My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Guess

Spotlight Artist: Kelly Willis

Kelly WillisOur August spotlight artist isn’t someone you’ve heard a lot of on the radio, but she has long been a favorite of critics and the MKOC staff writers.

Kelly Willis was born on October 2, 1968, in Lawton, Oklahoma and spent her high school years in Annandale, Virginia. During that time she became the lead singer of a rockabilly band. Shortly after graduating from high school, she married the band’s drummer and moved to Austin, Texas. The band didn’t survive very long, but Willis quickly caught the attention of two famous Texas musicians — Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, who were both signed to MCA Records at the time. Griffith and Lovett convinced Tony Brown to offer Willis a contract, and she joined the label’s roster in 1989. Her first album, Well Traveled Love, produced by Brown and John Guess, was well received by critics and well promoted by MCA, but it was not commercially successful. Her two subsequent albums for MCA didn’t fare much better. Without any hit records and uncomfortable with the sexy image that MCA was trying to create for her, Willis departed the label in 1994.

During her tenure with MCA, Willis’ marriage to her high school sweetheart ended. She began dating Texas songwriter Bruce Robison in 1992. The pair married in 1996 and eventually became the parents of four children. Also, in 1996, Willis released an EP called Fading Fast for A&M, which performed about as well as her MCA albums. It was her only project for the label. After leaving A&M, she began recording for independent labels, and although none of them produced any hit singles, all of them charted higher than her major label efforts on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. 2002’s Easy, released by Rykodisc, is her highest charting solo effort, peaking at #29.

In 2008, the demands of family life caused Willis to put her career on hold and she has performed and recorded only sporadically since then. Her two most recent efforts, last year’s Cheater’s Game and Our Year, which was released this past May, are both collaborations with Bruce Robison and both were reviewed here at time of their release. We hope that you’ll enjoy our look back at an artist who, despite a lack of mainstream recognition, is a talented vocalist and songwriter who desrves to be heard.

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Album Review: Suzy Bogguss & Chet Atkins – ‘Simpatico’

simpaticoChet Atkins’ contributions to country music are immeasurable; he was arguably the genre’s greatest guitarist ever, and as a producer and label executive at RCA, he paved the way for such legendary artists as Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Don Gibson, Skeeter Davis, Dolly Parton, Connie Smith, and many more. He was also an early champion of Suzy Bogguss, as anyone who has read the liner notes to her debut album can attest, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the two of them decided to release an album together. Simpatico, which was released in 1994, was one of the last albums in the Atkins’ discography and his last entry into the Billboard Country Albums chart.

The album was also a turning point in Bogguss’ career; she’d parted ways with longtime producer Jimmy Bowen, and produced Simpatico with John Guess. Interestingly, Atkins didn’t share production credits at all on this project. The project also marked the beginning of Suzy’s chart decline; it may be simply because her star was beginning to fade, or it could have been because the album was released at a time when Liberty Records was neglecting any artist on its roster not named Garth. However, it seems fairly certain that this is one album that not made with one eye on the charts; instead it is a labor of love that that is largely indifferent to commercial concerns.

As one might expect from a man who helped develop the Nashville Sound, and whose tastes ran from country to pop and jazz, Simpatico is not a collection of traditional country tunes. Instead it encompasses a variety of sounds, influenced by both country and pop, and occasionally including some Spanish and Latin influences. Chet’s trademark picking is heard prominently throughout the album. He does chime in vocally on occasion, but Chet was never much of a singer, so Suzy does the heavy lifting as far as the vocal duties are concerned.

Two singles were released; neither of which charted. The first was the uptempo “One More For The Road”, written by Atkins and Bogguss, along with Suzy’s husband Doug Crider. The second was a surprisingly good cover of Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” A better choice might have been “Forget About It”, one of the album’s more contemporary numbers. It is more in the vein of what country radio was looking for at the time, but given Liberty’s half-hearted support, it probably would not have been any more successful.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from beginning to end, without any missteps. my particular favorites are the covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now”, which opens the album, and a stunning version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”. I also quite like the whimsical “Wives Don’t Like Old Girlfriends.” At first glance “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” seems to be a little out of place, but the tasteful production, complete with a restrained string section, and the excellent singing and picking, makes the record work. Though it would probably never held much appeal for country radio, in another era it might have been an adult contemporary hit, but AC radio in the 90s was too R&B influenced to embrace a recording like this or “When She Smiled At Him”, which also sounds like a holdover from 1970s Top 40 AM radio. “Two Shades of Blue” is a lovely Spanish-sounding number written by Deborah Allen, Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy.

Nearly two decades after its release, Simpatico holds up well. Bogguss and Atkins succeeded in making an evergreen record, which does not sound dated at all. My only criticism is its brevity, but country albums rarely exceeded ten tracks in the nineties. Such a non-commercial album would probably not even be released by a major label today. Given its lack of chart success, a fair number of fans might have missed this album. Those who did miss it can pick it up from Amazon. Unlike a lot of older albums, expect to pay full price for this one, but it is worth every penny.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘What If It’s You’

whatifitsyouAfter experiencing a dip in sales with 1995’s Starting Over, Reba McEntire again changed musical directions, abandoning the glossy production of that covers album, in favor of a more stripped-down, organic sound.  She also teamed up with a new co-producer, John Guess,  and used her road band instead of studio musicians for the first time.   These changes paid off on both an artistic and commercial level.   Reba sounds more relaxed and relies less on vocal acrobatics than she did on her several preceding albums, and whereas radio had been lukewarm to the single releases from Starting Over, What If It’s You produced four hit singles, two of which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks Chart, one that reached #15,  and one that made it all the way to #1.   Her sales also picked up; What If It’s You was certified double-platinum by the RIAA for sales in excess of 2 million units.

The opening track, “How Was I To Know”, while not my favorite from the album, was the biggest  hit from this collection, reaching #1 in Billboard in March 1997.   It begins with some electric guitar licks that set the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this collection would not be marred by the pop excesses of her two previous albums.   It is followed by “The Fear of Being Alone”, the album’s lead single which was composed by Walt Aldridge and Bruce Miller.  This is a catchy tune which seems specifically designed to get Reba back in the good graces of country radio.   And it did just that — barely missing the top spot in Billboard when it peaked at #2 in December 1996.  The next single, “I’d Rather Ride Around With You”, also peaked at #2.   A light-hearted song about a bridesmaid who goes AWOL from her cousin’s wedding to go riding around town with a male friend.   The song was linked to the rather lackluster title track when the same set of actors was used for the music videos of both songs, creating a story arc.   Whereas in the first video, McEntire delcares, “I’d rather ride around with you”, in the second one she laments that she may have failed to recognize her soulmate and allowed him to slip through her fingers.  “What If It’s You” was the only single from the album that failed to make the Top 10,  stalling at #15.

My favorite track from the album is the excellent “It Don’t Matter”. Written by Tommy Lee James, it examines a theme familiar to country music — the insignificance of material possessions in marriage in which passion has been lost.  In some ways, it is an updated version of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic “Two Story House”:

We’ve got a nice little house on a quiet little street, but it don’t matter.
A two-car garage with new a Cherokee, but it don’t matter.
‘Cause we don’t ever seem to talk anymore,
And you don’t hold me like you did before,
We’ve got everything we wanted and more,
And now I know, and now I see,
That nothing matters if you don’t love me.

Another highlight of the album is the Jerry Salley and Melba Montgomery-penned “Close To Crazy”, in which the singer questions her sanity while trying to get over a lost love.   Reba provides an excellent understated vocal performance, and she and co-producer Guess wisely avoid a bombastic arrangement, on a track that would have tempted many other artists and producers to oversing and overproduce.

Sandwiched in between these two gems is “State of Grace”, the one true clunker on the album.  It tells the story of a Walmart employee who one day gets fed up with the monotony of her existence and hits the road in search of a better life.   It reminds me somewhat of one of my least favorite McEntire singles, “My Sister”, which would appear on the Room to Breathe album several years later.  Though on the surface the songs are quite different, both are examples of the Female Empowerment Anthem, which would become a dominant theme at country radio in the early 21st century.

The remaining tracks never rise above the status of filler, though they are all pleasant to listen to and none of them reaches the low point of “State of Grace”.

What If It’s You has occasionally been criticized as an album that pandered to country radio in order to get more airplay.   While there is some truth to the charge,  one has to bear in mind that back in 1996 the quality of music played on country radio was generally much higher than is the case today.  After two consecutive albums (Read My Mind and Starting Over) that moved progressively closer to mainstream pop, Reba needed to re-establish herself as a country artist rather than a pop diva.  In that sense, What If It’s You succeeds in spades.  Although the sound was contemporary, it was her most country album of the decade.  Unfortunately, the change in musical direction was short-lived, as Reba’s follow-up album found her drifting back towards slick production and power ballads.

What If It’s You can be purchased at iTunes (digital) or Amazon (CD or digital).

Grade: B+