My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Joe Nichols

Week ending 12/14/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Mitchell+Torok+111141953 (Sales): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Caribbean — Mitchell Torok (Abbott)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know — Davis Sisters (RCA)

1963: Love’s Gonna Live Here — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1973: The Most Beautiful Girl — Charlie Rich (Epic)

1983: Tell Me A Lie — Janie Fricke (Columbia)

1993: My Second Home — Tracy Lawrence (Atlantic)

2003: I Love This Bar — Toby Keith (DreamWorks Nashville)

2013: Stay — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Sunny and 75Joe Nichols (Red Bow)

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Crickets’

crickets joe nicholsJoe Nichols’s career never quite recovered from his break to tackle his substance abuse problem in 2007, notwithstanding 2010’s chart topping single ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has since lost his deal with Show Dog Universal, and his new album is released on the independent Red Bow. Independent labels tend to have fewer resources available for promotion, making radio hits harder to come by, and as if to compensate, Joe has followed the example of Chris Young by including a large proportion of lyrically unambitious commercial material. Luckily, a total of 16 tracks leaves enough room for good songs as well as bad, including three essential downloads.

The very best track on the album is a heartfelt, beautifully sung cover of Haggard’s ‘Footlights’. Joe is also at his neotraditional best with the Josh Turner-styled ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, a lovely ballad which dresses up a love song into a discussion of destiny, with the protagonist comparing himself transformed by his love to the titular Bible, and to Willie Nelson’s guitar:

The good Lord had a plan for them
The moment they were made
In the right hands they come alive
You understand the reason why

Some things wind up where they’re meant to be
Like Billy Graham’s Bible
Willie’s old guitar
And me

It was written by Chris Dubois, Jimmy Melton and Neal Coty, and is outstanding.

Also excellent is ‘Old School Country Song’, written by Rivers Rutherford and Jim Collins, which pays tribute to the lasting power of real country music even in a changing world:

In a chat room out in cyberspace
They might not be face to face
They both know they’re up to something wrong
They say we’ve come a long, long way
Talkin’ bout the world today
Still sounds like an old school country song

Folks still love and folks still leave
Drunks get drunk and cheaters cheat
And there’s just something lonesome ‘bout a midnight train
Someone done somebody wrong
We’ll miss Mama when she’s gone
And trust me
That ain’t never gonna change

Breakin’ up is still a mess
It don’t make a heart hurt less
‘Cause you text it from a mobile phone
All you’ve really done, you see
Is modernize the melody
This still feels like an old school country song

You can take it off that ol’ jukebox
Burn it on your new Ipod
The three chords and the truth are just as strong
You can say we’ve come a long long way
Play what you want to play
But there’s nothing like an old school country song

‘Better Than Beautiful’ is a pretty love song delivered with palpable sincerity, which is the best of the rest. Opener ‘Just Let Me Fall In Love With You’ is quite an attractive mid-tempo tune, although the lyric is filled with clichés. ‘Love Has A Way’ is another pretty ballad spoiled in its second half by an insensitive and echoey production. ‘Baby You’re In Love With Me’ opens attractively, but has a cliche’d lyric about driving around in the country with a girlfriend. ‘Gotta Love It’ is nicely sung but the production is too loud and the song not very interesting.

‘Smile On Mine’ is, amazingly, a Peach Pickers’ song I actually like (despite the obligatory truck reference, it has a pleasant melody and decent lyric trying to get a girl interested). Dallas Davidson also co-wrote ‘Open Up A Can’ with Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace, a relaxed number about taking a break from the stresses of life which isn’t bad but doesn’t need the party crowd sound effects.

The cliché-ridden ‘Yeah’, written by Gorley with his regular writing partner Bryan Simpson, adds nothing new or interesting. ‘Hard To Be Cool’ is boring but could be worse. The title track is also pleasant-sounding but not very interesting. The lead single ‘Sunny And 75’ is rather forgettable, but less objectionable than 95% of current hits, and has rewarded Joe for his compromises by rising up the charts and is now on the brink of the top 10.

But while the majority of the tracklisting is mediocre rather than terrible, there are a pair of really awful songs tucked in the middle of the album: ‘Y’ant To’ and ‘Hee Haw’. The latter is not a tribute to the TV show, but a tacky, crude double entendre which is heavily over-produced.

Overall, a real mixed bag, with some genuine highlights.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Randy Travis with Joe Nichols – ‘Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum’

possumVirtually every country artist that has emerged during the past 30 years has claimed to have been influenced by George Jones, so it was inevitable that the legendary singer’s recent death would spawn a series of tributes. One would be hard pressed to tell from listening to the music of a lot of these “fans” that Jones had any influence over them at all, but there is no doubt that Randy Travis’ admiration for the late singer was sincere. It is therefore, entirely appropriate that he is among the first, if not the first, major country star to release a Jones tribute single.

Written by Keith Gattis, “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is, as one might expect from a song about George Jones and sung by Randy Travis, a traditional country number. It is sung from the point of view of a grieving Jones fan who, fueled by cigarettes and alcohol, vows to spend however long it takes to go listen to the entire Jones discography. The tone is one of unabashed reverence, and references are made throughout to some of Jones’ biggest hits — “Bartender’s Blues”, “Why Baby Why” and of course, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Though unlikely to be a huge radio hit, the record should be well received by fans of both Jones and Travis.

There is one glaring problem with this record, and sadly, it is that Travis’ voice is showing signs of substantial wear and tear and at times is almost unrecognizable. As a result, Joe Nichols was recruited as a duet partner to do most of the heavy lifting. His traditional baritone succeeds in compensating for Travis’ vocal shortcomings, and in fact the recording seems more like a Nichols vehicle with a guest vocal from Travis as opposed to the other way around. I’m glad that Joe was available to save the day — and the record — but listening to this tune makes me sad on two counts: that one of my favorite country singers is gone, and that another appears to be past his vocal prime.

Grade: B

Week ending 3/30/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

joenichols1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: The Teddy Bear Song — Barbara Fairchild (Columbia)

1983: Swingin’ — John Anderson (Warner Bros.)

1993: When My Ship Comes In — Clint Black (RCA)

2003: Brokenheartsville — Joe Nichols (Universal South)

2013: Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013 (Airplay): Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘Can’t Back Down’

RayebackdownCan’t Back Down, Collin Raye’s seventh studio album, came just eight months after Tracks and did nothing to reverse his already declining fortunes. He took on co-producer James Stroud for the project, but that didn’t help matters, and he exited Epic shortly thereafter.

“Ain’t Nobody Gonna Take That From Me” peaked at #43 and it’s an excellent song, evidenced by Joe Nichols cover on 2007’s Real Things. Raye’s version, however, was a bit too poppy, but he gives a pleasant vocal and has some nice fiddle riffs throughout. The breathy religious-tinged ballad “What I Need” failed to chart.

The main problem with the album is the generic nature of the proceedings – Raye and Stroud fail to amass a collection of songs that rise above average, with the song selection failing to be anything terribly memorable let alone hit worthy. Raye spends the project trying to fit in with the early 2000s Nashville crowd, thus spending too much time pandering and not enough time finding great songs.

That being said this isn’t a terrible album, but it isn’t up to Raye’s usual standards. “Gypsy Honeymoon” does boast a nice up-beat production, but Raye’s raspy vocal is a bit off-putting. He charges up the production again on “Young As We’re Ever Gonna Be” (which he co-wrote), to much better results, pulling off what sounds like a long-lost Mary Chapin Carpenter anthem circa Stones In The Road.

Raye again looses his way on the majority of the ballads. “Dear Life” attempts to be inspirational but his breathy vocal and the AC-leaning piano hinder the enjoyment. “What I Did For Love” and “One Desire” are just odd and feature a sonically out of place drum machine that does little more but water down Raye’s usual tenderness into a pop-meets-R&B concoction that’s far more LA than Nashville.

Raye does attempt to regain his footing in the mainstream, though, and you have to credit a man for trying. “It Could Be That Easy” sounds like it could’ve come from any of his previous records, but it just isn’t nearly as strong. “Dancing With No Music Playing” and “End of the World” have the best production (with the latter best representing Raye’s glory days), but they fall up short thanks to weak lyrical content and somewhat scrawny vocal performances. “I Can’t Let Go Now” is just too slow, and the string section makes the track too sleepy for my tastes.

It’s easy to see why Can’t Back Down marked the end of Raye’s mainstream career – it just wasn’t a great album. I’m all for applauding artists when they grow stylistically, but Raye seems like he’s changed. Save the first single and “Young As We’re Ever Gonna Be,” this isn’t the same man who had a long string of hits just a few years earlier. The ballads don’t pack the same punch and his voice doesn’t sound like it’s aging gracefully, which is a shame. But it isn’t his worst album. It may be among his safest, but it isn’t dreck.

Grade: B-

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Christmas Rewind: Joe Nichols – ‘Let It Snow’

You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘It’s All Good’

Joe Nichols is one of Music Row’s underrated journeymen performers. His sixth studio album, released last week is a mostly quiet affair, more rooted in tradition than the music of most his contemporaries, with a few concessions to contemporary tastes that should give him a shot at some radio airplay. As with his last few albums, he’s opted not to put all his eggs in one basket by using just one producer. This time around Mark Wright shares the honors with Buddy Cannon, with each contributing five tracks.

Things get off to a rocky start with the lead single, “Take It Off” a mediocre number that attempts but does not succeed in recreating the winning formula of 2005’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”. Written by Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorey, and Kelly Lovelace, the song is ultimately done in by the lack of subtlety in the lyrics, namely the part that goes:

You’re a pretty little country thing
But giddy under them cut-off jeans
Take ’em off, come on mama, take ’em off

Presumably these words of poetry are the handiwork of Kelly Lovelace, since they sound like something we’d normally hear from Brad Paisley. Released in August and reviewed by J.R. Journey shortly thereafter, “Take It Off” is currently at #25 on the charts.

The second track, “The More I Look” is a little better. It doesn’t contain any tasteless lyrics, but the production is a little cluttered and loud for my liking. Thankfully, this is the only production misstep on the album. I imagine that this track is earmarked for release as a single at some point, since it seems more radio friendly than most of the other songs on the album. Another likely single is “Somebody’s Mama”, a tune written by David Lee Murphy and Kim Tribble that finds Joe in the midst of covering up a tattoo that reminds him of an old flame. The couple apparently split up because Joe wasn’t ready to settle down:

She used to say all she wanted was babies
And I was too young to slow down
But I figure she’s probably somebody’s mama by now.

He goes on to speculate that she’s also dripping in diamonds and driving an expensive car, which seems odd because nothing else in the lyrics suggests that she was particularly materialistic. On the contrary, the fact that “she used to say all she wanted was babies” suggests quite the opposite. Still, it’s a pleasant song that stands a reasonable chance of success on the charts.

Things improve considerably from the fourth track on, with Joe sounding a lot at times like a younger George Strait, in both his vocal style and choice of material. The Strait influence is particularly evident with the title track written by Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman. “It’s All Good” is the most traditional and the best song on the album and probably not what radio wants, so it will likely linger in obscurity as an album cut. “No Truck, No Boat, No Girl” is also quite good and slightly more radio-friendly. The mood continues to get more mellow as the album progresses, with inoffensive filler like “Never Gonna Get Enough” and “She’s Just Like That.” The closing track “How I Wanna Go”, is a particularly laid-back tune that finds Joe contemplating an easy life on a sailboat with his guitar and lady, and again sounding very much like King George.

Nichols has had inconsistent success on the singles charts and there’s probably not anything here that is going to change that. It’s All Good is not an outstanding album, but it is very good above-average effort that deserves a listen. It is currently on sale for $5.99 at Amazon MP3.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

By 2005, the quality of Trace Adkins’s music had dwindled to new lows. He had finally reached instant-add status with country radio, but like Blake Shelton today, had compromised his music, especially his radio singles, to reach the top. That trend continued with Songs About Me. It may have earned double platinum certification, but it’s easily the most controversial album of his career.

At the time the second single, “Arlington” was climbing the charts (it peaked at #16), Adkins’s record label decided to pull the plug on the military ballad and rush-release “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to country radio. There was much talk that “Arlington,” a first person story of a soldier buried in the national cemetery, offended military families due to the first person account. But on the flip side, the country music world considered the song a surefire #1 hit. While I understand where the controversy stems from, I personally don’t think it was warranted. It’s easily one of Adkins’s best performances and deserved its due.

Of course, when “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” came into the picture, all was forgotten about the debacle with “Arlington.” It stirred up an even bigger ruckus and caused even greater debate about sexism and the boundaries of country music. It didn’t help that the almost R-rated music video made Shania baring her midriff, Reba wearing her red dress, or Lorrie Morgan strutting around her bedroom in “Something In Red” all seem like a non-issue. That he scored a monster hit with this song (it peaked at #2) only proves that country music (and its fan base) has veered away from its ideals.

There is nothing about this song I care for whether it be the subject matter or the disastrous production values. That a dance version was created only sank this one lower in my book. In his defense of the song, Adkins said he would’ve recorded it for his debut Dreamin’ Out Loud had it been available at the time. I would’ve liked to see him get away with that in 1996.

But the most alarming thing of all was who wrote “Badonkadonk” – Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, and Dallas Davidson. I can see where the Davidson influence comes in, he did co-write “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” with Luke Bryan, but the Johnson and Houser connection always throws me. Why would two of the best traditional voices recording country music today write something so offensive to the traditions of country music? It just doesn’t seem characteristic of them to me. To be fair, I understand “Badonkadonk” is all in good fun, but I take the ideals of country music very seriously, and in no way does this song fit with someone who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saw the writing on the wall at the time – she openly wondered where the Chicks music would fit on country radio between “Badonkadonk” and Joe Nichols “Tequlia Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”

Apart from the disastrous third single, which actually doesn’t fit in context with the rest of the album, Songs About Me gets more right than wrong. While there are a couple of filler power ballads, most of the tunes are understated and showcase the path I want Adkins to travel down with his music.

The title track, a song about singing about who you are, is the only “power” song he actually got right. The rock like production of heavy guitars and drums suits the passion he exudes in his vocal performance. The aforementioned “Arlighton” is a masterpiece and a lesson in using your voice to execute a powerful vocal track.

I also enjoyed “My Heaven” a song in which Adkins lists out what his idea of heaven is – a wood framed house with a porch swing with the kids playing in the yard eating watermelon and spending time with his wife. While the title might suggest more religious undertones, it’s actually a sweet tale made even stronger by the soft mandolin and understated production. I love that he sounds like he’s trying here to create a special moment and not just mailing it in for the sake of filling out an album. While not as memorable as other tunes on the subject, it’s a sweet tale that actually works. I enjoy the marriage here of his voice and the production – instead of reacting like oil and water, they work to compliment themselves nicely. He should record in this vein more often, or at least release these kinds of moments as singles.

“Metropolis,” another highlight (also recorded by its songwriter Anthony Smith in 2003 and Sammy Kershaw in 2008), finds Adkins playing the role of a man trying to make a living and juggle his career and his family. On songs like this, the way he manipulates his voice makes you believe the story he’s trying to convey. A prequal of sorts to “My Heaven,” “Metropolis” should’ve been a single and reminds me a lot of his future monster smash “You’re Gonna Miss This” but without the flash. I love the gorgeous guitar-laced production that helps opposed to hinder his vocal.

In contrast, “I Learned How To Love From You,” hits some but not all of the right notes. A good showcase of his voice, the strings and paino create a mix that overbears the lyrical content and Adkins’s emotional delivery of the song. I might’ve enjoyed it more had it been more starkly produced and a bit toned down. But it is going in the right direction of where Adkins should be as an artist.

As for the duds, “Baby I’m Home” is exactly the kind of immature song you’d expect from Adkins, especially in this period of his career. As he proves on “Arlington” and “My Heaven,” he’s above such trite lyrics as “She’s got 100 candles burning/she’s got next to nothing on,” or at least I want him to be. It’s songs like “Baby I’m Home” (and “Badonkadonk” of course) that keep my appreciation for Adkins quite low. Why is it that all men of a certain age can sing about is hot women?

“Find Me A Preacher,” recorded as “Somebody Find Me A Preacher” by Chad Hudson in 2008, is overwrought and the in your face mix of loud guitars and drums distract from Adkins’s performace. It isn’t too bad, considering how little feeling he puts into the song. As far as album cuts go, this is second-rate filler. I liked how Hudson makes his tale believable, Adkins just seems like he’s trying to fill out an album.

In the end, Songs About Me is a pretty consistent project split down the middle between questionable choices, and moments of growth. Given that this project gave the world “Badonkadonk,” I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of artristy, but was proven wrong by most of what Adkins has to offer this time around. Songs About Me still didn’t convert me into a diehard fan, but a few of the better moments came awfully close.

Grade: B 

Single Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Take It Off’

Joe Nichols is at his best when bending his Haggard-esque vocals around a stone country lyric. But that’s not to say he doesn’t capably deliver clever up-tempo lyrics, see: “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”. The biggest flaw in the bulk of Nichols’ novelty repertoire, however, is the lack of charm in the lyrics themselves, with tunes like “Size Matters” and “Gimmie That Girl” relying mostly on their respective title catchphrases and breezy melodies.

His latest single falls into the catchphrase-only lot, and implores its title for lofty subject matter such as a cold one and a pretty girl’s top. Nichols still offers a winning vocal despite throwing in a “na na na ooh hoo hoo” in the second half, and reaching for an elusive falsetto in the latter syllables. His traditionalism is still here as well, as fiddles lead and a banjo is added in the mix, but this is just another of the singer’s bread and butter songs we have to wait through before the next “Shape I’m In” comes to radio.

Grade: C

Listen here.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Single Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Take It Off’

Joe Nichols’ latest offering is the sort of record that you don’t even have to listen to in order to know that it’s a lyrically light, uptempo, feel-good kind of song, intended to reach its peak on the charts sometime during the summer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; on the contrary, this is a fun listen that should enjoy widespread appeal during summer vacation.

The song opens with the line, “If you’re feeling that summertime heat, got the top up on your Jeep, take it off”, and then proceeds to advise the listener to take off other things, from a boat up on a trailer and the cap on beer bottle to the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. If this were a Trace Adkins or Toby Keith record, I’d be expecting a crude double entendre to be thrown into the mix, but the closest Nichols comes to that is when he tells his love interest to slip off her Daisy Dukes and sunglasses in order to go swimming.

Nichols generally does a better job than most of his contemporaries at making sure that his records sound country. “Take It Off” is no exception. The production is a bit busy and it is by no means a traditional record, but there is plenty of banjo, pedal steel and fiddle to keep it firmly within the realm of country music. That’s a refreshing change from the over-the-top power ballads and rocked-up uptempo numbers that have become the norm at country radio in recent years. This isn’t a record that anyone is likely to remember once its chart run is through, but it accomplishes what intends to do: put the listener in a good mood for some summertime fun, and sometimes that’s enough.

Grade: B+

Listen to “Take It Off” here.

Album Review: The Grascals & Friends – ‘Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin’

The Grascals are one of the most talented current bluegrass lineups, and their four albums to date have been gaining them increasing amounts of attention. The band’s singers are not among my favorite bluegrass vocalists, but their instrumental prowess is exceptional. They have already worked extensively with discerning country artists like Dierks Bentley and Dolly Parton. This side project, recorded exclusively for Cracker Barrel, consists, as the title promises, of the Grascals’ selection of classic mainstream country songs given a light bluegrass flavor, with a number of guest stars helping out on vocals. Fiddler Jeremy Abshire and banjoist Kristin Scott Benson stand out most for me, but all the musicianship is flawless, with not a note sounding out of place or misjudged – the perfect combination of virtuosity and taste.

Most of the songs are duets with the guest vocalist generally opening and one of the Grascals’ lead singers taking over halfway through. Guests range from some of the more traditionally rooted of today’s stars to veteran acts on their own classics.

Brad Paisley is entertaining on a committed version of the Buck Owens classic ‘Tiger By The Tail’ which opens the set brightly and is one of my favorite tracks. I also really enjoyed Dierks Bentley guesting on ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, although I would have preferred him to sing lead throughout rather than sharing the role, which seems to make the lyric less convincing by not being a single man’s story. The least successful cameo comes from Joe Nichols, whose music I usually like, but who sounds rather limp on ‘Mr Bojangles’ (not one of my personal favorite songs anyway, which may color my appreciation of this version).

Darryl Worley appears on the second verse of a fast-paced and playful ‘White Lightning’ which sounds as though the band had great fun recording it, and it is equally enjoyable to listen to. Country and bluegrass get some added Cajun spice with a lively take on ‘Louisiana Saturday Night’ (a Bob McDill song about down-home partying on the bayou and was a hit for Mel McDaniel in 1981), which is perfectly fine without any star guest. However, a Hank Jr medley of ‘Born To Boogie’ and All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight’ could have done with a guest to add some passion, as the treatment is just far too mild – neither boogieing nor rowdy in even the slightest degree. The instrumental backing is as attention-grabbing as ever, though.

Singer-songwriter Tom T Hall has been working in bluegrass for some years, and here he sings his ‘The Year That Clayton Delaney Died’. His voice has audibly aged, but it works well in the context of this warmly reminiscent tribute to a childhood influence, and the cut is absolutely charming. Charlie Daniels sounds even more grizzled on ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, but the band sound a little too polite vocally backing him up, although the playing definitely has the requisite fire. The Oak Ridge Boys contribute vocals on their Rodney Crowell-penned hit ‘Leavin’ Louisiana In the Broad Daylight’ (one of the more unexpected song choices), and while this works well in its new incarnation, it isn’t one of my favorite tracks.

Dolly Parton harmonizes beautifully on her own (and Porter Wagoner’s) ‘Pain Of Lovin’ You’, which works perfectly as a bluegrass song. Dolly also guests on the single which has been released to publicize the project, ‘I Am Strong’, the only original song included (apart from a nice rhythmic instrumental, ‘Cracker Barrel Swing’). Written by the Grascals’ Jamie Johnson with his wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (currently Terri Clark’s fiddle player), it has a very pretty melody, and heartfelt lyric, sung with great soulfulness and emotion. I have to admit that if I were diagnosed with a serious or fatal illness, my own first impulse would not be to talk about how strong I felt, and I don’t think I would even want to be, so the song’s message doesn’t quite speak to me personally. Having said that, it is an attitude which does help many people, and it appealed to the Grascals enough that they recorded the song twice here, once with Dolly, then reprised at the end of the album with an all-star cast including most of their other guests, Terri Clark, Randy Owen and (bizarrely) action star Steven Seagal. (It would, incidentally, have been nice to have had a full duet with Terri on the record, as the choice of guests is rather male-dominated.) I actually found this version with everyone swapping lines more effective and moving than the earlier version, with more of a sense of universality.

Both versions are emotive in the right way, with a real sense of hope. Both end with a few lines delivered by a three-year-old patient at St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, which inspired the song’s composition. Fittingly, a share of the profits of the album go to the hospital.

Grade: A-

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Christmas Rewind: Joe Nichols – ‘Old Toy Trains’

Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking?’

Blake Shelton’s latest single (the second from his second Sixpak EP, All About Tonight), is a revival of a song which might so easily have become a hit for one of his rivals. Joe Nichols recorded it a few years a go on his under-rated Real Things set (whose promotion was affected by his treatment for addiction issues), but never released it as a single. Written by Earl Bud Lee with John Wayne Wiggins (briefly a recording artist himself with sister Audrey), this is a sweet love song to a lover the protagonist is not yet completely familiar with, he speculates sweetly how she behaves unobserved. Does she let herself go in relaxation or anger?

There is a sweet fascination with the other which epitomises the early stages of a relationship, where infatuation is just beginning to develop into wanting to know the whole person. In this case she seems to be rather a restrained person in public, and even reserved with her new boyfriend. In the song’s most memorable image, he notes she is someone who will

Hold yourself together like a pair of bookends

She clearly keeps something back from him, and his tenderly expressed desire to know more about her is a promising sign for the longevity of their possible future together.

I think this version is better than Joe Nichols’ original, which was pleasant enough but lacked impact vocally. Here, Blake’s soothingly sultry, seductive vocals on this track bring out the message of the song, with a grainy quality coming out in his voice just once or twice. The lovely scaled-back production gives the languid ballad a very laid back feel which makes it stand out amongst the overwhelmingly up-tempo repertoire of country radio, and a far cry from the power ballads which take the few ballad slots apparently available. I suspect it is only Blake’s current hot hitmaking status that has enabled such a lovely low-key number to be promoted to radio with a genuine chance of becoming a hit.

The newest member of the Opry, Blake is coming off two straight #1 hits, both radio-friendly up-tempo numbers with fairly limited long term appeal. I hope this much quieter, more subtle song can do as well, as it shows a deeper side to him, just as his fiancée Miranda Lambert, famed for her assertive rockers, reached new heights with her summer smash ‘The House That Built Me’. I suspect that his song may possibly hold more appeal for female listeners than his last couple of hits, aimed at a rowdier audience.

Blake is also currently enjoying his first CMA nomination as Male Vocalist of the Year; it was something of a surprise inclusion, and he may be an outside bet for the win next month, but if he continues to produce material in this vein and of this quality, he would be an even more convincing contender for the next round of awards shows, when this song would be considered as part of Blake’s output in the nomination period. I don’t think it is a truly great song, but it is a good one, and the vocal performance is one of Blake’s finest to date.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Joe Nichols – ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off’

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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