My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Johnny Slate

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Sawyer Brown’

Sawyer Brown’s eponymous debut album, released in 1984 was their highest charting entry on the Billboard Country Albums chart, peaking at #2 and he most successful of their 1980s albums, in no doubt aided by their winning appearance on Star Search. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and spawned three hit singles: “Leona” (#16), “Step That Step” (#1) and “Used To Blue” (#3). The first two were catchy uptempo numbers that set the template for most of their subsequent singles for the next several years. “Used To Blue” proved that they could also handle ballads, though they were not generally associated with ballads in those days.

In addition to writing the band’s first #1 hit, the fluffy but catchy “Step That Step”, lead singer Mark Miller also wrote “Broken Candy”, a very nice ballad about heartbreak, loneliness and trying again. He also co-wrote the uptempo “Feel Like Me” and “It’s Hard to Keep a Good Love Down” with Randy Scruggs.

Some impressive names appear among the songwriting credits: the bluesy “Used To Blue” was written by Fred Knobloch and Bill LaBounty, “Smoking In The Rockies” — which they had performed on Star Search — was written by Buddy Cannon, Gary Stewart and Frank Dycus and “Staying Afloat” was a Don King co-write with J.D. Martin. Sawyer Brown’s origins can be traced to its members’ stint as Don King’s road band. “The Sun Don’t Shine on the Same Folks Every Time” — one of the more country sounding numbers was co-written by Mark Gray with Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate. Gray had secured a record deal with Epic around the same time and is best remembered for “Sometimes When We Touch”, his duet with Tammy Wynette.

Although the album is not particularly country sounding for the most part, it is well within the realm of what was considered country at the time. Although there are no fiddle and steel and just an occasional touch of harmonica, the album is not overproduced like a lot of other music from that era. Only occasionally do the synthesizers betray the album’s age. Sawyer Brown was not particularly taken seriously by the industry at the time and was somewhat unfairly labeled as a “bubble gum” band. It’s true that there’s nothing here as deep as “The Walk” — a big hit that they would enjoy almost a decade later — but the rest of the album is neither more nor less lightweight than anything else that was on the charts at the time. It is a highly enjoyable and solid first effort that for the most part has aged well.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Life’s So Funny’

The cracks in Joe Diffie’s creative armor began to show with 1994’s Third Rock From The Sun. Sadly, the downward spiral continued with the next year’s follow-up Life’s So Funny, which at best is a mediocre album of substandard material unworthy of Diffie’s considerable talent.

Though it contains no overtly silly novelty tunes like its predecessor, Life’s So Funny is a decided shift away from the traditional material Diffie had released on his first couple of albums. By 1995, the new traditionalist movement had run its course, and Diffie and co-producer Johnny Slate appear to have been trying to curry favor with country radio by modifying his sound. The fact that the album produced only one major hit stands as testament to the fact that despite moving in the wrong direction, country radio in the mid-90s was still considerably better than it is today.

The first single released from the album was “Bigger Than The Beatles”, a decent but not great tune which name-checks not only the Fab Four but also the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, in what appears to have been an attempt to reach out to the newer fans that were migrating towards country music at the time. The inclusion of a couple of annoying line-dance numbers likewise seems like an effort to those who came to country by way of the dance clubs. “Bigger Than The Beatles” became Diffie’s fifth and final #1 hit. The album’s subsequent singles didn’t fare as well. The beat-driven dance tune “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y” stalled at #23, as did “Whole Lotta Gone”. The other line dance number, “Down In A Ditch” mercifully failed to chart.

Among the album cuts there are some decent ballads that play to Diffie’s strengths, but none of them is of the same caliber as earlier hits like “Home”, “Is It Cold In Here” or “Ships That Don’t Come In”, nor is any of them enough to save this train wreck of an album. “Never Mine To Lose” is the best of the bunch and would have been a better choice for a single than any of the tunes that were actually sent to radio following “Bigger Than The Beatles”. “Tears In The Rain”, the only song in this collection on which Joe shares a songwriting credit, is also a worthy effort, as is the title track which closes the album. The pop-tinged and slightly overblown “Willing To Try”, on the other hand, misses the mark and “Back To The Cave”, another dance tune, demonstrates that even great songwriters like Skip Ewing occasionally produce a dud.

Though it did not sell as well as Third Rock From The Sun, Life’s So Funny managed to earn gold certification, the last Joe Diffie album to do so.

Grade: C-

It is still widely available from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes, but it is really not worth pursuing, except for die-hard fans.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Third Rock From The Sun’

Released in 1994, this was the album where Joe really cemented his reputation for silly novelty songs, with a good half of the tracks falling into that category. The title track is actually a decently written song (if lacking in melody), and recounts an entertaining if implausible series of events all dependent on one another which Joe rattles off. It was Joe’s third #1 hit (and his first since his debut album). You can watch the video here.

The same writing team of John Greenebaum, Sterling Whipple and Tony Martin wrote the equally cheery uptempo ‘I’d Like To Have A Problem Like That’, which (while filler material) also manages to be amusing enough as Joe expresses Everyman’s envy of the problems of wealth and celebrity.

More obviously a novelty number, ‘Pickup Man’ was a four-week #1 for Joe, making this ode to pickup trucks (unaccountably) technically the biggest hit of his career. I admit the line about
I met all my wives in traffic jams
has a certain quirky appeal, but this throwaway ditty is not the song Joe deserves to be remembered for. Sadly, it is not the worst thing on offer here.

The raucously sung ‘I’m In Love In A Capital U’ is deliberately stupid and actually kind of fun, as Joe plays an uneducated “product of the public school”. It didn’t quite catch on at radio, missing the top 20:

You got me feelin’ so G-U-D
It’s more better than I thought it would be
Girl you taught me things that I never learned in school
I’m in love with a capital U

The album closes with the two silliest songs on it (possibly two of the silliest songs ever written), which really have to be heard at least once to be believed. ‘Good Brown Gravy’ is a shouted and nonsensical song about, well, marketing the protagonist’s family recipe for gravy, including yells about attempts to recruit him into the Army and Navy purely to secure it. Oddly enough this was co-written by Billy Dean (noted as an artist for his sentimental numbers). The final track, Joe’s only co-write this time around, is the even sillier ‘The Cows Came Home’, complete with mooing noises:

She told me that she’d love me ’til the cows came home

The cows came home
The cows came home
I heard somethin’ mooin’
Turned around and she was gone
Lord have mercy, the cows came home

The whole herd showed up when they heard she’d gone
But I guess it’s better than bein’ alone
Well the slammin’ of the door is like a pie in the face
But I got enough milk for the human race

These songs are so hilariously bad they are, occasionally, a guilty pleasure for me. ‘Junior’s In Love’ (written by Dennis Linde) does not even succeed on those terms and ends up just sounding pointless and slightly condescending with its tale of the hapless hillbilly of the title and his frustrated love for Wanda.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Regular Joe’

Joe Diffie’s sophomore release continued to build upon the winning formula of 1990’s A Thousand Winding Roads and went on to become his first gold album in 1992. While listening to it for the first time in quite a while, caused me to experience a severe case of 90s nostalgia. The first notes of the opening track, “Startin’ Over Blues”, a single that peaked just outside the Top 40 caused me to stop what I was doing and listen in amazement at the excellent and non-pretentious picking and singing, something that I routinely took for granted in the 90s but sorely miss from most contemporary releases. Like its predecessor, Regular Joe was produced by Bob Montgomery and Johnny Slate. Diffie had a hand in writing four of the album’s ten songs.

In addition to the aforementioned “Startin’ Over Blues”, Regular Joe spawned three other singles, including two top five hits — “Is It Cold In Here” and “Ships That Don’t Come In” — which I consider to be the two finest performances of Diffie’s career. The former examines a dying relationship, while the latter is a conversation between two men in a bar — a younger one who is discontented with his life, and an older, wiser one who points out that there are plenty of others who are far worse off. It’s not exactly the type of song that would find a home on country radio today, but it’s the kind that the format so desperately needs. It’s difficult to decide which song I like better, though if forced to choose, I’d give a slight edge to “Is It Cold In Here”. Diffie shares songwriting credits on both of these masterpieces. Either one could have and should have been considered his career record; it’s a shame that he is better remembered today for his uptempo semi-novelty tunes. Following these two consecutive top five successes, Joe faltered a bit on his next single, the upbeat “Next Thing Smokin'” — another of his co-writes, which only made it to #16 on the charts. “Startin’ Over Blues” fared even worse, stalling at #41, despite being one of the more radio-friendly tracks on the album. Possibly it didn’t receive enough promotional support from the label. In the early 90s, artists tended to release albums more frequently than they do today. The lead single from Diffie’s next project was released slightly more than a year after Regular Joe, which may have been to the detriment of “Startin’ Over Blues”, his worst performance on the singles charts up to that time.

In addition the album contains several solid tracks that were not chosen for single release. Diffie turns in a fine vocal performance, reminiscent of George Jones on “Ain’t That Bad Enough”, which he wrote with Ron Moore and longtime collaborator Lonnie Wilson. The closing track “Goodnight Sweetheart” could have been subtitled “The One That Got Away”; it went on to become a Top 10 hit for the now-forgotten David Kersh in 1996. It’s surprising that Epic didn’t send this one to radio, particularly in light of the chart success of the album’s other ballads.

Despite all of these fine performances, Regular Joe is not without its flaws. It is marred by two tracks in particular — “Just A Regular Joe” and “Back To Back Heartaches” which both suffer from a now dated-sounding line-dance style beat and production which make them sound out-of-place with the rest of the album. However, both of these missteps are forgivable, detracting only slightly from the enjoyment experienced from listening to this fine album.

Grade: A

Regular Joe is still in print and available from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Thousand Winding Roads’

Joe’s debut solo album was released on Epic in 1990, and immediately propelled him to stardom; overnight success (at the age of 32) which was thoroughly deserved, because this is an excellent album, and a fine exemplar of the neotraditional movement which all too briefly dominated the genre. It was produced by Bob Montgomery (then also working with Vern Gosdin) and Johnny Slate. They provided a sympathetic backing which showcased Joe’s vocal prowess.

The lead single ‘Home’ (written by Andy Spooner and Fred Lehner), which has the disillusioned protagonist looking wistfully back to his childhood, took Joe right to the top of the charts. It set records as the first ever debut single to hit #1 on all three of the major charts then in existence (Billboard, Radio & Records, and Gavin). The nostalgia feeds on the protagonist’s disillusionment about the dreams he has been pursuing:

The rainbows I’ve been chasing keep on fading before I find my pot of gold…

Now the miles I put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And it’s way too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind I’m always going home

The pained ballad ‘If You Want Me To’ was almost as successful, reaching #2 in 1991, and is my personal favorite of the four singles from this project. One of Joe’s own songs (written with Larry Williams), it was the first showcase of the apparently effortless slide between registers which is Joe’s most remarkable gift as a vocalist, as the narrator gently tells his beloved he is prepared to do whatever she wants from him, even if:

If it takes good-bye to make you happy
Then I’ll just walk away if you want me to

‘If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)’, written by Kim Williams (Larry’s brother) and Ken Spooner, took Joe back to #1, with its witty western swing twist on being broke and too easily swayed by a persuasive car salesman. The optimistic final single was written by Joe with his friend and regular co-writer Lonnie Wilson (who also plays drums and sings backing vocals on the album), about finding a ‘New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)’. The only really happy song on the album, it was another #2 Billboard hit, and cemented Joe’s status as one of the brightest new stars of the early 90s.

Heartbreak also comes uptempo with the drinking-to-forget-the-heartbreak song ‘I Ain’t Leavin’ Til She’s Gone’ (written by Joe with Wayne Perry and Lonnie Wilson). Joe wails,

One drink’s too many
Ten ain’t enough
Lord, but she’s still here
So I’ll have one more

More western swing is on offer with the similarly themed ‘Liquid Heartache’, another of Joe’s songs, this one written with the veteran Red Lane, with a great groove which really lets the musicians stretch out.

Read more of this post