My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Cowan

Classic Rewind: John Cowan – ‘Calllin’ Baton Rouge’

Cowan’s 1980s band New Grass Revival had the first hit with this song, later a chart topper for Garth Brooks.

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: John Cowan – ‘Sixty’

sixtyJohn Cowan is best known to country fans as the lead singer of New Grass Revival in the late 1980s, but he is a musician with broad tastes, and this latest solo album covers a number of bases.

‘The Things I Haven’t Done’ (featuring bluegrass banjoist Alison Brown) mixes bluegrass the country-rock of the 1960s/70s. The plaintive song looks back at a life’s choices. ‘Why Are You Crying’ is in similar vein, with an airy Cowan vocal, and is played by Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, and John Mcfee of the Doobie Brothers (who also produces). ‘Rising From The Ashes’ is a bit less memorable, but quite pleasant.

My favourite track is an inspired cover of the Marty Robbins’ hit ‘Devil Woman’. Cowan’s vocal is spectacular and I love this. His voice also soars on the beautiful ‘Feel Like Going Home’, backed by a melodic, churchy piano. A sultry Dixieland jazz version of ‘Miss The Mississippi (And You)’ works well and is something of a grower.

‘Helplessness Blues’ is a curious 60s style folk-rock number, with some weird sound effects and hippyish lyrics, but that soulful voice saves it.

The churchy gospel ‘Happiness’, featuring Sam Bush from New Grass Revival, and Bonnie Bramlett on vocals, rambles a bit but its questioning but soulful vocal is compelling:
Now that I’ve found peace at last
Tell me, Jesus, will it last?

‘Who’s Gonna Cry For You’ features Alison Krauss, but wasn’t what I expected from that collaboration, rather it’s a slow bluesy soul song with brass backings, with Alison barely audible. It was well done of its kind, but I was disappointed because I would have loved to have heard the pair of them on a high lonesome bluegrass song.

‘Sugar Babe’ is basically an instrumental with a few vocal spots inserted, allowing Cowan to showcase the playing of friends including Sam Bush, Ray Benson, John Jorgenson (from the Desert Rose Band) and rock harmonica player Huey Lewis.

This eclectic album is not quite what I expected, but it is beautifully sung and played, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: John Corbett – ‘Leaving Nothin’ Behind’

leaving nothin behindWhen a successful actor turns his hand to music, the result is often met with accusations of vanity projects. But I thought John Corbett’s first album, back in 2006, was a good record on its own merits, with the actor showing off a smoky voice with an interesting tone and although he doesn’t write he clearly has a good ear for material. His latest effort is also worthwhile. The album is produced by Gary Paczosa with Corbett’s friend Jon Randall Stewart, who wrote the best song on Corbett’s first project (‘Cash’) and also contributed most of the songs on this one – and that level of quality material helps make the album stand out. Corbett’s smoky voice is fairly distinctive, backed up by the harmonies of Randall, Sarah Buxton, Jessi Alexander and John Cowan, while the overall sound is contemporary but not over-produced.

Perhaps my favourite track is the dark-timbred Western story song ‘El Paso’ (not the Marty Robbins classic of the same name but perhaps a sequel) which Randall wrote with John Wiggins. The narrator is falsely accused of murder:

There ain’t no judge and jury
And there damn sure ain’t no proof
But the sheriff’s needing someone in that noose
Even though I told the truth

I wasn’t even in El Paso
When they gunned that cowboy down
I was in the arms of Rosa
Sleeping safe and sound
So remember when you hang me
All I’m guilty of
Drinking cheap tequila
And falling in love

The track is given a Western style production and allows Corbett to show off the lower extent of his vocal range, and is a real highlight.

Wiggins also co-wrote the reflective metaphorical ‘Me And Whiskey’ about a man’s ongoing on-and-off problems with alcohol. This is another excellent song. ‘Cocaine And Communion’, a Leslie Satcher co-write, tells the age old story of the struggle between addiction and God with a mother’s prayers eventually winning out:

I’ve hung out with the Devil
Like I never knew the Lord
But I was not raised a rebel
And I don’t wanna be a rebel any more

The tenderly sung and very touching story song ‘Dairy Queen’ tells a story about a woman who never forgets her first love (who died in Vietnam), and despite a happy marriage

There’s a part of her still belongs to him

‘Steal Your Heart’ is a likeable breezy declaration of love which opens the album to confident effect, written by Randall with Gary Nicholson and Paul Overstreet. A line from the song lends the album its title.

‘Name On A Stone’ was written with Bill Anderson, and relates a father’s funeral with no mourners beyond family, prompting the protagonist to decide he must leave something of substance behind when his own time comes.

The upbeat ‘Backside Of A Backslide’ was written with Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Chris Stapleton, about a husband begging his wife to let him back yet again. Its irrepressible optimism has a lot of charm, and I wouldn’t bet against it succeeding.

Jon Randall’s songs are rounded out by a few obscure but interesting covers; the Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Rainy, Windy, Sunshine’ (a rodeo rider’s letter from the road to a lover) is pretty good with a relaxed vocal. ‘Satin Sheets’ is not the Jeanne Pruett hit but a sardonic Southern rocker about the celebrity lifestyle written by Willis Alan Ramsey which Waylon Jennings recorded in the 70s; it’s probably my least favorite track here but performed with enthusiasm.

The only new outside song without Jon Randall’s hand is also good. ‘Tennessee Will’, written by Pat McLaughlin and Adam Hood, which has a relaxed feel, rootsy arrangement and atmospheric southern mood.

If Corbett was serious about pursuing a country music career, this is radio-friendly enough for commercial success. As a labor of love, it is a highly enjoyable record, and as a bonus, it is an effective showcase for the songs of one of Nashville’s finest songwriters.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: 25 from the ’80s

This article will focus on some artists who either had a very short period of great success or had an extended run of near-success. In other words, I cannot justify an entire article on any of them.

Deborah Allen was born in 1953 in Memphis, and probably has had greater success as a songwriter, having written hits for artists including Tanya Tucker, Sheena Easton and Janie Fricke. As a performer, RCA had the bright idea of dubbing her voice onto old Jim Reeves recordings to create duets. The three duets released as singles – “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” and “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me” – all went Top 10 in 1979-80. As a solo artist, Allen charted 10 times with three Top 10 singles: “Baby I Lied” (1983–#4), “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (1984–#2) and “I Hurt For You” (1984–#10).

Baillie and The Boys were a late 80s act which charted 10 times between 1987 and 1991 before disappearing from the charts. Seven of their hit records went Top 10, with “(I Wish I Had A) Heart of Stone” (1989–#4) being the biggest. Kathie Baillie was the lead singer, and while initially a trio, the group became a duo in 1988 with few people able to tell the difference.

Debby Boone is one of two answers to a trivia question – name the two families that have had a #1 pop record in each of three consecutive generations. One answer is obvious – the Nelson family – big band leader Ozzie Nelson (“And Then Some”, 1935), Rick Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”, 1958 and “Traveling Man”, 1960) and Rick’s sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson (recording, under the name Nelson, “Love and Affection”, 1990).
The Nelson family answer works top down and bottom up as the members of the chain are all blood relatives. In the case of Debby Boone’s family, it only works top down. Debby (“You Light Up My Life“, 1977), father Pat Boone (seven #1s from 1955-1961 including “Love Letters In The Sand“) and grandfather Red Foley – no blood relation to Pat Boone but a blood relation of Debby’s (“Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy”, 1950).

Debby Boone may be a direct direct descendant of the American pioneer Daniel Boone. She is distantly related to two stars of American television, Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel, Hec Ramsey) and Randy Boone, (The Virginian and Cimarron Strip).

Enough with the trivia – Debby charted on the country charts thirteen times from 1977-1981 although most of those were pop records that happened to chart country. Starting in 1979 Debby started consciously recording for country markets. “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own” reached #11 in early 1979. The next three records did relatively nothing but the first single issued in 1980 “Are You On The Road To Loving Me Again” finally made it to the top. She would chart four more singles before turning to gospel/Christian music.

Larry Boone is best known as a songwriter, having cuts by Kathy Mattea, Don Williams, Tracy Lawrence, Rick Trevino, George Strait, Shenandoah, Marie Osmond and Lonestar. As a singer, he wasn’t terribly distinctive – sort of a George Strait-lite.  Boone charted 14 singles from 1986-93, with only 1988’s “Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger” reaching the Top 10. The other Top 20 singles were “I Just Called To Say Goodbye Again” and a remake of “Wine Me Up” – both of which reached their peak chart positions in 1989.

Dean Dillon charted 20 times from 1979-93, with his biggest hit being “Nobody In His Right Mind (Would’ve Left Her)” which reached #25 in November, 1980. During 1982 and 83, RCA paired Dillon with fading star Gary Stewart, hoping for the kind of magic that was later achieved when Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were paired together. No real hits came of this collaboration, but the recordings were quite interesting and are available on CD.

Fortunately for Dillon, he is a far better songwriter than singer. His hits as a writer include George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” and more than a dozen George Strait Top 10s. In fact, Strait has recorded over 50 of Dillon’s songs, ensuring that the wolf will never again knock at Dean Dillon’s door.

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Album Review: Foster & Lloyd ‘Foster & Lloyd’

Singer songwriter Radney Foster first teamed up with fellow writer Bill Lloyd in 1986, with the duo’s debut album being released on RCA the following year. Epitomising the diversity of late 80s country radio, Texas-born Foster’s country roots mixed with Lloyd’s pop/rock influences. Foster’s distinctive hard-edged voice generally takes the lead with Lloyd adding Beatles-esque harmonies and playing various guitars and mandolin. The duo produced, and wrote all the material, most frequently together, with a handful of solo compositions tossed in.

The cheerful rockabillyish debut single ‘Crazy Over You’, which had also just been covered by another new act, Ricky Van Shelton, got the new duo off to a great start, peaking at #4 on Billboard. The melodic mid tempo ‘Sure Thing’ also did pretty well, and was their second top 10 hit, and it is pleasant listening but a bit repetitive lyrically.

The third single, ‘Texas In 1880’ (written by Radney alone) hit the roadblocks, and stalled out in the lower reaches of the top 20. It was an interesting song which deserved to do better, giving voice to a contemporary rodeo competitor who draws inspiration from his image of the “wild and free” cowboys of a past era. John Cowan of New Grass Revival sang a guest high harmony.

My favorite song on the album, the excellent ‘What Do You Want From Me This Time?’ (featuring Vince Gill on guitar) took them back to the top 10. It is extremely catchy but withou sacrificing emotional depth. The protagonist tells his ex she is out of luck in her bid to reheat a relationship which is all over as far as he’s concerned:

What do you want from me this time?
What do you think you’re gonna find?
I’m not trying to be unkind
But what do you want from me this time?

You say things have changed but that’s pretending
Baby, love don’t always have a happy ending

Another fine song, ‘Don’t Go Out With Him’, omitted from the LP/cassette version, was to be a hit single for Tanya Tucker and T Graham Brown in 1990 with slightly re-worked lyrics. The original works very well as a picture of unrequited affection. ‘You Can Come Cryin’ To Me’(written by Radney Foster alone) feels like a sequel to this song, as that relationship has ended in literal tears and he offers a shoulder to cry on. It is a very good song and would have fitted in well on his solo album.

‘Hard To Say No’ is a fast-paced almost punkish rocker about finding it hard to resist sexual temptation which explains why Radney Foster once described the duo as a country garage band. It’s not the kind of thing I usually like but it is surprisingly entertaining and probably went down well live. Opener ‘Turn Around’ is pleasant and potentially radio-friendly but disposable mid-tempo country rock addressed to a woman leaving. ‘The Part I Know By Heart’ is not very interesting, while Bill Lloyd’s ‘Token Of Love’ is plain boring.

This debut appeared to herald a bright future for the duo, but their flame was to burn out even more quickly than it did for the Sweethearts of the Rodeo and the O’Kanes. They were to enjoy only one more top 10 single, 1988’s Guy Clark co-write ‘Fair Shake’, the leadoff for their sophomore album Faster & Llouder. The dup disbanded in 1990 after releasing a total of three albums, partly to allow Radney Foster to embark on a solo career. His album Del Rio TX, 1959 was a modern classic and met with much deserved commercial and critical success. His solo career also later faltered, but he has continued to release critically acclaimed music often some way off the mainstream, and he plans to record a live version of the songs on Del Rio TX, 1959 this year.

If you want to investigate the duo’s music, I would recommend either this album or the compilation The Essential Foster & Lloyd, which includes the best seven tracks from this release.

Grade: B+