My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hugh Prestwood

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Fellow Travelers/Country Heart’

John Conlee’s career was one of the casualties of the wave of young stars emerging in the late 80s swept away the old guard. Columbia having dispensed with his services, he signed a deal with prominent independent label Sixteenth Avenue, which had also recently picked up superstar Charley Pride.

He decided to ‘Hit The Ground Runnin’’, a nice upbeat tune about moving on with some cheerful accordion. Next up was the reflective ‘River Of Time’, written by Larry Cordle and Jim Rushing (although iTunes miscredits it having confused it with the Judds’ song of the same name). This song looks at the changes in attitude brought as one grows up and older:

I was 16 and strong as a horse
I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’
But I knew everything of course
I turned 21 totin’ a gun
And losing some good friends of mine
I was crossing my first dreams of sorrow
On the way down the river of time

This river rolls like a rocket
It don’t meander and wind
Ain’t a power on earth that can stop it
We’re all swept up in the grind
So find your companion
The one that will love you
All the way till the end of the line
It’s the dearest of dreams
In the great scheme of things
Goin’ down the river of time

I woke up at 30 and started to worry
About the glaring mistakes of my past
I still had high aspirations
But I knew that I’d better move fast
Now I’m starin’ at 40 and oh Lordy Lordy
I’m still a long way from the top
I’ve still got the heart but I’m fallin’ apart
Reachin’ the hands of the clock

Both tracks received enough airplay to chart in the 40s.

The third single was ‘Hopelessly Yours’ written by Keith Whitley, Don Cook and Curly Putman. It had been cut a few years earlier by George Jones, and was a bona fide hit a few years later for Lee Greenwood and Suzy Bogguss. Conlee’s version is melancholy and very effective, but despite its quality it got little attention from country radio. The final, non-charting, single was even better. ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ is an emotional ballad written by Hugh Prestwood which portrays the lasting sadness of lost love:

Well, thank you for askin’
I know you mean well
But friend, that’s a story I’d rather not tell
To even begin it would take all night long
And I’d still be right here and she’d still be gone

So don’t get me started
I might never stop
She’s just not a subject that’s easy to drop
There’s dozens of other stories I’ll swap
But don’t get me started on Her
I might never stop

You see, deep in my heart is a dam I have built
For a river of tears over love I have spilled
And the way I make certain that dam will not break
Is to never look back when I’ve made a mistake

Prestwood contributed a number of other tunes to the set. ‘Almost Free’ is about a relationship on the brink:

Last night you pushed me a little too far
I was not coming back when I left in the car
There was a time, an hour or two
I was feeling so free – from you
I picked up a bottle and drove to the Heights
Parked on the ridge and I looked at the lights
The engine was off and the radio on
And the singer sang and I sang along

And I was almost free
There almost wasn’t any you-and-me
I was almost free
Whole new life ahead of me
Almost free

Sunrise rising over the wheel
Bottle’s empty and so is the feel
This car knows it’s the wrong thing to do
But it’s driving me home – to you
Maybe I’m too much in love to be strong
Maybe you knew I’d be back all along
If I could be who you wanted, I would
If I could forget I’d be gone for good

It’s just too hard to walk your line
Maybe baby I’ll cross it next time

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Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – Girl Of Your Dreams’

After the failure of her first album to make any waves, Bobbie left Epic. She was fortunate enough, however, to be picked up by Epic. Her second album, released in 1996 and produced by new label head Tony Brown, was a little more contemporary in sound than her debut, and thematically was influenced significantly by her recent divorce.

Regrettably, that did not make her any more successful with country radio. The lead single was ‘I Just Can’t Stand To Be Unhappy’, a moderately up-tempo kissoff song written by Hugh Prestwood and previously cut by Baillie And The Boys. The protagonist takes no nonsense from an unsatisfactory man:

You made this bed, you can lie in it
But you can do it without me

Love ain’t worth a wooden nickel
If you haven’t got the trust
The brightest fire burns to ashes and the sweet dreams bite the dust

Ain’t no point in being sorry
Ain’t no use in being nice
‘Cause I ain’t gonna hang around and let your lightning strike me twice

It is a pretty good song, and well performed, but perhaps not distinctive enough to be a hit. It peaked at #63.

The self-penned ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ would prove to be Bobbie’s closest to a hit, reaching #56. A cover by Lorrie Morgan was also a flop. It is a subtle song with complicated emotional layers as the protagonist fools herself into thinking she is in the right about her crumbling marriage.

One final single, ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’, was written by Bobbie with Kent Blazy and Sonny LeMaire. A contemporary ballad musing on coming to terms with a new life alone, it is a strong song with an empowering message.

She wrote a further three songs, all melancholy ballads about the end of her marriage, and all excellent songs. ‘Nobody Leaves’, which she wrote with David Stephenson, agonises about the dying days of the relationship. ‘The Girl Of Your Dreams’ looks back poignantly at the blissful early days of their love. ‘Vision Of Loneliness’ is about trying to hide her unhappiness by partying with friends.

‘Oh To Be The One’, written by Randy VanWarmer and Roger Murrah, is a wistful song about unrequited love, with a pretty melody. ‘Just Say So’ (by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski) is a seductive invitation to a loved one who may be wanting to leave. This is a lovely song with a sad undertone reflecting the mood of the album as a whole.

A couple of more uptempo covers are thrown in. A sultry and soulful ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is performed very well but feels a little out of place, with Bobbie channelling her namesake Bobbie Gentry. Bobbie’s version of Dottie West’s 1980 chart topping ‘A Lesson In Leaving’ may have acted as template for Jo Dee Messina’s 1999 hit.

I don’t love this album as much as Bobbie’s debut, but it still an excellent album which I recommend.

Grade: A

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.

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Classics 3’

Star of the late 70s and early 80s and current Opry favorite John Conlee has released two previous versions of ‘Classics’, mixing new versions of his hits with new material. Most of the hits were covered on the first two sets, so the bulk jof material here is new, with only a few of his later hit singles.

‘Working Man’, originally a top 10 hit in 1985, is a mellow sounding song about ordinary blue-collar lives struggling to make ends meet. The biggest hit was ‘Got My Heart Set On You’, a mid-tempo pop-country tune which reached #1 in 1986, and which was co-written by Dobie Gray, best known for his song ‘Drift Away’. It is a pleasant love song, but not really worthy of reviving, and has a dated sounding brassy arrangement. Guy Clark’s ‘The Carpenter’ is a much better song, and was a top 10 hit for John in January 1987.

‘Living Like There’s No Tomorrow’ was John’s final single for Columbia, but failed to dent the charts, as it had done when Keith Whitley recorded it a few years earlier. That was a shame in both cases, as it is a great classic country heartbreak ballad about regretting walking out (written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah). The brass on this version is a bit overblown but the vocal is great: I admit to still preferring the Whitley version. ‘Could You Love Me (One More Time)’ was also both a cover (a Stanley Brothers classic) and a less successful single for John, but from earlier in his career (top 30 in 1981). John sings it beautifully here with a nicely understated production.

Other songs will be familiar from other versions. Joey + Rory’s ‘Bible And A Belt’ works really well for John Conlee’s emotional vocal. I also enjoyed a committed cover of Haggard’s ‘Jesus Take A Hold’, but was less enthralled by ‘The Rock’, which was on one of George Jones’s last records, and which has a more bluesy arrangement here.

There are two songs written by Hugh Prestwood. ‘Learning How To Love’ is a graceful piano ballad with a tasteful string arrangement about the long shadow of a difficult childhood and its impact on adult relationship. More controversial is ‘Unborn Voice’, an uncompromising song from the point of view of the unborn child whose mother is evidently contemplating abortion. It’s not subtle, and the production is fiddly, but it moved me.

Sometime I hear music drifting through these walls
And sometimes I hear voices echo down these halls
Sometimes I hear what sounds like hope all twisted up with fear
And sometimes I hear laughter all tangled up with tears…

I sometimes have this dream of love
And sometimes I could swear
That I hear God whisper to me
There’s a place for me out there

I wonder who this judge is
Who is making up her mind
I wonder if her justice
Is maybe just too blind

She has no idea how much we’re just the same
Maybe she will have mercy
Maybe not
I hear it’s beautiful out there and I’d like a shot

‘Lonely Don’t Know When To Leave’ is an excellent sad ballad written by Leslie Satcher. The mid-tempo ‘The Shade’ fondly recalls childhood memories.

It’s always hard to grade albums involving extensive re-workings of older songs, but I mostly enjoyed this set although some cherrypickimg might be advised.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

cage-the-songbirdThe mid-1980s found Crystal Gayle shifting record labels yet again. Elektra shuttered in 1982 during the chart reign of True Love, which Razor X reviewed earlier this week. Another significant shift was the addition of Jimmy Bowen, who shared a producer credit with Allen Reynolds.

By the time Cage The Songbird came along in October 1983, Gayle was recording for Warner Bros. exclusively with Bowen, who had officially taken over for Reynolds after ten albums. The resulting record was squarely within the trends of the era, following the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris by featuring a Rodney Crowell song, which by this time had become one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville. The album also featured cuts by Elton John and Hugh Prestwood among others, and while it maintained a glossy sheen, Cage The Songbird was loaded with well-chosen material.

The Prestwood cut, which opened the album, was issued as the lead single. “The Sound of Goodbye” is an excellent and bright uptempo contemporary number that ranks among my favorites of hers. It hit #1, as did the album’s third single, Tim Krekel’s lightweight rocker “Turning Away.” Gayle just missed the top spot with “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” an adult contemporary-leaning piano ballad by Joey Carbone. The fourth and final single, “Me Against The Night,” a nice mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #4.

Crowell, who was Gayle’s labelmate at the time, contributed “Victim or a Fool,” a ballad he recorded on his eponymous album two years earlier. Gayle brought an urgency to her version, courtesy of the electric guitars and driving tempo, that contrasted with the sadness Crowell highlighted with his interpretation. Both recordings are interesting although you can’t ignore Gayle’s commercial sheen – the lyric is all but buried beneath the noise.

John supplied the title track, a ballad he wrote with Bernie Taupin and Davey Johnstone. The lyric, which recounts a celebrity’s tragic life and death, was a reimagining of Édith Piaf’s passing as if she had committed suicide. The tone may be grim, but Gayle delivers a gorgeous performance of a spectacular song.

“Take Me Home” was lifted from the soundtrack of a Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name. The album consisted of duets and solo performances by Gayle and Tom Waits, who composed the songs himself. The ballad is stunning and excused from not being country at all, thanks to its origin.

Norman Saleet, another composer far outside the country realm, shows up on Cage The Songbird with “On Our Way To Love,” a ballad outside of my tastes. Saleet is best known for writing Air Supply’s “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and you can hear that influence in the melody here as well.

Of the prominent producers in country music through the years, I probably like Bowen’s work the least. He’s not distasteful to his artists, but his bland tendencies have marred his work significantly. His choices aren’t in the least bit country, either, which probably aids in my overall dissatisfaction. To that end, I really wanted to enjoy Cage The Songbird and I do find many of the album’s tracks, especially “The Sound of Goodbye” very appealing. But while I can mostly appreciate the crossover aspects, the majority of the ballads just don’t hold my attention.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Hugh Prestwood – ‘The Song Remembers When’

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Bing Bang Boom’

bing bang boomAlthough one tends to think of Paulette Carlson as the female voice of Highway 101, the fact is that Nikki Nelson has been the face of Highway 101 for far longer than Paulette Carlson. In fact Nelson has been with the group for as a long as Paulette Carlson and Chrislyn Lee combined.

Bing Bang Boom marked the debut of Nikki Nelson as the lead singer of Highway 101. While her predecessor had a more distinctive (and at times quite annoying) voice, I think Nikki’s voice is better and that she had more potential to make it as a solo act than did Carlson. Unfortunately the material on this album is not quite as strong as on the first three albums so this album did not have the impact of the first three albums

The first single for Nikki Nelson was Hugh Prestwood’s “Bing Bang Boom” an up-tempo romp that charted at #14, exactly the same spot that Carlson’s last single had attained. I think that under different circumstances that this single would have done better, but I think that the market had already turned away from Highway 101’s sound as the last two Carlson singles both failed to reach the top ten

Gather around me and lend an ear
‘Cause I got somethin’ you ought to hear
I’m tellin’ you that you ought to fear
A certain kind of love
Now it can strike in the day or night
And just as quick as a rattler’s bite
You’ve got a case of love at first sight
And it’s what you’re dyin’ of

It’s just bing bang boom, one two three
You’re feelin’ normal as you can be
And then bing bang boom, lickety split
It doesn’t come on bit by bit
It gets instantly in full swing
And it’s bing bang boom

Unfortunately, “Bing Bang Boom” would prove to be the last to twenty single for Highway 101.

The next track comes from the pen of Michael Henderson, “Wherever You Are”, a bluesy ballad of a love gone astray. Nikki really nails the vocals – the song might have made a good single. Then again, the third track, “The Blame” (from Cactus Moser, Paul Nelson, and Gene Nelson) was the second single selected, it was an excellent ballad and it died at #31. This is actually my favorite Highway 101 song, one on which Nikki proves to be the absolute master of the slow ballad

Guess I could say you never held me close,
Those certain nights I needed you the most.
But you could say that I gave up before the love was gone,
and whose to say who was right or wrong.
You’ve got your side and I’ve got mine –
the truth lies in between,
No matter how the story’s told the end is still the same.
It’s a game that’s played by fools,
and it only has one rule.
It’s not whether you win or lose,
It’s how you lay the blame.

The next track is from the pens of Cactus Moser, Gary Chapman and Michael James, anther up-tempo romp titled “Storm of Live”. I think this would have made a good single.

This is followed up by a cover of a Tammy Wynette classic, “Til I Get It Right”. Nikki gives the song a nice reading, but she doesn’t have the essential tear in the voice that unique to Tammy Wynette.

Michael Henderson wrote the next two numbers “Restless Kind” and “Honky Tonk Baby”, both decent album tracks but nothing more. “Honky Tonk Baby” has a bit of a retro or rockabilly feel to it and was actually issued as the fourth single, dying at #54.

“River of Tears” , written by Cactus Moser and Eric Silver, would have been a hit if released during the late 1960s or early 1970s. In my mind, I can hear Rhonda Vincent doing this song as a bluegrass ballad.

“Baby, I’m Missing You” was the third single off the album, reaching #22. The song was written by Steve Seskin and Nancy Montgomery. It is a nice song that would have gone top ten a few years earlier.

The album closes with “Desperate” (co-written by Cactus Moser), and Joy White’s “Big City Bound”, both good album tracks. “Big City Bound” has an arrangement that reminds me strongly of John Anderson’s 1981 hit “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”.

I would rate this album as a B+. I don’t really think the band lost anything with the change of female vocalist. If anything, Nikki Nelson’s presence probably enabled the band to tackle a greater variety of material in live performance. I think the real issue here is shelf life. Highway 101 had a four year shelf life as hitmakers, and had already experienced significant falloff even before Carlson left the band, with each album charting a little lower than the previous album (#7, #8, #22 and then #29 for the Greatest Hits album. This pattern is eerily similar to the pattern for acts such as SKO/SKB, Desert Rose, Exile and Restless Heart.

Highway 101 still tours occasionally – look for them if they hit your town.

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101 2’

highway 101 2The title of Highway 101’s sophomore album is not, as you might think, the number 2. Rather, it is the symbol for squared. Pretentious title aside, the material isn’t quite as consistently strong as on their debut album, but it is still a very rewarding record, and helped to maintain them as one of the top country groups of the late 80s.

The exuberant lead single, ‘(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes’, was the band’s third #1 hit. It was written by Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins.

It was followed by my favourite track on the album, the sweetly sung, regretful ballad ‘All The Reasons Why’, which reached #5. Written by Paulette Carlson with Beth Nielsen Chapman, its guilty protagonist has just broken up with her unfortunate spouse, who can’t understand why:

You’ve asked what you’ve done wrong,
And if there’s someone new
What has changed my heart
And what else can you do
Oh darlin’ can’t you see
It’s not so cut and dried
And who knows where love goes
And all the reasons why

She wants to stay friends, but it’s hard to see that happening.

There was a change of pace for the third single, the urgent ‘Setting Me Up. This was a cover of an album cut by the British rock band Dire Straits, written by that band’s Mark Knopfler. Apparently he was unaware that his publisher had some country demos recorded of his songs, resulting in this and other cuts, but he did have some country influences – in 1989-90 his main project was a country-rock-blues band called the Notting Hillbillies, which also featured steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, and he later made an album and toured with Emmylou Harris. This song isn’t particularly country in its rhythmic structure, but was another to 10 hit, and allowed more of a band feel than usual, with some superb playing by the guys and a share of the vocals.

The last single, another top 10 tune, was the excellent ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, written by Jim Photoglo and Russell Smith. It is a rather upbeat breakup song in which the protagonist has grown up since meeting her ex in a bar, and now wants more to life:

The night life isn’t my life anymore
What matters most to me is a home and family
But you can’t find that behind those swingin’ doors…

I won’t play second fiddle to the beat of your honky tonk heart
Go on back to the bar where I found you
Go on back to your so-called second home
You’ll feel better with your good-time friends around you
And I’ll be here but I won’t be alone

Photoglo also co-wrote (with Wendy Waldman and Josh Leo) the solid mid-tempo ‘Road To Your Heart’.

‘Somewhere Between Gone And Goodbye’ is an excellent song written by Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’, given a sparse production and great harmonies. An anxious woman lies awake wondering when her man is coming home:

How many nights must I lay me down and wonder
Will I wake up tomorrow without you by my side?
I’m feeling worn and thin as the sheets that I lay under
Lying somewhere between gone and goodbye

Late night headlights out in the driveway
Drivin’ me crazy again
No need to sneak in
I wasn’t really sleepin’
No need to tell me
I know where you’ve been

It feels like the prequel to ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, and would have made another good single.

A vibrant and authentic sounding cover of Buck Owens’ ‘There Goes My Heart’ reminds us of the band’s California roots. ‘Feed This Fire’ is an earnest love song written by Hugh Prestwood about the need to work at keeping the romance going; it was subsequently a hit single for Anne Murray. Paulette fights temptation she knows has no good ending in ‘Desperate Road’.

Finally, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Long Way Down’ is a strong story song about a young woman musician who has fought her way to stardom from tough beginnings, but can’t rest on her laurels.

While the album lacks the classics of their debut, this is a very strong follow up with no weak songs.

Grade: A

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Holly Dunn’

HollyDunnIn the mid 1980s country music was in a state of transition as the Urban Cowboy sound began to fall out of favor with radio and fans. Artists like George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and The Judds had begun to pull the music back to its traditional roots but it wasn’t until Randy Travis’ big breakthrough in 1986 that the last nail was finally driven into the Urban Cowboy coffin. Holly Dunn’s eponymous debut album was released during this transition, and although it has its traditional moments, the album is mostly in the fading but not yet dead pop-country vein of the day.

Produced by Tommy West, the album contains ten songs, half of which were either written or co-written by Holly. Interestingly, none of five tracks in which Holly had a hand in writing were collaborations with her brother Chris Waters and Tom Shairo, although Tom and Chris did write one song, “That’s A Real Good Way To Get Yourself Loved”, with Michael Garvin. The album opens with “Two Too Many”, one of Holly’s compositions which was also her first single to crack the Top 40, landing at #39. It’s a lightweight but catchy number, and though not particularly noteworthy, it is actually one of the album’s better tracks. It was of course, completely overshadowed by the album’s second single, “Daddy’s Hands”, Dunn’s first bonafide hit and the song for which she is best remembered today.

Unfortunately, aside from “Daddy’s Hands” there is nothing particularly memorable about this album at all, despite some impressive names among the songwriting credits. “Burnin’ Wheel”, a Radney Foster co-write with Billy Aerts and Mickey Cates is a piece of lightweight fluff, and “My Heart Holds On” is certainly one of Hugh Prestwood’s poorer efforts. I like Gary Burr’s “Someone Carried You” a little better, but it isn’t an example of his best work, either.

Although the material certainly could have been stronger, the album’s main flaw is the production. Already falling out of favor in 1986, the pop-country arrangements that permeate every track except “Daddy’s Hands” sound terribly dated today. The album does have its bright spots; I rather like “Your Memory (Won’t Let Go Of Me)” and “The Sweetest Love I Never Knew”, but I wish they had been recorded a few years later after Holly had begun to co-produce her albums and had moved away from the Urban Cowboy sound.

None of this is to say that Holly Dunn is a bad album; it certainly has its enjoyable moments but it pales in comparison to most of her later work, beginning with her next album, 1987’s Cornerstone. I quite liked Holly Dunn back in 1986 but it hasn’t aged well. The album is long out of print and virtually impossible to find, but only “Daddy’s Hands” is essential listening and it is available elsewhere. The rest of the album is interesting only as a footnote in the Dunn discography and as a snapshot of her career in its earlier stages.

Grade: B

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Extra Mile’

extramile1990’s Extra Mile was the first Shenandoah album I ever bought. The band was on a hot streak after racking up three #1 hits the year before, followed by the #6 hit “See If I Care.” Extra Mile’s lead single, the Robert Ellis Orall and Curtis Wright two-stepper “Next To You, Next To Me” quickly became the band’s fourth chart topper. It is my favorite Shenandoah recording and it sounds as good as today as it did when it was first released nearly a quarter century ago.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album , for the most part,hasn’t aged as well. Every recording is a product of the era in which it was made and that is part of the charm of listening to vintage music. I don’t mind soaring string sections or Nashville Sound choruses, and even some of the heavy-handed Urban Cowboy records of the early 1980s. I have, however, developed a profound dislike of keyboard synthesizers, which were considered very cutting edge in 1990 but sound horribly dated today. In listening to Extra Mile for the first time in a very long time, I found the synthesizers to be a distraction that mar an otherwise very solid album. It’s first apparent on Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House” — a beautiful ballad that peaked at #5 when it was released as the album’s second single — and continues to mar ballads such as “When You Were Mine” and it is particularly intrusive on “The Moon Over Georgia”, an otherwise excellent record that reached #9. The aforementioned “When You Were Mine” stalled #38, becoming the album’s only single not to reach the Top 10. “I Got You”, written by Robert Byrne, Teddy Gentry and Greg Fowler, was also released as a single between “Ghost In This House” and “Moon Over Georgia.” It’s another one of my favorite Shenandoah recordings. It peaked at #7.

Production missteps aside, the material on Extra Mile is quite good, and Marty Raybon’s vocals are stellar throughout. The songwriting credits alone are impressive with names such as Lionel Cartwright (“She’s A Natural”), Larry Cordle and Larry Shell (“Puttin’ New Roots Down”) and Rory Michael Burke and Mike Reid (“She Makes The Coming Home Worth The Being Gone”) all appearing alongside the aforementioned Robert Ellis Orrall, Curtis Wright and Hugh Prestwood. The album closes with the sentimental “Daddy’s Little Man” in which a father fears that he cannot live up to the hero image that his young son has of him.

Like The Road Not Taken, Extra Mile earned gold certification. Unfortunately, shortly after the album’s release the band was sued by several other bands that claimed to have rights to the Shenandoah name. Although Shenandoah prevailed in court, it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and one of the consequences of that action was the termination of the band’s contract with Columbia Records. Although the band later resurfaced on RCA, the legal turmoils did affect their commercial momentum. Shenandoah’s albums are not always easy to come by nowadays, but as one of their better selling efforts, Extra Mile is the exception. Cheap used copies are available as well as a reasonably priced import version which contains The Road Not Taken and Extra Mile on the same disc.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Alison Krauss – ‘Forget About It’

Forget+About+It++1After reuniting with Union Station for the back-to-basics So Long, So Wrong Alison Krauss went solo for her 1999 effort, choosing to record an eclectic pop flavored album blending choice covers with newer material. As a result, Forget About It is one of Krauss’ most vibrant albums containing some of the most exquisite vocal performances of her career.

The album’s lead single marked her first time Krauss recorded a Robert Lee Castleman song, a songwriter who would become a go-to with at least one cut on each album she (and Union Station) would cut from this point onward. This first instance was the title track, an excellent mandolin drenched number displaying an upbeat disposition rare for the usually downbeat Krauss. She proves a revelation digging her teeth into a number that has more substance then first meets the eye. It’s one of my favorite moments Krauss has ever put on record. Country radio took notice as well, helping the song peak at 67 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Larry Byrom and Allyson Taylor co-wrote album opener “Stay,” a gorgeous mandolin and dobro soaked ballad detailing two reunited lovers. “Love’s taken you far, away from my heart, and I’ve been here all alone” Krauss sings with pent up pain, while also observing “Have your eyes failed to find, what took you from mine, a vision that’s faded through time?” The pair is worlds apart, but through it all she knows there’s a way to keep him around, if only he would meet her demands (“Darlin don’t turn away, don’t doubt your heart and keep us apart, I’m right where you are”).

“Stay” is a fantastic song if not for the conviction Krauss brings to her vocal, then for Byrom and Taylor’s perfectly nuanced story. Third and final single “Maybe” serves as a sequel of sorts, with the woman finally realizing the relationship is over. This revelation has her psyche in a better place, confidently declaring, “Maybe it’s for the best, I can live alone, I guess. Maybe I can stand alone, Maybe I’m strong as stone.” Another winner, “Maybe” succeeds on Krauss’ soaring vocal, a brilliant homage to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” that has her delivering the verses in near whisper while displaying the fullness of her pitch-perfect range during the chorus. “Maybe” is one of Krauss’ greatest achievements as a contemporary vocalist.

As if Krauss had anything left to prove after “Maybe,” she also recorded Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House,” a #5 peaking single for Shenandoah in 1990. Krauss’ version is divine with minimal production giving her impeccably controlled vocal the space to shine. In lesser hands this could’ve been a slow sleep-inducing effort, but Krauss draws the listener in with her choice to open the track a cappella and keeps the listener hooked throughout.

Forget About It closes with another country cover; Allen Reynolds oft-recorded standard “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” The quiet nature of the song is perfect for Krauss’ voice, and the beautifully understated production helps the listener appreciate Krauss’ reading of the timeless story about a person mourning the loss of their true love, vowing never to forget what they had together.

Another of my favorite numbers is a cover of rock singer Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” which maintains the song’s steady beat but is given a somewhat classier feel that allowed me to get into the story contained in the lyrics. Like the rest of the project the track is striking, with well-placed dobro accents assisting the melody by keeping the track from coming off as sleepy.

The most overtly bluegrass leaning track is a cover of Union Station bandmate Ron Block’s “Could You Lie,” which stands in contrast from the rest of Forget About It in that it features the heaviest dose of dobro. Jerry Douglas is given a bigger showcase here, acting as a main player instead of an accent flowing through the melody. Like the singles, “Could You Lie” also features a very pronounced chorus with her Union Station bandmates turning in harmony vocals. The more polished nature of the song also helps it stand out as one of the sets most memorable. It’s another personal favorite of mine.

Aside from soul superstar Michael McDonald and Michael Johnson’s “Empty Hearts,” one of the slower ballads, I haven’t spent any time with the remaining tracks on Forget About It opting to single out my favorite numbers on repeated listenings. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, however. Danny O’Keefe’s “Never Got Off The Ground” is a wonderful mandolin and dobro ballad, just like McDonald’s “It Doesn’t Matter Now.” “That Kind of Love,” a third song co-written by McDonald is a slower ballad about the importance of love and it’s good. It was featured in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

Forget About It may not be a landmark album in Krauss’ discography but it’s easily one of her strongest overall recordings thanks to an expertly chosen collection of songs impeccably produced and sung by the singer herself. Krauss is smart enough to mostly stay within her comfort zone, keep the songs from sounding alike, and avoid sleep-inducing production choices. If you’ve never listened to this set, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Moment Of Truth’

moment of truthSuzy’s stunning and very traditional debut album, Somewhere Between (which I reviewed a couple of years ago as part of our look back at the Class of ’89) was a critical success but performed less well commercially, with just one top 20 hit single. She turned to a much more contemporary sound for her follow-up, which she produced herself with label boss Jimmy Bowen. (Trivia note: her production company, Loyal Dutchess, was named for her beloved dog.) However, the album failed to catch fire with radio listeners, with both singles flopping badly.

The midpaced ‘Under The Gun’ is written by Hugh Prestwood, and is an okay song, but Suzy doesn’t have the forcefulness required to make the Western movie cowboy shootout metaphor sound convincing. She was much better suited to ‘All Things Made New Again’ is a soothing ballad, which is very pretty and one of the more traditional sounding songs with Rob Hajacos’s fiddle prominent in the mix. It was written by Dan Seals and Rafe VanHoy, and Seals also sings backing vocals.

The record does not offer much variety in tempo, with the bulk of the material consisting of mellow ballads. The melodies are generally strong, and Suzy’s vocals are sweet throughout, and although the production leans more AC than neotraditional, it is tastefully understated, so even the less interesting songs sound pleasant.

‘My Side Of the Story’ is one of the best of the songs, a pensive ballad about coming to terms with a breakup, written by Suzy with her husband Doug Crider, with a sensitive vocal as Suzy tells her husband wearily it’s over, accepting that he may see the reasons differently:

It’s too late to talk about it
You never wanted to before
You still don’t understand me
But it doesn’t matter anymore

In the excellent ‘As If I Didn’t Know’ (a Mel Tillis song, but perhaps surprisingly another contemporary ballad) Suzy contemplates the inevitable end of her relationship in what feels like a prequel to ‘My Side Of The Story’. Here the woman knows it is really over, but is clinging to her pretense that everything is okay.

The title track (penned by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles) is a soothing love song with a very pretty tune led by a Spanish guitar.

‘Wild Horses’ is a subtle and interesting story song written by Verlon Thompson and Rhonda Fleming but as with ‘Under The Gun’, Suzy’s performance sounds too tame. ‘Fear Of Flying’, written by Suzy with Gary Scruggs, is almost the only time the pace picks up, but it isn’t a very interesting song. ‘Burning Down’ has a bluesy feel, but again is a rather boring song.

The remaining songs are pleasant enough but just rather dull and forgettable.

I remember being disappointed by this when it first came out as it seemed like a step down from her debut. But it was clearly more in the vein that Suzy herself wanted to follow, as the mellow ballad sound set a template for much of her subsequent music, and it has worn quite well. Although it is rather one-paced there are some nice songs here, and Suzy’s lovely voice always sounds good. However, the record’s poor commercial performance meant that her undeniable talent notwithstanding, Suzy was very lucky to get another chance to break through with a third album.

Grade: B

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘The Walls Came Down’

RayewallsIn the wake of the success of I Think About You, Epic Nashville released The Best of Colin Raye: Direct Hits in the spring of 1997. Lead single “What The Heart Wants,” a mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #2 while the Phil Vassar co-write “Little Red Rodeo” was a top 5 hit. Both are excellent songs, and the latter is still one of his biggest recurrent hits today.

Kim Tribble and Tammy Hyler’s “I Can Still Feel You” returned Raye to the top of the charts for the first time in three years and served as the lead single for The Walls Came Down, his fifth studio release for Epic. The single was a change in tone for Raye, with a decidedly slicker production marked by pronounced percussion and guitar work. I like it, but it’s far from a favorite.

Much better is the second single, Tim Johnson and Rory Lee Feek’s “Someone I Used To Know.” It’s an excellent lyric and the first major cut of Feek’s songwriting career (he bought his barn the year after this hit peaked – he and Joey now film their TV show there). Back in his signature ballad mode, Raye shines with this tale of a man’s anguish towards his malevolent ex:

Like a friend, like a fool

Like some guy you knew in school

Didn’t we love, didn’t we share

Or don’t you even care

I know we said we were through

But I never knew how quickly I would go

From someone you loved

To someone you used to know

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Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘I Think About You’

Rayethink1995 was a good year for Collin Raye. Coming off the success of Extremes, he released I Think About You in late August. Like its three predecessors, it received a platinum certification and retained John Hobbs as producer (Ed Seay and Paul Worley co-produced).

I Think About You was instrumental in shaping my country music identity as it was one of the first country projects I was exposed to as a kid, and remains my third favorite country album to this day (behind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dixie Chicks Home). The hits from this project have a special quality I’ve never been able to duplicate with any other artists’ work.

Mark Alan Springer and Shane Smith co-wrote the #2 peaking lead single, “One Boy, One Girl,” a fantastically touching ballad centered around the full-circle love affair between a couple. The ending of the story is a bit predicable, but Raye gives the type of touching performance only he could bring to a ballad, and both Dan Digmore and Paul Franklin drench the number in gorgeous pedal steel.

Even better is “Not That Different,” Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott’s song about indifference that climbed to #3. I love how the song builds, starting out as a simple piano ballad and building to its drum-infused conclusion with the bridge. The lyric, both simple and brilliant, is fine testament to the powers of fate, and probably my favorite on the whole album:

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘In This Life’

inthislifeCollin Raye’s sophomore disc is slightly more polished and less neotraditional than his debut effort. John Hobbs returned to co-produce the album, this time with Garth Fundis, who replaced All I Can Be’s co-producer Jerry Fuller. The title track and lead single was an obvious — and successful — attempt to capitalize on the success of “Love, Me” and cement Raye’s reputation as a ballad singer. “In This Life”, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin spent two weeks at #1 in the autumn of 1992. It also reached #21 on the Adult Contemporary chart and might have been considered Raye’s career record had he not already recorded “Love, Me”.

If “In This Life” helped solidify Collin’s credentials as a balladeer, the next single “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” was meant to ensure that he didn’t get pigeonholed. The uptempo number has just a bit of a rock edge, but the vocal is a little shouty and it doesn’t quite work for me. It is my least favorite track on the album and possibly my least favorite of all of Raye’s singles. While it did not chart as high as the three records that preceded it, it managed to peak at a respectable #7. “Somebody Else’s Moon”, another ballad, saw him return to the Top 5, as did “That Was A River”, yet another ballad which is just a little too syrupy and one of the weakest tracks on the album.

It will come as no surprise to longtime readers that my favorite song on the disc is also its most traditional. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a suprisingly upbeat number about an unraveling relationship; Collin tells his soon-to-be ex:

When I gave you my heart, I gave it forever
But you can’t take it with you when you go.

The Texas two-step number was written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Chick Rains and features some excellent fiddling by Rob Hajacos. Stylistically, it would have been more at home on Collin’s first album. It should have been released as a single, and so should Hugh Prestwood’s “Latter Day Cowboy”, another one of my favorites from this collection.

The collection also includes a pair of remakes. Collin covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, which is a decent effort, but Raye is no Man In Black. His rendition of the pop standard “Let It Be Me”, which closes the album, is more suited to his voice.

Like its predecessor, In This Life earned platinum certification in the US and gold status in Canada. While not quite as good as his debut album, it is one of the stronger entries in his discography. Cheap copies are readily available and worth purchasing.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Kathy Matttea – ‘Time Passes By’

As the 1990s began, Kathy Mattea was the reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and for her first album of the decade, she made a subtle shift away from mainstream country, releasing a collection that leaned slightly more towards the folkabilly-style music that Nanci Griffith had done a few years earlier. Time Passes By, Mattea’s sixth release also bears the stamp of Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean, who contributed one of his own compositions and also shared production duties with Mattea and her husband Jon Vezner on a cover version of “From a Distance”, a Julie Gold-penned son that had recently been popularized by Bette Midler. There is a distinct Celtic feel to many of the tracks, foreshadowing a more pronounced move in that direction that Kathy would make a few years later.

Mattea deserves credit for taking some creative risks, even though Time Passes By is somewhat of a hit or miss affair. Not surprisingly, it was not as well received at radio as the three albums that preceded it, and though it still sold enough units to earn gold certification, it marks the beginning of the end of Kathy’s reign at the top of the singles charts. The title track, which is the most mainstream song in the collection, was the album’s biggest hit, charting at #7. Written by Jon Vezner and Susan Longacre, it is somewhat reminiscent of Kathy’s recent hit “Come From The Heart”, but the live-for-the-moment message is less effective this time around. It was the only single from the album to reach the Top 10. Kathy would only reach the Top 10 one more time in her career, three years later.

Following the positive tone of “Time Passes By”, the second single “Whole Lotta Holes” does a complete 180 and is a distinct downer. It barely scraped into the Top 20, peaking at #18. The next single, the Hugh Prestwood tune “Asking Us To Dance” is a lovely ballad that deserved to rise higher than #27.

There are a handful of standout tracks in this collection, as well as a few duds. Among the gems are “What Could Have Been”, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, and “Summer of My Dreams” which is my favorite song from this set. Dougie MacLean’s “Ready For The Storm” is also quite good. Not so good are “Quarter Moon”, on which Mattea sounds screechy as she attempts to hit some high notes that are just out of reach, and “Harley”, an offbeat number about a biker couple that whose child becomes lost when the sidecar he is riding in becomes detached and rolls away, unnoticed by his parents. The child is subsequently found unharmed in a field by a farmer and his wife who raise him as their own. It’s meant to be a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek number but it doesn’t quite work for me. Mattea’s version of “From A Distance”, which closes out the set, is a slight disappointment. It is beautifully sung, and the sparse, acoustic arrangement starts off well. I even like the bagpipes that chime in about two minutes into the song, but clocking in at five minutes, the song is dragged out too long, and it would have been a lot better without the chorus chanting “God is watching us” repeatedly as the track fades out.

Although Time Passes By is not Kathy’s very best work, it is a decent effort. It doesn’t contain any of her biggest hits, so casual fans may be inclined to give it a miss, but those who do give it a listen are bound to find a few tracks that they really like.

Grade: B

Last hurrahs and late career resurgences

I became interested in country music at a time when many of the genre’s legends were still scoring hits. Within a few years however, the landscape changed dramatically as the New Traditionalist movement swept a lot of veterans off the charts. Though it was an exciting time with a lot of new talent emerging, it was also a bit sad to see a number of old favorites disappearing from the airwaves all at once. In their struggle to remain commercially relevant, many of these veterans produced some of their finest work. In some cases it resulted in one last big hit; in a few rare cases it resulted in a temporary halt in their slide down the charts, but above all, it usually resulted in some really great music. Here are a few examples of memorable late career moments from some of my favorite artists:

1. “Two Story House” — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (1980)
Though this duo continued to record together after their divorce, their collaborations became less frequent as Jones battled his personal demons. “Two Story House”, a tale of a marriage destroyed by materialism, was their last big hit, charting at #2. They scored one more Top 20 hit later the same year with “A Pair of Old Sneakers”. After that there were no more Jones/Wynette collaborations until 1994 when they remade their biggest hit, 1976’s “Golden Ring” for George’s Bradley Barn Sessions album, which led to one final album of duets, 1995’s One.

2. “Another Chance “– Tammy Wynette (1982)
This bouncy tune was Tammy’s last Top 10 hit as a solo artist, peaking at #8 in 1982. It’s largely forgotten today but it received a lot of airplay at the time and I’ve always thought it was one of her best singles. She would hit the Top 10 one more time in 1985 with “Sometimes When We Touch”, a duet with Mark Gray.

3. “I Lie” — Loretta Lynn (1982)
Loretta’s chart decline paralleled that of Tammy Wynette. This #9 hit from 1982 is one of her glossiest singles. It was her first Top 10 solo hit in three years, and her only appearance in the Top 10 as a soloist in the 1980s, though she did enjoy three more Top 10 duets with Conway Twitty.

4. “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” — Charley Pride (1987)
Charley Pride’s hits began to taper off in the mid-80s. He ended a twenty-year association with RCA Records in 1986 and signed with the independent 16th Avenue label. He scored one final Top 5 hit the following year.

5. “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” — Barbara Mandrell (1988)
Barbara was at the peak of her popularity in 1984 when she was seriously injured in a car accident. Her career never quite regained its momentum, which she partially blames on the bad publicity she received when she filed a lawsuit against the estate of the driver that struck her car — a requirement under Tennessee law in order for her to collect from her own insurance company. She ended a three-year dry spell in 1988 when she returned to a more traditional sound. I was unfamiliar with the Ray Price original, but I loved Barbara’s take on this song and consider it to be one of her very best recordings. By coincidence, my colleague Paul also gave this record a shout-out in the latest installment of his Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s series.

6. “Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me” — Ronnie Milsap (1989)
Ronnie had a voice tailor made for country music, but unfortunately much of his output during the 1980s leaned heavily towards pop and R&B. He was still enjoying chart success when he got on board with the New Traditionalist movement and covered this Hank Cochran tune.

7. “Wrong “– Waylon Jennings (1990)
This whimsical tune about a marriage that didn’t quite turn out as expected was Waylon’s first single released during a brief stint with Epic Records. It reached #5 and was the last hit of his career.

8. “Feed This Fire“– Anne Murray (1990)
Anne regularly scored hits in both pop and country throughout the 1970s, but during the 1980s her successes were primarily on the country charts. In 1986, in an attempt to regain her popularity outside of country, she deliberately moved in a more pop direction. Ironically, her first release under this new strategy, “Now and Forever (You and Me)” became a #1 country hit, even though it was not remotely country. After that she fell out of favor with both pop and country radio, and by the beginning of the 1990s, she was trying hard to get back on country radio. She succeeded with this excellent Hugh Prestwood tune, which she took to #5 in the US and #6 in Canada. It was her last Top 10 country hit in the US.

9. “Three Good Reasons” — Crystal Gayle (1992)
Loretta Lynn’s little sister managed to buck the commercial trend towards more traditional country and stay on the charts through most of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, however, the hits began to taper off. Like many others she eventually switched to a more traditional sound. This 1992 tune did not chart, although it did get a lot of airplay in the Philadelphia market because Crystal was one of the artists appearing at the local country radio station’s annual anniversary concert that year.

10. “Buy Me A Rose” — Kenny Rogers (1999)
Kenny Rogers hadn’t scored a Top 10 hit in a decade, but age 61 he defied the odds and became the oldest person in country music history to score a #1 hit when he took this tune to the top of the charts in 1999.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Around the Bend’

Following his stint at recording only gospel music, Randy Travis returned with this first secular album in 9 years with the 2008 Warner Brothers release Around The Bend. While it didn’t chart any singles, the album would land in the Country Albums chart top 5 and the all-genre chart’s top 20. With 31,000 copies sold during its first week on the shelves, Around The Bend also gave Travis his best first-week sales of his career. It would also showcase the best of Travis’ mainstream country records more than any album, gospel or mainstream, he had recorded in the previous two decades. Around The Bend finds Travis in better form vocally than his past albums, but the album seems to be a bit front heavy with most of the memorable tracks stacked on the first half.

My favorite track, “You Didn’t Have a Good Time”, is a stark look at the night before, from the point of view of a man with a case of the “re-re’s”, as Willie Nelson might say. The re-re’s are the regrets and remorse that come after a night of unbridled alcohol consumption, the morning after, when you begin rehashing the events of the night before. Here. Travis takes on the role of the party-hearty character’s conscience as he narrates the highs and lows of last night, coming to the all-too-clear conclusion that, despite his own self-delusional theories, he really wasn’t the life of the party, that girl probably spilled her perfume, nobody can save him from himself, and there wasn’t a good time had. The sparse and melancholy arrangement, and the singer’s strong vocal performance, are a throwback to his glory days, despite the wear on his voice over the years.

Travis shines on the album’s up-tempos this time around, but not so much on the ballads. “Every Head Bowed” reminds us of his gospel of the past decade; it’s a tongue-in-cheek tale told from the point of view of a hungry little boy enduring the lengthy Sunday morning worship, and the grace before the meal at KFC, before finally getting his belly full. Despite its using the word “chicken” (a major personal gripe), it’s a neat honky-tonk/gospel fusion, with its rolling steel guitar choruses and piano-laden verses, and a highlight of the album.

Not since Johnny Cash recorded the song have I heard a more sublime version of Bob Dylan’s classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. Randy’s driving, nothing-but-country, take on the song is a pleasure for its roadhouse atmosphere as much for his own blase’ delivery. On another scorcher, namely Noah Gordon’s “Turn It Around”, Randy leads the show with his weathered vocal, telling of a baffled-by-circumstances man once more made a fool by a woman’s leaving. It has a sound template for modern traditionalism with a walking bass line coupled with a shuffling steel and fiddle country sound.

Among the slower numbers, there’s less to be heralded. A bit dark for a love song and a bit sweet for a tale of woe, “Dig Two Graves” repeats the “I’ll die with you” theme that had become a staple after the successive passing of Johnny and June, and just never resonated with me, despite the quality of the recording. Hugh Prestwood’s “Love Is a Gamble” is a well written but somewhat saccharine story of a mother telling her young son her views on true love. Its contemporary arrangement suits the lyric, but its sound and content leave me reaching for the skip button. Much like “Faith In You”, a failed single, is way overproduced, and its mundane, cliché lyrics are beneath an artist of Randy Travis’ caliber.

Like the ballads, not all the swinging numbers reach their full potential. The title track is a snappy, affirmative take on overcoming what life throws at you, wherein the traditional country instruments – fiddle, mostly – are nearly overcome by the loud mix of drums, bass, and snappier than the lyrics electric guitar swells.

Around The Bend found Travis using his now more-limited vocal abilities to much better effect than previous work – namely the unsuccessful A Man Ain’t Made of Stone album – and certainly was stacked with better song selection. It’s a welcome return to form from one of country music’s greatest voices.

Grade: B

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Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B