My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hannah Blaylock

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

Back in the 1980s Reba McEntire was the leading female neo-traditionalists as well as the best selling female artist of her generation. Then around the time of her second marriage, to music industry executive Narvel Blackstock, her music began to take a more contemporary turn, one which became more pronounced as the 90s wore on. It brought her a new fanbase and enormous sales, but many of her older or more traditional-leaning fans regretted her choices.

Then a couple of years ago, after Reba’s marriage came to an end she chose to make a wonderful album of religious material, much of which harked back to older times. Now her first studio album is=n several years shows a definite return to traditional country sounds. It has been vaunted her her most country album ever, which I would disagree with – 1984’s My Kind Of Country, whose name inspired this very blog, and 1987’s The Last One To Know, would both fit that description better. But it is undoubtedly a country album, and a very good one, produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon.

For a start, Reba calls on her Oklahoma roots with two fabulous Western Swing number. Opening track ‘Swing All Night With You’ was written by Jon Randall and Sidney Cox, and is a true dancefloor delight. She wrote the equally charming ‘No U In Oklahoma’ herself with Ronnie Dunn and Donna McSpadden.

Many of the songs are slow sad ones. Jonathan has already reviewed the lead single and title track, a subtle song about heartbreak written by Reba’s nice Autumn McEntire and Hannah Blaylock. ‘Tammy Wynette Kind Of Pain’ was written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore and Shelley Skidmore, and is another devastating depiction of a broken heart set to a traditional country soundtrack:

‘Standing by your man’
That’s a broken plan
When he breaks your heart and all your trust
With his two cheatin’ hands
So it’s ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’
And you don’t want him to see you cryin’
So you’re ‘crying in the rain’
And this is Tammy Wynette
We’re talkin’ Tammy Wynette kind of pain

There’s a sky full of tears in every single note
And every single word is wine and whiskey soaked
So I guess it’s me and her together in this alone
‘Til I can make it on my own’

Also reflecting on a failed marriage, but from the point of view of the husband, is ‘In His Mind’, which was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James based on Reba’s idea.

In ‘The Bar’s Getting Lower’, written by Kellys Collins, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Alex Kline, the unhappy protagonist settles for a one night stand when old dreams of marriage and family haven’t been realised:

Her dreams are disappearin’ like smoke from his cigarette
She hasn’t said yes but she’s thinkin’ she might
The closer it gets to closing time
A lonely heart will take a pick-up line
Anything to get her through the night

‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’ is a heartwrenching story song written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, and previously recorded by Jerry Kilgore and Melonie Cannon. Reba’s version is superb, and the arrangement has a mournful feel as we hear the story of a young woman who has been reunited with the drug addict and prostitute mother who gave her up at birth, just before the latter’s death. This might be the highlight of an excellent group of songs.

Another ballad, but a little more sophisticated AC in its feel, ‘The Clown’ is a beautifully detailed story about the horrifying moment of finding out her marriage is over in public, and having to keep a brave face on it. It was written by Dallas Davidson, Hillary Lindsey and James Slater.

The minor-keyed ‘Your Heart’, written by Kellys Collins, has a classical Spanish guitar accompaniment and is atmospheric and moody. Reba sings it beautifully, but it isn’t really a country song.

A couple of more commercial contemporary up-tempo songs are well performed if less to my personal taste, and may be included to appeal to Reba’s younger fans and possibly with an eye on radio play. ‘Storm In A Shot Glass’ is quite catchy in a 90s pop country way. ‘Freedom’ is more of a rock ballad rejoicing over finding love.

The album closes with the gentle piano-led ‘You Never Gave Up On Me’, dedicated to Reba’s late mother.

While not quite as traditional as one might have been led to believe from the publicity, this is definitely the best thing Reba has released in decades. It is highly recommended, and a strong contender already for album of the year.

Grade: A+

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Single Review: Reba McEntire — ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

You’ll have to go back twenty years to find the last time Reba McEntire introduced a new studio album with a ballad. It’s exceedingly rare, and a welcomed change of pace, especially when it introduces a project McEntire is calling one of the most country of her career.

She’s introduced the album with the title track, which was co-written by former Eden’s Edge frontwoman Hannah Blaylock and her niece Autumn McEntire. The song finds Reba in the wake of learning her husband has taken up with someone new:

I never dreamed of wantin’ more

Than a small town, simple life

A little money in our pockets

You’re my husband, I’m your wife

 

But then I fell in icy water

Standing in the grocery line

I overheard my name and yours

And one I did not recognize

 

Now everything I thought I knew is walking out the door

There’s a bottle on the table tellin’ me the only thing I know for sure

Is there’s not a sound, a sound as loud as silence

There’s not a blade sharper than a lie

There’s not a low lower than being the last one to know

You got a brand new start with someone new

And there’s no whiskey stronger than the truth

“Stronger Than The Truth” comes just four years after McEntire and her manager husband Narvel Blackstock divorced after 25 years, a decision she has said, “wasn’t her idea.” It’s an excellent lyric and I love how the writers take us back to her eighties hits, by overtly name-checking “The Last One To Know” and placing her in a grocery store line, like she was in “What Am I Gonna Do About You.”

This time around, though, she has a plan, even if it’s a faulty one:

The only thing I can do

Is pour a glass and pretend

That this pain’s gonna end

“Stronger Than The Truth” isn’t as dynamic as her biggest heartbreakers nor is it as traditional as I would’ve liked. Pedal steel and fiddle are in the mix, but their presence is too subtle for a ballad with such a mournful lyric. But “Stronger Than The Truth” is a formidable first taste of McEntire’s new album, which comes out April 5, two days before she returns as host of the 54th annual Academy of Country Music Awards.

Grade: B+

NOTE: To wet our appetites further, McEntire will be releasing a new song from the album every Friday until April 5. Last week she evoked “Have I Got A Deal For You” with the charming “No U in Oklahoma,” which you can hear HERE. 

Album Review: Edens Edge – ‘Edens Edge’

New Big Machine trio Edens Edge is built around the distinctive piercing twangy lead vocals of Hannah Blaylock. The production, helmed by Mark Bright and Dann Huff, is unfortunately cluttered with too much going on most of the time. The talented band members play a variety of instruments (Cherrill Green comes from a bluegrass background, and plays mandolin and banjo, while Dean Berners plays dobro and guitar), and a more natural, less processed, sound woul allow them to shine more.

The band’s debut single ‘Amen’ (a top 20 hit last year) is a pretty good song gloating over the departure of a romantic rival, and is one of the few tracks to successfully balance country radio’s demands of a glossy finish with an attractive organic yet contemporary country feel. It is one of three songs here co-written by Hannah, this one with Skip Black, Catt Gravitt and Gerald O’Brien. Danny Myrick teamed up with Blaylock and Gravitt for ‘Last Supper’, a rather intense pop country ballad about an impending breakup. It’s heavily over-produced, but is a good song underneath, with some interesting lyrical choices. I quite liked the quirky ‘Who Am I Drinking Tonight’, which was written by Hannah with Laura Veltz, comparing the guys she meets and their choice of drinks to country stars, but I would have preferred a significantly scaled-back production

‘Skinny Dippin’ (not the Whitney Duncan song but a new one written by Veltz, band member Dean Berners, and Vince Melamed) is a self-conscious attempt at playful charm which more or less comes off. Remniscent of the Pistol Annies, the first half of the song is quite catchy with a bright acoustic arrangement, but Huff and Bright can’t resist the temptation of throwing in weird processing on the backing vocals and too much sound in general, and it all derails. This trio also contributed ‘Cherry Pie’, a very cluttered sounding number looking back at a happy childhood, which would be a lot better with half the amount of instrumentation or less. Cherry Pie, incidentally, is the name of Hannah’s real life childhood pony. As it is largely unlistenable after the low-key and pretty first verse and the sweet lyrics and genuine emotion are crushed by an unnecessary wall of sound.

Veltz wrote the album’s best track, the pain-filled ‘Liar’, with Andy Stochansky. The narrator is hiding her pain as the man she loves, and who thinks of her as just a friend, is set to marry another girl. She pretends to be happy for him, but admits in the song she is “the biggest liar in the world”. Production here is for once restrained enough to let the song breathe. The narrator’s heartbreak is very convincingly conveyed by Blaylock’s vulnerable vocal, with the unfortunate girl even having to help choose and try on the engagement ring.

A close second is ‘Swingin’ Door’ (written by Terry Clayton, Brett James and underrated singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe), which was cut by the Australian Catherine Britt on her outstanding RCA album a few years back. Hannah’s version sounds a little less fragile, as she invests a lot of determination rejecting the lover trying to use her. It’s an excellent song, and a thoroughly enjoyable track.

‘Too Good To Be True’, written by pop-country stalwarts Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges, sounds just like a Carrie Underwood track, with belted-out, almost shouted, vocals, frequent nonsensical syllables, lots of attitude but not much melody, and no subtlety. Naturally it’s the current single. ‘Feels So Real’, another Lindsey song (written with Angelo and Tia Sillers), is more interesting, but very poppy sounding and oversung.

The acappella ‘For Christ Alone’ (written by the band’s mentor Steve Smith, who brought them together in their home state of Arkansas) is one of the few occasions where the vocals of Hannah Blaylock’s bandmates Dean Berner and Cherrill Green are really distinct as they don’t have to fight against the overwhelming backing, and although it sounds like a hymn with choral styled harmonies rather than a country song, it really shows how ill-served the group has been by their producers.

Edens Edge is a group with a lot of potential, but they have compromised too much to fit into country radio for this album to fulfil it for me.

Grade: B

J.R. Journey’s American Noise excerpts #1

For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to get to share my thoughts on 10 of the latest country singles in my Weekly Country Songs Roundup column at American Noise.  I have to first say a very big thanks to Jim Malec for giving me the chance, and a first-rate venue, to review the newest releases to country radio.  This is the first in a bi-weekly installment where I’ll share few excerpts from the past few weeks, some of my critics picks.

Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

Listen here

Kenny Chesney and Vermont rocker Grace Potter offer my favorite Chesney single since “Better As a Memory” with this sparse and brooding number, written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter. The two lament the liquor and the love that make them crazy on the song’s winning chorus, with Potter’s silky vocal being the perfect match for Chesney’s smooth crooning. The verses tell of the willingness of the narrator to self-destruct for one more night flying high, offering a bit of self-realization along the way (“It’s so easy to forget, the bitter taste the morning left”) as the acoustic rhythm guitar that makes up the bulk of the production plays on.

Grade: A

Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett – “Knee Deep”   

Listen here

At this point in their ascension to country’s reigning supergroup, Zac Brown and Band have earned the right to show off their musical chops a bit, and even to flaunt their famous friends. From the snazzy opening to the solo verse performed by island king Jimmy Buffett, this reggae-infused number allows these six talented musicians some jam time on-stage, while the singer “searches for paradise.” There’s little else to the lyrics than that utopian pursuit, but it’s warm now, and with a melody like this nobody’s pondering the lyrics anyway.

Grade: B


Emmylou Harris – “The Road”

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Addressing the loss of Gram Parsons directly in song for the first time since the epic “Boulder to Birmingham,” Emmylou Harris’ self-penned “The Road” is more an open elegy to her late mentor than song of heartbreak. It’s swelling alt-country sound doesn’t lend itself to quiet contemplation as much as it marks a turning point when wounds begin to heal, and forging ahead is inevitable, even though you never forget. Harris’ emotive skills are on full-display here and she sounds utterly despondent at crucial moments, such as when she sings, “So I carried on, you can’t be haunted by the past/People come and people go and nothing ever lasts.” Still, she always brings the listener back to that place of peace she’s found.

Grade: A-

Martina McBride – “Teenage Daughters”

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Leading off an upcoming album for Republic Nashville, Martina McBride offers this tongue-in-cheek take on child-rearing, made all the more believable because we know Martina has teenage daughters of her own, but also because she has carefully cultivated an image of being a fellow soccer mom to her female listeners. Far from being just another tale of unconditional love between parent and child, “Daughters” focuses on the often funny, always chaotic period when teenagers begin to assert their independence by avoidance of their parents at all costs. As she sings of remembering when her daughter “used to think she was cool” and bemoans the current state of their relationship which has left her “tired,” “crazy,” and “in need of a drink,” McBride offers up her most restrained vocal in years. Chunky and scattered rhythms make the track melodically clunky, but that is salvaged by the smart message and a to-the-point vocal.

Grade: B+

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