My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jon Vezner

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Sweet Danger’ (plus her SinuCleanse commercial at the end)

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For the last decade Suzy Bogguss has been focusing on making music her own way, leaving behind country music in favor of jazz and folk. She’s been releasing new music about every four years and it’s some of the most compelling she’s ever made. Sweet Danger, Bogguss’ follow-up to Swing, was released in the fall of 2007 via Loyal Duchess Records. The album, co-produced by her longtime friend Jason Miles and featuring seven songs co-written by Bogguss, is a beautiful jazz/coffeehouse fusion that does a much better job of showcasing her evolved sound than Swing, which I didn’t care for at all.

The centerpiece of the album is the stunning “In Heaven,” written by Bogguss’ husband Doug Crider. It details the story of a widow who’s finally moved on with her life after her husband’s passing:

I can’t see you anymore,
I found somebody new
I love with all my heart
And he feels that way, too;
I think you’d really like him
If you ever got to know him;
I just had to close this door
So I could let another open;

I gonna give my life to him,
But I’d like to have your blessing—
I’m in heaven here on earth,
…and you’re in heaven.

“In Heaven” is the closet Bogguss has ever come to recreating the magic of “Aces,” (the song) and she brings the track to life with her emotion filled vocal and Miles’ perfect musical accompaniment. It remains one of my all-time favorite of her recordings to date.

For longtime Bogguss fans Sweet Danger is littered with fine moments that showcase she still has it after all these years. “The Bus Ride,” a Gary Burr co-write, is a wonderful (and lush) story song about second chances. “One Clear Moment,” a co-write with Kathy Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner, is an honest tale of a couple’s love that musically recalls “Love At The Five And Dime.” Another excellent number is Bogguss’ own “Baby July,” a tale about innocence.

Her son Ben was the inspiration behind the oddest song choice on the record, a cover of Chicago’s 1976 hit “If You Leave Me Now.” She wanted to capture the vulnerable feeling her son brought to the lyric when he stripped down the proceedings. The results are spectacular. I love how Bogguss and Miles capture the essence of the lyric and keep from incorporating any vocal gymnastics.

I am amazed I adore the bulk of this record as much as I do seeing as it tends to lean kind of sleepy, but when the songs are of this high a quality I can forgive the arrangements. That’s certainly true of the title track, a tale of forgoing inhibitions that boasts a fantastic hook, “Here’s my disclaimer/I’m throwing caution to the wind/Yeah, I’m falling in, sweet danger.”

The remaining tracks on the project aren’t bad by any means – they just didn’t grab my attention as strongly. “Everything” is a bit too progressive, “No Way To Go” is too poppy, “Chain Lover” and “Even If That Were True” are too quiet, while “Right Back Into the Feeling” and “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today” lean too Jazz.

It’s kind of too bad because if Miles had put some tempo behind Bogguss the pace of Sweet Danger would be a lot more forgiving on the ear. But that being said, there are many moments that rank among the best of Bogguss’ career both lyrically and vocally. For fans of her 90s work, this is the closest she’s come to recapturing that magic on original material in years. I urge you to pick up a copy as it’s well worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

A commercial for SinuCleanse came out around the release of the album, starring Bogguss. She’s also shown singing “One Clear Moment:” 

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Concert Review – Kathy Mattea at Silver Center For The Arts in Plymouth, NH

Kathy MatteaKathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Right Out Of Nowhere’

By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear Kathy’s time in the limelight was over. One last album for MCA (The Innocent Years) failed to score any hit singles, and she moved to independent label Narada, where she was able to concentrate on artistry with little thought for commercial viability.  The second of her albums for this label came out in 2005.  This is not a very country sounding record, but it bears the hallmarks of evident thought and attention throughout, and is clearly a serious artistic endeavour.

‘Live It’, the solo single failed to chart.  Not one of Harley Allen’s better songs, it’s a cluttered and unoriginal exhortation to live life to the full and concentrate on love.  ‘Hurt Some’ is a jazzy AC ballad with a gospel feel (particularly in the vocals).  The rather obvious lyrics attempt to be insightful, advising a woman to expect a range of emotional ups and downs, written by Tia Sillers and Mark D Sanders.

‘Only Heaven Knows’ is quite a pretty ballad about acceptance of one’s lot, which is much better.  ‘Give It Away’ is an artfully constructed, melodic and beautifully sung song written by Kathy with husband Jon Vezner and Bob Halligan.  The three-story structure narrates encounters with individuals (a veteran star backstage, a woman in a doctor’s waiting room, and finally the protagonist saving herself from breaking off a love affair in a fit of pique following an argument), giving the sage advice that with music and love,

The only way to keep is to give it away

The best of the more philosophical songs here is Darrell Scott’s ‘Love’s Not Through With Me Yet’, given a plaintive Celtic sound and with Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

The title track is an okay but unexciting story song about a woman moving on, with an attractive melody.  The breakup song ‘Loving You, Letting You Go’ is lyrically forgettable but the wheezy harmonica gives it some sonic character.

The best song is ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, a subtly cutting piano ballad written by Skip Ewing and Angela Kaset, which sounds tailor-made for Trisha Yearwood, although Kathy does a fine job.  It narrates a meeting with the woman the protagonist’s ex left her for, finding he has moved on again:

I thought the only thing wrong with her was you

Cause you don’t find joy within
You’re always wanting out
That’s not what love is all about
You’ll never find happiness
Til you let your heart invest
Baby you don’t know how
I hope you’re happy now

This is an excellent song which is well worth downloading even if nothing else here appeals.

Kathy extended her artistic range with a couple of unexpected rock covers.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is performed confidently, and is the biggest departure from preconceived ideas of what a Kathy Mattea record sounds like.  It’s not to my taste, but is interestingly done with inventive acoustic production, and Kathy deserves credit for trying something so different.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down On The Corner’ is an enjoyable singalong.  ‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, is a traditional gospel song which is played around with a little too much.

This record was an interesting experiment.  Not everything works, but a period in the commercial doldrums is the obvious time to try branching out. Used copies can be found very cheaply

Grade: B-

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Love Travels’

Three years after Walking Away A Winner returned Kathy Mattea to the upper reaches of the charts, she returned with Love Travels, an eleven-song collection that saw her return to exploring her Celtic roots, while still trying to have hits at radio.

The most successful of the album’s singles was “455 Rocket,” a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings composition featuring a decidedly pop-country arrangement indicative of the era. A CMA Video of the Year Winner, the song peaked at #21 in the states but fared better in Canada where it peaked at #16. I’ve always liked the song, and was surprised to learn Americana darlings Welch and Rawlings wrote it, but would not rank it among Mattea’s most impactful material. I quite like “I’m On Your Side,” the non-charting second single because of its infectious attitude, and upbeat persona.

The #36 peaking title track, a fabulous Celtic-inspired mid-tempo ballad, was the final single and shows the disconnect between Mattea and country radio. Mattea has always been a bit too smart for her own good, and while that makes for fantastic music, it keeps radio somewhat at bay. It’s too bad, too, because Love Travels contains some of the best music of her commercial days. Lionel Cartwright’s “If That’s What You Call Love” is an excellent somewhat pop flavored ballad Mattea wears beautifully. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and I love how the bed of steel guitar frames her delicate vocal.

Jim Pitman and Tom Kimmel’s Gospel flavored “The Bridge” is somewhat jittery in execution, but Mattea pulls it off with ease. While she does a great job with the song, I can only help but wonder how Wynonna Judd, a far better gospel-tinged vocalist, would blow the song out of the water. Another standout is Welch’s sonically brilliant “Patiently Waiting,” a groovy acoustic guitar led number that works because of Mattea’s confident vocal, the missing element from “The Bridge.” Recalling her mesmerizing “Knee Deep in A River,” “Sending Me Angels” shows she’s grown as a vocalist in the preceding five years and works wonders thanks to Mattea’s throaty vocal and use of steel as a framing technique. Cheryl Wheeler’s “Further and Further Away” finds Mattea tackling an airy vocal on a mid-tempo ballad that would’ve been stronger had the tempo been increased just a little. As it is, the track is too slow to be fully effective, but the combination of Mattea and Wheeler’s voices saves the song from being a complete washout.

The most powerful track on the album is the closer “Beautiful Fool” written by Don Henry. The song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr, a remembrance of the American legend often forgotten by most people. Like her seminal classic “Where’ve You Been” (which Henry co-wrote), “Beautiful Fool” relays its powerful message in an understated manner, down to the acoustic arrangement. Janis Ian, of “At 17” fame, and Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner wrote “All Roads To The River,” another Gospel inspired tune that ranks among my least favorite on the album because it takes Mattea too far out of her country sensibilities. While I’m all for singers trying something new, the way she has to stretch her voice on this song doesn’t work for me. “At The End of the Line” is a first-rate pop song and Mattea delivers a first-rate pop vocal. Unlike “All Roads to the River” she sounds natural and finds a nice groove with the tempo. It may not be the most country of all the tracks, but it still works.

Overall, Love Travels is a very strong album from one of country’s premier vocalists. It may have been the final release during her radio years, but it came at a time when her fellow contemporaries Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, and Pam Tillis also saw their fortunes dissipate. It’s not surprising as smart intelligent country music has a short life in mainstream culture. But that doesn’t make Love Travels any less of a fine album and one worthy of a listen

Grade: A – 

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walking Away a Winner’

Kathy Mattea’s early-90s experimentation with Celtic and folk sounds resulted in a predictable decline in her chart performance. By 1994 she hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in three years, so she switched producers and made a conscious effort to release an album with a decidedly more commercial sound. Her only album produced by Josh Leo, Walking Away a Winner includes more upbeat, mainstream-sounding songs than Time Passes By and Lonesome Standard Time, and the strategy to reverse her commercial fortunes was at least initially effective. The title track and lead single, written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Shapiro, peaked at #3, becoming the final Top 10 hit of Kathy’s career. It reminds me of some of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s upbeat material, as does the follow-up single “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade”. It’s interesting that two such similar singles were released back-to-back; after the success of “Walking Away a Winner”, Mercury likely thought that “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade” would easily sail into the Top 10, but the strategy misfired; the record stalled at #13, though it did fare slightly better in Canada, topping out at #8 there.

In the ballad “Maybe She’s Human”, Kathy takes up the cause of a put-upon wife and mother who is struggling — not always successfully — to juggle career and family responsibilities. It is rather similar in theme to Reba McEntire’s “Is There Life Out There” from a few years earlier, but it was met by a big yawn from radio and it only reached #34. The final single “Clown In Your Rodeo” is a feistier take on the same theme. I like this one a lot. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but it does bear the distinction of being Mattea’s final Top 20 hit.

There are some excellent tracks among the album cuts; my favorite is the light-hearted “The Cape”, written by Jim Janosky, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark. It is not, as the title might suggest, a song about Cape Cod, but rather a tune about a child who is pretending to be a superhero and believes he can fly. The more serious “Another Man” finds Mattea confronting her husband and telling him that she’s in love with someone else. The twist here is that he is not the same man she married and she still loves the man he used to be. This type of song used to be a staple at country radio and in another era it might have been a big hit. The album closes with the poignant “Who’s Gonna Know”, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. In this one, she’s looking at an old childhood photograph of herself and her now-aging parents, and contemplating the day when they are no longer with her. It’s a bit unsettling, perhaps because it’s something to which most of us can relate.

Despite a tepid reception at radio, Walking Away a Winner sold respectably; it was Kathy’s last album to earn gold certification. Its lack of radio hits may mean that some fans may have overlooked the album when it was initially released. Those fans would be well advised to give the album a listen now, because there is much here to like. Inexpensive copies are easy to find at retailers such as Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Matttea – ‘Time Passes By’

As the 1990s began, Kathy Mattea was the reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and for her first album of the decade, she made a subtle shift away from mainstream country, releasing a collection that leaned slightly more towards the folkabilly-style music that Nanci Griffith had done a few years earlier. Time Passes By, Mattea’s sixth release also bears the stamp of Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean, who contributed one of his own compositions and also shared production duties with Mattea and her husband Jon Vezner on a cover version of “From a Distance”, a Julie Gold-penned son that had recently been popularized by Bette Midler. There is a distinct Celtic feel to many of the tracks, foreshadowing a more pronounced move in that direction that Kathy would make a few years later.

Mattea deserves credit for taking some creative risks, even though Time Passes By is somewhat of a hit or miss affair. Not surprisingly, it was not as well received at radio as the three albums that preceded it, and though it still sold enough units to earn gold certification, it marks the beginning of the end of Kathy’s reign at the top of the singles charts. The title track, which is the most mainstream song in the collection, was the album’s biggest hit, charting at #7. Written by Jon Vezner and Susan Longacre, it is somewhat reminiscent of Kathy’s recent hit “Come From The Heart”, but the live-for-the-moment message is less effective this time around. It was the only single from the album to reach the Top 10. Kathy would only reach the Top 10 one more time in her career, three years later.

Following the positive tone of “Time Passes By”, the second single “Whole Lotta Holes” does a complete 180 and is a distinct downer. It barely scraped into the Top 20, peaking at #18. The next single, the Hugh Prestwood tune “Asking Us To Dance” is a lovely ballad that deserved to rise higher than #27.

There are a handful of standout tracks in this collection, as well as a few duds. Among the gems are “What Could Have Been”, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, and “Summer of My Dreams” which is my favorite song from this set. Dougie MacLean’s “Ready For The Storm” is also quite good. Not so good are “Quarter Moon”, on which Mattea sounds screechy as she attempts to hit some high notes that are just out of reach, and “Harley”, an offbeat number about a biker couple that whose child becomes lost when the sidecar he is riding in becomes detached and rolls away, unnoticed by his parents. The child is subsequently found unharmed in a field by a farmer and his wife who raise him as their own. It’s meant to be a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek number but it doesn’t quite work for me. Mattea’s version of “From A Distance”, which closes out the set, is a slight disappointment. It is beautifully sung, and the sparse, acoustic arrangement starts off well. I even like the bagpipes that chime in about two minutes into the song, but clocking in at five minutes, the song is dragged out too long, and it would have been a lot better without the chorus chanting “God is watching us” repeatedly as the track fades out.

Although Time Passes By is not Kathy’s very best work, it is a decent effort. It doesn’t contain any of her biggest hits, so casual fans may be inclined to give it a miss, but those who do give it a listen are bound to find a few tracks that they really like.

Grade: B

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Spotlight Artist: Kathy Mattea

Born in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia on June 21, 1959, Kathy Mattea started singing bluegrass as a teenager and in 1978 dropped out of college to move to Nashville to pursue her country music dream. She found work singing songwriters’ demos, and the songwriter Byron Hill was sufficiently impressed by her voice to bring her to the attention of Mercury Records, who signed her to a recording deal.

Her early career gave no real indication of what kind of artist she really was. Her first two albums, 1984’s self-titled debut (co-produced by her mentor Hill), were solidly pop-country efforts with mainly up-tempo material which seemed radio friendly enough but which failed to make an impact at country radio. Moving to Allen Reynolds for 1985’s From My Heart was a step in the right direction, but the album was still mired in the pop-country sound then popular at radio in the years after the Urban Cowboy movement. Mercury kept faith with Kathy, and tried a third album, allowing a fundamental change of focus.

Adopting a more rootsy sound just as the neotraditional movement swept in proved to be a great move. Kathy’s folky sound was just distinctive enough to set her apart from her rivals, while her pure, clear voice shone through the less cluttered backing she preferred. Although she wrote relatively infrequently in her career, she has been a great picker of songs, frequently popularizing songs from left field songwriters like Nanci Griffith. It was a cover of Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five And Dime’ that catapulted Kathy into country stardom, as the song became her first big hit.

It was the first of a string of 15 straight top 10 hits over the next six years, including four chart-toppers. She won Grammies for her performance on the single ‘Where’ve You Been’ (written by husband Jon Vezner) and for her Christmas album Good News, which premiered modern Christmas classic ‘Mary, Did You Know’. She was also named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year twice, in 1989 and 1990.

In the early 90s she started branching out more artistically, including more folk, bluegrass and Celtic elements, and while her song selection remained top-notch, she drifted away from the mainstream. When the hits dried up and she left Mercury in 1997, she was soon picked up by another major label, MCA, but her sole album for that label, 2000’s The Innocent Years was disappointing.

A couple of independent releases followed before she really found a new impetus and direction for her career. In 2008 she released the critically acclaimed bluegrass concept album Coal, which paid tribute to the coal mining community she grew up in. Originally intended as a one-off project, it has in fact changed her approach to music, and she builds on that with her new album. Calling Me Home draws on folk and the Appalachian mountain music which fed the roots of early country music, and is out on acoustic specialists Sugar Hill Records on September 11.

We will be taking a look back at her career over the month.

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Unbelievable’

The band’s last release of the 1990s was 1998’s Unbelievable. They were a well-established act by now, and had released their first Greatest Hits set. The new album was slick but played on the group’s strengths to create a radio-friendly yet organic blend. The songs (none of which were written by band members) range from great to mediocre. But even when the material falls short, as it does at times, the record always sounds good, thanks to the band’s harmonies, playing, and the slick but not overdone production (courtesy of the band with Michael D Clute).

The first two singles were both big hits. The one truly great song on the album, the devastating bereavement ballad ‘You’re Gone’, opened the album’s campaign on the singles chart, where it peaked at #4. The disconsolate narrator opens strikingly,

I said “Hello, I think I’m broken”

That facetious initial pickup line draws us into the soaring chorus, set in the present day, when he really is partly broken by the loss of his loved one:

Now I know God has His reasons
But sometimes it’s hard to see them
When I awake and find that you’re not there…

I bless the day I met you
And I thank God that He let you
Lay beside me for a moment that lives on
And the good news is I’m better
For the time we spent together
And the bad news is you’re gone

The song was written by Jon Vezner (husband of Kathy Mattea) and pop songwriter Paul Williams, and remains one of my favorite Diamond Rio recordings, with a beautiful, understated emotion expressed in Marty Roe’s vocal.

The lyrically slight but energetic, charming, and very catchy title track (penned by reliable hit makers Al Anderson and Jeffrey Steele) did even better, just missing the top spot. Disappointingly, the third and last single was then a flop. The understated ‘I Know How The River Feels’ (previously cut by Ty Herndon) failed to make the top 30, making it the band’s worst performing single to date. While its languid pace was admittedly not very radio-friendly, it has a sensitive vocal, pretty tune and tasteful string arrangement, which make it worth listening to.

The frustrated plea to Love, ‘What More Do You Want From Me?’, written by Bob Regan and Mark D Sanders, is very catchy and another favorite of mine. It had been the sole (and non-charting) single from Rhonda Vincent’s very underrated Trouble Free album a year or two earlier. Both versions are great, but Diamond Rio’s harmonies give this version an added force. Also good is the tuneful Bill and Sharon Rice ballad ‘Long Way Back’, in which the protagonist regrets his past choices a little too late to save his relationship, and is stuck brooding in a cafe.

‘Two Pump Texaco’ (written by Michael Dulaney and Neil Thrasher) is a nicely detailed and affectionate laid-back portrait of a country boy who is the third generation in his family to work at the titular gas station. The young man in this song is much more fleshed out as a character, and hence much more realistic, than those on most of today’s radio offerings playing on rural life.

Unfortunately, there is more than a little filler. ‘Miss That Girl’, ‘Hold Me Now’, and the closing ‘(I Will) Start all Over Again’ are all nicely sung, well-played and prettily harmonized, but completely forgettable. ‘I Thought I’d Seen Everything’ is a dull love ballad, written by Shania Twain’s husband Mutt Lange and 80s rocker Huey Lewis, lifted only by the harmonies.

Overall, then, this is certainly not the band’s best work, but it is pleasant listening, with some shining moments, particularly ‘You’re Gone’. It sold well enough, and has been certified gold. It is easy to get hold of cheap copies, but it may be an example of a record best digitally cherry-picked.

Grade: B

Class of ’89 Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Leave The Light On’

leavethelighton1Lorrie Morgan was one of the ‘Class of ’89’ who had been around on the fringes of the country world for a while, but who made a major breakthrough that year. Her father George Morgan was a minor country star of the 1950s, who sold a million copies of his biggest hit, ‘Candy Kisses’, and Lorrie’s first single, in 1979, was a posthumous duet with him. Thanks largely to her family connections she became an Opry member in 1984, before she had had any hits in her own right, and five years before the release of her debut album. Sadly, the release of Leave The Light On was overshadowed by the death shortly before of Lorrie’s husband, Keith Whitley, and she received a certain amount of criticism at the time for continuing to perform.

Lorrie’s warm alto voice is very good, but her qualities as an artist rest more in her interpretative ability than in the voice itself. She was fortunate in the material she and producer Barry Beckett found for Leave The Light On, because the majority of it provided a great showcase for her. Her style was rather more contemporary than many of her peers, certainly compared to her husband Keith Whitley, which may explain why she did not record any of his songs on this release.

Almost half the tracks relate to unhappy marriages past the point of repair, and given the circumstances under which it was first heard, it would be very tempting, if perhaps not altogether fair, to read a lot into the choice of material. Sequenced differently, one could almost see this as a concept album.

Lorrie’s first top 10 hit was the lovely piano-led ballad ‘Dear Me’, as the singer addresses a letter to herself, reflecting on a lost lover, a lyric delicately delivered by Lorrie. An equally beautiful and even sadder song is ‘Far Side Of The Bed’, with the narrator packing to leave an unsuspecting and sleeping husband and reflecting on the “raging love” they once shared and have now lost. Again, Lorrie interprets it perfectly.

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s beaty mid-tempo ‘Five Minutes’ tackles the same theme with a bit more energy, and gave Lorrie her first #1 hit. Yet again, she is packing to leave with the magic long gone from the relationship, but this time gives her husband a (slim) chance at winning her back – before her taxi arrives.

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