My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Levanthal

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Shouldn’t A Told You That’

The departure of Robin Lynn Macy following Little Ol’ Cowgirl left the Dixie Chicks (billed here as “The Dixie Chicks Cowgirl Band”) as a trio when they released their third album, Shouldn’t A Told You That, in November 1993. It would feature the remaining members, The Erwin sisters and Laura Lynch, and stand as their final release before Natalie Maines replaced Lynch in 1995.

The ten-track album features an impressive lineup of songs by some of independent country’s top singer-songwriters. They open with Radney Foster’s co-written “Whistles and Bells,” an excellent traditional shuffle about a woman giving a stern warning to her ex about the woman he’s currently dating:

I see her running round this town in her fancy car
A girl who can’t afford your hopes and dreams
But darlin’ all those pretty toys won’t help your broken heart
When she’s through and sends you packin’ back to me

Whistles and bells won’t ever bring you love and happiness
She’s never gonna give her heart the way that I would give
She’s got you spinning round in circles, I can tell
With her lights, buzzers, whistles, and bells

Austin based singer-songwriter Walter Hyatt wrote the title track, a barnburner driven by Emily’s banjo that nicely foreshadowed their more mainstream sound in the years to come. “Desire,” which is bright, uptempo, and laced with fiddle and dobro, was co-written by Kim Richey. The gorgeous and affecting “There Goes My Dream,” about a woman watching her man walk away, was solely composed by Jamie O’Hara.

The album’s most recognizable song, at least to fans of alternative country, is Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal’s “Plant of Love,” which was the title track to Lauderdale’s debut album two years earlier. Their version is brilliant, with a sparsity that lets their exquisite harmonies shine. “Planet of Love” is paired with the shot hidden track “Boo Hoo,” which gives their harmonies another pleasing spin. It’s a weird little gem and it sounds me to me like they were playing spoons as their instruments.

Lynch has two writing credits on the album. The first, “I’m Falling Again,” is a beautiful ballad about new love she co-wrote with Martie, Emily, and Matthew Benjamin. The other song, “The Thrill is in the Chase” is mid-tempo and allows Martie’s fiddle work to take center stage.

Benjamin also appears as a co-writer on “One Heart Away,” a mid-tempo ballad anchored by fiddle and dobro. He wrote “I Wasn’t Looking for You,” a mid-paced ballad about falling accidentally in love, solo. “I’ve Only Got Myself To Blame” returns the album back to its uptempo leanings, with a heavy dose of fiddle and banjo.

This is without question the most polished of their independent albums and showcases their move towards a distinctly mainstream sound. The selection of songs, just like with every Dixie Chicks album, remains exquisite. I do disagree with Paul Dennis’ view that Lynch wasn’t a distinctive lead vocalist. Although she isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Maines, and honestly no one is really, if you think about it, she carries this album wonderfully.

While the Dixie Chicks were headed towards a mainstream sound, Shouldn’t A Told You That is still very much alt-country and keeps with the likes of Kelly Willis more than Trisha Yearwood or Pam Tillis. None of that matters in the end, though, as Shouldn’t A Told You That is a fine album on its own.

Grade: A

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Pocket Full of Gold’

Released in 1991, Vince Gill’s fifth album continued to build on the success of the double-platinum selling and career-changing When I Call Your Name. There must have been enormous pressure to produce a follow-up disc that would confirm that the success of his long overdue commercial breakthrough was no fluke. Fortunately, Pocket Full of Gold, did not disappoint. His most traditional album to date, Pocket Full of Gold was a more cohesive collection than its predecessor, and marked the beginning of a more consistent track record at radio, as for the first time, all of the singles released from one his albums reached the Top 10.

Once again, Tony Brown was on board for production duties. Also returning to the studio was Patty Loveless, who sang harmony on the album’s title track, in what was seen as an attempt to recreate the magic of “When I Call Your Name”. The earlier record is better remembered and to this day casts a long shadow over “Pocket Full of Gold”; however, the latter is an excellent song in its own right. Written by Gill with Brian Allsmiller, it tells the story of a married man who slips his wedding ring off his finger when he meets a hot young dish in a bar. The song ends with a dire warning:

Some night you’re gonna wind up on the wrong end of a gun,
Some jealous guy’s gonna show up, and you’ll pay for what you’ve done
What will it say on your tombstone?
“Here lies a rich man, with his pocket full of gold”.

The tune peaked at #7, breaking a long-standing unwritten rule that an artist could not successfully release three consecutive ballads as singles. However, for the follow-up single, Gill and MCA did opt for a change of pace, releasing the uptempo and decidedly less substantive “Liza Jane”, which Vince wrote with Reed Nielsen. A lightweight song intended to be a fun summertime release, it also reached #7 on the charts. After that, it was back to ballads again for the third single. “Look At Us”, written by Vince and Max D. Barnes is a story of a married couple who has overcome some serious obstacles and emerged with an even stronger union. It was largely thought to be a semi-autobiographical number, and Vince’s wife Janis appeared with him in the music video. It’s a beautiful song, but the lyrics seem a bit awkward today since the Gills eventually divorced. Backstory aside, it’s a great song that reached #4.

The album’s fourth, final, and highest-charting single was Vince’s solo composition “Take Your Memory With You”. Though the title suggests another ballad, it’s a midtempo number that is heavy on fiddle and steel. It peaked at #4 in early 1992.

Among the album cuts, there are three other songs that had the potential to be hit singles: “The Strings That Tie You Down”, which was another co-write with Max D. Barnes, the stripped-down “If I Didn’t Have You In My World”, co-written with Jim Weatherly, and the Curtis Wright composition “What’s A Man To Do”.

Pocket Full of Gold is one of those rare albums that is so consistent, it’s difficult to pick out any of the songs as favorites. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t any fluff. Vince’s composition “A Little Left Over” doesn’t quite match the quality of the other songs on the album, and the Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal tune “Sparkle”, which closes the album is a throwaway track. Sandwiched in between the landmark When I Call Your Name and the best-selling album of Vince’s career I Still Believe In You, Pocket Full of Gold tends to be overlooked. It is, however, better than either of those albums, even though its singles weren’t quite as successful. Along with 1998’s The Key, it is my favorite album in the Gill catalog, and as such, is highly recommended. CD and digital copies are widely available.


Grade: A+

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘Black Cadillac’

A musical memoir, Black Cadillac finds Cash channeling the pain of losing her stepmother June, her father Johnny, and her mother Vivian within a two-year period into her most personal album yet. A dark and often moody reflection on her life, Black Cadillac displays some strokes of genius and is easily the best album of her career.

It was also split down the middle with producers- half the tracks were produced by her husband John Leventhal while the other half was produced by Bill Bottrell. This split personality in production didn’t hinder the project one bit as both producers contributed to the greater whole of the project.

The centerpiece of the record, “I Was Watching You” is my favorite song she’s ever recorded. Solely written by Cash, it’s the haunting tale of a child watching their parent’s love affair from heaven long before conception. It then twists in the end to the parent watching the child from heaven, after they’ve died. A bleak tale, it’s so beautifully orchestrated and is so effortlessly perfect, you can’t help but be in awe of a master at work. The piano-laced production adds the ideal amount of heaviness to the track, grounding the tale in just enough sorrow without going overboard.

Another such song is “House on the Lake,” a personal reflection about the Hendersonville, Tennessee residence Johnny and June called home. The property, while undergoing a complete restoration by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, burned to the ground in 2007. “House” serves as a lasting legacy to the place with the “Blue bare room, the wood and nails” where “there’s nothing left to take” because “love and years are not for sale.” There’s something uniquely special in this tale about home – introspection is rarely executed this masterfully.  More than the average where I’m from song, “House” stands as a legacy to a home that natured one of country music’s greatest love stories.

And it’s that elevation from ordinary to a sense of importance that binds Black Cadillac. These aren’t just rants of a grieving woman but rather reflections of the life Cash was brought into and the legacy she now has to uphold. But it’s how she honors her parents that make this album truly shine.

In the opening track, we hear some faint crackling before the familiar voice, seemingly from beyond the grave, chimes in with “Rosanne C’mon.” From there Cash launches into “Black Cadillac” which juxtaposes the hearse that brought her father to his funeral with the car he used to drive. The production is cloudy yet doesn’t intrude on our ability to focus on the lyrics. And in another gesture of honor, the horns at the end of the song are meant to recall the distinctive horn work from her dad’s “Ring of Fire.”

What follows, “Radio Operator” is easily the most rocking song on the whole project. It comes as a bit of a jolt after the somber opening while “Burn Down This Town,” a song about Johnny’s love of fire, continues this rollicking trend.

“God Is In The Roses” is a haunting tale of reemergence and self-discovery. It isn’t so much about the omnipresent nature of the universe, but rather of redefining the meaning of place in the deepest parts of our souls – “The sun is on the cemetery/Leaves are on the stones/There never was a place on earth/That felt so much like home.” I’ve never heard it put that way before, but the transcendent power of the graveyard is very palpable.

The rest of the album follows suit in brilliantly articulating Cash’s sense of loss. “The World Unseen” is another tale of descent, this time into the unknown world of life without your guiding force. What on some level could be viewed as a simple break-up ballad is rendered so much more in the imagery Cash conveys – “You must be somewhere in the stars/’Cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar.” Her ability to convey so much with very little only heightens the beauty of this song, as does the simple production of piano and light drums. They give the song just enough without overpowering the message.

“Like Fugitives” attacks the bitter side of grief, where anger replaces any sense of compassion. The theme of life without is still present here yet it’s everyone else’s inability to understand that insights the rage – “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell/And the lawyers get the money/For the lives they divide and sell.”  With that line, Cash perfectly articulates the weirdness of a dead parent and the mess the children are left with in their wake. As with “God Is In The Roses” she accurately puts into words what is often hard to communicate. And the understated production fits the song perfectly.

In listening to this album, I am in awe of how well Cash was able to put every emotion of grief into words. She’s made a very special album here, one relatable to anyone who has lost a parent or a grandparent. I especially like the sentiment behind “0:71,” the closing track which finds 71 seconds of silence for each year of her parent’s natural lives. Sometimes the perfect way to honor someone is by saying nothing at all.

Only one very slight complaint has hindered my enjoyment of this exceptional musical project. As a listening experience, Black Cadillac is weighted down with heaviness and too many similarly produced tracks leave need for variety. I’ve owned the project since its release in 2006, and have only really been into the first half of the album. But this isn’t a fault of anyone involved – the album perfectly conveys the grief and sorrow one feels when your elders have ascended into heaven. And for that, Black Cadillac elevates musical memoirs to new and exciting heights.

This is a very worthy addition to anyone’s music collection and essential listening for anyone who’s lost a parent or grandparent. Copies are very easy to find in either digital or hard copy from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Used Heart For Sale’

Country music enjoyed a huge renaissance with the New Traditionalist movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the mid-90s, it had begun to backslide and the lines between country and pop once again became more blurred. Gary Allan’s 1996 debut for Decca Records was a notable exception to the rule. Produced by Mark Wright and Byron Hill, Used Heart For Sale is a throwback to the Bakersfield sound, reflecting Gary’s traditionalist leanings and the experience he gained while paying his dues in southern California’s honkytonks.

Things got off to a strong start with the lead single “Her Man.” Previously recorded by Waylon Jennings but not released as a single, Gary’s version of the Kent Robbins tune reached #7 on the Billboard country singles chart. Unfortunately, none of the subsequent singles — “Living In A House Full of Love”, “From Where I’m Sitting” and “Forever And A Day” — fared as well on the charts. None of them managed to crack the Top 40, probably due in part to Gary’s newcomer status; he was not yet an “automatic add” at country radio. Another obstacle was that country radio had begun to resist playing traditional-based music, a trend that continues to the present day. However, it is safe to assume that “From Where I’m Sitting” would have been a monster hit had it been released by one its co-writers, Garth Brooks. It’s one of the less traditional songs — and one of the weakest — on the album, but Garth’s star power would likely have carried it to the top of the charts. In the hands of a newcomer like Gary Allan, however, it faltered and stalled at #43. It’s a rather forgettable ballad, most likely chosen as a single based on the Brooks connection.

Used Heart For Sale boasts a strong roster of songwriters: George Ducas, Jim Lauderdale, John Levanthal (aka Mr. Rosanne Cash), Faron Young, Billy Sherrill, and Glenn Sutton all made contributions, as did producers Byron Hill and Mark Wright. Gary himself shared songwriting credits with Jake Kelly on the title track, which is one of my favorites from the album. Sherrill and Sutton wrote “Living In A House Full Of Love,” which had been a Top 5 hit for David Houston in 1965. Gary’s version of the Faron Young classic “Wine Me Up” is another highlight of the album. Tanya Tucker included it on her recent covers album, which got me to thinking that she’d be an ideal duet partner for Gary.

The bluesy “Wake Up Screaming” closes the album. It’s the least traditional-sounding song in this collection, foreshadowing a style that Gary would use more frequently in subsequent albums. This one would have fit perfectly on 1999’s Smoke Rings In The Dark, perhaps more comfortably than it fits on this album.

Despite producing only one bonafide hit, Used Heart For Sale sold respectably, earning gold certification from the RIAA. Not as well known as Gary’s later albums, it is an overlooked gem in his discography. Decca Nashville folded in 1998, but Gary was transferred to the roster of Decca’s parent label, MCA which re-released Used Heart For Sale. It is still in print and is available both digitally and in CD form from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A-