My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jimmy Bowen

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Crazy In Love’

One of the reasons for Conway Twitty’s longevity as an artist was his knack for adapting to new musical trends. In the 1980s, as country music entered the Urban Cowboy era and adopted a slicker, more pop-oriented sound, Conway did likewise, and maintained his position at the top of the charts. His new sound was particularly evident on the Warner/Elektra recordings. Interestingly, though, he did not follow country music’s trend back toward a more traditional sound in the latter half of the decade. For whatever reason, it seemed to work. His albums from this era only sold modestly but he continued to have radio hits, although somewhat less consistently, and remained relevant to the genre.

Crazy In Love was Conway’s first full-length album of the 1990s. He produced it with his wife Dee Henry and MCA label chief Jimmy Bowen. Like his other recent efforts, there is nary a fiddle nor a steel guitar to be found, although the album itself encompasses a variety of styles from pop and R&B to more traditional country fare. The title track and lead single was perhaps his most pop-leaning single ever. It had originally been included on a Joe Cocker album in 1984 and Kim Carnes took it to #13 on the AC charts in 1988. Kenny Rogers had a competing version from his 1990 Love Is Strange album, which reached #9 on the AC charts. Conway’s version reached #2 on the country charts, a position where many of his singles had landed since he’d rejoined MCA in 1987. Written by Randy McCormick and Even Stevens, there is nothing even remotely country about this song, but it is very good nonetheless. The upbeat “I Couldn’t See You Leavin'”, written by Rory Michael Bourke and Ronny Scaife reached #3, making it the last bonafide hit single of Conway’s career. None of his subsequent efforts would chart in the Top 20. There was one last single released from Crazy In Love, though — the traditional-leaning “One Bridge I Didn’t Burn”, which peaked at a disappointing #57, despite being the best song on the album. It is, however, a track that is crying out for the fiddle-and-steel treatment. The album cut “What’s Another Goodbye”, written by Kent Robbins is another very good track that would have benefited from more traditional instrumentation.

I wasn’t as enamored by Conway’s cover of the 1978 Dr. Hook hit “When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman” (another Even Stevens composition) or the slightly overblown power ballad “Just the Thought of Losing You”, written by Michael Bolton and Jonathan Cain. Both are well executed but with so many good country songs available in Nashville at the time (unlike today), one wonders why these two were chosen. The upbeat closing track “Hearts Breakin’ All Over Town” is not bad but is only truly noteworthy because of its co-writer Pam Tillis who was about to enjoy her own commercial breakthrough.

Conway Twitty’s long career saw him embracing a number of different musical styles and as such it is inevitable that everything he did will be to everyone’s taste. While I wouldn’t rate Crazy In Love as highly as his early 70s albums, it is a solid effort for its era. I don’t think I’ve ever truly hated anything Conway Twitty did — aside from his unfortunate treatment of “Danny Boy” during his rock-and-roll days. Crazy In Love is not essential listening, but it is a worthwhile late career effort from a true legend, who truly was the best friend a song ever had.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Southern Comfort’

By the dawn of the 1980s, Conway Twitty had collected 23 solo number one singles and another five from duets with Loretta Lynn. Changes were afloat in the new decade, the least of which was a tweak in appearance, from his trademark pompadour hairstyle to the head of curls that would carry him through until his death in 1993.

Twitty parted ways with Decca/MCA Records after fifteen years with the label in 1981. He would release his next two albums on Eleketra, a move that would continue his success and allow Twitty to venture into new realms of his career. His first release for the label, Southern Comfort, would give him two more chart-topping singles. The album was produced by Jimmy Bowen.

The first single, “The Clown” was a slow and prodding ballad, typical of the period, with zero country signifiers. The follow-up, “Slow Hand” had been a big hit for The Pointer Sisters a year earlier. “Boy Next Door,” “Love And Only Love” and “It Turns Me Inside Out” are more of the same mid-paced to slow warmed over balladry.

“When Love Was Something Else” is an excellent change of pace, with twangy guitar added into the mix and noticeable effort to resemble country music. “She Only Meant to Use Him” employed the same techniques for another winning number. “Something Strange Got Into Her Last Night” continues the upward trend and could’ve easily been right at home under the care of Ronnie Milsap. “I Was The First” has an engaging melody I really enjoyed. The title track is an awful throwaway, with a cheesy lyric and intrusive background vocalists.

Despite the two singles, which Conway Twitty pursuits consider low points in his catalog, all hope is not lost with Southern Comfort. The majority of songs on the album are good and engaging, but not earth-shattering or remarkable. I wouldn’t rush to seek out a copy, the album can be easily streamed on YouTube, but it’s better than the singles and album cover would suggest.

Grade: B

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

cage-the-songbirdThe mid-1980s found Crystal Gayle shifting record labels yet again. Elektra shuttered in 1982 during the chart reign of True Love, which Razor X reviewed earlier this week. Another significant shift was the addition of Jimmy Bowen, who shared a producer credit with Allen Reynolds.

By the time Cage The Songbird came along in October 1983, Gayle was recording for Warner Bros. exclusively with Bowen, who had officially taken over for Reynolds after ten albums. The resulting record was squarely within the trends of the era, following the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris by featuring a Rodney Crowell song, which by this time had become one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville. The album also featured cuts by Elton John and Hugh Prestwood among others, and while it maintained a glossy sheen, Cage The Songbird was loaded with well-chosen material.

The Prestwood cut, which opened the album, was issued as the lead single. “The Sound of Goodbye” is an excellent and bright uptempo contemporary number that ranks among my favorites of hers. It hit #1, as did the album’s third single, Tim Krekel’s lightweight rocker “Turning Away.” Gayle just missed the top spot with “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” an adult contemporary-leaning piano ballad by Joey Carbone. The fourth and final single, “Me Against The Night,” a nice mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #4.

Crowell, who was Gayle’s labelmate at the time, contributed “Victim or a Fool,” a ballad he recorded on his eponymous album two years earlier. Gayle brought an urgency to her version, courtesy of the electric guitars and driving tempo, that contrasted with the sadness Crowell highlighted with his interpretation. Both recordings are interesting although you can’t ignore Gayle’s commercial sheen – the lyric is all but buried beneath the noise.

John supplied the title track, a ballad he wrote with Bernie Taupin and Davey Johnstone. The lyric, which recounts a celebrity’s tragic life and death, was a reimagining of Édith Piaf’s passing as if she had committed suicide. The tone may be grim, but Gayle delivers a gorgeous performance of a spectacular song.

“Take Me Home” was lifted from the soundtrack of a Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name. The album consisted of duets and solo performances by Gayle and Tom Waits, who composed the songs himself. The ballad is stunning and excused from not being country at all, thanks to its origin.

Norman Saleet, another composer far outside the country realm, shows up on Cage The Songbird with “On Our Way To Love,” a ballad outside of my tastes. Saleet is best known for writing Air Supply’s “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and you can hear that influence in the melody here as well.

Of the prominent producers in country music through the years, I probably like Bowen’s work the least. He’s not distasteful to his artists, but his bland tendencies have marred his work significantly. His choices aren’t in the least bit country, either, which probably aids in my overall dissatisfaction. To that end, I really wanted to enjoy Cage The Songbird and I do find many of the album’s tracks, especially “The Sound of Goodbye” very appealing. But while I can mostly appreciate the crossover aspects, the majority of the ballads just don’t hold my attention.

Grade: B

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘True Love’

crystal_gayle_-_true_love1982 saw more changes for Crystal Gayle’s music as she transitioned to a new label and began working with a new producer. After releasing three albums for Columbia, she signed with Elektra Records, which at the time was trying to bolster its country roster. Her first assignment for her new label found her collaborating with Eddie Rabbitt. “You and I”, which does not appear on this album, was a major crossover smash that reached #1 on the Billboard country chart and #7 on the Hot 100. Shortly thereafter, Crystal made her solo debut on Elektra with the album True Love.

Although the majority of True Love was produced by Crystal’s longtime producer Allen Reynolds, Elektra apparently had some reservations about the album and wanted some changes made. Reynolds refused to cooperate, so label head Jimmy Bowen took over production duties for three additional tracks. Bowen would produce Crystal’s next album, making True Love the last time Gayle and Reynolds would work together for the remainder of the 1980s. They would reunite for 1990’s Ain’t Gonna Worry.

Bowen’s instincts proved to be correct. Among the three tracks he produced was the album’s lead single, an exquisite version of Rodney Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again”, on which Crowell provided the harmony vocals. Emmylou Harris had recorded the song in 1975, but Crystal took it to #1. Although it didn’t enjoy any crossover success, it represented a bit of a resurgence for Crystal, since none of the singles from her previous album Hollywood, Tennessee had reached the top spot.

Bowen was further vindicated when “Baby What About You”, another one the three tracks he produced also reached #1. The piano-led mid tempo number is one of my favorite Crystal Gayle songs. It provides a nice change of pace from an album that is otherwise country-rock in its leanings: Bowen’s initial complaints about the album reportedly was that “it rocked too much”. In between “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Baby What About You”, the Allen Reynolds-produced “Our Love Is On The Faultline” also became a #1 hit. The third Bowen-produced track was a remake of “Everything I Own” which had been a hit for the soft-rock group Bread in 1972. Crystal’s faithful-to-the-original reading was released as single in the United Kingdom. It topped out at #93 on the British charts in 1983. The lyrics suggest a lament for a lost love but I recently learned that David Gates composed the song about the death of his father. It’s not a country song, but it’s a very nice MOR number that Crystal sings beautifully.

The UK release of True Love includes an additional track, “Take Me to the Dance”, which I have not heard.

It’s a longstanding tradition in country music to conclude albums with a religious number. This custom is not generally followed in other genres of music, and on a pop/soft-rock leaning album like True Love, a number like “He Is Beautiful To Me” might seem slightly out of place. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful piece of music written by Bobby Wood (“Talking In Your Sleep”, “Half the Way”) and Clive Westlake. Crystal turns in a top-notch vocal performance. The song must be a particular favorite of hers, as it appears on a 2007 compilation of Crystal’s biggest hits (despite never being released as a single). A re-recorded version appears on a 1997 gospel album. A 2008 repackaging of that album is titled He Is Beautiful.

Crystal’s tenure with Elektra was to be an unusually brief one. Midway through the album’s chart run, and before the release of the second single, Elektra closed its Nashville office and its artists were transferred to the Warner Bros. Nashville roster. The singles “Our Love Is On The Faultline” and “Baby What About You” both bore the Warner Bros. imprint, as did all of Crystal’s subsequent work for the remainder of the decade.

Despite producing three #1 hits, I’m not sure how well remembered True Love is. “Til I Gain Control Again” is one of Crystal’s best-remembered hits, but I suspect the rest of the album has largely been forgotten. That is regrettable, because it’s a solid effort and better, I think, than any of her albums for Columbia. It finally saw a CD release in 2008 when it was released on a 2-for-1 disc along with her previous album Hollywood, Tennessee. That disc is currently out of print but can be purchased for premium prices.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Highway 101

highway 101Paulette Carlson was born in Minnesota in 1952, and began singing in bars there and in North Dakota. She signed her first solo record deal with RCA in 1983, but none of her singles for the label had made much of a splash. Groups were more successful in country music in the 1980s than they had ever been before, and in 1986 Paulette, who had relocated to LA, at the southern end of the iconic Pacific coast road, US Highway 101, recruited three talented musicians in Jack Daniels on lead guitar, Curtis Stone on bass guitar, and Scott (always known as Cactus) Moser on drums, to form the band known as Highway 101. The three men were all making a living as studio session musicians, but wanted a shot at the big time.

The partnership was a magical one, with Paulette’s distinctive vocals matched by the band’s radio-friendly sound. They soon signed to Warner Brothers, and their debut single, Carlson’s ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ was an immediate hit. A string of hits followed in the remaining years of the decade, and they won both the CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year awards in 1988.

But there was trouble in store. Paulette Carlson still had solo ambitions, and in 1990 she chose to leave the band in favour of a solo deal with Capitol. Unfortunately for her, the album she released in 1991 featured mainly weak material, and her singles flopped at radio. The boys he left behind had better luck. Realising that Highway 101’s big selling point was the strong female lead, they recruited an able replacement in Nikki Nelson, a 22 year old from California. She made two albums with Highway 101, and their singles gained some airplay, although they fell short of the success of the original brand. Jack Daniels then departed, and the remaining trio moved to Liberty, a new Nashville label founded by legendary exec and producer Jimmy Bowen, for one album and single.

Both Carlson and her former bandmates hankered after former glories, and she, Daniels and Stone teamed up again in 1996. They recorded a new album, suitably entitled Reunited, on Intersound Records, but it was too late to rekindle the fire they had enjoyed on country radio.

Another new start, and new lineup, was briefly created in 1998, featuring Stone, Moser, and two newcomers: vocalist Chrislynn Lee and Charlie White. Subsequently, Nikki Nelson returned as lead vocalist, backed by Moser, Stone, and a frequently changing lead guitarist. Cactus Moser (now married to Wynonna Judd) unfortunately lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 2012, but continues to tour with Highway 101. Their only recent recorded output is a Christmas single and DVD in 2010.

In between the usual December fare of year-end reviews and Christmas records, we will be surveying the career of Highway 101.

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss & Chet Atkins – ‘Simpatico’

simpaticoChet Atkins’ contributions to country music are immeasurable; he was arguably the genre’s greatest guitarist ever, and as a producer and label executive at RCA, he paved the way for such legendary artists as Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Don Gibson, Skeeter Davis, Dolly Parton, Connie Smith, and many more. He was also an early champion of Suzy Bogguss, as anyone who has read the liner notes to her debut album can attest, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the two of them decided to release an album together. Simpatico, which was released in 1994, was one of the last albums in the Atkins’ discography and his last entry into the Billboard Country Albums chart.

The album was also a turning point in Bogguss’ career; she’d parted ways with longtime producer Jimmy Bowen, and produced Simpatico with John Guess. Interestingly, Atkins didn’t share production credits at all on this project. The project also marked the beginning of Suzy’s chart decline; it may be simply because her star was beginning to fade, or it could have been because the album was released at a time when Liberty Records was neglecting any artist on its roster not named Garth. However, it seems fairly certain that this is one album that not made with one eye on the charts; instead it is a labor of love that that is largely indifferent to commercial concerns.

As one might expect from a man who helped develop the Nashville Sound, and whose tastes ran from country to pop and jazz, Simpatico is not a collection of traditional country tunes. Instead it encompasses a variety of sounds, influenced by both country and pop, and occasionally including some Spanish and Latin influences. Chet’s trademark picking is heard prominently throughout the album. He does chime in vocally on occasion, but Chet was never much of a singer, so Suzy does the heavy lifting as far as the vocal duties are concerned.

Two singles were released; neither of which charted. The first was the uptempo “One More For The Road”, written by Atkins and Bogguss, along with Suzy’s husband Doug Crider. The second was a surprisingly good cover of Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” A better choice might have been “Forget About It”, one of the album’s more contemporary numbers. It is more in the vein of what country radio was looking for at the time, but given Liberty’s half-hearted support, it probably would not have been any more successful.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from beginning to end, without any missteps. my particular favorites are the covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now”, which opens the album, and a stunning version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”. I also quite like the whimsical “Wives Don’t Like Old Girlfriends.” At first glance “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” seems to be a little out of place, but the tasteful production, complete with a restrained string section, and the excellent singing and picking, makes the record work. Though it would probably never held much appeal for country radio, in another era it might have been an adult contemporary hit, but AC radio in the 90s was too R&B influenced to embrace a recording like this or “When She Smiled At Him”, which also sounds like a holdover from 1970s Top 40 AM radio. “Two Shades of Blue” is a lovely Spanish-sounding number written by Deborah Allen, Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy.

Nearly two decades after its release, Simpatico holds up well. Bogguss and Atkins succeeded in making an evergreen record, which does not sound dated at all. My only criticism is its brevity, but country albums rarely exceeded ten tracks in the nineties. Such a non-commercial album would probably not even be released by a major label today. Given its lack of chart success, a fair number of fans might have missed this album. Those who did miss it can pick it up from Amazon. Unlike a lot of older albums, expect to pay full price for this one, but it is worth every penny.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Something Up My Sleeve’

something up my sleeveSuzy’s fifth album was released in 1993. Produced once more by Suzy with Jimmy Bowen, it is a mellow, classy album rather than an overtly commercial one, with AC leanings musically and mature lyrics. Suzy’s crystalline voice sounds beautiful throughout.

The first two singles were top five hits, and both were co-written by the artist. Suzy and husband Doug Crider wrote the philosophical ‘Just Like The Weather’, which has a pretty melody. She wrote the vicacious ‘Hey Cinderella’ with Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, a questioning of real life happy-ever-after which is probably the album’s best remembered song

The remaining singles were less well received. ‘You Wouldn’t Say That To A Stranger’ missed the top 50 but is a thoughtful song written by Doug Crider with Pat Bunch about the harsh words that can be exchanged between lovers. It is a very good song, with a lovely melody.

‘Souvenirs’, an early Gretchen Peters song about drifting through the US, is a very singer-songwritery kind of song about the disillusionment of travelling aimlessly through the US and finding you’re not actually Jack Kerouac. It was probably a bit too downbeat and folky to have a wide appeal; not surprisingly it faltered in the 60s.

Similar in feel, ‘Diamonds And Tears’ is another mature, poetic song about learning from experience, this one written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison.

Suzy and Doug Crider teamed up with Steve Dorff for the melancholic unrequited love song ‘You Never Will’, which sounds very pretty with a tasteful string arrangement, and is probably my favourite track. Pat Bunch co-wrote the pleasant but slightly dull ‘You’d Be The One’ and the okay ‘No Green Eyes’ with Suzy and her husband.

‘I Keep Comin’ Back To You’ is yet another mellow sounding ballad, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Bill Lloyd. The title track was a duet with labelmate Billy Dean, a rather wimpy tenor who was never a big favourite of mine. It sounds pleasant but unexciting.

It was her last gold-selling studio set. Overall, it is very nice sounding although a long way removed from the traditional sounds of her debut, but few of the songs really stand out.

Grade: B

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Voices In The Wind’

220px-SuzyBoggussVoicesintheWindSuzy Bogguss had a lot riding on her Voices of the Wind album. She was following up the platinum selling Aces, which contained her first string of top ten singles, and justifying her Horizon Award victory over genre heavyweights Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and Pam Tillis. While the record didn’t contain as many singles as Aces it was still a big success as her second consecutive gold record. Jimmy Bowen also returned as producer.

Bogguss was still riding the wave of her single “Letting Go” when time came to release the follow-up CD. Liberty/Capitol decided to tack that single on to the end of Voices in an effort to capitalize on the song’s success. It worked, and the track hit #6. The follow-up, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Drive South” fared even better, hitting #2. The high energy number, one of my favorite singles from her, was her biggest hit to date. The only other single, “Heartache” would break Bogguss’ hot streak, managing to stall at #23. The neo-traditional number was good, but probably a bit too slow for heavy rotation status on the radio.

Also included on the album is her version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which Dixie Chicks took into the top 10 from their Fly album in Spring 2000. Bogguss turns in a wonderful version of the song but it’s a bit too adult contemporary. It works better with the electric guitars and Natalie Maines’ biting vocal on the Chicks’ version. Bogguss’ is a little too sweet. “Eat At Joes,” co-written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a fabulous bluesy number about life at an all night diner, and one of the highlights. Trisha Yearwood’s voice may’ve been better suited for the song, her bluesy side is unmatched, but Bogguss turns in a very competent performance.

“Aces” writer Cheryl Wheeler contributes “Don’t Wanna,” an emotionally stunning ballad that Bogguss takes to new heights with her angelic voice. Bogguss has a subtle way of conveying a lyric and this is one example of where the production works in her favor in helping her tell the story. “Lovin’ A Hurricane” is the second track written by Hiatt and while it’s very good, her vocal almost seems too bland for the upbeat production. It tries but fails to repeat the magic of “Drive South.”

Bogguss had a hand in co-writing two of the album’s tracks, including one with husband Doug Crider (who co-wrote “Letting Go”). “How Come You Go To Her” (co-written with Michael Garvin and Anthony Smith) is an excellent mid-tempo ballad about a woman wondering why her man just isn’t into her. The Crider co-write is “In The Day,” another contemporary sounding ballad that succeeds on Bogguss’ ability to sell a story, this time of a burgeoning romance.

Crider also co-wrote “Love Goes Without Saying,” another similar sounding ballad, but another lyrically strong number. Chuck Pyle wrote “Other Side of the Hill,” a honky-tonk highlight. I love the rousing steel guitar and western themes, as well as Bogguss’ perfectly energetic vocal. If this track were a single, it would’ve likely been a huge hit.

Voices In The Wind is the perfect example of a catch 22. Lyrically, there isn’t a dud in the bunch. But Bogguss and Bowen spend a bit too much real estate on similar sounding ballads that bog the album down in a sea of slowness. She needs more songs like “Other Side of the Hill” to breakup the monotony, and showcase more diversity in what she can do as a singer and artist. That being said, it’s still a very strong album and although the 1992 era production is dated by today’s standards, Voices In The Wind is a worthy addition to any music collection.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Aces’

acesThe first time I heard Suzy Bogguss sing, I was sure that she was on the verge of becoming country music’s next big female superstar. It was, therefore, both surprising and disappointing when her first two albums and the singles released from them all performed poorly on the charts. Her commercial fortunes began to change in 1991 when she teamed up with her Capitol labelmate Lee Greenwood for a duet, the Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook-penned “Hopelessly Yours”, which rose to #12, her best performance to date on the Billboard country singles chart. The record’s success proved to be the breakthrough she needed and paved the way for her subsequent solo recordings.

Suzy was always a bit of a folkie at heart, as opposed to a hardcore country traditionalist, and the song selections on Aces, her third album for Capitol Nashville, reflect that preference. The album’s advance single was a revival of Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s “Someday Soon”, which had been recorded numerous times by a number of artists, including Judy Collins and Moe Bandy. Suzy’s excellent version reached #12, matching the success of “Hopelessly Yours.” Suzy and co-producer Jimmy Bowen slowed down the tempo ever so slightly on Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane”, giving the song more mainstream appeal than Griffith’s original and more quirky recording from a few years earlier. “Outbound Plane”, which peaked at #9, found Suzy cracking the Top 10 for the first time. Recognizing that the folk connection was proving successful, Capitol selected the album’s title track, written by folk singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, as Suzy’s next single. Like “Outbound Plane”, it reached #9 and is one of the songs for which Suzy is best remembered today.

The album’s fourth single — and its most successful was the more conventional “Letting Go”, written by Suzy’s husband Doug Crider and Matt Rollings. A tale about leaving home and the adjustments required by both parent and child, it peaked at #6 in the fall of 1992 and made an appearance on Suzy’s next album Voices In The Wind.

More often than not, I find that there are always one or two songs on every album that should have been a single, but for one reason or another, was not. Tony Arata’s “Part of Me” falls into that category this time around, although for the most part, Capitol showed good judgement in its selection of singles. There’s nothing particularly memorable about “Yellow River Road”, which is noteworthy only because it is the album’s only song in which Suzy had a hand in writing. The bluesy numbers “Save Yourself” and “Let Goodbye Hurt” require more soulful performances than Suzy was able to provide, and her version of “Still Hold On”, though good, cannot compare with Tanya Tucker’s grittier performance from a few years earlier.

Aces was the best and most successful of Suzy’s major label albums, and the only one to earn platinum certification. Inexpensive copies are easy to obtain.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Moment Of Truth’

moment of truthSuzy’s stunning and very traditional debut album, Somewhere Between (which I reviewed a couple of years ago as part of our look back at the Class of ’89) was a critical success but performed less well commercially, with just one top 20 hit single. She turned to a much more contemporary sound for her follow-up, which she produced herself with label boss Jimmy Bowen. (Trivia note: her production company, Loyal Dutchess, was named for her beloved dog.) However, the album failed to catch fire with radio listeners, with both singles flopping badly.

The midpaced ‘Under The Gun’ is written by Hugh Prestwood, and is an okay song, but Suzy doesn’t have the forcefulness required to make the Western movie cowboy shootout metaphor sound convincing. She was much better suited to ‘All Things Made New Again’ is a soothing ballad, which is very pretty and one of the more traditional sounding songs with Rob Hajacos’s fiddle prominent in the mix. It was written by Dan Seals and Rafe VanHoy, and Seals also sings backing vocals.

The record does not offer much variety in tempo, with the bulk of the material consisting of mellow ballads. The melodies are generally strong, and Suzy’s vocals are sweet throughout, and although the production leans more AC than neotraditional, it is tastefully understated, so even the less interesting songs sound pleasant.

‘My Side Of the Story’ is one of the best of the songs, a pensive ballad about coming to terms with a breakup, written by Suzy with her husband Doug Crider, with a sensitive vocal as Suzy tells her husband wearily it’s over, accepting that he may see the reasons differently:

It’s too late to talk about it
You never wanted to before
You still don’t understand me
But it doesn’t matter anymore

In the excellent ‘As If I Didn’t Know’ (a Mel Tillis song, but perhaps surprisingly another contemporary ballad) Suzy contemplates the inevitable end of her relationship in what feels like a prequel to ‘My Side Of The Story’. Here the woman knows it is really over, but is clinging to her pretense that everything is okay.

The title track (penned by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles) is a soothing love song with a very pretty tune led by a Spanish guitar.

‘Wild Horses’ is a subtle and interesting story song written by Verlon Thompson and Rhonda Fleming but as with ‘Under The Gun’, Suzy’s performance sounds too tame. ‘Fear Of Flying’, written by Suzy with Gary Scruggs, is almost the only time the pace picks up, but it isn’t a very interesting song. ‘Burning Down’ has a bluesy feel, but again is a rather boring song.

The remaining songs are pleasant enough but just rather dull and forgettable.

I remember being disappointed by this when it first came out as it seemed like a step down from her debut. But it was clearly more in the vein that Suzy herself wanted to follow, as the mellow ballad sound set a template for much of her subsequent music, and it has worn quite well. Although it is rather one-paced there are some nice songs here, and Suzy’s lovely voice always sounds good. However, the record’s poor commercial performance meant that her undeniable talent notwithstanding, Suzy was very lucky to get another chance to break through with a third album.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Back To The Barrooms’

Released in October 1980, the last mainstream album Haggard recorded for MCA (a gospel release was his swan song for the label) was a concept album of sorts, on the classic country themes of broken hearts and honky tonks, with drinking and casual barroomhook-ups frequently serving as some kind of consolation for lost love. The traditional themes and basic country structures of the songs are counterpointed with a sometimes adventuruous production courteous of Jimmy Bowen, with extensive but tasteful use of brass giving a faint Dixieland jazz feel. Three quarters of the songs were written by Haggard, and, as a group, they form Haggard’s strongest collection in some years.

The downbeat melancholy of ‘Misery And Gin’ was originally recorded for the soundtrack of now-forgotten Clint Eastwood vehicle Bronco Billy (which had also produced Haggard’s first #1 hit of the 80s, his jovial duet with Eastwood, ‘Bar Room Buddies’, which was presumably not thought worthy of repeating here). ‘Misery And Gin’ is a great song, written by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, shows the pain hiding behind the outward joviality of a barroom crowd, the protagonist hooking up with a fellow loser in love with only themselves to blame for their single status. Garrett produced the track, sweetening the downbeat mood with strings, as Haggard bemoans,

Here I am again mixing misery and gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
I look like I’m havin’ a good time, but any fool can tell
That this honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell

It peaked at #3. The defeated honky tonker ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’, another classic number, with tinkling bar room piano cementing the mood, took him back to the top of the charts.

It was followed to radio by top 10 hit ‘Leonard’, a fond tribute to Tommy Collins, a Bakersfield singer-songwriter whose real name was Leonard Sipes, and who had been an early friend and inspiration to Haggard. The song, possibly my personal favorite on the album, traces the ups and downs of his friend’s career, as country star, songwriter, preacher, singer on the comeback trail, and hopeless alcoholic:

He laid it all aside to follow Jesus
For years he chose to let his music go
But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard
But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know?

Well, life began to twist its way around him
And I wondered how he carried such a load
He came back again to try his luck in music
And lost his wife and family on the road.

After that he seemed to fall down even deeper
And I saw what booze and pills could really do
And I wondered if I’d ever see him sober
But I forgot about a friend that Leonard knew

Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration
He helped teach me how to write a country song
And he even brought around a bag of groceries
Back before “Muskogee” came along

The acutely observed story song of ‘Make Up And Faded Blue Jeans’ finds the struggling singer-songwriter protagonist half-reluctantly hooking up with an equally desperate older woman. It was not a single, but is a well-remembered song which has been covered by, among others, Daryle Singletary.

Title track ‘Back To The Bar Rooms Again’, yet another classic on an album packed with them, was written by Haggard with Dave Kirby. It draws once more on the honky tonk atmosphere and downbeat mood, with a cuckolded husband returning to drinking, although this time whiskey is the “best friend” of choice.

In ‘I Don’t Want To Sober Up Tonight’, he refuses to pretend everything’s okay in a troubled marriage/life. His own marriage, to Leona Williams, was beginning to crack at the seams, but they co-wrote the cheerful ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ celebrating a love which sounds a little more like co-dependency. That fracturing relationship may also have prompted Haggard’s choice to cover Hank Williams Jr’s rather final ‘I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs’.

Dave Kirby (who was, ironically enough, to marry Leona Williams in 1983 after her marriage to Haggard finally collapsed) co-wrote the mellow and melodic ‘Ever Changing Woman’ with Curly Putman. Iain Sutherland’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go; has a similar vibe, but is more forgettable.

The wistfully melancholic ‘Our Paths My Never Cross’ about missed opportunities for potential true love has a lovely tune and a jazzy feel thanks to the brass in the mix.

The album is easy to find on CD at reasonable prices, and is well worth tracking down. The production has dated a bit, but the songs haven’t, and this is recommended listening.

Grade: A

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘I Got Dreams’

Steve came more to the fore as a writer on this album, released in 1989. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs on a pleasantly melodic record which showcases his sweet tenor and leans to the AC side of country. As with its predecessor, I Should Be With You, he produced the set with Jimmy Bowen. The record has a more consistent sound than its predecessor, but it lacks a real standout song.

While sales were not spectacular, the album’s singles continued Steve’s hot streak at radio, kicking off with two straight #1 hits. ‘Where Did I Go Wrong’ (the only solo Wariner composition included) is a sweetly sung ballad about losing love with an attractive melody, which is (though hardly groundbreaking) one of my favorite tracks. He wrote the optimistic mid-tempo ‘I Got Dreams’ with Bill LaBounty about hoping for his ex’s return. This was radio-friendly but while pleasant enough has not stood the test of time very well.

Another ballad, the gentle piano-led ‘When I Could Come Home To You’, written with Roger Murrah, was the third single, and this peaked at #5. It has a tender vocal as the protagonist reflects wistfully on the past with a former loved one, and this song is probably the best here.

These were probably the best choices as singles, because most of the remaining material falls into the category of listenable but ultimately forgettable. Perhaps more outside material would have been better advised, because one of my favorite tracks is the one song Steve did not contribute to writing. John Jarvis and Joe Henry’s solemn piano-led AC ballad ‘The Flower That Shattered The Stone’ (later recorded by John Denver) has a beautiful melody, subtle, pure vocal, and spiritual lyric about the power of the natural world:

As the river runs freely the mountain does rise
Let me touch with my fingers and see with my eyes
In the hearts of the children your love still grows
Like a bright star in heaven that lights our way home
Like the flower that shattered the stone

It took four writers including Steve to write ‘I Could Get Lucky Tonight’, a slightly dragging mid-tempo number without much lyrical substance. The love song ‘Do You Wanna Make Something Of It’ written with Wood Newton, sounds pretty enough but a bit boring. The same goes for ‘Plano Texas Girl’ (co-written with Steve’s brother Terry), notable only for its rather feeble play on words.

The beaty ‘Nothin’ In The World (Gonna Keep Me From You)’, a co-write with Mike Reid, reverts to the pop-country of Steve’s RCA work, and has the least impressive vocal on the record. A much better up-tempo effort is the engaging ‘Language Of Love’, written by Steve with John and Johanna Hall, and the best of his songs here apart from the singles. It has a metaphorical lyric comparing romance to international travel, and some nice mandolin from Carl Jackson.

The only other song to stand out is the slightly wimpy ‘The Loser Wins’. This starts out with a ruefully fond reminiscence of a high school football team who “won 5 and lost 17”, but is really about the comfort brought in failure by a loved one. The production feels a bit dated but the subject is temporarily quite topical with the Grammy ceremony this weekend.

The vocals are beautiful throughout, but this is the sort of record that sounds very nice in the background but where the songs lack individual interest.

Grade: C+

Cheap used copies are easy to find, and the album is avilable digitally.

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Who Was That Stranger?’

Although the movie had brought Loretta mainstream attention, her musical career was winding down in the 1980s. She had enjoyed only one top 10 hit that decade (‘I Lie’ in 1982), and her last single to reach the top 40 was the #19 ‘Heart Don’t Do This To Me’ in 1985. The neotraditional revival of the late 80s may have brought country sounds back to country radio, but older artists were, by and large, jettisoned along with the pop-country stars of the mid 80s. This album, Loretta’s swan song for MCA, was released in 1988. It was coproduced by Loretta herself with label president Jimmy Bowen and Chip Hardy.

She was not as prolific a songwriter as she had been earlier in her career, writing only two tracks here, the very short (just under two minutes) and bouncy up-tempo ‘Mountain Climber’, a look at working your way up the hard way with a tart sideswipe at those who want to start at the top, and the affectionate portrait of a old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone rural preacher, ‘Elzie Brooks’. It should come as no surprise that he was a real person, the preacher whose services Loretta attended as a child in Butcher Holler; she notes in her book Coal Miner’s Daughter that he never took a penny for his ministry, and in this song compares him to TV preachers with their demands for money. These are both bright and entertaining if less memorable than Loretta’s classics.

The title track and lead single faltered at #57 on Billboard. A brightly delivered tale about rescuing a tired marriage written by Curly Putnam, Max D Barnes and Don Cook, the production sounds a bit dated now and I must confess even after a number of listens I’m slightly unclear whether this is intended to depict a marriage which only comes alive after dark, or a complete fantasy. The follow-up single, the gospelly ‘Fly Away’, penned by Frank Dycus and featuring Bela Fleck’s banjo, did not chart at all, and that marked the end of Loretta’s long association with MCA and its predecessor Decca.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’

easycomeIn 1992, George Strait teamed up with a new producer, ending an eight-year professional relationship with Jimmy Bowen, who had moved on to assume the presidency of rival label Capitol Nashville. The association with Tony Brown would prove to be even more enduring, lasting until the present day. A change in producers almost always results in a different musical direction. The first Brown-Strait collaboration, the soundtrack album to Pure Country, was certainly a departure for Strait, but due to its nature, a film soundtrack album isn’t always a good representation of an artist’s work. Our first glimpse at the direction in which Strait’s career would go can be seen with the 1993 album Easy Come, Easy Go.

At first glance, Easy Come, Easy Go seems to be a throwback to the Bowen years, perhaps as a reassurance to fans that Strait had no intention of continuing in the pop-country vein that had prevailed on the Pure Country soundtrack. The album opens with the Texas dance hall number, “Stay Out of My Arms”, the first of two songs contributed by Jim Lauderdale. The second Lauderdale-penned track, “I Wasn’t Fooling Around”, co-written with John Leventhal, continues in a similar vein. Also among the songwriting credits for the album are Curtis Wayne and Wayne Kemp, both of whom had contributed to Strait’s earlier projects. Between them, the duo contributed a total of three tracks to this album. “Lovebug” is a cover of the 1966 hit that Wayne and Kemp had written for George Jones. The pair teamed up with the legendary Faron Young to write the song “That’s Where My Baby Feels At Home”, and Wayne wrote “Just Look At Me” with Gerald Smith.

Despite these nods to Strait’s traditional roots, Easy Come, Easy Go does mark a shift in musical direction, seen most evidently on the title track, an Aaron Barker-Dean Dillon composition. “Easy Come, Easy Go”, the first single and the only one from this collection to go all the way to #1, marks the beginning of the modern George Strait. As the title suggests, this is a laid-back tune, not a hardcore honky-tonker. By 1993, the neotraditionalist movement was definitely winding down. This move to a more mainstream sound is likely a recognition of this, as well as an acknowledgment that most artists at the stage in their careers which Strait’s now was, usually began to experience declining commercial fortunes. Someone at MCA or in the Strait camp was obviously savvy enough to stay ahead of the curve and tweak their formula just enough to keep King George in the game.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Livin’ It Up’

livinitupGeorge Strait’s winning streak, which began in the 1980s, showed no signs of abating as the 1990s began. The Country Music Association named him Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row in 1990, and that same year he released what went on to be the biggest hit single of his career. “Love Without End, Amen”, the lead single from his 1990 album Livin’ It Up, became his 19th #1 hit overall, and the first multi-week #1 of his career, spending five weeks in the top slot in June and July. This feat is particularly impressive considering that at the time Strait was an artist about to enter his second decade on the charts. At a stage in his career when most artists begin to experience a commercial decline, Strait’s commercial fortunes were continuing to expand.

Written by Aaron Barker (who also wrote Strait’s earlier hit “Baby Blue”), “Love Without End, Amen” examines the relationship and unconditional love between a father and a son. In the first verse, the protagonist is a child afraid to face his father after getting into a fight at school. In the second verse, he finds himself in the role of father, when his own son finds himself in similar circumstances. In the third verse, the singer dreams that he has died and is ready to face his maker on Judgment Day. Between each verse is the chorus that delivers a simple yet profound message:

Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love
A secret that my daddy said was just between us
You see, daddies don’t just love their children every now and then,
It’s a love without end, amen.

Livin’ It Up was released in May 1990, while the lead single was still climbing the charts. It became Strait’s ninth consecutive #1 album. The cover art shows a confident Strait, in a tuxedo and jeans, and proudly displaying a belt buckle that acknowledged his status as the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year. His Ace in the Hole band joined him on two tracks — the Harlan Howard-penned “Someone Had To Teach You”, which opens the album, and “She Loves Me (She Don’t Love You)”, which was written and originally recorded by Conway Twitty. Eight years later, it would also be covered by Gary Allan. Strait was also joined once again by steel guitarist Paul Franklin and the legendary Johnny Gimble, who played fiddle throughout the album.

The second single released from the album was “Drinking Champagne”, written by Bill Mack, a DJ who wrote LeAnn Rimes’ breakthrough hit “Blue”. A perfect showcase for Strait’s crooning, this tune features some saxophone, an instrument I normally dislike on a country record, but in this case it works nicely. “Drinking Champagne” peaked at #4 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.

No George Strait album would be complete without a Dean Dillon song or two, and Livin’ It Up is no exception. Dillon contributed two cuts this time around — “I’ve Come To Expect It From You”, which was co-written with Buddy Cannon, and ” We’re Supposed To Do That Now And Then”, which was co-written with David Anthony and Joe Royer. “I’ve Come To Expect It From You” was the third single released from the album, and like “Love Without End, Amen”, it spent five weeks at #1.

Joining an already impressive list of songwriters on this album is the legendary Carl Perkins, who wrote the retro-sounding “When You’re A Man On Your Own”, one of my favorite songs on the album.

Livin’ It Up demonstrated a shift, albeit a very subtle one, from Strait’s 80s work. It is less Western-swing oriented and a little more radio-friendly than most of his 80s albums, but “radio-friendly” was not yet a pejorative term in 1990. The neotraditionalist movement was still in full swing, though this was about to change in the near future. Strait and co-producer Jimmy Bowen managed to put together a very satisfying album that was contemporary by the standards of the day, without being overproduced, and which still holds up nearly two decades after its release.  Still readily available from Amazon and iTunes, it is a worthy addition to any country music lover’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Ocean Front Property’

Ocean Front PropertyStrait was on a serious hot streak in 1987 when he released Ocean Front Property, his seventh studio album, co-produced with Jimmy Bowen again. Each of the three singles from the album went to #1, starting with the title track, and the album itself was the first album ever to debut at the top of the Billboard Country Album charts. At present, it is the only one of his 80s releases to have achieved double platinum status.

That title track, written by Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran and Royce Porter, has become one of George’s classics, with its ironic lyric telling his ex that he’s over her, and barely concealed subtext that only an idiot could believe that:

“I don’t love you, and now if you’ll buy that
I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona
From my front porch you can see the sea …
If you buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate in free”

Dean Dillon contributed two further songs, the solo composition ‘I’m All Behind You Now’, a resigned post-breakup number which closes the album in sightly downbeat mood, and the sweetly melancholic ‘Without You Here’, where he teamed up again with Royce Porter to produce the tale of a wife who can’t enjoy herself on a Caribbean cruise because her husband isn’t with her:

“There’s just no fun in the sun to be had
Without you here
It’s no place to be
This dream vacation is a bad situation
I’m in misery
In a sea of tears
Without you here”

It’s not altogether clear why they’re not vacationing together, but one assumes business kept him at home.  There is a happy ending, as he misses her too, and ends up flying out to join her. The song’s phrasing is very characteristic of Dillon’s work, and the song has faint but subtle Caribbean tinges to the production which do not stop it from sounding country.

The second single was another all-time Strait classic, the amusing western swing ‘All My Exes Live In Texas’, written by the great Sanger D Shafer. He had written ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ with his third wife Darlene, and he wrote this one with his fourth wife Lyndia. On one level this might be dismissed as little more than a novelty song, as the narrator reels off a list of the exes after his blood resulting in him escaping to Tennessee, but George’s laidback ironic delivery carries the track.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘#7’

georgestraitno7Despite its title, #7 was George Strait’s sixth studio album for MCA and his third collaboration with co-producer Jimmy Bowen. It was his seventh album overall, if 1985’s Greatest Hits compilation is taken into account. Released in May 1986, it continues where the previous year’s Something Special left off, allowing Strait to further examine his Texas music roots. The album relies heavily on Western swing and Texas shuffles, along with a few more contemporary numbers intended to be released to radio as singles.

It has never been a secret that George Strait is a huge Bob Wills fan. The album opens with his rendition of the Wills classic “Deep Water”. Like most Bob Wills tunes, it was intended to be a dance song, and as such, the lyrics are of secondary importance and are somewhat superficial. What it lacks in lyrical depth, however, it makes up for with an incredibly satisfying melody and Strait’s vocal performance is flawless, as is the fiddle playing of Johnny Gimble. Considered one of the greatest fiddle players in the history of country music, and an alumnus of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Gimble plays both the fiddle and mandolin throughout the album.

#7 generated two more #1 singles for Strait — “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” and “It Ain’t Cool To Be Crazy About You”. Both were from the pen of Dean Dillon, with Royce Porter sharing co-writer duties on the latter. They have gone on to become classics and both are on my short list of favorite George Strait hits. It was about this time that he developed his trademark, seemingly effortless crooning style, and truly began to blossom as an artist.

The truck-driving tune “Rhythm of the Road” allows for a brief change of pace before the album reverts back to a more laid-back style with the Western swing number “You Still Get to Me” and two Texas shuffle numbers — “Stranger Things Have Happened” and “Why’d You Go and Break My Heart”. “I’m Never Gonna Let You Go” is a more contemporary tune that probably would have done well as a single. It’s interesting that MCA chose to overlook it, releasing only the two aforementioned Dillon compositions to radio. Strait pays further homage to his Texas roots with the closing song, a remake of Tex Ritter’s “Cow Town”.

The one flaw of this album is that at 27 minutes and six seconds in length, it is too short. This is a forgivable shortcoming, however, because the quality of the songs more than compensates for the brevity of the collection. This is one of those rare albums that contains no filler, and for the most part doesn’t appear to have been recorded with the intention of racking up a lot of radio hits. This seems to be an album that Strait recorded to have fun, with a couple of radio-ready tracks thrown in almost as an afterthought.

#7 became Strait’s fifth album to attain gold status, eventually earning platinum certification. However, Strait’s continued commercial success in what should have been a banner year for him, was overshadowed by the tragic death of his 13-year-old daughter Jenifer in a car accident about a month after the album was released. The always private Strait never spoke publicly of the tragedy, except to dedicate his 1986 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year trophy to Jenifer’s memory.

An overlooked gem in the vast Strait catalog, #7 is readily available in both CD and digital formats from Amazon . It is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’

Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your MindGeorge Strait’s fourth album, released in 1984, marked yet another advance in his career. He started working with a new producer (his third), label head Jimmy Bowen, but for the first time George himself received a co-production credit, something he has done ever since. There was no obvious change in musical direction, as the album was once more a solidly country production, still flying in the face of country radio’s pop influences. The musicians are in great form throughout, especially fiddle great Johnny Gimble, who positively sparkles. George’s vocals are still a little rawer than his more recent fans will be accustomed to hearing him.

The album offers a fine set of songs which have a pretty cohesive feel, despite a range of tempos, thanks to the solid production, and the subject matter. The songs here cover two basic themes: honky tonking, and lost love/trying to find someone new, with the two merging at times. Indeed, a number of the songs could be interepreted as parts of the same story, and with different sequencing and a couple of changes (omitting ‘The Fireman’ and possibly ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’), this could almost have been presented as a concept album.

The decisions paid off. This was George’s second straight #1 album, eventually selling platinum, and it supported three top 5 singles. It also won both ACM and CMA Album of the Year awards in 1985, and contributed to his winning the Male Vocalist title from both organizations. A massive sea-change was about to roll over the country music industry with an influx of new traditonally-inspired artists, but of all the established artists, George Strait was perhaps in the best position.

Favored songwriter this time around was the legendary Sanger D Shafer, who contributed four of the songs, including the title track, which he wrote with his then-wife Darlene Shafer. ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ was a #1 hit single and is still one of George Strait’s great classics. Instantly recognisable from the plaintive fiddle opening, George’s vocal is perfectly restrained with just an underlying hint of the pain beneath, as his jilted husband speaks to the ex-wife who has abandoned him for another man in Dallas.

George also picked Shafer’s much-recorded ‘Honky Tonk Saturday Night’, which had been on John Anderson’s Wild And Blue a couple of years earlier. Shafer also wrote the beautifully measured ‘What Did You Expect Me To Do’, which is one of my favorite tracks. Here, another cuckolded husband, this time one who has moved on, offers a gentle reproach to his cheating ex:

“Each time I forgave you, you grew bolder
And each time you hurt me, my heart grew colder
Sure, I loved you, but I’ve found someone new
What did you expect me to do?”

Shafer’s fourth cut was the mid-tempo ‘I Need Someone Like Me’, which feels like a sequel to ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’. The lonely protagonist dreams of finding a woman in the same boat so they can cry on one another’s shoulders:

“Someone lonesome, someone hurtin, someone blue –
That’ll be you
We’ll help each other start all over
A tear for a tear, a shoulder for a shoulder
You’ll be someone that’s born to lose
‘Cause I need someone like me to hold onto.”

It may not sound like the most promising basis for a relationship, but George sells it in the song, as he conveys a mixture of hope and unhappiness. What might be a third stage in the same story comes with the charming waltz, ‘You’re Dancing This Dance All Wrong’, written by John Porter McMeans and Ron Moore, as the protagonist thinks he may have found new love:

“The way that you touch me I want to give in
But it’s not so easy holding you when
You’re dancing this dance all wrong
New steps don’t come easy when old memories hang on
I’m finding I’m falling as the music plays on
Keep dancing this dance all wrong.”

The second single was the melodic ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’, written by Sonny Throckmorton and Casey Kelly which allowed George to exercise the smoother side of his voice as he tracks the end of yet another relationship. The final single was the frenetic double-entendre of ‘The Fireman’ (written by Mack Vickery and Wayne Kemp), not one of my personal favorites despite some smoking fiddle.

Kemp also wrote ‘I Should Have Watched That First Step’, which I much prefer, a rueful admission of regret from a cheating husband who can see his wife slipping away as a result of his own actions:

“Though she’s still lovin’ me
It’s not the way it used to be
That first step did something to her mind
I watched her slip away a little more every day
For my conscience couldn’t live with all that shame
And she’s growing colder since the day I told her
And the love we had will never be the same.”

An unrepentant cheater makes his appearance in Fred J Freiling’s sprightly and surprisingly cheerful ‘Love Comes From the Other Side of Town’, as love has staled at home:

“The feelings that we shared are just no longer there
And love comes from the other side of town
When love means an hour with your stand-in
And not an empty house where love just has been.”

Finally, there is a very authentic-sounding helping of western swing in the form of ‘Any Old Time’; it is insubstantial lyrically but very enjoyable thanks to the impeccable musicianship.

This was George’s finest album to date, and one which helped to consolidate his status as one of the major male country stars of the mid 80s. Its pure country sound has not dated in the manner of more pop contemporaries, and with the success of this album George Strait was in an ideal position to compete on the same stage as the new traditionalists who were about to burst on the scene and change the face of country music, and for whom he had helped to pave the way.

It is still readily available.

Grade: A

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Right Or Wrong’

george strait right or wrongIn October 1983, the month and year I was born, George Strait was riding a wave of success from his first 2 albums, the second housing his first set fo chart-toppers, when his third album, Right Or Wrong, was released.  It would be his first #1 charting album, and continue his hot streak on the Country Singles chart as all 3 singles from this record would reach the top spot.  Right Or Wrong was Strait’s first teaming with producer Ray Baker, and his last that doesn’t list George Strait as a co-producr, and despite the album’s success, it would be their only collaboration – Strait would team with label-head Jimmy Bowen for the rest of his 1980s releases.

The lead single was also used to make George’s first music video.  ‘You Look So Good In Love’ is a romantic-sounding ballad about a man who is observing his former lover as she shines in the arms of another man.  The spoken-word bridge was something Strait rejected at first, but apparently the producer won out and it stayed in the song.  But he had similar feelings about the music video, saying years later that he “lobbied to get that thing pulled off the air so no one would ever have to watch it again.”  He also credits the making of that first music video with his aversion to music videos, a medium George Strait has notably ignored throughout his career.  ‘You Look So Good In Love’ shot to the top of the charts, becoming his third single to reach the summit.

The album’s title cut would become the album’s second-single, and second consecutive chart-topper.  The song itself is a jazz tune dating back to the early 1920s, and has been recorded by dozens of singers.  Bob Wills had long been performing the song, and had recorded a version of his own.  But it was Strait’s recording that made the song famous again – becoming the biggest hit recording the the western swing standard and winning the songwriter, Haven Gillespie, an ASCAP Award for it, some 65 years after it was written.

‘Let’s Fall To Pieces Together’ is a crying honky-tonk number with a hard intro, ‘Pardon me, you left your tears on the jukebox, and I’m afraid they got mixed up with mine‘.  The fiddle-laden number sounds as good today as it did 26 years ago and is still one of my favorite Strait singles.  It’s also one of the first instances of him employing the easy crooning style he would become known for in later years.  The tune was written by Dickey Lee, Tommy Rocco, and the legendary Johnny Russell.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Reba’

reba mcentire - rebaThis album is not even in my top ten Reba albums, though there are individual songs I dearly love on it. However, Reba’s 14th studio album was significant for Reba and her career for a number of reasons.

Reba reflected a time of important transition in her personal life. Her divorce became final in November of 1987, and as she says in her autobiography, Reba: My Story,

Something was shifting inside of me. Maybe the reason was my new freedom as an unmarried woman – for the first time in my life, not having to answer to anyone but myself; or maybe it was the sense of confidence that came from restructuring my organization and putting some of my long-held pet ideas into practice. Whatever the reason, in 1988, I found myself drawn to the old Aretha Franklin hit “Respect.” It just seemed to connect with my mental outlook at the time.

Reba talked with her producer, Jimmy Bowen, about using it to open the new 1988 show. Though he was a bit surprised she liked that one, Bowen suggested she record it as one of the needed up-tempo numbers for her next album. She did, along with others that were more R & B, jazz or pop.

Reba was released in April of 1988 and received more negative criticism from traditional country circles than any of her previous albums, though it stayed at #1 on Billboard’s Country chart for 8 weeks that summer and she continued to receive awards such as Favorite Female Country Artist (AMA), Favorite Female Vocalist (TNN), etc. She had previously been so outspoken about loving her country roots and recording traditional country music that it came as somewhat of a surprise she recorded an album with no fiddles and no steel, more keyboard and more synthesizer.

Her previous career-making album, “Whoever’s In New England,” had also had some numbers that many considered more cross-over songs. But Reba said about that one (again in her autobiography),

I never set out to record a “crossover” record. As I’ve said, I’ve always considered myself a country artist and never wanted to abandon my roots. I had simply come to the conclusion that it would be better for me just to do good material, and if it happened to reach across the pop charts – well, fine – that would be an unexpected little extra.

She similarly defended “Respect” on this album. In a segment on “Respect” in CMT’s “Reba McEntire: Greatest Stories,” Reba talks about the reaction she got when she performed it as a dance number on the CMAs that year. People asked her afterwards if she’d thought about the fact that she was doing a pop number on a country awards show and she said no, she really hadn’t. It was up-tempo and she loved the song and was a big fan of Aretha Franklin. Plus, she was excited to show people she could move after years of standing behind a microphone.

And “Respect” is certainly a great song. Rolling Stones rated Aretha’s version #5 on their 2004 list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time.  However, many of the other cuts on the album aren’t great and seem more like filler and actually detract from the other good songs in the set.

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