My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Anderson

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Classic Review: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry’ (1981)

stars of the grand ole opryDuring the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s major labels trimmed their rosters, shedding veteran artists who were no longer cranking out the hits or generating decent album sales. Sometimes these veteran artists would find another major label deal but mostly these artists wound up on minor / independent labels. Even those artists who managed to find a major label deal found their stay at the new label to be a short one that lead to landing on a minor label (for example, Jimmy Dickens: Columbia > Decca > Gusto / Charlie Walker: Columbia > RCA > Plantation).

While on the minor / independent labels, most of the veteran artists recorded very little new material, usually producing an album or two of dreary remakes of their older hits with perhaps some covers of other big hits from artists (it is astounding how many artists issued albums listing songs such as “San Antonio Rose”, “There Goes My Everything” and “There Stands The Glass” among their greatest hits).
Most of these albums featured low budget production, thin sound, and were recorded with minimal numbers of disinterested musicians accompanying a bored vocalist singing songs sung literally thousands of times before.

First Generation Records was owned by Pete Drake (1932-1988), one of the great steel guitar players, and a musician who was not about to settle for the bored and tired performances described above. Producing the records himself, and often playing steel guitar on the recording sessions, Pete gathered a group of excellent musicians to play on his recording sessions. Rather than merely re-recording an artist’s older hits, Pete’s Stars of the Grand Ole Opry series generally featured five songs new to the artist (and often simply new songs) followed by five of the artist’s older hits but with a difference, that difference being energized singers and musicians. Among the artists featured on the series were Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard, Vic Willis, Stonewall Jackson, Billy Walker, Ernest Tubb, George Hamilton IV, Ray Pillow, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and Charlie Louvin. While all were decent to very good albums, the album with Stonewall Jackson is the standout among the series.

Prior to this album, Stonewall Jackson has not spent much time in the recording studios since his last new Columbia album was issued in 1971. There had been an album in 1976 for GRT (I think the tracks were leased from MGM, intended for a never released 1973 album) reprising his Columbia hits in the manner of most remake albums, plus a deplorable new song from Foster & Rice titled “Herman Schwartz”. There was a pair of 1979 albums for Little Darling with little to recommend them. One of the Little Darlin’ albums was remakes and the other was largely undistinguished new material, although two of the songs had clever song titles, “The Pint of No Return” and “The Alcohol of Fame”.

For Stonewall Jackson’s First Generation sessions, in addition to playing steel himself, Pete gathered up an all-star lineup of Nashville session men including Jimmy Capps, Billy Sanford, Pete Wade and Bill Hullett (guitar), Jimmy Crawford and John Hughey (steel), Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Bobby Emmons (piano), Tommy Williams (fiddle), Bob Moore and Randy Best (bass).

The album opens up with the Billy Joe Shaver composition “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”, a very recent hit for John Anderson (I think it is possible that Jackson’s version pre-dates Anderson’s recording, but I’m not certain); Billy Joe’s album also hit the streets in 1981. Whatever the timing, I feel that the Stonewall Jackson recording is the best recording I’ve ever heard of the song, far better than Billy Joe’s version and slightly better than John Anderson’s version. Stonewall sings the song with great enthusiasm as the lyric fits the ‘hardscrabble-pull up your own bootstraps’ upbringing of Stonewall’s youth:

Hey, I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue, pure, perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
At last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

R.J. Jones and M. Kosser wrote “Full Moon, Empty Pockets”, a song that several artists subsequently recorded. The song tells a tale of woe that many of us have encountered – time on our hands but no money.

Full moon empty pockets
Stone broke on a Saturday night
Full moon empty pockets
Won’t a lady treat a cowboy right

Next up is “There Are No Shortcuts (To Get Me Over You)”, a good heartbreak ballad that of the kind that Stonewall Jackson always tackled well. This is followed by a song from Ben Peters and Curly Putman, “Breaking Up Breakdown”, a song that I could see as a successful single had it been issued in 1966 rather than 1981. The song is an up-tempo barroom ballad in which the narrator asks for the band to keep playing that song about breaking up.

The last of the newer songs is ”Let The Sun Shine On The People” by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston. Frank Dycus, of course, wrote some of George Strait’s hits and Larry Kingston provided a number of songs to Johnny Bush and other singers.

At this point the nostalgia trip begins, but with an enthusiastic Stonewall Jackson leading the way on excellent new versions of some of his classic hits, starting off with his biggest hit (#1 Country / #4 Pop) “Waterloo”. For those familiar only with the ABBA hit of the same name, this song is a bit of a romp through history referencing Adam, Napoleon and Tom Dooley:

Now old Adam, was the first in history
With an apple, he was tempted and deceived
Just for spite, the devil made him take a bite
And that’s where old Adam met his Waterloo

Waterloo, Waterloo
Where will you meet your Waterloo
Every puppy has his day and everybody has his day
Everybody has to meet his Waterloo

Waterloo was such a big hit that Homer & Jethro took the time to spoof it:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode the trail
Catching Outlaws and putting them in jail
But the Ranger shot Tonto for it seems
He found out what ‘kemosabe’ means

Perhaps Stonewall’s most enduring song, “Don’t Be Angry,” is up next. Written by Stonewall’s brother Wade Jackson, not only was it a big hit for Jackson, but Donna Fargo took the song to the top during the 1970s and the song has been covered by many artists and remains in the active repertoires of county bar bands across the USA.

Don’t be angry at me darling if I fail to understand
All your little whims and wishes all the time
Just remember that I’m dumb I guess like any foolish man
And my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine

Well, I recall the first time that I flirted with you dear
When I jokingly said come and be my bride
Now that time has turned the pages it’s the sweetest joke on earth
That I have you near forever by my side

Joe Babcock authored the next Stonewall Jackson classic “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”, which also was a major hit for pop crooner Pat Boone and has also been a favorite of the R&B crowd and many of the rock & roll crowd as well, including Elvis Presley and Johny Rivers

I was born in Macon Georgia
They kept my daddy over in Macon jail
He told me if you keep your hands clean
You won’t hear them bloodhounds on your trail

Well I fell in with bad companions
Robbed a man, oh up in Tennessee
They caught me way up in Nashville
They locked me up and threw away the key

I washed my hands in muddy water
Washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
Tried to do what my daddy told me
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Next up is Bill Johnson’s “A Wound Time Can’t Erase”, a sad and tender ballad that was a big hit for Stonewall and later for Gene Watson.

The fifth and final Stonewall Jackson classic is the Melvin Endsley / Stonewall Jackson composition “Why I’m Walkin’”, a song Ricky Skaggs covered during the 1980s. Melvin Endsley was a disabled person who wrote several classic country songs including “Singling the Blues” and “Knee Deep In The Blues”. Some readers may remember an alternate title “Got My Angel On My Mind”, but however you label this ballad, it’s a good one.

I’ve got an angel on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’
There’s such an aching in this old heart, now I ain’t talkin’
The little hand that held mine tight, just waved goodbye tonite
I’ve got her sweet love on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’

This album is still readily available on CD, as are most of the other albums in the series. Unfortunately, Pete Drake began experiencing health problems in 1985 and passed away in 1988. I would like to have seen Pete issue new albums on the next generation of veteran artists released by the major labels. It would have been much better music than much of what was actually released by other minor/ independent labels over the next decade. Anyway, almost unique among this class of minor label albums by veteran artists, this album rates a solid A, the first album for Stonewall in many years that I would rate that highly.

Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Goldmine’

goldmineSix years after his last album was released John Anderson has been in the recording studio again. He wrote or co-wrote almost all the material, produced with his fiddle player Joe Spivey, and the album is on his own Bayou Boys label. Freed of any record label demands, the result is a sometimes eccentric, often somber, but always enjoyable collection designed for Anderson and his fans.

John wrote a couple of the new songs with Josh Turner. The title song is a nice, straightforward love song, which Anderson delivers with great warmth. The funky ‘I Work A Lot Better’ is also about a romantic relationship but more overtly sexy than one normally associates with Turner. ‘On And On And On…’, another love song, was written with the Statler Brothers’ Jimmy Fortune, but is unfortunately a bit dull.

Anderson joined with John Rich to write the pleasant sounding and idealistic ‘Don’t Forget To Thank The Lord’, rattling off a too-obvious list of people to be grateful to. Veteran songwriter Buddy Cannon co-wrote ‘Song The Mountain Sings’, a stately tribute to traditional Appalachian mountain music. Solo Anderson composition ‘I Will Cross O’er The Water’ is a Celtic-styled ballad about death and the prospects of heaven, with a pretty melody and intense vocal.

The opening ‘Freedom Isn’t Free’ is a gloomy sounding tribute to US soldiers. It is one of three songs written with the comparative unknown James C Hicks, senior. Love song ‘Happily Ever After’ also has a downbeat melody. ‘You All Are Beautiful’ is more cheerful, as Anderson thanks his fans for their support.

‘Back Home’(written with another unfamiliar name, Jimmy Stephens) is a downbeat story song about a dying woman longing for home and family, with a little twist I won’t give away. Stephens also co-wrote perhaps the strongest song, the serious ‘Holdin’ On’. This depicts a man in desperate financial and personal straits, with debts he has no idea how to repay and a woman who is obviously cheating on him:

These days you know it’s all that I can do
Holdin’ on to what I’m holdin’ to

I thought I had a grip on things
Then it slipped away
Now I just keep on fallin’ every day

A steel-laced arrangement supports the song perfectly.

The one cover is a playful Merle Haggard story song, ‘Magic Mama’, which Hag wrote while in hospital with pneumonia a few years ago. Equally quirky is ‘Louisiana Son Of A Beast’, the story of catching an alligator, which Anderson wrote with Bill and Jody Emerson

This is a solid album from a great singer who has been much missed, and one which always sounds good – but it does lack real standout tracks, other than ‘Holdin’ On’. I would still recommend it to John Anderson fans.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: John Anderson covers country classic ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘The Rest Of The Dream’

the rest of the dreamThe follow up to Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol 2 was always going to be a challenge. The band kept Randy Scruggs, who had overseen the Circle II sessions on hand as their producer for 1990’s The Rest Of The Dream, but did not attempt to copy that album at all. Instead it is a solid return to the country-rock which had done so well for them in the 1980s. Unfortunately they may have lost momentum with their focus on the less overtly commercial Circle II, while country radio was being engulfed with fresh new faces and the move to a more traditional sound. Sadly, they were never again to enjoy a top 40 country hit.

The lead single was a cover of rock star Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’. A dramatic story song about a young girl who elopes with first one man and then another, then shoots her second lover, while the abandoned husband awaits her release from prison, it is delivered in upbeat fashion. It sounds very radio friendly (and convinces as a country-sock song), but peaked at a very disappointing #65. The pleasant but forgettable ballad ‘You Made Life Good Again’ didn’t do much better.

The sunny mid-paced title track, released as the last single with a supporting video, failed to chart at all. It was one of a brace of songs contributed by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who had appeared on Circle II. It’s enjoyable enough, but I prefer the other one, ‘Just Enough Ashland City’, a charming up-tempo story song in which the narrator finds true love and learns not to judge by outward appearances:

I was Mr Sophisticated and she was “just a country girl”
She wound up showing me everything
I’d ever been dreaming of
I may have known the way to San Jose
But I didn’t know a thing about love

This might have been a more successful single, as might aacouple of other tracks. The gentle ballad ‘Waitin’ On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail), is an excellent tune, about holding on to forlorn hope and defying the reality that the narrator has been stood up.

Also great is ‘Blow Out The Stars, Turn Off the Moon’, an excellent song about the end of a relationship written by the brilliant Bobby Braddock, filled with images of their romantic nights under the stars:

When our love was new as the first evening star
We both said “I worship you just as you are”
Then I tried to change you, girl, and I don’t know why
You tried to change me, hey, might as well try
To blow out the stars, turn off the moon
Fade out the crickets and the nightingales too
Take down the magnolias that ride the soft wind
Another love story has come to an end

It is sensitively sung by Jeff Hanna, and beautifully played by the band. This lovely song is my favourite track.

The band’s Jimmie Fadden co-wrote (with Kim Tribble and Bob Garshelis) the charmingly quirky ‘Snowballs’, fantasising about winter walks with a sweetheart, throwing snowballs at the moon:

And after every throw we’d share a little kiss
Make sweet love together every time we’d miss

Hillbilly Hollywood (covered by John Anderson a year or so later on his comeback Seminole Wind album) is about the draw of Nashville for a young musician, which was written by Vince Melamed and Jim Photoglo. I prefer Anderson’s version, but this one is decent.

Jimmy Ibbotson co-wrote ‘Junior’s Grill, a tribute to a favorite diner which would be a great commercial jingle but is a little dull as a song. All four current band members (Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden and Bob Carpenter) cowrote ‘Wishing Well’, but the song is disappointingly bland.

Overall, though, this is worth picking up –especially as used copies can be found cheaply.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Wish I Could Have Been There’

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Life!’

lifeVeteran songwriter Bill Anderson’s most recent venture into the recording studio showcases some of his newest songs. Whispering Bill was never known for the quality of his voice, but that means he is not apppreciably worse than in his youth, while his songwriting prowess is still great. He also recruits a few famous friends to help out with vocals on some tracks, which helps with the overall sound.

‘Rhinestone Grindstone’ is a brilliantly and sympathetically observed portrait of a struggling middle aged musician afraid he’s going to die “unfamous and broke” after all, but still doggedly carrying on for his handful of fans. Now,

He can’t write the songs and he can’t hold the notes and he can’t get the girls like before,

a duetting John Anderson (who certainly can still hold the notes and will hopefully be recording again himself soon) sings.

The most entertaining track on the record is probably his humorous collaboration with Joey + Rory, ‘Whisper’, which plays on both their real-life relationship and Bill’s famous nickname. Bill plays marriage counsellor to a squabbling couple, advising them to copy him instead of yelling at one another:

If you wanna make your point and really get through
Don’t raise your voice, just do what I do

They all sound as thought they had a great time in the studio, and this would work well live too.

The ubiquitous Willie Nelson duets on the fun tongue in cheek ‘Bubba Garcia’s’, a co-write with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson about a bar and restaurant which combines the Mexican and redneck influences of its owner’s heritage.

‘A Song Like This’ is a slightly quirky song Bill wrote with Brad Paisley, about an uptown woman who finds herself in a honky tonk bar due to a broken heart. Vince Gill inserts a soulful jazzstyle vocal cameo in the middle of the honky tonk tune to represent the woman’s sophisticated background; this is not my favorite side of Gill but he is certainly accomplished at it. Disappointingly, Dailey & Vincent are wasted and barely noticeable harmonising in the background of ‘Dreams Are Easy To Come By’, a pretty love song.

The best of Bill’s solo vocals is ‘Old Army Hat’, a very touching story song about a grandfather who embarrasses his grandson by insisting on constantly wearing his “funny looking worn out army hat” in honor of the comrades who didn’t make it back from WWII. The grandson finds his views change when they visit a war memorial at Washington DC, and he finds serving soldiers respect the old man/ Grandpa then gives his hat away to a little boy, the orphaned son of the victim of a more recent war, saying,

Son just keep it…
You’re a brave little soldier, son
And every soldier needs his very own authentic army hat
For your Daddy who gave everything the least that I can do
Is pass on this old worn out army hat

The song segues into part of ‘America The Beautiful’, with a small choir joining in, which works surprisingly well.

The other songs, good though they are, would undoubtedly sound better with someone else singing. ‘Blackberry Winter’ (written by Bill with Rob Crosby) is a very good if downbeat song comparing a thwarted romance to a cold spell in spring. ‘She Could Ruin My Life’ is quite a sweet song about falling in love, written with Jon Randall and Vicky McGehee. ‘In Another Life’, written with Walt Aldridge is a catchy and melodic but slightly silly little song about meeting someone it feels like he has known before; while the tender ‘When You Love Me’ is a straightforward love song.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Let Somebody Else Drive’

Week ending 12/21/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

johnanderson1953 (Sales): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

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

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Let Me Be The One — Hank Locklin (4 Star)

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

1973: Amazing Love — Charley Pride (RCA)

1983: Black Sheep — John Anderson (Warner Bros.)

1993: I Don’t Call Him Daddy — Doug Supernaw (BNA)

2003: There Goes My Life — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2013: Stay — Florida Georgia Line(Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Carolina — Parmalee (Stoney Creek)

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘The Bluegrass Album’

the bluegrass albumDisappointingly, it seems as though Alan Jackson may be at the end of his hitmaking career, with the poor performance of the singles from his fine last album. But unlike many fading stars, Alan has not tried trimming his music to fit the latest trends, rather he is taking the opportunity to experiment with some deliberately less commercial forms of country music, with a religious album earlier this year, and now his long-awaited bluegrass album. His collaboration with Alison Krauss some years ago was a disappointment because it wasn’t bluegrass (or very interesting); this one is very definitely the real thing – pure bluegrass, with some excellent songs from one of the most reliable artists around.

Sensitively produced by longtime producer Keith Stegall and Alan’s songwriter nephew Adam Wright, with most of the songs written by Alan in traditional bluegrass style, the result is the delight I had hoped for when I first heard of the project. A solid bluegrass band, including star names Sammy Shelor on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro and Adam Steffey on mandolin, plays beautifully throughout, with Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman providing harmonies and backing vocals. The tempo is generally slow to medium with no real barn-burning numbers, which is the only slight disappointment – but the music we do get is all so good we can’t really complain.

Most of the songs were specially written for this album, and show Alan has lost none of his creativity. He revives one of his older songs. ‘Let’s Get Back To Me And You’; this seemed like a throwaway in 1994 (on Who I Am), but the acoustic arrangement gives it new life and I much prefer it to the uninspired-sounding original.

I really like the reflective opener ‘Long Hard Road’, in which a man considers his mistakes and sins. This road is metaphorical, but in ‘Blacktop’ Alan recalls childhood on an old dirt road, and his pleasure when it was replaced with a modern surface.

‘Mary’ is a touching love song to a beloved wife with a warm vocal; it sounds very like something Don Williams would have recorded in his heyday, and Alan sounds rather like Don vocally here, too. ‘Tie Me Down’ offers the voice of a rambler persuaded to settled down when he meets that one special girl, and is another nice song.

The slow inspirational ‘Blue Side Of Heaven’ is written from the viewpoint of a dying man addressing his loved one, and has a very pretty melody and tender vocal. ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Song’ is a touching story song about true love, discovered young, and sustained alone forever by the bereaved husband after her death far too soon.

‘Appalachian Mountain Girl’ picks up the tempo, and lyrically sounds as though it could be a long-lost traditional number rather than one of Alan’s newly penned contributions.

Adam Wright composed another song sounding like an authentic old song in the rhythmic and ironic ‘Ain’t Got Trouble Now’, which is highly enjoyable. Adam and wife Shannon wrote the resigned but thoughtful ‘Knew All Along’ about coming to terms with the death of a parent.

‘Way Beyond The Blue’ is a bluesy number written by Mark D Sanders, Randy Albright and Lisa Silver. A cover of the Dillards’ ‘There Is A Time’ (from the iconic Andy Griffith Show) is one of the more up-tempo tracks, and while pleasant and a nice change of pace, is actually one of the less memorable moments for me. A plaintive ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ is taken at the original waltz-time tempo, and unexpectedly interrupted by a rundown of Alan’s thanks to the musicians and others involved with making the record.

An unusual but very welcome choice of cover is an intimate version of John Scott Sherril’s ‘Wild And Blue’, best known from John Anderson’s hit version from the early 80s. Alan’s version is far tamer, sounding almost cosy compared to Anderson’s raw intensity, but the lovely acoustic arrangement and Alan’s kindly vocal (nicely backed by the harmony singers) emphasize the safe harbour the protagonist offers his troubled lover, where Anderson’s edgier vocal interpretation gave the woman’s desperation a more central role.

Releasing the record on Alan’s own ACR Records with distribution by EMI has allowed Alan free reign artistically, which is excellent news for the discerning listener. The artwork, however, while quite stylish, comes across as cheap, with no photographs apart from one tiny one of the entire team in the recording studio on the back page of the booklet in which no one is actually identifiable – you can only guess which Alan in by the hat, and good luck with anyone else. Luckily, it’s the music that matters, and this is an excellent, timeless album which offers solace for those fleeing in horror from today’s commercial mainstream. It is an essential purchase.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘I See It Now’

i see it nowIn 1994 Tracy enjoyed some success with a single from the soundtrack to the movie Maverick. ‘Renegades, Rebels And Rogues’, which was a top 10 hit for Tracy. That track gave him his first opportunity to produce (alongside band member Flip Anderson). This partnership was to prove a durable one, and was continued on Tracy’s third album, alongside tracks produced by James Stroud. The set is dominated by ballads, and contains some fine songs. None of the four singles peaked any lower on the Billboard country chart than #2.

The lead single and title track is a pretty song with a graceful melody and a resigned lyric about a man understanding too late just why his relationship has failed. The prominent fiddle in the arrangement is particularly pleasing. Written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Woody Lee, it peaked at # 2. Coincidentally, this was the same position achieved by its successor, ‘As Any Fool Can See‘, written by Nelson with Kenny Beard. The pace of this was a bit peppier, but it is on very similar theme to ‘I See It Now’, reading rather like a prequel to it.

The album’s sole chart-topper, and probably its best-remembered song,‘Texas Tornado’ was another ballad with a lovely tune. The Bobby Braddock tune is lovely to listen to, but the lyric seems to demand a more forceful pace than it gets. The nostalgic and idealistic ‘If The World Had A Front Porch’ is rather charming, and was another #2 hit.

Ireally liked the wistful ‘I’d Give Anything To Be Your Everything Again’, a sad ballad in which the protagonist revisits the home he once shared with his ex. ‘The Cards’ is also good, with a regretful Tracy rifling through a set of old birthday, anniversary and Valentine’s cards, poignant reminders of times past, while his ex has moved on. The mid-paced ‘I Got A Feelin’’ is pleasant but not very memorable.

The lively and colourful story song about a ‘Hillbilly With A Heartache’ is a duet with John Anderson. It is by far the best of the few up-tempo numbers. The title character, Hershel, sounds like a close relative of Mark Chesnutt’s hit from a couple of years earlier, ‘Bubba Shot The Jukebox’ (the melodies are pretty similar too). Of the other two, ‘Guilt Trip’ is rather forgettable lyrically and has the heaviest production on the album; it sounds like something designed with an eye on the linedancing market – bouncy and quite catchy but with no connection with the downbeat lyric. ‘God Made Woman On A Good Day’ is a rather lecherous bluesy number about hot women, which would fit right in on today’s radio.

The success of the singles helped it to sell well, and this was another platinum-seller for Tracy. Overall, this is a nice-sounding album but the material isn’t quite as strong as on its predecessors, and it does feel a little one-paced. However, it’s worth adding to your collection, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Watch Me’

watchmeLorrie Morgan’s third release teamed her up once again with Something In Red producer Richard Landis, but 1992’s Watch Me is a less pop-oriented collection that sounds like a less ballad-heavy continuation of 1989’s Leave The Light On. The uptempo title track “Watch Me” was the first single sent to radio. More radio-friendly than “Something In Red”, the single that had preceded it, “Watch Me” delivered a “Five Minutes”-style ultimatum to an errant lover and stopped just short of becoming Morgan’s second chart-topper, peaking #2. She closed the deal, however, with another uptempo number, “What Part of No”, which found her giving the brush-off to an unwanted suitor. Spending three weeks at #1, it became the most successful single of her career and is one of her best remembered hits today.

The album’s third single and one of my all-time favorites was the ballad “I Guess You Had To Be There”, which had Lorrie once again confronting a cheating spouse, albeit less assertively than the album’s title track. As the song opens, she greets her husband upon his return from work and proceeds to tell him about her day — how on her travels she’d seen a happy couple in love and the impression it had made upon her. Her spouse’s lack of response prompts her to say, “I guess you had to be there”. The listener learns in the final verse that he was indeed there, and was one half of the happy couple spotted in a cafe. Kris Kristofferson portrayed the philandering husband in the song’s video. Surprisingly, it only reached #14. Lorrie returned to the Top 10 with her next single, the more lightweight and catchy midtempo “Half Enough”, which rose to #8.

The always reliable Skip Ewing had provided “Autumn’s Not That Cold”, one of the best cuts from Something In Red, and he made another contribution this time around, the excellent “You Leave Me Like This”. Likewise, “Something In Red” writer Angela Kaset contributed “From Our House To Yours”, a ballad about a lifelong friendship, that is just a little too sing-songy to truly work well. Much better is Lorrie’s surprisingly good cover of “It’s A Heartache”, a song that had first been introduced by Juice Newton in 1977 and covered by Bonnie Tyler who had a huge international pop hit with it that same year. Morgan’s version is better than both of them, and it probably would have had hit single potential had it not already been so well known and closely associated with Tyler.

Watch Me didn’t chart as high as Lorrie’s previous albums, reaching only #15 but it sold well enough to earn platinum certification. It re-established her country credentials after some of the pop experimentation of Something In Red. It was also her first album for BNA Records, a former indie label that had been acquired by BMG Music earlier that year to be a sister label to RCA. Lorrie was at that time the imprint’s biggest and best-selling star, though she would eventually be eclipsed by labelmates Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, and John Anderson.

Twenty years after its release, “What Part Of No” is possibly the only song from Watch Me that is familiar to many younger listeners, but if those fans are inclined to delve a little deeper into Lorrie’s catalog will find much to like in this collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Rhinestoned’

rhinestonedAfter parting ways with Sony following the release of her 2002 tribute album to her father, Pam Tillis took a five-year hiatus from the recording studio. The time off did her some good from an artistic standpoint; Rhinestoned, which was released in the spring of 2007 on her own Stellar Cat imprint, easily trumps her last couple of uneven releases for Arista.

Surpisingly, Tillis only has songwriter credits on two of the album’s eleven tracks, though she did share production duties with Gary Nicholson and Matt Spicher. Many artists have difficulty getting access to first-rate material by the time the major label phases of their careers have ended, but this is decidedly not the case here. Rhinestoned boasts an impressive roster of songwriters, including Leslie Satcher, Lisa Brokop, Jon Randall, Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Bruce Robison. Pam’s brother Mel Jr. co-wrote one track with her.

My favorite track is the lovely opening number “Something Burning Out”, penned by Leslie Satcher, which finds Tillis lamenting a lost love and avoiding anything to do with fire — namely candles, the fireplace, and cigarettes — which remind her of happier times. I like to contrast this song to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”; the earlier song finds Tillis defiant and determined to party away her troubles, whereas “Something Burning Out” finds her more weary and resigned to her situation. Also quite good is “Band In The Window”, the first of the album’s two non-charting singles, which takes a humorous look at the bar scene, the patrons who hang out there, and the aspiring musicians who perform there.

“That Was A Heartache”, a Bruce Robison co-write with Leslie Satcher, is another favorite. Pam performs it well, but it deserved a wider audience than she was able to reach at this point of her career. I’d like to see a mainstream artist cover this tune, though I can’t think of anyone from the current crop of artists who could do it justice, and country radio would probably not be interested in it anyway. Kellie Pickler did recently cover “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, a pretty but unmemorable and slightly dull ballad.

Pam co-wrote “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” with Gary Nicholson, a track on which she duets with fellow performer John Anderson. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair these two up but they sound very good together and I wouldn’t mind hearing more collaborations from them. The Matraca Berg – Gary Harrison tune “Crazy By Myself” is given a Dixeland jazz arrangement, which provides a nice change of pace, though the production on the track is a little heavy-handed.

“Bettin’ Money On Love” is the album’s most unusual track. It is mostly spoken and not sung. I’m not a huge fan of spoken word songs, but this one has a really good fiddle track and I have to admit it is well done. Tillis portrays a bar owner — perhaps the same bar depicted in “Band In The Window” — who has banned football viewing from her establishment and goes on to recount the tale of her ex-lover who gambled away Tillis’ beloved Mustang on a football game.

Rhinestoned was apparently intended to be a 1970s-style “hippie country” record, and though I’m not sure it really succeeds on that level, it is a very entertaining and well-performed collection of songs that proved that while her hitmaking days may be behind her, the world hasn’t heard the last of Pam Tillis. And for that we are most grateful.

Grade: A-

Week ending 7/13/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

kristofferson-781953 (Sales – Tie):

Take These Chains From My Heart — Hank Williams (MGM)
It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Mexican Joe — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Mexican Joe — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1963: Act Naturally — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1973: Why Me — Kris Kristofferson (Monument)

1983: Highway 40 Blues — Ricky Skaggs (Epic)

1993: Money In The Bank — John Anderson (BNA)

2003: Beer For My Horses — Toby Keith with Willie Nelson (DreamWorks)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Crash My Party — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

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.)

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘I’m Just an Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)’

Week ending 1/5/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

johnanderson1953 (Sales): Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes — Skeets McDonald (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys):
Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Ruby Ann — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1973: She’s Got To Be A Saint — Ray Price (Columbia)

1983: Wild and Blue — John Anderson (Warner Bros.)

1993: Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away — Vince Gill (MCA)

2003: She’ll Leave You With A Smile — George Strait (MCA)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): ‘Til My Last Day — Justin Moore (Valory)

Week ending 12/29/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

butler1952: Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1962: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1972: Got The All Overs For You (All Over Me) — Freddie Hart & the Heartbeats (Capitol)

1982: Wild and Blue — John Anderson (Warner Bros.)

1992: Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away — Vince Gill (MCA)

2002: She’ll Leave You With A Smile — George Strait (MCA)

2012: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2012 (Airplay): Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Pure BS’

purebsBlake Shelton’s unfortunately-titled fourth album finds him pushing the envelope just a bit, exploring new sounds and expanding his production team. Brent Rowan and Paul Worley joined Bobby Braddock, who had produced Blake’s previous three releases. Like his earlier albums, Pure BS achieved gold-level sales, but also continued his inconsistent pattern with country radio, missing the Top 10 on two of the album’s three singles.

The album opens with the somewhat overproduced “This Can’t Be Good”, which Blake co-wrote with Timothy DeArmitt. The track gets off to a good start, with a strong and energetic vocal performance, but the electric guitars become more and more intrusive as the song continues, and eventually overwhelm it. It is followed by the lead single “Don’t Make Me”, which sound radio-friendyl enough but surprisingly topped out at #12. The second single, “The More I Drink”, written by David Lee Murphy, Chris DuBois, and Dave Turnbull likewise underperformed on the singles chart, peaking at a disappointing #19. Perhaps alarmed by radio’s tepid response (or perhaps it was just typical major-label greed), Warner Bros. released a deluxe version of the album with three new tracks in early 2008. One of the new tracks was “Home”, a cover of the Michael Buble pop hit. The strategy worked, wince Blake’s version, which features backing vocals from his then girlfriend Miranda Lambert, became his fourth #1 country hit. Though I’m not usually a fan of pop songs remade for the country market, I do quite like this performance.

My favorite song on the album is “I Don’t Care”, written by Dean Dillon and Casey Breathard. It borrows a theme from the Victorian-era tune “After The Ball”, in which the narrator catches his sweetheart with another man, who later turns out to be her brother. “I Don’t Care” has a happier ending, however, as the misunderstanding is resolved more quickly and the couple presumably lives happily ever after.

Even before the Deluxe Edition release and the success of “Home”, Shelton appears to have had some crossover ambitions with this album, which contains more pop-leaning material than his earlier releases. It works in some cases better than others; his performance on “What I Wouldn’t Give” is a bit over the top and the entire track is a little too AC-leaning for my liking, but the more restrained “Back There Again” works pretty well. While much of the material showcases Blake the ballad singer, the uptempo “The Last Country Song”, which laments the demise of a popular roadhouse to suburban sprawl, is one of the album’s highlights. The closing track to the original album, it features cameo appearances by John Anderson and George Jones.

Pure BS is one of the stronger entries in the Shelton discography, allowing him to branch out a bit creatively, but before his song selection choices became too spotty. The album is still easy to find, but expect to pay close to full price, unless you’re looking to buy the original non-deluxe version.

Grade: B+


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