My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Rich

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Pictures’

The promotional cycle for John Michael Montgomery’s Brand New Me had come to an end when Atlantic Records closed their Nashville division in 2001. They weren’t ready to give up on him just yet, so Montgomery moved to their parent label Warner Bros. Nashville, where he reunited with Scott Hendricks for 2002’s Pictures.

The album charted three singles. “‘Till Nothin’ Comes Between Us” is a slick mid-tempo pop ballad, which features a smoothed over vocal from Montgomery. “Country Thang” is typical country-rock, beaming with southern pride. “Four-Wheel Drive” is the best of the bunch, with a nice steel and fiddle based melody, reminiscent of Brad Paisley’s work from the time period. The tracks peaked at #19, #45, and #52, respectively.

Harley Allen, who revived Montgomery’s career with “The Little Girl” appears here, as co-writer, along with Paul Overstreet, of “I Wanna Be There,” a contemporary ballad about a father’s prayer for his child as he or she goes through the phases of life — first words, first date, first heartbreak, etc. John Rich co-wrote “Believe In Me,” a mid-tempo promise of loyalty from a man to his woman.

Rivers Rutherford, a prominent songwriter during this era, was a co-writer of “Love and Alcohol,”  an uptempo cautionary tale where a man is warning a woman he’s been drinking so he’s not quite himself. “Love Changes Everything” is a charming but clichéd story of young love during the summer months on a farm. Montgomery is in a grateful mood on the upbeat “Got You To Thank For That,” which has a nice energy.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about the title track, which traces the love story of a couple through photographs and the memories they conjure up, all the while looking ahead to the memories yet to be made. “It Goes Like This,” which features Sixwire, a group that at the time had released their debut album, is an early sign of bro-country with the way it objectives the woman as nothing more than an object of desire.

I wouldn’t characterize Pictures as a bad album, but it is very generic and lacks even one song I could pull out as essential listening. It’s very typical of early-21st century commercial country music and I could hear shades of what Lonestar was cooking up during this time period. Pictures came on the back end of Montgomery’s career, where he was fighting to remain relevant ten years out from Life’s A Dance.

Radio had mostly moved on, actually to his brother and Troy Gentry, who were hitting their stride with “My Town” and “Hell Yeah.” No one was missing anything with Pictures, so this album’s lack of success was only a loss to his record label.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Highways and Heartaches’

Wade Hayes’ fourth album, 2001’s Highways and Heartaches, was the final major label album of his career. He switched from Columbia to Monument for this release, which retained Don Cook as a producer but brought along Ronnie Dunn, Terry McBride, and Chick Rains to join him.

Three singles were sent to radio. The weak and generic “Up North (Down South, Back East, Out West)” peaked at #48. The ballad “Goodbye Is The Wrong Way To Go” performed slightly better but stalled at #45. The final single “What’s It Gonna Take,” which was co-written by John Rich, tried to recapture Hayes’ classic sound but didn’t rekindle any of the magic. It was his final single for a major label and it failed to chart.

The album got its title from a line in “Life After Lovin’ You,” which is about the only significant thing about the uptempo rocker. He continues in this territory on “Up and Down” and has equally unremarkable results. “That’s What Honky Tonks Are For” has Cook’s stamp all over it, which could’ve been a good thing, but it feels dated and uninspired.

Highways and Heartaches is strongest when Hayes is allowed to be himself. “She Used To Say That To Me,” co-written by Jim Lauderdale, is the bridge between the muddled garbage that populates the majority of the album and the more restrained tracks. “You Just Keep On” is an album highlight, with a modern lyric that fit with the romanticism of the era. “I’m Lonesome Too” has audible steel and a pleasant uptempo melody.

This record isn’t actually garbage, but it is a commercial effort that takes zero changes and waters down everything that made Hayes distinctive. It’s clear the label knew exactly what they wanted and they got it. Highways and Heartaches should remain the forgettable album that it truly is.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘All the Trouble’

Although she is best known to the masses for her massive crossover hit “I Hope You Dance”, Lee Ann Womack has built a reputation as one of only a very select few female artists that adheres to country music’s traditions. John Rich once referred to her as this generation’s Tammy Wynette. I’m not sure I quite agree with that assessment; my first reaction was that she was more like a Patty Loveless, but I’ve come to realize that a case can be made that she is this generations’ Emmylou Harris, putting artistry and tradition ahead of commercial concerns and earning universal respect from her peers. Let’s just pretend that 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind never happened; she has more than redeemed herself for that misstep.

Lee Ann is releasing a new independent album in October and there have been rumors that she is moving in an Americana direction. It’s a little hard to say based on the advance single “All the Trouble,” which is different from her usual fare. I’d call it country blues with a touch of gospel rather than Americana; in fact, it sounds like something that The Judds might have had success with in their heyday.

Written by Lee Ann with her bandmates Adam Wright and Waylon Payne, “All the Trouble” begins with Lee Ann singing the chorus acapella at a the lower end of her register and slowly builds in intensity. During the first, mostly acoustic verse, she sounds beaten down:

The deck is stacked against you
Life’s a losing hand
Even when you think you’re up
You’re right back down again
Either way you play it
The house is gonna win.

By the second chorus, she kicks it up a notch, sounding more like the Lee Ann of old.

I’ve got all the trouble I’m ever gonna need
And I just don’t want no more.

By this point she’s singing more intensely, desperately searching for a happy ending. It’s about a full octave higher than the beginning of the song, which is quite effective in giving the listener a full sense of her emotions. The background vocalists provide a gospel feel which gives the whole song a sense of hope. Unfortunately, at this point the production becomes a lot busier and louder than it was at the beginning and I feel that this is a case where less would have been more.

“All the Trouble” is not perfect, but it’s everything that contemporary mainstream country is not: substantive, well-written, and well sung from the female point of view. I’m looking forward to hearing the full album.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Crazy Nights’

600x600Lonestar released their second album, and last with John Rich, in June 1997. Crazy Nights continued in the tradition of their debut by keeping Don Cook and Wally Wilson at the helm.

The bright, effervescent and otherwise excellent “Come Cryin’ To Me” led the album and became the band’s second #1 single. The perfectly styled tune, with Cook’s signature percussion beats, was one of four tunes co-written by Rich.

They followed with “You Walked In,” a mid-tempo ballad that stalled at #12. The song, co-written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is sexy without being overt:

Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the supermodel world

Cindy, Naomi and that whole bunch of girls

Redheads, brunettes and blondes with blue eyes

They come in every shape yea they come in every size

You know I love everything they do

I check ’em out on every Pay-Per-View

Oh, but honey that was way before I met you.

And then

***

You walked in with legs up to your neck

You walked in I’m a physical wreck

You walked in I’ve lost my cool babe

But what’d you expect

When you walk in baby love begins

When you walk by baby ooh my my

When you come around, my jaw hits the ground

When you shake your thing I jump outta my skin

When you cross the floor I scream “more baby more”

When you flash your smile you drive me wild

Yea, yea, yea, yea, yea

***

Everybody’s checkin’ out the glossy magazines

Madonna, Diana, you know the whole scene

The covergirls, the centerfolds and every movie star

And all those pretty ladies down there at the local bar

I couldn’t think of nothin’ better to do

Than checkin’ out a little wiggle or two

Oh, but honey that was way before I met you

“You Walked In,” may’ve been too left of center for country radio at the time, but it’s laughably tame in comparison to what the likes of Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban and Sam Hunt have gotten away with in the past few years. Piano ballad “Say When,” another Rich co-write faired just as poorly, peaking at #13.

They regained their stride with the album’s final and strongest single, the Richie McDonald co-written “Everything’s Changed.” The song tells the story of a woman returning to a now unrecognizable town and the man she left behind who still lives there. It’s not only my favorite song they’ve ever done, it’s their finest recorded moment to date:

Funny you should show up after all of these years

Yeah things sure have changed around here

Seen a lot of strangers since they put that interstate through

No this ain’t the same town that we once knew

***

They put up a plant where we used to park

That ol’ drive-in’s a new Wal-Mart

The caf¨¦ is closed where our names were carved on that corner booth

Yeah, everything’s changed except for the way I feel about you

***

That westbound to Santa Fe don’t stop here anymore

You were one of the last to get on board

That street that we grew up on you wouldn’t recognize

Girl nothing’s been the same since you said good-bye

Rich, who was still known as the band’s other lead singer, took the helm on two of the three non-singles he co-wrote. “John Doe on a John Deere” has all the tropes now associated with bro-country expect the woman isn’t treated like an object. Meanwhile “What Do We Do With The Rest of the Night” is simply pure fluff. His final co-write, the title track, has forceful production but not much passion either lyrically or vocally from McDonald.

“Keys To My Heart,” which McDonald co-wrote, is a pleasant contemporary rocker with ample fiddle and steel. The song doesn’t have any meat lyrically, so while it’s enjoyable to listen to, it’s just not a great song overall.

“Cheater’s Road,” which was co-written by Jason Sellers, saw a second life when Chalee Tennison included it on 2003’s Parading In The Rain. I like her version much better than theirs, although it’s truly not that compelling of a song to begin with. The final cut, “Amie” is a by-the-books cover of the Pure Prairie League classic that works surprisingly well.

Crazy Nights will forever be known as the final album before everything changed. Not only would Rich exit the group, but they would ditch their producers and cowboy hats for a more mainstream sound and their greatest success. Here is the band just two years before the craziness, with a clear direction and a couple of worthy songs.

I will always regard this era, 1995-1999, as Lonestar at their best – the songs were smart and interesting and Cook’s signature style fit them well. McDonald, though, was clearly the stronger singer. While John has shown improvement with Big & Rich, he clearly isn’t in top vocal form, here. I don’t blame BNA for pushing McDonald as the face of the band at all.

As an album, Crazy Nights is good but not great. There’s nothing truly essential beyond the lead and final singles.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonestar’

lonestarLonestar kicked off their recording career with the eponymous album Lonestar. Released in October 1995, the album hit the streets on the strength of the successful single “Tequila Talkin’” which was released in August 1995 and reached #8. There would be four more singles issued after the album was released. The album received mixed reviews upon its release, more than a few critics viewing the band as a lightweight version of Shenandoah, a comparison I did not feel to be very valid.

The album was definitely decent honky-tonk country music, with the band augmented by a solid corps of Nashville session men such as Bruce Bouton (pedal steel ), Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar), Brent Mason (electric guitar) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) and such distinguished vocal harmonists as Curtis Young and John Wesley Ryles. Unless otherwise stated, Richie McDonald handles the vocals on the singles.

The album opens up with the up-tempo ballad “Heartbroke Every Day” from the pens of Bill LaBounty, Cam King and Rick Vincent. This album track featured John Rich on lead vocals, and would be the fifth single released, reaching #18. I like Rich’s vocal, which has a bit of a bluegrass feel to it.

Why do I do this to myself
Why do I want the one that wants somebody else
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Why do I always take the fall
I’d rather have you hurtin’ me than not have you at all
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could
If I could
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Track two was the first single released, “Tequila Talkin’” penned by Bill LaBounty and Chris Waters (the brother of Holly Dunn). This single reached #8, the first top ten recording for the group:

I don’t know what they put in Cuervo that got me to say those things
Usually I wouldn’t care so much or make such a scene
But seeing you there in that dress you were wearing just drove me right out of my head
So don’t hold me responsible for anything I might’ve said

It was just the tequila talkin’
When I told you I’m still not over you
I get a little sentimental when I’ve had one or two
And that tear in my eye was the salt and the lime
Not the memory of you walkin’
If I said I’m still in love with you
It was just the tequila talkin’

John Rich, Don Cook and Wally Wilson wrote “I Love The Way You Do That’ – a good song but the intro sounds too much like the intro to track two.

“Running Away With My Heart” was penned by Michael Britt, Sam Hogin and Mark D Sanders. This would be the third single released from the album and would reach #8. This song is a mid-tempo ballad, which features some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Hey Buddy can you get me some faster wheels
I got a heartache nippin’ at my heels
I’ll be hurtin’ if she gets a big head start
First that girl stole my attention
Not to mention all my affection
Now she’s running away with my heart

“What Would It Take” was written by Billy Lawson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson, and is a slow ballad with heavy Nashville Sound string accompaniment of the kind that Billy Sherrill used with George Jones and David Houston. I think that this song, issued 15-20 years earlier, could have been a big single, but by 1995 it was very much an anachronism.

I held the world in my arms
I threw away the moon for the stars
Couldn’t see the forest for the trees
Couldn’t see the love in front of me

What would it take to take me back
Rebuild that bridge, retrace my tracks
I would give all I own
For one little stepping stone
What would it take to take me back

The redoubtable trio of John Rich, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson contributed “Does Your Daddy Know About Me”, an up-tempo honky-tonk song with solid steel and fiddle accompaniment that would have made a good single:

Well you say your daddy is a real cool dude and you keep no secrets from him
Well he knows you got a wild hair, knows your kinda out there and knows about your crazy friends
And he done found out about the night you snuck out with the Cadillac keys
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Well he knows you been skippin’ them Sunday School meetings
He’s heard how fast you drive
Knows you got an attitude, seen your little tattoo, but he lets all that slide
And I bet my boots that he think he knows you from A to Z
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Billy Lawson’s “Ragtop Cadillac” probably was very popular with line dancers. The lyrics are nothing special but it has a rhythm and feel very similar to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”.

“No News” was the second single and the first #1 record for the group reaching #1 in both the US and Canada. The song was written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders, and tells the story about a man whose woman has left him without telling him.

She said “It’s just a woman thing” and pulled out of the drive
I said not to worry I’m an understanding guy
I’ve heard that when you love someone you gotta let ’em go
She hollered “When I find myself you’ll be the first to know”
Ooh no news

I learned to do the laundry, feed the cat, and clean the house
I promised to be patient while she worked her problems out
When she packed her bags, her destination wasn’t clear
But I sensed that her intentions were honest and sincere
Ooh no news

Chick Rains has written a number of fine songs, but “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” is nothing special, a dance number that makes for a decent album track.

Richie McDonald and Kyle Green co-wrote “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance”, the only song McDonald had a part in writing. The song was the fourth single from the album reaching only #45 (but #18 in Canada). I don’t think I would have released this song as a single, although it makes a decent enough album track.

This would be one of two albums issued by the original lineup of Richie McDonald (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Rich (bass, vocals), Michael Britt (lead guitar, background vocals), Keech Rainwater (drums), and Dean Sams (keyboards). Other than John Rich’s contributions, the band relied on outside writers for material. Richie McDonald would emerge as a co-writer on subsequent albums, but I have doubts as to how essential were his contributions to the process.

I would give this album a B+. Of five Lonestar studio albums in my collection, this one is the one I listen to with the greatest frequency as it is the most consistently good album of the bunch.

Spotlight Artist: Lonestar

lonestarFor many years, the prototypical country group took the form of a gospel quartet or quintet, modeled after such gospel favorites as the Jordanaires, The Old Hickory Singers, The Oak Ridge Quartet or the Blackwood Brothers. These groups were strictly vocal groups, with some sort of instrumental accompaniment, often nothing more than someone playing the piano. It was rare that the group handled its own instrumentals, other than perhaps the original version of the Sons of The Pioneers; and aside from western groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, the repertoire was almost entirely gospel.

The first group to venture off into mostly secular music was the Statler Brothers in 1965, with the electrifying hit “Flowers On The Wall”. The Statler Brothers were strictly a vocal group, although the great Lew DeWitt played some acoustic guitar. In 1976, the Statlers were followed by the Oak Ridge Boys (formerly the Oak Ridge Quartet). Like the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys were a gospel quartet that went secular. Both groups tended to strongly resemble the gospel groups from which they had arisen, and both groups had all four members vocals featured prominently.

It was not until Alabama came to prominence in 1980 that the modern day concept of a country group entered the public conscience. Alabama was comprised of three cousins (Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook) plus a very talented outsider in drummer Mark Herndon. Unlike other country groups, Alabama had a designated lead vocalist in Randy Owen, with the other members providing instrumental support and taking an occasional lead vocal, mostly on album cuts.

Alabama proved to be hugely successful with dozens of #1 singles and millions of albums sold. Soon additional similarly structure groups would arise such as Atlanta (1983), Exile (1983), Restless Heart (1985), Shenandoah (1987), Diamond Rio (1991), and Little Texas (1991).

Of course, every trend and/or fad runs its course and Lonestar (1992) would prove to be the last really successful band of the wave that started with Alabama.

Lonestar was unusual in that as they originally were constructed, Lonestar had two singers who perceived of themselves as the lead vocalist of the group. Richie McDonald was the lead vocalist but bass player John Rich also sang some leads (mostly on album tracks) and would be booted out of the group after the second album.

Lonestar would prove to have staying power, releasing eleven studio albums (five reached gold or platinum status) and enjoying a large number of hit singles including nine that reached #1 and another nine that landed in the country top ten. One of their #1 singles, “Amazed” also reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for two weeks sandwiched between singles by Savage Garden and Destiny’s Child, and it charted in the United Kingdom.

Although the top ten singles ceased in 2006, Lonestar is still around having just issued a new album. Richie McDonald left the group for a while, but has since returned and the band once again consists of Richie McDonald on lead vocals and piano, Michael Britt on lead guitar, backing vocals, Keech Rainwater banging on the drums and Dean Sams on keyboards, acoustic guitar and backing vocal. This is essentially the original group minus John Rich.

Lonestar has a website and is playing a full schedule of road appearances. They still sound good, and if you liked them during their 1990s heydays, you’ll like them now.

So sit back as enjoy our Spotlight review of the one of the leading country groups of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Retro Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Easy Money’ (2007)

easy moneyBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

John Anderson and George Strait are about the only two with a high profile left from the generation of male singers that came to prominence in the early 1980s. Obviously Strait has been the more successful but John Anderson is the superior balladeer.

Here, John Anderson returns with his first CD of new recordings in several years, this time with John Rich of Big & Rich serving as producer. Fortunately. Rich stays largely out of the way and lets Anderson focus on that which he does best, as seven of the CD’s eleven songs are ballads.

First, some consumer advice. Upon inserting the CD into your player, troll over to track 11, “Willie’s Guitar” and give it a few listens as John, Merle Haggard (vocal) and Willie Nelson (vocal & a guitar solo) work their magic on this wistful tale which, curiously enough, wasn’t written by either John, Merle or Willie. No matter, as writers John Phillips and Ray Stephenson certainly caught the quintessential sense of heartbreak and resignation.

First the “bad”: the uptempo songs “Easy Money” , “Funky Country” and “If Her Lovin’ Don’t Kill Me” are merely okay – worth 3 or 3.5 stars each. These three songs are the ones on which the John Rich “Muzik Mafia” sound is the most in evidence.

Now the really good: The fourth uptempo number, however, “Brown Liquor” is really excellent, on a par with John’s best uptempo numbers like “Black Sheep”, “Chicken Truck” or “Swingin'”.

Aside from the John & Merle & Willie offering, John has six really, really good solo ballads; in fact, I don’t think John Anderson has ever done wrong by a ballad in his life. For me the highlights are “A Woman Knows”, a sensitive John Rich-Julie Roberts penned ballad along the lines of Johnny Darrell’s 1969 hit “A Woman Without Love” and John Anderson’s song about about a woman’s threat to her wayward husband that she’ll give him “Something To Drink About”. “Weeds” penned by Anderson and his late friend Lionel Delmore, might prove to be the favorite ballad from the CD for many listeners.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise as I was having nightmares about how a John Rich-produced CD might sound. Fortunately, it sounds like John Anderson being John Anderson, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Grade: A

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘What The World Needs Now’

what the world needs nowReleased in 2003, What the World Needs Now was Wynonna’s debut for Curb/Asylum after cutting ties with Mercury. Wynonna produced most of it with Dann Huff, and there is an overarching theme of vaguely uplifting spiritual encouragement, but with little in the way of country music. She had reportedly been planning on making a straight soul record, but decided, perhaps at the promptings of her record label, to at least pay lip service to still being a country artist.

The bluesy title track with a touch of gospel is competently performed but not country at all (apart from the rustic banjo introduction, which seems to belong to another song, and is soon swallowed up by all the other instrumentation). Country radio treated it with some scepticism, and it peaked at #14, marking Wynonna’s last top 20 hit. The follow-up, ‘Heaven Help Me’, is a classy AC ballad, with a spiritual edge, and beautifully interpreted with a tender vocal. It just crept into the top 40, but is much better than its predecessor, although the orchestral arrangement is a bit too much.

A dramatic cover of the rock ballad ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, produced by R&B producer Narada Michael Walden and featuring rock guitar hero Jeff Beck, has absolutely no country elements, and perhaps represents the original plan for the album. Unsurprisingly, it won no country airplay, but it was a top 20 hit on both Adult Contemporary and Dance charts. The dance remix is tacked on as a ‘bonus’ track; it is quite unlistenable for me, but makes the other version sound much better in comparison. The only other track surviving from these sessions, ‘Who Am I Supposed To Love’, is a decent soul ballad, but a long way from country.

The final single ‘Rescue Me’, promoted to AC and Christian radio, failed to chart anywhere, and falls somewhere between gospel and Christian Contemporary. It was written by Katie Darnell, a terminally ill 17 year old, and had previously been recorded, but not released, by John Rich.

Most vaunted at the time of the record’s release was Wy’s reunion with mother Naomi on ‘Flies On The Butter (You Can’t Go Back)’. The third single, and Wynonna’s last solo top 40 country hit, it is charmingly nostalgic. The song was written by Chuck Cannon, Allen Shamblin, and Austin Cunningham, and is the album’s most convincingly country moment. Although it is billed as a duet, Naomi really only contributes harmonies on some lines.

‘Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis’, written by Derek George, Neil Thrasher, and Bryan White, is about longing for love rather than all the meaningless material goods remaining after a failed marriage, and the lyric is interesting although the melody and arrangement are pedestrian. It leads into a strong cover of the real Elvis’s ‘Burnin’ Love’ which was previously released on the soundtracks of the animated movie Lilo And Stitch. This is highly enjoyable.

‘I Will Be’ is a powerfully sung big ballad which isn’t a bad song underneath, but is heavily over-produced and pop rather than country. ‘Your Day Will Come’ is more contemporary country, and quite well done but a touch bland. The rocker ‘(No One’s Gonna) Break Me Down’ is rather busy with everything imaginable thrown in, including some nice honky tonk piano but too much in the way of electric guitar on top.

The black gospel-influenced ‘It All Comes Down To Love’ is partly spoken and too loud for my taste, but would appeal to fans of that style of music as it is powerfully performed. ‘It’s Only Love’ is in the same vein.

‘You Are’ had appeared on the soundtrack of one of her sister Ashley’s films a few years earlier. It’s rather bland and forgettable with some odd effects in the arrangement.

I like the album better than Revelations, which didn’t do anything for me, but not as much as he first two solo efforts. Wynonna is a great singer, and sings with conviction throughout, but her musical spectrum is wider than mine. This is not a bad album by any means – in fact it is rather a good one. It just has very little for country fans. Diehard Wynonna fans will love it regardless.

Grade: B

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

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘The Dreamer’

Blake’s second album, produced as before by Bobby Braddock and released in 2003, featured a state of the art commercial country sound which mirrored the state of country music of the period.

One of my favorite ever Blake Shelton recordings is his second #1 hit, which was the lead single from this album. ‘The Baby’, penned by Harley Allen and Michael White, is a story song with a tear-jerking emotional payoff. It is the frank confession of a spoilt youngest son, whose doting mother excuses all his failings, “because I was her baby”. He ends up missing his mother’s deathbed, even though she has been calling for her favorite:

She looked like she was sleepin’
And my family had been weepin’
By the time that I got to her side
And I knew that she’d been taken
And my heart it was breaking
I never got to say goodbye
I softly kissed that lady
And cried just like a baby

The ill-chosen second single ‘Heavy Liftin’’ is a not very interesting song in itself but its main flaw is the production. There is just too much going on in the arrangement with banjos fighting against the blaring electric guitars – it ends up sounding as it would if two separate tracks were recorded, they couldn’t decide which to go with and stuck them together. It didn’t make into the top 30, but would probably do rather better if released to today’s radio.

Much better is memorably quirky top 30 single ‘Playboys Of The Southwestern World’, written by Neal Coty and Randy Van Warmer. It tells the amusing story of two wild boys who get themselves into trouble, ending up in jail in Mexico.

There is a great cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1978 hit ‘Georgia In A Jug’, written by Blake’s producer Braddock. A jilted fiancé drinks away the money he had saved up for the exotic honeymoon:

I’m going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum
Goin’ out to Honolulu in a mai tai mug
Then I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug

The arrangement copies the original fairly closely (with some delicious added fiddle), but that’s no bad thing, and the result is entertaining.

Braddock also wrote ‘Someday’, which questions what may happen beyond death. Delivered dramatically with a gospel choir, it is quite effective. The idiosyncratic ‘In My Heaven’ was written by Rivers Rutherford and Bobby Pinson and offers a picture of a perfect world from their point of view. The message is a bit mixed – on the one hand “we hurt no one”, on the other they’re feeding lawyers to the lions; and there’s a strong emphasis on having fun and playing sports missed in with the idealistic inclusiveness.

Blake wrote the title track, which is quite good, with the protagonist realising the costs of achieving his dreams of material success, and finding it has not made him truly happy when the one he loved is not with him. The production is a little louder than necessary, but overall this is a decent track  ‘My Neck Of The Woods’ which he co-wrote with Billy Montana and Don Ellis celebrates both the natural beauties and the neighborliness of the countryside. It was partially inspired by Blake’s then Tennessee farm home, and acknowledges the very real difficulties of rural poverty more than the glut of rural pride songs we hear today. ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ is a modern trucking anthem, which is well sung and interpreted by Blake. John Rich co-write ‘Underneath The Same Moon’ is a somewhat overblown big ballad.

There are some great tracks here, but overall it isn’t as strong a set as Blake’s debut, with the production ramped up a bit too much at times. Cheap used copies are, however, easy to find. It was a reasonable success for him.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

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Classic Rewind: John Anderson ft John Rich – ‘Seminole Wind’

Spotlight Artist: Rosanne Cash

As the first child born to Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto-Cash, Rosanne Cash saw first-hand all her father’s stardom and the ups and downs that came with it. Born in Memphis, the Cash clan moved to L.A. when Rosanne was still a toddler and following her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager, she joined her father Johnny’s road show just out of high school. By the age of 20, she was a featured singer in the show and was soon scouting a record deal of her own. It would have been easy for Rosanne to call on her father’s considerable Music City connections to get her foot in the door, but in true Cash fashion, the eldest daughter took the long way around to her own stardom. She had found a kindred spirit in Rodney Crowell, who was then a member of Emmylou Harris’s famed Hot Band, and the pair set out writing and recording a demo album, which caught the attention of German-based label Ariola. Her first self-titled album was recorded mostly in Munich, and was never released in the U.S. It did, however, lead to a deal with Columbia, which was coincidentally, her father’s label at the time. Following the album’s release, she moved briefly back to L.A. to study at the renowned Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, but soon relocated again to Nashville with her new husband Crowell in tow.

Her second album – and first for Columbia – produced 3 top 40 hits and was a critical success, but failed to launch the young Cash’s career in any big way. It would take Seven Year Ache, her third release in 1981, to light the fire under her career when the title track soared to the top of country singles chart and landed inside the pop top 40. The song’s instantly recognizable melody and stream-of-consciousness lyrics set the template for one of the most commercially successful careers of the 1980s. Two more singles from the album found their way to the top of the country charts and the album was soon certified gold. After this initial burst of mainstream recognition, it seemed Rosanne was doomed to follow the path already trod by Johnny as she fell into a period of substance abuse, and her musical output suffered as a result. 1982’s Somewhere In The Stars fell short of its commercial and critical expectations and had many already dismissing the young singer as a flash in the pan. In 1984, after a stint in rehab, Cash again went into the studio to record the dance pop-flavored Rhythm and Romance. This time writing or co-writing all but 2 of the album’s songs, Rhythm restored Cash’s place at the top of the country charts with 2 chart-toppers and another pair of top 5 singles. With the lead single from this set, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, she also picked up her first Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

From 1985 to ’89, all of Cash’s singles would hit the top 10 of the country singles chart, with all but 2 hitting the top. She would end the 1980s with a total of 11 chart-toppers. (As many career #1’s as her father, and second only to Reba McEntire among country females in the ’80s.) 1987’s King’s Record Shop was an embarrassment of riches, housing 4 consecutive #1’s – a first for a female album at the time – and is a start-to-finish classic. King’s Record Shop was also Cash’s final album of “country” material, barring her next Hits collection with 2 new songs. As the 1990’s dawned, Cash began to take her music in a more introspective singer-songwriter direction that didn’t play well on country radio at the time, and probably wouldn’t have in any era of the genre’s history. It’s interesting that an artist at their apex would make a bold maneuver and risk career suicide, but that’s exactly what Cash did. Interiors was not only introspective, but very autobiographical as the material stemmed from her personal problems and fighting with Crowell.

As the 1990s rolled around, Cash was out of favor with radio – having charted only 1 top 40 single from Interiors – and none of her subsequent singles from her final Columbia release, 1993’s The Wheel, even made a dent on the country charts.  No singles were released from Ten Song Demo in 1996 and Cash ended the decade not a hit maker, but as an Americana mainstay and elder stateswoman of sorts in the newly minted fringe format.  She divorced Rodney Crowell in 1992, while recording The Wheel, an album ripe with themes of despair, regret, and divorce overtones.  She married the album’s co-producer John Leventhal in 1995 after settling in Manhattan.

Coinciding with the release of 10 Song Demo on Capitol Records was the Hyperion release of her first novella, Bodies of Water, a collection of short stories with mostly southern gothic leanings.  A pregnancy and vocal chord problems in the late ’90s kept Cash out of the recording studio. She instead published a children’s storybook and was the editor of a collection of prose by noted songwriters. 2003’s Rules of Travel was her first studio album in nearly a decade and also earned her yet another Grammy nomination, this time in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. Though the album produced no charting singles, a poignant duet with her father on “September When It Comes” received scattered airplay, and the album was a year-end critic’s favorite.  Inspired by the successive deaths of her father, mother, and stepmother, Cash’s next album, Black Cadillac, directly addressed those losses and the beautifully dark affair was again heralded and earned her another Grammy nod.

Following brain surgery in 2007, which caused her to cancel many tour dates in support of Black Cadillac, the singer continued writing for major publications such as The New York Times.  In 2009, she issued another studio album, The List. Culled from the now-famous list of 100 Essential Country Songs compiled by Johnny Cash for his teenage daughter, the album features sparse retellings of a dozen of those songs, and was another critical favorite.

Recent years have seen Rosanne Cash continuing to build on, and protect, her father’s legacy. Most recently, during the 2008 presidential election season, she issued a scathing public statement rebuffing remarks made by singer-songwriter John Rich saying it was “dangerous” in the case of the elder Cash to “presume to say publicly what I ‘know’ he thought or felt”.  Rosanne continues to tour and record with other notable artists, and is especially witty and interesting with her tweets. Keep reading this month as we feature the musical output of this bright, talented, and enduring woman.

J.R. Journey’s American Noise excerpts #1

For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to get to share my thoughts on 10 of the latest country singles in my Weekly Country Songs Roundup column at American Noise.  I have to first say a very big thanks to Jim Malec for giving me the chance, and a first-rate venue, to review the newest releases to country radio.  This is the first in a bi-weekly installment where I’ll share few excerpts from the past few weeks, some of my critics picks.

Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

Listen here

Kenny Chesney and Vermont rocker Grace Potter offer my favorite Chesney single since “Better As a Memory” with this sparse and brooding number, written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter. The two lament the liquor and the love that make them crazy on the song’s winning chorus, with Potter’s silky vocal being the perfect match for Chesney’s smooth crooning. The verses tell of the willingness of the narrator to self-destruct for one more night flying high, offering a bit of self-realization along the way (“It’s so easy to forget, the bitter taste the morning left”) as the acoustic rhythm guitar that makes up the bulk of the production plays on.

Grade: A

Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett – “Knee Deep”   

Listen here

At this point in their ascension to country’s reigning supergroup, Zac Brown and Band have earned the right to show off their musical chops a bit, and even to flaunt their famous friends. From the snazzy opening to the solo verse performed by island king Jimmy Buffett, this reggae-infused number allows these six talented musicians some jam time on-stage, while the singer “searches for paradise.” There’s little else to the lyrics than that utopian pursuit, but it’s warm now, and with a melody like this nobody’s pondering the lyrics anyway.

Grade: B


Emmylou Harris – “The Road”

Listen here

Addressing the loss of Gram Parsons directly in song for the first time since the epic “Boulder to Birmingham,” Emmylou Harris’ self-penned “The Road” is more an open elegy to her late mentor than song of heartbreak. It’s swelling alt-country sound doesn’t lend itself to quiet contemplation as much as it marks a turning point when wounds begin to heal, and forging ahead is inevitable, even though you never forget. Harris’ emotive skills are on full-display here and she sounds utterly despondent at crucial moments, such as when she sings, “So I carried on, you can’t be haunted by the past/People come and people go and nothing ever lasts.” Still, she always brings the listener back to that place of peace she’s found.

Grade: A-

Martina McBride – “Teenage Daughters”

Listen here

Leading off an upcoming album for Republic Nashville, Martina McBride offers this tongue-in-cheek take on child-rearing, made all the more believable because we know Martina has teenage daughters of her own, but also because she has carefully cultivated an image of being a fellow soccer mom to her female listeners. Far from being just another tale of unconditional love between parent and child, “Daughters” focuses on the often funny, always chaotic period when teenagers begin to assert their independence by avoidance of their parents at all costs. As she sings of remembering when her daughter “used to think she was cool” and bemoans the current state of their relationship which has left her “tired,” “crazy,” and “in need of a drink,” McBride offers up her most restrained vocal in years. Chunky and scattered rhythms make the track melodically clunky, but that is salvaged by the smart message and a to-the-point vocal.

Grade: B+

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Single Review: Bradley Gaskin – ‘Mr Bartender’

It’s quite a coincidence that just last week I wrote about “soundalike” artists. Little did I know that another was about to emerge. New Columbia artist Bradley Gaskin sounds very like Travis Tritt both in his general style and in his vocal inflections, although I think he has his own voice. On his MySpace he calls his music “Johnny Paycheck meets Keith Whitley”, and he is also influenced by Haggard and Jones – definitely a good basis.

He wrote the song himself with Vicky Walker, proving himself a fine songwriter as well as a great singer, and this is an extremely promising debut.

Opening a cappella, this is a very traditional broken-hearted honky-tonk ballad with some beef in the production. Gaskin is produced by John Rich, who discovered the Alabama-born singer when he won Rich’s Get Rich talent show, but Rich does a much better job than usual, providing a solid honky-tonk backing for Bradley’s rich baritone. The overall production is quite full at times, but it has light and shade, and Gaskin has the vocal power not to be overwhelmed. His expressive vocals ally that power with an emotionally convincing performance.

The lyrics offer a familiar picture of a heartbroken man hoping to kill the pain with a drink or two, but the song is very well put together, and the vocal delivery really sells the song. There’s just enough gloss to make it radio-friendly, in the vein of the early 90s and particularly the aforementioned Travis Tritt. I hope he can join Chris Young and Easton Corbin among the younger artists keeping country on country radio; he even has an advantage over them in his songwriting ability.

The label wasn’t actually planning to launch Bradley until May, but apparently he sang this song at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, brought the house down, and they decided to capitalize and have rush-released this to radio. Let’s hope it is as well received across the airwaves and launches a very talented artist to a successful career. I’ll certainly be keeping a keen eye out for more from this exciting new artist.

Grade: A+

Listen for yourself.

Album Review: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Got Your Country Right Here’

Gretchen’s first independent release following her departure from Sony sees her taking the producer’s chair herself alongside Blake Chancey (and old friend John Rich on a handful of tracks). The end result is not that far removed from her Sony records, and fans of Gretchen’s rocking side will be happy. Admirers of her way with a ballad (Wilson’s most underrated talent) will be more disappointed.

Current single ‘Work Hard, Play Harder, is set to a relentless rock beat which led to a copyright infringement claim from the rock band the Black Crowes; the case was settled out of court and led to the writers of the latter’s song being given co-writing credit here, alongside the originally credited Wilson, John Rich and Vicky McGehee. This lyrically predictable and musically dull piece about a hardworking “redneck, blue-collar” bartender/waitress is already Gretchen’s biggest hit since 2006’s ‘California Girls’, perhaps because it fits into the pigeonhole Gretchen created for herself with her signature tune ‘Redneck Woman’.

It is one of only two tracks co-written by Gretchen. Dallas Davidson helped her with the other, the rocking sociopolitical statement ‘Blue Collar Done Turn Red’ which mixes a declaration of patriotism with some social criticism of modern changes:

We used to judge a man by the shake of his hand
And his honor and his honesty
Never knocked him down when he stood his ground
Cause it wouldn’t fit the policy now
There’s bailout bills and fat cat deals

Ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride offer a trenchant criticism of modern country radio in ‘Outlaws & Renegades’:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

It seems to veer off course in the last verse when it moves into another political complaint (about politicians and gas prices), and then back to music with a spoken outro namechecking Cash, Jennings and Nelson.

Their era is also recalled in the rather generic Southern Rock-country of the title track, written by consummate hit maker Jeffrey Steele and Tom Hambridge. This pays cursory tribute to various 70s Outlaw and Southern Rock acts – Waylon again, of course, plus the Charlie Daniels Band, Hank Williams Jr, and on the rock side of the border, the Allman Brothers, Z.Z. Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is one of those tracks that strikes one as being more fun for the musicians to make than for the listener; it isn’t that interesting on record either musically or lyrically; it’s all about the groove and feel, which probably works better live.

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Changing the face but not the name

Gary Nichols

This week’s news that the great bluegrass-based group the SteelDrivers have changed lead singers after one acclaimed album from the distinctive sound of songwriter Chris Stapleton (who wants to return to a life concentrating on writing) to former Mercury artist Gary Nichols was a little disappointing. Musicians would probably disagree with this, but to me the lead singer is the most distinguishing feature of any band’s identity – and changing the face at the front seems to change the dynamic for better or worse.

One-time hitmakers Lonestar have a new album out soon with a new lead singer, but do not seem to be attracting much attention with it. They in fact started out with two lead singers (John Rich and Richie MacDonald), and when John Rich left to try a solo career (which flopped, leading to his finding success as half of Big & Rich) that did not cause any problems for the band, who went on to release their biggest hit, ‘Amazed’. But when Richie left the band a couple of years ago, the group had already passed its commercial peak. Richie’s solo career has not been particularly successful, and although I haven’t heard Lonestar’s material with their new lead singer yet, I would be surprised if it brought them back to the top.

One band to have gone through various changes of personnel, but for whom real success was associated with the original lead singer was Highway 101, a favorite of mine from the late 80s. Fronted by Paulette Carlson, the group released three fine albums and a string of top 10 hits including several #1s between 1987 and 1990. Paulette then decided she wanted to go it alone, and released a solo album. This proved to be a bad move for her as her new record was a complete flop. The band meanwhile recruited a new lead singer, Nikki Nelson who had a strong, commercial voice, but one with less personality than Paulette’s. The new line-up had a few hits in the arly 90s, but ones which peaked lower on the charts than their earlier material. In 1996 Paulette rejoined the group and they released the appropriately entitled Reunited, but their time had passed and they could not reignite the flame of their glory days. They split again, and the band tried with a third lead singer, with even less success. I understand they are currently performing with Nikki Nelson again. This was a case study where the original combination of lead singer and band was the magical one, and subsequent reinventions just didn’t work.

Chris Stapleton

Sometimes switching the lead singer works out. The Dixie Chicks’ early records featured two lead singers (Laura Lynch and Robin Lee Macy) who were both eventually discarded. It was only when Natalie Maines joined that the band got their major label deal, and proceeded to mass success in the late 90s. Even today, after they have fallen from grace with country radio, the Court Yard Hounds side venture of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the founder members of the Chicks, without Natalie, seems unlikely to attract the same level of support of their most recent album with her. Since the other two own the rights to the name, it is interesting that they decided to drop it for this project.

These last two cases do involve someone with a particularly distinctive voice which served to mark the band out. A similar case involving a less successful group is Trick Pony and its lead singer Heidi Newfield. When Heidi left to go solo, the band initially tried to find a new lead singer, but Heidi’s replacement Aubrey Collins left before any new music could be released, and the surviving band members eventually called it a day. In this case some lead vocals had been taken by one of the guys in the band, but Heidi was the dominating presence at the center of the group.

In previous generations, however, changes of personnel were less disruptive. The Statler Brothers replaced Lew De Witt with Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys have been going since 1945 with many changes. However, these cases did not involve changing a sole lead singer. The pioneering Carter Family consisted of A P Carter, wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle in the 1930s; later on Maybelle continued the group with her daughters. Bluegrass groups seem generally to be formed around an inspirational instrumentalist rather than the singer, and have frequently featured changes in lead vocalist. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have changed personnel over the years, but retained a strong musical identity regardless.

Which of today’s groups could survive a new face at the front?

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘See If I Care’

Seven years after his debut single hit the charts, Gary Allan’s career was showing serious signs of heating up.  His previous two studio albums had gone platinum and he had the year before scored his first #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Consequently, he was nominated for the CMA’s Horizon Award just before his fifth album, See If I Care, hit stores in September 2003.  Like its predecessor, See If I Care would give Gary another platinum frame for his wall, and would spawn 2 chart-toppers and another top 15 hit.  The album debuted at its peak on the Billboard Country Albums chart at a respectable #2 slot, meanwhile scratching the top 20 in the all-genre chart.

‘Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey’, the rocking album opener finds the singer drowning his sorrows with black label whiskey while telling all his friends and fellow barflies white lies about how happy he is.  The Steeldrivers would later record a bluegrass version of the tune.

‘I Can’t Do It Today’ is a John Rich co-write with fellow Muzik Mafia members Vicky McGehee (a member of the Gretchen Wilson posse) and Rodney Clawson.  Gary slips into falsetto vocals perhaps a little too often in the bluesy kiss-off number, and the melody is a little clunky.  It’s placement at the beginning of the set is awkward as it is definite filler.

Gary would earn his second consecutive #1 with the album’s lead single, the poignant ‘Tough Little Boys’.  The almost-saccharine lyric is a bit of a departure from the material we’re used to hearing from Allan.  It’s a neat, three-act story song revolving around the story of a little boy who grows up and hurts and cries again when he becomes a dad.  The message of just how much macho men love their families, but can’t put their feelings into words, has always resonated well with the country audience and this is certainly one of the better attempts at tugging at country fans’ heartstrings.

The disc’s title track is more akin to the sound Allan had crafted for himself in previous albums.  ‘See If I Care’ finds the singer hiding his heartache with mock sarcasm.  The burning delivery from Gary gives real character to the brilliant Jamie O’Hara lyric.

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Interviews and humor: Your favorite country blogs posts of 2009

The rise in popularity of country blogging and its growing readership has allowed so many of to co-exist, but also to begin doing things that were traditionally only done by print publications, or major media networks like CMT or GAC, who just happened to have an online outlet for their various coverage of country music. But more and more throughout the past months, artists have been turning to the websites and blogs when lining up their press tours, making time to speak to the blogs to get the word out about their latest release, or to just allow the fans to catch up with what they’ve been up to.

Almost every means of public consumption becomes obsolete with time, and that becomes evident when the new medium begins to show signs of catching up, and soon eclipsing, that of the old. I think we’re seeing that every day as we read and comment and interact with each other. Maybe I’m just being too optimistic, and being centered in this field as I am, it would certainly be easy for me to be seeing this through tunnel vision. But it seems to me that the last year has been very prosperous for nearly every country music-related site on the net. That makes me happy.

A few weeks ago, I sent out an email to a small group of my colleagues in the community of country music blog-people. I only had so many addresses, so not everybody got the message. So, with the help of The 9513, Country California, and Facebook, I got the word out that I wanted to compile a list of our favorite posts from the past year on the numerous quality websites. I originally hoped for 50 to make a list out of, but the way the results came in, they demanded a written summary.  Hopefully I’ve put them in a easy to read and access format.

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Year In Review: Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Albums of 2009

It hasn’t been a great year for mainstream releases, and none of my top 10 appeared on one of the major labels. There have been some fine albums released across the genre, although this year’s list is more bluegrass-oriented than would have been the case in years past.

10. Benefit Of Doubt – Pam Gadd
A joyful mixture of acoustic country and bluegrass, with duets with Dolly Parton and Marty Raybon. I reviewed it in March, and you can listen to the album on last.fm.

9. 30 Something And Single – Tammy Cochran
This album strikes an almost-perfect balance between contemporary and traditional country, with a sense of humor to boot. I reviewed it in the summer, and you can listen to clips and buy the album at CDBaby.

8. Bigger Hands – John Anderson
John was our Spotlight Artist in July, and his new album (which I reviewed then) found him in great voice with some interesting material, including the apocalyptic title track, and Anderson’s magisterial version of his co-write with John Rich, ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’.

7. Mister Purified Country – Shane Worley
There is still great traditional country music being made, and this fine independent CD in the Merle Haggard tradition is an excellent example -with some incisive criticism of the mainstream in the title track as an added bonus. I reviewed it in September, and you can listen to clips and buy the album at CDBaby.

6. When The Money’s All Gone – Jason Eady
Poetic singer-songwriter Jason Eady is more on the Americana side of things, with country, folk and blues elements. This album is full of interesting material, and repays close listening. I reviewed it in September, and you can listen to lips and buy at Amazon.

5. I’ll Take The Fifth – Dallas Wayne
With a voice as distinctive as John Anderson’s, I acclaimed this as my favorite of the year to date when I reviewed it back in March, and it hasn’t slipped that far down the rankings in the ensuing nine months. Buy it here.

4. The Reason That I Sing – Kim Williams
This delightful record is the one I’ve found myself singing along to more than any other this year. Songwriter Kim isn’t technically a great vocalist, but that really doesn’t matter, as he brings a warmth and honesty to his songs. I reviewed it in August, and you can now listen to it on last.fm.

3. Hillbilly Goddess – Alecia Nugent
Alecia has been recording for some years, but it was with this excellent album that she came of age artistically. Very much in the bluegrass/country zone, the youngest of the artists in my top 10 proved herself as a first-rate vocalist with some great material. I reviewed it in May, and you can hear clips and buy at Amazon.

2. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless
The only album on my top 10 list I didn’t review, but Razor X rightly called it a triumph of artistry in his review. Sometimes raw-sounding, always authentic and impressive, Patty cemented her credentials as one of the finest singers in country music in her sequel to her first bluegrass-inspired album Mountain Soul. My favorite tracks are the revival of the classic ‘Busted’, with the original coalmining lyrics heard for the first time; Jon Randall’s ‘You Burned The Bridge’; and the new version of ‘Feelings Of Love’. For clips, and to buy it, go to Amazon.

1. Taste Of The Truth – Gene Watson
Honey-voiced Texan Gene is a veteran of the music business, but he is still producing some of the best music out there. This year, in fact, he produced my #1 album, with the lovely Taste Of the Truth. I called it a masterclass in singing country music when I reviewed it in August, and you can hear it for yourself at last.fm.