My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: James Stroud

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Borderline’

Released in March 1987, Borderline marked Conway’s return to MCA after five year interlude with Elektra/Warner Bros. Frankly, other than the Lost In The Feeling album, I really had consistently disliked his recent output.

I received this album as a birthday present in April 1987. While I had high hopes for a return to the earlier Twitty sound my hopes were dashed when I read the back of the album and saw the following:

Musicians:

James Stroud – Drums
Emory Gordy, Jr. – Bass
John Jarvis – Piano
David Innis, Mike Lawler – Keyboards
Richard Bennett – Acoustic Guitar
Reggie Young, Fred Newll – Electric Guitar
Background Harmonies – Vince Gill and Conway Twitty

That’s right – no John Hughey, or any other steel guitar player for that matter.

My expectations suitably lowered I put the album on the turntable and played it. The album opened up with the first single release, John Jarvis-Don Cook song “Julia” which topped out at #2. This song is bland 80s ballad with cocktail lounge production. The song itself is not bad, but the production ruins it for me.

Brent Mason and Jim McBride collaborated on “Lonely Town”, a mid-tempo song about a one night stand. I would have picked this song as for single release. By the standards of this album, this was a country song

She gave into him last night
She thought he was Mr. Right
But he left like all the others
Before the morning came around

Same old story in lonely town
The sun comes up, the heart goes down
She’s tried everything she knows

Come so far and yet so close
She keeps searching for the magic
But it’s nowhere to be found
But that’s how it is in lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone

The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone
The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

Track three was “I Want To Know Before We Make Love” by Candy Parton and Becky Hobbs. Good advice no doubt – no point getting involved with a sociopath – but I think this song works better from the femine perspective. This song also reached #2.

Track four is the title track “Borderline” a decent song marred by cheesy 80s production. Walt Aldridge wrote this song. He wrote several #1 records for the likes of Earl Thomas Conley, Ronnie Milsap, Alabama and Travis Tritt.

Track five (the last track on side one of the vinyl album) concludes with “Not Enough Love To Go Around”  a slow R&B ballad that is nice but ultimately uninteresting.

Track six is “Snake Books”, written by Troy Seals. Troy wrote many great songs, but this wasn’t one of them. This is followed by “I’m For A While” by Kent Robbins, a generic song about a man who swears that he is not looking for a one night stand.

Most songs written by committees stink, but “Fifteen To Forty-Three” by Don Goodman, Frank Dycus, Mark Sherrill and John Wesley Ryles is a terrific ballad about a fellow sorting through a box of memories and regrets. This has a very country feel to it and would have made a great single.

<blockquote>I just cut the string
On a dusty old shoe box
And opened a door to the past
Now I’m sittin’ here with my souvenirs
And these faded old photographs.

Fightin’ back tears
Lookin’ back through the years
And wonderin’ why dreams fade so fast
Now the young boy I see
Don’t look like the me
Reflected in this old looking glass.

The man in the mirror
Sees things so much clearer
Than the boy in the pictures
With his eyes full of dreams
Oh, the men that I’ve tried to be
From fifteen to forty-three
Never believed that they’d end up like me.

The ninth track “Everybody Needs A Hero” was written by Troy Seals and Max D Barnes. It’s a great song that Gene Watson released as a single. Although Conway does a nice job with the song, it is not quite as nice as Gene’s version (I like the production on Gene’s record better).

The album closes with Gary Burr’s “That’s My Job”, the last single released from this album. The single reached #6 but deserved a better fate. It is one of the best songs Conway ever recorded

I woke up crying late at night
When I was very young.
I had dreamed my father
Had passed away and gone.
My world revolved around him
I couldn’t lay there anymore.
So I made my way down the mirrored hall
And tapped upon his door.

And I said “Daddy, I’m so afraid
How will I go on with you gone that way?
Don’t want to cry anymore
So may I stay with you?”

And he said “That’s my job,
That’s what I do.
Everything I do is because of you,
To keep you safe with me.
That’s my job you see.”

Borderline was one of Conway Twitty’s last big hit albums, reaching #25, higher than any subsequent Conway Twitty studio album would reach. There are some good songs on this album, but the filler truly is filler and the production sounds as phony as most late 1980s country production. This album is somewhere between a C and a C+.

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Album Review: Shane Owens – ‘Where I’m Comin’ From’

where-im-comin-fromCountry traditionalist Shane Owens from Alabama has seen several potential deals fail to work out in the past, but at last he has the opportunity to make his mark with his new album for independent label AmeriMonte. Part of this album was produced by James Stroud for another label which folded, while Ed Seay produced the newer cuts. He has a great, pure country voice, with echoes of Travis and Whitley in his stylings.

Lead single ‘Country Never Goes Out Of Style’, the video for which features a cameo by Randy Travis, is a nice song about passing trends and what really lasts. The title track is a fond but unsentimental tribute to growing up in a remote rural location, 8 miles from the nearest grocery store.

‘All The Beer In Alabama’ reflects on a failed marriage, where the protagonist admits his flaws, but is hurt that she wrongfully believes he cheated on her, when

All the beer in Alabama couldn’t get me drunk enough
To even think twice about someone else’s love

This track has a more modern country feel, with an electric guitar prominent.

‘Country Boy Can’ has somewhat cliche’d lyrics addressed to a potential love interest from the city, but Shane’s likable vocal and the low key arrangement save it.

In the gentle ‘Blame It On A Woman’ he has recast his life thanks to falling in love, and the tender vocal sells the song.

He turns to hard core traditional country with the punning ‘Alcohol Of Fame’, about a man who takes refuge in the bottle after losing at love, and lapses into alcoholism.

‘God And The Ground She Walked On’ is a moving story song about an elderly man who is lost without his late wife but still feels her presence . Another emotional story song, ’19’, is about a Marine who threw over a college scholarship to join up after 9/11, “trying to hold on to his American dreams”, until he pays the ultimate price to save a comrade.

The up-tempo ‘Chicken Truck’ is an obscure early John Anderson album track which just escapes being categorised as a novelty song. An unexpected choice of cover, Shane’s version features a guest appearance from Anderson and is highly entertaining. An even less familiar cover, Linda Hargrove’s ‘Nashville You Ain’t Hollywood’ chides the industry for abandoning its values in favour of glitz – a message even more marked today than in the 70s.

This is an excellent album from a fine singer. I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘Big Time’

51tuggiwfdl-_ss500Little Texas’ most successful album was their sophomore disc , Big Time, released in 1993.  It produced four hit singles, three of which reached the Top 10, including their only #1 “My Love”.  The album was produced by Doug Grau, Christy DiNapoli, and James Stroud.

Based on the feedback we received, some of our readers have been less than enthusiastic about our choice to spotlight Little Texas.  I’m by no means a Little  Texas super fan; I remember most of their radio hits from the 90s but prior to this review I’d never listened to one of their albums all the way through.  So I come to this with a fresh set of ears.   Was Little Texas really the Rascal Flatts of their day?  After listening to Big Time a few times, I can only answer with a resounding no.    I expected to enjoy the singles that I remembered from the radio but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the album cuts.   I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised.  The band members had a hand in writing eight of the album’s ten tracks.  Admittedly, they aren’t all particularly memorable, but there is certainly nothing cringe-worthy in a Rascal Flatts sort of way.

The album’s best track by far is the lead single “What Might Have Been”, which rose to #2 on the country chart and enjoyed some success in the adult contemporary format as well, reaching #16 on that chart.   It was followed by the uptempo Texas pride anthem “God Blessed Texas”, which topped out at #4 and is probably their best remembered hit today.  It’s a good song but one I’ve grown slightly tired of over the years, perhaps due to overplaying by radio.   As such, it’s my least favorite of the album’s singles.   The mid-tempo “My Love” seemed like a no-brainer to replicate the AC success of “What Might Have Been”, but oddly it did not appear on the adult contemporary charts.  It is not as good a song as “What Might Have Been”, but that, along with its lack of crossover success did not prevent it from becoming a #1 country hit.   “Stop on a Dime” had originally been the B-side of “What Might Have Been”.  When released as a single in its own right, it fell short of the Top 10, landing at #14.  As the album’s final single, Warner Bros. had perhaps lost interest in promoting it.  It’s a lot countrier than much of what was played on the radio in the mid-90s; it reminds me of something that Diamond Rio might have done.

“My Town” is the only tracks that doesn’t include one of the band members in its songwriting credits.  Written by Michael Stanley, isn’t particularly country but it is catchy and allows the band to showcase its harmonizing capabilities.   “Cutoff Jeans”, written by Troy Seals, Brady Seals and Ronnie Samoset is more traditional but equally infectious.

Little Texas is one of those bands that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to when they first arrived on the scene.  They debuted at a time when there was plenty of strong competition within the genre, and that may have contributed to them falling through the cracks to a certain extent.  If they were just getting started today, they’d be head in shoulders above most of their contemporaries on country radio, at least in my book. Big Time isn’t likely to be included on anyone’s list of best country albums, but it exceeded my expectations and is worth giving a spin.

Grade:  B+

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘First Time for Everything’

177460_1_fLittle Texas released their debut album, First Time for Everything, in March 1992. The record, co-produced by James Stroud, came a little more than three years into their contract with the Nashville division of Warner Bros.

The band’s debut single was recorded in December 1990, but released in September 1991. “Some Guys Have All The Love” is an excellent piano and percussion laced mid-tempo ballad with ear-catching harmonies from the group. The song’s official title is ‘love’ but I have heard it called “Some Guys Have All The Luck,” as well. The track peaked at #8.

The B-side of their debut, the album’s title track, was issued as the second single. The track is a countrified power ballad I never really hated, but finally analyzing the lyrics for this review proves otherwise. “First Time For Everything” is weak, and justifiably peaked at #13.

“You and Forever and Me” was the album’s most successful single, and remains one of my favorite songs Little Texas released during their heyday. The track retains their formula, yet succeeds on the winning melody, Tim Rushlow’s wonderful lead vocal, and the band’s harmonies. The song peaked at #5.

The final two singles were ones I never even knew about until digging into Little Texas for this review. Both charted in the low teens, so their exclusion from the band’s Greatest Hits album is justifiable. “What Were You Thinkin,’” a bland mid-tempo in similar vein, peaked at #17. The final single, the warmed over pop ballad “I’d Rather Miss You” didn’t do much better, reaching #16.

The five remaining numbers showed Little Texas playing with a wider array of sonic textures. The best of the bunch is “Down In The Valley,” a barnburner solely written by Brady Seals that gives Ricky Skaggs a run for his money. The worst is “Better Way,” a gravely mess.

I’ve always really enjoyed the first three singles from this album and never bothered to check out the rest until now. It’s hard to see where Little Texas fits into the greater conversation of the early-90s, especially with this album, which makes few concessions to stake a claim as anything resembling country music. I wasn’t aware, or at least I’d forgotten about the hair and fashion, which is enough to make Billy Ray Cyrus want to puke. The look and sound aren’t gelling with me.

But I’ve always really enjoyed Little Texas and some of my favorites from them come from this album. First Time for Everything is far from a fine album but it isn’t atrocious, either. I don’t think the melodies have aged too much and I still find the whole proceedings listenable. Those high marks say a lot about an album released almost twenty-five years ago.

Grade: B

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Live, Laugh, Love’

live laugh loveAs the 90s drew to an end, Clay stopped working with former producer James Stroud. His blandly titled 1999 album was co-produced by the artist with Doug Johnson, and saw the artist moving in a more R&B direction.

Lead single ‘She’s Always Right’ (written by Lonestar’s Richie McDonald with Ed Hill and Phil Barnhart) is a rather bland contemporary ballad about a happy marriage. Clay sings it soulfully, but the song isn’t at all memorable. It reached #16 on the Billboard country chart. The theme is repeated later on the album with the very similar ‘Woman Thing’, written by Larry Boone, Tracy Lawrence and Paul Nelson.

The beachy title track was a little more successful, peaking just outside the top 10. Written by Gary Nicholson and Allen Shamblin, it has Caribbean instrumentation and a syncopated vocal which haven’t worn well.

The album’s biggest hit at #3, ‘The Chain Of Love’, written by Rory Lee Feek and Jonnie Barnett, marked returned to more conventional country territory. The warm hearted story song offers a sweet tale of kindness from strangers.

The self penned big ballad ‘Once In A Lifetime Love’ wasn’t really a country song, and although Clay sings it well, at the turn of the millennium that was still enough to deny it any chart action when it was the album’s last single. Clay and his co-writer Jason Greene also contributed the pleasant but dull ‘Lose Some Sleep Tonight’ and the disastrously ill-judged ‘Cold Hearted’, a feeble attempt at an R&B song which falls completely flat.

‘This Time Love’ is a soul-drenched ballad which is okay on its own terms, but has nothing to do with country music.

‘If A Man Ain’t Thinking (‘Bout His Woman)’, written by Buddy Brock, Debi Cochran and Jerry Kilgore, on the other hand, is a country song, and very good. The mid-paced ‘It Ain’t Called Heartland (For Nothin’)’ is also quite enjoyable.

The best song is a cover of Earl Thomas Conley’s ‘Holding Her And Loving You’. Clay doesn’t bring anything new, but he sings it with emotion.

Clay sings with great commitment and enthusiasm on this album, but not much of it can really be classified as country. Listeners with more eclectic tastes may like this better than I did.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Hypnotize the Moon’

41GiVi-n6VLIn 1995, while promoting his then-new release Hypnotize the Moon, Clay Walker told Country Song Roundup, “I try to record music that is going to be played on the radio twenty years from now. It’s hard to make songs stand out with so many artists and songs out there.” So now that more than twenty years have passed, let’s see if his goals were met.

In terms of still playing on the radio, one would have to conclude that the goal was not met. While no one could have foreseen that country radio would take such a seismic shift away from its roots, the truth is that none of the four singles from Hypnotize the Moon are among Walker’s best-remembered hits today, despite the fact that three of them were Top 5 hits. I didn’t remember any of them from reading their titles, although they all came back to me once I heard them again. “Who Needs You Baby” a radio-friendly uptempo number that Walker co-wrote with Kim Williams and Randy Boudreaux is the best of the four. It just missed topping the chart, peaking at #2, as did the title track — another Walker co-write (with Kim Williams and Ken Blazy this time) which has a few more pop flourishes than its predecessor. Richard Fagan’s “Only on Days That End in ‘Y'” is a very good uptempo barn-burner that landed at #5. I probably wouldn’t have chosen “Bury the Shovel” for release a as single. Radio was also less than impressed; it topped out at #18.

In an era that knew no shortage of mainstream talent, Clay Walker never really stood out from the pack as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed listening to his singles on the radio but never felt compelled to buy any of his music. That being said, I wish that mainstream artists were still releasing albums like this today. Walker and producer James Stroud made a conscious decision to make a very traditional album, at a time when the genre was starting to swing back towards pop — remember that Shania Twain’s The Woman In Me was released the same year. There are some real gems among the album tracks, particularly the gorgeous waltz “Let Me Take That Heartache (Off Your Hands)” — another Walker/Williams/Blazy composition, “Loving You Comes Naturally to Me”, and “A Cowboy’s Toughest Ride”, a Walker/Williams/Boudreaux number that showcases Clay’s strength as a ballad singer. The album closes with a nice version of the Steve Wariner/Bill LaBounty song “Love Me Like You Love Me”, which Wariner later covered on his 1998 album Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down.

Getting back to Walker’s long-term hopes for the album: it may not be his best-remembered but it has definitely stood the test of time. There are no moments of greatness, but no serious missteps, either. Hypnotize the Moon is not a great album, but it is a very good one and these days, very good is more than good enough.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘If I Could Make A Living’

if i could make a livingClay’s second album was released in September 1994. The engagingly bouncy title track was written by Alan Jackson, Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, and charged to #1 on the country charts. It has a copyright date of 1989, so I assume it was a reject from Alan’s first album, but it has genuine charm if not much depth.

Passionately sung ballad ‘This Woman And This Man’ about a couple on the cusp of breaking up was another chart topper. The run of hits was halted with ‘My Heart Will Never Know’, the final single, which peaked at #16. The sad lost love song was another ballad, with a pretty melody.

‘You Make It Look So Easy’ is another sad love song, written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, with the protagonist failing to cope with a breakup.

However, the record was dominated by up-tempo numbers. One of my favourites is the insistent kiss-off ‘What Do You Want For Nothin’, written by Keith Follese and Michael Woody. Clay demands scathingly,

All I wanted was your love
But it was more than you would pay
Now you want a second chance
To give me more of the same

What do you want for nothin’, baby,
A solid gold guarantee
That you get everything you need?
But there was no love in it for me
You wanna deal on the way I feel
But I’m not buyin’ that
What do you want for nothin’, baby?
Your money back???

‘The Melrose Avenue Cinema Two’ is an effervescent reminiscence of childhood friendship and teenage romance which is quite enjoyable. ‘Boogie Till The Cows Come Home’ is ramped up western swing with honky tonk piano.

Clay wrote four songs, three of them with Kim Williams and Kent Blazy. ‘Heartache Highway’ is a wistful song about failing to patch things up:
It’s a hell of a road
When you’re leavin’ heaven behind

‘Down By The Riverside’ is another remembrance of first love. ‘Money Ain’t Everything’ is a dramatic swampy story song full of atmosphere. Finally Clay wrote the solid honky tonk song ‘Lose Your Memory’ solo.
James Stroud’s production isn’t bad, a little dated in places now, but sufficiently recognisable as country music with some nice fiddle, and Clay’s vocals are good throughout. The album sold very well, and was certified platinum.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Clay Walker’

Clay-WalkerJames Stroud, the mastermind behind Clint Black’s brilliant Killin’ Time, was the orchestrator behind Clay Walker’s self-titled debut album and the man behind his record deal with Giant Records. The proverbial thinking was that magic could strike twice, which it almost certainly did.

The uptempo “What’s It To You,” co-written by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall, was chosen as the first single in July 1993. The song, which Wright had recorded a year earlier, shot to #1. The song is very, very good although I can’t help but feel it’s slightly unremarkable.

Walker followed with the brilliant self-penned “Live Until I Die,” a bright autobiographical tribute to his grandparents he wrote when he was seventeen. It also landed at #1 and set in motion Walker’s signature sound – twangy uptempos bursting with effervescence and optimism.

The fourth single, “Dreaming With My Eyes Wide Open,” would follow this trajectory and notch Walker his third chart topper. Written solely by the always-impeccable Tony Arata, it’s the perfect single that marries an infectious melody with an inspiring lyric about living in the moment that bursts with undeniable joy and never gets heavy handed. It’s no surprise the track was featured on the soundtrack to the movie The Thing Called Love.

Sandwiched between the gorgeous uptempo numbers is the self-penned ballad “Where Do I Fit In The Picture,” which stalled just outside the top ten. The track proves Walker has the goods to sufficiently emote a heart-wrenching lyric and the arrangement has a nice dose of steel.

Walker solely wrote two more tracks on the album. “Money Can’t Buy (The Love We Had)” is a wonderful steel-drenched uptempo number that’s a bit of filler, but still easy on the ears. Steel also dominates “Next Step In Love,” a ballad about furthering one’s commitment in a relationship. He co-wrote “The Silence Speaks For Itself,” an unexceptional sinister ballad, with Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro.

“How To Make A Man Lonesome” has nice steel and fiddle-laced production, but is neither here nor there. “White Palace” is an attempt to pander to the line dance craze and by any standard is awful, with a cringe-worthy rhyme scheme in the chorus. He redeems himself with “Things I Should’ve Said,” a worthy ballad that easily could’ve been a single. “I Don’t Know How Love Starts” is excellent and the strongest of this record’s album cuts.

Walker’s debut album is a mixed bag of brilliant 90s country excellence and songs that teeter on the verge of average to below average. Stroud is a capable producer who showcases Walker’s considerable talents wonderfully. Clay Walker is a worthy debut from an artist who would more than live up to his promise in the decade to come.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Clay Walker

claywalker61Born in Vidor, Texas on August 19, 1969, Ernest Clayton Walker, Jr. was a mainstay on country radio throughout most of the 1990s. He began playing the guitar at age nine and by fifteen was entering talent competitions. He began playing in venues around Texas following his high school graduation. He was discovered by James Stroud while playing in a club in Beaumont in 1992 and signed to Giant Records, one of the many new labels launched in Nashville during country music’s unprecedented boom in popularity.

Walker’s debut release “What’s It to You” quickly shot to #1, as did his next release “Live Until I Die”. He was a consistent Top 10 hitmaker through most of the 1990s, producing such memorable hits as “If I Could Make a Living”, “This Woman and This Man”, “Rumor Has It”, and “Watch This”. His popularity began to wane a bit by the decade’s end, for a variety of reasons, including producer and label changes, changes in commercial tastes, and a 1998 multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Since 2005 he has been signed to Curb Records and like most artists signed to that label, new recordings have been released rather infrequently.

We will be looking back at the highlights of Clay’s career throughout the month of July.

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1994’

merle-haggard-album-19941994 was the second of Merle Haggard’s three albums for Curb Records. It was released four years after Blue Jungle, the biggest gap between projects of Haggard’s career. James Stroud was brought in to produce the album, in an attempt to reverse Haggard’s declining commercial fortunes. At the time, Stroud was one of Nashville’s hottest producers and he seemed to be trying to modernize Merle’s sound for 90s audiences, many of whom were new country fans, introduced to the genre by Garth Brooks. Gone for the most part were the jazz influences that characterized his later releases for Epic, replaced by more mainstream and radio-friendly arrangements. The result was a very solid album, but it was unfortunately not enough to revitalize Merle’s chart career. He had two big strikes against him: his advancing age in an era when more emphasis as being placed on youth and good looks, and his record label, which put little effort into promoting the album. Curb didn’t even want to foot the bill for decent cover art. Many have commented that the album’s cover resembled a tombstone.

Only one single was released from the album, “In My Next Life”, the story of a farmer and his wife looking back on a lifetime of disappointments, written by Max D. Barnes. This is my favorite song on the album, and it probably would have been a Top 10 hit had it been released a few years earlier before veteran artists were swept off the charts. It topped out at #58 and was the second and final Merle Haggard single released by Curb.

Also written by Max D. Barnes is the album’s opening cut “I Am an Island”, which is given a Jimmy Buffett style treatment. It’s a decent song, despite being a bit light on the lyrics, but it’s not really a good fit for Merle, who seems a little out of place singing it. Barnes teamed up with Merle to write the excellent “Way Back In the Mountains” and the filler track “Solid As a Rock”, which would be covered a year later by George Jones and Tammy Wynette for their reunion album.

Merle indulged his penchant for Dixeland jazz on two numbers: the self-penned and very enjoyable “What’s New In New York City” and “Set My Chickens Free”, a good but not great co-write with Richard Smith.

The album closes with an ill-advised remake of Merle’s 1977 hit “Ramblin’ Fever”. This version, with its heavy-handed production, sounds as though it were made to appeal to line-dancing fans. It’s just not impossible to improve on the original recording and Haggard and Stroud really shouldn’t have tried. I probably would have enjoyed it if I’d never heard the original.

In the end 1994 was, like its predecessor Blue Jungle, a commercial disappointment that underscored the sad reality that Haggard’s hitmaking days were behind him. While it does not quite reach the very high standards set by Merle’s earlier work, it is a very good album. The production seems a bit dated here and there but for the most part it has aged well. This is another one of those albums that fans may have overlooked, and as such it is another good opportunity to hear something “new” from Merle while he was still in good voice.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘New Day Dawning’

17b866fff09f6964b58b058adcbefa861429d7fde0f7d12d9aefacb45755f8ea_500x500It’s a scenario that’s familiar to every country music fan: an up-and-coming artist breaks through with a traditional record and is heralded as a “savior” that will return the genre to its roots. In interviews, he/she pays homage to Haggard and Jones, etc., etc. Then a few albums down the road, the same artist moves to a more mainstream pop (or at least less country) sound in order to expand his/her commercial appeal. The artist denies doing so, even though it’s blatantly obvious to everyone what’s going on.

Wynonna Judd began distancing herself from country music as soon as The Judds disbanded. It can be argued that The Judds themselves were becoming less traditional with their last two studio albums, but the the process got underway in full when Wynonna launched her solo career. 1997’s The Other Side was a completely non-country album and the same can be said of its follow-up New Day Dawning, which was released in 2000. In Wynonna’s defense, the change in musical styles seems to be less of a crass grab for pop airplay and more of a reflection of her true musical tastes. Unfortunately, her tastes are at odds with mine, which makes New Day Dawning difficult to review fairly. I’ll admit to feeling irritated while listening to it, not so much because it isn’t country, but because it was marketed as country. While artists have every right to experiment with other styles, it would be nice if they would occasionally throw a bone to the country fans who supported them from the beginning by including one or two more traditional songs on their albums. It rarely happens, though, and it certainly does not happen here.

New Day Dawning finds Wynonna working with a new production team — James Stroud and Gary Nicholson — and sharing production duties for the first time. This is not a country album, nor is it an Americana or roots album. It’s mid tempo soft rock similar to what is played on the radio stations playing in the background in any dentist’s office. If you like synthesizers, saxophones and horns, this is the album for you. While there are some country elements on the opening track and the album’s second single “Going Nowhere”, but they are drowned out by the “nah-nah” background vocals. Still, it is catchy and the logical choice for a single. Country radio wasn’t impressed; the single stalled at #43.

Overall, I liked the album’s ballads better than the mid- and up-tempo numbers. “Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do)” is a pretty, AC-leaning number that served as the album’s lead single. It seems like an odd choice for a lead single, though, and it only peaked at #31. “Learning to Live With Love Again”, written by Gary Nicholson and Mike Reid is also quite good, and so is “Who Am I Trying To Fool”, although I would have greatly preferred it without the intrusive synthesizer.

The title track is one of the album’s better uptempo cuts — more Memphis than Nashville — but the background vocals sometimes border on bombastic. I disliked the funky “Chain Reaction”, another Nicholson co-write, even though it actually has some fiddle on it. Before I even heard “Tuff Snuff”, I was annoyed by the spelling. It’s a remake of a 1986 song by the blues rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Wynonna’s voice is too husky on this one; she seems to be singing at the very bottom of her register, the complete opposite of her syrupy vocals on her remake of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”. I would not have been able to identify the singer of this song if I hadn’t already known. I intensely disliked the closing track “I Can’t Wait To Meet You”, a spiritual number co-written by R&B singer Macy Gray.

Overall, I did not enjoy this album and I do not recommend it. To be fair, though, it isn’t a bad album, just not my cup of tea. It was Wynonna’s first album not to earn gold or platinum certification and marks the acceleration of the commercial decline that began with The Other Side. The original pressing of the album included a four-song EP of The Judds, which I have not heard but I assume is much better than the main album.

Grade: C

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’

how do you like me nowAs the millennium drew to a close, Toby Keith released the best album of his career on new label Dreamworks.

The lead single, ‘When Love Fades’ is a powerfully sung ballad written by Keith with Chuck Cannon. It’s not a bad song, but it failed to catch fire at radio and didn’t enter the top 40. Keith was understandably concerned by the poor start for his new deal, and asked for the single’s promotion to be pulled in favour of the title track. It was with this song (another Keith/Cannon effort) that Toby really found his voice. The vengeful ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’ was perfect for Keith’s personality as he gleefully shows off his wealth and fame to the object of his unrequited affections in high school, who is now unhappily married. It was a career-making five-week chart topper, and while the protagonist’s motivation is immature, Toby Keith sells it completely.

Keith kept the tempo up with the horn-driven ‘Country Comes To Town’, which peaked at #4. I much prefer the final single, the tender ballad ‘You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This’, which captures the moment when a pair of “just friends” tentatively become something more:

You shouldn’t kiss me like this
Unless you mean it like that…

They’re all watching us now
They think we’re falling in love
They’ll never believe we’re just friends
When you kiss me like this
I think you mean it like that
If you do, baby, kiss me again

It reached #1 in March 2001, and it stands up well today.

Equally tender a performance, though not as memorable a song, is the sweet ‘Do I Know You (Bottom Of My Heart)’. ‘Heart To Heart (Stelen’s Song)’ is Keith’s real-life observation of his young son Stelen and his relationship with his wife Tricia, Stelen’s mother. (As a footnote the couple are still happily married and Stelen is in college.) ‘She Only Gets That Way With Me’, also probably about Tricia, was written by Toby with Scotty Emerick.

The breakup song ‘Blue Bedroom) was a co-write with Chuck Cannon, and is pretty good. More abstract is the macho philosophy of ‘Die With Your Boots On’, as voiced by a hard working truckdriving protagonist and his gambler father.

Toby wrote all but three of the songs. One of those outside numbers, ‘New Orleans’, is not only my favorite on the album, but probably my favorite Toby Keith cut ever. A compelling story song written by Mark D Sanders, Bob DiPiero and Steve Seskin, it relates the tale of a young woman fleeing something (or someone) in New Orleans, who finds a new life for herself in a random small town:

He was 25, she was 28
He was home grown country,
She just pulled off the interstate
She bought a Dr. Pepper, ten dollars worth of gas
She was obviously lost but too afraid to ask directions

So he offered her a smile and a stick of beechnut gum
Said “where you headed to girl, where you coming from?”
She said, “New Orleans
That’s another story
New Orleans
That’s another time
That’s another town
That’s another life”

First she stayed a day
Then she stayed a week
A couple of months later they were living on his parents’ street

Wednesday night supper at the First Baptist Church
Stranger standin’ in the doorway
As they’re passin’ out dessert
He said “Go and pack your bags
Cause I’m here to take you home
Goin’ back to Louisiana
Woman, I ain’t gonna go without you”

There’s a few defining moments in every person’s life
When you know what you’ve done wrong
And you know what you done right
Before the congregation
Her husband and her kids
She said, “How dare you even speak to me
After everything you did in New Orleans”

It’s effective partly because of what it doesn’t spell out; we never hear exactly what her ex did to her, or what happens next, although we can guess. Toby sings it with unusual restraint.

Not as intense, but still very good is the mid-tempo ‘I Know A Wall When I See One’, written by Jerry Salley and J B Rudd, about an encounter with an ex which brings back painful memories. The other outside song, ‘Hold You, Kiss You, Love You’ is a bit flat.

The production, courtesy of Toby and his new label boss James Stroud, is glossy and often hard driving contemporary fare which has dated a little but is effective enough. The material is generally strong, and overall this is my favorite Toby Keith album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Dream Walkin”

91o+pLohEcL._SL1416_After being bounced around between PolyGram Nashville’s various imprints, Toby Keith found himself back at his original label Mercury, for 1997’s Dream Walkin’, which also found him working with co-producer James Stroud for the first time. Stroud co-produced all of Toby’s albums through 2005 and was part of his big commercial breakthrough that would begin about a year later with “How Do You Like Me Now?” That in-your-face record marked a huge change of direction for Keith, so it is somewhat surprising to find that the first Keith-Stroud collaboration is such a tame affair.

There was little at this early date to suggest that the Keith-Stroud partnership would last for nearly a decade. In fact, for a while it looked like it might have been a big mistake. Dream Walkin’ was certified gold, achieving about half the sales level of Toby’s previous albums and it was his first album not to produce any number one hits. That being said, it did produce three Top 5 singles, while a fourth just made the Top 40.

The album is more pop/AC leaning than Keith’s earlier albums, so it was a bit of a creative stretch, with mixed results. The first single “We Were In Love”, which peaked at #2 is a bit too slickly produced for my liking, although Stroud and Keith managed to resist the urge to turn it into a bombastic mess as other artists and producers undoubtedly would have. British rocker Sting made his only entry on the country charts when he joined Toby for a remake of his hit “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”. It is like “We Were In Love” in two ways: it peaked at #2, and it’s not quite my cup of tea. I like the title track a lot better. “Dream Walkin'”, which peaked at #5 is probably my favorite of Toby’s early singles. Based on the title, “Double Wide Paradise” seems like something that Toby would record in the next stage of his career, but the song itself is terrible from both a lyrical and production standpoint. Radio apparently agreed; the record died at #40, making it Keith’s lowest charting single up to that time. I didn’t even realize that it had been a single.

Like the singles, the rest of the album is somewhat of a mixed bag. “You Don’t Anymore”, which Toby wrote with Eric Silver, is a decent ballad. I’d like to hear Toby re-do “Jacky Don Tucker (Play By The Rules Miss All The Fun)” and “She Ran Away with a Rodeo Clown” (also a Keith original); I suspect both would get a less restrained treatment today. The remaining album cuts are forgettable filler, with the exception of the closing track, the excellent “I Don’t Understand My Girlfriend”, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The trademark Toby Keith humor and the western swing arrangement make it the album’s standout track.

Dream Walkin’ was the last album Toby released on Mercury. He and Stroud recorded one more album, “How Do You Like Me Now?”, which the label refused to release, prompting Keith to ask for a release from his contract. He purchased the rights to the album and released it on DreamWorks, where it was just the beginning of bigger and better things. Although not his best work, Dream Walkin’ can be obtained cheaply both on CD and as a digital download, and as such, is worth a listen.

Grade: B

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘On Purpose’

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_In the seven years since we last heard new music from Clint Black (and ten since his last full album), the country music landscape has changed beyond recognition. Last week’s On Purpose is unlikely to garner much love from country radio, but Black’s return is surely something to celebrate for those of us who became castaways during the sea change in commercial tastes.

Black has made good use of his long hiatus. He wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s 14 tracks. The album has reunited him with his longtime co–producer James Stroud and while the final product doesn’t outdo anything that they did in the past, it more than holds it own against Black’s impressive back catalog. Black sounds as energetic and enthusiastic as he did back in 1989, and his voice is as good as ever. There are no huge artistic stretches; the album sounds exactly like something he would have released back in his commercial heyday, and I suspect that most fans will be more than OK with that. Clint was never quite the traditionalist he was given credit for, but his sound was always firmly rooted in country music, with fiddles, steel and harmonica on prominent display. There also was — and still is — a good deal of fancy electric guitar work, but not the heavy-handed arena rock-type that has become all too common in recent years. There is no pandering to current commercial tastes, just vintage Clint Black from start to finish.

Black’s old songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas co-wrote three of the album’s tracks: “Doing It Now For Love”, the catchy “Calling It News” — which laments the same old, same old dominating the headlines, and the excellent poignant ballad “The Last Day”, which finds an elderly couple reminiscing about the past, well aware that time is starting to run out. Frank Rogers co-wrote three tracks, including the current single “Time For That” and the excellent ballad “Breathing Air”, which is a lot more interesting than the title suggests. The tender love ballad is my favorite track on the album.

Steve Wariner shares co-writing credits on two tracks: “One Way to Live” is quite good but “Right on Time” is rather forgettable. The legendary Bill Anderson collaborated with Clint and Bob DiPiero for the album’s sole party song “Beer”, which ought to serve as an example to the bro-country crowd that drinking songs can still have intelligent lyrics. Big & Rich provide the background vocals.

I have a pet peeve about artists who, after long breaks between albums, include a remake of an older song on their comeback collections. I was, therefore, slightly disappointed to see a new version of “You Still Get To Me”, Clint’s 2008 duet with his wife Lisa Hartman Black, on the track listing. It’s bluesier than the original, but it seems like an unnecessary remake. However, the album contains a generous 14 tracks, so it’s a minor complaint at best.

While On Purpose may not break any new ground, it is sure to please Clint’s old fans, who hopefully will support it so it can overcome the inevitable lack of radio support.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Love Somebody’

Reba_LoveSomebodyIn the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘Faith In Me, Faith In You’

faithinmeDoug Stone enjoyed a string of continuous Top 10 hits from 1990 through 1994 beginning with his debut single “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)” and ending with “Little Houses”, a new single included on his Greatest Hits album released in the autumn of 1994. Shortly thereafter, Sony Music Entertainment transferred Doug from Epic Records to sister label Columbia, supposedly to allow Doug the opportunity to work with a new promotional team. The strategy did not have the intended effect, however. Faith In Me, Faith In You, his only album for Columbia, failed to produce any major hits and was his least successful album to date. The album’s commercial failure could be partially blamed on Stone’s health problems — he suffered a heart attack in December 1995 and a mild stroke in 1996, which severely curtailed his ability to promote the album. But it certainly did not help matters that the album’s material is less interesting than his previous work.

With Doug acting as co-producer along with James Stroud, Faith In Me, Faith In You has a more contemporary edge than Doug’s earlier and better work, but the music retains enough country elements to keep traditionalists satisfied. The title track, which served as the album’s first single, is a forgettable Trey Bruce and Dave Loggins composition, given a slight gospel feel by a choir singing in the background. It was Doug’s first single to peak outside the Top 10, landing at #13.

Ballads were always Doug’s strong point, but the best songs on this album are the uptempo ones. The ballad “Sometimes I Forget”, which was released as the second single is too saccharine and AC leaning for my taste. Radio wasn’t impressed, either, as it topped out at #41. The uptempo “Born In The Dark” , a slickly produced number reminiscent of Collin Raye’s “That’s My Story”, is much better. It’s the best of the album’s three singles and it became the collection’s biggest hit, peaking at #12. “Enough About Me (Let’s Talk About You)”, another uptempo tune, is also quite good and should have been released as a single. The midtempo “I Do All My Crying (On The Inside)”, the album’s most traditional song, is also quite good.

The remainder of the album, including three tunes that were either written or co-written by Doug, are not particularly memorable. Faith In Me, Faith In You while not a bad album by any means, is not up to par compared to Stone’s earlier albums for Epic. It was his first album to fail to achieve gold status, marking the beginning of his commercial decline. It was also his last album for Sony. It is not available digitally. It is not essential listening, but deeply discounted copies are readily available and it is certainly worth the modest cost.

Grade: B

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘More Love’

more love1993 saw Doug move to a new producer, commercial powerhouse James Stroud. The result was a competent album, but one which largely failed to reach the heights of Stone’s best work.

The lead single, ‘I Never Knew Love’, written by Larry Boone and Will Robinson, just missed the top of the charts, but with a #2 peak it was the album’s biggest hit. A gentle piano ballad, it reflects on the experience of real love for the first time.

The up-tempo ‘Addicted To A Dollar’, bemoaning an 80 hour work week for low pay, is quite good, although this style isn’t Doug’s real strength as an artist. It was however a successful single, peaking at #4.

The last single, the title track, peaked another couple of spots lower. Exploring a man’s regrets over a lost love, it is melodic and sweetly sung but may seem a bit drippy to some. Along with the bland ‘Dream High’ it appeared on the soundtrack of the children’s film Gordy (about a runaway pet pig), in which Stone made his acting debut playing a country singer. The connection which was proudly advertised on the album cover, but the movie was not well received, so this probably didn’t help Doug’s career momentum.

The best track is the sad ballad ‘That’s A Lie’, written by Doug with Randy Boudreaux and Sam Hogin about a man denying his own broken heart, which is beautifully sung.

The plaintive ‘She Used To Love Me A Lot’, co-written by Doug with Dean Dillon, is rather charming, as the protagonist broods in bewilderment over the unexpected and sudden end of a relationship. The tune is pretty and there is some lovely fiddle. I also liked ‘Small Steps’, written by Gary Burr and Henry Edwards, a tastefully understated ballad about working on getting over a relationship.

My least favorite tracks were the teenage memory of a girlfriend dressed in ‘Little Sister’s Blue Jeans’ (which is catchy but tacky) and the boring ‘Wishbone’ which sounds as though it was included to cater to the linedance craze which was one of the worst aspects of 90s country music. The mid-tempo ‘Love, You Took Me By Surprise’ is forgettable filler.

Overall, this isn’t a bad record, and one with some good tracks alongside the weaker ones. It isn’t available digitally, but if you can get a cheap used copy it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Strong’

strongHaving left his label after the latest downturn in his fortunes, Tracy signed to Dreamworks where he was reunited with old producer James Stroud (and new label head) for 2004’s Strong. He didn’t write any of the material himself, but the result was a much better record than his last couple of efforts, and rather more successful commercially, at least to start with.

The wistfully beautiful ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’, previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons, was a comeback hit for Tracy, reaching #4. The cheerfully philosophical ‘It’s All How You Look At It’ was less successful, although it did sneak into the top 40; it is pleasant enough but a bit bland. The fun honky tonker ‘Sawdust On Her Halo’ is pretty good, but was sadly not a big hit with radio.

The title track is a paean to a single mother’s hard work, and comes across as a bit pandering because the woman in it is a cipher; she doesn’t really live as an individual character rather than a stereotype. The more downbeat and much more interesting (at least in its first half) ‘Bobby Darwin’s Daughter’ is a sensitive story song about a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory life, and longing for the innocence of her own childhood, when

She’d ask where God came from
Instead of wondering where He’s been

The second half of the song is a little more predictable, when she regains her faith when she is nearly killed in an accident and her remorseful and formerly neglectful husband remembers he loves her after all. It was written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson, and Rick Huckaby. The nostalgic ‘When Daddy Was A Strong Man’ also tenderly recalls childhood.

The thoughtful ‘Stones’ has a pretty, delicate melody and sensitive vocal interpretation of its lyric about the passing of time. ‘Everywhere But Hollywood’ is quite a good song contrasting reality with fantasy, written by Bobby Pinson, Jimmy Ritchey and Jason Sellers.

The leaving song ‘A Far Cry From You’ is one of the album’s few heartbreak numbers, and is very good. Also sad, but in more dramatic fashion, the protagonist of ‘The Questionnaire’ discovers the true state of his marriage when he finds an old women’s magazine where his wife has filled in a questionnaire on the subject remorselessly ranging over his various failings and her unhappiness, and ending with the devastating answer to “Do you still love him?”. We can guess the answer isn’t yes by his petulant “damn that questionnaire”. It is slightly over-produced but is a neatly crafted song.

‘What The Flames Feel Like’ brings more of a Southern rock edge, and is convincingly performed, while the mid-tempo ‘Think Of Me’ reminds the listener of the role of those who keep them safe by willingly going into danger themselves.

As Tracy was not able to sustain the success of the initial single, sales faltered, and Dreamworks dropped him after the record had run its course. However this was definitely a return to form, and is worth picking up. Subsequently, Tracy moved to Mercury (his last major-label deal), but they released only a hits package with the two new songs not doing well enough as singles to keep him on the label.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Chris Young – ‘A.M.’

AMChris Young has the best voice in contemporary country music. His problem for me has always been a too-often mediocre choice of songs, but at least his traditional instincts meant it sounded good (and there have been some outstanding highlights like ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Drinking Me Lonely’, and his super Voices EP of three classic covers). Unfortunately, the demands of country radio have struck again, and this album comes across as a determined and probably successful effort to get airplay. In other words, it’s over-produced (by James Stroud), and the largely generic songs (many of them co-written by Chris) aren’t much good either, with a couple of exceptions.

The barely-bearable lead single ‘Aw Naw’ (written by Chris with Ashley Gorley and Chris DiStefano) features partying lyric, depressingly shallow attitude towards women, loud production, not much melodic range, and irritating spelling, the only semi-redeeming factor being Chris’s muscular vocal which is actually pretty good. This had already steeled me for the possibility that this album (Chris’s fourth) would be a complete sellout, and sadly those fears were realized, although nothing else is quite as bad.

The same trio responsible for ‘Aw Naw’ also wrote the title track (a very similar loud high-energy track about late nights out) and ‘Goodbye’. The latter, product of the same writing session, is a much better song, a ballad about an unexpected call from a lover planning on breaking up. Although the production is cluttered and insensitive after a misleadingly pretty piano opening, the vocal is fine, as Chris embarks on a convincingly impassioned appeal to her that their relationship is “too good for goodbye”.

The two Chrises (Young and Di Stefano) teamed up with Rhett Akins for ‘We’re Gonna Find It Tonight’, another pretty generic partying song, delivered efficiently. Unexpectedly Akins also co-wrote the best song on the album, ‘Text Me Texas’ (alongside Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne). A nicely understated ballad about a man angsting over what his girlfriend may be doing in Houston, and with whom. He begs her to make contact – even a texted lie if she’s not willing to talk would be better than nothing. An excellent vocal is married to sympathetic production, making this a real standout.

‘Forgiveness’, written by Casey Beathard and Scooter Carusoe, is also very good, a reflective confession of the protagonist’s failings as he yearns for the peace of mind he can only get from one person’s forgiveness, which is nicely produced and arranged, with Chris using the deepest part of his vocal range with magisterial effect:

It ain’t hidin’ in a bottle on a shelf
Or lying in the bed with someone else
I can’t feel it on some Sunday morning pew
But one sleepless night it dawned on me
The peace I need so desperately
Is buried in the one place I can’t get to
Girl, it’s got to come from you

McAnally and Osborne wrote ‘Hold You To It’ with Chris Young, which is a return to the generic with a medium-tempo bar pick-up number, although it does have quite a catchy melody. Young’ s final writing credit is for the closing track ‘Lighters In The Air’, another with a pleasant tune but plodding production and not very memorable lyrics. More interesting than either song is the fact that both refer to music but not apparently to country; the former refers to the girl’s favorite song as having a “pumping” bass-line and “grooving” backbeat, while the latter is “summertime rock ‘n roll”.

‘Nothin’ But The Cooler Left’ is cluttered, loud, pandering and exceptionally boring and quite likely to be a successful single next summer. ‘Lonely Eyes’is set in a bar again, but with a darker feel which makes it more interesting, but the production is too loud in places. ‘Who I Am With You’ is a decent positive love song (written by Marv Green, Jason Sellers and Paul Jenkins), with a sincere vocal but too heavy a hand on the production.

Download ‘Text Me Texas’ and ’Forgiveness’, and perhaps also ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Who I Am With You’, but pass on the rest.

While I’ve been critical of the production choices, it’s only fair to say that it’s not as bad as much of what’s getting radio play these days – faint praise, perhaps, but worth mentioning. And Chris Young still has a great, great voice. Hopefully at some point he can make a great album too.

Grade: C