My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Scott Sherrill

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘Whisper’

Produced by Jim with Blake Chancey in 1998 for BNA Records (making it his third album and his third record label), Whisper is one of his most traditional country records. Not coincidentally it is one of my favorites, but not only for the musical style. The song quality on this album is exceptionally high.

Jim collaborated with songwriting legend Harlan Howard on two songs. The opening honky tinker ‘Goodbye Song’ is an excellent song about denying a relationship has come to its end. ‘We’re Gone’ is also great, with Jim brooding over his lost love and their empty former home after a too-early marriage comes to an end:

She lives on the right side of the tracks
I’m on the wrong
There’s nothin’ but the TV going on

One-time George Jones duet partner Melba Montgomery, another fine songwriter, helped Jim with my favorite song, ‘What Do You Say To That’, a charming love song notable for its truly gorgeous melody. It was to be one of George Strait’s Lauderdale-penned hits a couple of years later but Lauderdale’s original is lovely too. Strait and Wade Hayes both later covered the John Scott Sherrill co-write ‘She Used To Say That To Me’, another super song with an ironic edge to the lyric.

Jim teamed up with Frank Dycus to write several songs. Twin fiddles introduce the fine ‘In Harm’s Way’, with its hindsight recollection of a romance which was always headed for disaster, just like the Titanic. Jim’s vocal’s have a high lonesome quality on the right song, and it works to perfection on this track. ‘Without You Here It’s Not The Same’ is another strong song regretting failure to see trouble before it hit the relationship. I also liked ‘Take Me Down A Path (My Heart Won’t Know)’. I didn’t like ‘Sometimes’ as much aurally, as its melody is more repetitive, but it is another well written song.

The rhythmic ‘Hole In My Head’, written with Buddy Miller, is repetitive, unmelodic and my least favourite track.

Jim wrote the remaining songs solo. The slow title track is a love song loaded with gorgeous steel guitar which would benefit from a cover by someone with a sweeter voice. ‘It’s Hard To Keep A Secret Anymore’ is an excellent song with Jim’s protagonist guessing his wife is cheating. ‘You’re Tempting Me’ is a pretty good song about initial attraction.

The album closes with the bluegrass gospel of ‘I’ll Lead You Home’, featuring Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – before Stanley’s career was revived by O Brother, Where Art Thou. This is a lovely recording.

Overall this is a very strong album worth checking out.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – Girl Of Your Dreams’

After the failure of her first album to make any waves, Bobbie left Epic. She was fortunate enough, however, to be picked up by Epic. Her second album, released in 1996 and produced by new label head Tony Brown, was a little more contemporary in sound than her debut, and thematically was influenced significantly by her recent divorce.

Regrettably, that did not make her any more successful with country radio. The lead single was ‘I Just Can’t Stand To Be Unhappy’, a moderately up-tempo kissoff song written by Hugh Prestwood and previously cut by Baillie And The Boys. The protagonist takes no nonsense from an unsatisfactory man:

You made this bed, you can lie in it
But you can do it without me

Love ain’t worth a wooden nickel
If you haven’t got the trust
The brightest fire burns to ashes and the sweet dreams bite the dust

Ain’t no point in being sorry
Ain’t no use in being nice
‘Cause I ain’t gonna hang around and let your lightning strike me twice

It is a pretty good song, and well performed, but perhaps not distinctive enough to be a hit. It peaked at #63.

The self-penned ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ would prove to be Bobbie’s closest to a hit, reaching #56. A cover by Lorrie Morgan was also a flop. It is a subtle song with complicated emotional layers as the protagonist fools herself into thinking she is in the right about her crumbling marriage.

One final single, ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’, was written by Bobbie with Kent Blazy and Sonny LeMaire. A contemporary ballad musing on coming to terms with a new life alone, it is a strong song with an empowering message.

She wrote a further three songs, all melancholy ballads about the end of her marriage, and all excellent songs. ‘Nobody Leaves’, which she wrote with David Stephenson, agonises about the dying days of the relationship. ‘The Girl Of Your Dreams’ looks back poignantly at the blissful early days of their love. ‘Vision Of Loneliness’ is about trying to hide her unhappiness by partying with friends.

‘Oh To Be The One’, written by Randy VanWarmer and Roger Murrah, is a wistful song about unrequited love, with a pretty melody. ‘Just Say So’ (by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski) is a seductive invitation to a loved one who may be wanting to leave. This is a lovely song with a sad undertone reflecting the mood of the album as a whole.

A couple of more uptempo covers are thrown in. A sultry and soulful ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is performed very well but feels a little out of place, with Bobbie channelling her namesake Bobbie Gentry. Bobbie’s version of Dottie West’s 1980 chart topping ‘A Lesson In Leaving’ may have acted as template for Jo Dee Messina’s 1999 hit.

I don’t love this album as much as Bobbie’s debut, but it still an excellent album which I recommend.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joy Lynn White – ‘Wild Love’

51rfk9fctwlReleased in August 1994, Joy Lynn White’s second album for Columbia basically tanked, not charting at all. Moreover, only one of the two singles released charted at all with the title track reaching #73. To this very day, I remain mystified as to why this album was not her breakthrough to commercial success.

The album opens with “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”, a song the Dixie Chicks would take to #6 Country/ #46 Pop in 1999.  Composed by Mary Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, I think Joy Lynn gives the song its definitive reading.

Next up is “Bad Loser”, a Bill Lloyd – Pam Tillis tough girl composition that I don’t think Pam ever recorded. Joy Lynn definitely nails the performance. The sing was released as the second single and failed to chart. Although I like the song, I don’t think I would have picked it as a single.

You’re bringing out a side of me I never knew was there
I took pride in cut’n dried goodbyes I never wasted a tear
Living in an easy come easy go world
Look what you’ve done to this girl

I’m a bad loser when love’s worth fightin’ for
I’m a bad loser don’t wanna ever see you walkin’ out my door
This love of ours took me by surprise it wasn’t part of my plans
Hey ain’t it easy sittin’ on the fence and ain’t it hard to make a stand
You took me farther than i’ve ever been
And baby now i’m playing to win

“Too Gone to Care”, written by John Scott Sherrill, is a tender ballad that demonstrates that Joy Lynn can handle more subtle, less rambunctious lyrics as well as she can handle the tougher songs

You see that big old yellow cab is always just a call away
And you can catch a Greyhound just about anytime of day
And all along the harbor ships are slipping out of town
Way out on the runway that’s where the rubber leaves the ground
She keeps thinking that it’s too hard to fake it
When it isn’t there

He’s gonna tell her he’ll be too late to make it
But she’ll be too gone to care
They got trains down at the station you know they run all night
They got tail lights on the highway that just keep fading out of sight   

 

The next song asks the eternal question “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”. This is another John Scott Sherrill song ballad, but this song has very traditional country instrumentation (the prior song was a little MOR), but in any event, Ms White again nails the song:

I’ve put away all the pictures
All the old love letters too
There’s nothin’ left here to remind me
Why can’t I stop loving you?
Got back into circulation
Till I found somebody new
But there was always something missing
Why can’t I stop lovin’ you

“Whiskey, Lies and Tears” is the only song on this album that Joy Lynn had a hand in writing. The song is an up-tempo honky-tonker of the kind that Highway 101 sometimes did, and which has disappeared from country radio these days. Joy Lynn strikes me as a better vocalist than either Paulette Carlson or Nikki Nelson.  I wonder if Highway 101 ever considered Joy Lynn for the role. This song would have been my pick for the second single off the album.

The last time I said next time is the last time
And the last time came stumbling in last night
So now it’s time to say goodbye forever
To the whiskey your lies and my tears
Well I’ve almost gone insane…
All the whiskey your lies and my tears

“Wild Love” has bit of a heavy backbeat – I would describe it as more rock than country but it is well sung and melodically solid.   Then again, Dennis Linde always produced solid songs.

Pat McLaughlin wrote “Burning Memories”. This song is not to be mistaken with the Ray Price classic of bygone years, but it is sung well. I would describe the song as a sad country ballad.

“On And On And On” was written by “Whispering Bill” Anderson, one of country music’s great songsmiths. Joy Lynn gives a convincing and timeless interpretation to the song:

And this loneliness goes on and on and on
All the things come to an end
Yes that means we’ll never love again
The end of our love the end of my dreams
The end of almost everything it seems
Except these heartaches these teardrops
And this loneliness goes on and on and on

I’ve heard Bill Anderson sing the song, and Connie Smith recorded the song on her 1967 album Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson. Connie’s version has the full ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings applied to it. Although Smith is the better vocalist, most modern listeners would probably prefer Joy Lynn White’s version.

The penultimate song is Jim Rushing’s “You Were Right From Your Side”. The song has interesting lyrics and Joy Lynn does a good job with it:

Starin’ out an airport window on a morning hard as stone
Watchin’ a big Delta Bird taxi through the dawn
A lonely chill sweeps over me as that smokin’ liner climbs
You were right from your side I was left from mine
Now you’re gone you’re flying high above the clouds
And I must walk my tears through this faceless crowd
And in the goodbye atmosphere I can hear a thousand times
You were right from your side I was left from mine

The album closes with “I Am Just a Rebel” written by the redoubtable trio of Bob DiPiero, Dennis Robbins and John Scott Sherrill. The trio wrote the song while they were in the band Billy Hill in the late 1980s. Confederate Railroad recorded the song later, but I prefer Joy Lynn’s version to any of the other versions

Being a hillbilly don’t get me down
I like it like that in fact you know it makes me proud
Yeah I’m American made by my ma and pa
Southern born by the grace of God
And I’m bound to be a rebel till they put me in the ground
I am just a rebel can’t you see
Don’t go looking for trouble it just finds me
When I’m a walking down the street people stop and stare
I know they’re talking about me they say there goes that rebel there

Wild Love  enabled Joy Lynn White to show all sides of her personality from tender to tough , from rocker to honky-tonker. With a crack band featuring Paul Worley and Richard Bennett (guitars); Dennis Linde (acoustic & electric guitar, clavinet); Dan Dugmore (electric & steel guitar); Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar); Dennis Robbins (slide guitar); Mike Henderson (guitar); Hank Singer, Blaine Sprouse (fiddles); and  featuring  Harry Stinson, Pat McLaughlin, Cindy Richardson, Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffith, Suzi Ragsdale (background vocals), Wild Love should have propelled Joy Lynn White to the top.

It didn’t propel her career, but I still love the album and would grade it as a solid A, very close to an A+

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101 2’

highway 101 2The title of Highway 101’s sophomore album is not, as you might think, the number 2. Rather, it is the symbol for squared. Pretentious title aside, the material isn’t quite as consistently strong as on their debut album, but it is still a very rewarding record, and helped to maintain them as one of the top country groups of the late 80s.

The exuberant lead single, ‘(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes’, was the band’s third #1 hit. It was written by Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins.

It was followed by my favourite track on the album, the sweetly sung, regretful ballad ‘All The Reasons Why’, which reached #5. Written by Paulette Carlson with Beth Nielsen Chapman, its guilty protagonist has just broken up with her unfortunate spouse, who can’t understand why:

You’ve asked what you’ve done wrong,
And if there’s someone new
What has changed my heart
And what else can you do
Oh darlin’ can’t you see
It’s not so cut and dried
And who knows where love goes
And all the reasons why

She wants to stay friends, but it’s hard to see that happening.

There was a change of pace for the third single, the urgent ‘Setting Me Up. This was a cover of an album cut by the British rock band Dire Straits, written by that band’s Mark Knopfler. Apparently he was unaware that his publisher had some country demos recorded of his songs, resulting in this and other cuts, but he did have some country influences – in 1989-90 his main project was a country-rock-blues band called the Notting Hillbillies, which also featured steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, and he later made an album and toured with Emmylou Harris. This song isn’t particularly country in its rhythmic structure, but was another to 10 hit, and allowed more of a band feel than usual, with some superb playing by the guys and a share of the vocals.

The last single, another top 10 tune, was the excellent ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, written by Jim Photoglo and Russell Smith. It is a rather upbeat breakup song in which the protagonist has grown up since meeting her ex in a bar, and now wants more to life:

The night life isn’t my life anymore
What matters most to me is a home and family
But you can’t find that behind those swingin’ doors…

I won’t play second fiddle to the beat of your honky tonk heart
Go on back to the bar where I found you
Go on back to your so-called second home
You’ll feel better with your good-time friends around you
And I’ll be here but I won’t be alone

Photoglo also co-wrote (with Wendy Waldman and Josh Leo) the solid mid-tempo ‘Road To Your Heart’.

‘Somewhere Between Gone And Goodbye’ is an excellent song written by Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’, given a sparse production and great harmonies. An anxious woman lies awake wondering when her man is coming home:

How many nights must I lay me down and wonder
Will I wake up tomorrow without you by my side?
I’m feeling worn and thin as the sheets that I lay under
Lying somewhere between gone and goodbye

Late night headlights out in the driveway
Drivin’ me crazy again
No need to sneak in
I wasn’t really sleepin’
No need to tell me
I know where you’ve been

It feels like the prequel to ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, and would have made another good single.

A vibrant and authentic sounding cover of Buck Owens’ ‘There Goes My Heart’ reminds us of the band’s California roots. ‘Feed This Fire’ is an earnest love song written by Hugh Prestwood about the need to work at keeping the romance going; it was subsequently a hit single for Anne Murray. Paulette fights temptation she knows has no good ending in ‘Desperate Road’.

Finally, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Long Way Down’ is a strong story song about a young woman musician who has fought her way to stardom from tough beginnings, but can’t rest on her laurels.

While the album lacks the classics of their debut, this is a very strong follow up with no weak songs.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘I’m Alright’

51phmj5EClL-2Although Jo Dee Messina enjoyed some initial success with “Heads Carolina, Tails California”, her career did not really take off until the release of her sophomore set in 1998. Coming on the heels of two failed singles, producers Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw took a play-it-safe approach when choosing material for I’m Alright, an album that is heavy on radio-friendly material. The strategy paid off: the album spawned five hit singles, the first three of which went to #1. The first, “Bye Bye”, written by Rory Michael Bourke and Phil Vassar, is an energetic uptempo number — slightly reminiscent of “Heads Carolina” — at which Jo Dee excels. It was followed by another uptempo ear worm — “I’m Alright”, another Vassar composition which is my favorite Jo Dee Messina song. Jo Dee proved that she was equally adept at singing ballads when “Stand Beside Me” became her third #1.

“A Lesson In Leavin'”, written by Randy Goodrum and Brent Maher had previously been a hit for another redhead when Dottie West took it to #1 in 1980, scoring her first chart topper as a solo artist rather late in her career. Jo Dee’s version, which is faithful to the original, just missed topping the charts,leveling off at #2. She does a good job at interpreting a song that was deserving of being introduced to a new audience. Another ballad, “Because You Love Me”, written by Kostas and John Scott Sherrill, was the album’s fifth and final single, peaking at #8.

As far as the rest of the album is concerned, I really enjoyed the ballad “Even God Must Get The Blues”, which laments the state of the world. It’s the album’s most serious number, and while it was probably not sufficiently commercial to be considered for single release, it is effective in delivering its message and is very well done. I also enjoyed Jo Dee’s version of “I Know A Heartache”, a remake of Jennifer Warnes’ 1979 hits. Warnes was not primarily known as a country artist but her original version did reach #10 on the country charts, as well as #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. There are also a couple of misses, namely “Silver Thunderbird”, with its dated production and pedestrian lyrics and “No Time For Tears” which is forgettable filler.

I enjoyed the radio hits from this album when they were on the charts, though I considered them to be mostly lightweight ear candy at the time. Today I’d be thrilled to hear anything half this good on the radio. I’m Alright is not a great album, but it is a very good one. If you are only going to own one Jo Dee Messina album, this is the one to have.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kristy Cox – ‘Living For The Moment’

living for the momentAustralian country singer Kristy Cox, now based in Nashville has turned to bluegrass for her latest album.  It is tastefully produced by the songwriter Jerry Salley, and it showcases her clear, pure voice on a fine set of songs.

The album leads off with a steam train’s whistle as Kristy launches into the frenetic upbeat ‘You’re My Kind Of Trainwreck’, which she wrote, and which sets the tone for the album.  In the mid-tempo ‘One Heartbreak Away’, she gives an ultimatum to an unsatisfactory lover who is running around on her while she stays crying at home.  ‘I’m Not Gonna Sing The Blues’ is another expression of an assertive attitude as she refuses to give into tears over a relationship.

The ballads generally allow her to bring more individuality to her interpretations.  The plaintive ballad ‘Something In The Way’ is very good, with an emotional vocal bringing out the protagonist’s melancholy as she tries but fails to get over her ex.

The best song here is ‘Love Builds The Bridges (Pride Builds The Walls)’.  Patty Loveless’s version of this outstanding John Scott Sherrill song was one of my favourites of her recordings, and sets the bar just a little too high for Kristy to match up to.  Her version is still very well sung with some great fiddle in the arrangement, and the song itself is still wonderful, so I enjoyed it very much on its own terms.  It’s just not quite as sublime as Patty Loveless.

Almost as good a song, but one with no awkward comparisons, ‘Widow’s Whiskey’ is a sad story song about drinking and bereavement:

She’s too young to feel this old

She’s got too many years left on this earth to feel this cold

She never dreamed he’d leave her this way

Craving the taste of Widow’s whiskey

She fought him hard but he still won

That set of keys he pried from her hands might as well have been a gun

He left her crying in the tail lights and the dirt

With nothing for the hurt but Widow’s whiskey

Like a bullet from the barrel it goes straight to her head

She won’t stop until that bottle is as empty as her bed

Just as long as it’s running through her veins

He’ll show up each night to hold her tight and ease the pain

That’s why she thinks that’s why she drinks Widow’s whiskey

Another mournful ballad about lost love, ‘I’ll Cry Tonight’ is also pretty good.

‘When It Comes To You’ is a lovely duet with her producer about a couple who know it’s over, but are still struggling to make the final break.

‘This’ is a pleasant but slightly dull ballad about finding love.  The closing ‘My Favorite Hour’ makes a reflective ending to an excellent album with much to appeal to lovers of bluegrass and acoustic country music.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Raybon Brothers – ‘The Raybon Brothers’

raybon brosAfter leaving Shenandoah, Marty decided to team up in a duo with his brother Tim. MCA released their one and only album together, a self-titled effort, in 1997.

Even Marty Raybon’s committed soulful vocal can’t save the gooey sentiment of ‘Butterfly Kisses’, the duo’s first single. The song had been a big AC hit for its writer, Bob Carlisle, but the Raybon Brothers’ country cover was less successful with radio, just creeping into the top 40. It may not have helped that another rival country cut was around at the same time (by Jeff Carson), although that one performed even more poorly; and the original itself also got some country airplay. However the exposure did propel the single to high sales figures, and it achieved gold certification.

‘The Way She’s Lookin’’ is a bouncy up-tempo number which while fairly generic is much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a flop when it was released as the second single; a shame, as it deserved to do better than ‘Butterfly Kisses’.

The final attempt at a single was a real misstep. ‘Falling’ is a very boring and not terribly good AC-styled duet with Olivia Newton-John – a curious choice whose shortlived country career was long since over. It didn’t chart at all, and didn’t deserve to.

The best track on the album is ‘Every Fire’, a ruefully tender ballad written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski in which the protagonist regrets that the pain of losing his ex has stopped him from moving on:

It’s still raining in my heart
And that’s been putting out every fire I’ve tried to start

Also great is the Don Cook/Al Anderson penned ‘Trying To Keep The Woman I’ve Got’, a charming, up-tempo polite rejection of a woman coming on to him in a bar. This is like vintage Shenadoah.

‘Baby Blue’ is an average song, but has a pleasant melody and some lovely close sibling harmonies. The brothers wrote ‘Your Love’ with Mike Curtis, and this is quite a good sunny up-tempo number reminiscent of Shenandoah.

Tim was allowed to sing lead on a few tracks. He shows himself a competent vocalist with a big meaty voice, but not in his brother’s class. His vocal on ‘Gettin’ Ready For The World To End’ is loud and unsubtle, while he gives a solid but somewhat anonymous performance on his own ‘Hello Love’, which is quite a nice song. ‘Tangled Up In Love’ is a limp pop number co-written by Keith Urban.

The brothers’ musical partnership having failed to set the charts on fire, the duo disbanded, and Marty turned to a solo career. there are enough bright spots to make this worth picking up if you can find it cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘The Bluegrass Album’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rage On’

1988 saw Dan make a sideways move from EMI to its Capitol imprint. Rage On has tasteful Kyle Lehning production and excellent material which combines great melodies with interesting lyrics. Dan was at his commercial and artistic peak, and it continued his hot streak with country radio.

Lead single ‘Addicted’ was Dan’s eighth straight #1 hit. It was written by contemporary folk artist Cheryl Wheeler, but it fits Dan like a glove with its pretty melody and sensitive, insightful lyric. His empathetic vocal is perfect for this bleak third person portrait of a woman who can see her lover is drawing away from her, and her own heart breaking slowly:

She says she feels like she’s addicted to a real bad thing
Always sitting waiting wondering if the phone will ring
She knows she bounces like a yoyo when he pulls her string
It hurts to feel like such a fool
She wants to tell him not to call or come around again
He doesn’t need her at all now the way that she needs him
She’s on the edge about to fall from leaning out and in
And she don’t know which way to move, oh no

She wants to be fair, she couldn’t say
He was ever unkind
But if she could bear to walk away
She thinks he wouldn’t mind

Another fine song, ‘Big Wheels In The Moonlight’ followed it to the top of the charts, and has a much cheerier atmosphere. Set to a lively tune with occasional hand claps, it tells the story of a restless young boy bored with his hometown (“so small, look both ways you could see it all”) and dreaming of a truck driving life. There is an optimistic feel as Dan delivers the song with commitment, and Baillie & the Boys provide backing vocals. It was one of three songs on the album written by the regular partnership of Dan with Bob McDill.

Another McDill collaboration, the title track, ‘They Rage On’, broke Dan’s streak of #1 hits, peaking at #5. With a delicate vocal, Dan sympathetically portrays two sets of desperate lovers – a pair of restless teenagers (“like birds in a cage”) and an older couple having an illicit affair (“she’s lost her youth and he’s lost his dreams”) as they cling on to the one thing that makes them feel alive. The video interpreted the song by showing an interracial couple facing hostility, and perhaps it was this relatively controversial topic (not in the original song) that kept it off the top spot.

The final McDill co-write is one of relatively few country songs to have a New York setting. ‘Long Long Island Nights’ is the portrait a successful model who is just a small town girl at heart, in need of love.

Dan wrote two socially conscious songs alone. In ‘Factory Town’, he tackles a town dependent on one employer which is about to shut, playing the part of one factory worker, bewildered by the situation. ‘Those’ is an idealistic plea to help out one’s neighbours, in both material and emotional ways:

Then the world would be a better place for living
More forgiving every day
If those that have learned how to hold their own
Could help those who are slipping away

Those who have loved and lost everything
Could help those who have never loved at all
Those that are free now, no longer feel the pain,
Could help those who are still behind the wall

John Scott Sherrill’s superb ‘Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons’ is my equal favorite track with ‘Addicted’. The melancholy testament of a man whose childhood home is about to be lost to strip mining, Dan’s version is deeply affecting, channelling sadness rather than the outrage of John Anderson’s more forceful later cut, and he gives it a palpable sense of defeat which interprets the song effectively.

And I said “mMama forgive me but I’m almost glad
That you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody
Who’d actually blow it away”

The addition of a recorder in the instrumental section gives it a wistful old-fashioned air which works rather well.

‘Twenty Four Hour Love’ is a quietly catchy number Dan wrote with Mac MacAnally; a gentle love song from a working man who is not normally good at expressing his emotions. ‘Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice’ was written by K. T. Oslin, and is a solid song with a disillusioned Dan quietly determined to move on. A little more on the pop-country side, ‘A Heartache Just Around The Bend’ was written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball, and while pleasant, is the closest the record comes to filler.

Kimball wrote the downbeat ballad ‘Maybe I’m Missing You Now’ with Blackie Farrell, which has more of an impact. Here Dan ruefully regrets separating from his wife:

We made a promise for better or worse
Well, this is the worse that I’ve been
I’ve run out of reasons to hide anyhow
Maybe I’m missing you now

This is my personal favorite of Dan Seals’ albums, and is well worth adding to your collection. It’s easy to find used, or you could wait until the 2on1 with Dan’s country debut Rebel Heart appears in October.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom.  He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music.  Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience.  It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives.  Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.

The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40.  It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.

The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived  group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.

The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all.  This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith.  Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.

Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album.   The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.

An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective.  ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.

The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.

‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford.  On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared.  ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals  not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.

The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically.  A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.

This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim.  It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years –  the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman.  It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.

Grade: B

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Greatest Hits’ (MCA)

Steve’s move to MCA in 1985 helped him to become a mainstay of country radio, just as the same move worked for Reba McEntire and, a few years later, Vince Gill. None of his first three albums for the label is readily available on CD or digitally, but a good overview can be gained from his second Greatest Hits compilation, released in 1987. The sound was a little less poppy than his RCA work, but still definitely contemporary rather than traditional. Steve’s smooth vocals sound great even on the lesser material.

Steve’s MCA career kicked off with a bang, with ‘What I Didn’t Do’ reaching #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985. Written by Wood Newton and Michael Noble, this remorseful look back at mistakes made by a workaholic husband who failed to pay attention to his wife (left “planning her nights by the TV Guide”) is a fine song, sensitively interpreted.

The up-tempo pop-country ‘Heart Trouble’ (written by Dave Gibson and Kent Robbins) also reached the top 10, but is not very memorable. The last single from One Good Night Deserves Another, Steve’s first MCA album, was a vast improvement, and was to become his second #1. A forlorn ballad about unrequited love, ‘Some Fools Never Learn’ was written by John Scott Sherrill, and Steve sings it beautifully, as the central character faces his loved one’s

Heart like a stone
And a wandering eye

He admits to himself, while he finds a second-best alternative relationship with a girl in the same boat,

It’s no good to pretend it won’t happen again
‘Cause it’ll happen again
Some fools never learn
Play with the fire and you’re gonna get burned
It’s only love when you’re loved in return

This is my favorite of the songs included here.

The lead single from Steve’s second MCA album (and his second album of 1985) was ‘You Can Dream Of Me’, which he wrote with John Hall. It was another #1 hit for him. A mellow sounding cheating song with an attractive melody, the soaring, pure vocal belies a less romantic message, about a married man telling his ex-lover he can’t offer her a full-time or “real” love and she will have to settle for the odd phone call, flowers and dreams.

Next up was that album’s title track, the piano-led mid-tempo ‘Life’s Highway’ written by Richard Leigh and Roger Murrah (and covered by Catherine Britt on her RCA album a few years ago). It was Steve’s fourth #1 hit, and had the most traditionally country instrumentation of his early singles. Carl Jackson and Mac McAnally sing backing vocals, and the track features Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mark O’Connor on mandolin.

The last single was the ballad ‘Starting Over Again’ (written by Don Goodman and John Wesley Ryles), with gospelly piano and soothingly sweet vocals about a constant loser who never loses faith that someday things will work out. It peaked at #4.

Life’s Highway was actually a solid modern country album (by far the best of his early work) which displayed discriminating song selection, including early versions of ‘Back Up Grinnin’ Again’ (soon afterwards cut by Kathy Mattea) and Rodney Crowell’s 1988 #1 hit ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving’. Steve’s somgwriting was also developing, and he wrote five of the ten tracks. It really deserves to be re-issued.

The third album, 1987’s It’s A Crazy World, was a bit of a step backward artistically, although each of the singles reached #1. The first of these was the pleasant but fairly forgettable New York-set ‘Small Town Girl’ (written by John Barlow Jarvis and Don Cook), singing the praises of domestic bliss with the protagonist’s wife, the small town girl of the title. Steve sounds very good on the vivaciously beaty ‘Lynda’, written by Bill LaBounty and Pat McLaughlin, and makes a throwaway ditty worth listening to.

The last single, ‘The Weekend’ was the first Steve Wariner record I ever heard. Written by Bill LaBounty again and Beckie Foster. The protagonist laments having fallen in love with his weekend fling, who is not interested in reciprocating:

You had some fun for the weekend
But I’ll be in love for the rest of my life

..and if I can’t have you tonight
At least I had the weekend

Some will find this ballad a little wimpy, but as a teenager who was new to country music, I loved it and thought it extremely romantic, and I still can’t help liking it and Steve’s sweet interpretation.

The nine solo hits (three from each of Steve’s first three albums on MCA) are rounded out with ‘That’s How You Know When Love’s Right’, a duet with Nicolette Larson which was a top 10 hit in 1986. Nicolette was a country-rock singer with a husky alto voice who had some pop success in the 70s. Her country connections included singing backup on Emmylou Harris’s version of the classic ‘Hello Stranger’, and in the mid 80s she made a concerted effort at a country career of her own. She released two pretty good albums, but this was to be her only hit single – making this the first time Steve’s talents lifted another artist to their greatest commercial success. The production sounds a bit dated now, but not overbearingly so, and the vocals work well enough to overcome this. The two singers’ voices work well together on a pleasantly tuneful if rather generic pop-leaning ballad about falling in love, swapping solo lines in the chorus, harmonising on the chorus, and both sound earnestly sincere. The song was written by Wendy Waldman and Craig Bickhardt. Oddly, the selection omitted another hit from this period, Steve’s duet with Glen Campbell on ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’, a tribute to mothers everywhere.

Grade: B

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply, and the individual tracks can be downloaded.

Album Review: Shawn Camp – ‘1994’

Singer-songwriter Shawn Camp originally recorded this album back in the year of its title as the follow-up to his self-titled debut for Reprise Records (which I must confess I never heard, although I enjoyed his independent 2001 release Lucky Silver Dollar). Produced impeccably by Emory Gordy Jr and loaded with fiddle and steel, it proved too traditional in its stylings for the label, who reportedly dropped Shawn after he declined to remake it with more pop-country trappings. It has re-emerged after the boss of parent label Warner Bros Nashville ran into Shawn, now a successful songwriter, at an industry event, discovered he had this unreleased record sitting in the company vaults, and decided to give it a rather belated release. The original debut, Shawn Camp, is also getting a re-release.

To be brutally frank, enjoyable though I’m finding this record, I can see why Shawn’s career didn’t take off. His songs are good, and the production pleasing, but his voice, while pleasantly quirky and distinctive, does not compare well with some of the fine male vocalists signed to Nashville labels in the early 90s, particularly on ballads.

Shawn co-wrote almost all the material, with the exceptions all well-chosen. The sparkling opening track ‘Near Mrs’, for instance, penned by Steve Hood and Karl Hasten (both unfamiliar names to me) is a charmingly playful set of romantic misadventures explaining why the protagonist never quite got to the altar with any of the ladies in his life, which is highly entertaining and one can imagine this as a lost hit single. Even better is ‘In Harm’s Way’ which is one of the highlights here, a plaintive fiddle-and-steel-laced lament with Patty Loveless on harmonies, about being blindsided by heartbreak. This song was recorded by Jim Lauderdale (who wrote it with Frank Dycus) on his excellent 1998 release Whisper (possibly my favorite of his very varied catalog), and I do prefer the vocals on that version.

Also lovely, and perhaps better suited to Shawn’s voice, is the rueful admission of ‘Clear as A Bell’ (written by Shawn with Will Smith), as the protagonist gets a reminder that his childhood sweetheart’s wedding to another is underway:

In that far off chapel, church bells ring for someone else
And though I hate to say it I can only blame myself

Sometimes things happen way too fast
When you try to reach for love
It’s out of your grasp
Oh, sometimes it’s over and you can’t even tell
But sometimes it’s clear as a bell

This has a very pretty melody and is my favorite track.

The dejected ‘My Frame Of Mind’, written with John Scott Sherrill, also has a pretty tune and some haunting fiddle which underlines the melancholy feel, with the protagonist in even more despairing mood:

And I don’t know or care
Just what tomorrow brings
Cause if she’s not here
Tell me what good is anything?

John Scott Sherrill also cowrote the plaintive and catchy mid-tempo ‘Worn Through Stone’, another of the highlights, as Shawn broods over what went wrong in his relationship with his ex, with none other than Bill Monroe (in what may have been his last ever recording session) among the call-and-response backing vocals, although his contribution is not very prominent.

The quirky ‘Stop, Look And Listen (Cow Catcher Blues)’ is co-written with Guy Clark, and features train rhythms and Shawn on both fiddle and mandolin, as he plays the drifter who can’t outrun heartache. This is uncommercial but highly entertaining, and would be great live.

‘Since You Ain’t Home’ is a lovely traditional George Jones-styled heartbreak ballad about living in a house without the loved one who made it home, which Shawn wrote with Dale Dodson and Ken Mellons, and which would have been ideal for Mellons himself who was just embarking on his own major label career at the time. Patty Loveless guests on harmony.

The joyfully ironic uptempo ‘Movin’ On Up To A Double Wide’ is written with Gary Harrison. The protagonist has apparently been fired but is making his own silver lining:

Honey all our dreams are finally coming true
We’re gonna start living like the rich folks do
We’re movin’ on up to a double wide
Parkin our pickup every day with pride
Think we’ve got it made for the rest of our lives

Some of Shawn’s compositions included here did eventually find an audience. The best of these, ‘The Grandpa That I Know’, written with Tim Mensy (who had already recorded it himself), was subsequently recorded by both Joe Diffie and Patty Loveless. Shawn’s version has a hushed personal quality to it which lends an authenticity which makes up for the more limited vocal prowess compared to the rival versions. There is one interesting lyrical variation, with Shawn singing “my fiddle” rather than “a fiddle” as the music his grandfather would have liked, although he does not in fact play on this track. Shawn does play fiddle on ‘Little Bitty Crack In Her Heart’, which he wrote with Jim Rushing. This song suffers more from its delayed emergence, as it has been cut by both Sammy Kershaw and Randy Travis, both of whom are better singers than Shawn, but this version is still fun.

I strongly commend Warner Brothers for finally getting round to releasing this – and not only digitally. I hope it sells well enough for the experiment to be repeated and encourages other good music to be made available.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Your Man’

The title track and lead single to Josh Turner’s sophomore effort Your Man was released in August 2005 and saw him reaching the Top 10, as well as the #1 spot on the charts, which was no mean feat for a traditionally-based artist in the early part of the 21st century. The album that followed shortly thereafter in January 2006, was also a commercial success. Frank Rogers was once again on board as producer, without Mark Wright this time. Turner had a hand in writing five of the album’s eleven tracks.

The album opens with “Would You Go With Me”, which was the second single released from the set. Like its predecessor, the Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill composition reached #1. it is followed by another Camp song, with Herb McCollough as co-writer, the surprisingly upbeat-sounding “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama.” The lyrics read like a three-hanky tale about a broken marriage, but this is no crying in your beer song. Turner sounds anything but devastated and even winds up the song by commenting that he is glad that his ex took her Chihuahua with her. Both “Would You Go With Me” and “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama” prominently feature the dobro, by Mike Johnson on the former and Steve Hinson on the latter track.

“No Rush” is a more lushly-arranged, bluesy style song that initially seems like an odd choice for Turner, but it works surprisingly well. Stylistically, it reminds me of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and sounds like something that Ray Price would have sunk his teeth into in the early 70s.

Some marquee guest artists are on hand for a couple of tracks: members of Diamond Rio supply the background vocals to “Me and God” a religious number written by Turner, in the same vein as his earlier hit “Long Black Train.” The legendary Ralph Stanley also makes a cameo duet appearance, sounding a lot like Roy Acuff in his later years. The track became the album’s third and final single. Peaking at #16, it did not fare as well as the album’s previous two singles, but it performed respectably for a religious-themed record. More star power is on display with “White Noise”, written and performed with John Anderson. Surprisingly it is one of the weaker tracks on the album, and as its title implies, it is merely filler that name-checks Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and the Grand Ole Opry.

The most fun track on the album, and one on which Josh sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself is Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders’ “Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln”, which finds Turner fantasizing about buying a car once owned by the Coal Miner’s Daughter and cruising around Nashville in it with her and Dolly Parton. It’s just not possible to dislike this song.

My favorite track on the album is Josh’s cover version of the Don Williams classic “Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy”. It easily rivals the original version and deserved to be released as a single. You just can’t go wrong with a Bob McDill song.

The album closes with Turner’s “Way Down South”, a satisfying if slightly self-indulgent tribute to home. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, it turns into a jam session towards the end. While not one of the stronger songs on the album, it is an enjoyable listen that would have been better had it been pared down by a minute or so.

Overall, Your Man is a very satisfying collection of songs from one of today’s better artists, albeit one that is still struggling to break away from the rest of Nashville’s current pack of male singers. It is Turner’s most successful album to date, earning double-platinum certification for sales in excess of two million units. Two of the album’s singles, “Your Man” and “Would You Go With Me” were certified gold for sales exceeding 500,000 units each.

Grade: A-

Your Man is readily available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection.

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

It really is tempting fate for any artist, particularly one who is past his or her commercial peak, to entitle an album Better Than I Used To Be, because (almost always) it begs a negative answer. Rich-voiced 90s star Sammy Kershaw has been away from the charts for a while, most recently concentrating on a venture into Louisiana state politics. His new album is on an independent (possibly self released) label, Big Hit Records. However, while I don’t think Sammy’s music is “better than it used to be”, the new album stands up pretty well against his back catalog. There are no obvious hit singles here, but Sammy is still in fine voice, and Buddy Cannon’s supportive production is excellent, and undoubtedly country.

The album is bookended by songs Sammy himself had a share in writing. The unremarkable but energetic ‘That Train’, which he wrote alone, opens the album. In an interview with the 9513 earlier this year, Sammy admitted:

“I’m not much of a songwriter but every once in a while I get lucky and write one in 10 or 15 minutes. If it goes any longer than that, I get rid of them. I never work on them again”

Frankly, this song does indeed sound as though it only took a few minutes to write, although it clearly inspired the cover art. Much better is the co-write with John Scott Sherrill and Scotty Emerick which closes the set. ‘Takin’ The Long Way Home’ places the protagonist in a bar, because he has too little to go home for, with a woman who’s obviously on her way out. The sweet sadness of the fiddle line underscores the delicately understated emotion of a man who has no remedy for his sense of abandonment, as he concludes at the end of the evening,

And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m takin’ the long way home

However rash it may be as the title track, ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, is a highlight of the record. It is a tender, even inspiring, promise from a man who has made mistakes in the past and is in the process of turning his life around:

I can’t count the people I’ve let down
Or the hearts I’ve broke
You aint gotta dig too deep
If you want to find some dirt on me
I’m learning who you’ve been
Ain’t who you’ve gotta be…

Standin’ in the rain so long
Has left me with a little rust
But put some faith in me
Someday you’ll see
There’s a diamond under all this dust

But he acknowledges this is a work in progress in this lovely, mature song. A video was made to support this song as a single earlier this year, and it is a shame it failed to make many waves.

Equally good is the subdued sadness of ‘Like I Wasn’t Even There’, written by Wes Hightower, Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy. The protagonist runs into his ex for the first time since the breakup, and is ignored as though their relationship never existed.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Only What I Feel’

Only What I FeelAfter the breakthrough of Honky Tonk Angel, it must have been very frustrating for both Patty Loveless and her label that her career seemed to have plateaued. The next two albums, 1990’s On Down The Line and 1991’s Up Against My Heart, did not sell as well, and although her singles were still charting, they were not as consistently successful as those from Honky Tonk Angel. Patty believed she was not a priority for MCA, which had a number of other high-profile female singers including Reba McEntire. She negotiated a release from the label and signed with Epic.

A further delay ensued when as she began recording new material for her Epic debut, it became clear that her vocal cords had suffered serious damage, and if nothing was done, her career could be over. She underwent surgery at the Vanderbilt Voice Center, which saved her career. Indeed, if anything, her voice sounded even better afterwards than it had done at the outset of her career, with greater depth. She returned to the studios with husband Emory Gordy Jr as producer, and the result was a very accomplished mixture of commercial appeal and artistic achievement. Only What I Feel was released in April 1993.

After all this, and the fact that her last MCA single had stalled at #30, it was vital that her first single for Epic re-established her as a star. It certainly did that, because the vibrant ‘Blame It On Your Heart’ (written by Kostas with the legendary Harlan Howard) was Patty’s first #1 since ‘Chains’ hit the top three years earlier. The attitude-filled lyric has Patty showing no sympathy for her ex:

“Blame it on your lyin’, cheatin’, cold dead beatin’, two-timin’, double dealin’, mean mistreatin’, lovin’ heart”

So far, radio had showed more enthusiasm for Patty’s up-tempo material, and sadly the reception for the beautiful ballad ‘Nothin’ But The Wheel’ was tepid, the single only just squeezing into the top 20. It remains one of my personal favorites of Patty’s recordings, and was also nominated by several readers as their favorite in our recent giveaway. The song, written by John Scott Sherrill, paints a very visual picture of a woman driving away from her old life, with nothing to show for it, and Patty’s sad, measured vocal realizes the desolation underpinning the lyric perfectly:

“The only thing I know for sure
Is if you don’t want me anymore
I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel”

Patty bounced back into the top 10 with the beaty up-tempo pop-country of ‘You Will’, written by Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy and Randy Sharp. The song’s production has not worn as well as most of Patty’s records, with slightly intrusive backing vocals, but it was definitely radio-friendly. The album contained other tracks which were potential radio fodder in the same style, the brightly assertive poppy ‘How About You’, and my favorite of the up-tempo numbers, ‘All I Need (Is Not To Need You)’, with its semi-hopeful lyric about trying to get over someone.

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Album Review: Zona Jones – ‘Prove Me Right’

Prove Me RightThere must be something in the water in Beaumont, Texas. Not only was it the hometown of George Jones, Mark Chesnutt was born there, and the city was once also home to Tracy Byrd. Another Beaumont resident, Zona Jones, put his career as a lawyer on hold a few years ago when he released his excellent first album Harleys & Horses on indie label D Records. I enjoyed that record enough to keep a eye out for his follow-up, which has at last appeared on his friend Tracy Lawrence’s Rocky Comfort Records. Zona is not quite in the same league as the aforementioned sons of Beaumont, but he does have a good voice very much in the George Strait style, which is particularly effective on mellow ballads like the majority of the material on this album. Half the songs were produced by no less than James Stroud, the remainder by Zona himself with Mike Jones, but the overall feel of the album is fairly consistent, and it is solidly country from start to finish.

He opens with a cover of Aaron Tippin’s ‘Could Not Stop Myself From Loving You’, which he delivers nicely enough, but his phrasing is too reminiscent of the original while lacking Tippin’s hypnotic quality. Tippin’s co-writers on that track, Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, also wrote my favorite song on the album, ‘Go Away’. This excellent song feels like a sequel to Steve Earle’s modern classic ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, a link I think is made explicit in the salutation, “my old foul-weather friend”. The protagonist is tired of feeling bad about his loss, and begs:

“Go away, blues don’t hang around
Let me love again somehow
I tried but I could not make her stay
So be like her and go away”

Another really enjoyable number is ‘Drinkin”, a drinking song (obviously) from the pens of John [Scott?] Sherrill and Neal Coty, which sounds cheerful even as the protagonist tries to drown his miseries:

Damn it, I think I drank myself sober
And I still can’t drink myself over you

At least I’m a couple sheets to the wind
With any luck, honey, I’ll forget again
That I don’t know where you are or where I am”

The title track (a Radney Foster/Stephanie Delray composition) is a hopeful look at the prospects for love. Also good is ‘She Showed Me’, written by Troy Olsen and Kerry Kurt Phillips, neatly set around a conversation with an ex. The narrator smugly thinks she’ll be begging for another chance, but as it turns out he could not be more wrong – she is happily married with two children (underlining the guy’s cluelessness given the time that must have elapsed since they were together).

One of the songs which stands out the most is the uptempo jerky rhythm of ‘Never Took My Eyes Off You’, written by Dave Frasier, Ed Hill and Josh Kear, and although this track (alone on the album) feels a little over-produced and the lyric is rather slight, it is still fun with definite singalong potential as the protagonist can’t pay attention to the football game or great view on his dates with his love interest.

Similar but better is ‘Day Off’, a lively paean to relaxation time written by Al Anderson, Bob DiPiero and Leslie Satcher. For such a heavyweight writing team, the lyric verges on the absurd at times – while it is indeed true that we all welcome a check in the mail, few of us are in the need to break out of a Mexican jail. But as fluff goes, this is entertaining fluff, as Zona tells us with a little growl in his voice:

“Everybody needs a little too much fun
Everybody needs a little coming undone
Take a brain vacation, I’m telling you, hoss
Everybody needs a day off”

The love ballad ‘You Should’ve Seen Her This Morning’ is nice enough if not very memorable, as the protagonist boasts the joys of domestic bliss to his bar friends whose heads are turned when his woman walks in, claiming sweetly, “If you’re thinking ‘Wow, she looks beautiful now’, you should’ve seen her this morning.” ‘Two Hearts’, another pleasant love song, is repeated from Harleys & Horses.

The album is rounded out by three more covers, Strait’s ‘Blame it On Mexico’ and ‘When You Love ‘Em Like Crazy’ (recorded as ‘When You Love Her Like Crazy’ by Mark Chesnutt are both sung well but not as ood as the originals. I am not as familiar with the sweetly delivered ‘Bluer Than Blue’, written by Randy Goodrum, which was a big pop and AC hit in 1978 for Michael Johnson, who was to go country in the 80s. This last song (for which there is a video) has a very pretty tune and has grown on me over repeated listens.

I think the songs were a little stronger on Zona’s first album, but nonetheless this is an enjoyable record. It is available on iTunes or from Zona’s website.

Grade: B

Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Nobody’s Got It All’

Nobody's Got It AllAfter the brief resurrection of John Anderson’s career in the early 90s, it died down again in the later part of that decade, although he has continued to release some excellent music on a series of major labels. One of my favorites is this release from 2001, on Columbia. It was produced by hot producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, and has some excellent songs, but sadly the chosen singles failed to catch on at radio, and the label deal lasted only for this one album.

The song which is most likely to be familiar is a cover of John Scott Sherrill’s ‘Five Generations Of Rock County Wilsons’, a farmer’s son’s lament at the destruction of his childhood home by developers, previously recorded in the 80s by Dan Seals and in the 90s by Doug Supernaw, but perhaps surprisingly never losing its sense of topicality. I like all three versions of this fine song, but John’s is probably the best and most committed vocal, as you feel the narrator’s pain as it turns to smoldering anger and then defeated sadness as he leaves town:
“I stood on the hill overlooking Red River where my mama and her mama lay
And listened to the growling of the big diesel Cats as they tore up the fields where I played
I said, ‘Mama forgive me, but I’m almost glad that you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody who’d actually blow it away’.”

A more unexpected (and less successful) cover comes in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’, a dark tale of a couple on the edges of the crime world which came to John’s attention via a version by The Band.

John did not contribute many of his own compositions this time around, but one of the songs he did write is one of my favorites, the heavy-hitting ballad ‘I Ain’t Afraid Of Dying’, written with Dean Dillon. It is a trenchant look at some of the darker aspect of modern society and fears for the future, with no punches pulled:
“Some father says in the name of God he took his baby’s life
Well, I don’t think so, the God I know wouldn’t believe that’s right
I may not have the answers when it’s all said and done
Sometimes I have to question where they’re coming from
I know where I’m going when they lay me to rest
Oh, I ain’t afraid of dying, Lord – it’s the living that scares me to death.”

The pair also wrote ‘Go To Town’, a pleasant but not that memorable piece about a party girl and a “smooth operator” growing up and settling down, ending with their children heading off to the excitement of the town in their parents’ stead. The other track John co-wrote was the melodic love song ‘I Love You Again’, written with Craig Wiseman, which is very listenable and sincerely delivered, but doesn’t stick in the mind.

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