My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jimmy Ritchey

Album Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘Vinyl’

51yqdhejaxl-_ss500I don’t get excited about too many new country artists these days; I’ve long since given up hope that a modern day Randy Travis will come along and save a genre that is teetering on the edge of the abyss. Those hopes are occasionally revived when a new traditional-sounding artist emerges, usually only to be quickly dashed when the artist fails to gain any commercial traction and either fades into oblivion or sells out starts following the latest trends. Only time will tell if William Michael Morgan is the latest to follow that pattern or if he will be the exception to the rule.

I’ve been looking forward to Morgan’s debut album ever since his EP was released last spring and reviewed by Occasional Hope. The EP’s six tracks all appear again on here, along with five new tunes. These days, anything that isn’t bro-country is worthwhile, but even against such lowered standards, Vinyl is a solid effort. Storms of Life it is not; in too many instances Morgan and his producers (Jimmy Ritchey and Scott Hendricks) play it safe by making some artistic compromises, but it is still a big step forward for traditional country music and the people who love it.

To date, only one single — the somewhat bland “I Met a Girl” has been released. Released just over a year ago, it landed at #3 on the airplay chart and at #10 on the Billboard’s primary country singles chart, and it’s somewhat surprising that no follow-up singles were released prior the full album hitting the streets. There are a pair of good contenders: the catchy opening track “People Like Me”, which finds Morgan well aware, and in fact proud of, the class distinctions between himself and those who are economically better off. The equally catchy and steel-drenched “Missing”, which finds him looking forward to going off the grid for a bit, seems like it would also be well received by radio. Those are the two best of the previously unreleased tracks. The poignant “I Know Who He Is”, about a loved one — possibly a father or grandfather — who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is a good song but unfortunately some EDM element managed to find their way into the production. “Something to Drink About” is an even more egregious example in its use of EDM, but it is a throwaway tune regardless of its questionable production choices. I did not care for the bluesy “Spend It All on You” at all.

As far as the previously released tracks are concerned, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the title track. I found its overuse of the word “girl” to be quite grating. This is one of those songs that features the pedal steel prominently, in the hope that the listener will not notice that it’s not a very country song. The coming of age tune “Backseat Driver” isn’t bad, but the electric guitar needs to be toned down a bit. On the other hand, “Lonesomeville” (a Morgan co-write) is excellent and reminiscent of Keith Whitley. “Cheap Cologne” in which Morgan is cast as a cuckolded husband is also very good.

Overall, Vinyl is a bit of a mixed bag but there is more here to like than to dislike. William Michael Morgan is an artist that traditionalists really ought to support; artists like him need to succeed if there is to be any hope at all for the future of our genre.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘A Few Questions’

41TBJpIpiKLBy 2003, Clay Walker’s popularity with country radio was on the wane. A Few Questions, his first and only album for RCA was somewhat successful in helping him reversing the trend, with the first two of the album’s three singles reaching the #9 — his first entries in the Top 10 since 2000’s The Chain of Love.

Produced by Walker with Jimmy Ritchey, A Few Questions has a slicker sound than Clay’s earlier work, reflecting country music’s overall trend towards more pop-oriented material. The title track was the album’s first single and despite its rather uninspired-sounding title, it is a very nice ballad in which the narrator struggles with questions the world’s injustices. I was less impressed by the R&B-tinged “I Can’t Sleep”, which Clay co-wrote with Chely Wright. I preferred the more traditional third release “Jesus Was a Country Boy”, a Walker co-write with Rivers Rutherford. Radio disagreed, as it only reached #31 on the charts.

The album cuts are, for the most part, disappointing. The fiddle-led “This Is What Matters” is hands down the album’s best song, but most of the others are too slick for my liking — the funky, horn-laden “When She’s Good She’s Good”, the rock-tinged “Countrified” and “I’m In The Mood For You”, and the poppy “Sweet Sun Angel”, just to name a few examples. “I Don’t Want To Know” isn’t bad, but it strays too far into pop power ballad territory.

All in all, this is a rather forgettable album that really isn’t worth bothering with, aside from three or four tracks. It is, however, available at budget prices, which may make it worth investigating for some fans.

Grade: C

EP Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘William Michael Morgan’

william michael morganOccasionally my faith in the future of mainstream country music is revived. That’s when an artist like William Michael Morgan emerges, signed to a major label (in this case Warner Brothers). When Razor X reviewed his debut single ‘I Met A Girl’ last year he praised Morgan’s song and country credentials, while noting, correctly, that the song was ‘generic and unmemorable’. It is saved by Morgan’s voice, which has tonal echoes of Keith Whitley, and his tender commitment to the song which makes it quite convincing. The single is slowly making its way up the chart, and has sold over 30,000 downleads, prompting Warner Brothers to issue this six-track EP, which gives us the chance to hear how he stands as an artist beyond that one song.

I was concerned when the record opened with the love song ‘Vinyl, which is similarly pleasant but underwhelming, and suffers from too many repeats of the word ‘girl’. It was written by Wade Kirby, Ashley Gorley, and Carson Chamberlain. ‘Beer Drinker’ (written by Wynn Varble, David Lee and Don Poythress ) raises the tempo a little, and is bearable potential radio fodder but a little dittyish and over-produced, at least by the standards of this record. None of these songs is bad, just not likely to set the world on fire.

But the second half of the set is much more like it. ‘Lonesomeville’ is an excellent sad song written by Morgan with Mark Sherrill, Ash Underwood, and former Lyric Street artist Trent Tomlinson, A steel guitar dominates the arrangement, complementing Morgan’s classic country vocal.

Just as good, the plaintive ‘Cheap Cologne’ has the protagonist sleeplessly fretting over the too-obvious signs of his wife’s infidelity:

She’ll get in from God knows where
I’ll smell that honky tonk in her hair
I don’t know if there someone she’s holdin’
But my suspicion keeps on growing
And a shower won’t cover it up when she gets home
She don’t smoke cigarettes and I don’t wear cheap cologne

But tonight she’s in for a surprise as he plans to be gone before she gets home. This song was written by Jimmy Ritchey, Odie Blackmon and another ex-Lyric Street performer who sadly never quite made it, Kevin Denney. (Incidentally I understand Denney is planning on releasing new music himself in the near future.)

Finally, the valedictory ‘Back Street Driver’ (written by Robert Counts, Nicolette Hayford, and Matt Willis) is a father’s good luck message for a departing son starting out on his new life:

There’s a Bible on the dash and a map tucked in the door
I can’t be your back seat driver any more

The only disturbing note is that he feels the need to pack a baseball bat in the back.

This is a very promising debut from an artist I very much hope to hear more from.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Strong’

strongHaving left his label after the latest downturn in his fortunes, Tracy signed to Dreamworks where he was reunited with old producer James Stroud (and new label head) for 2004’s Strong. He didn’t write any of the material himself, but the result was a much better record than his last couple of efforts, and rather more successful commercially, at least to start with.

The wistfully beautiful ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’, previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons, was a comeback hit for Tracy, reaching #4. The cheerfully philosophical ‘It’s All How You Look At It’ was less successful, although it did sneak into the top 40; it is pleasant enough but a bit bland. The fun honky tonker ‘Sawdust On Her Halo’ is pretty good, but was sadly not a big hit with radio.

The title track is a paean to a single mother’s hard work, and comes across as a bit pandering because the woman in it is a cipher; she doesn’t really live as an individual character rather than a stereotype. The more downbeat and much more interesting (at least in its first half) ‘Bobby Darwin’s Daughter’ is a sensitive story song about a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory life, and longing for the innocence of her own childhood, when

She’d ask where God came from
Instead of wondering where He’s been

The second half of the song is a little more predictable, when she regains her faith when she is nearly killed in an accident and her remorseful and formerly neglectful husband remembers he loves her after all. It was written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson, and Rick Huckaby. The nostalgic ‘When Daddy Was A Strong Man’ also tenderly recalls childhood.

The thoughtful ‘Stones’ has a pretty, delicate melody and sensitive vocal interpretation of its lyric about the passing of time. ‘Everywhere But Hollywood’ is quite a good song contrasting reality with fantasy, written by Bobby Pinson, Jimmy Ritchey and Jason Sellers.

The leaving song ‘A Far Cry From You’ is one of the album’s few heartbreak numbers, and is very good. Also sad, but in more dramatic fashion, the protagonist of ‘The Questionnaire’ discovers the true state of his marriage when he finds an old women’s magazine where his wife has filled in a questionnaire on the subject remorselessly ranging over his various failings and her unhappiness, and ending with the devastating answer to “Do you still love him?”. We can guess the answer isn’t yes by his petulant “damn that questionnaire”. It is slightly over-produced but is a neatly crafted song.

‘What The Flames Feel Like’ brings more of a Southern rock edge, and is convincingly performed, while the mid-tempo ‘Think Of Me’ reminds the listener of the role of those who keep them safe by willingly going into danger themselves.

As Tracy was not able to sustain the success of the initial single, sales faltered, and Dreamworks dropped him after the record had run its course. However this was definitely a return to form, and is worth picking up. Subsequently, Tracy moved to Mercury (his last major-label deal), but they released only a hits package with the two new songs not doing well enough as singles to keep him on the label.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘When The Lights Go Out (Tracie’s Song)’

markchesnuttSince the major label phase of his career ended just over a decade ago, Mark Chesnutt has continued to release new music on a fairly steady basis on a variety of small labels. It’s been three years since his most recent album Outlaw, a collection of cover tunes, was released. He is finally back with some original music, released on his own label, the whimsically-named (but grammatically incorrect) Nada Dinero.

In a recent interview, Chesnutt expressed some regret that he didn’t spend more time during his commercial heyday honing his songwriting skills. He sets to rectify that with “When The Lights Go Out”, which he co-wrote with Nashville songwriters Jimmy Ritchey and Roger Springer. The traditional ballad manages to avoid the production excesses of most contemporary releases without sounding retro or dated. The subject matter — a lonely musician who would rather be home with his wife than out on the road — isn’t terribly original, but it’s a refreshing change from the too-loud redneck posturing that passes for country music these days.

A decade ago, a song like this still had an outside chance of becoming a hit, but given the amount of time that Chesnutt has been out of the mainstream spotlight, combined with the lack of the promotional muscle that only a major label can provide, “When The Lights Go Out” will regrettably not get the amount of attention it deserves. It will, however, be much appreciated by longtime fans who miss hearing artists like Mark Chesnutt on the radio. An album is planned for later in the year. I am very much looking forward to it and hope it doesn’t fail to materialize like so many proposed independent projects. I couldn’t find a YouTube link to the song, but it’s well worth the $1.29 it costs to download it from Amazon or iTunes.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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