My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Harley Allen

Album Review: Ty England – ‘Ty England’

Born in 1963, Ty England met Garth Brooks while attending Oklahoma State University and roomed with Garth while in college. Thereafter, he was a member of Garth’s band for a few years until signing with RCA in 1995.

Far more traditionalist than Garth, Ty’s eponymous debut album, released in August 1995, would prove to be his most successful album, reaching #13 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. The album would generate Ty’s only top twenty hit and two more charting singles, neither of which cracked the top forty.

First up is “Red Neck Son”. Released as the third single from the album, the song died at #55. It’s not a bad song but I doubt that I would have released it as a single.

“Smoke In Her Eyes” was the second single released on the album. Written by Hugh Prestwood, this tender ballad really should have done better than #44.

Her heart could tell at a glance
She would be falling for him
She knows she’s taking a chance
But still goes out on a limb

She knows he could be for real
Or he could be in disguise
Although she may have a heart on fire
She don’t have smoke in her eyes

“Should Have Asked Her Faster”, an Al Anderson-Bob DiPiero composition was the first and most successful single released from the album, reaching #3. The song is a mid-tempo tale about a guy whose courage is too slow:

In a little dance hall just outside of Dallas
I dropped my drink when she came walking by
By the time I got a grip she slipped through my fingertips
And left me with my big mouth open wide

I should’ve asked her faster but I waited too long
In a red hot minute like a flash she was gone
I didn’t get her number, I never got her name
A natural disaster, I should’ve asked her faster

“Her Only Bad Habit Is Me” (Don Cook, Harlan Howard) and “You’ll Find Somebody New” (Aaron Barker, Dean Dillon) are both slow ballads, competently sung.

“A Swing Like That” by Billy Lavelle and David L. Lewis is an up- tempo romp that I would have released as a single. The track features some neat fiddle by Aubrey Haynie and steel by Paul Franklin, and has a strong western swing feel to it.

The remaining songs (“New Faces in the Fields” written by Harley Allen, Denise Draper and Steve Hood; “The Blues Ain’t News to Me” from the pens of Wayland Holyfield and Verlon Thompson; “It’s Lonesome Everywhere” by Verlon Thompson, Reese Wilson and Billy Spencer; and Hugh Prestwood’s “Is That You”) are all slow ballads, competently sung by England.

In fact, I would have released “Is That You” as a single. The song is an outstanding ballad, and while I do not know how it would have done as a Ty England single, I’m dead certain that either Garth Brooks or George Strait would have had a monster hit with the song:

They had been together way too long
For him to start again
So he does most of his living in the past
Round the house he never says a word
Til something makes him ask
Is that you

Tappin’ my window pane
Is that you
Or just a draft movin’ that candle flame
Something round here keeps my heart
From breakin’ right in two
Is that you

In the dark he rises from a dream
And takes a look around
Makin’ sure there really isn’t someone there
He could swear he heard her call his name
Quiet as a prayer
Is that you

Therein lies the problem – Ty England is a very good and pleasant singer, but there is nothing distinctive about his voice. Produced by Garth Fundis, Ty England is a solid country album featuring songs by the cream of Nashville’s songwriting talent and the cream of Nashville’s session men:

Bobby All — acoustic guitar (tracks 2,3,5,6,7,9,10) / Eddie Bayers — drums (tracks 1,2,9)
Richard Bennett — acoustic guitar (tracks 4,8) / J. T. Corenflos — electric guitar (track 10)
Stuart Duncan — fiddle (track 3)/ Paul Franklin — steel guitar (all tracks except 4)
John Gardner — drums (tracks 4,8) / Aubrey Haynie — fiddle (track 2,5,6,7,9,10)
John Hobbs — piano (tracks 5,6,7,10), organ (track 10) / Paul Leim — drums (tracks 3,5,6,7,10)
Mark Luna — background vocals (tracks 2,10) / Brent Mason — electric guitar (all tracks except 10)
Weldon Myrick — steel guitar (track 4) / Dave Pomeroy — bass guitar (all tracks)
Steve Nathan — Wurlitzer electric piano (track 1), piano (tracks 2,4,8,9), keyboards
Hargus “Pig” Robbins — piano (track 3) John Wesley Ryles — background vocals (track 3)
Billy Joe Walker, Jr. — acoustic guitar (track 1) Dennis Wilson — background vocals (tracks 2,4,5,9)
Curtis “Mr. Harmony” Young — background vocals (track 1,6)

Good songs and competent singing – I like this album and would give it a B+, but Ty is only as good as his material, and this was his best album.

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Album Review: Sister Sadie – ‘Sister Sadie’

sister sadieSister Sadie is a new bluegrass female supergroup/side project featuring the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Watson, supported by mandolin player/singer Tina Adair, fiddler Deanie Richardson (who was in Patty Loveless’s band for 17 years), banjo player Gena Britt, and bassist Beth Lawrence. Their debut album, for Pinecastle Records is produced by Tim Austin.

The arresting ‘Unholy Water’ (written by Richardson with Bill Tennyson) opens the album with the anthropomorphised confessional of a bottle of moonshine whiskey:

The devil’s own daughter
Quenching the thirst of the damned
I am unholy water

Dale Ann Bradley takes the lead vocal on this song, as she does on three others. The gospel tune ‘Look What I’m Trading For A Mansion’ is a sweetly sentimental tale of an aged mother on her deathbed, and Bradley gives it a tender reading. The 1970s Dolly Parton hit ‘All I Can Do’ is bright and upbeat (incidentally the liner notes give the songwriting credits for a different song of the same name), but is the least essential of Bradley’s lead vocals here. Her cover of ‘Blood Red And Going Down’ was far more interesting, counterpointing the essential sweetness of Dale Ann’s voice with the dark dramatic lyric.

I hadn’t previously heard Tina Adair, but I am very impressed with her singing here. She takes the lead on a lovely version of country classic ‘Don’t Let Me Cross Over’, presenting the protagonist as sober and determined not to fall to temptation. She is also effective bringing real emotional weight to the sentimental tribute to a beloved mother, ‘Mama’s Room’, written by Harley Allen. She also sings two self-penned tunes, which are quite good, the up-tempo kiss-off ‘Not This Time’, and the wailing ‘Now Forever’s Gone’.

Gena Britt takes over on the pacy banjo-driven ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ (written by another leading lady of bluegrass, Lynn Morris), addressed to a lover whose fidelity is doubted. She also sings the lead on a cover of the minor-keyed ‘I May Be A Fool’, previously recorded by Mark Chesnutt.

‘Falling’ is a 70s pop song given a bluegrass makeover, with Beth Lawrence singing, but it doesn’t quite work for me, and is one of the album’s few missteps. Deanie Richardson does not sing, but her instrumental talents are showcased on ‘Ava’s Fury’, a tune inspired by the tantrum of her young stepdaughter.

This is a very enjoyable album, with a fine selection of songs all impeccably sung and played.

Grade: A

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Craig Morgan’

CraigMorganAlbumIt is hard to believe that Craig Morgan’s debut album, released by Atlantic Records, came way back in 2000. While this album proved to be a false start for the 36 year old Morgan in that Atlantic shut down its Nashville operations in 2002, the resulting album revealed the US Army veteran to be a fine singer capable of drawing both on past experiences and imagination in selling a song.

The album opens up “Paradise”, a song written by Craig with Harley Allen. The initial military cadence sets the song apart from any other song I’ve heard recently. The song tells of Craig’s experience as a soldier and how it affected his outlook on life. As the chorus to the song notes:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die

Now I’m a little older and not afraid to try

Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive

When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life

Is paradise

“Paradise was the second single released and topped out at #46, more a reflection of Atlantic’s promotional efforts than the song’s merits.

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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+

Classic Rewind: Dierks Bentley and Harley Allen pay tribute to the Louvin Brothers – ‘I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby’

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘So Long So Wrong’

Alison Krauss - So Long So Wrong - FrontAlison’s first album after her big breakthrough was a collaboration with her band Union Station, but marks something of a change in style, with the incorporation of more adult contemporary influences alongside some very traditional bluegrass fare. it goes almost without saying that the musicianship is superb.

As always with Alison’s records where Union Station shares lead billing, her bandmates get a number of chances to sing lead vocals, and they generally keep to traditional bluegrass stylings.

Ron Block sings his own excellent ‘Pain Of A Troubled Life’, which has an upbeat melody belying a world-wearied lyric, very much in classic bluegrass style. Alison’s robust fiddle leads the instrumental arrangement. Dan Tyminski (the best vocalist among the guys) takes the lead on the traditional ‘I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers’, the high lonesome ‘Blue Trail Of Sorrow’(written by Jeff White) and the airy up-tempo ‘The Road Is A Lover’ with Alison adding subtle harmonies.

Mandolinist Adam Steffey sings a gruff lead on the traditional bluegrass ‘No Place To Hide’, with its plangent strings. These tracks, together with the lively instrumental ‘Little Liza Jane’ (a traditional tune) keep the band grounded in bluegrass by breaking up the more adventurous experiments with Alison’s lead vocals, in which her silvery voice is let loose on a selection of songs drawing together a variety of musical influences.

Two of the ballads, ‘Find My Way Back To My Heart’ and ‘Looking In The Eyes of Love’, were released as singles to country radio. Both are lovely songs and performances but failed to recapture the commercial magic of her hits. ‘Looking In The Eyes Of Love’, written by Kostas and Tricia Walker, had been recorded a few years earlier by Patty Loveless; Alison’s version is a little more delicate and understated.

Alison’s voice positively shimmers over the gorgeous melodies of ‘Deeper Than Crying’ and the religious Ron Block-penned ‘There Is A Reason’, both of which are exquisite. My favourite of the ballads , however, is the beautiful Harley Allen song ‘It Doesn’t Matter’. Alison’s hushed vocal is particularly effective on this very slow song. The gentle ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is also very pretty.

Blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald’s ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is an ethereal ballad, which is pretty sounding but a little on the dull side. McDonald also wrote ‘Happiness with Alison’s brother Victor, which is similarly unexciting. I don’t find the title track very interesting either, but Alison’s voice cuts through it like a bell.

The album won three Grammies in country and bluegrass categories, and was her first studio set to win gold certification. It neatly balances her traditional bluegrass background with her newer taste for beautiful melodic ballads, and is exemplary.

Grade: A

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill’

barnandgrillAlthough 2003’s The Dreamer achieved gold-level sales, its singles performed inconsistently at radio. After producing the #1 hit “The Baby”, the album’s subsequent singles all failed to crack the Top 20. This trend began to reverse itself with the release of Blake Shelton’s third album, Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill, which was released in the autumn of 2004. The Bobby Braddock-produced effort got off to an initial rocky start when the album’s first single, a very nice ballad called “When Somebody Knows You That Well” died at #37. Blake’s chart decline bottomed out with that release, however, and all of the album’s subsequent singles reached the Top 10.

The album’s second single, the catchy “Some Beach”, written by Paul Overstreet and Rory Lee Feek, returned Blake to the #1 spot and also became the first gold-selling single of his career. It was followed by an excellent cover version of Conway Twitty’s 1988 hit, “Goodbye Time.” Blake’s version didn’t chart quite as high, peaking at #10. I prefer the Conway Twitty version but Blake’s rendition is my favorite song on this album. Both artists knock the Roger Murrah & James Dean Hicks tune out of the park and both versions deserved to be monster hits. A bit of trivia: the song was originally pitched to Reba McEntire, who turned it down because she was going through her divorce at the time and the lyrics apparently hit a little too close to home. The album’s fourth and final single, “Nobody But Me” was a substantial hit, reaching #4.

The album cuts in this collection are unusually strong and most of them had hit single potential. Two of them had been previously recorded; the uptempo “Cotton Pickin’ Time” (another Paul Overstreet co-write) had been released by The Marcy Brothers in 1989 and “What’s On My Mind” had appeared on a 2001 Gary Allan album. To my knowledge, “Good Old Boy, Bad Old Boyfriend”, which was written by Shelton’s producer and mentor Bobby Braddock had not been recorded before but it sounds very much like something Waylon Jennings might have done during his heyday. But perhaps the most interesting track is the Harley Allen tune “The Bartender”, in which Blake observes a tavern’s patrons and listens to their problems from across the bar.

There aren’t any weak tracks in this collection; they are well written and performed and without the production excesses that are the hallmark of most of today’s chart hits. Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill serves as a model that demonstrates how much better the artist’s material — and indeed, country music in general — was, just slightly less than a decade ago. The album is easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘The Dreamer’

Blake’s second album, produced as before by Bobby Braddock and released in 2003, featured a state of the art commercial country sound which mirrored the state of country music of the period.

One of my favorite ever Blake Shelton recordings is his second #1 hit, which was the lead single from this album. ‘The Baby’, penned by Harley Allen and Michael White, is a story song with a tear-jerking emotional payoff. It is the frank confession of a spoilt youngest son, whose doting mother excuses all his failings, “because I was her baby”. He ends up missing his mother’s deathbed, even though she has been calling for her favorite:

She looked like she was sleepin’
And my family had been weepin’
By the time that I got to her side
And I knew that she’d been taken
And my heart it was breaking
I never got to say goodbye
I softly kissed that lady
And cried just like a baby

The ill-chosen second single ‘Heavy Liftin’’ is a not very interesting song in itself but its main flaw is the production. There is just too much going on in the arrangement with banjos fighting against the blaring electric guitars – it ends up sounding as it would if two separate tracks were recorded, they couldn’t decide which to go with and stuck them together. It didn’t make into the top 30, but would probably do rather better if released to today’s radio.

Much better is memorably quirky top 30 single ‘Playboys Of The Southwestern World’, written by Neal Coty and Randy Van Warmer. It tells the amusing story of two wild boys who get themselves into trouble, ending up in jail in Mexico.

There is a great cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1978 hit ‘Georgia In A Jug’, written by Blake’s producer Braddock. A jilted fiancé drinks away the money he had saved up for the exotic honeymoon:

I’m going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum
Goin’ out to Honolulu in a mai tai mug
Then I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug

The arrangement copies the original fairly closely (with some delicious added fiddle), but that’s no bad thing, and the result is entertaining.

Braddock also wrote ‘Someday’, which questions what may happen beyond death. Delivered dramatically with a gospel choir, it is quite effective. The idiosyncratic ‘In My Heaven’ was written by Rivers Rutherford and Bobby Pinson and offers a picture of a perfect world from their point of view. The message is a bit mixed – on the one hand “we hurt no one”, on the other they’re feeding lawyers to the lions; and there’s a strong emphasis on having fun and playing sports missed in with the idealistic inclusiveness.

Blake wrote the title track, which is quite good, with the protagonist realising the costs of achieving his dreams of material success, and finding it has not made him truly happy when the one he loved is not with him. The production is a little louder than necessary, but overall this is a decent track  ‘My Neck Of The Woods’ which he co-wrote with Billy Montana and Don Ellis celebrates both the natural beauties and the neighborliness of the countryside. It was partially inspired by Blake’s then Tennessee farm home, and acknowledges the very real difficulties of rural poverty more than the glut of rural pride songs we hear today. ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ is a modern trucking anthem, which is well sung and interpreted by Blake. John Rich co-write ‘Underneath The Same Moon’ is a somewhat overblown big ballad.

There are some great tracks here, but overall it isn’t as strong a set as Blake’s debut, with the production ramped up a bit too much at times. Cheap used copies are, however, easy to find. It was a reasonable success for him.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Politics, Religion, and Her’

When Sammy Kershaw convened in the studio to follow up Feelin’ Good Train he stuck with his trusty production team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. In addition to his secular work, they’d teamed up for a holiday release, Christmas Time’s A-Comin’ (the title track being my favorite version of that fabulous song) in the winter of 1994, and Greatest Hits, Chapter 1 in 1995.  As a result, when Politics, Religion and Her was released in May 1996, it stuck true to the formula Kershaw had honed since his debut five years earlier.

Lead single “Meant To Be,” an uptempo ode to finding love in unexpected places, was the most successful at radio peaking at #5. He followed with the novelty song “Vidalia” which reached a #10 peak that summer. Both are very good although “Vidalia,” a song I remember distinctly from watching the video on CMT as a kid, isn’t the greatest lyric in Kershaw’s catalog.

Radio didn’t respond as kindly to the album’s title track and it only managed to squeak into the top the top 30. Thanks to a killer lyric by Bryon Hill and Tony Martin plus underpinnings of mournful steel, it’s my favorite of the four singles. Deflecting pain has rarely sounded so good as it does here:

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Right Out Of Nowhere’

By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear Kathy’s time in the limelight was over. One last album for MCA (The Innocent Years) failed to score any hit singles, and she moved to independent label Narada, where she was able to concentrate on artistry with little thought for commercial viability.  The second of her albums for this label came out in 2005.  This is not a very country sounding record, but it bears the hallmarks of evident thought and attention throughout, and is clearly a serious artistic endeavour.

‘Live It’, the solo single failed to chart.  Not one of Harley Allen’s better songs, it’s a cluttered and unoriginal exhortation to live life to the full and concentrate on love.  ‘Hurt Some’ is a jazzy AC ballad with a gospel feel (particularly in the vocals).  The rather obvious lyrics attempt to be insightful, advising a woman to expect a range of emotional ups and downs, written by Tia Sillers and Mark D Sanders.

‘Only Heaven Knows’ is quite a pretty ballad about acceptance of one’s lot, which is much better.  ‘Give It Away’ is an artfully constructed, melodic and beautifully sung song written by Kathy with husband Jon Vezner and Bob Halligan.  The three-story structure narrates encounters with individuals (a veteran star backstage, a woman in a doctor’s waiting room, and finally the protagonist saving herself from breaking off a love affair in a fit of pique following an argument), giving the sage advice that with music and love,

The only way to keep is to give it away

The best of the more philosophical songs here is Darrell Scott’s ‘Love’s Not Through With Me Yet’, given a plaintive Celtic sound and with Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

The title track is an okay but unexciting story song about a woman moving on, with an attractive melody.  The breakup song ‘Loving You, Letting You Go’ is lyrically forgettable but the wheezy harmonica gives it some sonic character.

The best song is ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, a subtly cutting piano ballad written by Skip Ewing and Angela Kaset, which sounds tailor-made for Trisha Yearwood, although Kathy does a fine job.  It narrates a meeting with the woman the protagonist’s ex left her for, finding he has moved on again:

I thought the only thing wrong with her was you

Cause you don’t find joy within
You’re always wanting out
That’s not what love is all about
You’ll never find happiness
Til you let your heart invest
Baby you don’t know how
I hope you’re happy now

This is an excellent song which is well worth downloading even if nothing else here appeals.

Kathy extended her artistic range with a couple of unexpected rock covers.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is performed confidently, and is the biggest departure from preconceived ideas of what a Kathy Mattea record sounds like.  It’s not to my taste, but is interestingly done with inventive acoustic production, and Kathy deserves credit for trying something so different.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down On The Corner’ is an enjoyable singalong.  ‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, is a traditional gospel song which is played around with a little too much.

This record was an interesting experiment.  Not everything works, but a period in the commercial doldrums is the obvious time to try branching out. Used copies can be found very cheaply

Grade: B-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Written In The Stars’

It is unfortunate that the fledgling Giant label was the label chosen to break Rhonda Vincent into mainstream country music. Giant was one of Nashville’s many “flatfish” labels (it starts up, flounders around for a while and then disappears) and didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote Rhonda’s music properly. That notwithstanding, Written In The Stars is a very good album, well recorded with Ms. Vincent’s vocals front and center in the mix and a cast of supporting musicians comprised from Nashville’s A-List.  Rhonda is in excellent voice and the album is well laid out in terms of tempo and style variations. The album was released in October 1993.

The album opens up with an up-tempo number, “What Else Could I Do”, which was released as the second single from the album. I am not sure why this song failed to chart as it has engaging lyrics and a memorable melody (supplied by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall) and Rhonda nails the lyrics:

I wasn’t looking to jump into love

But I had no choice when your push came to shove

I guess I should not be surprised that I fell for you

Tell me, what clse could I do?

“Written In The Stars” follows. This song is a slow ballad, also from the pen of Robert Ellis Orrall. The lyric takes us to a place many of us have been:

I guess the love written ever so deep in my heart

Was not written in the stars

Another up-tempo romp, “Ain’t That Love” follows, this time from the pen of noted songwriter Kostas. This is one of my two favorite songs from this album. This song has more of a bluegrass sound and feel to it than most of the songs on this album.

Harley Allen penned “In Your Loneliness”,  treated here as a slow ballad. Harley was a gifted songwriter, but this is just another song.

“Mama Knows the Highway” was a #8 single released in June 1993 by Hal Ketchum. Written by Pete Wasner and Charles John Quarto, the song fits Rhonda’s style well. This might have made a good single for Rhonda if Hal hadn’t gotten to it first.  “When Love Arrives” is another slow ballad from the pen of Harley Allen. Again, in my opinion it’s just another song.

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Album Review: Mark Collie – ‘Alive At Brushy Mountain Penitentiary’

Back in 2001 90s star Mark Collie recorded a live album at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Tennessee for MCA.  But Mark hadn’t managed a top 20 hit since 1994, and the departure from the label of its boss Tony Brown (who co-produced) meant this record was shelved for more than a decade.  The artist has now regained control of the masters, and the album has been released – some years after the prison itself closed its doors.  Production and sound engineering values are more or less studio-quality, and the band play well and enthusiastically.

There is a deliberate attempt to emulate Cash’s seminal prison albums, starting with the opening statement “Hello, I’m Mark Collie”, before the singer launches into rocking opener ‘One More Second Chance’ (co-written with 80s star T Graham Brown).  Later on he throws in a cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, talking about a then-ailing Cash.  Collie is not as distinctive or compelling a vocalist as Cash, but his rough-edged voice works well on the material he chooses here, most of it calculated to appeal to the audience in terms of the overarching theme of prison and criminality, and the devil-may-care but occasionally God-fearing attitude.  Most of the songs were written by Mark especially for the project.

I liked the unrepentant prisoner’s confession ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’.  The very good and rather amusing ‘Maybe Mexico’, written by the late Harley Allen with Deborah Nims, has the protagonist a fugitive from Memphis calling his lover while on the run and on his way south of the border.

‘Dead Man Runs Before He Walks’, written by Mark with the always interesting Shawn Camp (who also plays fiddle in the band), is a cheery piece about escaping from a not very secure sounding Death Row.  The pretty sounding bluegrass ballad ‘Rose Covered Garden’, written by Mark with Roger Cook, is the story of a prisoner in Mexico who romances the gaoler’s daughter to get away, but ends up recaptured and alone.  Collie revived this song for an obscure independent release in 2006, which is now hard to find.

The chugging ‘Do As I Say’ is a father’s wry advice not to copy his bad example in life.

Kelly Willis sings lead on the okay ‘Heaven Bound’ and the loungy ‘Got A Feelin’ For Ya’.  I like her quirky voice (and she was clearly well received by the audience), but these songs are not particularly memorable.  She also sings an effective harmony on a cover of Krisofferson’s ‘Why Me, Lord?’, which is very good.

‘On The Day I Die’ is a killer’s frank confession of his multitudinous past sins and his present faith, acknowledging before his execution,

I ran from the light like I ran from the law

But you know the wages of sin catches up with us all

This is a real highlight.

Not everything here is country.  Blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown guests on his own ‘Someday My Luck Will Change’, while ‘Reckless Companions’ marries a folk feel to the lyrics with a rock sound, a combination which doesn’t quite work for me.  They end with ‘Gospel Train’, a bluesy gospel number backed by the prison choir.

The thematic unity of this record is part of what makes it work but at times it all feels a little like pandering to the audience and trying too hard to copy Cash.  Overall, though, the interesting songs and effective performances make it a worthwhile experience, and I am pleased it has made its belated way out of the vaults.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Blake Shelton – ‘The Baby’

RIP Harley Allen, co-writer of this song (among many others):

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-

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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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: Alan Jackson – ‘Drive’

January 2002 saw the release of Alan’s tenth studio album, which showcases him as a confident singer-songwriter at the height of his commercial success. He is in fine voice, and Keith Stegall does his usual excellent job in the producer’s chair. Drive was the first of Alan’s albums to debut at #1 on the cross genre Billboard Hot 200 chart, despite making no concessions to crossover tastes, and it was named the ACM Album of the Year. But this is a record where one song has an impact which overshadows everything else.

Alan’s masterpiece ‘Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning?)’ defined a nation’s mood in the aftermath of 9/11. Alan had not originally intended to record it at all, but the popular response after he sang it at the CMA Awards in November 2001 led to a studio version being released as a single. When it was a #1 smash hit, it obviously had to be included on his new album. Over eight years on, it has lost none of its emotional impact, either in the studio recording or the original live version, which was added as a bonus to the end of the album, including Vince Gill’s introduction. If nothing else on the album is of quite the same calibre, that is because few songs can approach the perfection of this. Part of what makes it so effective is that it offers no judgment of the various choices he imagines people taking; it is entirely inclusive. It still makes me cry every time I hear it, with its quiet questioning and insistence that love is what really matters in the end:

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?….

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers?
Stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
And thank God you had somebody to love?…

But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

The song received another accolade by being included (in a cover version by The Wrights, Alan’s nephew and the latter’s wife) as one of the songs illustrating America’s history in Song Of America, a three-CD collection produced for US schools.

Eight of the twelve songs on the album were written solely by Alan. The opening track, and second single, ‘Drive (For Daddy Gene)’, which provides the album title is a very personal nostalgic look back at a childhood spent with his father around boats and cars. Car songs tend to leave me cold, but this one has an engaging warmth impossible to dislike, and it duly headed straight to #1. The car theme is bookended with the final track, the awkwardly scanning ‘First Love’, about his teenage love for his first car, restored to him in 1993. The driving theme is further illustrated in the CD liner notes with appropriate symbols taken from road signs attached to the lyrics of some of the songs.

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Moving backstage

Former Wrecker Jessica Harp surprised many by her recent announcement that she was leaving her record label and abandoning hopes of a solo career in favour of becoming a full time songwriter. While retaining rather more dignity than Jason Michael Carroll’s unforgettable but rather sad “Arista and I are going our seperate [sic] ways! They called and said they would be moving forward without me!” this may be a case of jumping before she was pushed, as Jessica’s solo singles had failed to set the charts alight, although her now ex-label has chosen to release her album digitally as a parting gift for her fans.

Time will tell whether she will be successful in her new course. She would hardly be the first Nashville songwriter to start out wanting to be an artist in her own right, or indeed the first to enjoy a short chart career.

Dean Dillon’s distinctive turn of phrase has made him one of the most sought-after writers in the past 20 years. With a voice as quirky and distinctive as his writing, he started out as a singer. A string of singles on RCA were minor hits in the late 70s and early 80s, including the first versions of his own songs ‘Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’ and ‘Famous Last Words Of A Fool’. The former was a top 30 hit, the latter failed to make the top 50, but neither had the chart impact they deserved – or that they had when George Strait covered them. The label also teamed Dean up with honky tonker Gary Stewart as a duo, releasing one full length album and a six track EP. Those early RCA recordings (both solo and duet) are virtually all now available on one CD. A successful run as a songwriter followed, but he had not given up his dreams of solo stardom, and in 1988 he signed to Capitol. Two albums for that label, and two more for Atlantic, failed to quite take off. The critical moment arrived when he planned to release ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ as a single – and found Strait wanted to record the song. He relinquished the song, and settled down to life as a writer for others.

I’ve never really understood why Larry Boone’s solo career never took off. He was signed to Mercury in the late 80s, and later Columbia; he was good looking, had a great voice, and was an excellent songwriter. But only a few of his singles charted, the most successful being his #10 ‘Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger’ which was our Classic Rewind a week ago. Luckily, he had that songwriting talent to fall back on.

Skip Ewing was another recording artist to enjoy a handful of hit singles in the late 80s, then turn to writing them for others when his own chart career wound down. He had much more success in the latter capacity, writing multiple #1s. He made a return to the airwaves in his own right as Reba’s duet partner on the radio version of ‘Every Other Weekend’.

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