My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gretchen Wilson

Classic Rewind: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today’

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Gretchen Wilson – ‘Homewrecker’

Week ending 6/28/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

waylon1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: This Time — Waylon Jennings (RCA)

1984: When We Make Love — Alabama (RCA)

1994: Wink — Neal McCoy (Atlantic)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: This Is How We Roll — Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Beat of the Music — Brett Eldredge (Atlantic)

Week ending 6/21/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

eddy raven1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely) — Johnnie & Jack (RCA)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore — Charlie Rich (Epic)

1984: I Got Mexico — Eddy Raven (RCA)

1994: Wink — Neal McCoy (Atlantic)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: This Is How We Roll — Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Week ending 6/14/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

1954 (Sales): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

Johnnie and Jack, 19421954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely) — Johnnie & Jack (RCA)

1964: Together Again — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: I Will Always Love You — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1984: Someday When Things Are Good — Merle Haggard (Epic)

1994: That Ain’t No Way To Go — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Week ending 6/7/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

1954 (Sales): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

ronniemilsap1954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Together Again — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Pure Love — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1984: Honey (Open That Door) — Ricky Skaggs (Epic)

1994: Don’t Take The Girl — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Week ending 5/31/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

melba1954 (Sales): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: No Charge — Melba Montgomery (Elektra)

1984: As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You — John Conlee (MCA)

1994: Don’t Take The Girl — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Gretchen Wilson and friends: ‘Me And Jesus’

A Tom T. Hall penned gospel classic:

Album Review – Doug Stone – ‘My Turn’

StonemyturnDoug Stone’s most recent album, My Turn, was issued on Lofton Creek Records in 2007. Produced by the singer himself, the album is comprised solely of original material (none of which he wrote), without any re-recordings of past singles.

With Stone no longer in the good graces of country radio, and My Turn receiving little publicity from the label, it’s unsurprising none of its three single charted. Lead single “Nice Problem” boasts a wonderfully traditional arrangement, and a strong vocal from Stone, but is too sentimental lyrically. The idea of “what a nice problem to have” is just too predicable to work on a truly emotional level. “She Always Gets What She Wants” is a fine uptempo number and good choice for the second single. The title pretty much gives away the song, but it works because Stone doesn’t come off corny. I really like the light production, too.

My favorite of the three singles is “Don’t Tell Mama” a tune I first came to know through The Grascals’ version, which features a duet vocal by George Jones. The song first appeared on Ty Herndon’s Living In The Moment from 1996 and then from Gary Allan’s 1999 Smoke Rings In The Dark. It’s a perfectly cut slice of pure country about a man pleading with a first responder in the wake of his car crash, just before he dies:

Don’t tell Mama I was drinkin’

Lord knows her soul would never rest

I can’t leave this world with Mama thinkin’

I met the Lord with whiskey on my breath

“We’re All About That” is a fairly cliché uptempo rocker laundry-list type song that showed the beginning of this now insufferable trend. Stone keeps up with the high-octane rock of “The Hard Way” but the whole thing fails him by being far too progressive for his far more traditional voice. with a reference to Hank Williams Jr within the first seconds, “That’s How We Roll” plays like a Gretchen Wilson cast-off, a song too demographically specific even for her.

“Dancin’ On Glass” is a smooth-pop love song that fails to be anything great thanks to rudimentary lyrics and bland production. “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” is another laundry-list song, this time in ballad form about rudely stereotypical characteristics of being female. The song is demeaning in nature, which doesn’t help its cause, although it boasts a somewhat listenable production.

Stone is at his best when steel guitar penetrates the production track, thus giving his natural twang some context on a song. “The Right Side of Lonesome” is just one such example of this, a moment where he’s allowed to shine. It’s not a revelatory song by any stretch, but it works because all the necessary pieces come together nicely. “To A Better Place” also fits the traditional criteria, although it just isn’t that great a song, and there’s an odd vocal mix on the chorus that doesn’t do Stone’s voice any justice. He’s far better on “You Were Never Mine To Loose,” a straightforward country song with ample fiddle. It could’ve been written a little stronger, but it works fine just like it is.

When I was listening to the three singles for this review, I was excited to be able to praise Stone for making a record that showcased what he does best instead of an uncharacteristic effort that bowed to mainstream pressure. My Turn is actually neither of those things. It falls somewhere in the middle, settling as a mixed bag of tricks, some that work, and a lot that don’t. But he’s in fine voice throughout, which is nice to see from a country singer past his commercial prime. I just wish he’d been gifted with better songs.

Grade: B

Album Review: Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

pistolannies2011’s Hell on Heels, the first Pistol Annies effort, was a surprise hit despite receiving little promotion from either radio or its label. The title track and non-charting single earned gold certification and the album itself sold over 400,000 units. So it was perhaps inevitable that a sequel would follow what once seemed like a one-off project. Producer Frank Liddell is back on board, joined this time by Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf. The Annies themselves — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley wrote all of the album’s songs.

Like the first album, Annie Up is full of tell-it-like-it-is, redneck attitude, and while this was a breath of fresh air amongst the bland and soulless music dominating the airwaves in 2011, it occasionally comes across as a bit contrived this time around. The trio seems at times to be at risk of becoming a caricature of itself, a la Gretchen Wilson, which would be a shame because collectively and individually, the members of Pistol Annies are far too talented to be written off as a one trick pony.

The opening track “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” gets the album off to a good start. The song begins with an a cappella arrangement, and my initial reaction was one of relief that this wasn’t another one of those overly-loud numbers that seem so popular these days. Then, about two thirds into the song, a very loud and intrusive electric guitar enters into the mix, almost drowning out the vocals. The loudness continues into the second track and current single, ironically titled “Hush, Hush”. This is my least favorite track on the album, but it is also its most commercial, making it a wise choice for a single. It is currently on the verge of becoming the group’s first Top 40 hit. Also plagued by cluttered and too-loud production is “Loved By A Workin’ Man”, a decent song that would have been better served by a quieter arrangement.

Much more to my liking were the quieter numbers, particularly “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”, a nice steel guitar-laden lament about the tedious and sometimes labor-intensive effort the female sex must make in the name of beauty and “Unhappily Married”, a bleak and tongue-in-cheek (I think) look at the downsides of marriage. “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina”, a Lambert-led number advising a friend that she’s better off without her unreliable love interest, sounds like it has hit single potential. “Dear Sobriety”, one of the collection’s more serious efforts, is told from the point of view of an addict struggling to overcome her dependence on pills and alcohol. It is an excellent song but it is probably too politically incorrect in today’s environment to be considered for a single release. It is followed by the light-hearted “Damn Thing”, which provides a much-needed change of pace.

The album closes with “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”, which is my favorite track. It is a quiet acoustic guitar-led affair that allows the trio’s beautiful harmonies to shine. I’d like to hear more of this side of Pistol Annies and a little less redneck woman the next time around.

Overall, Annie Up is a very solid album, despite a few production missteps, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Pistol Annies’ debut effort. Nevertheless, fans of the first album will find much to enjoy here and it is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Singles Round-Up: Pistol Annies, Little Big Town, and Carrie Underwood

Hush-HushPistol Annies – “Hush, Hush”

 If “Hush, Hush” proves anything, it’s that the Pistol Annies sure know how to cultivate a brand. They’re hell bent on taking the redneck woman from deep in the holler thing as far as it’ll take them, whether it means they take risks thematically or not.

The finished product is good, but the slightly too loud electric guitar compromises the vocals a little too much. Angaleena Presley’s voice is a little thin for this type of thick production while Miranda Lambert sounds as though she’s on twang overdrive; almost overcompensating to prove she’s still a country girl. Only Ashley Monroe sounds perfectly comfortable here and she proves it with a confident vocal that makes Presley and Lambert sound amateurish.

Hell on Heels is going to be a tough act to follow. They may be up to the challenge, but “Hush, Hush” needed a bit more polish before it was ready for release. I’m digging the overall feel of the track but the story seems predictable from them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high, and while they almost reach it, they never quite get there all the way.

Grade: B

Your-Side-of-BedLittle Big Town – “Your Side of the Bed”

Let’s get it out of the way. “Your Side of the Bed” is a direct rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed” from Here For The Party. Wilson’s song wasn’t a single, but the similarities between the songs are hard to ignore – both songs cover the same ground almost identically.

Little Big Town has turned the concept into a duet between married band members Karen Fairchild (once again singing lead on a LBT single) and Jimi Westbrook. Trading off the verses, they exude the right amount of desperation to make the story work. Jay Joyce also helps by framing them in a hauntingly understated 1970s soft rock tinged production that works nicely in their favor. The track is gorgeous, and the most sonically interesting mainstream single since Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Your Eyes.”

I’m just having a trouble with the seemingly obligatory choral harmonies. They delude the pain Fairchild and Westbrook bring to the song by overcrowding the moments of greatest emotional impact with third parties not connected with the verses. A bit less vocal clutter, and this could’ve been one of the year’s best singles – a direct rip-off or not.

Grade: B+ 

15gsfbaCarrie Underwood – “See You Again”

At first glance there’s nothing wrong with this song at all. “See You Again” has an engaging melody, the strong type of vocal performance that Underwood excels at, and the track is a quintessential earworm, listen a few times, and you’ll be singing it all day.

So where’s the problem? Well, for starters, “See You Again” is classic power pop and bares no resemblance to country music whatsoever. That doesn’t help matters any as the choruses have been reduced to a muffled and bombastic mess that leaves Underwood no choice but to screech her way to next verse and bridge. This was the point in the Blown Away album cycle to change it up, with a “Do You Think About Me” for instance, opposed to sticking with more of the same. Safe filler like this doesn’t do a career any justice in the long term.

At least we’ve been spared “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” “One Way Ticket” or “Nobody Ever Told You” getting released. It isn’t saying much, but at least there’s that.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Little Big Town – ‘Tornado’

You’d think the combination of irresistible four-part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town has had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite caught on with the fans or country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sang and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one hit. Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”  Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.  I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which is turned into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.  “On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped-up rock that’s well-presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on this album) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Grade: A 

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Fastest Girl In Town’

The third single from Four The Record finds Lambert revisiting familiar territory as the gun-touting tough girl brought to life in “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Both of those hits succeed because they were fully formed statements of both artistic and personal fury, fueled by infidelity and pent up rage. The formula also worked wonders when refined into “White Liar” and, to a lesser extent, “Baggage Claim.”

Now, it just seems silly. Co-written with fellow Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley, “Fastest Girl In Town” is the most immature of these singles yet, opting for regression over growth in an attempt to add another dimension to her well-worn persona – she’s a fast driver with a lead foot. Problem is, Lambert cannot be badass behind the wheel without explaining why. Without probable cause for her actions, none of this has a purpose.

When she sings “My reputation follows me around, just makes me want to give them more to talk about” in the second verse, it’s like she’s responding directly to anyone who feels her rise at country radio has compromised her artistic integrity. She’s surely displayed her vulnerability more often than not lately, but its helped her grow artistically credible and kept her from being pigeonholed. (We’ve all seen what being pigeonholed has done to artists over the years – Gretchen Wilson, anyone?)

If she’s out to prove she’s still a tough cookie, couldn’t she found a better way to say it than this? I mean who would’ve thought Lambert would sing such lines as:

I see the blue lights, we better run

Throw out the bottle and I’ll hide the gun

If he pulls us over I’ll turn on the charm

You’ll be in the slammer and I’ll be on his arm

Call it growing up, a new maturity, or whatever you want but the Lambert we all know would never turn on the charm for a police officer. She’d be in the slammer long before settling as his arm candy.

But if there’s a bright side, she got the packaging right. If country has to go in a rocker direction, this is honestly the best production we could ask for. At least the aggressive guitars are called for this time around and though they’re loud (and a far cry from traditional country) they never hinder Lambert’s vocal. It’s just too bad she didn’t deliver a more substantive lyric worth being heard.

Couldn’t her label have chosen “Mama’s Broken Heart” instead?

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today’

Another Matraca Berg song:

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Concrete’

Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” hitting country radio’s top 10 gave me a ray of hope for my chosen genre’s future. The initial stalling of the second single release from her Concrete album made me realize just how fickle commercial Nashville really is. Still, artists like Sweeney and the like-minded Miranda Lambert with her Pistol Annies in tow make me think it’s the woman’s time to roar and turn the charts on their heads. Country’s newest crop of leading men seem content to continue playing a game of redneck one-upmanship while the women leapfrog ahead of them artistically. I remember this same gender stagnation in the mid-90s, just before a slew of female country singers became across-the-board superstars and sold a combined 14 gazillion records. If history repeats itself, her latest set has Sunny Sweeney poised to be in the front-running pack of the next country female commercial onslaught.

The steel guitar-infused “From A Table Away” gave Sweeney her first top 10 hit with a lyric that finds the other woman opening her eyes to the realities of her situation when she spots her love interest in an intimate night out with is wife.  Several of the album’s songs were inspired by the singer’s divorce, and none more than the shuffling “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving”, and it is currently sitting inside the top 40 as the second single.  Where “From A Table Away” serves as a coming-to-terms for the other woman, “Amy” is an honest confrontation between the two women in a man’s life, and is by-and-far the best account of this situation by song I’ve heard.  While the hit single told the tale from a somewhat-shocked other woman’s point of view, “Amy” finds the other woman standing her ground. With all her self-assured Texas demureness, Sweeney sings of knowingly loving another woman’s man. Her realization of the situation is right on – “If you’d look right at him you might see, he loves you he never loved me“, and even though she’s letting go without a fight she coyly adds “if you don’t love him Amy, let him leave“. Despite Amy’s feelings about it all, Sunny’s believability as a woman scorned and the acoustic and steel guitar fill of the track make me root for the cheaters to prosper.  Country radio needs all three of these songs to make a big impact on their charts.

“Mean As You” kicks hard with its continuous drum track, but above that you hear a kick-ass lyric about another steel magnolia who just wants you to know all the things she might do if she were as low-down as the man who done her wrong.  As much steel as drums and more of that Texas twang, combined with the biting cleverness of the lyrics, make it another winner.  Another contender for mainstream appeal is the the more contemporary “It Wrecks Me”, though it’s a weaker plot and it’s just more final-single material than filler.

The prevailing theme here is one of roadhouse partying and a good time, though not all the results are as satisfying.  The punchy “Drink Myself Single” wouldn’t sound at all out-of-place on Gretchen Wilson’s second or third album release, while “Worn Out Heart” with its rhythm-driven framing and cheeky lyric falls flat of its reach.  Likewise, the very contemporary-leaning “Fall For Me” finds the singer asserting a kind of arrogant confidence that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the album.

In a perfect world, every female album to come out of Nashville would feature this slathering of traditional instrumentation amid recurring themes of cheating, drinking, broken hearts, all delivered by Sweeney’s charming earthy twang.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn’

Multi-artist tribute albums are more often than not hit-or-miss; rarely does one like all of the contributing artists or their interpretations of the hits of the person being honored. Columbia Records’ newly released tribute to Loretta Lynn, marking her 50th anniversary as a country music artist, is no exception, although it does contain a fair share of surprises. I cringed when I saw certain names among the credits, but in a few instances found that their tracks were among the album’s highlights. Likewise, some of the tracks I was looking forward to were somewhat disappointing.

The opening track, performed by Gretchen Wilson, falls into the latter category. On the surface, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” seems like an ideal song for her, but her rendition surprisingly lacks the passion and spark that I was expecting. Instead, she sounds like a better-than-average amateur on karaoke night. Lucinda Williams’ take on “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)” was also a let-down. She slurs the lyrics so badly that I found myself wondering if she really had those few little drinks referred to in the first verse prior to entering the studio.

On the other hand, the album contains quite a few pleasant surprises, not the least of which is Faith Hill’s reading of “Love Is The Foundation”. I’ve never been a huge Faith fan, and I considered her contribution to 1998’s Tammy Wynette tribute album to be one of the lowlights of that uneven project. This time around, however, she proves that she can deliver the goods. Loretta praised Faith’s performance of the song recently, and after hearing it, I have to concur that it was quite good. I was more than apprehensive about the artists who from outside the world of country music. I’d never heard of Paramore before and was expecting not to like their take on “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”, but instead found their stripped-down, acoustic guitar arrangement to be quite effective. The White Stripes’ recording of “Rated X”, recorded several years ago, is the track that can be credited with spawning the Van Lear Rose album. I’d not heard it before, and though they’re not quite my cup of tea, the song works much better than I thought it would.

There are, of course, some famous names that seem perfectly matched for such a project, that do not disappoint: Lee Ann Womack contributes “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, which sounds like it could have actually been recorded in 1960, when Loretta’s original version was released, and Reba McEntire’s “If You’re Not Gone Too Long” is the best offering in the collection. Reba manages to accomplish the near-impossible — putting her own stamp on a Loretta Lynn classic. Producer Buddy Cannon gives the old honky-tonk number a Western swing feel, which suits Reba perfectly, and The Time Jumpers — a band that includes Kenny Sears, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, among others — are superb. If only Reba would include tracks like this on her own albums. The two Conway and Loretta duets that are included — “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” performed by Alan Jackson and Martina McBride and “After The Fire Is Gone” performed by Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, with Moorer doing the heavy lifting — are also quite good.

Like most tribute albums, Coal Miner’s Daughter has its share of clunkers. In addition to the aforementioned Lucinda Williams track, Carrie Underwood’s “You’re Looking At Country” is sung with an affected and very exaggerated twang which is quite grating, and Kid Rock’s “I Know How” is simply unlistenable. Trust me, he does not know how.

The album closes with the title track, and Loretta’s signature song, performed by Loretta herself along with Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow and produced by John Carter Cash and Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn. Loretta is in good voice and more than holds her own against the two younger vocalists.

If I’d been in charge of overseeing this project, I’d have excluded a few names and included a few others that did not appear. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to include Paramore, and that indeed would have been a loss. Coal Miner’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws, but it is a more than adequate tribute to country music’s most important female artist and is well worth a listen.

Grade: B

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Long Black Train’

Josh Turner came to the attentions of country fans with a bang in 2003, when his second single ‘Long Black Train’ was released, shortly before the album of the same title, which was produced by Mark Wright and Frank Rogers.

The dark gospel warning against sin of the title track made a massive and well-deserved impact for Josh, who also wrote the song, inspired by a vision. It was quite different from anything else on radio with its metaphorical lyrics and brooding feeling, and is probably still Josh’s signature song. It peaked at an unlucky #13, but its impact was far greater than that suggests, winning a nomination for the CMA Song of the Year. It also sold well, being certified gold at a time when country digital single sales hadn’t quite taken off. Josh’s deep tones are ideally suited to bring gravitas required of a song like this, perhaps more so than anyone since Johnny Cash, and it seems rather a waste that much of his subsequent material has been fluffily positive in comparison.

An earlier single, ‘She’ll Go On You’, which had not made the top 40, was also included on the album. It is a sweetly delivered if sentimental warning (written by Mark Narmore) to take care of the females in a man’s life: a daughter in the first verse, a wife in the second, and an aged mother in the third:

Better cherish her every second of your life
Better take her in your arms and do her right

While it is a little cliche’d, with a little too much going on in the heavily strung arangement, it is the kind of song which country radio usually eats up, and would probably have been a hit had it followed ‘Long Black Train’ rather than preceding it. Instead, the follow-up single was the bitter up tempo look at love – or rather, ‘What It Ain’t’, written by Tim Mensy and Monty Criswell. Perhaps it seemed lightweight after ‘Long Black Train’, and it didn’t make the top 30, although I like it quite a bit.

My other favorite is the Jamie O’Hara song ‘Unburn All Our Bridges’, a mature plea for forgiveness on both sides, with a beautiful tune, as he affirms,

Love is much stronger than anger or pride

The melodic but mournful ‘I Had One One Time’, written by Harley Allen and Don Sampson, is a lovely song with a homeless man wistfully recalling past possessions: a car, a job, friends, a loving wife, all now gone. There is a tasteful string section on the understated arrangement. Also pretty good is Bobby Braddock’s ‘The Difference Between A Woman And A Man’, a tenderly delivered love song.

Josh shows a more playful side with his cover of Jim Croce’s 70s pop hit ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, a story song about a pool hustler/tough guy and the country boy who challenges him. Josh’s version is entertaining and a rare venture for him away from the moral and family friendly, the message here being one of physical force.

Also fun is the up-tempo ‘Good Woman Bad’ written by Pat McLaughlin and Roger Younger, in which the protagonist complains about the bad girl he is involved with, and is starting to wonder if he needs someone different. The rhymes are a bit obvious, but the overall effect is entertaining:

Now when I asked her to go to Sunday school
She went and called me a damned old fool

A few of the songs are less essential listening, but even these sound good – a trademark of Josh’s records. His own ‘Backwoods Boy’ (about the joys of hunting) has a nice banjo-led arrangement but is of limited interest to me. The tune of ‘Jacksonville’, written by McLaughlin with Josh, has a downbeat feel, but it actually has a positive message about unexpectedly falling in love on vacation and maybe staying. It is pleasant listening but not particularly memorable.

‘In My Dreams’ is a bit dull, almost heavy sounding, although Josh’s vocal sounds convincing.

This was a bright start for Josh, revealing him as one of the finest male vocalists out there, with an unusually keen ear for melody and a voice which can lift mediocre material. The album has been certified platinum, and its success won him nominations for the ACM Top New Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award in 2004. He lost both to Gretchen Wilson, hot off the success of ‘Redneck Woman’, but in the event, Josh’s career has proved to be deeper rooted.

Ther album is easy to find, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A-