My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jim McBride

Album Review: Joy White – ‘Between Midnight And Hindsight’

between-midnight-and-hindsightBilled simply as Joy White (she incorporated Lynn later), the redhead from Arkansas and Indiana had a sound as striking as her appearance. Signing to Columbia Records in 1992, no doubt the label had great hopes for her debut album, filled as it was with great songs and Joy’s distinctive vocals, by turns fierce and vulnerable, in a way which presages the mainstream music of the Dixie Chicks with Natalie Maines half a decade later. It is unsurprising that they even covered songs Joy did first. Paul Worley and Blake Chancey produced the set, and would go on to work with the Chicks.

Unfortunately country radio was not quite ready for Joy’s intensity, and none of the album’s three singles reached the top 40. First up was ‘Little Tears’, an up-tempo tune about defying the pain of heartbreak written by Michael Henderson and Mark Irwin.

‘True Confessions’, the closest Joy came to a hit single, peaked at #45. Written by Marty Stuart with hitmaker Kostas, it is a very good song given a compelling performance. Stuart has been quoted saying Joy’s voice “could make time stand still”, and she commits to a passionate tale of falling in love despite the man initially not being in it for the long run:

He only wanted my shoulder to cry on
He only wanted my love for a while
I was lookin’ for someone to rely on
I traced his heart from his smile

The stars were fallin’ in every direction
The moon was rockin’ back and forth in the sky
Modern day lovers with true confessions
Written in their eyes

The last single from this album, ‘Cold Day In July’, which was also recorded around this time by Suzy Bogguss, and was later a hit for the Dixie Chicks, was written by Richard Leigh, known for his songs for last month’s Spotlight Artist Crystal Gayle. A graceful subdued ballad about the shock of a breakup, Joy’s version shows her vulnerable side.

Another song which may be familiar is ‘Wherever You Are’, which Highway 101 had included on their Paul Worley produced Bing Bang Boom – an album on which in turn they had recorded a Joy White penned tune, ‘Big City Bound’.

Joy continues the assertive dealing-with-heartbreak up-tempo theme with songs like ‘Wishful Thinking’, written by the team of Michael Henderson and Wally Wilson. The same pair contributed the more positive ‘Let’s Talk About Love Again’, a catchy number which might have been a good choice for a radio single. ‘Hey Hey Mama’ has a rockabilly feel.

Slow and intense, ‘Those Shoes’ (written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson) is an excellent song addressed to the woman her ex left her for, and who has now shared the same fate:

I’ll bet you don’t know what went wrong
Why has your darling gone with her
You’re half wild
You wanna track him down
You think you can bring him round again
There’s nothing that you’d love more
Than to tear her in two
I know how close I came
Coming after you
Yes, I’ve walked in those shoes

I know where you’re headed
There’s still time to turn around
Don’t follow in my footsteps
Cause it’s a long way down
I’ve come back here tonight
To give you the news
You might think you’ve lost it all
But there’s a lot more you can lose

My favorite song, and the one whose lyrics provide the album title, is the beautifully constructed story song ‘Why Do I Feel So Good’, written by the great Bobby Braddock. It relates the tale of a young girl persuaded to marry the boring rich guy rather than her working class true love, and regretting every second:

Mom and Dad didn’t like her boyfriend
Cause working in a factory
Just wasn’t satisfactory
They said he’s too rough and a little too wild
They knew all the reasons she should leave him
She just smiled

“If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?
Why am I walking on air
Dropping his name everywhere?
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?”

Now she lives in a 40 room mansion
With a man so boring
That Mom and Dad adore him
She lost in the big bed where she lies
And somewhere between midnight and hindsight she cries

“If he’s so good
Why do I feel so bad?
Why am I chilled to the bone
Wishing I’d never left home
And if I should feel so good
Why do I feel so bad?”

Then she runs home to Mama
And she cries to her Dad
“Why did you talk me out me out of
The only chance for happiness I ever had?

If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?
Why was I walking on air
And dropping his name everywhere
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?”

Joy wrote a couple of the songs herself, both ballads. ‘Bittersweet End’, a co-write with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride, is a reflective song about the aftermath of a relationship where “the taste of forever still lingers”. Some lovely fiddle augments it beautifully. The delicate ‘It’s Amazing’ is a gentle love song given a string arrangement to close out the set.

I was always sorry this album did not help Joy to break through. It is well worth checking out.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music.’

real country musicWhile his commercial success never equalled his prowess, Gene Watson is one of the great country singers. Furthermore, of all the veterans still performing, his voice has held out the best, and almost unbelievably, he still sounds glorious at over 70. Gene’s producer for the last few projects, Dirk Johnson, does his usual sterling job – few album titles are as accurate about the contents as this one. The songs are all older ones, making this album something of a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and are almost all emotional ballads about lost love, which play to Gene’s strengths as a vocalist.

One does not normally expect to hear a Gene Watson album opening with swelling strings, but his voice soon takes over, and the remainder of the album comprises familiar country arrangements featuring fiddles and steel guitars. ‘Enough For You’ is an excellent Kris Kristofferson tune which first appeared on the latter’s Jesus Was A Capricorn album in 1972. Gene says he first heard it in 1980 in the form of Billie Jo Spears’s cover (from her 1975 album Billie Jo), and has wanted to record it ever since. The suicidal cuckold’s lament is perfectly suited to Watson’s perfectly judged vocal, and is the first single.

‘She Never Got Me Over You’ is the last song Keith Whitley wrote before his untimely death (with the help of Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran). A powerful song about love and obsession, it was recorded a few years ago by Mark Chesnutt, but Gene makes it sound as if it was written just for him. If you want to check out Keith’s original demo, it’s on youtube.

There are two covers of Larry Gatlin songs, both of which were recorded by Elvis in the 70s. The gospel ballad ‘Help Me’ is delicately understated (and may serve as a taster for a new religious album Gene plans to release later this year). ‘Bitter They Are, Harder To Fall’ is a classic heartbreak ballad which Gene actually recorded many years ago on his early album Because You Believed In Me.

Gene revisits a number of other songs he has previously recorded on this album. ‘Old Loves Never Die’ was never a single, but as the title track of one of his most successful albums is perhaps the most familiar to fans. The melancholic ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was on his excellent but often overlooked 1987 alDbum Honky Tonk Crazy (his final Epic release). He covered the superb ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’ (previously cut by George Jones) on his now hard to find 1997 album A Way To Survive; this new steel-led recording is beautiful. He cut Bill Anderson’s ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’ on his Sings set in 2003; another jealous man’s pain-filled take on love lost but still deeply felt, this is magnificently sung.

A little less familiar is ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ – not the classic song of that name, but a David Ball song from the latter’s underrated 2004 album Freewheeler. A subtly sad, slow song about poignant memories of lost love with the steel guitar to the fore, it fits nicely with the other material. ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’ is a wonderful song written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah which was one of Conway Twitty’s last few singles. Nat Stuckey’s emotional All My Tomorrows’ is another fine song and recording.

The one song not fitting the pattern of slow sad songs is a honky tonker previously recorded by Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘I’ll Find It Where I Can’. One venture away from country territory is a cover of the Nat King Cole hit ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. Although there have been country covers of the song before, none was a big hit. Gene’s version is nice, and he certainly mnages to make it sound like a country song, but insofar as this album has a weak spot, this is it.

This is a superb album of excellent songs by one of the genre’s all time great singers, who is, thankfully, still in possession of his golden voice.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Alan Jackson – ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’

Classic Rewind: Alan Jackson – ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Shakin’ Things Up’

shakin things upFor 1997’s Shakin’ Things Up, for the first time Lorrie shared in the production duties, being credited alongside James Stroud. The production has a glossy sheen to it, in keeping with the contemporary direction of country radio, but it is not appreciably different from her previous record stylistically. While Lorrie is in good voice, this is definitely an album of two halves: the first half is commercial and just a little dull, the second half has much better material.

The vivacious lead single ‘Go Away’ is quite poppy, but frivolous fun. Its radio friendly style led it to a top 5 chart peak and it was in fact to be Lorrie’s last top 10 hit. The even more pop oriented (but with little more lyrical substance) ‘One of Those Nights Tonight’ peaked at #14.

I liked the assertive rejoinder to a parting lover, ‘I’m Not That Easy To Forget’, quite a bit, but even though it sounds like a hit, country radio was less impressed, and the song failed to make into the top 40. It was written by Chris Waters, George Teren and Stephanie Bentley.

The best single from the album was the least successful of all: a lovely cover of the underrated Bobbie Cryner’s ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’. If you’re not familiar with Cryner, check her out now – she released two excellent albums on major labels in the mid 90s, but for some unaccountable reason gained no traction despite a beautiful voice and fine songs. This particular song, Cryner’s version of which had charted in the 50s in 1996, is a sharp, subtle indictment of a self-absorbed narrator who can’t understand why her marriage is failing, yet makes it all to clear to the listener. It’s a shame neither recorded version was a big hit; perhaps the emotion is too uncomfortable.

Another attempt to bring a new but relatively obscure song to a wider audience was Lorrie’s cut of ‘In A Perfect World’. This fine Keith Stegall song had been included on Stegall’s 1996 album Passages (another recommended purchase). Lorrie’s wistful vocal is beautifully judged, but the string section is unnecessary and does its best to smother the song. A quietly understated countryish cover of pop classic ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ works quite well with similarly intimate, throaty vocals.

The album’s most traditional track, ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’ is a timeless country classic, written by Bill Anderson and Jeanie Seely and originally a hit for Porter Wagoner. Like ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ it is about someone too insensitive to read another’s signals, although in this case it’s the man to blame. Lorrie interprets it beautifully, as she encounters an ex and finds it too painful to keep on chatting with him about the way he has moved on, when it is clear that she hasn’t. Vern Gosdin’s harmony adds the perfect finishing touch.

The sultry story song ‘Crazy From The Heat’ (written by Wally Wilson, Sam Hogin and Jim McBride) tells the story of Mississippi teens finding passion together. It’s quite good, but the instrumental sections sound a bit cluttered in places.

‘You Can’t Take That’ is a good ballad with Lorrie clinging to memories of the good times in the aftermath of a breakup. The bright ‘Finishing Touch’ is about a woman preparing for her man’s return home. The title track is a mid-tempo pop country number about chasing dreams.

The album was certified gold. While it’s not Lorrie’s best work, there is enough here to make it worth picking up a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Single Review – Kellie Pickler – ‘Someone Somewhere Tonight’

Someone-Somewhere-TonightOne of the great surprises of the spring television season has been Kellie Pickler’s turn on Dancing With The Stars. The show’s platform has been invaluable to her public image, helping her shatter any last strands of the ditzy blonde who came in fifth on American Idol and allowing her to show the confident and mature woman she’s become.

And it seems, unlike Blake Shelton, she’s using the platform for good. Pickler has gotten around to showing us the first signs of the ‘Kellie Country’ she said would come from her Black River Entertainment debut, and the results are beyond expectations. Her new single is “Someone Somewhere Tonight” a too-good-to-ignore Pam Tillis album cut from her 2007 album Rinestoned that perfectly displayed Tillis’ otherwordly voice in a master class of power and control unlike anything Nashville had seen since the Patsy Cline era. Pickler is clearly walking hallowed ground, and thankfully is more than up to the task.

There isn’t much that can be said about the quality of Davis Raines and Walt Wilkins’ lyrics. The story is a striking juxtaposition between innocence (baby’s first steps, a first kiss) and corruptness (death, alcoholism, a life in jail), and their simultaneous harmony in our world. The song would elevate the quality of country music in any era to unimaginable heights, and the artist singing it would have a career moment. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is just that good.

The inevitable comparisons between Tillis and Pickler are unfair as both bring their own vocal quality to the track with neither turning in the ‘better’ performance. Pickler’s voice is more delicate and twangy and that works to her advantage in selling the story. The urgency she brings to the line Someone somewhere tonight/ Is stuck in a prison/ Breathin’ but just barely livin’ Behind walls of their own” is so breathtaking, I realized I’d forgotten there was a time when country singers actually could relate (on a deeply personal level) to what they were singing about.

The production on the track is mostly stellar, but I could’ve done without the electric guitar that sits just underneath Pickler’s compelling vocal. The accompaniment also gets too loud towards the end, when the song builds to the emotional crescendo. But the prominent fiddle and steel guitar ground it in the traditional place Pickler came from on 100 Proof and not the horrendous pop/rock she tried out on her other two releases. She’s keeping it fairly neo-traditional and deserves credit for sticking to her artistic creativity.

But I’m most impressed that Pickler recorded this song at all, especially in an era where radio doesn’t support music of this high a caliber. If this first taste of her upcoming album is any indication of its quality, than we might be looking at a modern day throwback to the astute female vocalists from the 80s and 90s – ones who actually knew the difference between a great and bad song – and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s about time someone championed that type of music again, and Pickler seems like the right artist to do just that.

Grade: A- 

Listen here. 

Here’s Kellie giving the story behind the song.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘High Lonesome’

Released in August 1991, High Lonesome was Randy’s first album not to reach #1 on the country albums chart, and his last platinum release. But if Randy’s commercial fortunes were starting to decline, this album is an artistic triumph. His voice is in great shape, and he also seems to have undergone something of an artistic rejuvenation, co-writing half the songs. The consistent quality of the material was the best he had had since Storms Of Life, and is more varied in tempo and mood than No Holdin’ Back, his last solo release.

Lead single ‘Point Of Light’, written by Don Schlitz and Thom Schuyler, was inspired by a phase in President George Bush’s inaugural address, and it was a mildly controversial choice as a single due to the political connotations, as Bush was then standing for re-election. That controversy did not prevent the song reaching #3 on the country chart. Taken on its own merits, 20 years later, it comes across as a deeply idealistic tribute to those performing good works rather than political, but is perhaps a little too earnest to stand among Randy’s classics, and while not at all bad, it is the weakest track on the album.

Randy had been touring with rising star Alan Jackson in the run-up to recording this album. They spent a lot of time on the road writing together. Alan recorded one of their collaborations (‘She’s Got the Rhythm (I’ve Got the Blues)’), and Randy included three on this album. Unexpectedly, all four songs ended up as singles. The ballad ‘Forever Together’ is a fairly straightforward declaration of renewal of love from a penitent man who has put his wife through some hard times, but has at last seen the error of his ways. It is put together quite beautifully and sensitively delivered. It was Randy’s first #1 since ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’, and is one of my favourite recordings of his.

The jaundiced mid-tempo ‘Better Class Of Losers’ then peaked at #2, with its preference for downhome living over city sophisticates like the protagonist’s now-ex girlfriend. ‘I’d Surrender All’, the third and best Jackson co-write, failed for some reason to impress radio programmers, just scraping into the top 20. A classic heartbreak ballad with acoustic guitar opening and sinuous steel winding through the song, this sees the protagonist devastated by his woman walking out:

I never thought I’d miss the early morning smell of hairspray in the air
All the little things I used to take for granted
Now I miss them most of all
Ain’t it funny how a woman walking out the door
Can bring a man to crawl?

Alan also donated the bouncy semi-novelty ‘Allergic To The Blues’, which he wrote with Jim McBride. One of the lesser moments, it is still fun with a light touch and ironic edge as the protagonist goes to all possible lengths to persuade his woman not to walk out.

The tenderly sung opening track ‘Let Me Try’ is a plea to a woman disillusioned by love, with the protagonist offering to restore her faith. Written by Allen Shamblin and Chuck Cannon, it is an excellent song and it is a shame it didn’t get the additional exposure of being a single. Yet another highlight is the gently wailing title track, written by Gretchen Peters, which features Marty Stuart on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on dobro, although Mark O’Connor’s mournful fiddle is the most effective part of the backing.

The playful ‘Oh What A Time To be Me’ written by Randy with Don Schlitz, has the protagonist slightly smugly reflecting on his good luck picking up his friend’s discarded lover and giving his old buddy the news. A brass section lends it a bright swingy Dixieland feel. The pacy ‘Heart Of Hearts’ written by Kevin Welch and Michael Henderson is also enjoyable, as the protagonist decides cheating just isn’t what he really wants to do deep down inside. The album closes on a high with Randy’s first gospel number, the lively acappella ‘I’m Gonna Have A Little Talk’, with backing vocals from Take 6.

This is one of my favorite Randy Travis albums, with the man at the top of his game. He is in great voice and sounds completely invested in every track, while Kyle Lehning oversees the production as tastefully as usual. It is easy to find now, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Savin’ The Honky Tonk’

After the relative commercial failure of Thank God For Believers, Mark’s label forced him to record the Aerosmith song ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’. While this was a big hit, it undoubtedly alienated much of his core fan base, and his career never really recovered. One more album for MCA (the underrated Lost In The Feeling), and a sole release for Columbia (the lackluster Mark Chesnutt), failed to recapture his commercial glories, and Mark was relegated to the minor leagues of independent labels.

Yet the loss of his last major label deal turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Mark as he was enabled to produce some of the best music of his career. His first venture into independent territory (on Vivaton Records) marked a deliberate reclamation of traditional country now that he was free of major label constraints and the need to produce radio fodder. Savin’ The Honky Tonk, released in 2004, is formally dedicated to “all the Honky Tonks and all the bands playing the hard core country music”, and it is almost a concept album with only a handful of the generous 15 tracks not on the theme. Jimmy Ritchey’s production is solid, and Mark’s vocals are great throughout.

The record reached #23 on Billboard – the same peak as Mark Chesnutt, which had benefitted from more radio play thanks to the #11 hit ‘She Was’ – and the first two singles at least did better than his last two for Columbia. While these were only modest successes by his own standards, it’s always been harder for artists on small labels to get played on radio at all, let alone charting inside the top 40.

The lead single, a tongue-in-cheek ode to alcohol, ‘The Lord Loves The Drinkin’ Man’, was one of two songs from the pen of Texas artist Kevin Fowler. The protagonist defies his mother and preacher, both saying he’ll never get to Heaven if he keeps on drinking, by saying,

I hear that He can turn the water into wine
Any man can do that is a good friend of mine
I’ve been baptised in beer, I’m here to testify
I was speaking in tongues when I came home last night
Some folks say I’m living in sin
But I know the Lord loves the drinkin’ man

The single charted well for an independent release, making the country top 40.

Fowler’s other cut here, the resolutely secular ‘Beer, Bait & Ammo’, has also been recorded by Sammy Kershaw and George Jones, and is an ode to a useful country store with “everything any old beer-drinkin’ hell-raisin’ bona fide redneck needs”.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Everything I Love’

Alan Jackson’s hot streak continued into 1996 with the release of his sixth studio album. 1994’s Who I Am had sold four times platinum, and 1995’s Greatest Hits Collection had sold six times platinum and produced two more number one hits, as well as a top five. With Keith Stegall once again in the producer’s chair, Everything I Love was released on October 29, 1996. It was preceded by the lead-off single “Little Bitty”, a semi-novelty tune written by the legendary Tom T. Hall. Reminiscent of the type of song that George Jones used to do fairly regularly early on his career, “Little Bitty” became Jackson’s fourteenth #1 hit in December 1996.

Things took a more serious turn when the title track was released as the album’s second single in late 1996. “Everything I Love” is a beautiful mid-tempo ballad written by Harley Allen and Carson Chamberlain, and it is one of the finest performances of Jackson’s career. The theme is one to which most of us can relate — namely, the old adage that everything good in life is dangerous, illegal or fattening. The protagonist laments, “Everything I love is killing me — cigarettes, Jack Daniels and caffeine,” before adding his soon-to-be former lover to the list of dangerous vices. Surprisingly, the song only reached #9 in Billboard.

“Who’s Cheatin’ Who”, the album’s third single, was a bit of a surprise since Alan Jackson seemed like an unlikely candidate to cover a Charly McClain song. However, it worked surprisingly well for him. Unlike McClain’s rendition (which can be heard here), Jackson’s version has the fiddle front and center, which gives the song a more traditional feel. But while the original version reached the top of charts in 1981, Jackson’s cover peaked at a still-respectable #2.
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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love)’

Alan Jackson followed up — and eventually eclipsed — the quadruple-platinum success of Don’t Rock The Jukebox with his third studio release, A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love) in the autumn of 1992. Once again he teamed up with Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks, with Stegall taking on the lion’s share of the production duties (Hendricks’ sole contribution to the album was co-producing the track “Tonight I Climbed The Wall”).

The first single, “She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)” was one of the products of a series of 1991 writing sessions between Jackson and Randy Travis. Among the other songs from those sessions are “From A Distance”, from Don’t Rock The Jukebox, and “Forever Together”, “A Better Class of Losers”, and “I’d Surrender All”, which were all included on Travis’ 1991 album High Lonesome. With its R&B flavored arrangement, “She’s Got the Rhythm” was originally written with B.B. King in mind, but Jackson ended up keeping the song for himself. This decision paid off when the tune easily soared up the charts, despite its stylistic departure from Alan’s earlier work. It became his sixth #1 hit in December 1992.

The next single, “Tonight I Climb The Wall”, is one of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Unlike “She’s Got The Rhythm”, this one is pure, straight unadulterated country, and an instant, if somewhat underrated classic. Despite peaking at #4, it was excluded from his Greatest Hits Collection, though it did resurface on his second greatest hits volume a few years later.

It was the third single — “Chattahoochie” — that became the breakout hit from this collection. Not only did it provide the line that became the title of the album, it received the CMA Awards in 1993 for Single of the Year and Song of the Year. Its release in April 1993 was timed to allow it to become a huge summertime hit, which it did. It became the first Alan Jackson single to earn gold certification, as well as his seventh #1. It’s a pleasant enough light-hearted tune, but one that hasn’t aged as well as the rest of Jackson’s catalog. It would be a stretch to say that I actively dislike the song, but I have grown weary of it over the years and wouldn’t miss it if I never heard it again.

Alan followed up this blockbuster with another summertime smash, “Mercury Blues”, a remake of a song written in 1949 and recorded by K.C. Douglas, who co-wrote it with Robert Geddins. Before Alan Jackson got to the song, it was recorded by the Steve Miller Band in 1976, David Lindley in 1991 and Finn Pave Maijanen in 1987, and it was subsequently recorded by Meat Loaf in 2003 and Dwight Yoakam in 2004. Jackson’s version, which peaked at #2, is by far my favorite. A slightly retooled version of Jackson’s rendition was featured in commercials for Ford trucks,with “Ford truck” being substituted for “Mercury”.

“(Who Says) You Can’t Have It All” was the fifth and final single from this set. Written by Alan with Jim McBride, it is another straight-country, George Jones-influenced number in the vein of “Tonight I Climb The Wall”, and just like that tune, this one peaked at #4 in Billboard. This is the type of song at which Jackson excels; I hope that there is a song or two like this on his new album.

As far as the non-single tracks go, “I Don’t Need The Booze (To Get A Buzz On)” is the weakest song, which means it would probably be the lead single if this album were released today. “Up To My Ears In Tears”, written by Jackson with Don Sampson is a Texas dancehall number that would sound right at home on a George Strait album from the 80s. “Tropical Depression”, also written by Jackson and Sampson, along with Charlie Craig, is an early example of Alan Jackson in his Jimmy Buffett mode, not lyrically or melodically deep, but a pleasant light-hearted number that hasn’t worn out its welcome like “Chattahoochie” has.

Overall, I don’t like this album quite as much as Don’t Rock The Jukebox, but it’s a much stronger collection than some of Jackson’s more recent work. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified six-times platinum, making it Jackson’s best-selling studio album. It is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection, if you don’t own it already.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’

Alan’s second album, released in May 1991, transformed him from a rising star to a fully fledged superstar, selling 4 million copies, with four of its five singles heading to the top of the charts and winning the title of the ACM Album of the Year. Alan co-wrote almost every song, the results ranging from good to great, although at times Alan seems to rely a little too strongly on the pun as inspiration. The production (from Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks) is excellent, always serving the song and artist sympathetically. The music is solid country in every note, and the songs too draw strongly on the traditions and heritage of country music, with specific tribute paid to George Jones and Hank Williams.

The title track and first single (and ACM Single of the Year) was a ‘heartbroke hillbilly”s appeal for some hurting country music, George Jones rather than the Rolling Stones (picked for the rhyme), set to some tinkling honky tonk piano, steel and fiddle, whose rhythm makes it sound cheerful despite the downbeat lyrics, written by Alan with producer Keith Stegall and veteran writer Roger Murrah:

I ain’t got nothin’
Against rock and roll
But when your heart’s been broken
You need a song that’s slow
Ain’t nothin’ like a steel guitar
To drown a memory

‘Just Playin’ Possum’, written with Jim McBride and Alan’s future manager Gary Overton, is a similarly playful take on turning George Jones records to mend a broken heart. Jones himself offers a cameo at the end (and gets thanked in the liner notes for making ‘a dream come true’, but the theme was too similar to ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ to allow it to be a single, although I like it a little better:

I could cry on my best friend’s shoulder
But there ain’t no use
I need an expert on
The pain I’m going through
So I’ll keep George on the old turntable
Til I’m over you

My personal favourite track is the second single, ‘Someday’, one of two lovely ballads Alan wrote with Jim McBride. It is an understated and gently regretful look at a failed marriage where the disillusioned wife has accepted that the “someday” he’s always promising is never going to come:

I said someday
I’ll get my life straight
She said it’s too late
What’s done is done
I told her someday
She said I can’t wait
Cause sometimes someday just never comes

The protagonist’s regret is never spelled out, but underscores every line in Alan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.

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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Only What I Feel’

Only What I FeelAfter the breakthrough of Honky Tonk Angel, it must have been very frustrating for both Patty Loveless and her label that her career seemed to have plateaued. The next two albums, 1990’s On Down The Line and 1991’s Up Against My Heart, did not sell as well, and although her singles were still charting, they were not as consistently successful as those from Honky Tonk Angel. Patty believed she was not a priority for MCA, which had a number of other high-profile female singers including Reba McEntire. She negotiated a release from the label and signed with Epic.

A further delay ensued when as she began recording new material for her Epic debut, it became clear that her vocal cords had suffered serious damage, and if nothing was done, her career could be over. She underwent surgery at the Vanderbilt Voice Center, which saved her career. Indeed, if anything, her voice sounded even better afterwards than it had done at the outset of her career, with greater depth. She returned to the studios with husband Emory Gordy Jr as producer, and the result was a very accomplished mixture of commercial appeal and artistic achievement. Only What I Feel was released in April 1993.

After all this, and the fact that her last MCA single had stalled at #30, it was vital that her first single for Epic re-established her as a star. It certainly did that, because the vibrant ‘Blame It On Your Heart’ (written by Kostas with the legendary Harlan Howard) was Patty’s first #1 since ‘Chains’ hit the top three years earlier. The attitude-filled lyric has Patty showing no sympathy for her ex:

“Blame it on your lyin’, cheatin’, cold dead beatin’, two-timin’, double dealin’, mean mistreatin’, lovin’ heart”

So far, radio had showed more enthusiasm for Patty’s up-tempo material, and sadly the reception for the beautiful ballad ‘Nothin’ But The Wheel’ was tepid, the single only just squeezing into the top 20. It remains one of my personal favorites of Patty’s recordings, and was also nominated by several readers as their favorite in our recent giveaway. The song, written by John Scott Sherrill, paints a very visual picture of a woman driving away from her old life, with nothing to show for it, and Patty’s sad, measured vocal realizes the desolation underpinning the lyric perfectly:

“The only thing I know for sure
Is if you don’t want me anymore
I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel”

Patty bounced back into the top 10 with the beaty up-tempo pop-country of ‘You Will’, written by Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy and Randy Sharp. The song’s production has not worn as well as most of Patty’s records, with slightly intrusive backing vocals, but it was definitely radio-friendly. The album contained other tracks which were potential radio fodder in the same style, the brightly assertive poppy ‘How About You’, and my favorite of the up-tempo numbers, ‘All I Need (Is Not To Need You)’, with its semi-hopeful lyric about trying to get over someone.

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Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Place To Turn Around’

Place To Turn AroundWade Hayes was one of the more underrated of the 90s neotraditionalists, scoring only six top 10 hits in his career. I always liked his melancholy-tinged voice, and I was pleased to find he has released his first album in nine years. It’s very much an independent effort, with Wade writing or co-writing almost all the material and playing acoustic and electric guitar, and Wade has released it himself.

It opens a little disappointingly with ‘Good Day To Go Crazy’. The song itself (co-written with Jerry Salley and Jenny Farrell, both of whom contribute backing vocals on the album) is fine, as the protagonist suggests he and his woman take a break from everyday life, but Wade’s voice is too low in the mix. Luckily, things pick up immediately with the charming ‘The Best Part’, written with Michael White and Carson Chamberlain, although the production is a bit heavier-handed than I would like. Wade offers some cogent advice from his father in the aftermath of a failed marriage:

“Something special grows when two people know
They won’t run when things get hard
If you only want the good time
You’re gonna miss the best part.”

White also worked with Wade on the despairing plea to God, ‘What’s A Broken Heart To You’, which I really like, although I would have preferred a more stripped-down production without the electric guitar solo. Better-sounding, although breaking no new ground lyrically, is the tender ‘God Made Me (To Love You)’, which Wade wrote with Trent Jeffcoat and Roger Springer. Springer also wrote (with Ward Davis and Wade) the bouncy ‘Right Where I Want You’ as a former commitment-phobe gets well and truly caught by a woman “smart enough for the both of us”, who has got him “right where I want you all the time”. Equally entertaining is the cheery western swing of ‘Every Time I Give The Devil A Ride’, written with Jerry Salley and Jim McBride, with its metaphorical look at giving in to temptation.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire, ‘Have I Got A Deal For You’

Have I Got A Deal For YouReba’s third album for MCA, released in July 1985, saw her on a roll both commercially and artistically. She had just won her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year title in 1984, and was to win again in 1985 thanks partly to the success of this album. Her rich voice is at its best, and she exercises it on a selection of excellent songs, including a couple she wrote herself. Have I Got A Deal For You was also Reba’s first production credit, alongside the experienced Jimmy Bowen – an important step in her career development, at a time when not that many artists were co-producing their records. The record feels like a natural progression from its predecessor, My Kind Of Country, retaining the traditional feel, with some lovely fiddle from the legendary Johnny Gimble, and steel from Weldon Myrick, but using newly written songs where the latter had mixed old and new.

Only two singles were released, both reaching the top 10: the fiddle-heavy western swing of the title track, written by Michael P Heeney and Jackson Leap is enjoyable if one of the lesser moments here, and reached #6. The excellent and memorable ‘Only In My Mind’, one of the few songs Reba has written, got one spot higher, and deserved to do better still. It tells of the heartstopping moment when with “a move that would have made the wind stand still”, the protagonist’s husband asks her an unexpected question. The answer he gets is a devastating one:

“He said, ‘Have you ever cheated on me?’
I said, ‘Only in my mind’.”

Not an answer designed to make him feel any better, and delivered in a perfectly nuanced manner by Reba as she then addresses the man to whom she has an emotional connection she feels her husband could never understand. Reba also co-wrote ‘She’s The One Loving You Now’ with David Anthony and Leigh Reynolds, where a downbeat lyric sounds almost inappropriately cheery.

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