaccountable reason gained no traction despite a beautiful voice and fine songs. This particular song, Cryner’s version of which had charted in the 50s in 1996, is a sharp, subtle indictment of a self-absorbed narrator who can’t understand why her marriage is failing, yet makes it all to clear to the listener. It’s a shame neither recorded version was a big hit; perhaps the emotion is too uncomfortable.

Another attempt to bring a new but relatively obscure song to a wider audience was Lorrie’s cut of ‘In A Perfect World’. This fine Keith Stegall song had been included on Stegall’s 1996 album Passages (another recommended purchase). Lorrie’s wistful vocal is beautifully judged, but the string section is unnecessary and does its best to smother the song. A quietly understated countryish cover of pop classic ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ works quite well with similarly intimate, throaty vocals.

The album’s most traditional track, ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’ is a timeless country classic, written by Bill Anderson and Jeanie Seely and originally a hit for Porter Wagoner. Like ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ it is about someone too insensitive to read another’s signals, although in this case it’s the man to blame. Lorrie interprets it beautifully, as she encounters an ex and finds it too painful to keep on chatting with him about the way he has moved on, when it is clear that she hasn’t. Vern Gosdin’s harmony adds the perfect finishing touch.

The sultry story song ‘Crazy From The Heat’ (written by Wally Wilson, Sam Hogin and Jim McBride) tells the story of Mississippi teens finding passion together. It’s quite good, but the instrumental sections sound a bit cluttered in places.

‘You Can’t Take That’ is a good ballad with Lorrie clinging to memories of the good times in the aftermath of a breakup. The bright ‘Finishing Touch’ is about a woman preparing for her man’s return home. The title track is a mid-tempo pop country number about chasing dreams.

The album was certified gold. While it’s not Lorrie’s best work, there is enough here to make it worth picking up a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Trouble Free’

Rhonda’s second Giant album took broadly the same approach as its predecessor. Producers James Stroud and Richard Landis provide sympathetic backings for Rhonda’s sparkling vocals. Sadly, however, country radio had begun its move in a poppier direction following the crossover success of Shania Twain, and Rhonda’s music was just a little too traditional for the time.

‘What More Do You Want From Me?’ (written by Bob Regan and Mark D. Sanders) was the only single, and it failed to gain enough airplay to chart. That was a shame, because it’s an excellent up-tempo song with some attitude and banked harmonies as Rhonda bemoans her lot to the personification of Love.

The opening ‘Somebody’, written by Al Anderson and Robert Ellis Orrall, sounds as though it was recorded with an eye on chart potential. It is well sung but feels a bit generic (despite Alison Krauss’s harmony), and is the only disappointing moment. Another song written by Orrall, this time with Curtis Wright and Billy Spencer, the wistful lost-love ‘If I Could Stop Loving You’, is better.

‘It Ain’t Nothin’ New’ is a lovely duet with Randy Travis, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Keys. Randy’s voice is at its best, and the pair’s voices meld extremely well, while the song is a sweet look at the hard work developing a relationship and keeping it alive once the shine has worn off a little, and affirming their love. It is one of my favorite tracks, with some beautiful fiddle. The love song ‘You Beat All I’ve Ever Seen’ was written by the winning combination of hitmaking songwriter Kostas, veteran Melba Montgomery, and Kathy Louvin (daughter of Ira). It has a pretty melody and a sweet and sincerely delivered lyric.

Melba Montgomery wrote ‘An Old Memory (Found Its Way Back Home Again)’ with Jerry Salley. This is a delightful up-tempo number with Rhonda wryly facing the revival of feelings she thought she had left behind, with an unexpectedly cheerful feel as she attacks the lyric, comparing her ex’s memory to
an old dog that you drop off just outside of town, uninvited, comin’ back anyhow.

The vibrant up-tempo title track was written by Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, and is also highly enjoyable. Rhonda triumphantly denies that her ex’s departure has caused her any sleepless nights. The sunny ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’ was written by George Teren and Tom Shapiro, and features a cameo from Dolly Parton on harmony.

‘When I’m Through Fallin’ Apart’ written by Michael Huffman, Gene Dobbins and Bob Morrison, is another good song, with Rhonda deferring a promising new prospect for new romance until she has got over the last one.

The John Jarrard/Kenny Beard-penned ballad ‘At The Corner Of Walk And Don’t Walk’ has a lovely traditional feel and tune with some atmospheric steel guitar underpinning the melancholic mood, although the metaphor feels a little forced. The underlying story, with the protagonist calling from a payphone as she has second thoughts about leaving, and uncertain whether her future lies with or without her lover, is still good, and Rhonda’s vocal is excellent, making this another favourite of mine.

The album was no more successful than its predecessor, and it marked the end of Rhonda’s flirtation with mainstream country music. It is however, a very fine album which has a lot to appeal to country fans.

Grade: A

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘A Place In The Sun’

Capitalizing on his newfound superstar status, McGraw found an even stronger set of songs for his fifth album A Place In The Sun that bowed in May 1999. Another CMA Album of the Year winner, it was accompanied by a print campaign (in Country Weekly) that read – “how do you follow up the album of the year? With the album of the decade.”

The first single, “Please Remember Me” followed “For A Little While” and hit #1 in May of 1999. A cover of Rodney Crowell’s song co-written with Will Jennings, it marked a departure for McGraw, as it was darker in tone than most of his previous singles. A soaring ballad, the string section, drums, and softer elements combined to create his most pop sounding song to date. But it worked since it was also his most ambitious lyrically and a fine moment of introspection from the singer who brought “Indian Outlaw” into the top ten five years prior.

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘This Is Country Music’

Brad Paisley was our Spotlight Artist last November, and he has produced some outstanding material in the past. His last few releases, however, have been on a downward spiral, and sadly his latest release accelerates the trend. He cowrote almost all the material with a variety of partners, most often including Kelley Lovelace and/or Chris Dubois. To be frank, he would have been well advised to look elsewhere, because so much of this is just plain uninspired.

Thhe three outside songs provide the most worthwhile tracks. The spiritual ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ former is the record’s sole nod to the traditionalism which marked Brad’s early career, and features guest vocals from Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. ‘A Man Don’t Have To Die’, written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson, is the album’s highlight for me, although the story’s set-up is not as well set up as it might be. The song is largely addressed to a preacher, “new around here”, but it isn’t clear what he’s been saying to his flock to prompt this response:

It don’t really scare us when you yell and shake your fist
You see we already know that Hell exists

The body of the song is much more effective, with its depiction of the hell on earth of being laid off by a ungrateful employer, “six months short of 30 years“, struggling to repay a mortgage, or a broken marriage. The chorus has effective harmonies, but the track is marred by out of place and very irritating wordless backing vocals in the second half possibly intended to be the voices of angels.

The charmingly playful ‘Toothbrush’ (written by Joel Shewmake, Jon Henderson and Danny Simpson) details the growth of romance, and this track boasts an imaginative arrangement which makes it the best sounding track on the record. Brad’s composition ‘Eastwood’ is a rather good atmospheric Western style instrumental with Clint Eastwood adding a few words at the beginning and end. Brad’s little boys gurgle a few words as well, and are less irritating than most intrusions of child voices.

None of Brad’s songs here is up to the standard of his earlier work, but I still quite like the title track’s tribute to the inclusiveness of country music, which I reviewed last autumn – at least until it collapses into an uninspired litany of (much better) song titles. The current hit, ‘Old Alabama’ is a fair tribute to the band of that name, but far less effective as a song in its own right, even when Randy Owen joins in, and it is over-produced to boot.

Also acceptable is the rueful ‘I Do Now’ which has the protagonist looking back at his wedding and regretting breaking the promises he made then. It starts out very well indeed, with an understated regret imbuing the first verse, but the chorus is predictable and the later verses don’t take us anywhere unexpected. ‘New Favorite Memory’ is a pleasant but slightly dull evocation of domestic bliss. The affectionate wedding-set ‘Love Her Like She’s Leavin’’, complete with advice (from the bride’s Uncle Bill) of how to keep the relationship going, has a very pop-influenced melody and a pleasant but cliche’d lyric. The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony.

On a similar theme, the new single ‘Remind Me’, the duet with Carrie Underwood (reviewed recently by J.R. Journey) is actually a pretty good song about a couple longing for the sweetness of the early days of a love affair which has become a stale marriage, but Carrie oversings her parts, sounding too intense where the lyric seems to call for wistfulness, and overwhelms Brad when they are singing together, while the track is too heavily produced. It will probably be a monster hit.

‘One Of Those Lives’ is a well-meaning and earnestly sung pieces comparing the protagonist’s petty problems with more serious ones faced by others, but it is awkwardly phrased and generally feels a bit forced, and I don’t care for Brad’s ventures into a falsetto.

Brad includes his usual brace of songs intended to be funny but which don’t raise a smile. Of these, the silly novelty ‘Camouflage’ with yelled call-and response backing vocals reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s worst moments at least makes an impact, if not a positive one. The Mexican vacation-set ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, a duet with Blake Shelton, falls completely flat and is a waste of both men’s talent. ‘Working On A Tan’ is a boring beach song which sounds very poppy with Beach Boys style harmonies. ‘Be The Lake’ is equally dull, as Brad leches over his love interest.

This is a disappointing offering from an artist who seems to have run out of steam creatively. Unless he manages to recharge his batteries, I suspect this will be the last Brad Paisley album I’ll buy.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Alright Guy’

Alright Guy, Gary Allan’s second album at MCA, is more than alright in many ways. It debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on its release in October 2001, and brought Gary his first No. 1 with the album opener ‘Man to Man’. Produced by Tony Brown & Mark Wright, it’s one of several of Allan’s albums to be certified platinum as well. I think the success of the album is reflected in the quality of the album’s unreleased tracks rather than the singles that charted.

The driving beat and rhythmic lyrics of the lead-off single ‘Man of Me’ (a George Teren and Rivers Rutherford song) weren’t enough to drive it beyond #18 on the charts. That seems fair given that though the lyrics describe how ‘lovin’ you made a man of me’, the music doesn’t get beyond a teen rock number, complete with a screaming ‘wow’ on the very paragraph proclaiming ‘goodbye to my blind immature days’.

‘The One’ came close to being the one that hit the top of the charts first for Allan. Coming in at #3, it’s a kind and loving gentleman’s ballad written by Karen Manno and Billy Lee. Allan isn’t going to rush his girl who has been hurt before, but instead promises,

I’ll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I’ll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you’re sure that I’m the one

It is a beautiful song, but the production is too heavy on the dreamy echo effects and background vocals for my taste. The interplay between Gary’s vocals and the melodic acoustic guitar line would have been enough.

Third time’s the charm, apparently. ‘Man to Man’, the third single off the album, was Allan’s first #1 on Billboard. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it’s sung by “the guy who got the girl” to “the guy who lost her”. It makes me think of a pool hall kind of scene in which the “loser” confronts the singer who turns and points out who’s really at fault and who’s really the better man. With lines like Were you ever there when she needed you, and Who cheated who/You’re the one to blame, he takes on the bully point for point.

The line that has always stood out to me, partly because of Allan’s great vocal on it, is She’s a real woman, not a doormat for you.

Again, the production is what gets in the way for me – the pop drums and background vocals don’t add to the character’s strength at all. And Allan’s cry-ee-eye-ee sends me back to 50s pop. However, it’s very sing-able and relatable with a catchy chorus and a recognizable intro – the stuff that often does well at radio.

The best songs on the album weren’t released to radio though. ‘Devil’s Candy’, one of 5 Harley Allen songs Gary has recorded, has a great hook and some great fiddle: I’ve always had a sweet tooth for the devil’s candy. Fiddles seem to exemplify that fiery battle with temptation, and this song’s no exception.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Only What I Feel’

Only What I FeelAfter the breakthrough of Honky Tonk Angel, it must have been very frustrating for both Patty Loveless and her label that her career seemed to have plateaued. The next two albums, 1990’s On Down The Line and 1991’s Up Against My Heart, did not sell as well, and although her singles were still charting, they were not as consistently successful as those from Honky Tonk Angel. Patty believed she was not a priority for MCA, which had a number of other high-profile female singers including Reba McEntire. She negotiated a release from the label and signed with Epic.

A further delay ensued when as she began recording new material for her Epic debut, it became clear that her vocal cords had suffered serious damage, and if nothing was done, her career could be over. She underwent surgery at the Vanderbilt Voice Center, which saved her career. Indeed, if anything, her voice sounded even better afterwards than it had done at the outset of her career, with greater depth. She returned to the studios with husband Emory Gordy Jr as producer, and the result was a very accomplished mixture of commercial appeal and artistic achievement. Only What I Feel was released in April 1993.

After all this, and the fact that her last MCA single had stalled at #30, it was vital that her first single for Epic re-established her as a star. It certainly did that, because the vibrant ‘Blame It On Your Heart’ (written by Kostas with the legendary Harlan Howard) was Patty’s first #1 since ‘Chains’ hit the top three years earlier. The attitude-filled lyric has Patty showing no sympathy for her ex:

“Blame it on your lyin’, cheatin’, cold dead beatin’, two-timin’, double dealin’, mean mistreatin’, lovin’ heart”

So far, radio had showed more enthusiasm for Patty’s up-tempo material, and sadly the reception for the beautiful ballad ‘Nothin’ But The Wheel’ was tepid, the single only just squeezing into the top 20. It remains one of my personal favorites of Patty’s recordings, and was also nominated by several readers as their favorite in our recent giveaway. The song, written by John Scott Sherrill, paints a very visual picture of a woman driving away from her old life, with nothing to show for it, and Patty’s sad, measured vocal realizes the desolation underpinning the lyric perfectly:

“The only thing I know for sure
Is if you don’t want me anymore
I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel”

Patty bounced back into the top 10 with the beaty up-tempo pop-country of ‘You Will’, written by Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy and Randy Sharp. The song’s production has not worn as well as most of Patty’s records, with slightly intrusive backing vocals, but it was definitely radio-friendly. The album contained other tracks which were potential radio fodder in the same style, the brightly assertive poppy ‘How About You’, and my favorite of the up-tempo numbers, ‘All I Need (Is Not To Need You)’, with its semi-hopeful lyric about trying to get over someone.

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