After their eponymous album produced two top-twenty singles, Shenandoah saw a reversal of fortunes when they gathered at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Sholes, Alabama to record their sophomore record, The Road Not Taken. A major success, the album spawned three #1 hits, was certified gold, for shipments of 500,000 copies, and turned 25 upon the anniversary of its Jan 31, 1989 release just one week ago.
Columbia Records noticed the band’s upward swing when their third single, “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore” cracked the top ten, peaking at #9. Written by Robert Byrne (their co-producer) and Will Robinson, the track is a forlorn synth heavy ballad that shows the band’s promise but isn’t indicative of their strongest work. To capitalize on the song’s success the label carried it over to The Road Not Taken, releasing it as the third single from the band’s debut and first from their second album.
This album’s first official single, “Mama Knows,” gave the band their inaugural top five hit. An excellent mandolin and string centric ballad, “Mama Knows” began their tradition of singing simple tales about small-town life. This one’s about a mother who always knows whatever her son is trying to hide:
Mama knows, Mama knows
Somehow I think she’s got a window to my soul
Mama knows, Mama knows
Even when I think it doesn’t show
Mama knows, mama knows
“The Church on Cumberland Road,” Their first of three consecutive #1 hits came next, impacting the country charts in early 1989. A two-week #1, the track marked the first time a band had their first chart-topper spend multiple weeks atop the charts. A catchy rocker about a groom late for his wedding, the song uses electric guitars in its production, and is heavy on the charm. A piece of nostalgia from my childhood, it remains one of my favorites of their singles to date.
Their second number one came courtesy of Jay Booker’s masterpiece “Sunday In The South,” which is my favorite thing Shenandoah has ever committed to record. The song is a day—in the life of the southern US on a sacred Sunday, bringing alive the traditions of going to church, enjoying family dinners, and getting one’s haircut. While the track retains a bit of laundry-list tactics, it succeeds on its sincerity, Marty Raybon’s impeccable lead vocal, and the flawless traditional production that weaves gorgeous ribbons of harmonica throughout.
The more contemporary “Two Dozen Roses,” co-written by Byrne with Mac McAnally, finished off the band’s banner 1989, becoming their third #1 hit. Another excellent song, “Two Dozen Roses” contains everything I love about country music – twang (both vocally and from guitars), a killer chorus, and an effortless vibe that seems easy to pull off, but really isn’t. “Two Dozen Roses” is just a great, great song all around.
The album’s final single, “See If I Care,” bookends the album with a track similar in nature to “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore.” That isn’t a complement, though, as the song retains the former’s somewhat listless production and vocal stylings and feels almost like a regression from the excellence of the band’s three previous singles. The track justifiably peaked at #6.
Like the blander singles, the title track has an adult cotemporary vibe that’s somewhat unbecoming. Raybon doesn’t do that great a job singing it either, which is a shame. An on-point vocal from him could’ve elevated this tale of regret, but instead we’re left with a song that’s just bland. “Changes” is more interesting thanks to its cadence, which allows entry into the song, but Raybon’s delivery could once again use a little zap of energy.
McAnally, who’s one of my favorite songwriters of all-time, wrote “She’s All I Got Goin’” solo. Raybon gives an exquisite vocal performance and the production is a pure delight, no matter how retro it sounds to today’s ears. The track should’ve been the finale single, instead of “See If I Care.” Also good is “Hard Country” although the harmonies from the other band members on the chorus just sound strange.
It’s easy to see why The Road Not Taken was Shenandoah’s breakthrough album. A strong collection of songs and Raybon’s indelible voice help raise the record above the average radio faire. It’s also a testament to all involved that two of the projects biggest hits, “The Church on Cumberland Road” and “Two Dozen Roses” have go on to become classics, with Rascal Flatts covering the former on occasion. Gary LeVox is nowhere near the astute vocalist that Raybon is, but they do a surprisingly decent job.
It’s hard to believe the CD is 25 years old, but it sounds nearly as good today as it did when it was released all those years ago.