My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Josh Leo

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Trouble At The Door’

There was a lot of great music in 1991, and the debut album by Virginia-born Donna Ulisse fell through the cracks. Produced by Ray Baker, Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee and released on Atlantic Records, which was dipping its toes into country music, it showcased Donna’s beautiful alto voice.

Lead single ‘Things Are Mostly Fine’ is an understated mournful ballad about not getting over an ex, which Donna sings beautifully. It is one of four songs written by John Adrian, whose other writing credits appear to be for Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock. Sadly it peaked in the 70s on the country charts. Also gorgeous is his tender steel-laced ‘Fall Apart With You’, about seeking consolation in a one night stand with some guy who a looks a little like her true love. The gentle waltz ‘My Broken Hearts Breaking All Over Again’ has lovely fiddle and an exquisite vocal. ‘Legend In My Heart’ is another ballad, a tender tribute to a real life hero who is better than fictional characters, with a beautiful melody.

The bright fiddle-led up-tempo ‘When Was The Last Time’ did a little better as the second single, with its #66 peak making it Donna’s most successful stab at radio. The Buck Moore/Frank D Myers song urges the protagonist’s husband to keep their love life fresh despite struggling through hard times. It is a really nice song which deserved to be a hit.

The title track failed to chart. Written by husband and wife team Kerry and Lynn Gillespie Chater, it is an emotionally intense but subtly sung story about a wife who answers the door to her husband’s secret lover:

She says she knows you
And she’s got the right address
She’s talkin’ crazy
So I didn’t catch the rest
She wouldn’t tell me
Just what her name is
There’s one thing for sure
Boy, you’ve got trouble at the door

I tried to tell her
That you’ve been out of town
She seems to know that
But she still won’t calm down
I even mentioned that it was business
She tells me it was more
Boy, you’ve got trouble at the door

Tell me she’s crazy
Tell me she’s wrong
Say that she’s mistaken
Say that you were strong
Tell me she’s lyin’
Then tell me one thing more
Tell me that’s not trouble at the door

This is a great song which should have been a career making record.

Bob McDill and Jim Weatherly contributed ‘Fire In An Old Flame’s Eyes’, a fine ballad about yearning for an ex, with regret for the path not taken replaced by a rekindling of that early passion. ‘Guess Who’s Back In Town’, written by Ernie Rowell and Dave Lindsey, is an up-tempo tune bewailing an on-and-off relationship. ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’ is a determinedly positive song about moving on after a breakup.

‘You Always Take Her Memory Out On Me’, written by R C Bannon, is another excellent emotional ballad, about dealing with the overpowering shadow of her partner’s ex:

I’m not the one who lied to you
Made you fall apart
I didn’t find someone else
And leave you in the dark
I’ve tried my best to heal the wounds and ease your misery
Then you turn around and take her memory out on me

How long before you let go of who let go of you?
How can you be blind to all her faults,
Then find fault in everything I do?

This album should have made Donna a star. Perhaps being on Atlantic was the problem, and a label with greater influence would have helped. Donna retired into obscurity, only emerging years later as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I like her current work, but this is still my favorite of her albums. It does not appear to be available on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be found cheaply. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘Wildfire’

Unlike Robert Mizzell, with whom I had some familiarity, Lisa McHugh was totally unknown to me. Wildfire is her third studio album, released in September 2015 on the Sharpe label. Because my purchase was via digital download, the album came with no information beyond the song titles and timings.

Like most country albums from outside the USA, there are a large number of covers of US hits, but why not? Many of the songs are new to their target audiences and those that aren’t new are crowd favorites.

I am surprised that neither of the two earlier reviews mentioned how similar in tone and timbre Ms. McHugh’s voice is to Dolly Parton, especially on certain songs. Obviously, Lisa does not have Dolly’s East Tennessee accent.

The album opens with “Mean”, a Taylor Swift composition. McHugh’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it with banjo and fiddle dominating the mix with some mandolin thrown in. McHugh is very much a superior vocalist to Swift, so I actually enjoyed the song.

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?

“Bring On the Good Times” is an upbeat, uptempo song with a sing-along quality to it. I’m not entirely sure about the instrumentation but there are portions with either a subdued brass section, or else synthesizers mimicking brass. This song has a 1990s country feel to it, and appears to have become a line dancing favorite.

Next up is “Never Alone”, a piano oriented slow ballad that is a cover of a 2007 Jim Brickman single that featured Lady Antebellum:

May your tears come from laughing
You find friends worth having
With every year passing
They mean more than gold
May you win but stay humble
Smile more than grumble
And know when you stumble
You’re never alone

“57′ Chevrolet” is one of the better known songs of the late great Billie Jo Spears, an artist who was underappreciated in her native USA but was venerated in the UK and Ireland. This is a very nice update of Billie Jo’s 1978 classic, a song numerous Irish artists have covered.

Come and look at this old faded photograph.
Honey, tell me what it brings to mind.
It’s a picture of that ’57 Chevrolet.
I wish that we could ride it one more time.

I still get excited when I think about,
The drive-in picture shows you took me to.
But I don’t recall a lot about the movie stars:
Mostly that old Chevrolet and you

[chorus]
They don’t make cars like they used to.
I wish we still had it today.
The love we first tasted,
The good love we’re still living:

We owe it to that old ’57 Chevrolet.
Remember when we used to park it in the lane,
And listen to the country radio?
We’d hold on to each other while the singer sang,
And we’d stay like that ’til it was time to go

“Wrong Night” was written by Josh Leo and Rick Bowles and was a 1999 single for Reba McEntire. The song reached #6 for Reba:

Suddenly I heard love songs.
Playing real soft on the jukebox.
Somebody ordered up moonlight.
And painted stars all across the sky.
Is it gravity or destiny.
Either way there’s nothing I can do.
Looks like I picked the wrong night.
Not to fall in love with you.

Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly is very pronounced on both “Wrong Night” and the next song “Blue Smoke”, a Dolly Parton song from 2012. This song is given the full bluegrass treatment. I very much like this track.

Blue smoke climbin’ up the mountain
Blue smoke windin’ round the bend
Blue smoke is the name of the heartbreak train
That I am ridin’ in

“Dance With the One” was written by Sam Hogin and Gretchen Peters and featured on Shania Twain’s first major label release for Mercury back in 1993 (before Mutt Lange). When I first heard the song, I thought it would be Shania’s breakthrough song – it wasn’t topping out at #55. Lisa does a nice job with the song.

Well he shines like a penny in a little kid’s hand
When he’s out on a Saturday night
He’s a real go-getter and the best two-stepper you’ll see
But when I’m sittin’ alone at a table for two
Cause he’s already out on the floor
I think about somethin’ that my mama used to say to me

You got to dance with the one that brought you
Stay with the one that want’s you
The one who’s gonna love you when all of the others go home
Don’t let the green grass fool you
Don’t let the moon get to you
Dance with the one that brought you and you can’t go wrong

“Favourite Boyfriend of the Year” comes from the song-bag of the McClymonts, a very attractive Australian sister trio. The McClymont version was a little sassier than McHugh’s version, but she does a fine job with this up-tempo romp. I would have liked Lisa’s voice to be a little more up front in the mix. Again, this sounds like 1990s country to my ears.

I’m a little fussy
But I got a little lucky
When the boss from the corner store
He took me out to dinner
And the waiter was a winner
And the boss he was out the door
You’re the one who’s caught my eye
This could be something worth your while

Hey it’s not a waste of time
You’re maybe one of many but you will never
Be the last in line
Hey I’m really glad you’re here cuz you’re one
Of my favourite boyfriends of the year

Nathan Carter (the next artist up in our spotlight) is featured on “You Can’t Make Old Friends”, a quiet ballad that was a Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton duet back in 2013. While Lisa sounds a lot like Dolly, Nathan does not remind me of Kenny Rogers, although he is a fine singer. Anyway the voices blend nicely.

What will I do when you are gone?
Who’s gonna tell me the truth?
Who’s gonna finish the stories I start
The way you always do?

When somebody knocks at the door
Someone new walks in
I will smile and shake their hands,
But you can’t make old friends

You can’t make old friends
Can’t make old friends
It was me and you, since way back when
But you can’t make old friends

Carly Pearce currently has a song on the radio titled “Every Little Thing” but this is NOT that song. The song Lisa McHugh tackles here is the up-tempo #3 Carlene Carter hit from 1993. Lisa’s voice does not have the power of Carlene’s voice (the daughter of country legends June Carter and Carl Smith should have very substantial pipes) but she does an effective job with the song:

I hear songs on the radio
They might be fast or they might be slow
But every song they play’s got me thinkin’ ’bout you
I see a fella walkin’ down the street
He looks at me and he smiles real sweet
But he don’t matter to me
‘Cause I’m thinkin’ ’bout you

Every little dream I dream about you
Every little thought I think about you
Drives me crazy when you go away
I oughta keep you locked up at home
And like a wild horse I want to break you
I love you so much I hate you
Every little thing reminds me of you
Honey when you leave me here all alone

“The Banks of the Ohio” is an old warhorse, a murder ballad that has been covered by everyone from Ernest Stoneman, The Monroe Brothers and Charley Pride to Olivia Newton-John. Lisa gives this song a very slow folk-Celtic treatment after a spoken narrative. It is very nice and does not sound very similar to any other version I recall hearing.

Lisa gives “Livin’ In These Troubled Times” a Celtic/bluegrass touch with accordion, mandolin taking it at a somewhat faster clip than Crystal Gayle did in her 1983 top ten recording of this song, written by Sam Hogin, Roger Cook and Philip Donnelly. It’s probably heresy to say I like Lisa’s version better than the original, but in fact I do.

It takes all the faith that’s in you
Takes your heart and it takes mine
It takes love to be forgiven
Living in these troubled times

When it rains on the range
And it snows in the Spring
You’re reminded again
It’s just a march of the dying
Living in these troubled times

When I saw the song list for the album, I wondered whether this was the Michael Martin Murphey classic about a horse or the Mac Wiseman bluegrass romp or even possibly the Demi Lovato song from a few years back. As it turns out this “Wildfire” is an entirely different song, by someone named John Mayer. It’s taken at a very fast tempo and given a quasi-bluegrass arrangement.

Don’t get up just to get another
You can drink from mine
We can’t leave each other
We can dance with the dead
You can rest your head
On my shoulder if you want to
Get older with me
‘Cause a little bit of summer makes a lot of history

And you look fine, fine, fine
Put your feet up next to mine
We can watch that water line
Get higher and higher
Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

I got a rock from the river in my medicine bag
Magpie feather in his medicine bag

Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

“Thinking Out Loud” comes from the pen of Ed Sheeran. I don’t know anything about Sheeran (or John Mayer, for that matter) except that my stepson says both are good singers. This is a nice song, a slow ballad nicely sung but I don’t like the instrumentation which strikes me as smooth jazz or cocktail lounge R&B

When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks
And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70
And baby my heart could still fall as hard at 23
And I’m thinking ’bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe just the touch of a hand
Oh me I fall in love with you every single day
And I just wanna tell you I am

So honey now
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are

I’m not a huge Dolly Parton fan so I thought that I would find Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly Parton off putting. I should note that the Parton resemblance only shows up on some songs – on other songs she reminds me of Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn Anderson and a fine songwriter). I’ve listened to this album constantly for the last two days and find that I really like it. With the exception of the last song, the instrumentation is solidly country and while the focus is on faster songs, Lisa varies the tempos sufficiently to keep it interesting and sticks within her vocal range.

With the possible exception of “Bring On the Good Times” for which I could not find any information, all of the songs are covers of earlier recordings. That does not bother me in the least as I’ve always preferred a cover of a great song, than a recording of an unworthy new song.

I’d give this album an “A” – with a better arrangement on the the last song, I’d be tempted to give it 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: Alabama – ‘Cheap Seats’

cheap seatsI guess the end of the road comes for everybody and in this case the end of the road is actually the end of the #1 singles for Alabama, with “Reckless” being the band’s final Billboard #1 and “Cheap Seats” being the first single in fourteen years to miss the top ten.

Cheap Seats was produced by Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, and was released in October 1993, with three singles released from the album (“Reckless”, “T.L.C. A.S.A.P.” and “The Cheap Seats”). The album was the second consecutive album to miss the top ten on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, reaching only #16, their worst showing to-date on RCA. Although the next four albums would chart better, even reaching the top ten in two instances, it was becoming clear that Alabama was no longer a dominant force in country music.

Despite this, I really like this album, as some of the songs personally resonate with me.

The album opens with the Rick Bowles-Josh Leo composition “Still Goin’ Strong”, a moderate rocker, that features Jim Horn on tenor sax.

Next up is “T.L.C.A.S.A.P” a song penned by the Baker-Myers duo. This song only reached #7 but likely would have been a number one a few years earlier.

Well, we work real hard six days a week,
Honey, this is somethin’ we both need…

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
A little TLC ASAP.

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
I need TLC ASAP.

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

“Katy Brought My Guitar Back Today” is a tender slow ballad that had little potential for use as a single. Ditto for the Mark Alan Springer ballad “On This Side of The Moon”.

The title track “The Cheap Seats” is the outstanding track on the album, even though it only reached #13. The song, a perfectly crafted uptempo ‘slice of life’ by Randy Sharp and Marcus Hummon tells it like it is in many small towns. Believe me, I’ve lived this story many times growing up:

This town ain’t big, this town ain’t small
It’s a little of both they say
Our ball club may be minor league, but at least it’s triple A
We sit below the Marlboro man, above the right field wall
We do the wave all by ourself
Hey ump, a blind man could’ve made that call
We like beer flat as can be
We like our dogs with mustard and relish
We got a great pitcher what’s his name
Well we can’t even spell it
We don’t worry about the pennant much
We just like to see the boys hit it deep
There’s nothing like the view from the cheap seats

“Cheap Seats” was the only song from this album that was made into a video.

“Reckless”, written by Jeff Stevens and Michael Clark, was actually the first single released from this album and would prove to be Alabama’s last #1 single. The song, a mid-tempo rocker, is a typical ode to restless youth:

Let’s take my Thunderbird and leave tonight,
I’ll keep the pedal to the floor till we see the morning light.
They can’t live our lives for us,
If we let them we’ll lose our love.
And love dies hard in this Texas sun,
I’d rather be reckless and on the run

Let’s roll the windows down, turn the radio up
Let the wind blow through our hair
There’s a moon tonight and a road outside, baby
We’re gettin out of here.
I could care less where it leads us
Love is reckless, let’s get reckless tonight

Teddy Gentry, Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler collaborated on “That Feeling”, a lovely ballad that would have made a good single. I consider this song to be the unearthed gem of this album:

I’ve made some decisions
Never not the best
Against my better judgment
I must confess
I went astray so many ways
So my dreams fall apart
And came a day I’m glad to say
I followed my heart

That feeling the one I’m feeling now
Oh that feeling that turned me all around
That feeling oh what love can do
That feeling that never let’s me down
Oh that feeling that always come around
I never need another
It’s gonna last my whole life through
That feeling I’m feeling for you

Jeff Cook had a hand in writing “This Love’s On Me” a kind of generic up-tempo rocker that, this time featuring Jim Nelson on tenor sax. Jeff Cook handles the lead vocals on this track.

“Clear Water Blues” , another Gentry- Rogers-Fowler collaboration, was not on the cassette version of this album, but was on the CD version as a ‘bonus’ track. The song is a gentle jazzy ballad which features harmonica, banjo, organ and trumpet as integral parts of the arrangement. Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals on this song and does an excellent job of it.

“A Better Word For Love” is another track not found on the original cassette release, but available as a CD ‘bonus track’. The song was written by Andy Anderson (of NRBQ) and Gary Nicholson and is yet another gentle ballad. NRBQ would record the song on one of their albums.

The final song, Becky Hobbs’ excellent “Angels Among Us” has an interesting history. Unlike the rest of the album, this track was produced by Teddy Gentry. Not only did Becky Hobbs include the song on her excellent 1994 album The Boots I Came to Town In, but the Alabama album track received considerable attention at county radio and twice entered the country charts from unsolicited airplay: reaching # 54 in 1994, and later clocking in at # 28 in January 1995. The sonmg charted again for Alabama at #22 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart in January 1996. Maybe Alabama should have issued the song as an official single! The choir on this song was provided by the Sanctuary Choir & Young Musicians Choir of First Baptist Church, Fort Payne, Alabama.

I was walkin’home from school
On a cold winter day,
Took a short cut through the woods
And I lost my way.
It was gettin’ late, and I was scared and alone.
Then a kind old man took my hand, and led me home.
Mama couldn’t see him,
But he was standing there,
And I knew in my heart
He was the answer to my prayer.

[Chorus]
Oh, I believe there are Angels Among Us,
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love.

This wasn’t Alabama’s best album but a strong album worth a B+. I liked all three released singles, and while “Angels Among Us” wasn’t released as a single, I have several friends who consider the song to be their favorite Alabama song. Since the album tracks were all at least passable, and most very good, no one should be disappointed with this album.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘American Pride’

00024235Alabama’s fourteenth album for RCA, American Pride, was their third produced in conjunction with Larry Michael Lee and Josh Leo. The album, released in August 1992, spawned four singles.

Slick rocker “Take A Little Trip” previewed the record and hit #2. A tale about a couple with ambitious dreams planning a staycation, the song employed heavy drums and guitars and allowed for a gravely lead vocal from Randy Owen. Final single “Hometown Honeymoon,” which peaked at #3, continued in this theme. While the latter features a fiddle-laced production I love, neither song is lyrically memorable and all but forgotten today.

The hometown theme spreads to “Homesick Fever,” which is a love-where-you’re-from mid-tempo southern rocker that’s good but nowhere near great. A more generic focus on Americana is found on the title track, the album’s most personal song thanks to Owen’s sole writing credit. He keeps the details generic, but the ballad has heart.

While listening to American Pride for review I was surprised to learn “Richard Petty Fans” was a tender ballad and not the rocker the title suggests. It certainly works, but the results feel like a typical Alabama piano ballad but with a tight focus.

The dreadful “You Can’t Take The Country out of me” has the vibe of “Pass It On Down” mixed with a lyric that mirrors “Down Home.” From the token banjo that opens the track to the southern gothic rock atmosphere, I genuinely dislike everything about this song.

The second single, and the only chart topper from American Pride, is arguably their most iconic radio offering from the 1990s. “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is brilliant commercial contemporary country music – an engaging melody (featuring drums and guitars with ample breathing space) mixed with a memorable chorus and distinct harmonies. It’s also a great song, built from a premise seemingly without promise.

For the requisite ballad single, the band offered “Once Upon A Lifetime.” The #3 peaking song tries to update their watered down slow jams from the previous decade but fails to give the listener anything interesting or exciting. I give them points for attempting to give radio a sincere love song but they shouldn’t have so blatantly mailed in their efforts.

The ballads only get worse from there. Jeff Cook co-wrote and takes the lead on “Pictures and Memories,” a track that feels like a left over from the early 1980s. I would’ve enjoyed it more had the overall vibe leaned country in even a slightly noticeable way. “Sometimes out of Touch,” which features Teddy Gentry on lead vocal, also has a dated sound. But the piano flourishes and Gentry’s interesting vocal tone keep the track from joining the others at the bottom of the remainder bin.

“Between The Two of Them” appears on American Pride in its original form. A deep album cut for the band, it would be a single from Tanya Tucker in 1994. There’s no arguing that she has the better version. Alabama’s take on the ballad is far too slow and lacks any country signifiers to make it interesting.

I had been gunning to review American Pride since I love “I’m In A Hurry” and “Hometown Honeymoon” so much. It’s also one of the first Alabama albums I purchased when I began listening to country music about twenty years ago.

But neither of those things excuses the fact that American Pride is nothing more than a bizarre album. Listening thru, it’s obvious this is nothing more than a commercial album frontloaded with the four offerings suitable for radio while the remaining seven tracks have little to no value for the listener. In most respects, it’s hard to even categorize American Pride as a country album at all.

Grade: C+

 

 

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Southern Star’

41OBKFV1XkLAlabama arrived on the national stage in 1980 at a time when country music was dominated by crossover acts. By mid-decade, however, the pendulum had swung wildly in the opposite direction and by the end of the decade, many veteran acts had been swept off the charts altogether. Those that survived the tide change were forced to adopt a more traditional sound in order to remain relevant. 1989’s Southern Star was Alabama’s back-to-basics album — sort of. While it was less slickly-produced than most of their earlier albums, a traditional album it is not. The radio singles were carefully crafted to appeal to the change in commercial tastes, but on the album cuts the band continued to explore different styles, including Southern rock and pop.

Southern Star found the band working with a new production team. Gone was Harold Shedd, who had co-produced all of their albums for RCA, and in his place were Barry Beckett; Larry Michael Lee, and Josh Leo. The album continued Alabama’s winning streak on the singles charts, with all four of its singles reaching #1, starting with “Song of the South”, a catchy Bob McDill number that had been recorded several times previously — originally by Bobby Bare, and later by Johnny Russell and Tom T. Hall with Earl Scruggs. Ballads were always a strong point for the band and the excellent “If I Had You”, the album’s second chart-topper was no exception. The uptempo “High Cotton” takes a look back through rose-colored glasses at growing up during the Great Depression, and “Southern Star” gives Alabama an opportunity to showcase their tight harmonies.

The rest of the songs on Southern Star could have appeared on any of Alabama’s previous albums. Though the production is more organic, the songs occasionally stray into different musical territory. “Down On The River” is pleasant if not particularly memorable Southern rock song. “She Can” is pop-flavored number that is somewhat marred by a synthesizer, “Dixie Fire”, featuring Jeff Cook on lead vocals, is similarly dated sounding. “Barefootin'” (another Cook-led effort) is a throwaway number with annoying horns.

The Randy Owen-penned “Ole Baugh Road” is one of the better album cuts. The Spanish-tinged “The Borderline”, with Teddy Gentry singing lead with guest Charlie Daniels, is the album’s biggest creative stretch.

Though not without its missteps, Southern Star proved that Alabama was able to adapt to changing commercial tastes and remain relevant after nearly a decade on charts. It was a great way to close out the decade and the album is still worth listening to today.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’

bangbangbang1999’s Bang, Bang, Bang was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sole release from DreamWorks Records, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the band’s decade-long commercial decline. Emory Gordy, Jr. and Steve Fishell were brougnt in to co-produce with Josh Leo. The result was an album that relied more heavily on outside songwriters than most of their earlier work and a more mainstream country-pop sound instead of the country-rock for which they had become well known. As the title suggests, Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t their most substantive collection of songs, but it still has its enjoyable moments.

The opening track “If This Ain’t Love”, written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a big departure for the group. The horns are a bit jarring but the tune is catchy and contains plenty of steel guitar in the mix, which is a very welcome inclusion — remember this was the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill when many artists had one eye on the pop charts. The title track, which was the album’s sole single, is a disappointing piece of fluff. It died at #52 when it was originally releasd in 1998. The following year’s re-release fared even worse, recaching only #63. Even more disappointing is the Steve Bogard/Rick Giles tune “Forget The Job (Get A Life)”, an extremely annoying number that sounds like something Shania Twain rejected. I don’t know what they were thinking when they recorded this one but everyone involved should have known better. “It’s About Time” isn’t a first-rate song but it is saved by a nice harmony vocal provided by Matraca Berg.

Things get better with a nice cover of Mac McAnally’s “Down The Road”, which I prefer to the original. “Singing To the Scarecrow”, about a Kentucky farm girl who dreams of stardom, is one of two Dennis Linde compositions and is also quite good. Even better is “Dry Town”, an uptempo Gillian Welch-Jown Rawlings number. The novelty tune “The Monkey Song”, written by Jimmy Ibbotson, is the album’s sole song written by a NGDB member.

While Bang, Bang Bang ultimately did nothing to relaunch the band’s recording career, and it may not be the best remembered entry in their discography, it is certainly worth a listen. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Workin’ Band’

workinbandWith the release of 1988’s Workin’ Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began to wind down its most commercially successful decade. It was the band’s final “regular” album of the decade and its last for Warner Bros.; the following year’s album and their Universal debut would be the much-acclaimed and guest star-studded Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, Volume II which we reviewed in April 2009 .

Like the previous year’s Hold On, Workin’ Band was produced by Josh Leo. It produced three Top 10 singles, beginning with “Workin’ Man (Nowhere To Go)”, a #4 peaking hit that despite its uptempo arrangement, dealt with the plight of American farmers who were displaced after losing their farms at auction. It was followed by another uptempo, radio-friendly number “I’ve Been Lookin'”, which reached #2. Both songs were penned by band members: Jimmie Fadden wrote “Workin’ Man” and Jimmy Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna penned “I’ve Been Lookin'”. The third single, “Down That Road Tonight” was written by Jeff Hanna with Josh Leo and Wendy Waldman. My least favorite of the three singles, “Down That Road Tonight” contains just a hint of the blues. It reached #6 and marks the second-to-last time The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would score a Top 10 hit (“When It Goes” from the Circle II collection became their final Top 10 in 1990).

Two of the album’s tunes were later covered by other artists. Holly Dunn released a very similar version of “Thunder and Lightnin'” a year later and Lorrie Morgan recorded a much slicker version of “Soldier of Love” in 1996, which pales in comparison to NGDB’s rendition.

Band member Bob Carpenter contributed two of his original compositions to the project: “Baby Blues”, a co-write with Wendy Waldman and “A Lot Like Me”. Both are departures from the band’s usual sound. Carpenter takes over as lead vocalist and though he is not as gifted a singer as his bandmates, he is effective on both tunes, particularly the rock-infused “A Lot Like Me”, that I liked a lot more than I expected to.

Workin’ Band was always one of my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band albums. I bought it on cassette when it was released in 1988, but never upgraded it to CD. Consequently, I had not heard it in a very long time, but it has held up surprisingly well and I found that I enjoyed it as much as I did over quarter-century ago.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

long time cominThe early 90s saw changes for Shenandoah. They had left Columbia after their legal troubles, and signed to RCA. They recruited Keith Stegall to produce their debut effort for the new label alongside longterm collaborator Robert Byrne. It continued the style familiar from earlier work, but the songs were not quite as strong.

The lead single was a pleasantly radio-friendly mid-tempo song about a man going home to ‘Rock My Baby’ after a hard day’s work and a night out with the boys. Although not particularly memorable, It has an airy feel with some attractive fiddle, and it returned the group close to the top of the charts, with a #2 peak.

Unfortunately the other singles from the album were not as successful. The follow-up ‘Hey Mister (I Need That Job)’ offered a change of pace, portraying the voice of a young expectant father facing unemployment and desperate for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family. Perhaps it was a little too serious to play well on radio, more accustomed to Shenandoah’s lighter material, as it barely scraped into the top 30, but it is an excellent song (written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand) with a moving vocal from Marty.

‘Leavin’s Been A Long Time Comin’, the up-tempo title track, was a return to a brighter feel (despite a downbeat lyric), and this one peaked at #15. ‘Give Me Five Minutes’ (written by Robert Ellis Orrall) is a charmingly optimistic number typical of Shenandoah’s up-tempo material. It would have made a fine radio-friendly single had they tried one more.

‘Same Old Heart’ is a tender Mac McAnally ballad acknowledging that a relationship is faltering, in which Marty’s phrasing is very reminiscent of McAnally’s version (on his excellent 1989 Simple Life album). I really liked this one.

Nostalgia for times past has a strong thematic role on this album. ‘Right Where I Belong’ (written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo) is also good, a sweet look at the simple joys of small-town country life which a young man’s ambitions for something more exciting led him to pass up. Now, he’s back home to settle down, since in his quest for success,

I lost myself and that’s a high price to pay.

The tender ballad story song ‘There Ain’t No Beverly Hills In Tennessee, written by Marty Raybon and Mike McGuire, was the CD bonus track (omitted from the cassette). It is one of the best songs here, telling the story of a girl who marries young but leaves her husband with dreams of greener pastures:

There ain’t no California gold in a smoky mountain stream
There ain’t no silver linin’ to lace a poor boy’s dream
As she walked away I was thinking someday she’d come on back to me
But there ain’t no Beverly Hills in Tennessee

The gentle ballad ‘I Was Young Once Too’, written by the co-producer Robert Byrne with Richard Leigh, also looks back, with its tender portrait of the relationship between the protagonist and his father. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ is a little too similar melodically and thematically to their big hit ‘Sunday In The South’, but is beautifully sung.

The lively rockabilly ‘Rattle The Windows’ is a feelgood celebration of being in a smalltime country band.

This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it lacked obvious hits. With only one real hit single (in the shape of one of the record’s more lackluster songs), it did not sell as well as their last couple of Columbia releases. However, used copies are easy to find cheap, and it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

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: Dan Seals – ‘Walking The Wire’

The 1990s were a period in which Dan Seals saw a rapid decline in his commercial appeal. He began the decade strongly enough with two # hits: “Love On Arrival” and “Good Times”, but none of his subsequent releases managed to crack the Top 40. A change in record labels did not help to reverse the trend; he signed with Warner Bros. in 1991 and released his first album for the label the following year. Walking The Wire became his first album not to chart since Harbinger, which had been released a decade earlier, prior to his commercial breakthrough. But despite its lack of commercial success, Walking The Wire is a solid set of songs and one of the better albums in the Seals discography.

Things got off to a rocky start with his first single for his new label, a Jesse Winchester tune called “Sweet Little Shoe”, which was released in 1991, in advance of the album. An overproduced number designed to cash in on the then-popular line dancing craze, it died a quick and well deserved death on the charts. Peaking at a meager #62, it is easily the worst song on the album. The follow-up single “Good Goodbye” did not chart and was not included on the album when Walking The Wire was released the following year. The self-penned “Mason Dixon Line”, which examines a relationship between two very different people, fared a little better. It reached #43, but deserved to chart higher, as it is a decent song. Andrea Zonn, who played in Vince Gill’s road band at the time, plays fiddle on the track. The catchy “When Love Comes Around The Bend” was released next. Written by Josh Leo, Pam Tillis, and Mark Wright, the tune had been a minor success for Juice Newton a few years earlier. While her version managed to crack the Top 40 (just barely), Seals’ version only climbed to #51. This one might have enjoyed more success if it had been released a few years earlier before his career lost its momentum. The final single was another Seals composition, the well-meaning but somewhat preachy “We Are One”, which appeals to mankind to put aside religious, ethnic and racial differences. It did not chart.

The remaining songs on the album tend to be rather low-key, tastefully produced affairs. I particularly like “A Good Rain”, which is about a farmer struggling to make ends meet, and “Slower”, a tune written by Tony Arata about young love. The Parker McGee-penned “Someone Else’s Dance” is also quite good. “Sneaky Moon” is enjoyable, but I prefer the Tanya Tucker version that appeared a year later.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs on this album prior to preparing for this review, and as a hitless collection that appeared as Dan’s major label career was beginning to wind down, I expected it to be a dull and lifeless affair. I was, however, quite pleasantly surprised and I’m at a loss to explain why it was such a commercial disaster. Perhaps Seals didn’t get the proper level of promotion from his new label, or perhaps at age 44 he was considered to be past his peak in an era that saw a lot of new and younger talent emerge. Regardless of the reason, it’s unfortunate that it didn’t receive more love from radio and retail. It is available very inexpensively from Amazon and despite a few missteps, is well worth the modest investment.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Matraca Berg – ‘Lying to the Moon’

Matraca Berg’s first success in country music came in 1983 when she was 19 years old and co-wrote “Faking Love” with Bobby Braddock, which became a #1 for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. Her next big success came four years later when Reba McEntire scored a #1 hit with “The Last One to Know”, which Berg had co-written with Jane Mariash. Matraca became a recording artist when she landed a deal with RCA in 1990. Lying to the Moon, her first project for the label, was produced by Josh Leo and Wendy Waldman, and consisted of ten top-notch songs, all of which Matraca had a hand in writing.

It isn’t clear to me why the album didn’t enjoy more commercial success. While not quite in the same league as Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, Matraca was an above-average vocalist and was reasonably attractive — and therefore, marketable. The material, which was first-rate and designed to appeal to mainstream listeners, was certainly not at fault. Nevertheless, Lying to the Moon was only moderately successful. “Baby, Walk On”, the first single, is not the strongest or most original song on the disc, but it was an uptempo number that was well within the constraints of what country radio was playing at the time. The follow-up, “The Things You Left Undone”, which I like much better, is another uptempo number about an independent-minded woman who is picking up the pieces and getting on with her life after the end of a relationship. At the time, I really thought this one would be a huge hit, but like its predecessor, it peaked at #36. The two songs, which were co-written with frequent collaborator Ronnie Samoset, are Berg’s highest charting singles as a recording artist. The jazzy “I Got It Bad”, which finds her waiting for the phone to ring and obsessing over a new love interest only reached #43, and the excellent “I Must Have Been Crazy”, which which she’s fighting off madness — without much success — after another bad break-up, died at #55.

My favorite track and perhaps the best known is the beautiful title track, which features a haunting cello solo. Berg re-recorded the song for her second album, The Speed of Grace, a pop effort that was released in 1994. In between those two versions, Trisha Yearwood covered it for her The Song Remembers When album, which was released in 1993. The original version resurfaced on a compilation album in 1999. RCA released it as a single and had a video produced, but by that time Berg’s career momentum had been lost and the record failed to chart.

A handful of the other tracks showcase Matraca’s considerable talent as a songwriter and a storyteller. “Calico Plains”, written with Mike Noble, tells the story of two young girls growing up in the midwest. Abilena has big dreams and is planning to leave her hometown to pursue them, while her friend, who acts as the song’s narrator makes her promise to write. Then Abilena falls pregnant and is forced to marry the baby’s father. Several years and a few children later, it is the narrator who is leaving to pursue bigger and better things and promising to write to Abilena. “Appalachian Rain”, which features harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris, tells of a young unwed mother who is forced to leave her Appalachian home to spare her family’s honor, and “Alice in the Looking Glass” tells the story of a lonely middle-aged hairdresser who was once a homecoming queen, who puts on a brave face for her customers.

My least favorite track is the album closer “Dancin’ on the Wire”, which Berg co-wrote with producers Leo and Waldman. The lyrics are on the shallow side and this is the one instance on the entire album where the production is a bit heavy-handed.

It’s a shame that this album didn’t fare better at radio and retail, though Matraca’s subsequent career decisions suggest that even if it had, her commercial success would not have been long-lived. RCA refused to release her next album because they felt it didn’t have enough mainstream appeal, and her next effort The Speed of Grace, was released by the label’s pop division, and Matraca’s subsequent albums appeared infrequently on smaller, now-defunct labels. Lying to the Moon is out of print in CD form but used copies can be found very cheaply. It is not to be confused with the 1999 compilation album Lying to the Moon & Other Stories, which contains eight of the orginal album’s ten tracks. It too can be purchased very inexpensively used and might be a slightly better value.