Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.
The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:
I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark
The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark
I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark
This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.
His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.
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