My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Joe Nichols

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Never Gets Old’

Joe Nichols, once one of the standard bearers for real country music, seemed to have lost his way of recent years – or to have been forced from it by record label politics. On losing his major deal, he signed to the big independent label Broken Bow, who proceeded to release a number of frankly bad tracks as singles which were largely ignored by radio. Those have been forgotten without trace, and find no place on Joe’s debut album for the label, heralded with talk of a return to more traditional sounds, which naturally caused me to have considerable expectations of the record.

The true lead single, the title track, is a delightful return to form for Joe. A gently midpaced love song, it may not make waves at radio, but will satisfy real country fans. The rather charming ‘I’d Sing About You’ is another attractive love song with some nice fiddle. I very much liked ‘This Side Of The River’, with the protagonist declaring he is very happy with his current life and in no rush to make it to the next world. Celtic pipes add a spiritual flavor. ‘Breathless’ is also quite nice though not as memorable. ‘So You’re Saying’ is a relaxed chat-up number with a nice tune.

‘Girl In The Song’ is another pleasant love song, although the production is unsympathetic. This is also a problem with the sexy ‘Hostage’, which Joe doesn’t really sell. Much worse is the awful bro-country ‘Tall Boys’, no doubt left over from the sessions which produced the jettisoned singles.

The best track is ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, an excellent love song repeated from Joe’s last album Crickets. Perhaps this revival is a sign to its being selected as a single. Another highlight, ‘We All Carry Something’, is a moving semi-story and partly religious song written by Westin Davis and Justin Weaver about the pain and scars of hard lives.

A likeable cover of the Dierks Bentley album cut ‘Diamonds Make Babies’ (a Chris Stapleton co-write) works really well for Joe, showcasing his playful side. Another cover, also with comic intent, is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard. ‘Baby Got Back’ was originally a controversial rap song in the early 90s. Joe somehow manages to make it sound like a (very) country song in terms of melody, vocal and instrumentation (although the lyrics are still somewhat offensive in a bro-country way). Southern comedian Darren Knight guests with some spoken interjections taking a different angle. I am left speechless by this track, but do give it points for at least sounding country.

So this album is still something of a mixed bag, but on the whole it is a step back in the right direction for Joe.

Grade: B+

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Classic Rewind: Joe Nichols and Lee Ann Womack – ‘We’re Gonna Hold On’

A cover of a George Jones/Tammy Wynette classic:

Retro Album Reviews: Joe Nichols – ‘Real Things’, and Tracy Lawrence – ‘For The Love’

for the loveBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

REAL THINGS – JOE NICHOLS (2007)

Other than Brad Paisley, I cannot think of another of the current Nashville acts that has as good a grasp on what is or isn’t country music than Joe Nichols. This album simply is a delight from start to finish.

The opening track “Real Things” sets a nice placemat for the current single “Another Side of You” (currently a top 25 and rising). For this album Nichols has tapped the cream of Nashville’s songwriting community for good songs. Only one old song was selected for the album and that is the late Blaze Foley’s classic “If I Could Only Fly” performed here as a duet with Lee Ann Womack and with the legendary John Hughey on steel guitar (Paul Franklin plays steel on the remaining tracks where steel is used). All of the material is top-flight and my only fear was that it may prove “too country” for today’s wimpy country radio.

The copy of the CD I purchased has a 14th track on it, a wry song titled “When I’m Hurtin'” in which a country singer apologizes to the audience that the only time he really sings well is you know when. This song is easily a 5 star effort and should have been released as a single.

Grade: A

FOR THE LOVE – TRACY LAWRENCE (2007)

Among the younger singers, Tracy Lawrence has the best pure country voice this side of John Anderson and Randy Travis. Like previous efforts, this CD has two or three cuts that are merely okay, and the rest are terrific. My favorite songs is “Til I Was a Daddy Too” , as meaningful a song as you will ever encounter. “You Can’t Hide Redneck” is a fun romp and “Rock and A Soft Place is another highlight. Such is the vocal prowess of Tracy Lawrence that his solo cut of “Find out Who Your Friends Are” is considerably better than the cut on which he is joined by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, both lesser vocal talents. I love this disc, an early nominee for CD of The Year honors.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘This Ole Boy’

91fn7FvtfDL._SX522_Craig Morgan took a four-year hiatus from recording after leaving BNA Records. He re-emerged in 2012 via Black River Entertainment with This Ole Boy. In theory, signing with an indie label would give him more independence to record the kind of music he wanted. In practice, however, there is nothing to really distinguish the album from what the major labels were putting out.

As with his last few releases, Morgan shared production duties with Phil O’Donnell. Morgan co-wrote half of the album’s songs. This Ole Boy spawned three singles, the most successful of which was the title track which peaked at # 13. “Corn Star” reached #50, which is far more than it deserved, and “More Trucks Than Cars” topped out at #38. The album itself reached #5 on the albums chart.

In a nutshell, with one or two exceptions, This Ole Boy is a collection of songs that range from bad to mediocre. There is only two tracks that I truly enjoyed: the Monty Criswell/Tim Mensy composition “Country Boys Like Me” and the closing number “Summer Moon”, a Morgan co-write with Chris Wallin. The rest of the album falls into the trap of trying to offer something for everyone, a type of approach that usually leaves all unsatisfied. “This Ole Boy” is a not bad, faced paced number that had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. “More Trucks Than Cars” is a cliche-ridden laundry list of buzzwords that are typically associated with southern living — lazy songwriting at it worst. I can’t decide which of the two bro-country numbers is worse: “Corn Star” or “Show Me Your Tattoo”, but currently I am leaning towards the former. Morgan is a decent vocalist whose talent is wasted on garbage songs like those, and it’s particularly difficult to forgive these kinds of transgressions from more mature artists who surely ought to know better.

“The Whole World Needs a Kitchen” is not a bad song, but it lacks originality. The theme reminds me of Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch”, which was a much better song. “I Didn’t Drink” is an interesting number and one of the few moments of originality on the album: a man walks into a bar to drown his sorrows following a bad break-up but doesn’t know what to order because he is a teetotaler. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn’t quite work — mainly because it’s performed as a pop-tinged power ballad. This kind of theme needs a more traditional treatment.

With only two really good songs, I can’t really recommend this album. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Music, and presumably other streaming services as well for those who want to give it a listen before buying.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Craig Morgan and Joe Nichols – ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’

The pair cover a Hank Williams Jr classic:

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Craig Morgan’

CraigMorganAlbumIt is hard to believe that Craig Morgan’s debut album, released by Atlantic Records, came way back in 2000. While this album proved to be a false start for the 36 year old Morgan in that Atlantic shut down its Nashville operations in 2002, the resulting album revealed the US Army veteran to be a fine singer capable of drawing both on past experiences and imagination in selling a song.

The album opens up “Paradise”, a song written by Craig with Harley Allen. The initial military cadence sets the song apart from any other song I’ve heard recently. The song tells of Craig’s experience as a soldier and how it affected his outlook on life. As the chorus to the song notes:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die

Now I’m a little older and not afraid to try

Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive

When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life

Is paradise

“Paradise was the second single released and topped out at #46, more a reflection of Atlantic’s promotional efforts than the song’s merits.

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Single Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Undone’

JoeNicholsUndoneJoe Nichols is one of the few mainstream artists to speak out against his own material, freely admitting he cut recent hits “Sunny and 75” and “Yeah” solely because they would guarantee him airplay. He’s even gone so far as to say if it were up to him, he’d cut the most traditional album he could and use members of The Time Jumpers on the project.

He’s playing the game because he came of age in an era where his traditional style didn’t help him rack up the residuals necessary for him to afford making the albums he wants to make. He’s released some fantastic singles, especially early on, but they weren’t enough to push him to the top of the genre.

Nichols certainly isn’t there now, either. His need for airplay almost guarantees his singles will be too generic to make a genuine impact. That certainly isn’t going to change now.

His new single “Undone” is little more than a trend follower, a three and a half minute argument that Nichols can hang with the cool guys. You know the story by now – there’s a guy and he’s entranced with his girl. She captivates him by stripping down and letting her long flowing hair fall past her shoulders. Just because he can hold his own, doesn’t mean he can rise above the pack and own it.

“Undone” is different from the rest of ‘em in that it retains a somewhat modern country feel and stays away from the hip-hop beats that have taken over the genre in recent years. The track actually feels behind the times, like it could’ve been released four years ago and made an impact then. The country instrumentation throughout is a nice change of pace, although the wall of noise production keeps the song squarely in a modern vein.

This is the second single from his yet-to-be-titled ninth album, which is still in limbo without a release date. “Undone” may get him back on the radio, but I doubt it’s going to help Nichols generate noteworthy album sales. How could it, when the song is barely memorable and sounds like every other song on country radio? Without any distinctive qualities, “Undone” just falls flat.

Grade: C

Week ending 12/19/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

p12475vpn551955 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1955 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Make the World Go Away — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1975: Love Put a Song In My Heart — Johnny Rodriguez (Mercury)

1985: Nobody Falls Like a Fool — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1995: Tall, Tall Trees — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2005: Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off — Joe Nichols (Universal South)

2015: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2015 (Airplay): Nothin’ Like You — Dan + Shay (Warner Bros.)

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’

ladies love outlawsMany of Waylon’s early albums have been made available during the digital. For some reason one of my very favorite albums, Ladies Love Outlaws, has never been made available except as an mp3. There is a CD available bearing this title but it is not this album, instead being a sampler album of miscellaneous tracks.

Released in September 1972, the album reached #11 on Bilboard’s country album charts despite being relatively bereft of single releases, with only a cover of an old Buck Owens hit “Under Your Spell Again” with wife Jessi Colter being released as a single (it reached #39) .

In his autobiography Waylon says that RCA released the album without his consent and he regarded most of the tracks as being little more than demos or ‘scratch’ tracks. That may be true, but Waylon’s demos are superior to 90% of what I hear on the radio these days.

The album opens with the title track, written by Lee Clayton, which was never issued as a single by Waylon, although the song received considerable airplay in my area. Jimmy Rabbitt & The Renegades had a marginally successful single with the song in 1980. Waylon and Jessi are mentioned in one of the verses of the song.

Jessi liked Cadillacs and diamonds on her hands
Waymore had a reputation as a lady’s man
Then one night, her light of love finally gave a sign
Jessi parked her Cadillac and got herself in line

‘Cause ladies love outlaws
Like babies love a bunch of stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
Outlaws touch ladies somewhere deep down in their soul

Next up is a cover of the Three Dog Night song “Never Been To Spain”. The song and arrangement fit Waylon’s voice well, but the vocal clearly is not intended as a final vocal. Hoyt Axton wrote the song.

“Sure Didn’t Take Him Long” is a Waylon Jennings composition about the rounder who stole his woman.

My long and lean and hungry looks really used to turn her on
Till she found two hundred pounds or true love muscle and bone
I made up my mind to keep what was mine, he made up my mind I was wrong
To take my Ann took a hell of a man but it sure didn’t take him too long

“Crazy Arms” is one of the great country songs, a major hit for Ray Price and a song that has been recorded by dozens of country artists. Waylon’s steel guitar player Ralph Mooney co-wrote the song and I think Waylon included the song on the album as a tribute to him.

“Revelation” is simply the best song on the album, although releasing religious songs as singles in the early 1970s was normally a career killer. Bobby Braddock wrote the song, which Joe Nichols included on an album a few years ago. Joe’s version is good but no one will ever top Waylon’s dramatic version

Somewhere in Vietnam a 19-year-old soldier walked out of a barroom
And he said “I must be seeing things, that bourbon hit me like a baseball bat”
In Belfast Ireland a little lady dropped her shovel in her garden
She raced across the yard and ask her neighbor Mrs Clancy what was that

In Memphis Tennessee a teacher raised the window closest to the river
And the children in her classroom swore they’d heard a choir singing down the street
In Washington DC a private secretary’s lips began to quiver
And the President just put aside his papers and rose quickly to his feet

I lay in a cheap motel in the arms of someone else’s woman
When a loud explosion rocked the room and turned the morning into night
I jumped out of bed and ran into the street with hardly any clothes on
As the sky lit up my heart stood still and I could feel my face was turnin’ white

All at once the clouds rolled back and there stood Jesus Christ in all his glory
And I realized the saddest eyes I’d ever seen were lookin’ straight at me
I guess I was awakened by the penetrating sounds of my own screamin’
And it didn’t take me long to stumble out of bed and fall down on my knees
As tears rolled down my face I cried dear God I’m thankful I was only dreamin’
And if I never go to hell, Lord, it’ll be because you scared it out of me

Larry Collins and Alex Harvey wrote “Delta Dawn”, which was Tanya Tucker’s debut single in 1972, and was an international pop hit for Helen Reddy in 1973. Because of those two versions, listeners tend to think of the song as a ‘female’ song but Waylon sings it well with the right amount of empathy in his vocals.

“Frisco Depot was a Mickey Newbury song that Waylons tackles with aplomb. The song is a slow ballad with steel guitar and acoustic guitar dominating the mix

“Thanks”, co-written by Irish folk singer Phil Coulter and Scottish folk singer Bill Martin, is a quiet folk song, or perhaps a song of praise for one of life’s more important treasures:

Sunday morning in the valley we would gather for the service
Emily Jane would run to meet me, she’d smile at papa kinda nervous
All the people came from miles around, I can still hear the sound
As they sang thanks to the Lord for the sun up in the sky
For the corn that’s growing high and for the child that didn’t die
Thanks to the Lord for the crops and for the farm
For the strength in my right arm and for keepin’ us from harm
Thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, to the Lord for a girl like Emily Jane

“I Think It’s Time She Learned” is credited to Waylon Jennings and Mirriam Eddy (aka Jessi Colter). The song features a nice steel guitar introduction by Ralph Mooney, and is a song about a man leaving a woman who never returned his love for her.

How many times must I tell her
How many times must I say
I won’t be around to pick her up again
From now on she’ll have to find her own way.

How many years have I loved her
While she stood by so unconcerned
But the things she don’t know I’ll teach her when I go
She’s been wrong and I think it’s time she learned.

The album closed with the Buck Owens-Dusty Rhodes classic “Under Your Spell Again”, performed as a duet with wife Jessi Colter.

“Never Been To Spain” is the weakest track on the album mostly because of the rough vocals, and even it isn’t a bad track.

I’m calling this an A- because there are little finishing touches that could have greatly improved the album.

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence Vol 2: The Man I Am’

influence 2The first volume of Randy Travis’s recordings of classic country covers came out last year, not long after his health issues came to a head. I was afraid this second volume would consists of lesser cuts left on the shelf when the first album was released, but if anything I think this instalment is even stronger. His vocals are better on both sets than they had been in years, and Randy delivers a masterclass in country music.

‘Vern Gosdin’s great ‘set Em Up Joe’ only came out in 1988 so could not really be described as a direct influence on Randy, who was at his commercial peak himself at the time. However, it fits perfectly thematically with its tribute to classic country records and their lasting impact as solace for a broken heart. It is also, of course, a wonderful song, and Randy’s version is great, matching the original. It is one of the standouts on a collection of consistently exceptionally high quality.

‘For The Good Times’ is also stunning, with a gently tender reading which is just exquisite. A delicate string arrangement is sweet without being overwhelming.

Haggard was the strongest influence on Vol. 1, and his shadow is strong here too. ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’ is masterfully done, with a thoughtful reading of Hag’s gloomy polemic about changing times. A resigned ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ is almost as good.

‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is also excellent, with a very distinctive interpretation.

Vibrant committed versions of ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’ pick up the tempo nicely. Ernest Tubb’s lesser-known ‘You Nearly Lose Your Mind’ is catchy and enjoyable.

Marty Robbins’s ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’ and Hank’s ‘Mind Your Own Business’ both have a playful almost jazzy feel; the latter is more successful for me with Randy sounding fully engaged. His own travails with press interest in his life may have fed into this.

Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘California Blues’ is the most bluesy side of Rodgers, and effectively done. ‘There I’ve Said It Again’ is a crooning pop ballad from the early 60s which is an unexpected choice but smoothly performed.

Volume 1 included a new song. ‘Tonight I’m Playing Possum’, recorded as a duet with Joe Nichols. The song makes a reappearance here, solo.

This is an excellent album from one of the greatest living country singers. Playing this through and then taking a look at any recent “country” chart is enough to make one cry with frustration and regret at what we appear to have lost. Perhaps it’s best just to take consolation in the great music we do have access to.

Grade: A+

Week ending 8/9/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

bcc1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: Rub It In — Billy “Crash” Craddock (ABC)

1984: Mama He’s Crazy — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1994: Summmertime Blues — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: Somebody — Reba McEntire (MCA)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Yeah — Joe Nichols (Red Bow)

Week ending 8/2/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

kittyred1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): One By One — Kitty Wells and Red Foley (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: You Can’t Be A Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine) — Donna Fargo (Dot)

1984: Angel In Disguise — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1994: Summmertime Blues — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Dirt — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Yeah — Joe Nichols (Red Bow)

Week ending 7/26/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

BobbyBareMain1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: Marie Laveau — Bobby Bare (RCA)

1984: Just Another Woman In Love — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1994: Summmertime Blues — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Dirt — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Yeah — Joe Nichols (Red Bow)

Gene Watson interview revisited

Gene WatsonIn 2009, I had the opportunity to interview Gene for the now quiescent http://www.9513.com after the release of his A Taste of The Truth album.

***

PWD: I read recently in an interview that was done on another website concerning your interest in automobiles. I won’t rehash that territory, but being a fan of autos, do you have any particular favorites among the racing circuits – either CART, Indy, or NASCAR?

GW: Well, I watch drags. I like NHRA and I like NASCAR, too. I’m a John Force fan – the whole team in the drag racing field. I’m a huge fan of Carl Edwards. I like all types of racing. But NASCAR and drag – NHRA – would probably be my favorites [PWD note: as of 2011, Gene still owned and operated a body shop].

PWD: I’ve noted that some of the European labels have done a good job of getting some of your older recordings back in print. I have no idea who Hux Records is, but they became my favorite label when they started reissuing some of those old Capitol albums of yours. How did that come to be?

GW: I don’t know. You know, that was negotiated through Capitol Records. Unfortunately, I don’t own the masters. If I did, they would be available through me… Hux has been real good to put these selections together. They’re usually on a dual album set. The people that are fortunate enough to find them, they tell us how proud they are to have them back because a lot of those songs are out of print. You can’t buy them any more, so it just kind of gave them a new life when Hux came back with them.

PWD: Are there any plans for any of your MCA, Epic, or Warner Brothers cuts to be reissued?

GW: Yes, in fact I’m planning on going in the studio as quick as possible and starting to redo all of that stuff. Bring it back with better quality and all that and still keep the original Gene Watson feel on it. That’s one of our definite plans for the future, and hopefully within the next few months. [PWD note: this project was released as The Best of The Best – Twenty Five Greatest Hits in 2012. Gene used the original arrangements and as many of the original musicians as he could find – a definitive A+.]

PWD: I’ve seen recently that some of your recordings are available on the website for Tee Vee Records, King Records, Gusto – those labels. Are those new recordings or are those reissues of some of the older stuff?

GW: They’re reissues of the recordings from Capitol and Step One Records…

PWD: I thought it’d be interesting to maybe get you to discuss some of the recordings of the past. Would you mind?

GW: Okay.

PWD: Let’s see how it goes. I’m going to ask you first off about my absolute favorite Gene Watson recording – and there are about ninety-five others that are in second place – but the one that just really grabbed me when I first heard it was “The Old Man and His Horn.” It sounds like there should be a story behind that one.

GW: Well, there is. The same guy [Dallas Harms] that wrote “Paper Rosie” and “Cowboy’s Don’t Get Lucky All the Time” for me wrote that song and it’s been an extremely difficult song to follow through with. The recording was a little bit different because of the horns. We had trouble tracking them in studio – we laid down all the tracks at Bradley’s Barn here in Nashville – and when we recorded, we had trouble getting the horn on the track, so what we did was to lay down all the rest of the tracks, even including my vocal. Then, after we sought out the horn player that we wanted to use, we found that we couldn’t use trumpet, it was too brash. By the time we found what we wanted to do, we came back up to Sound Emporium – Jack Clement’s recording studio – and we went in and we put it on. Actually, what that is is a flugelhorn – it’s a little bit more mellow and everything.

PWD: I was wondering about that, it didn’t quite sound like a trumpet to my ear, but I don’t have a classically trained ear.

GW: Yeah, we tried trumpet, but it was too shrill, too brash, and cutting too hard. So we thought on it and looked around and done some research and everything and we wound up using a flugelhorn on it. Of course, you know, I can’t hire a horn player just to travel the road with me just to play one song, so it automatically became a thorn in my side as far as reproduction on stage. So what we did was, at that time I had my steel guitar player get an attachment to put on his steel guitar and we would do that horn part on the steel. It did work pretty good for a while. We had a lot of requests for that song and I appreciate you liking it.

PWD: It’s my favorite, although I must admit I’ve liked everything you have recorded. I remember first hearing, I guess it was around January or February of 1975, a song called “Bad Water” that I don’t think did a whole lot, but the follow-up, which I think was also originally on Resco, was “Love In The Hot Afternoon.” That was a great record and very different from what anyone else was recording at the time.

GW: “Bad Water,” that was a song that was originally out by Ray Charles’ background singers The Raelets. I decided to do it up country and believe it or not, that was the first song I ever had that got in the national charts. That got Capitol Records’ attention and when we re-released “Love In The Hot Afternoon” on Capitol they signed me to a long-term contract and that song turned out to be a giant for the year 1975.

PWD: I remember it well. It seemed to be on the air all the time in the area in which I live, which is Orlando, Florida. And it seemed like it was getting quite a bit of airplay on stations that weren’t country radio stations.

GW: Yeah, it was a good song for me.

PWD: … Do you have any particular favorites among the songs you’ve recorded?

GW: I’ve always had the freedom to pick and choose all of my material myself and it seems like to pick one as a favorite would be like picking one of your kids. .. There’s something about all of them that got my attention that I like. I’m not saying that all of them came out as favorites, but there was, anytime I recorded a song, there was something about it that I appreciated. “Farewell Party” is by far the most requested song that I’ve recorded, but I still like to do “Got No Reason Now For Going Home” and “Paper Rosie” and “Fourteen Carat Mind” and all that.

PWD: I think “Farewell Party” was your first #1, going to the top on Cash Box. If I recall correctly, that was a Lawton Williams song.

GW: Yeah, it was.

PWD: And it seems like years before your record I remembered hearing Little Jimmy Dickens do it.

GW: There were several people that had recorded it. Waylon Jennings, for one. Billy Walker and George Jones recorded it as had a lot of other artists.

PWD: I guess it took your touch to make a hit out of it though.

GW: I guess so. Because it’s sure been a good one for me.

PWD: It has. That and “Fourteen Carat Mind” are songs you still hear country bands performing all the time.

GW: That was a #1 hit in 1982, “Fourteen Carat Mind” was. I’ve been extremely fortunate and I owe all the thanks to the fans out there, and of course you guys who play the music. I try my best to record the best material I can and then it’s up to the folks whether it hits or not.

PWD: Do you have any songs that you recall that were offered to you first that you passed on that later became big hits?

GW: Oh yeah. Oh Lord, I heard “The Gambler” before Kenny Rogers did it. “The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time.” There’s been a lot of them, but that doesn’t mean that these songs would have been hits for Gene Watson. I mean they were hits for the people that recorded them, but there are Gene Watson hits and then there are other people’s hits and a lot of times it’d be like another artist recording “Farewell Party.” There were a lot of them before me that didn’t make it. When I recorded it, fortunately for me, it did. That’s kind of the trend that you have to look at when you’re considering material to record. You need to be careful and pick songs that you think are right for you.

PWD: One of the later hits that you had that I really liked, and haven’t been able to find it on CD, was “Don’t Waste It On the Blues.” That was a little different for Gene Watson.

GW: Yeah, it was a little uptown swing thing, almost modern jazz. I love that kind of stuff. I’m a lover of that type of music and it was a great song for me. Best I remember, I think it was a Top Five song.

PWD: …Did you ever have a song that you recorded that you just thought, “This has hit written all over it,” and then it stiffed for some reason or another?

GW: There have been several like that. In fact, I try to have that attitude every time I go in the studio, thinking that I’ve got a hit. You know that a lot of them are more capable of being hits than others, but that happens quite occasionally.

PWD: One that struck me that should have been a big hit that wasn’t, was a song you did titled “Carmen,” which I think was on your first or second Epic album.

GW: Yeah, that was a big song. In fact, that’s still a real big song overseas. When we were in Ireland and England and Scotland, the people over there just love that song and we always get requests for it when we go over there, but the title I think hurt the song a little bit in being confused with the old song of Marty Robbins’ called “Carmen.” Not that his was bad, but it was a hit and every time everybody saw the title they automatically thought that I had covered Marty’s song and that hurt it a whole lot.

PWD: Another Epic song I thought should have been a hit was “Honky Tonk Crazy”, a song local bands here in Florida often cover.

GW: Great song. That was my last album for Epic Records, and yeah, I thought it should have been a hit too. I really did. You can look down in that album and I was extremely proud of that whole album. I think everything in that album was really fantastic. Of course, it was produced by Billy Sherrill. I just thought it was a good album. I thought we should have got more response. I’m not sure we got all the help from Epic Records that we deserved, but for some reason or another, who knows why, it didn’t quite make it as good as we thought it would.

PWD: Were your parents musical people?

GW: My whole family was musical.

PWD: So you grew up listening to country music? Perhaps other forms of music ?

GW: Gospel, country, country gospel, and blues. I used to sing the blues and everything, so yeah, my whole family was musically inclined.

PWD: Who were your favorite artists when you were growing up?

GW: Oh I don’t know, I listened to all of them. Boy, back then they had the Top 10 on Sunday and I loved Lefty Frizzell. I thought he was fantastic, and Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, Faron Young. When Hag come in to play, oh it kind of ruled everything else out.

PWD: I’m not sure I’d agree with you there, but I liked all those names that you mentioned.

GW: Well I don’t mean ruled it out, I’m just talking about the new…I think Merle Haggard was more of an extension of Lefty Frizzell. I always loved Lefty, I loved his smooth approach. I liked the way he recorded things, and Ray Price, what can you say about him? I had a lot of favorites and it would be hard to pick one of them.

PWD: How about among the younger artists?

GW: I think one of the best artists out there is a guy by the name of Joe Diffie. I think he’s one of the finest vocalists that you’re going to find out there. My good friend Joe Nichols is a fantastic artist. There are several of them out there that I really, really admire and I appreciate what they do. There’s more of them out there that I don’t appreciate, but there’s some of them that’s got great talent and they’re for real.

PWD: I remember about a year or two ago you opened a show for Brad Paisley, didn’t you?

GW: Yes.

PWD: That must have been a little different experience with the type of audiences and venues he plays.

GW: My thing is my thing and I do it no matter who I’m working with, or opening for, or closing for or whatever. We never plan a show. I always hit the stage and the band, the only way they know what I’m going to do next is the way I introduce it to the people, and it was fun, it really was. I think the world of Brad. He’s a great artist and it was a real pleasure getting to work with him, but you know we do what we do and he does what he does and we all try to be successful at it.

PWD: … Any plans for perhaps a duet album with one of the leading female singers, say Rhonda or Alison or someone like that? I think that would really come off well.

GW: Well I think that a duet album is a possibility and the most likely duet partner, I would say at this time, would be Rhonda, if she would accept, and I think she would because we’ve both been on the same page as far as that goes and who knows, we might put that together. We’ve both talked about it. [Note: it happened!]

Album Review – Lucy Hale – ‘Road Between’

Lucy-Hale-Road-Between-2014-1200x1200As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory about Road Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases on Road Between.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard’

working man's poetI have to admit to receiving the news of another Merle Haggard tribute album with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It seemed unnecessary coming on the heels of Suzy Bogguss’ excellent Lucky and the artist line-up seemed uninspired, especially when compared to that of 1994’s Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which featured like Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Radney Foster and Emmylou Harris, to name a few. I had serious doubts if half the artists on the just-released Working Man’s Poet had more than a vague awareness of who Haggard is before participating in this project. Some of them seem to have been selected primarily because they are on the roster of Broken Bow Records, which released the album. Others, like Joe Nichols and Randy Houser actually seemed to belong on such an album.

Reservations about the artist line-up aside, there is much to enjoy about this album and it even serves to illustrate that even relatively unexciting artists can rise to the occasion when given decent material to perform. I never expected to particularly enjoy anything by Thompson Square, for example, but their two contributions “You Take Me For Granted” (one of my favorite Haggard tunes) and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room” are among the best on the album. Former American Idol contestant Kristy Lee Cook also turned in a solid performance on “Today I Started Loving You Again”, as did Dustin Lynch on “That’s The Way Love Goes”.

It was no surprise that Randy Houser’s versions of “Misery and Gin” and “Ramblin’ Fever” and Joe Nichols’ performances of “Footlights’ and “My Favorite Memory” were all excellent, but I was a little disappointed by Toby Keith’s rendition of “Carolyn”, which is marred by an intrusive string arrangement. “Pancho and Lefty” was always more of a Willie Nelson vehicle rather than a Haggard one, so I thought it was a little strange that it was included here. It’s performed by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley with Bryan doing all the heavy lifting — singing Willie’s part. I don’t care much for the arena-rock style production but I was impressed with Bryan’s vocal performance. He is an artist I could actually enjoy if he chose his own material more carefully. It would have been nice if Dierks had been given another song to perform in addition to this one.

Another curious choice was the obscure 1980 track “Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans” — my least favorite on the album, performed by Jake Owens who sounds as though he is in way over his head. I tried very hard to set aside my intense dislike of Jason Aldean and fairly evaluate his two contributions, “Going Where The Lonely Go” and “Are The Good Times Really Over.” The results are a mixed bag; he rises to the occasion on the former, but falls flat on the latter. Haggard’s son Ben also makes two appearances with “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”. His voice is pleasant to listen to but he lacks his father’s vocal chops.

The CD version of the album includes “The Bottle Let Me Down”, but since it is performed by Garth Brooks, it was omitted from the iTunes version. I didn’t realize that when I downloaded the album, but I can live without it.

Although I still prefer the Mama’s Hungry Eyes album, I enjoyed Working Man’s Poet much more than I thought I would. It was worth purchasing, even if it did mean giving Jason Aldean space in my iTunes library.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘In the Vicinity of the Heart’

sheanndoahBy 1994 Shenandoah was once again looking for a new label. This time they landed at Liberty. At the time they were nearing completion on a new album which RCA allowedthe band to take with them. At Liberty they recorded one new track with guest vocalist Alison Krauss. “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” was a much bigger hit than its peak chart position (#7) suggested. It won the CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year in 1995 and also won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. In addition, it provided Krauss with her first Top 40 hit and her first major exposure outside of the bluegrass world.

Like its predecessor Under the Kudzu, In the Vicinity of the Heart was produced by Don Cook. On the strength of its title track, it became Shenandoah’s fastest-selling album, though it ultimately failed to earn any certifications. The second single “Darned If I Don’t (Danged If I Do)” is an upbeat, radio friendly tune that was penned by Ronnie Dunn and Dean Dillon. Peaking at #4, it gave Shenandoah their last Top 10 hit.

A few of the album’s tracks have been recorded by other artists. Dennis Linde’s “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)” had previously been recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, and “I Wouldn’t Know”, which was co-written by Shenandoah member Mike McGuire was later covered by Reba McEntire. Though not a religious song, “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready) has got a gospel flavor that is well suited to the Oaks’ four part harmonies, and ultimately the Shenandoah version, which reached #24, cannot compete. I prefer Shenandoah’s version of “I Wouldn’t Know” to Reba’s more crossover-oriented take. “She Could Care Less” was also later covered by Joe Nichols on his debut album, but neither version of this somewhat pedestrian number is particularly memorable. Ditto for “Every Fire” which was later covered by Jason Sellers and Restless Heart.

“Always Have, Always Will” was the album’s fourth and final single. By this time Shendanoah’s chart decline was apparent; the song stalled at #40 and all of their subsequent releases charted even lower. I would have liked for “Cabin Fever”, a Marty Raybon co-write with Bud McGuire and Lonnie Wilson, to have been released as a single. The upbeat number allows the band to showcase their harmonies and it is reminiscent of their earlier work on Columbia.

In the Vicinity of the Heart was Shenandoah’s only album for Liberty Records. By the time of the band’s next release Now and Then, the label had reverted back to its former name Capitol Nashville. Now and Then contained some new songs and some re-recordings of some of their Columbia hits. A Christmas album was released by Capitol in 1996, shortly before Marty Raybon’s departure from the band.

At the time of its release, In the Vicinity of the Heart was criticized in some quarters for playing it too safe, and while it’s true that it doesn’t contain any artistic stretches or surprises, it is a solid piece of work and a grim reminder how even an album that was only considered average 20 years ago knocks the socks off most the today’s top sellers. It isn’t available for download, but cheap used copies are easy to find. Fans of 90s country may want to pick up a copy.

Grade: A-

Razor X’s favorite singles of 2013

Compiling a list of my favorite singles is no mean feat these days; I’ve been disengaged from country radio for quite a few years now, with no desire to reconcile, and although I try to keep up with new music, much of it is no longer considered mainstream. As such, I’m at times only vaguely aware of which songs I liked during the year were actually released as singles. I was, however, able to cobble together a list of songs that may not all be great, but are at least tolerable.

10. It Ain’t The Whiskey — Gary Allangaryallan2_v_p

In a better year, this song probably wouldn’t have been even under consideration for my best-of list, but after being disappointed by most of Gary Allan’s recent work, this track is one that I at least can listen to without cringing.

9. Tonight I’m Playing Possum — Randy Travis with Joe Nichols

This is another song for which I could only muster up lukewarm enthusiasm, but even though it doesn’t rank among either Travis’ or Nichols’ best work, it does at least pay tribute to one of the greatest voices country music has ever known.

8. When The Lights Go Out (Tracie’s Song) — Mark Chesnuttmarkchesnutt

A road-weary musician’s heartfelt declaration of love to his better half, this is the type of song I really miss hearing on country radio.

7. Like A Rose – Ashley Monroe

In years gone by, my favorites list would likely have been dominated by female artists. There have been a lot of complaints — with some justification — in recent years that the ladies aren’t getting a fair shake from country radio, but the truth is that most of them haven’t doing anything that is very interesting. Ashley Monroe is a notable exception, but sadly, radio isn’t isn’t taking much notice of her solo work. The title track to her current album is a real stunner that deserves a listen.

6. Borrowed — LeAnn Rimesleannrimes

This semi-autobiographical number, sung from the point of view of an unrepentant adulteress is hands down the best thing LeAnn Rimes has released in years. It’s unfortunate that it failed to chart.

5. Give It All We Got Tonight — George Strait

MCA started a “60 for 60” campaign to make this single the 60th #1 hit of the then 60-year-old George Strait’s career. The enjoyable midtempo tune only made it to #7 in Billboard — perhaps another victim of the chart’s new methodology — but it did make it to #1 in Mediabase. Regardless of its chart position, it’s well worth a listen.

4. I Got A Car — George StraitGeorge-Strait-9542120-1-402

I usually try not to include an artist more than once on these lists, but I was having that hard a time coming up with ten singles that were worthwhile. It’s a typical circle-of-life story that has become a staple of the Strait catalog.

3. Sweet Annie — Zac Brown BandZac-Brown-Band1

The Zac Brown Band is one of the few bright spots on country radio these days and one of only a handful of acts that consistently delivers.

2. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes — Ronnie Dunn

This one is brand new, so a lot of fans may not have heard it yet. We haven’t reviewed it yet so I won’t say too much about it now, other than to say that after a few very disappointing releases, Ronnie Dunn is back.

1. Wagon Wheel — Darius Ruckerdariusrucker

This Bob Dylan-penned tune about a hitchhiker trying to get home to see his sweetheart is the surprise hit of 2013 and the only decent song to reach #1 this year. I still prefer the Jeremy McComb version, but Rucker’s version is also good. I never expected this one to succeed, partly because it’s a remake of an old song, and partly because songs I like don’t tend to do well on radio these days. I’m glad to have been proven wrong. I wish Rucker would do more music like this and less of the interminably dull stuff he’s been churning out.