My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jamie O’Hara

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Shouldn’t A Told You That’

The departure of Robin Lynn Macy following Little Ol’ Cowgirl left the Dixie Chicks (billed here as “The Dixie Chicks Cowgirl Band”) as a trio when they released their third album, Shouldn’t A Told You That, in November 1993. It would feature the remaining members, The Erwin sisters and Laura Lynch, and stand as their final release before Natalie Maines replaced Lynch in 1995.

The ten-track album features an impressive lineup of songs by some of independent country’s top singer-songwriters. They open with Radney Foster’s co-written “Whistles and Bells,” an excellent traditional shuffle about a woman giving a stern warning to her ex about the woman he’s currently dating:

I see her running round this town in her fancy car
A girl who can’t afford your hopes and dreams
But darlin’ all those pretty toys won’t help your broken heart
When she’s through and sends you packin’ back to me

Whistles and bells won’t ever bring you love and happiness
She’s never gonna give her heart the way that I would give
She’s got you spinning round in circles, I can tell
With her lights, buzzers, whistles, and bells

Austin based singer-songwriter Walter Hyatt wrote the title track, a barnburner driven by Emily’s banjo that nicely foreshadowed their more mainstream sound in the years to come. “Desire,” which is bright, uptempo, and laced with fiddle and dobro, was co-written by Kim Richey. The gorgeous and affecting “There Goes My Dream,” about a woman watching her man walk away, was solely composed by Jamie O’Hara.

The album’s most recognizable song, at least to fans of alternative country, is Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal’s “Plant of Love,” which was the title track to Lauderdale’s debut album two years earlier. Their version is brilliant, with a sparsity that lets their exquisite harmonies shine. “Planet of Love” is paired with the shot hidden track “Boo Hoo,” which gives their harmonies another pleasing spin. It’s a weird little gem and it sounds me to me like they were playing spoons as their instruments.

Lynch has two writing credits on the album. The first, “I’m Falling Again,” is a beautiful ballad about new love she co-wrote with Martie, Emily, and Matthew Benjamin. The other song, “The Thrill is in the Chase” is mid-tempo and allows Martie’s fiddle work to take center stage.

Benjamin also appears as a co-writer on “One Heart Away,” a mid-tempo ballad anchored by fiddle and dobro. He wrote “I Wasn’t Looking for You,” a mid-paced ballad about falling accidentally in love, solo. “I’ve Only Got Myself To Blame” returns the album back to its uptempo leanings, with a heavy dose of fiddle and banjo.

This is without question the most polished of their independent albums and showcases their move towards a distinctly mainstream sound. The selection of songs, just like with every Dixie Chicks album, remains exquisite. I do disagree with Paul Dennis’ view that Lynch wasn’t a distinctive lead vocalist. Although she isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Maines, and honestly no one is really, if you think about it, she carries this album wonderfully.

While the Dixie Chicks were headed towards a mainstream sound, Shouldn’t A Told You That is still very much alt-country and keeps with the likes of Kelly Willis more than Trisha Yearwood or Pam Tillis. None of that matters in the end, though, as Shouldn’t A Told You That is a fine album on its own.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Many Barnett – ‘Mandy Barnett’

When Asylum Records released Mandy Barnett’s eponymous album Mandy Barnett in 1996, I hoped I was hearing the first in a long string of albums for this excellent vocalist. Mandy was not unknown to me, having made television appearances in conjunction with her role in the play Always … Patsy Cline, starting around 1994 or 1995. Unfortunately, the market shifted away from anything resembling real country music so while Mandy remains active, her solo recordings remain few and far between.

Mandy Barnett would prove to be Mandy’s only successful chart album in terms of singles, but the contents were strong, the voice is terrific and her artistic integrity has been maintained through the years. The album would reach #60 on the country charts (it reached #28 on the Canadian country charts)

The album opens with “Planet of Love”, a song written by the much underappreciated Jim Lauderdale. The song was never a big hit for anyone, but it has been recorded quite a few times. Mandy’s bluesy take reveals a song that Patsy Cline could have done as well as, but not better than, Mandy herself.

 I’ve found a new planet that only I can see

Just came back to get you let’s leave this misery

Nothing can reach us so far from harm’s way

Only sunshine and rainbows every day

We’ve got to get back there hurry up and get your things

The countdown has started go ahead try on these wings

Don’t need no spaceship for what I’m thinking of

Didn’t I tell you that I’d take you to the planet of love

I should mention that this album was produced by Bill Schnee and Kyle Lehing, but clearly,  both understood what Owen Bradley accomplished with Patsy Cline and at times have created an updated version of that sound.

Next up is “Maybe”, a then-contemporary song aimed at getting Mandy some radio airplay. The son was the second single and peaked at #65. Written by Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, and John Leventhal, the song should have been a hit but perhaps it was too similar to some other songs currently floating about at the time (I could mentally hear Patty Loveless doing this song)

I know how the story ends where everything works out

I get the feelin’ once again that I can’t shake your doubt

Instead of hidin’ from romance

You’re gonna have to take a chance

 

Baby, don’t say Maybe

There’ll be no comin’ back tomorrow, Baby

“Rainy Days” is a gentle ballad sung to perfection. The song, written by Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes,   is filler but of a high grade.

“Three Days”, from the pen of Willie Nelson, is also filler. The song was a top ten hit for the great Faron Young back in 1962, and k.d. lang took it to #9 on the Canadian country charts in 1990. This is one of my favorite Willie compositions, and while Mandy does an excellent job with the song, the song seems a little more believable from the male perspective. I love the endless time loop perspective of the song – if this isn’t the definition of depression, I don’t know what would qualify

Three days I dread to see arrive

Three days I hate to be alive

Three days filled with tears and sorrow

Yesterday today and tomorrow

 

There are three days I know that I’ll be blue

Three days that I’ll always dream of you

And it does no good to wish these days would end

‘Cause the same three days start over again

“Baby Don’t You Know” was written by Jamie O’Hara has that traditional vibe, accentuated by the walking bass line and I think that I would have tried this as a single as this is just an excellent track. The song has a great sing-along chorus

Baby don’t you know I still love you

Baby don’t you know I still miss you

Baby don’t you know you’re breaking my heart

Oh, oh, oh

Baby don’t you know I still want you

Baby don’t you know I still need you

Baby don’t you know you’re tearing me apart

Kostas and Tony Perez penned “Now That’s All Right with Me”, the first and most successful single released on from the album. This is a very then-contemporary sounding song with late 90s-early 00s country instrumentation including some steel guitar in the background. The song peaked at #43. I don’t recall the song getting much of a promotional push but perhaps my memory is wrong. I only heard the song a few times on the radio.

Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp wrote “A Simple I Love You”, the last and least successful single released from the album. Mandy sings it well, but the song itself is a rather bland string-laden ballad, the only track on the album to heavily feature strings. The song died at #72.

Two more Kostas songs follow, “I’ll Just Pretend” and “What’s Good For You” (with Kelly Willis as co-writer). The former is a gentle and wistful medium slow ballad; the latter is a bit more up-tempo and a bit more of a downer. Both are excellent songs and well sung.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is one of the great folk/gospel classics, that first appeared in the early to mid-1800s. I’ve heard many versions of the song with many and varied verses. Below is a “standard” version of the lyrics (insofar as any version can be called standard) that is pretty similar to Mandy’s version. This song features very sparse instrumentation

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through a world of woe

But there’s no sickness, toil or danger

In that fair land to which I go

 

I’m going there to see my father

I’m going there no more to roam

I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home

 

I know dark clouds will gather round me

I know my way is rough and steep

But beautiful fields lie just before me

Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

 

I’m going home to see my mother

She said she’d meet me when I come

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

I’m just a going over home

It is clear that the producers of this album were trying for radio success with this album. The singles are all good – worth about a B+ but the tracks where the producers let Mandy follow her own inclinations are excellent – an easy A+. I would give this album an A and I still pull it out occasionally and listen to it.

The album is available as a digital download. If you want an actual CD, a later Warner Brothers release titled Many Barnett: The Platinum Collection contains nine of the ten songs on this album and eleven of the twelve songs on her second album I’ve Got A Right To Cry.

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘Tell Me Why’

Released in February 1990, Tell Me Why was Jann’s first album as a solo artist after a decade of paying her dues working the taverns and serving a stint with Asleep At The Wheel. As it happens, Tell Me Why would prove to be Jann’s moist successful album, reaching #46 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and producing her two most successful singles.

The title track was the second single released on the album reaching #18. The song was written by Gail Davies and “Handsome Harry” Stinson and is a song of doubt with sparkling guitar by some fellow named James Burton.

The next track “Ain’t No Train” was co-written by Jann along with Pat Gallagher. I guess you could call it an up-tempo rocker. Albert Lee plays the lead guitar on this track.

“Til A Tear Becomes A Rose” was written by the husband and wife team of Bill & Sharon Foster. I like Jann’s version, but it would become better known as a duet by Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan. James Burton and Byron Berlin are featured in the arrangement. This song could be described as a slight twist on the theme of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”

“Louisville” is a mid-tempo shuffle written by Jann along with Pat Gallagher. My understanding is that it was featured in the film Pow Wow Highway, but I’ve not seen the film. This song was the forth single released from the album, but it only reached #75.

“Mexican Wind” was the third album single released from the album. The song is yet another Browne-Gallagher collaboration. The song failed to chart, although it is a very nice ballad about heartache and unrequited love. Emmylou Harris provides some lovely harmonies on this song.

Paul Kennerley wrote the harshly pragmatic “Losing You”, a song about a woman coming to terms with a man soon to be gone.

“You Ain’t Down Home” was the first single from the album, reaching #19. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it was one of the first of his songs (perhaps even the first of his songs) to chart. Although not Jann’s biggest hit, it is the best remembered as country cover bands featured the song for over a decade after its release.

You know all the right people
You wear all the right clothes
You got a snappy little sports car all your own
You got the cool conversation on your high tech telephone
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down him

You ain’t down home where the people got their feet on the ground
Down home where there’s plenty of love to go ’round
You got the cool conversation on your high tech telephone
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home
You got a brand new Jacuzzi
All your credit cards are gold
There ain’t a high class place in town where you ain’t known
You make it all look impressive, yeah you put on quite a show
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home
You make it all look so impressive, yeah when you’re showin’ all your dough
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home

Jann reaches deep into the Harlan Howard song bag for “The One You Slip Around With”, a song that Harlan wrote with his then-wife Jan Howard. This song would prove to be Jan Howard’s first major hit in 1959. Jann gives the song the western swing treatment.

The “Queen of Rockabilly”, Wanda Jackson, joins Jann on “I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know) . Written by Cecil Null, the song was a #1 hit for the ill-fated Davis Sisters (a car crash took the life of Betty Jack Davis while the song was still on the charts; Skeeter Davis eventually resumed her career after recovering from her injuries.

Members of “New Grass Revival” join Jann on “Lovebird”, a gentle mid-tempo ballad in which Jann pines for the love of a man who has left her. Iris DeMent provided the high harmonies on this song.

I like Jann Browne a lot, although she is not possessed of the best voice. Her musical tastes and sensitivities make up for much of the missing power in her voice, that plus her ability to select accompanying musicians make all of her recording worthwhile.

This is not her best album (her later Buck Owens tribute deserves that honor), but it is a good album – B+

Album Review: Don Williams: ‘Traces’

Traces was the second of a pair of albums that Don recorded for Capitol during the mid-to-late 1980s.   He co-produced the set with Garth Fundis.  Never one to follow trends, Don began his solo career singing songs with simple, stripped down production in an era when countrypolitan, with its lush string sections and vocal choruses, ruled the day.   By the mid-80s Randy Travis had brought country music back to its roots, with most other mainstream artists following suit.    Don Williams chose this time, however, to release an album that delved a little further into the pop realm.  The difference in sound is sometimes subtle, as is the case on “I Wouldn’t Be a Man”, the sultry lead single that reached a #9 peak.   At other times, it is more pronounced; a prime example is his cover of “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore”.   Originally an R&B hit for Ben E. King in 1968, it was introduced to country audiences by Dottie West and Don Gibson in 1970. In 1990, Billy Joe Royal would take it to #2 on the country charts.  While it works well for a genre-straddling artist like Royal, it is a bit of a stretch for the usually traditional Don Williams. Even more of a stretch is the trainwreck that is “Running  Out of Reasons to Run”, a filler song written by Jim Rushing and Martin Gerald Derstine with a jarring horn section.   It was better suited for Sawyer Brown, who recorded their own version a year later, but it is not a good vehicle for Williams.   “Looking Back”, a 1950s-style pop song is better.

Fortunately there are also plenty of country songs on the album.  The detour into pop occurs about halfway through and is preceded by three solid country numbers and followed by three more.   One of the best is “Another Place, Another Time”, a Bob McDill-Paul  Harrison tune that was released as the album’s second single, peaking at #5.   It was followed by the excellent upbeat “Desperately”, written by Kevin Welch and Jamie O’Hara, which reached #7.  The poignant (and extremely well-written) piano and string ballad “Old Coyote Town”, about a small town that has fallen on hard economic times, was the fourth and final single, which also reached #5.   One minor quibble:  I would have made this the closing track instead of giving that designation to the pleasant but pedestrian “You Love Me Through It All”.   A rather sedate rendition of “Come From the Heart”, preceding Kathy Mattea’s hit version by two years, is a pleasant surprise.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could possibly point to Traces as the beginning of Don’s chart decline; it was his first album since 1974’s Volume Two not to produce at least one #1 hit, although the four singles all performed respectably.  According to Wikipedia, the album did not chart, which I find hard to believe considering that it produced four Top 10 hits.  It is a solid album that I enjoyed but due to a few missteps, I have to rank it a little lower than his earlier work.  It is available on a 2-for-1 CD along New Moves, Don’s other album for Capitol.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘The Other Side’

the other sideWhile mother Naomi Judd always had strong country sensibilities, daughter Wynonna was always an awkward fit in country music. The Other Side, Wynonna’s fourth solo studio album, finds Wynonna attempting to reposition herself as a bluesy rocker along the lines of Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball or Lou Ann Barton.

Wynonna has a very strong voice, more than suitable for the material but somehow this album isn’t all that convincing. I’m not sure if Wynonna was simply finding her footing with this album, or if the somewhat lackluster material is to blame.

The album opens with “When Love Starts Talkin'”, written by Brent Maher, Gary Nicholson and Jamie O’Hara. Released as a single (it reached #13), this up-tempo rocker works fairly well and is probably my second favorite song on the album.

I thought I had my life worked out
I thought I knew what it was all about
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

I had my mind on the open road
I thought I knew where I wanted to go
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

Kevin Welch wrote “The Other Side”, a rather bland ballad. It’s not bad just nothing special. I think I would like the track better without the vocal background singers.

So, you’re at the end of your wits
The end of your rope
You just can’t fix
Everything that’s broke
Got to turn it loose, babe
Hey, just let it ride

“Love Like That” (Gary Nicholson, Al Anderson, Benmont Tench) is much better, a mid-tempo rocker that failed to chart when released as a single, which mystifies me since it my favorite track on the album. The song features some nice slide guitar work by Steuart Smith.

You might tell me to mind my business
But I’ve been watchin’ and I’ve been a witness
To the things you do and say and the games you play
You better start cutting the man some slack
Or he’s gonna leave and he won’t be back
One day you’re gonna chase him away
If you keep on yankin’ that chain
Honey, if I was in your shoes
I tell you what I would do

CHORUS
If I had a love like that
A real fine love like that
I’d be treatin’ him right
And never do him any wrong
If you’re gonna do like that
With a good love like that
Sister, just like that you’re gonna wake up
And find him gone

“The Kind of Fool Love Makes” (Brenda Lee, Michael McDonald, Dave Powelson) is a dull ballad, pleasant but nothing more.

“Troubled Heart And A Troubled Mind” (Wynonna Judd, Brent Maher, O’Hara) is a nice up-tempo blues that would have made a good single. Again Steuart Smith shines on guitar

A troubled heart and a troubled mind
Is all I’m gonna leave behind
I’m movin’ on down the line
Don’t shout me down I’m doin’ fine
You’ve been hard and heavy on my soul
Gotta lighten the load and let you go
Life’s too short, ain’t got the time
For a troubled heart and a troubled mind

“Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me” (Mark Selby, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tia Sillers) features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on electric guitar and has Wynonna harmonizing with herself. I think this song would have made a good single.

“Come Some Rainy Day” (Billy Kirsch, Bat McGrath) was released as a single and reached #14. A gentle ballad, this may be Wynonna’s most effective vocal on a slower song. For my money, Wynonna’s better songs tend to be the faster songs. While I am not a big fan of the Nashville String Machine, the use of the NSM is subdued and greatly augments Wynonna’s vocal on this song.

“Love’s Funny That Way” (Tina Arena, Dean McTaggart, David Tyson) finds Wynonna over-singing the song slightly. At 4:46, the song is about a minute too long, since the dragging ending adds nothing to the song.

“The Wyld Unknown” (Cliff Downs, David Pack) is a mid-tempo rocker is that Wynonna sings effectively. I can’t say that the lyrics say anything important but it makes for a good album track.

Next up is “Why Now” (Downs, Pack, James Newton Howard) is another slow ballad dragging in at a flatulent four minutes and forty-nine seconds. A trimmed down version of this song would probably be better. The lyrics are actually pretty decent:

Somewhere off
In a distant dream
You were long ago
Like a memory

Now you’re back
Standing here
Sayin’ all the words
You think I want to hear

Did you finally realize
What I knew all along
That you never needed me
Until I was gone

“We Can’t Unmake Love” (Will Robinson, Aaron Saine) finds Wynonna singing a duet with John Berry, an artist with an excellent voice but somewhat addicted to tediously slow ballads. Having said that, I must admit that this is a pretty nice effort.

“Always Will” (Harry Stinson, John Hadley) was released as a single, reaching #45. The song has a very Celtic feel to it with Tammy Rogers on fiddle and Hunter Lee on Uillean pipes. At nearly five minutes, the song was a bit too long for radio to have had much interest in the song.

For me this album was a very mixed bag. The one word I would not use to describe it is “country”. I would give it a C+ but it is a very up and down C+. Some songs I like a lot, others I found boring. There was nothing on the album I loved, and nothing I hated.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Restless’

51aMwLjN8yLShelby Lynne parted ways with Epic after three albums, all of which underperformed commercially, citing a lack of creative control as one of the reasons for her departure. She’d decided that if country radio wasn’t going to embrace her, she at least wanted critical acclaim and the freedom to go in different musical directions if she so chose. Temptation, her first post-Epic release had little to do with country music, but the follow-up Restless, is a different story. It is widely regarded as a western swing album, but it also has some elements of blues, as well as some more mainstream fare which suggested that Shelby hadn’t completely given up on the idea of having some radio hits.

Restless was issued by a different label than Temptation — originally issued by Magnatone and later re-released by Curb, but retained most of the personnel that had worked on the previous album. Brent Maher was back on board as producer and, along with Jamie O’Hara, as a co-writer on several of the album’s tracks. Shelby herself had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten tracks. I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening track and lead single “Slow Me Down”, which was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #59. It was followed up by the non-charting and more mainstream “I’m Not The One”, which really deserved more attention and likely could have been a hit for a more established artist. “Another Chance at Love”, the final single, is a pure western swing number which is excellent but probably not the most commercially viable choice in a radio environment which at the time was preoccupied with the crossover music of Shania Twain. “Hey Now, Little Darling” might have been a better choice, but by this time it was quite obvious that radio wasn’t much interested in anything Shelby had to offer.

I’m a big western swing fan, so there is much here for me to like: the title track, “Reach For The Rhythm” and “Swingtown” are all excellent. The blues-laced “Just For The Touch of Your Hand” is not quite as good but still enjoyable. It sounds tailor-made for Wynonna Judd, which is not surprising given Maher’s and O’Hara’s long association with Wynonna and The Judds. The pop-tinged ballad “Wish I Knew” is well performed but seems out of place on this album. The album’s best track is the underrated Jamie O’Hara gem “Talkin’ To Myself Again”, which had become the final Top 20 hit for Tammy Wynette almost a decade earlier.

Like its predecessors, Restless was a commercial disappointment and resulted in the end of the country phase of Shelby’s career and the beginning of a series of albums that explored various styles of pop. It is however, my favorite Shelby Lynne album. If you are only going to own one of her albums, make it this one.

Grade: A

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Temptation’

temptationAfter three albums had failed to break Shelby Lynne, she parted ways with Epic. Her music had always been a little more eclectic than most of her peers, but now she began to experiment more. Although it was still marketed as country music and recorded in Nashville with seasoned session musicians, her work with producer Brent Maher for her new label Morgan Creek (in association with Mercury Records) drew more deeply from the wells of jazz and big band than even the countrypolitan end of country music.

She was still marketed as a country artist, but unsurprisingly the country radio which had been unreceptive to her more conventional material was even less so to her new direction. Lead single ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’ got minimal airplay, peaking at a dismal #69 on the Billboard country chart, although it has a catchy tune and arrangement and is quite enjoyable. Interestingly, Brent Maher wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs, most of them with Jamie O’Hara.

‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, one of the two outside songs, didn’t chart at all, although it is a very nice Patsy Cline style ballad written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and is beautifully sung.

Even better is my favourite song on the album (not coincidentally, the only other song Brent Maher had no hand in). ‘I Need A Heart To Come Home To’ is a lovely sad ballad written by John Barlow Jarvis and Russell Smith about loneliness and the temptation of reconnecting with an old flame:

Something happened the night you kissed me
My will to love was born again
Your tenderness has convinced me
What a lonely fool I’ve been

I need a heart to come home to
Give me all the love I never knew
I need a heart to hold on to
I need a sweet sweetheart like you

Both song and performance are excellent, and the track featured on the soundtrack of hit movie True Romance.

Shelby co-wrote the title track with Maher and Jamie O’Hara, and this bold, brassy tune is a bit lacking in melody or real emotional impact, with an assertive attitude which doesn’t quite fit the self-searching lyric. The trio also wrote the similarly styled ‘Some Of That True Love’, where the swing arrangement fits the song better.

The understated mid-tempo ‘Little Unlucky At Love’, written by Maher and O’Hara, is quite good, but the pair’s ‘Come A Little Closer’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, written by Maher alone, are forgettable big band.

I disliked the bluesy, soul-influenced ‘The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away’ (written by Maher with Don Potter and Don Schlitz, mainly for its annoying spoken segments. However the sophisticated minor-keyed jazz ballad ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is very well done.

This is one of those records which is tough to assign a letter grade to. It is well sung and played, and Shelby sounds thoroughly engaged with her material, but most of it is not really to my personal tastes. As a jazz-inflected record for a general audience, it is very good; but it has little to do with country music other than the personnel.

Grade: B

Album Review: Joey + Rory: ‘Made To Last’

joeyandroryBarely three months after the release of a collection of inspirational songs, Joey + Rory are back with Made To Last, their fifth album overall and the first released on their own Farmhouse Recordings imprint. Like its predecessors, its songs are homespun tales of love and heartache with touch of nostalgia and the occasional more contemporary number, all simply yet elegantly produced.

To get things started, the duo dusts off the old Townes Van Zandt chestnut “If I Needed You”, which is a faithful reproduction of the Emmylou Harris and Don Williams recording that reached #3 in 1981. It is the first of the album’s two cover songs, which will be familiar to many country fans. The second is “Just A Cup Of Coffee”, which finds Joey trying to keep her expectations in check before a reunion with an old flame. The Stephanie Davis-penned tune was included as a bonus track on Trisha Yearwood’s Greatest Hits album in 2007. It’s an excellent song that deserves wider attention, but sadly isn’t considered commercially viable in the current environment.

Made To Last conatins no surprises — in fact most of the songs were already performed on the duo’s RFD television series — and no artistic stretches. Instead the duo gives their fans exactly what they have come to expect: typical Joey + Rory fare — quiet and mostly acoustic fare that makes the listener feel as though he or she is sitting around the living room with Joey and Rory. Among the highlights are two tear-jerkers: “50,000 Names”, a Jamie O’Hara composition that pays homage to the fallen heroes of the Vietnam War and “Now That She’s Gone”, a Rory Feek co-write with Morgane Hayes, which tells the sad story of a young widower who is unable to come to terms with his devasating loss. “Made To Last” is a lovely ballad written Austin Cunningham and Allen Shamblin number that talks about the increasingly rare enduring items in a throw-away society. Both “50,000 Names” and “Made To Last” feature Rory on lead vocals — the duo is sharing lead vocal duties as they did on His and Hers. I haven’t been a huge fan of his singing in the past, but I’ve come to appreciate his vocal abilities on this collection.

Two of the album’s most intimate numbers discuss the music business itself: Tim Johnson’s “To Do What I Do” expresses appreciation for the fans, whose support compensates for the dues-paying that comes with an entertainment career. In “I Sing For You”, the husband and wife duo address each other, vowing to continue singing for each other, even when the world is no longer listening.

The album’s weaker moments are on two of the uptempo numbers: “Good Truck”, a Rory co-write with Zac Brown, Coy Bowles and Nick Cowa and “I Love You Song”. The former isn’t a bad song per se, but like many country fans I’m suffering from truck song fatigue, although this one is admittedly a great deal better than any other truck song I’ve heard lately. “I Love You Song” is lyrically vapid filler.

I was slightly underwhelmed by last year’s His and Hers, so I was pleasantly surprised when the material turned out to be stronger this time around. It is quite possibly my favorite Joey + Rory album to date and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Every Time’

every timePam’s last 1990s release (in 1998) was co-produced by the arist with Billy Joe Walker Jr. It was her first Arista album not to be certified gold, marking a commercial downturn for her. It may also mark a period of personal turmoil following her divorce from songwriter Bob DiPiero, it is also noticeable that she did not contribute to the songwriting on this album. Her vocals are (as usual) excellent throughout.

There were only two modestly performing singles. ‘I Said A Prayer’, an upbeat Leslie Satcher song given rather poppy production which was Pam’s last top 20 hit, peaked at #12. I personally prefer the prettily melodic title track (penned by Tommy Lee James and Jennifer Kimball), but this one only just squeezed into the top 40.

Leslie Satcher got two more cuts on this album. ‘You Put The Lonely On Me’ is another up-tempo number with an assertive approach and some nice honky tonk piano, which isn’t bad. The best of Satcher’s songs (and one of the two best tracks on the album) is ‘Whiskey On The Wound’, a sad story song about a man whose tangled love life leads him into the deep waters of alcoholism.

The other standout is the magnificent pain-filled steel-led ballad ‘Hurt Myself’, written by Savannah Snow. The protagonist compares her relationship with a toxic ex with other forms of self-destructiveness. ‘A Great Disguise’ is another very good song about hiding the pain of a breakup, which had previously been recorded by Martina McBride. Pam’s interpretation is more subtle than Martina’s powerful belting, but both versions are good.

‘A Whisper And A Scream’, written by Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham, is a fine song about striking the right balance in life, which is much better than the title sounds. The insistent mid-tempo ‘Lay The Heartache Down’ written by Jamie O’Hara is also pretty good, with harmonica fills.

‘We Must Be Thinking Alike’ is quite pleasant but ultimately forgettable, while ‘Not Me’ is boring pop filler. ‘After Hours’ is also rather dull.

There are a couple of great tracks and several good ones, but this album as a whole fails to reach the heights of Pam’s best work, and it’s not entirely surprising that it failed to make much of a mark. It’s certainly worth cherrypicking the best tracks on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be obtained very cheaply.

Grade: B

Favorite Songs of the 1980s: Part 5

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

the okanes“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back” – Sam Neely
This 1983 song reached #77 for a talented performer who spent many years playing the clubs and honky-tonks of Corpus Christi. The song, the reflection of a condemned inmate’s life, looks back at all the bridges he burned beyond repair. The song also was recorded by Bill Anderson and Confederate Railroad.

Dream Lover” – Rick Nelson
Epic reissued Rick’s 1979 cover of a Bobby Darin classic after Rick’s death in a New Years Eve 1985 air crash. It only reached #88 but it gives me a chance to mention one of the fine rock ‘n roll / country singers one last time.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

Wabash Cannonball” – Willie Nelson with Hank (Leon Russell) Wilson
This song is at least as famous as any other song I’ve mentioned in any of my articles. Although the song is often attributed to A.P. Carter, it really is much older than that. Willie and Hank took this to #91 in 1984.

American Trilogy”– Mickey Newberry
Mickey issued a new version of his classic 1971 pop hit in 1988. While it only reached #93, it was good to hear it again on the radio. Glory, Glory Hallelujah forever.

The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)“– Judy Kay ‘Juice’ Newton
This #1 hit from 1982 was Juice’s biggest hit. As great as this recording is, the song sounds even better when she performs it acoustically.

Dance Little Jean” – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Perhaps my favorite recording by NGDB, it only reached #9 in 1983 but I still hear the song performed today by various and sundry acts, not all of whom are country. The song was the group’s first top ten country hit there would be sixteen in all), although they had pop chart hits dating back to the 1960s.

“Let’s Go All The Way ” – Norma Jean and Claude Gray
A pair of veteran performers teamed up to release this 1982 hit which charted at #68. The song was Norma Jean’s first chart hit back in 1964. This was her last chart hit; in fact, she hadn’t charted since 1971 when this record was released on the Granny White label.

Elvira” – The Oak Ridge Boys
Although not their biggest chart hit, this cover of a Dallas Frazier-penned song from the 1960s , was easily their biggest selling song, reaching #1 in 1981 while hitting #5 on Billboard’s pop charts. Has anyone really forgotten the chorus?

So I’m singin’, Elvira, Elvira
My heart’s on fire, Elvira
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow, heigh-ho Silver, away!

I didn’t think so …

Oh Darlin’” – The O’Kanes (Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara)
This coupling of a couple of singer-songwriters who had not had solo success, resulted in a half dozen top ten records that had a fairly acoustic sound and feel that sounded like nothing else currently being played on the radio. This song reached #10 in 1986. Their next single “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” would reach #1.

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Country Heritage: 25 from the ’80s

This article will focus on some artists who either had a very short period of great success or had an extended run of near-success. In other words, I cannot justify an entire article on any of them.

Deborah Allen was born in 1953 in Memphis, and probably has had greater success as a songwriter, having written hits for artists including Tanya Tucker, Sheena Easton and Janie Fricke. As a performer, RCA had the bright idea of dubbing her voice onto old Jim Reeves recordings to create duets. The three duets released as singles – “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” and “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me” – all went Top 10 in 1979-80. As a solo artist, Allen charted 10 times with three Top 10 singles: “Baby I Lied” (1983–#4), “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (1984–#2) and “I Hurt For You” (1984–#10).

Baillie and The Boys were a late 80s act which charted 10 times between 1987 and 1991 before disappearing from the charts. Seven of their hit records went Top 10, with “(I Wish I Had A) Heart of Stone” (1989–#4) being the biggest. Kathie Baillie was the lead singer, and while initially a trio, the group became a duo in 1988 with few people able to tell the difference.

Debby Boone is one of two answers to a trivia question – name the two families that have had a #1 pop record in each of three consecutive generations. One answer is obvious – the Nelson family – big band leader Ozzie Nelson (“And Then Some”, 1935), Rick Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”, 1958 and “Traveling Man”, 1960) and Rick’s sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson (recording, under the name Nelson, “Love and Affection”, 1990).
The Nelson family answer works top down and bottom up as the members of the chain are all blood relatives. In the case of Debby Boone’s family, it only works top down. Debby (“You Light Up My Life“, 1977), father Pat Boone (seven #1s from 1955-1961 including “Love Letters In The Sand“) and grandfather Red Foley – no blood relation to Pat Boone but a blood relation of Debby’s (“Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy”, 1950).

Debby Boone may be a direct direct descendant of the American pioneer Daniel Boone. She is distantly related to two stars of American television, Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel, Hec Ramsey) and Randy Boone, (The Virginian and Cimarron Strip).

Enough with the trivia – Debby charted on the country charts thirteen times from 1977-1981 although most of those were pop records that happened to chart country. Starting in 1979 Debby started consciously recording for country markets. “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own” reached #11 in early 1979. The next three records did relatively nothing but the first single issued in 1980 “Are You On The Road To Loving Me Again” finally made it to the top. She would chart four more singles before turning to gospel/Christian music.

Larry Boone is best known as a songwriter, having cuts by Kathy Mattea, Don Williams, Tracy Lawrence, Rick Trevino, George Strait, Shenandoah, Marie Osmond and Lonestar. As a singer, he wasn’t terribly distinctive – sort of a George Strait-lite.  Boone charted 14 singles from 1986-93, with only 1988’s “Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger” reaching the Top 10. The other Top 20 singles were “I Just Called To Say Goodbye Again” and a remake of “Wine Me Up” – both of which reached their peak chart positions in 1989.

Dean Dillon charted 20 times from 1979-93, with his biggest hit being “Nobody In His Right Mind (Would’ve Left Her)” which reached #25 in November, 1980. During 1982 and 83, RCA paired Dillon with fading star Gary Stewart, hoping for the kind of magic that was later achieved when Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were paired together. No real hits came of this collaboration, but the recordings were quite interesting and are available on CD.

Fortunately for Dillon, he is a far better songwriter than singer. His hits as a writer include George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” and more than a dozen George Strait Top 10s. In fact, Strait has recorded over 50 of Dillon’s songs, ensuring that the wolf will never again knock at Dean Dillon’s door.

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Album Review: The O’Kanes – ‘The O’Kanes’

The O’Kanes brought the sibling-style close harmonies pioneered by the Louvin Brothers into the late 20th century. They were not in fact brothers, but the unrelated singer-songwriters Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane. But their voices melded exceptionally well and they created a little magic during their relatively short partnership in the 1980s. Writing together from 1984-1985, they worked on the material for their debut album, which was eventually released in 1986 when the New Traditional movement had made room for artists like this, who were a step outside the mainstream, combining very traditional country and more modern influences.

Their very close Louvin Brothers styled harmonies, catchy tunes, punchy and often acoustic bluegrass-influenced instrumentation and well-written lyrics were simultaneously modern yet retro, and a breath of fresh air. The material was almost all written by the duo. When their self-titled debut album was released in 1986, Jamie O’Hara had just enjoyed a #1 as writer of the Judds’ ‘Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ol’ Days)’, and the material he and Kieran Kane wrote together is consistently just as good.

Their debut single, the insistent mid-tempo ‘Oh Darlin’ (Why Don’t You Care For Me No More?)’ was a top 10 hit in 1986. The protagonist is baffled by the change in his loved one, when he hasn’t changed at all. A similar tempo and vibe took ‘Can’t Stop My Heart from Loving You’ all the way to #1. This time the protagonist is helplessly in love with a woman who he accuses “ you treat me badly and make me blue”, but the hypnotic edge makes the sad tale positively catchy.

The next single, another top 10 hit, is my favourite track. ‘Daddies Need To Grow Up Too’ is the affecting story of an absent father who regrets his choices and now promises his child he will change his ways:

You’re the hero in my eyes
You see
Daddies need to grow up too
Learn what they should and they shouldn’t do
In a way we’re a lot like you
We need some understanding
Daddies stumble
Daddies fall
We don’t really know it all
Gonna try to make it up to you
Daddies need to grow up too

The fourth single, the charming love song ‘Just Lovin’ You’, hit # 5. It has a lovely slightly old fashioned vibe, which is a delight to listen to. ‘When I Found You’ is another romantic ballad, but one which gains added impact from comparing the protagonists’ newfound happiness to past “love proved untrue”:

When I found you I lost the emptiness
So painfully locked away in my heart
Gone was the despair
That dreams don’t come true …

I lost my sorrow when I found you

‘Gonna Walk That Line’ is an irresistible declaration of love and commitment by a bad boy who has changed his ways and is prepared to settle down at last:

I’ve never been too good at doin’ right
Done mostly wrong most all my life…

I used to be a tomcat out on the prowl
Baby I’m just your puppydog now

The haunting ‘Bluegrass Blues’, the first song the duo wrote together, has a more downbeat attitude. ‘When We’re Gone, Long Gone’ is a quietly philosophical semi-gospel song with a very retro feel. The one song not written by the duo is a cover of the Elvis Presley hit ‘That’s Alright, Mama’, treated with an unexpected delicacy which makes an over-familiar song sound new.

The duo’s relatively short life means they have been largely forgotten, but the music on this album sounds as fresh today as it did in the 80s, and is well worth reviving. For what it’s worth, they are my personal favourite of the duos we’re spotlighting this month.

The CD is out of print, and not all tracks appear to be available digitally, but it’s worth tracking down if you can find a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Rockin’ With the Rhythm’

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about 1985’s Rockin’ With the Rhythm. Producer Brent Maher seemed to be adhering to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle, using essentially the same formula and many of the same songwriters that had made Why Not Me a double-platinum success. The strategy was an effective one, allowing The Judds to continue on their winning streak. All of the album’s four singles reached the top of the charts, and though it did not sell quite as well as its predecessor, it still achieved platinum certification at a time when female country artists rarely reached such sales figures. It was also named Billboard’s Top Country Album of 1986.

The single releases were book-ended by two Paul Kennerly compositions, “Have Mercy” and “Cry Myself to Sleep”. In both songs, the protagonist is at her wit’s end trying to come to terms with the end of a somewhat emotionally abusive relationship, although “Have Mercy” takes a much more tongue-in-cheek approach than the dead-serious “Cry Myself to Sleep”. In between these two #1 hits were “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” and the upbeat title track. “Grandpa”, which takes a nostalgic look back a simpler and happier era that perhaps never really existed in the first place, became The Judds’ best known hit. The song earned the duo their third consecutive Grammy award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1987.

Like its predecessor, Rockin’ With the Rhythm contains a treasure trove of album cuts that had hit single potential, had RCA/Curb chosen to release them to radio. My favorite is “If I Were You”, penned by Sonny Throckmorton and Brent Maher along with the great Harlan Howard, followed by a cover of Lee Dorsey’s 1966 R&B hit “Workin’ in the Coal Mine”. The closing track “Dream Chaser” is a real beauty that sounds almost semi-autobiographical, though neither of the Judds had a hand in writing it. In fact, Rockin’ With the Rhythm is the first of only two Judds albums that contained none of Naomi’s original compositions, but with songwriters such as Paul Kennerly, Don Schlitz, Jamie O’Hara, Sonny Throckmorton, Harlan Howard, Kevin Welch, and Jeffrey Hawthorne Bullock — who wrote “Dream Chaser” with Brent Maher — the lack of Naomi’s contribution as a songwriter is barely noticed.

To a certain extent, Rockin’ With the Rhythm can be viewed as a continuation of Why Not Me. I’m undecided as to which album I like better, but as a pair, they represent the duo’s very best work. A testament to their strength is the fact 1988’s Greatest Hits collection consisted solely of the eight singles culled from these two albums, along with two new tracks. Although Wynonna and Naomi went on to release three more solid studio albums, as well as a Christmas collection, they would never quite reach this creative zenith again. The album is highly recommended, and easy to find.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: 80s Duos

This month we’ve decided to do something a little different; instead of spotlighting a single artist for the entire month, we’ll be taking a look at the careers of several of the duos that came to prominence during the 1980s:

1.  David Frizzell & Shelly West

This duo’s pedigree was impressive; he was the younger brother of the legendary Lefty Frizzell, while she was the daughter of Dottie West and the wife of another Frizzell brother.   Together they charted 11 singles on the Billboard country charts between 1981 and 1985, the first and best known of which was “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma”.  That #1 single had been featured in the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can, and released on the Viva label, which was distributed by Warner Bros.   They were awarded the CMA’s Duo of the Year trophy twice, and both Frizzell and West scored some solo hits during this period, though neither’s career was to enjoy any longevity.  Shelly’s divorce from Allen Frizzell may have been partially responsible for the end of her professional relationship with David.

2.   The Judds

The most commercially successful of the duos we’re spotlighting this month, the story of this mother-daughter act is well known.  Record producer Brent Maher’s daughter was hospitalized and under the care of nurse Naomi Judd in the early 1980s, which provided the opportunity for Naomi to give Maher a demo tape, leading to a live audition and on-the-spot signing with RCA/Curb.   The Judds were an immediate success, scoring 15 #1 singles between 1983 and 1990.  During that time, they also won seven Academy of Country Music awards, nine CMA trophies, and five Grammys.   A bout with Hepatitis C prompted Naomi’s retirement in 1991, while Wynonna went on to enjoy a highly successful career as a solo artist.  During the 20 years since Naomi’s retirement, the two have occasionally reunited in concert and in the studio.

3.  Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Sisters Kristine Arnold and Janis Gill sang together as children in California and began performing as The Oliver Sisters when they were teenagers.  They later renamed their act after the title of the classic album by The Byrds.   Both women married musicians; Kristine’s husband is Leonard Arnold of the band Blue Steel,  while Janis is the ex-wife of Vince Gill.   The Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed with Columbia Records in 1986, and for a brief time were one of the hottest acts in country music.  Their debut single “Hey Doll Baby” peaked just outside the Top 20.  Their second single “Since I Found  You” reached the Top 10.  Six more Top 10 hits followed.   Though they were never top record sellers, they were staples at country radio in the late 80s.  Their first two albums for Columbia racked up a number of radio hits, but after that the hits began to taper off.   After two more albums failed to generate any more hits, Columbia dropped the Sweethearts from its roster in 1992.  They re-emerged the following year on Sugar Hill Records, for whom they recorded two critically acclaimed albums in 1993 and 1996.

4.  The O’Kanes

Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane recorded three albums for Columbia between 1986 and 1990.  Six of the nine singles released during that period charted in the Top 10, including their best known hit “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You”, which reached the #1 spot in 1987.  Jamie, a native of Toledo, Ohio, had penned “Older Women”,  which had been a #1 hit for Ronnie McDowell in 1981 and  The Judds’ signature hit “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”, which won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1986.  The two met while working as songwriters for the same publishing company.   They disbanded in 1990 and resumed their solo careers.  Brooklyn-born Kane eventually went on to become one of the founders the independent Dead Reckoning Records.

5.  Foster & Lloyd

Country rockers Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd recorded three albums together for RCA between 1987 and 1990, and in the process scored nine charting singles, four of which reached the Top 10.   Prior to landing their own record deal, they wrote “Since I Found You”, which became the breakthrough hit for The Sweethearts of the Rodeo.   Foster & Lloyd’s biggest hit was 1987’s “Crazy Over You”, which rose to #4.  Perhaps a bit too offbeat for conservative country radio in the late 80s, they were more of a critical, rather than commercial, success and disbanded in 1990.   Lead vocalist Radney Foster subsequently signed with Arista Records and enjoyed a moderately successful solo career, while Bill Lloyd went back to earning a living as a session musician.  They reunited in 2011, with the release of It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album together in over 20 years.

As always, we hope that this spotlight will provide our readers with a pleasant trip down memory lane, or perhaps inspire them to explore music that they may have overlooked or are too young to remember.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Lee Ann Womack’

For a brief time in 1997 it appeared that country music was finally about to re-embrace its roots. Two female artists made their major label debuts that year and appeared to be leading the trend back towards traditionalism: Lee Ann Womack with her self-titled debut in May, and Sara Evans with Three Chords and the Truth in July. As we now know, these albums were something of an anomaly; country music continued its drift popward and both both Evans and Womack would go on to experiment with more polished, pop-oriented sounds. Nevertheless, Lee Ann has earned a reputation as a primarily traditional artist, thanks in no small part to her platinum-selling debut.

Lee Ann’s vocal style has been compared to that of a young Dolly Parton, and late 60s-style sound of the album highlights the similarities. The fiddle and steel guitar are featured prominently throughout the album, and most of the ballads also feature tasteful and restrained string arrangements performed by The Nashville String Machine. The first single, “Never Again, Again” was released two months in advance of the album itself. Lee Ann had great hopes for the record and was reportedly disappointed when it peaked at #23, even though this is a perfectly respectable showing for a debut record. Another ballad, “The Fool”, was selected as the album’s next single. Lee Ann had been reluctant to record it, saying that it was “a good song, but it’s not ‘Never Again, Again'”. But ironically, “The Fool” surpassed “Never Again, Again” on the charts, just missing the top spot and earning Lee Ann her first bonafide hit. The uptempo “You’ve Got To Talk To Me”, written by Jamie O’Hara, was released as the third single, and like “The Fool”, it peaked at #2. Another uptempo number, “Buckaroo” peaked at #27.

Overall, the album highlights Lee Ann’s strength as a ballad singer. There are some truly beautiful moments on the album with songs such as “Am I The Only Thing You’ve Done Wrong”, which Lee Ann wrote with her ex-husband Jason Sellers and Billy Joe Foster, “Do You Feel For Me”, and “Make Memories With Me”, a gorgeous number performed as a duet with her Decca labelmate and fellow Mark Wright-produced act Mark Chesnutt. “Make Memories With Me” should have been released as a single, but Decca was most likely reluctant to send too many ballads to radio. It’s a shame that there haven’t been any subsequent Womack-Chesnutt duets because their voices work very well together.

The album’s weak spots tend to be the uptempo numbers. Though well performed, “Buckaroo” borders on hokey and it’s not difficult to see why it only reached #27 on the charts. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the album cut “A Man With 18 Wheels”, although “Trouble’s Here” stands in stark contrast with these two numbers. It actually works quite well, as does the Gospel number “Get Up In Jesus’ Name”, the album’s closing track which features background vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.

In retrospect, it’s a pity that Lee Ann didn’t debut four or five years earlier; if she had, she’d have likely enjoyed more consistent success at radio. By the late 90s, listeners appeared to be tiring of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, and Lee Ann seemed to be the perfect antidote, but her success was short-circuited by both her own pop ambitions and the emergence of other, younger country-pop divas such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Nevertheless, Lee Ann Womack remains my favorite album in the singer’s discography. Cheap copies are readily available from Amazon. Buy one if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: A

Randy finds religion: the Christian albums of Randy Travis

Randy’s second and last effort for DreamWorks, the uninspired and over-produced A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, fell pretty flat both artistically and commercially. Perhaps in response to that, the new millennium saw a major change. He returned to the Warner group for his first religious album (released on Word/Warner Brothers/Curb), Inspirational Journey, in 2000. Surprisingly what appeared at the time to be a one-off detour turned into a whole new career for him.

Kyle Lehning returned to the producer’s chair, and this is basically Christian country music of a very high quality. Randy sounds very sincere and is in great voice throughout, and this is a fine collection which most country fans would enjoy if they can live with the subject matter.

‘Baptism’ (written by Mickey Cates is an atmospheric and affectionate picture of an east Texas river baptism, and is a highlight. Randy had previously guested on a duet version with Kenny Chesney on the latter’s Everywhere We Go; that version served principally to show how infinitely superior Randy’s voice was to Kenny’s. The solo version is better, with a gospel choir some way down in the mix. It was released as the album’s sole single, but barely charted.

My favorite is the traditional country plea to ‘Doctor Jesus’, laced with fiddle and steel, and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. Randy’s emotional vocal convincingly portrays a man at the bottom and in need of help from “the best healer around”.

Randy’s personal commitment to the project is reflected in the fact that he wrote three of the songs. The best of these is ‘The Carpenter’ (about Jesus) which he wrote with Chip Taylor and Ron Avis; the song features guest vocals from Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and is very likeable. His other two compositions (the slow, churchy ‘I Am Going’ and ‘Walk With Me’ work less well for me. But even the lesser material like these songs, the opening ‘Shallow Water’ and the subdued ‘See Myself In You’ sound good. ‘Feet On The Rock’ is up-tempo churchy gospel which is quite enjoyable.

The insistent Ron Block song ‘Which Way Will You Choose’ is very catchy with dancing fiddle and a very strong vocal. ‘Drive Another Nail’ is an effective story song about a retired carpenter who sees the light. ‘Don’t Ever Sell Your Saddle’ (from the pens of Kim Tribble and Brian Whiteside) has a warm, nuanced vocal, and could easily have fitted on one of Randy’s secular albums, with its comforting collection of life advice from a father – advice the man didn’t always take himself. The album closes with a very slow take on the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, recorded in memory of Randy’s late mother and his father in law, but I feel the arrangement drags a bit.

While not a best-seller, the album did sufficiently well for Randy to decide to follow it up with another, which was to do rather better. 2002’s gold-certified Rise And Shine is notable for the inclusion of Randy’s last solo hit, the outstanding story song ‘Three Wooden Crosses’. Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams and masterfully interpreted, it was Randy’s first #1 in nine years, and was named CMA Song of the Year. It was not the start of a career resurgence, though, as the follow-up single, ‘Pray For the Fish’, a lively but rather slight tale of a river baptism, failed to crack the top 40.

Also excellent is the tender ‘Raise Her Up’, written by Robb Royer and Rivers Rutherford, which might perhaps have built on the success of ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ if it had been sent to radio. This is the voice of a fatherless boy who grows up to become loving stepfather to a similar child, comparing their story to that of Joseph and Jesus.

The Rory Lee/Paul Overstreet song ‘When Mama Prayed’ is a tenderly sung tribute to the power of prayer; the heroine’s prayers bring her irreligious husband and drunk son to see the light. It’s a nice take on an oft-told tale, and one which resonated with Randy given his past. Similarly, the deathbed-set ‘If You Only Knew’ is an unexceptional lyric lifted to a new level by Randy’s vocal although the string arrangement and choir-like backing vocals are a bit stifling. ‘Valley Of Pain’, written by Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin, is a good depiction of someone holding on to their faith through a bad patch. ‘The Gift’, written by Phillip Moore and Ray Scott, is rather a nice Christmas song:

“On our Savior’s birthday
We got the gift”

Randy co-wrote six of the 13 songs. They are all perfectly listenable and clearly heartfelt, but not that memorable out of context. The best is the dark envisioning of the Second Coming in ‘Jerusalem’s Cry’, with Randy’s vocals at their most gravelly, although it is probably the least “country” track on the album.

There was also an accompanying DVD with a short (20 minute) documentary about Randy, who talks about horses, his wild youth and his religion, with Kyle Lehning also contributing. There are clips of Randy performing, in the studio, and a lot of him riding horses.

Worship & Faith in 2003 was a reverently sung collection of hymns, traditional spiritual songs and one or two modern worship songs, given an all-acoustic country production. I enjoy listening to it a great deal, but there isn’t anything here for the non-religious listener. One song which particularly stands out is ‘I’ll Fly Away’ thanks to Joy Lynn White’s distinctive harmonies, while John Anderson duets on a serious version of ‘Just A Closer Walk with Thee’. It did well, selling gold again.

Passing Through, released a year later, is actually not a religious record, and was billed as a return to secular music. However, it was still on Christian label Word in association with Curb and Warners, and had nothing on it likely to offend Christian music fans, and in fact won a Dove Award. Lead single ‘Four Walls’ is, unfortunately, not the country classic but an affectionate story of a rural family united in love. It is pleasant and well sung, but rather dull, and I can see why it didn’t spark at radio. It had been recorded back in 2001, together with several other songs included on the new album. ‘That Was Us’ (also recorded by Tracy Lawrence) fondly recalls a bunch of rural teenage delinquents who grow up to prove their hearts are in the right place, and might have gone down better at radio. ‘Pick Up The Oars And Row’, written by Jamie O’Hara, is a sympathetic song addressed to a woman let down by a lying man, which is very good. The subdued ‘My Daddy Never Was’ is an excellent slice of life written by Tony Lane, about a divorced man working hard to be “the daddy my daddy never was” and reflecting on his own failings; Randy’s voice cracks in places but this only suits the defeated mood of the song. Dennis Linde’s ‘Train Long Gone’ stands out with wailing harmonica and train sounds, but doesn’t quite work for me.

Of the newly recorded material, the overly sentimental and part-spoken ‘Angels’ (a tribute to mothers) was the second attempt at a single, and another mis-step. I much prefer ‘Running Blind’, written by Roger Ferris. At a truck stop in New Mexico, a cashier gives the narrator some salutary advice about heading back home to the girl left crying at home, set to a punchy rhythm and Charlie McCoy’s harmonica. The swingy ‘My Poor Old Heart’ (written by Shawn Camp and Gary Harrison) and the gently philosophical ‘Right On Time (from Al Anderson and Sharon Vaughn) are also pretty good. The album title comes from the fiddle-led ‘A Place To Hang My Hat’, written by Shawn Camp, Byron Hill and Brice Long, the only religious song. Randy wrote a couple of tender love ballads, ‘I’m Your Man’ with piano and steel in the foreground, and ‘I Can See It In Your Eyes’(a co-write with Matthew Hague), with heavenly harmony on the chorus from Liana Manis.

Sales of Passing Through were disappointing, and Randy turned to hardcore religious music with Glory Train. This is mainly religious numbers from a variety of American musical traditions, with a handful of contemporary church worship songs, and has the least country feel of any of Randy’s albums, although the fiddle is prominent on a number of tracks. His vocals still compel attention on the mainly up-tempo material (apart from a pointless version of ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ which has nothing to interest the listener). Highlights include the title track, a black gospel classic from the 1930s given a country makeover with swirling fiddle and harmonica; a warm version of ‘Precious Memories’, a slowed-down take on ‘Were You There’, the insistent gospel of ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Oh Death’, and ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’. The Blind Boys of Alabama guest on two gospel tracks, and contemporary Christian group the Crabb Family on another. The least effective track is a pointless sing along of ‘He’s Go the Whole World In His Hands’.

Randy’s religious detour produced some fine music, even if it was a little frustrating for fans of his secular music. All these albums are easy to get hold of.

Grades:

Inspirational Journey: A
Rise And Shine: B+
Worship And Faith: A-
Passing Through: B+
Glory Train: B

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Everybody Knows’

After four fine albums, Trisha’s fifth effort, released in 1996, was a bit of a disappointment for me. She was in her usual fine vocal form and Garth Fundis produced as usual, but the record overall feels just a little too tasteful at times. The overall mood leans towards AC, and is rather ballad-heavy with a few nods to radio.

The lead single was the radio-friendly ‘Believe Me Baby (I Lied)’, written by Kim Richey, Angelo, and Larry Gottlieb, which hit #1. The bright production belies the regret-filled lyric and passionate vocal as the protagonist admits she never really wanted her man to leave.

It was followed by the broadly similar #3 hit ‘Everybody Knows’, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, with the protagonist this time fighting with all her friends and family members’ well-intentioned advice about how to cope with her broken heart. Opening track ‘I Want To Live Again’ fits into the same sophisticated mid tempo contemporary radio friendly template with broad commercial appeal.

The third single, ‘I Need You’, flopped in the 30s. The downbeat ballad about a neglected wife pleading for her husband’s renewed attention is a fine song with a beautifully delivered vocal, but it was perhaps a little too subtle or bitter for casual listeners as she comments,

The television seems to be your life’s ambition

And begs for a return to:

That boy
The one that chose me over every other choice

I like all the singles, but my favorite track is the Kevin Welch story song ‘Hello, I’m Gone’, a fiddle-led number about a woman leaving a man in Texas with nowhere particular in mind to go, and nothing but one suitcase, a broken down pickup truck, and a gun:

Man, she’s just running
It don’t matter where
She figures she’ll know where she is when she’s there
And she didn’t leave nothin’ she can’t do without
That’s enough reason for leavin’ no doubt
She turns down the window, turns up a song
Laughs at the weather and says
Hello, I’m gone

Almost as good is the delicately sung AC ballad ‘Maybe It’s Love’, written by Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman about the uncertain feelings at the start of falling in love with someone after a period of having frozen her heart. Trisha’s lead vocal and Vince Gill’s harmony are exquisite.

The other highlight is the bitter ‘A Lover Is Forever’, written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. This is a rejected lover’s diatribe against the man who is leaving her to wed another:

You think a ring upon your hand
Will solve your insecurity…

I know you think you’re so damn clever
You can marry any time you want
But a lover is forever

There is little overt to criticize with the remainder of the material, but it tends to blend together rather. Songs like the soothing ‘It’s Alright’, written by Jamie O’Hara and Gary Nicholson, with husband Robert Reynolds’ Mavericks bandmate Raul Malo on harmony, and ‘Little Hercules’ are the epitome of tasteful production, beautiful singing and thoughtful lyrics that somehow manage to end up less than the sum of their parts. A little more interesting is ‘Under The Rainbow’, written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs about finding domestic contentment in the real world.

The international version of this album boasted three additional tracks, the delicately sung portrait of ‘Even A Cowboy Can Dream’, the boring ‘Find A River’, and the cheery up-tempo ‘The Chance I Take’ (my favorite of the three), but none of these really adds substantially to the album.

The album is easily and cheaply available.

Grade: B

Secret tracks

trisha yearwoodReading the comments section on one of the many country blogs I read, I came across a thought that resonated with me.  The comment was about when you find an album cut that you love as much or more than the album’s radio singles – the singles are usually the reason you bought the album in the first place.  But, when you do happen upon an album cut that you make your own, it’s like you have your own little secret, but one you want to share with the world.  I’ve never been greedy with my music, offering and even force-feeding it to my friends and acquaintances at times.

When I would buy a new album, I used to go through and try to pick which songs I thought would go to radio next, but I was never very good at that.  The songs I think would be hits and that the whole world would love usually get passed over for songs I don’t like as much.  But then those same songs are the ones that become the biggest hits.  So for that, I don’t think I’d make much of an A&R man for a Nashville label.  What I could do is pick songs that would resonate with the minority audiences like myself who want more substance than style in their songs, rather than choose those that appeal to everyman.

Trisha Yearwood’s albums rarely, if ever, have what is known as filler.  So if you’re picking up a Trisha Yearwood album at random and playing any song from one of them, odds are you’re going to find a gem of your own.  But I want to point you out a couple of them, both by Trisha Yearwood, I’ve already discovered over the years and implore you to share your own secret tracks with us.

TrishaYearwood-debutFirst up is ‘Victim of the Game’, which Garth Brooks and Mark Sanders wrote, and Garth included on his sophomore album, No Fences.  Trisha’s reading of the song appears on her debut album.  This is such a great song that I’m surprised neither released it as a single, especially Trisha Yearwood, whose debut album didn’t contain the embarrassment of riches of her later albums.  The song tells the story of a heartbroken individual.  For most of the song, you think it’s about a friend consoling another friend and telling them all the things they did wrong, told in a second person perspective,’You know its really gettin’ to you/When you take to tellin lies‘.  It’s not until the final bridge of the song that you realize it’s the narrator herself who’s been heartbroken, ‘When I look into your eyes I can really feel your pain/Staring in the mirror at a victim of the game‘, and it’s herself she’s been trying to comfort all along.  It’s one of those songs you have to listen to all the way through every time and also packs an emotional punch with every listen.

Trisha Yearwood - Hearts in ArmorMuch has been said about the Hearts In Armor album, the first one that really made her a critical darling, and I agree that the album is one of Trisha’s finest moments and a masterpiece of modern country music.  But the songs everyone points to as the album’s greatest aren’t my personal favorites.  Sure, I think ‘Walkaway Joe’ is marvelous and that Trisha’s cover of Emmylou Harris’s ‘Woman Walk The Line’ is flawless, but I find myself drawn most to Jamie O’Hara’s ‘For Reasons I’ve Forgotten’.  The bluesy tune features harmony vocals from The Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo, who’s now making fine music of his own.

So those are a couple album cuts that are among my favorites, and I feel like they’re my own little secret.  I’ve loved them for a long time, and I wanted to share them with you.

What are some of your favorite album cuts that you feel are your own personal treasures?

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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