My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jim Rushing

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: Don Williams – ‘You’re My Best Friend

Don’s fourth album, released in April 1975, found Don sharing the producer’s chair with Allen Reynolds, along with writing (or co-writing) four of the album’s ten songs.

The album opens with the title track, written by Wayland Holyfield. This was the first single released from the album and it soared to #1 on the US and Canadian country charts. It also hit internationally reaching the pop charts in the UK (#35) and Australia (#50).

“Help Yourselves to Each Other” is next up. A Bob McDill/Allen Reynolds collaboration, this song is a slow ballad about mutual dependency as part of the human condition:

What a time to turn your back on someone
What a day to be without a friend
What a shame when no-one seems to bother
Who will offer shelter to candles in the wind

And it follows we are only helpless children
Ever changing like sunlight through the trees
It’s a long road we must cling to one another
Help yourselves to each other,
That’s the way it’s meant to be

“ I Don’t Wanna Let Go” is yet another slow ballad from breaking up, this time from the pen of Jim Rushing. I cannot see this song ever being released as a single by anyone but it fits nicely within the context of the album:

Sweet bitter dreams gather gently inside me
As I roll with the earth finding nothing to hide me
For my love was my shelter my shore and my home
How can time repay what I gave away
When I don’t wanna let go

Don picks up the tempo (slightly) with “Sweet Fever”, from the pens of Dickey Lee and Bob McDill. The song features some nice steel guitar from Lloyd Green. I think we have all been here:

I don’t know what happens but you come walking by
I can’t speak my knees get weak I feel half paralyzed
My temperature keeps rising my head is feeling light
I sing love songs all day long I toss and turn all night

I got a sweet fever comin’ all over me
I got a sweet fever I wonder what can it be
I got a sweet fever comin’ all over me
I got a sweet fever I wonder what can it be

Dickey Lee and Bob McDill also collaborated in writing “Someone Like You”. I think this would have made an excellent single for Don, but the song was resurrected in as a single by Emmylou Harris in 1984, reaching #26. By 1984, Emmylou’s career as a singles artist had already slowed down, which is too bad as the song deserved to be a big hit for someone.

Others have touched me soft in the night
And others have kissed me and held me tight
Good times and lovers I’ve had a few
But I was just waiting for someone like you.

Others have loved me before your time
Some who were gentle, some who were kind
Don’t it seem funny I never knew
I was just waiting for someone like you.

“Turn Out the Light and Love Me Tonight” is another Bob McDill classic that Don took to #1. I love the imagery of the song. Some of the younger listeners may remember the song as an album track on Kenny Chesney’s 1996 album Me and You. Kenny did a nice job with the song but this version is the classic version. Don penned the next song, “Where Are You”, a slow ballad that makes a good album track.

Al Turney’s name shows up occasionally on Don’s early albums. The Alabama native’s “Tempted” is handled as a mid-tempo ballad by Don. While not released as a single, it received a little airplay here in Central Florida and apparently elsewhere as well. I feel this should have been released as a single:

Tempted, tempted, tempted to fall in again
Tempted, tempted, I’m tempted to fall in love again.

Sometimes love, can hurt you bad
Make you stop and wonder what you really had
But I guess it’s all part of the master plan
To be tempted to fall in love again.

Tempted, tempted, tempted to fall in again
Tempted, tempted, I’m tempted to fall in love again.

The album closes with a pair of Don Williams compositions “You’re The Only”, a mid-tempo ballad, and “Reason to Be” a philosophical, very slow ballad of introspection.

First I was love, then I came to be
I had a heart inside of me
And though my heart was working I found
Still there was something it had not found

So I went away, hoping to see
Maybe I’d find what’s missing in me
Knowing so well but not knowing why
If I didn’t find this something I’d die

And then I came to where I had been
I knew the first was still not the end
What I had left was not what I found
Because there was you, because there I found

First I was love, then I came to be
I had a heart inside of me
And though my heart is still part of me
You give my heart its reason to be

This album is not quite up to the standard of Don’s first three albums, but it is still an excellent album that I would give an A-

Ensemble:
Don Williams – acoustic guitar, vocals, producer
Jim Colvard & Jerry Stembridge – electric guitar, acoustic guitar
Joe Allen – bass / Lloyd Green – steel guitar, dobro
Shane Keister – keyboards / Danny Flowers – harmonica
Kenny Malone – drums, marimba, congas

Album Review: Joy Lynn White – ‘Wild Love’

51rfk9fctwlReleased in August 1994, Joy Lynn White’s second album for Columbia basically tanked, not charting at all. Moreover, only one of the two singles released charted at all with the title track reaching #73. To this very day, I remain mystified as to why this album was not her breakthrough to commercial success.

The album opens with “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”, a song the Dixie Chicks would take to #6 Country/ #46 Pop in 1999.  Composed by Mary Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, I think Joy Lynn gives the song its definitive reading.

Next up is “Bad Loser”, a Bill Lloyd – Pam Tillis tough girl composition that I don’t think Pam ever recorded. Joy Lynn definitely nails the performance. The sing was released as the second single and failed to chart. Although I like the song, I don’t think I would have picked it as a single.

You’re bringing out a side of me I never knew was there
I took pride in cut’n dried goodbyes I never wasted a tear
Living in an easy come easy go world
Look what you’ve done to this girl

I’m a bad loser when love’s worth fightin’ for
I’m a bad loser don’t wanna ever see you walkin’ out my door
This love of ours took me by surprise it wasn’t part of my plans
Hey ain’t it easy sittin’ on the fence and ain’t it hard to make a stand
You took me farther than i’ve ever been
And baby now i’m playing to win

“Too Gone to Care”, written by John Scott Sherrill, is a tender ballad that demonstrates that Joy Lynn can handle more subtle, less rambunctious lyrics as well as she can handle the tougher songs

You see that big old yellow cab is always just a call away
And you can catch a Greyhound just about anytime of day
And all along the harbor ships are slipping out of town
Way out on the runway that’s where the rubber leaves the ground
She keeps thinking that it’s too hard to fake it
When it isn’t there

He’s gonna tell her he’ll be too late to make it
But she’ll be too gone to care
They got trains down at the station you know they run all night
They got tail lights on the highway that just keep fading out of sight   

 

The next song asks the eternal question “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”. This is another John Scott Sherrill song ballad, but this song has very traditional country instrumentation (the prior song was a little MOR), but in any event, Ms White again nails the song:

I’ve put away all the pictures
All the old love letters too
There’s nothin’ left here to remind me
Why can’t I stop loving you?
Got back into circulation
Till I found somebody new
But there was always something missing
Why can’t I stop lovin’ you

“Whiskey, Lies and Tears” is the only song on this album that Joy Lynn had a hand in writing. The song is an up-tempo honky-tonker of the kind that Highway 101 sometimes did, and which has disappeared from country radio these days. Joy Lynn strikes me as a better vocalist than either Paulette Carlson or Nikki Nelson.  I wonder if Highway 101 ever considered Joy Lynn for the role. This song would have been my pick for the second single off the album.

The last time I said next time is the last time
And the last time came stumbling in last night
So now it’s time to say goodbye forever
To the whiskey your lies and my tears
Well I’ve almost gone insane…
All the whiskey your lies and my tears

“Wild Love” has bit of a heavy backbeat – I would describe it as more rock than country but it is well sung and melodically solid.   Then again, Dennis Linde always produced solid songs.

Pat McLaughlin wrote “Burning Memories”. This song is not to be mistaken with the Ray Price classic of bygone years, but it is sung well. I would describe the song as a sad country ballad.

“On And On And On” was written by “Whispering Bill” Anderson, one of country music’s great songsmiths. Joy Lynn gives a convincing and timeless interpretation to the song:

And this loneliness goes on and on and on
All the things come to an end
Yes that means we’ll never love again
The end of our love the end of my dreams
The end of almost everything it seems
Except these heartaches these teardrops
And this loneliness goes on and on and on

I’ve heard Bill Anderson sing the song, and Connie Smith recorded the song on her 1967 album Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson. Connie’s version has the full ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings applied to it. Although Smith is the better vocalist, most modern listeners would probably prefer Joy Lynn White’s version.

The penultimate song is Jim Rushing’s “You Were Right From Your Side”. The song has interesting lyrics and Joy Lynn does a good job with it:

Starin’ out an airport window on a morning hard as stone
Watchin’ a big Delta Bird taxi through the dawn
A lonely chill sweeps over me as that smokin’ liner climbs
You were right from your side I was left from mine
Now you’re gone you’re flying high above the clouds
And I must walk my tears through this faceless crowd
And in the goodbye atmosphere I can hear a thousand times
You were right from your side I was left from mine

The album closes with “I Am Just a Rebel” written by the redoubtable trio of Bob DiPiero, Dennis Robbins and John Scott Sherrill. The trio wrote the song while they were in the band Billy Hill in the late 1980s. Confederate Railroad recorded the song later, but I prefer Joy Lynn’s version to any of the other versions

Being a hillbilly don’t get me down
I like it like that in fact you know it makes me proud
Yeah I’m American made by my ma and pa
Southern born by the grace of God
And I’m bound to be a rebel till they put me in the ground
I am just a rebel can’t you see
Don’t go looking for trouble it just finds me
When I’m a walking down the street people stop and stare
I know they’re talking about me they say there goes that rebel there

Wild Love  enabled Joy Lynn White to show all sides of her personality from tender to tough , from rocker to honky-tonker. With a crack band featuring Paul Worley and Richard Bennett (guitars); Dennis Linde (acoustic & electric guitar, clavinet); Dan Dugmore (electric & steel guitar); Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar); Dennis Robbins (slide guitar); Mike Henderson (guitar); Hank Singer, Blaine Sprouse (fiddles); and  featuring  Harry Stinson, Pat McLaughlin, Cindy Richardson, Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffith, Suzi Ragsdale (background vocals), Wild Love should have propelled Joy Lynn White to the top.

It didn’t propel her career, but I still love the album and would grade it as a solid A, very close to an A+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Somebody Loves You’

51jizvcqjml-_ss500After several years of struggling, Crystal Gayle finally enjoyed her breakthrough Top 10 hit with 1974’s “Wrong Road Again”. The two subsequent singles from her debut album both failed build on that success, however, which must have been cause for concern at the time. She rebounded nicely, however, with her sophomore album, which was released in 1975. “Somebody Loves You”, one of three tracks penned by producer Allen Reynolds, reached #8. The album’s second single, “I’ll Get Over You”, the first of several hits written for her by Richard Leigh, became her first chart-topper in early 1976. The simple melody and lyric, beautifully sung, has always been one of my favorites.

Somebody Loves You followed the same basic formula as Crystal’s prior album — more polished than the music that hardcore traditionalists like big sister Loretta were putting out — but still quite country in comparison to Crystal’s later work. Allen Reynolds’ songs are among the best in the collection: the traditional-leaning “Before I’m Over You” and the oft-recorded “Dreaming My Dreams With You” which was made famous by Waylon Jennings. Crystal branches out a bit with the bluesy “Sweet Baby On My Mind”, which sounds very similar to “Night Life”, a 1963 hit for Ray Price penned by Willie Nelson. “I Want To Lose Me In You” by Jim Rushing and Marshall Chapman is a pretty but lyrically light number. The same could be said about “High Time”, which is little more than catchy album filler, but Lloyd Green’s steel guitar gives it a little extra oomph. Crystal and her husband Bill Gatzimos wrote one track for the album, the pleasant but forgettable “Coming Closer”.

Somebody Loves You was an important album in Crystal Gayle’s discography. It finally set her on track for consistent commercial success; during the next decade only two of her singles missed the Top 10. The album is also notable for some of its session personnel: the aforementioned steel guitar great Lloyd Green and background vocalists Janie Fricke, who would go on to have a successful solo career of her own, and Garth Funds, who later became a famous producer for Keith Whitley and Trisha Yearwood, among others.

This is a good album for those who are interested in hearing Crystal’s music before she started enjoying crossover success.

Grade: A

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘Little Texas’

little-texasThe sands of time ran out quickly for Little Texas as their eponymous fourth album, their last for Warner Brothers, barely charted reaching #47. By this time lead singer Brady Seals had departed the band leaving Tim Rushlow in charge of lead vocals.

Little Texas
hit the marketplace thirty-one months after their third album, a delay that probably didn’t help their chances in the ever changing market. The three singles released from the album all tanked at radio with none reaching the top forty. Despite this, I regard this as possibly their best album, with tighter vocal harmonies and a nice array of songs.

The album opens with “Loud and Proud”, written in part by band member Porter Howell. This is one of the weaker songs on the album, sounding more rock than country, but it is not bad:

Show me a mountain
Tell me it can’t be climbed
I’ll find my way through any shadow of doubt
And I’ll meet you on the other side

I love a good challenge
Send them all my way
I’ll rise to any occasion
I am not afraid

To be loud and proud
And givin’ in to nothin’
Livin’ and a lovin’
I’ll never get enough
And all the ups and downs
I take ’em as they come
And I’ll be right here standing my ground
Loud and proud

“Bad for Us” from the pens of Porter Howell, Dwayne O’Brien and Tom Shapiro) was the first and most successful single, reaching #45. The song is a nice ballad about a relationship that seems to be on the rocks. Several radio stations featured this song as their pick of the week, but the song never did generate any momentum, not surprisingly since more than a year had passed since the band’s last single.

You really got a good one in
You hit me where it hurts
Just so you wouldn’t get the best of me
I fired back somethin’ worse

I put you down
You show me up
Good for you
Good for me
Bad for us

We keep goin’ around and ’round
When’s it gonna stop
Real love’s not a matter of
Who comes out on top

“Ain’t No Time to Be Afraid” by Porter Howell and Allen Shamblin is another nice ballad, this one rather philosophical in nature. I would have picked this song for single release:

I was scared half to death
I couldn’t catch my breath
‘Cause that old tree down by the river
Was thirty feet high

That’s when I heard my daddy’s voice
He said, Son you’ve got a choice
You can climb down now
Or you can fly

This ain’t no time to be afraid
Or look the other way
If your prayers have all been prayed
Then you just let it come what may

If you’re not brave enough to try
Then life will pass you by
All we have is today
There ain’t no time to be afraid

“Long Way Down” sounds more like up-tempo 60s pop than anything else. Nashville songsmith Bob DiPiero co-wrote this with Porter Howell and O’Brien.

The second single off the album was “Your Mama Won’t Let Me”, which died at #64 on the charts. It is pretty generic, pleasant but not all that memorable. Del Gray, Thom McHugh and Keith Follesé composed this song

Like to take you to the movies on a Saturday night
But your mama won’t let me
Steal you away for a Sunday drive
But your mama won’t let me

She’s one step ahead of me every time
When I get too close she draws that line
Thinks I’m trouble but I’m not that kind
Your mama won’t let me make you mine

“All In The Line of Love” from Porter Howell, Dwayne O’Brien and Stephen Allen Davis is yet another pleasant but fairly generic ballad

I think the label missed a bet in not releasing the Bob DiPiero-Walt Aldridge song “Living in a Bullseye” as a single. I don’t think it would have been a huge hit but I suspect it would have at least cracked the top thirty. The song is a mid-tempo ballad with clever lyrics that would resonate with any blue collar worker:

I heard the whistle blowing as I pulled in the gate
I knew without looking, I was already late
Praying the boss wouldn’t catch me again
Sweating bullets while I was sneaking in

I’m living in a bullseye, ground zero
It’s kinda scary when the arrows fly
I ain’t trying to be no superhero
I duck and cover just to stay alive
Living in a bullseye

Eight hours later, at a half past five
I’m listening to my radio and pulling in the drive
The music telling me a thing that’s good
So I’m crossing all my fingers and I’m knocking on wood

“The Call” by Walt Aldridge and Tim Rushlow was the final single released from the album, peaking at #71. It’s a nice ballad with sleek vocal harmonies. I heard it quit a bit here in Central Florida, but it apparently tanked elsewhere:

You can run but you can’t hide
You can keep it all inside
Take it from a fool who’s tried it all
Pay attention to a friend
Who swore he’d never fall again
You’re gonna answer
When you get the call

“Yesterday’s Gone Forever” (Dwayne O’Brien, Jim Rushing) has the feel and sound of eighties country minus the annoying synthesizers. When released it really had no singles potential, but I can recall times when this introspective ballad would have done very well with radio:

For all of my good intentions
Heartfelt every one
I’ve left so much love unspoken
So much of life I’ve left undone

I could’ve made a difference
I just never made the time
Now yesterday’s gone forever
And today ain’t far behind

Should’ve taken that job in Dallas
Or the one in San Antone
Should’ve left that girl in the city
And married the one back home

I’d love to run back through the years
To tell her I was blind
But yesterday’s gone forever
And today ain’t far behind

The album closes with the Porter Howell – Chuck Jones rocker “If I Don’t Get Enough of You”.

If I don’t get enough of you
I can’t think, I can’t sleep
If I don’t get enough of you
I can’t eat, I get weak

Without you there to hold me tight
Well, I can’t make it through the night
I don’t know what I’m gonna do
If I don’t get enough of you

If I don’t get enough of you
I don’t act like I should
If I don’t get enough of you
It’s a fact, I’m no good

I think this is a better album than their first three efforts – good production, decent songs (none of the Texas chauvinism that marred earlier albums) and a really tight band augmented by Jeff Huskins on fiddle and piano, and Dan Dugmore & Sonny Garrish on pedal steel guitar, plus really good harmony vocals.

Why then did this album tank ?

I think the answer is three-fold:

1) There apparently some element of dissension in the band. Both Brady Seals and Tim Rushlow thought that they could become big solo stars, something that neither achieved.

2) A long lapse between the release of the third and fourth albums – to put it bluntly, radio forgot about them.

3) Changes in the country music market place which ultimately led to the domination of faux country acts like Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean.

I would give this album an A-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time – ‘All Star Duets’

all star duetsOne of my favorite songwriters, Larry Cordle’s latest album has been a long time in the making. he has teamed up with a selection of stars to recreate some of his big hits as a songwriter in a tasteful bluegrass setting, backed by Larry’s bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time and a few added guests. Recording sessions have taken place at intervals over the past decade, and the album was first announced for release a couple of years ago. But the wait was worth it, because this is a truly lovely record filled with great songs.

Alison Krauss recorded Cordle’s ‘Two Highways’ as a teenager; revisiting the song as a mature adult she brings a fuller vocal, and the result is shimmeringly lovely. It’s actually the oldest composition here, having been written in 1977 when the young Larry Cordle was stuck in a job he hated and dreaming of music. Ricky Skaggs was Cordle’s earliest big supporter, and his recording of ‘Highway 40 Blues’ (also written in the late 70s) was his breakthrough as a songwriter. Skaggs revisits the song (one of many great Cordle songs he has recorded over the years) here, playing his mandolin as well as sharing the vocals. Skaggs’ 1983 #1 hit version made Cordle a name to be reckoned with, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “changed his life”.

I was a bit dismissive of Garth Brooks’ recording of ‘Against The Grain’ when I reviewed ‘Ropin’ The Wind’ recently, but the breezier bluegrass version he guests on here is much more enjoyable, although it’s still one of my less favourite tracks here. Much better is the beautiful high lonesome ‘Lonesome Dove’, which like ‘Against The Grain’ was written with Carl Jackson. Trisha Yearwood, who recorded it on her debut album, and is at her glorious best singing it here.

Dierks Bentley is an engaging guest on a version of the wry ‘You Can’t Take It With You When You Go’, which was a single for the great Gene Watson towards the end of his major label career. It is one of Cordle’s many collaborations with his friend Larry Shell. They wrote several songs here, including the most recently written song, the modern classic ‘Murder On Music Row’, which seems more topical every year. The guest vocalists are minor 90s star Daryle Singletary and the very underrated Kevin Denney, both of whom were regarded as “too country” for country music. Daryle is one of the best traditional country singers out there, and I’ve long regretted that Denney hasn’t recorded again since his one and only album in 2002. They do a great, heartfelt job, on this version. It is, incidentally, unfortunate that Denney’s name is mis-spelled on the cover. The liner notes (also available digitally) are otherwise excellent and informative, with a little discussion of how each song was written and picked up for recording.

Diamond Rio contribute duet and harmony vocals on Cordle and Shell’s ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’, which was one of my favorite of the band’s hit songs, and is another real highlight here. The gently melancholy tune is perfect for the emotional yet stoic lyric about the strains of life on the road, and the arrangement is beautiful. Less well known, but a very beautiful song written by the pair which deserves to be known better is the wistful ‘The Fields of Home’, which Ricky Skaggs recorded on Kentucky Thunder in 1989, and which feels like a sequel to ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’. Kenny Chesney appears as the duet partner here, and does a superb job exuding understated regret; I really wish he would return to this style of music.

Bluegrass giant Del McCoury guests on the playful ‘The Bigger The Fool’ (The Harder The Fall)’, which Chesney recorded on his first album (when he was a neotraditional youngster and had not yet gained fame and fortune or discovered the beach). The charming tune is one of two co-writes with Jim Rushing, the other being ‘Lonesome Standard Time’, which gave its name to Cordle’s band. Kathy Mattea, who had a hit with it, duets with Cordle here.

He teamed up with two great female songwriters, Leslie Satcher and the veteran Melba Montgomery, to write ‘Cure For The Common Heartache’. Terri Clark recorded it in the late 90s, and sounds great duetting with Cordle – it’s much better than anything on her current solo release. Cordle wrote ‘Rough Around The Edges’ for Travis Tritt with J P Pennington and Les Taylor from country-rockers Exile; it sounds much better in this energised bluegrass version, featuring Tritt.

This is a superb album, collecting an excellent set of songs and performing them with taste and heart.

Grade: A

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘The Time Has come’

timehascomeUnlike her contemporaries Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride did not burst onto the scene with a big commercial splash. Her 1992 debut was barely noticed and many country fans did not discover her until her much more successful sophomore effort was released the following year. Those who went back and listened to her first album were likely surprised at the difference in musical style. The Time Has Come is a much more traditional sounding album than most of her subsequent work.

Produced by Ed Seay and Paul Worley, The Time Has Come produced three singles. The title track was the highest charting, peaking at #23, while “That’s Me” and “Cheap Whiskey” both peaked outside the Top 40. Despite being the biggest hit, the title track is the weakest of the three. “That’s Me” is a beautifully performed ballad that might have gained some traction if it had been recorded by a more established artist. “Cheap Whiskey”, written by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Jim Rushing, is an excellent number about a relationship ruined by alcoholism. The song’s lyrics don’t directly address why the relationship ended, but it is presumed that the protagonist’s wife left him because of his drinking. The video, however, took a different interpretation and depicted the wife as being shoved into a car by her drunken husband and then killed in an accident. The powerful clip is the first time we get to see Martina’s impact as a video artist, something that would not be fully appreciated until “Independence Day” was released a few years later. However, even backing vocals from Martina’s mentor Garth Brooks couldn’t propel a song with such somber subject matter up the charts. It was later covered by Patty Loveless on her first Mountain Soul album.

It’s a shame that this album didn’t perform better commercially. Had it been released a few years earlier, before the New Tradtionalist movement was in decline, it might have fared better. Rarely since then have we heard Martina’s traditional side; I would have liked to have heard more from her in the vein of “That’s Me”, “I Can’t Sleep”, “Losing You Feels Good”, and “True Blue Fool”, which is one of the best songs on the album, edged out only by Gretchen Peters’ lovely “When You Are Old”, which is the closing track. It is a beautifully crafted “till death do us part” promise that probably wasn’t considered to be radio-friendly enough to be released as a single. Peters later recorded the tune herself and included it on her 1996 album The Secret of Life.

Solid effort though it is, The Time Has Come does have a couple of weak spots; the title track is not one of my favorites and “Walk That Line” is pure filler. Neither is terrible, however, and neither detracts from the overall enjoyment of the album. Cheap copies are readily available and well worth seeking out, especially for those who may not have heard most the album’s non-single cuts.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Comin’ Home To Stay’

By 1988 the influx of new, traditionally rooted talent which had come with the rise of the New Traditionalists in the late 80s had squeezed room on radio playlists for more established artists, and for the first time since he burst into the mainstream, a Ricky Skaggs album did not score any top 10 hits.

Lead single ‘I’m Tired’ was a remake of an old Webb Pierce hit penned by Mel Tillis and Ray Price. It hit #3 for Pierce in 1957, but Ricky’s excellent cover disappointingly only made it to #18. It deserved to do better, as did the next single. Another classic cover, a steel-led version of Stonewall Jackson’s ‘Angel On My Mind) That’s Why I’m Walking’ failed to scrape into the top 30. That was a real shame, because it is an excellent, somber interpretation of an excellent song, which is my favorite track on this album.

Top 20 hit ‘Thanks Again’ is a warm-hearted message to loving parents written by Jim Rushing, with a stripped down backing with Ricky’s own acoustic guitar the sole instrument. Perhaps surprisingly, a peak of #17 made this appealing but not obviously commercial number the album’s biggest chart success.

Paul Overstreet’s ‘Old Kind Of Love’, the final single, celebrated a perceived revival of old fashioned family values and squeaked into the top 30. It is quite charming with an attractive melody, but feels rather naive lyrically.

The overall mood of this record is one celebrating family and married life. ‘Lord She Sure Is Good At Lovin’ Me’ was written by the period’s superstar, Randy Travis, with Paul Overstreet, and is rather good at portraying domestic bliss, with added conviction lent by using wife Sharon White’s honeyed voice on harmony.

As with his previous album, Ricky included a romantic duet with Sharon. The pretty tune and heartfelt delivery of ‘Home Is Wherever You Are’ is, a sweet ballad written by Wayland Patton, make this one another winner. Her family band The Whites also sing on a traditionally styled gospel quartet. Catchy but lyrically uncompromising, ‘If You Don’t Believe The Bible’ was written by Carl Jackson and Glenn Sutton, and has only acoustic guitars backing the singers.

There is a bit less bluegrass influence than usual, but the album takes its title from the sole (electric) bluegrass number, Jimmy Martin’s bouncily playful ‘Hold Whatcha Got’. A cover of western swing classic ‘San Antonio Rose’ is competent and entertaining but unambitious and ultimately forgettable.

‘Woman, You Won’t Break Mine’ is an offbeat love song giving an ultimatum to a tough female rodeo rider who defied her mother’s dreams of pretty dresses and is trying to slow down her romance:

You went and broke your mama’s heart
But woman, you won’t break mine

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this solidly enjoyable album, which I prefer to its immediate predecessor, but there isn’t anything really standing out either, and the satisfied mood feels a little too comfortable to have an emotional impact. Combined with the lack of big hits, it is no real surprise that it did not sell quite as well as Ricky’s previous work. It is still worth getting if you can find a cheap copy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Love’s Gonna Get Ya!’

Ricky Skaggs’ career can be said to have reached its peak in 1985, when he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Randy Travis scored his big breakthrough and the New Traditionalist movement exploded. Ironically, that same year, Ricky Skaggs’ career began to show the first signs of decline. Although it reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country chart, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! failed to produce any #1 hits and became his first release for Epic not to earn gold certification.

Like its predecessors, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! was produced by Ricky himself, but it doesn’t contain the bluegrass flourishes that hallmarked most of his earlier work, with the exception of the spiritual tune “Walking In Jerusalem”. “Love’s Gonna Get You Someday”, written by Carl Chambers, was the album’s first single. The Western-swing flavored tune was a bit of a departure for Ricky, but it was well received by radio and made it to #4 on the Billboard country singles chart. The Don Everly-penned “I Wonder If Care As Much”, which had been a #2 pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958, didn’t fare as well. Reaching #30, it was the lowest-charting single of Skaggs’ major label career up to that point. With its double-track harmony, it’s instantly recognizable as an Everly Brothers tune, and though it may have been an artistic stretch for Ricky, it was a decent effort. He rebounded with the next single, a Cajun-flavored duet with his wife Sharon White called “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which reached the Top 10, albeit barely. It’s my favorite track on the album.

There are some fine cuts among the album tracks, many of them written by some of Nashville’s finest songwriters, such as Larry Cordle, Jim Rushing, and Gary Burr. The production is occasionally dated, particularly the use of the synthesizer on “I Won’t Let You Down” and the James Taylor duet “New Star Shining” — not atypical of the era but unusual on a Ricky Skaggs album — but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the album. Rushing’s “Hard Row To Hoe”, one of many country songs dealing with the plight of the American farmer, was perhaps inspired by the first Farm Aid concert which had been held a few months before this album’s release. “Artificial Heart”, written by Johanna Hall and John Hall, suffers from some contrived lyrics but its excellent steel guitar solo more than compensates.

It’s a bit ironic that having been a key player in bringing country music back to its roots, Skagg became a victim of the success of the New Traditionalist movement. Having to compete with a new crop of talent for sales and airplay may partially account for this album’s relative lack of success compared to his earlier work. However, it’s a fine album that deserves a second listen — or a first one if you missed it the first time around. The original Epic version is out of print but it was re-released on a 2-for-1 CD along with Comin’ Home To Stay. This is probably the most economical way to acquire both albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Written In The Stars’

It is unfortunate that the fledgling Giant label was the label chosen to break Rhonda Vincent into mainstream country music. Giant was one of Nashville’s many “flatfish” labels (it starts up, flounders around for a while and then disappears) and didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote Rhonda’s music properly. That notwithstanding, Written In The Stars is a very good album, well recorded with Ms. Vincent’s vocals front and center in the mix and a cast of supporting musicians comprised from Nashville’s A-List.  Rhonda is in excellent voice and the album is well laid out in terms of tempo and style variations. The album was released in October 1993.

The album opens up with an up-tempo number, “What Else Could I Do”, which was released as the second single from the album. I am not sure why this song failed to chart as it has engaging lyrics and a memorable melody (supplied by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall) and Rhonda nails the lyrics:

I wasn’t looking to jump into love

But I had no choice when your push came to shove

I guess I should not be surprised that I fell for you

Tell me, what clse could I do?

“Written In The Stars” follows. This song is a slow ballad, also from the pen of Robert Ellis Orrall. The lyric takes us to a place many of us have been:

I guess the love written ever so deep in my heart

Was not written in the stars

Another up-tempo romp, “Ain’t That Love” follows, this time from the pen of noted songwriter Kostas. This is one of my two favorite songs from this album. This song has more of a bluegrass sound and feel to it than most of the songs on this album.

Harley Allen penned “In Your Loneliness”,  treated here as a slow ballad. Harley was a gifted songwriter, but this is just another song.

“Mama Knows the Highway” was a #8 single released in June 1993 by Hal Ketchum. Written by Pete Wasner and Charles John Quarto, the song fits Rhonda’s style well. This might have made a good single for Rhonda if Hal hadn’t gotten to it first.  “When Love Arrives” is another slow ballad from the pen of Harley Allen. Again, in my opinion it’s just another song.

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘There Is A Season’

Following the collapse of AMI Records in late 1982, Vern found himself recording for Compleat, another minor label. His first album for Compleat was If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong, released in April 1983. This album contained a re-recording of Vern’s last hit for AMI, “Today My World Slipped Away”, plus the title track, Vern’s first hit for Compleat. The next album was There Is A Season released in April 1984. This is an odd album, with wide and varied production and a somewhat rushed feel to it.

The quasi-title track “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)” was a song from the folk era. Created by Pete Seeger, the song is taken entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the notable exception of the last line) and set to music by Seeger around 1959. The song has been recorded many times, probably by every Hootenanny-era folk act and by many rock acts as well, most notably the Byrds who took it to #1 on the pop chart in 1965. Gosdin was friends with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and McGuinn appears on Vern’s recording of the song. This song was not released as a single, although it received some airplay on country radio. I think it unlikely that it would have made a successful single as it was somewhere between the Byrd’s version and what I think a real country recording of the song would sound like. As much as I love the music of Vern Gosdin, this is among my least favorite recordings of the song (my favorite version was by the Australian group the Seekers). That said, it is not a bad recording.

“Love Me Right To The End” is another of those medium slow ballads that Vern sings so well. I don’t think the song itself is anything special but Vern’s vocal, along with the sympathetic backing and fine fiddle playing by Rob Hajacos makes this a fine track.

“How Can I Believe In You (When You’re Leaving Me)” is another medium slow ballad. Here the Nashville String Machine is a little more in evidence than on the prior track, but Vern’s vocals dominate, which is as it should be.

Jim Rushing was a tunesmith whose songs were recorded by a lot of artists during the 1980s. “Slow Healing Heart” is given an effective treatment by Vern. This song features straight-forward county production, with minimal Nashville Sound trappings.

“I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” would become Vern’s first #1 record in the spring of 1984. The version on this album is NOT the version released as the single. It’s taken at a slightly slower tempo than the hit single, and Vern’s vocal lacks the pizzazz of the single (I wonder if this was recorded at the end of a long session, because “The Voice” sounds tired on this recording). This track is pleasant enough, but if released as a single, I doubt it would have been a top ten record. Fortunately someone saw the potential in the song and had Vern give it another shot.

“What Would Your Memories Do” is a Hank Cochran-Dean Dillon collaboration which fits exactly into Vern’s preferred medium slow groove. This song would reach the top ten during the summer of 1984.

“Slow Burning Memory” is one of my favorite Vern Gosdin songs; however, the version on this album is NOT the version that reached the top ten in early 1985, but a slightly slower and more straight-forward country recording. Vern’s vocal on the single has a bit brighter vocal; moreover, the use of strings on the single greatly enhanced the dramatic effect of the lyrics. Vern and Max D. Barnes penned this number.

“Dead From The Heart On Down” compares death with a man who has lost love. Another Vern Gosdin-Max D Barnes collaboration, the song fits well within the context of this album. Vern and Max also penned “Stone Cold Heart” another medium-slow ballad.

“I’ve Got My Heart Full of You” is little more up-tempo than most of this album, and “You Never Cross My Mind” has a more prominent string arrangement to it than some of the tracks. I don’t think either of these tracks is anything special, but they are well sung and make for enjoyable listening.

I regard this as one of Vern’s weaker albums but I would rate it in the B to B+ range. If the album had contained single versions of “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and “Slow Burning Memory”, I would have nudged up to an A-. Of course when you’re rating an artist and saying one of his weaker albums is worth a B+ you are saying a lot about the artist.

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Roots & Wings’

I was disappointed by Terri’s first EMI Canada release a couple of years ago, which I felt was over-produced with largely mediocre material, but she appears to have rediscovered her musical voice with her latest release. She produced the album herself, and the sound is mellow but not over-produced, although she does seem to be moving away from conventional country music. Her distinctive voice is at its best throughout.

She also co-wrote all but one of the songs. Four are co-writes with Kristen Hall (who also sings backing vocals), including lead single ‘Northern Girl’, which celebrates Terri’s Canadian background but is disappointingly bland. When Hall left Sugarland under rather murky circumstances, she stated she was intending to concentrate on her songwriting. ‘Beautiful And Broken’ is not very country sounding, but an interestingly written and beautifully sung song with slightly obscure lyrics full of imagery; it seems to be about a failed relationship with the broken individual, but the protagonist retains feelings of friendship and perhaps love. Also very metaphor-heavy, ‘Flowers In Snow’ explores an unproductive relationship. These songs are perhaps more modern folk/singer-songwriter than country, but they are very well done. The best of the four, ‘Breakin’ Up Thing’ has an enjoyable mid-tempo groove and wry lyric commenting on the protagonist’s about-to-be-ex-partner’s ease at leaving.

‘The Good Was Great’ is an affectionate look back at a past relationship which Terri wrote with Tia Sillers and Deric Ruttan. This is rather good, but I was less impressed by the rather dull and overly loud ‘Wrecking Ball’ which Terri and Tia wrote with fellow-Canadian Victoria Banks and which opens the album.

The best song on the album by far is ‘Lonesome’s Last Call’, a traditional slow lonesome country song about a couple of desperate individuals who come together to find love in a bar, written by Terri with the great Jim Rushing. Andrea Zonn and Stuart Duncan’s twin fiddles add to the effect, and I would have loved to hear more like this.  The very personal and beautifully sung ‘Smile’ (written with Karyn Rochelle and featuring Alison Krauss on not-very-audible harmony) is a loving tribute to Terri’s mother who died of cancer last year. This is very moving, and another highlight.

‘The One’ (written with Tom Shapiro and Jim Collins) has a mellow vibe and attractive tune about waiting for the right man, but the hook is the unoriginal:

I don’t need a love that I can live with
I want the one I can’t live without

I like the end result a lot, but it is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Back’s ‘The One She Can’t Live Without’, which has an almost identical chorus.  The only track I really don’t like is ‘We’re Here For A Good Time’, an over-produced and very poppy sounding cover of what I think must be a rock song from the 70s. It is Terri’s new single.

Where Terri’s first album for EMI Canada still seemed to be the product of hankering after mainstream success, this one shows her finding her own voice. It isn’t all moving in a direction I personally care for, but it effectively showcases Terri as an independent singer-songwriter.

Grade B+

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’

By the mid-90s, Steve Wariner’s commercial success had begun to wane, causing him to take a hiatus from recording and touring, to concentrate instead on songwriting. He experienced a considerable amount of success during his “down time”, beginning when “Longneck Bottle”, a song he’d written with Rick Carnes, was recorded by Garth Brooks. Garth asked Steve to lend his voice and guitar-playing skills to the record and when it was released as a single, “Longneck Bottle” quickly shot to the top of the charts, spending three weeks in the number one spot. A few weeks later, Clint Black took “Nothin’ But The Taillights”, a song he’d written with Steve, to #1. A month after that, “What If I Said” , his duet with Anita Cochran also reached the top of the Billboard chart. By 1998, these successes caused record executives to take another look at Steve, resulting in a new contract with Capitol Records, and an unexpected late-career resurgence.

His first release for the label was “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”, which Steve had written with Billy Kirsch. The sentimental ballad struck a chord with radio programmers and listeners, becoming Steve’s career record, some 20 years after he’d released his first record. It peaked at #2, his highest chart performance as a solo artist since “I Got Dreams” reached the top spot nine years earlier. It was also awarded the Single of the Year and Song of the Year awards by the Country Music Association in 1998, marking the first time Steve had won any awards from that organization.

Steve’s debut album for Capitol was Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down, which he produced himself. It consisted of 11 new tracks written by Steve with a variety of co-writers, along with “What If I Said”, which had been originally been included on Anita Cochran’s album. Although there were no huge radio hits to follow “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”, the album is one of the stronger entries in the Wariner discography. For the title track, a lively Western swing number, Steve reunited with Garth Brooks, but even Garth’s tremendous star power couldn’t propel the record into the Top 20. Too retro for country radio, it stalled at #26 despite top-notch performances from both Steve and Garth. The more contemporary “Every Little Whisper” was chosen as the third single. Though it was more radio-friendly than “Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down”, it is not one of the stronger tracks on the album. It was possibly chosen because like “Holes”, it was written with Billy Kirsch, and the label may have thought they would strike gold a second time. It peaked at #36 and no more singles were released.

There are several excellent tracks — and a few mediocre ones — among the album cuts. My favorites are “I Don’t Know How To Fix It”, which was written with Bill Anderson, “A Six Pack Ago”, which was written with Jim Rushing, and “Big Ol’ Empty House”, which was written with Mac McAnally. “Road Trippin'”, written with Marcus Hummon is a lightweight tune with fluffy lyrics and catchy beat that seems like it would have been a good choice for a single release. “Big Tops”, a circus-themed number which was also written with Hummon, has a folk feel to it and sounds like something Nanci Griffith might have released a decade earlier. The two tracks that fail to deliver are “Love Me Like You Love Me” and “Smoke From An Old Flame”, which are pleasant but slightly dull.

The inclusion of “What If I Said” as a bonus track, under license from Warner Bros., was a pleasant surprise. Though thoroughly contemporary in style, the Anita Cochran-penned and produced track is beautifully written and beautifully sung by both performers. It was Cochran’s first record and only Top 40 country hit, and is on my short list of favorite Steve Wariner tracks.

Though Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down only spawned one big radio hit, it did quite well at retail. Peaking at #6, it was his highest-charting entry on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It also went on to become his second gold album. I don’t like it quite as much as I Am Ready, but I would rank it a close second.

Grade: A

Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down is available from Amazon and other major retailers.

Album Review: Shawn Camp – ‘1994’

Singer-songwriter Shawn Camp originally recorded this album back in the year of its title as the follow-up to his self-titled debut for Reprise Records (which I must confess I never heard, although I enjoyed his independent 2001 release Lucky Silver Dollar). Produced impeccably by Emory Gordy Jr and loaded with fiddle and steel, it proved too traditional in its stylings for the label, who reportedly dropped Shawn after he declined to remake it with more pop-country trappings. It has re-emerged after the boss of parent label Warner Bros Nashville ran into Shawn, now a successful songwriter, at an industry event, discovered he had this unreleased record sitting in the company vaults, and decided to give it a rather belated release. The original debut, Shawn Camp, is also getting a re-release.

To be brutally frank, enjoyable though I’m finding this record, I can see why Shawn’s career didn’t take off. His songs are good, and the production pleasing, but his voice, while pleasantly quirky and distinctive, does not compare well with some of the fine male vocalists signed to Nashville labels in the early 90s, particularly on ballads.

Shawn co-wrote almost all the material, with the exceptions all well-chosen. The sparkling opening track ‘Near Mrs’, for instance, penned by Steve Hood and Karl Hasten (both unfamiliar names to me) is a charmingly playful set of romantic misadventures explaining why the protagonist never quite got to the altar with any of the ladies in his life, which is highly entertaining and one can imagine this as a lost hit single. Even better is ‘In Harm’s Way’ which is one of the highlights here, a plaintive fiddle-and-steel-laced lament with Patty Loveless on harmonies, about being blindsided by heartbreak. This song was recorded by Jim Lauderdale (who wrote it with Frank Dycus) on his excellent 1998 release Whisper (possibly my favorite of his very varied catalog), and I do prefer the vocals on that version.

Also lovely, and perhaps better suited to Shawn’s voice, is the rueful admission of ‘Clear as A Bell’ (written by Shawn with Will Smith), as the protagonist gets a reminder that his childhood sweetheart’s wedding to another is underway:

In that far off chapel, church bells ring for someone else
And though I hate to say it I can only blame myself

Sometimes things happen way too fast
When you try to reach for love
It’s out of your grasp
Oh, sometimes it’s over and you can’t even tell
But sometimes it’s clear as a bell

This has a very pretty melody and is my favorite track.

The dejected ‘My Frame Of Mind’, written with John Scott Sherrill, also has a pretty tune and some haunting fiddle which underlines the melancholy feel, with the protagonist in even more despairing mood:

And I don’t know or care
Just what tomorrow brings
Cause if she’s not here
Tell me what good is anything?

John Scott Sherrill also cowrote the plaintive and catchy mid-tempo ‘Worn Through Stone’, another of the highlights, as Shawn broods over what went wrong in his relationship with his ex, with none other than Bill Monroe (in what may have been his last ever recording session) among the call-and-response backing vocals, although his contribution is not very prominent.

The quirky ‘Stop, Look And Listen (Cow Catcher Blues)’ is co-written with Guy Clark, and features train rhythms and Shawn on both fiddle and mandolin, as he plays the drifter who can’t outrun heartache. This is uncommercial but highly entertaining, and would be great live.

‘Since You Ain’t Home’ is a lovely traditional George Jones-styled heartbreak ballad about living in a house without the loved one who made it home, which Shawn wrote with Dale Dodson and Ken Mellons, and which would have been ideal for Mellons himself who was just embarking on his own major label career at the time. Patty Loveless guests on harmony.

The joyfully ironic uptempo ‘Movin’ On Up To A Double Wide’ is written with Gary Harrison. The protagonist has apparently been fired but is making his own silver lining:

Honey all our dreams are finally coming true
We’re gonna start living like the rich folks do
We’re movin’ on up to a double wide
Parkin our pickup every day with pride
Think we’ve got it made for the rest of our lives

Some of Shawn’s compositions included here did eventually find an audience. The best of these, ‘The Grandpa That I Know’, written with Tim Mensy (who had already recorded it himself), was subsequently recorded by both Joe Diffie and Patty Loveless. Shawn’s version has a hushed personal quality to it which lends an authenticity which makes up for the more limited vocal prowess compared to the rival versions. There is one interesting lyrical variation, with Shawn singing “my fiddle” rather than “a fiddle” as the music his grandfather would have liked, although he does not in fact play on this track. Shawn does play fiddle on ‘Little Bitty Crack In Her Heart’, which he wrote with Jim Rushing. This song suffers more from its delayed emergence, as it has been cut by both Sammy Kershaw and Randy Travis, both of whom are better singers than Shawn, but this version is still fun.

I strongly commend Warner Brothers for finally getting round to releasing this – and not only digitally. I hope it sells well enough for the experiment to be repeated and encourages other good music to be made available.

Grade: A-

Album Review: George Jones – ‘Cold Hard Truth’

By the late 1990s, country radio had decidedly cooled toward George Jones, just as it had done with most of his contemporaries. During that decade, Jones had made the transition from hit-maker to country music’s elder statesman. Although the radio hits had tapered off, he still managed to generate respectable sales, with two of his 90s discs earning gold certification. However, the sales weren’t considered good enough for him to keep his record deal, and in 1999 he parted ways with MCA Nashville after an eight-year stint with the label. It looked as though his major label career was over when he was suddenly given a reprieve — albeit a temporary one — when he was signed to the Nashville division of Asylum Records. The label assured him that he could have complete creative control and asked only that he record the album that he would have made twenty years earlier if he had been sober.

Jones teamed up with producer Keith Stegall, best known for his work with Alan Jackson, and his old pals Vince Gill and Patty Loveless who supplied harmony vocals to the project. The album that resulted was Cold Hard Truth, which was released in June 1999. It was hailed by the label as George’s return to hardcore country, which may have been overstating things a bit, since Jones had never abandoned his traditional sound. Still, the album was a change in direction in a sense, as its material was more substantive and serious, with none of the semi-novelty tunes or beat-driven “Young Country” style songs that had been characteristic of his work with MCA.

By this time, Jones had 158 charted singles — more than any other artist in any genre in history — under his belt. He kicked off the Asylum era of his career with “Choices”, a song about living with consequences of one’s actions which Billy Yates and Mike Curtis seem to have written with George in mind. In a just world, “Choices” would have returned George to the top of the charts, much as “Buy Me A Rose” would do for Kenny Rogers a few years later. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but “Choices” did reach a respectable #30, higher than any of his MCA singles except for “High-Tech Redneck”. Interest in the song was undoubtedly fueled by the controversy that ensued when Jones refused to perform it on the CMA’s award show because that organization refused to allot him enough time to sing it in its entirety. However, the song holds its ground on its own merits, and is one of the finest performances of Jones’ career. One can imagine another singer tackling “Choices” but not with the credibility that Jones brings.

Jamie O’Hara’s “The Cold Hard Truth” was chosen as the follow-up single. It is another fine performance, somewhat similar in theme to “Choices”, but it is not quite as good a song. It stalled at #45. For the next single — his last on a major label — Jones released the more light-hearted and somewhat fluffy “Sinners & Saints”, written by Vip Vipperman, J.B. Rudd, and Darryl Worley. It peaked at #55.

Many artists have difficulty obtaining first-rate material once their hit-making days are over, but that definitely was not the case here. There are some true gems from some of Nashville’s finest songwriters among the album cuts, including “Day After Forever” from the pen of Max D. Barnes, “Ain’t Love A Lot Like That” written by Mark Collie and Dean Miller, “This Wanting You” by Bruce Burch, Bruce Bouton, and T. Graham Brown, and Emory Gordy Jr.’s and Jim Rushing’s haunting “When The Last Curtain Falls”.

The Asylum era appeared to be off to a strong start for the new millenium, but regrettably we will never know what direction they would have taken with subsequent projects. The label’s Nashville office was shut down in 2000 by its parent company Time Warner. George apparently turned down an offer to join the Warner Bros. Nashville roster, opting instead to become a partner with former Asylum president Evelyn Shriver in the newly formed Bandit Records, which has released all of his music from 2001 to the present day.

Cold Hard Truth
is somewhat of a creative renaissance for Jones, more consistent in quality than any other album he’d released in the preceding decade. Although at age 68 his voice was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, he proved that he was still worthy of the title of country music’s greatest living singer. The album was meant to be a commercial comeback for George, and indeed it was a both a critical and commercial success, earning gold certification. However, it will be best remembered as the capstone to his major label career and it is hard to imagine how he could have ended his tenure with the majors on a higher note.

Grade: A

Cold Hard Truth
is still readily available in both CD and digital form from sources such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Patty Loveless’

patty loveless - debutA teenager of 14, Patty Loveless first came to Nashville with her brother Roger in 1971. Roger had a job on one of the most popular shows of the day, the nationally syndicated Porter Wagoner Show.  Brother Roger arranged a meeting with Wagoner one day, and after hearing her sing ‘Sounds of Loneliness’, Porter offered his help to the teen and invited her to tour with his road show, which included Dolly Parton, on weekends and during the Summer, encouraging her to finish school while she pursued her dream of a singing career.

Then, one fateful night at the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, Jean Shepard was caught in a flood and couldn’t make it to the Ryman, so promoter Danny King called the Rameys, Patty and Roger, who appeared on the Opry that night and caught the attention of Doyle Wilburn.  This meeting would lead to her first publishing deal with Sure-Fire Music, and she went on tour with The Wilburn Brothers from 1973 to 1975, while Doyle was grooming her to replace their former leading female singer, Patty’s distant cousin Loretta Lynn.  When she graduated in 1975, she did just that, becoming a full-time member of the show.  In the meantime, she met and fell in with the group’s drummer, Terry Lovelace.  Doyle Wilburn told them to end the relationship, not wanting the band members to date one another, but instead, Terry and Patty quit the band, got married, and moved back to his hometown in North Carolina, where she played the rock club circuit for a while.  It was from the name Patty Lovelace that she adapted her stage name of Patty Loveless.

Patty Loveless came back to Nashville for the second time in 1985 to try her hand at country music.  This time again with brother Roger in tow to help his little sister work her way into the music business.  As the story goes, Roger Ramey pretended to be someone else who was late for an appointment with MCA executive Tony Brown in order to get in the office to meet the A&R head.  Once he got in there, Brown gave him 30 seconds to sell him on what Roger called “best girl singer to ever come to Nashville”.  Ramey played him Patty’s recording of ‘I Did’, and Brown was impressed, but told Roger he’d get back to him.  Still bluffing – the man must have a great poker face – Roger told Tony Brown he needed an answer that day because they had another label wanting to sign Patty.  Tony had a quick meeting with label head Jimmy Bowen while Roger waited in his office.  When Brown came back it was with a short-term, singles deal.

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