My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Joe Diffie

Predictions for the 48th annual ACM Awards

Unknown-5Now that we’ve turned the clocks forward an hour and our calendars from March to April, it’s time to turn our attention to Las Vegas and the annual Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. CBS is carrying the show live Sunday Night (April 7) and it promises to be an eclectic mix of mainstream country music; hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. Look for Tim McGraw to sing his latest “Highway Don’t Care” with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, while Jason Aldean is rumored to be involving Joe Diffie in his performance of “1994.” Kelly Clarkson will be singing “Don’t Rush” and Bryan plans to debut a new single, “Crash My Party.” But I’m most excited to see what promises to be a buzzed about moment – Garth Brooks and George Strait collaborating for the first time to pay tribute to show producer Dick Clark.

Here are the nominees and predictions:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Miranda Lambert

· Blake Shelton

· Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo 

As a fan voted award, the logic would be on Taylor Swift to take this home. And while she’s the likely winner, I’m wondering if Blake Shelton’s Voice popularity may propel him to the podium instead. There has to be a chance someone besides Swift could take this home, right? Well, I’m not betting on it, but Shelton seems the most likely one to do it.

Unknown-1Male Vocalist of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Eric Church

· Toby Keith

· Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo 

It’s nice to see Keith sneak in a nod here, as he’s still a gifted vocalist and “Hope On The Rocks” proves it. Aldean is just too weak a singer to make much of a significant impact and I can’t see the Academy embracing Church. So this as a two-way race between show co-hosts Shelton and Bryan, and I only see the ACM awarding it to Bryan if they want to shake it up. But they may see him as an eventual winner (like after he releases his next album) and go with Shelton again.

The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - ArrivalsFemale Vocalist of the Year

· Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Martina McBride

· Kacey Musgraves

· Taylor Swift

· Carrie Underwood

While I would love to see Musgraves take this home, she’s too new for such a prestigious honor. McBride’s a broken record at this point – she hasn’t had an impactful hit single in years and while Underwood is releasing some of the most ambitious songs of her career, she’ll likely be seen as old hat by this point. This is Lambert’s award to lose and Swift’s dominance in a completely different genre market isn’t going to change that.

images-2Vocal Duo of the Year

· Big & Rich

· Florida Georgia Line

· Love and Theft

· Sugarland

· Thompson Square – Jonathan Pappalardo 

If Florida Georgia Line wins this award, I’m done. “Cruise” may’ve been one of the biggest hits of last year, but popularity hardly denotes quality. Thompson Square should repeat here and even though they aren’t as strong as they could be, they’re the best of this bunch outside of Sugarland.

imagesVocal Group of the Year

· The Band Perry

· Eli Young Band

· Lady Antebellum

· Little Big Town – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Zac Brown Band

After their come out of nowhere Grammy win in February, Little Big Town are the darlings of Nashville and that will continue with a win here. Their success is long overdue, as is a win in this category. Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry can have fun duking it out for second place.

Unknown-2New Artist of the Year

· Florida Georgia Line – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Brantley Gilbert

· Jana Kramer

This is really a toss up. Any of these three could win although Kramer has proven the most country minded of the nominees. She’s my favorite, but I’m not counting out Florida Georgia Line. It’s another fan voted award and “Cruise” is insanely popular.

TornadoAlbum of the Year [Award goes to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· Blown Away – Carrie Underwood (19/Arista Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright

· Chief – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· Red – Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records), Produced by: Jeff Bhasker, Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, Jacknife Lee, Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift, Butch Walker, Dan Wilson

· Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright, Jeff Stevens

· Tornado – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

A good list of mainstream albums. Chief would seem the frontrunner since it already won the CMA Award, but this is the first race to include Little Big Town’s superstar making set. I’m going out on a limb and say Tornado will take this home.

Unknown-6Single Record of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band (Republic Nashville), Produced by: Mike Wrucke

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert (RCA), Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf

· “Pontoon” – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes (Atlantic/WMN), Produced by: Hunter Hayes, Dann Huff

“Pontoon.” It won the CMA, a Grammy, and reversed the fortunes of a band too talented for the oblivion it was heading for. There’s no way they’ll lose, but if they do it’ll go to Hayes and his sophomore single “Wanted.”

Unknown-7Song of the Year [Award to Composer(s)/Publisher(s)/Artist(s)]

· “A Woman Like You” – Lee Brice, Composers: Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, Jon Stone, Publishers: 3JB Music (BMI), Adios Pantalones (SESAC), Hears That Skyline Music (SESAC), Sixteen Stars Music (BMI), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI)

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band, Composers: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay, Publishers: Cal IV Songs (ASCAP), Will Hoge Music (BMI)

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert, Composers: Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Publishers: Pink Dog Publishing (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI) – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Composers: Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Publishers: Bug Music (BMI), Ole Purple Cape Music (BMI), Sinnerlina (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI)

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes, Composers: Hunter Hayes, Troy Verges, Publishers: Happy Little Man Publishing (BMI), Songs From The Engine Room (BMI), Songs Of Universal Inc. (BMI)

“Over You.” The ACM will follow in the footsteps of the CMA and bring Lambert and Shelton to the podium. Two genre superstars are just too hard to ignore. Their only competition, Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ wasn’t even nominated, so I just don’t see anyone else taking this home.

Unknown-8Songwriter of the Year

· Rodney Clawson

· Dallas Davidson (Already won, off-camera award) 

· Josh Kear

· Luke Laird

· Shane McAnally

Davidson has already won; this is an off-camera award. But I would’ve gone with McAnally who seems to be on fire right now. His collaborations with Brandy Clark are killer.

Unknown-3Video of the Year [Award to Producer(s)/Director(s)/Artist(s)] *(Off Camera Award) [TIE]

·” Creepin'” – Eric Church, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Peter Zavadil – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves, Producers: Perry Bean, Kacey Musgraves Director: Perry Bean

· “Tornado” – Little Big Town, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Shane Drake

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes Producers: Stephanie Reeves, Eric Williams Directors: Traci Goudie, Patrick Hubik

· “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift, Producer: John Nguyen Director: Declan Whitebloom

· “The Wind” – Zac Brown Band, Producer: Ben Kalina Director: Mike Judge

Most of Zac Brown Band’s videos are distracting, with annoying concepts that take away from the song completely. “The Wind” is no exception. The Swift clip is awful and does nothing to portray her maturity and “Wanted” isn’t special enough to stand out from this pack. Church deserves this the most, as both the song and video for “Creepin’” are completely original. This is where he should get some much-deserved hardware. 

Unknown-9Vocal Event of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company] *(Off Camera Award)

· “Don’t Rush” – Kelly Clarkson Featuring Vince Gill (19/RCA/Columbia Nashville) Produced by: Dann Huff

· “Easy” – Rascal Flatts Featuring Natasha Bedingfield (Big Machine Records) Produced by: Dann Huff, Brian Kennedy, Rascal Flatts

·”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney (Duet With Tim McGraw) (Blue Chair/BNA) Produced by: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney  – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Let It Rain” – David Nail Featuring Sarah Buxton (MCA Nashville) Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell

· “The Only Way I Know” – Jason Aldean With Luke Bryan & Eric Church (Broken Bow) Produced by: Michael Knox

What a terrible, terrible bunch of songs that equate to nothing more than empty opportunistic pandering. The only worthwhile songs here are “Don’t Rush” and “Let It Rain” and they are hardly ‘events.’ I bet Chesney/McGraw will take this home but if it wasn’t an off-camera award, than I’d say Aldean/Bryan/Church. The latter would make for ratings gold on stage, but it would be a wasted opportunity off-camera. In truth, though, I couldn’t care less about these nominees if I tried.

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘Nickels And Dimes And Love’

Vern’s days of major chart success were about over by the time Nickels and Dimes and Love was released in March 1993, not surprisingly for an artist 58 years old. Although the hits had largely stopped, the excellent recordings continued in abundance. This album has a little different history behind it than Vern’s other Columbia releases as producer Rick Hall took Vern to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record this album.

Vern had been off the charts for over a year when Columbia released ”Back When” as a single. Since the single only reached #67, Columbia gave up on Vern. Without major label backing, there would be no more chart singles for Vern Gosdin, and no more major label albums, except for various hit collections.

The album opens with the title track, a nostalgic look at the early years of a successful relationship, when times were tough and money was in short supply. This song falls in the usual medium-slow groove that Gosdin favored. The song may be familiar to some as a track on John Michael Montgomery’s Life’s A Dance album.

Remember when pocket change was all we had
And all those calls from the corner phone booth collect to mom and dad
And that old worn out couch was called our bed
When our cuisine was pork and beans, baloney and day old bread.

Remember that damn old car that kept on breaking down
And all the times it left me stranded thumbing all over town
And that old weekly paycheck just never stretched enough
Back in the times of nickels and dimes and love.

Although not a hit, the Hugh Prestwood-penned “Back When” was an excellent song, yet another nostalgic look back, but this time at a relationship that is struggling. I’m not sure that the song ever would have been a huge hit, but it likely would have been a top twenty record had it been released a few years earlier. Tempo of the song would be described as medium fast and a banjo is discernable along with outstanding fiddle and steel guitar.


Back when these cloudy hearts were sunny skies
And there were stars, not teardrops in these eyes
We wouldn’t even let the moon get blue
Darling I swear we need to get back to – back when

“Where The Tall Grass Grows” follows up the theme of looking back, this time on a relationship, his own, that is over. This song would be recorded by several artists, including George Jones and Ricky Van Shelton.

There’s three bedrooms, hardwood flooring and the kitchen’s new
It’s got everything a family needs with a backyard view
Ask anyone where it is, everybody knows
Who used to live here, where the tall grass grows.

The first three songs were all outside material. We now come to the first of five songs Vern co-wrote. Jukeboxes were, at one time, a frequent topic of country songs. The year 1993 saw two such songs chart in Doug Supernaw’s excellent “Honky Tonkin’ Fool” (a song that deserved better than being marooned at #50) and Joe Diffie’s “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox” (it reached #3). Vern’s nice medium-tempo ballad , “Bury Me In A Jukebox”, would have made a good single release as it is a better song than either the Diffie or Supernaw songs.

I’ve been hangin’ in here every night since you’ve been gone
This old honky tonk’s become my home away from home
I even got my favorite chair
It always sits right here
There by the jukebox, where I don’t feel so alone
Every time I put my money in
I hear the saddest song
My friends on the jukebox don’t mind if I sing along

So bury me in a jukebox when I die
Every time I think of her I get so lonesome I could cry
And it takes me up to heaven when they play made in heaven
Bury me in a jukebox when I die

Another piece of  outside material, this time from the trio of Auldridge, Nicholson and Trils,  “Any Old Miracle” is another slow ballad, this one of a distressed man asking God for a small miracle, this miracle in the form of some help in forgetting a lost love.

It’s late, and I sure do hate to bother you
But I know you’re the only one
Who knows what I’ve been goin’ through
It’s her, keepin’ me up all night again
And Lord I just had to call on you
To ask a favor of a friend
Any ol’ miracle that you could send me down
Don’t go to too much trouble Lord
What ever you might have around
‘Cause I’m never gettin’ over her
Without some help from you
I’m gonna need a miracle
Any ol’ miracle will do

“I Like My Country Music Kinda Rock”, another Vern co-write, is a bit disingenuous, since I’ve seen little evidence that Vern ever had much rock in his soul. This song would be best described as up-tempo country, with very country instrumentation. I really like the song and feel it might have made a good single.

“Two Good People With a Love Gone Bad” is a fine duet with Janie Fricke. Written by Vern Gosdin, Buddy Cannon and Dean Dillon, this slow ballad shows just how good a duet can sound when a pair of excellent, compatible voices are paired up.

Vern’s composition “What Are We Gonna Do About Me” attempts to show the perspective of a the child in divorce proceedings. The perspective of the child is a sad perspective, no doubt, when the topic is divorce. My folks were married for 54 years so it’s not a matter I personally ever had to face. “Gone in a Heartbeat” is another slow ballad provided by other writers. A cautionary ballad about taking someone for granted.

“Better Time to Say Goodbye” reunites songwriters Cannon, Dillon and Gosdin, and closes the album with a sad slow ballad, this one detailing the final act of the break-up.

Few artists have ever exited a record label with such an exquisite album. The album is a bit of a downer, but there’s not a song on the album that I don’t like. I really loved the duet with Janie Fricke but I don’t think there is just one standout track. Vern is in great voice throughout, and the accompaniment is solid country throughout. While I think Vern was still officially signed to the label for another year or two, Columbiawould issue no further albums of new material.  I would give this album a solid “A” – if you want to give it an A+, I won’t argue.

Classic Rewind – Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie and Porter Wagoner – ‘Can I Trust You With My Heart’

Here’s a Grand Ole Opry performance of Travis Tritt’s #1 single from early 1993. The original version can be found on his T-R-O-U-B-L-E album. It was the second single from that project:

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Tim McGraw’

Tim’s debut album saw him presented as one of the myriad “hat acts” who swarmed all over country radio in the early 90s, inspired both by the neotraditional movement and the monster success of Garth Brooks. Producers James Stroud and Byron Gallimore make the music far twangier and more traditional than his more recent work, but also rather more generic. Still in his early 20s, Tim had not quite managed to find his own voice or artistic identity, and he did not stand out from the competition.

Having said that, though, the songs themeslves are pretty solid. Tim’s debut single ‘Welcome To The Club’ failed to make the top 40 but makes quite a pleasant mid tempo opener, with Tim empathizing with a similarly heartbroken friend. Much better is the up-tempo ‘Memory Lane’, one of two Joe Diffie co-writes on the album, which had previously been recorded by Diffie soundalike Keith Palmer on his self-titled Epic release in 1991. Like Palmer, Tim’s version reflects Diffie’s vocal inflections, and although it is an enjoyable track, it lacks individuality. Much the same goes for the heartbreak ballad ‘Tears In The Rain’, also co-written by Diffie, which the man himself finally got around to recording on his underwhelming Life’s So Funny set in 1995.

The third and last single, honky tonk dance tune ‘Two Steppin’ Mind’ is quite enjoyable but was another flop. It’s commonplace these days to deplore the business practices of Curb Records, but they did keep supporting Tim’s career when he was struggling to break through when many other labels would have let him go after three failed singles, never to be heard from again.

The best song on the album is ‘The Only Thing That I Have Left’, an excellent ballad written by Clay Blaker, and which George Strait had cut on his Strait From The Heart album back in 1982. Tim sings it with commitment, with its lyric about a washed up singer clinging to love no doubt ringing true after he had spent the last few years touring small venues while building up his career. It is not unfair to say that he was no Strait, and perhaps he was also a little too young to entirely convince on this number.

Also good, ‘You Can Take It With You (When You Go)’ is bouncily cheerful and radio friendly western swing, written by Frank Dycus and Kerry Kurt Phillips. This wry response to a woman leaving a man with nothing, taking the entire contents of their home, might have been a good single choice, as it has more personality than most of the tracks.

Well, she took everything but the kitchen sink
If I had me a glass Lord, I’d pour me a drink …

I oughta call somebody but I ain’t got a phone
Just goes to show you can take it with you when you go

‘What Room Was The Holiday In?’ was the first Tim McGraw track I ever heard, and I’m still rather fond of it, with its banked harmonies, play on words, and outraged sarcasm addressed at a cheating lover:

You’ve got a glow that’s not a suntan
And a new gleam in your eyes
Oh, it must have been one great vacation
Girl you look so satisfied

Tell me what room was the holiday in?
Was I out of your mind when you turned to him?
What a good time it must have been
Tell me, what room was the holiday in?

You said you needed a small vacation
Just a couple of days all by yourself
So off you went in a new direction
And what you found was someone else

This track was produced by Doug Johnson.

The wearied farmer’s lament ‘Ain’t No Angels’, written by Billy Montana and Brad Davis, is another very good song, but one which Tim was not quite up to vocally at this stage in his career. ‘What She Left Behind’ and ‘I Keep It Under My Hat’ are filler rounding out the tracklist – not unlistenable by any means, but not demanding repeat listens.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of radio success, the album did not sell particularly well. Not an essential purchase by any means, but not bad if you can find it cheaply enough (and used copies are very cheap), it may be of interest to Tim’s most diehard fans, but also those who have cooled on his more recent direction but missed out on this when it came out. I admit that I hadn’t listened to it in several years before revisiting it when we decided to cover Tim as this month’s Spotlight Artist, but I enjoyed it much more than I remembered, generic though it may be – and definitely more than his latest effort.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Week ending 6/18/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: I Want To Be With You Always — Lefty Frizzell (Columbia)

1961: Hello Walls — Faron Young (Capitol)

1971: You’re My Man — Lynn Anderson (Columbia)

1981: What Are We Doin’ In Love — Dottie West with Kenny Rogers (Liberty)

1991: If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets) — Joe Diffie (Epic)

2001: Grown Men Don’t Cry — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2011: Without You — Keith Urban (Capitol)

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘This Is Country Music’

Brad Paisley was our Spotlight Artist last November, and he has produced some outstanding material in the past. His last few releases, however, have been on a downward spiral, and sadly his latest release accelerates the trend. He cowrote almost all the material with a variety of partners, most often including Kelley Lovelace and/or Chris Dubois. To be frank, he would have been well advised to look elsewhere, because so much of this is just plain uninspired.

Thhe three outside songs provide the most worthwhile tracks. The spiritual ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ former is the record’s sole nod to the traditionalism which marked Brad’s early career, and features guest vocals from Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. ‘A Man Don’t Have To Die’, written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson, is the album’s highlight for me, although the story’s set-up is not as well set up as it might be. The song is largely addressed to a preacher, “new around here”, but it isn’t clear what he’s been saying to his flock to prompt this response:

It don’t really scare us when you yell and shake your fist
You see we already know that Hell exists

The body of the song is much more effective, with its depiction of the hell on earth of being laid off by a ungrateful employer, “six months short of 30 years“, struggling to repay a mortgage, or a broken marriage. The chorus has effective harmonies, but the track is marred by out of place and very irritating wordless backing vocals in the second half possibly intended to be the voices of angels.

The charmingly playful ‘Toothbrush’ (written by Joel Shewmake, Jon Henderson and Danny Simpson) details the growth of romance, and this track boasts an imaginative arrangement which makes it the best sounding track on the record. Brad’s composition ‘Eastwood’ is a rather good atmospheric Western style instrumental with Clint Eastwood adding a few words at the beginning and end. Brad’s little boys gurgle a few words as well, and are less irritating than most intrusions of child voices.

None of Brad’s songs here is up to the standard of his earlier work, but I still quite like the title track’s tribute to the inclusiveness of country music, which I reviewed last autumn – at least until it collapses into an uninspired litany of (much better) song titles. The current hit, ‘Old Alabama’ is a fair tribute to the band of that name, but far less effective as a song in its own right, even when Randy Owen joins in, and it is over-produced to boot.

Also acceptable is the rueful ‘I Do Now’ which has the protagonist looking back at his wedding and regretting breaking the promises he made then. It starts out very well indeed, with an understated regret imbuing the first verse, but the chorus is predictable and the later verses don’t take us anywhere unexpected. ‘New Favorite Memory’ is a pleasant but slightly dull evocation of domestic bliss. The affectionate wedding-set ‘Love Her Like She’s Leavin’’, complete with advice (from the bride’s Uncle Bill) of how to keep the relationship going, has a very pop-influenced melody and a pleasant but cliche’d lyric. The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony.

On a similar theme, the new single ‘Remind Me’, the duet with Carrie Underwood (reviewed recently by J.R. Journey) is actually a pretty good song about a couple longing for the sweetness of the early days of a love affair which has become a stale marriage, but Carrie oversings her parts, sounding too intense where the lyric seems to call for wistfulness, and overwhelms Brad when they are singing together, while the track is too heavily produced. It will probably be a monster hit.

‘One Of Those Lives’ is a well-meaning and earnestly sung pieces comparing the protagonist’s petty problems with more serious ones faced by others, but it is awkwardly phrased and generally feels a bit forced, and I don’t care for Brad’s ventures into a falsetto.

Brad includes his usual brace of songs intended to be funny but which don’t raise a smile. Of these, the silly novelty ‘Camouflage’ with yelled call-and response backing vocals reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s worst moments at least makes an impact, if not a positive one. The Mexican vacation-set ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, a duet with Blake Shelton, falls completely flat and is a waste of both men’s talent. ‘Working On A Tan’ is a boring beach song which sounds very poppy with Beach Boys style harmonies. ‘Be The Lake’ is equally dull, as Brad leches over his love interest.

This is a disappointing offering from an artist who seems to have run out of steam creatively. Unless he manages to recharge his batteries, I suspect this will be the last Brad Paisley album I’ll buy.

Grade: C-

Country Heritage: Stonewall Jackson (1932- )

Never a country music superstar, Stonewall Jackson is the kind of “Joe Lunch Bucket” journeyman performer that hit the road for decades, always performing good country music, always keeping to what he did best and never disappointing an audience. He never had any delusions about his crossover potential, and when such an opportunity actually presented itself in 1959 on the heels of “Waterloo”, he made no effort to turn his career in a pop direction.

Stonewall Jackson’s back story is an unusual one for a singer in that he submitted a demo tape to Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose publishing, and Wesley landed Stonewall slot on the Grand Ole Opry before he even had a landed a recording contract. Something about Stonewall’s sincerity and rural phrasing appealed to Wesley and to Ernest Tubb, who took Stonewall on the road with him. Before long, he was signed to Columbia Records, where he would remain until 1972.

The first single out of the box, 1958’s “Don’t Be Angry”, written by Stonewall’s brother Wade, failed to chart but impressed a lot of people. The next single, the George Jones-penned “Life To Go” reached #2 in early 1959. Then came “Waterloo”. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a period in which historical and quasi-historical songs were in vogue. Songs such as “Battle of New Orleans”, “Sink The Bismarck”, “Ten Thousand Drums” , “P.T. 109” and “Johnny Reb” were all hits, along with rather lengthy story songs, the best remembered of which was “El Paso”.

Released in June 1959, “Waterloo” , debuted at #9, moved up to #5, spent five weeks at #2, then moved into the top spot where it stayed for five weeks before sliding to #2, then #3, #4 and #5. Eighteen of its nineteen chart weeks were spent in the top ten. The flip side, “Smoke Along The Tracks”, reached #24 (Dwight Yoakam had a nice recording of the song years later), and “Waterloo” itself reached #4 on Billboard’s Pop Charts. It also charted on the British pop charts.

Hot on the heels of “Waterloo”, Columbia issued the first Stonewall Jackson album The Dynamic Stonewall Jackson, an album which featured five chart singles – his first three chart hits, plus two singles drawn from the album in “Why I’m Walkin’ “ and “Mary Don’t You Weep” . Although currently out of print, Columbia has kept it in print (occasionally under a different title) for much of the last fifty years.

Stonewall Jackson probably came along at the wrong time for he never lost that hard country edge or his rural Georgia accent, so as time wore on and the “Nashville Sound” came to dominate country music, his music became out of synch with what was happening in Nashville. He continued charting until 1973, and with the right song, he could still have the occasional big hit, but never had more than two consecutive top ten records. Between 1958 and 1973 Stonewall Jackson charted forty-four times. There were two #1 records in “Waterloo” and 1963’s “B.J. The D.J.”, nine more that reached the top ten including a re-release of “Don’t Be Angry” in 1964 that reached #4.

The prime of Stonewall Jackson’s career was 1958-1965. During this period 1965 Stonewall recorded a number of classic singles in addition to those previously mentioned. “A Wound Time Can’t Erase” reached #3 in 1962 and has been covered many times. “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” reached #8 in 1967, and became a top twenty pop hit the next year for Johnny Rivers.

After 1965 Stonewall charted nineteen records but only two made the top ten “(Help) Stamp Out Loneliness” which reached #5 in 1967 (the duo of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood covered the song for the pop market) and his cover of Lobo’s “You and Me and A Dog Named Boo” which reached #7 in 1971, after a drought in which eleven straight singles failed to get as high as #15, four of them not even cracking the top forty. Stonewall reportedly was opposed to recording Lobo’s song and parted ways with Columbia after three more singles, none of which reached the top fifty.

Signed to MGM, Stonewall made his last chart appearance with the single “Herman Schwartz” which reached #41 in autumn of 1973. The tracks, which included remakes of some of his earlier hits, were leased to other labels and have been reissued over the years. GRT released an album of these tracks in 1976.

After 1973 there would be no further major label recordings from Stonewall Jackson other than reissues. An album released as part of Pete Drake’s First Generation label series Stars of the Grand Ole Opry featured an excellent recording of “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” that was as good as (or better than) any other version of the song. Jackson landed with a revived Little Darlin’ label in 1979, where two albums were issued that were a mixed bag of remakes and new material. Although he had no hits, songs such as “The Alcohol of Fame” and “The Pint of No Return” represented honky-tonk music in its purest form.

After 1980 Stonewall Jackson recorded rarely, although he continues to perform occasionally. He was involved in some litigation over the Opry’s non-use of its veteran talent, litigation which was recently settled and finds him back performing occasionally on the Opry.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL
All vinyl is, of course, out of print. Columbia issued seventeen albums, including three hit collections and a live recording recorded on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. There were also three budget reissues on the Harmony label. Stonewall never gave in to pop trends, so his albums will appeal to those who love traditional country music. Two especially noteworthy albums are The Great Old Songs (1968), a collection of songs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and A Tribute To Hank Williams (1969).

Stonewall also never gave in to any pressures to be politically correct so you will find among his albums songs with titles such as “Knock Off Your Naggin’ “, “Blues Plus Booze (Means I Lose)” and “The Minute Men (Are Turning In Their Graves)”.

After leaving Columbia in 1972, Stonewall issued some tracks for major label album on MGM (which have been reissued on various reissue labels). After that it has been minor labels where he mostly re-recorded old hits with long gaps between recordings and an eventual descent into an undeserved obscurity.

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available nine titles. The crown jewel, of course is the four disc Bear Family set Waterloo that covers roughly the first 70% of Stonewall’s career (through 1967) on Columbia, including most of the biggest hits. There are several discs of Columbia material, and the recordings for MGM, First Generation and Little Darlin’ are actually currently in print, sometimes on mish-mash anthologies or as stand-alone collections.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop actually released the last CD of new recordings made by Jackson. Released around 2000, but recorded over a period of about a decade Stonewall Jackson And Friends: A Tribute features sixteen of Stonewall’s biggest hits, some religious tunes, and about fifty guest artists ranging from old-timers like Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones and Mac Wiseman, to newer artists such as Alison Krauss, Joe Diffie, Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks. The recording of “Waterloo” features Stonewall singing with Garth Brooks, Larry Gatlin and Joe Diffie, with seemingly a cast of thousands on the chorus (actually 26 different acts make up the chorus). It’s not quintessential Stonewall Jackson, but I love the disc anyway

BOOK
Stonewall Jackson had a rather rough and abusive upbringing, which he details in his short and long out-of-print autobiography From The Bottom Up. Released in 1991, it is only 134 pages long and really doesn’t deal with his career much. It is a good and inspiring story, if you can find a copy

Razor X’s Top 10 albums of 2010

The past few years have not seen the release of a lot of great country music, but 2010 provided some pleasant surprises, including the return of some veteran artists we haven’t heard from in a while, which may be a sign that the genre is finally getting back on the right track. I was able to compile my Top 10 choices with a lot less difficulty than last year, which surely is a sign that things are starting to improve. Here’s my list:

10. Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be. I’m not sure that Sammy is better than he used to be, as the title of his current album says, but he’s definitely as good as he once was, as Toby Keith might say. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the song selection on this album.

9. SteelDrivers – Reckless. For their sophomore release, this progressive bluegrass band doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made their debut album a winner. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Reckless offers a refreshing alternative to the often lackluster fare offered up by the mainstream.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music. His voice is not what it once was, but Willie is still able to use it to great effect. For his Rounder Records debut, he chose a solid set of traditional old-time bluegrass and folk songs, that didn’t require him to stretch beyond his age-imposed vocal restrictions. Commercial concerns don’t seem to have been given much consideration in this project, and the result is an album that truly shines.

7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am. Like Willie, Haggard’s voice is showing signs of wear and tear, but it worked well with the album’s material, in one of his strongest efforts in recent memory.

6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge. That this bluegrass-inspired project was released on a major label by an artist who is still consistently charting in the Top 10 is nothing short of miraculous. Bentley and Capitol had originally planned to release a pure bluegrass album, but appear to have gotten cold feet and issued a set that is heavily bluegrass-influenced, but with some concessions to more mainstream tastes. Nevertheless, they deserve great credit for daring to buck commercial trends in an era in which “play it safe” is the norm.

5. Joe Diffie – Homecoming. Diffie’s bluegrass album is more traditional than Bentley’s, a luxury afforded to artists who are no longer competing for radio airplay. After a six-year hiatus from recording, it was great to hear from Joe again.

4. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give. I didn’t really give this band a fair chance when they first showed up at country radio,being a bit put off by the “genre-defying” moniker that many critics were using to describe them. Like their previous album, not everything on You Get What You Give is traditional or even country, but all of it is quite different from what anyone else is doing at the moment, and I ended up liking this album a lot more than I ever expected to.

3. Alan Jackson – Freight Train. This solid follow-up to 2007’s disappointing Good Time suffered commercially from Arista’s decision to release two of its weakest tracks as singles, while passing over much stronger alternatives. It was also the last studio album Jackson owed them under his contract, and that may have resulted in less promotional support than usual. Nevertheless, there are some very fine moments on this album, not the least of which is his duet with Lee Ann Womack, a cover of Vern Gosdin’s “‘Til The End”, which was nominated for Musical Event of the Year by the CMA.

2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song. This double album, the long-awaited follow-up to That Lonesome Song, has been in heavy rotation in my CD player and iPod since it was released in September. It was recently awarded gold certification, despite a lack of support from radio.

1. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one album from 2010 to listen to, this would be the one I’d choose hands down. This labor of love shows us what country music once was, and what it could and hopefully will be once again. I cannot praise this near-flawless masterpiece enough.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

Classic Rewind: Travis Tritt, Sara Evans, and Joe Diffie – ‘Harlan Howard Tribute’

Three country stars pay tribute to one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.

Week ending 11/13/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: I’m Movin’ On — Hank Snow (RCA)

1960: Alabam — Cowboy Copas (Starday)

1970: I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me— Charley Pride (RCA)

1980: On The Road Again — Willie Nelson (Columbia)

1990: Home — Joe Diffie (Epic)

2000: The Little Girl — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2010: Come Back Song — Darius Rucker (Capitol)

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Homecoming’

It isn’t widely known that prior to his stint as a mainstream country hitmaker in the 1990s, Joe Diffie was an accomplished bluegrass musician, having been a member of the bluegrass band Special Edition. He returns to those roots for his first album in six years. Co-produced by Diffie with Luke Wooten, Homecoming is a comprised of some bluegrass classics along with some newer songs and original compositions, and features an impressive roster of guest artists including The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Alecia Nugent, and Bradley Walker.

The album opens with a traditional bluegrass number, the Earl Scruggs-written “Somehow Tonight” and continues in a similar vein with “Lonesome and Dry as a Bone”, which was written by Shawn Camp, Matt Lindsey, and Mel Tillis. “Tall Cornstalk” reflects Diffie’s well-known penchant for novelty songs, though this number, told from the point of view of the cornstalk, never approaches the level of hokeyness that characterized many of Joe’s 90s novelty ditties.

The high lonesome sound is evident on numbers such as “Fit For A King” and “I Know How It Feels”, which feature exquisite harmony vocals from Sonya Isaacs and Michael L. Rogers respectively. “Raining On Her Rubber Dolly” is an original composition which Diffie co-wrote with Shawn Camp. One of those uptempo songs with mournful lyrics that is unique to bluegrass, it uses the imagery of a child’s doll, left out in the rain in the yard, to symbolize a father’s heartbreak in the aftermath of a marital breakdown and separation from his family.

It’s quite evident that Diffie is well within his comfort zone and more than competent at singing bluegrass credibly. That being said, there are a few tracks that are more acoustic country than traditional bluegrass, which, with different arrangements would have been quite at home on any of his mainstream country albums. “Route 5 Box 109”, on which Joe is joined by Rhonda Vincent, is reminiscent of his 1990 breakthrough hit “Home”. Along with “Free and Easy” and “Stormy Weather Once Again”, it is one of the best tracks on the album. I’m not sure how bluegrass purists feel about these songs; to my admittedly non-expert ears, they sound more like acoustic country than bluegrass, but that in no way suggests that they are not excellent, regardless of how one categorizes them.

The album closes with “Hard To Handle”, a remake of a 1968 Otis Redding record, which is impressive if only for the speed at which it is sung. I’ll confess to complete ignorance of the original version, but I’m betting it bears little resemblance to Diffie’s rendition. While not my favorite track on the album, it is nonetheless enjoyable.

Joe Diffie was one of the most talented male vocalists of the 1990s, who didn’t always get the attention and acclaim that he deserved. Unfortunately he is most remembered today for his novelty tunes and not for some of the stronger entries in his catalog. Homecoming should go a long way to restoring his gravitas as an artist, and will easily appeal to both bluegrass aficionados and fans of Joe’s more mainstream work.

Grade: A

Homecoming is available from major retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes. A bonus track “Ocean of Diamonds” is available for download but is not included on the CD version. Those who download the album from Amazon are advised to select the version that includes “[+ digital booklet]” in the title. This is the version that contains the bonus track; inexplicably, it is the same price as the 12-track version with no liner notes or bonus track, which Amazon also sells.

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: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Jo Dee Messina – ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’

A song co-written by this month’s Spotlight Artist Joe Diffie:

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.

Classic Rewind: Joe Diffie – ‘It’s Always Something’

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Night To Remember’

Joe had followed up the disappointing sales of Twice Upon A Time with a Greatest Hits set, and in 1999 released what was to be his final effort for Epic. Produced by Don Cook with Joe’s old friend and collaborator Lonnie Wilson, it was a real return to form artistically, with not a novelty song in sight, and although it did not do as well commercially as it deserved to, he sustained his profile on radio.

The title track, written by Max D. Barnes and T. W. Hale, is a tenderly sung ballad focussing on a protagonist surrounding wallowing in tangible memories of a past relationship. It is a really good song, and was deservedly a sizeable hit, peaking at #6 on the country chart and even getting some crossover radio play. ‘The Quittin’ Kind’ is a solid enough mid-tempo love song with a slightly cluttered production. It was a poor choice as the follow-up single as it is perhaps the least interesting song here, and understandably it failed to crack the top 20. The efficiently poppy mid-tempo ‘It’s Always Somethin’’ (written by Aimee Mayo and Marv Green) isn’t much to my taste, but it appealed to country radio and gave Joe another top 5 hit.

Four of Joe’s own songs are included, three of them co-writes with Lonnie, including a couple of the highlights. One of these is ‘I’m The Only Thing I’ll Hold Against You’, written some years earlier by the pair with Kim Williams. It was originally recorded by Conway Twitty on his final album in 1993, but Joe’s version is even better. His voice really soars in the chorus as he swears unconditional love and forgiveness as he reconciles with his wife:

Sometimes things go wrong between a woman and a man
I know we’ll make it work
All we need’s a second chance
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Let my lovin’ arms show you the truth
There’ll be no “I told you so”s
No matter how much heartache we go through
I love you (I’ll always love you)
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Joe and Lonnie were joined by Zack Turner to express the opposing point of view in the anguished ‘Are We Even Yet’, another dramatic and beautifully sung ballad. This bitter-tinged look at a couple destroying themselves by keeping score of hurt is my overall favorite track:

My words hurt and cause you pain
Teardrops fall like pouring rain
You cry and cry
Love dies and dies some more
Revenge is sweet when you don’t talk
I’m afraid you’re gonna walk
What will it take to take back the things we’ve said?
Are we even yet?

Are we even yet?
Do we even know
If we’re holdin’ on or lettin’ go?
Nobody wins when we can’t forgive and forget
Are we even yet?

It is a shame this remained buried as an album track on one of Joe’s lower selling albums.

This trio also wrote the bittersweet midtempo ‘You Can’t Go Home’ as Joe returns to a former old marital home:

I came looking for a feeling but the feeling’s gone
You can go back but you can’t go home

Zack and Lonnie wrote the downbeat ‘Better Off Gone’ together, about a man struggling to come to terms with his decision to leave; it’s another fine song with an impassioned vocal as Joe admits he isn’t really happier sitting alone in the dark.

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Classic Rewind: Joe Diffie and Trisha Yearwood cover the classic ‘Making Believe’