My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Julie Roberts

My Kind of Country turns 10

Do you remember where you were exactly ten years ago? Barack Obama has just defeated John McCain to win his first of two-terms as our 44th President. The United States was beginning to feel the effects of the Great Recession. On our radios, a hot new group out of Georgia was dominating the charts. This week in 2008, Zac Brown Band logged their first of two consecutive weeks at #1 with their debut single “Chicken Fried.” On the album’s chart, it was Taylor Swift’s just-released Fearless, logging its third consecutive week at #1, with no signs of slowing down.

In the country blogosphere, J.R. Journey launched My Kind of Country. Our little blog was born ten years ago tomorrow on Dec. 8, 2008. On that day, J.R. wrote:

Welcome to the My Kind Of Country blog.  Here, you will find reviews, editorials, and discussions about the country music we love – our kind of country.  The idea is simple:  rather than write lots of negative reviews about the new music that’s coming out – because let’s face it, much of what comes out of Nashville and your country radio dial is crap – we are going to write about the music we love.  The music that moves us, drives us, and makes us laugh and cry; the music that touches us.  Not that we will spend our time posting fangirl gushes about a select group of artists that are among our favorites.  To the contrary, we intend to post about the music we love and tell you why we love it, and of course, how we think it could be improved upon.

It’s been an ambitious mission from the start. Erik wrote our first album review, a glowing critique of LeAnn Rimes’ Family, on Dec. 10. Our first spotlight artist? Oh, that was Miss Leslie and her Juke-Jointers in January 2009. Through the years we’ve seen many writers retire their individual perspectives on country music, from our friends Erik, Rainbow, Chris Dean, Megan Morrow, and Razor X to our fearless leader himself, J.R.

I won’t begin to assert I’m an historian on all things MKoC. I joined the team in June 2011 after I had become enamored with their Spotlight Artist coverage of Emmylou Harris in April. After reading a few of their reviews, I digitally downloaded her solo albums from the 1970s and composed a post on my own blog, entitled “New Artist Obsession: Emmylou Harris.” I had included a link to their coverage, which garnered the attention of J.R. and Razor X. I had no idea how impressed J.R. would be with my work, nor was I gunning for anyone’s attention. Shortly thereafter he sent me an email and asked me to join the team, an honor I accepted happily and excitedly. My first post was a single review for Julie Roberts’ “NASCAR Party” that ruffled a few feathers with her publicity team. I then contributed two single reviews to their Randy Travis coverage that month, among other reviews, and was off to the races.

But this isn’t solely about me. My Kind of Country has and always will be about a passionate group of fans sharing their thoughts and perspectives on country music with a critical ear. Two of our longest contributing writers, Razor X, and Occasional Hope, became members of the team in Feb. 2009. Razor’s first post, “Rediscovering Forgotten Gems” found him taking a look back at albums, with a focus on Randy Travis, he had the urge to revisit. Occasional Hope introduced herself to readers through “Finding Country,” in which she shared how she came to love country music. Paul W. Dennis joined just before I did in 2011. The 9513 had just shuttered and J.R. asked him to continue his Country Heritage series with us. His first post was “Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003).”

A while back, a friend had asked me if they could take a look at work on MKoC and even proceeded to print it out in order to read it (yes, I also thought that was strange). In doing so, he made a comment I’ve never forgotten. He said the blog had a really great title and I instantly knew what he meant. He didn’t say it, but he was referring to the idea that as a group of writers we’re each sharing the country music we love individually, writing pieces that reflect our love of the genre, not just getting assigned albums and singles we may or may not care enough about to compose a thoughtful post. I hadn’t looked at it that way, but he was correct in every sense of the word.

I also often think about how hard it is to keep a blog going and just how many have come and gone in the ten years we’ve been alive. It’s easy for readers to overlook the fact that our positions as staff writers aren’t our full or even part-time jobs. MKoC is a labor of love we create out of passion for country music. It takes a village to keep a blog vital, which is why The 9513 and Country California have ceased publication. Engine 145 only ended once Juli Thanki received a prestigious position with The Tennessan, which has led to exciting opportunities for her in 2019. Ken Morton, Jr’s That Nashville Sound is still going strong and  Country Universe is still around, after 14 years, albeit in an abbreviated form.

Little did J.R. realize in his inaugural post when he wrote: “much of what comes out of Nashville and your country radio dial is crap.” He never could’ve known the assault on the very ideals of commercial country music that was coming down the line with bro-country and whatever the heck you call what’s followed in its wake. It’s ironic, at least to me, that the peak years for country blogging have coincided with the continued release of literally the worst music our beloved genre has ever produced. At least we’ve learned there are alternatives and still some pretty awesome music being made if you know where to look.

I know this post is long, but heck, you only celebrate your tenth anniversary once. We would not be here if it wasn’t for our continued passion for country music, but even more importantly, our readers. Thank you for continuing to make us and our writing a part of your lives. Please continue to comment and engage with us on our posts. We always love reading and responding to whatever you have to say.

Onward.

Classic Rewind: Julie Roberts – ‘Break Down Here’

Book Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Beauty In The Breakdown’

If you are a fan of the too-often underrated Julie Roberts, you may have bene intrigued by the announcement that she had written a memoir.

The book opens with Julie at the peak of her commercial success, performing on stage while promoting her debut album, only to be struck down with what were to prove to be the first signs of multiple sclerosis. After that first chapter, we dart back in time to a dramatic midnight escape by the five year old Julie, her sisters and their mother, from Julie’s drunken, abusive father. Regrettably, the family would return, and the pattern repeated on more than one occasion. Perhaps the most poignant anecdote in the book is Julie’s recollection that her mother viewed Martina McBride’s hit single ‘Independence Day’ as aspirational.

The story then moves briskly through Julie’s childhood, a few pageant competitions and community college, before she won the Vince Gill Scholarship to Belmont University in Nashville, where she was able to hone her performing skills. After college Julie encouraged her mother to pluck up the courage to leave abusive dad and get a job and new life in Nashville. The story of her winning her record deal anonymously while working as a receptionist at Mercury Records is already well known, and gets a slightly fuller airing here.

The most interesting part of the book for me were the behind the scenes stories of Julie’s recording career, especially around making and promoting her first album. Shockingly, the label put her on so severe a diet, she was permitted only 800 calories a day, combined with intensive boot camp gym. They tried to do the same to Jamey Johnson, and you may not be surprised to learn he was less willing to cooperate than Julie, declining to participate further after a single gym visit. She talks briefly about sexual harassment in the industry, mostly on a fairly low level, but still disturbing.

After Julie’s big hit single ‘Break Down Here’ and acclaimed debut album, her star rather fizzled. She was forced against her own wishes to split with Brent Rowan, the producer of her first album in favour of someone the label thought would be more commercial. She was not happy about recording a pop cover unsuited to her own style. She spent some time in California pursuing a movie which was supposed to be inspired by her life, and starring herself, but the loss of focus on music was to prove fatal. The movie project was shelved until she was a bigger star – and she lost her record deal because they had been pinning their hopes on the movie raising her profile.

It is back to more drama with an intense account of the 2010 Cumberland River floods, when Julie lost all her material goods. At least she, her mother and sister, and their pet dogs were all rescued; she shared the rescue boat with a man who had to leave his dog behind because he was too big.

Her MS diagnosis did not help her with potential record labels, but she has worked hard at continuing her music career. She is frank about the commercial disaster which was her deal with Sun Records, arranged by a boyfriend. Intriguingly, she speaks about a new album produced recently by Shooter Jennings – hopefully this will emerge soon.

Music of the book focusses on Julie’s emotional struggle after getting MS, her gradual acceptance of it, and work as a spokesperson for others with the disease. It is also imbued with Julie’s Christian faith, and this is almost as much a religious testimonial as it is a music business memoir. The book is well written by Julie with the help of ghost writer Ken Abraham, and although quite short, is an absorbing read.

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Single Review: Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

i got the boyI was thoroughly underwhelmed by actress Jana Kramer’s first foray into country music. But her latest single is much more like it.

While she isn’t the greatest of vocalists, she is perfectly adequate on this understated song, which she delivers convincingly with a throaty almost bluesy quality which reminds me a little of Julie Roberts or the early work of Faith Hill. The emotion of the song rings true. The tasteful production (thanks to Scott Hendricks) is as understated as the song is simply yet perfectly constructed (with the exception of slightly awkward scansion in the first verse).

On the surface about memories and a past relationship, this is really all about the experience of growing up. The protagonist reflects on a long-past, perhaps long-forgotten teenage romance when she sees the man he has grown into. There are no regrets or sense of loss for what has passed, as she compares the affectionate memories she has with the other woman’s present day experiences.

I got the first kiss
She’ll get the last
She’s got the future and I got the past
I got the class ring
She’s got the diamond and a wedding band
I got the boy
She got the man

It may be stretching the songwriters’ intentions a bit far to lay too much stress on this aspect, but it is interesting as part of the possible backlash against bro-country with its extended male adolescence, to see the comparison here between the young man as a teenage boy in a baseball cap, as so often sported by today’s male country stars well into their 30s (including Jana’s former fiance the dreadful Brantley Gilbert), and driving the ubiquitous pickup truck. The man in this song has laid these things aside as he grows up and commits to marriage. Can this be a complete coincidence?

The song was written by established songwriters Connie Harrington and Tim Nichols with Jamie Lynn Spears, another aspiring artist with an acting background. I really like both song and performance, and would be thrilled to see it do well. Of course it has several strikes against it as far as country radio is concerned – it’s sung by a woman, and one who is talking as an adult; it’s not loud or a party anthem, but the kind of song about real life which used to be at the heart of the genre; and it’s good. I hope it can beat those odds.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark’

daylight and darkJason Eady says his latest release, following up to the excellent AM Country Heaven, is not a concept album, but in effect it is, as it tells one story. Eady himself summarises it by saying,

“‘Daylight And Dark’ was written as a ‘day in the life’ story of a man who is trying to find his way through a bad period of his life. He is struggling between his intentions during the daytime and his temptations at night. Every morning he wakes up determined to make changes and do the right thing but as evening approaches he starts to give in and lose his way again…. The entire album is sung from this same character’s point of view and the order of the songs also tells the same story.”

The complex emotions of the story of a troubled individual ring very true. It is produced with understated taste by Kevin Welch to put the excellent songs and compelling story center stage.

The rhythmic lead single ‘OK Whiskey’, which I reviewed back in November makes a compelling, attention-grabbing opener, and sets the scene with the protagonist at a metaphorical crossroads on a literal highway.

He is back on the road in ‘The Other Side Of Abilene’. This excellent song is addressed to the woman he has left at home, with the resigned vocal delicately ornamented by real-life fiancée Courtney Patton’s sweet harmony vocal, which is also in evidence on other tracks. After a night in a motel he realises he has
got to turn back to see what lies ahead”.

Things slow down further for an introspective reflection on the fight with ‘Temptation’, a very fine song with a haunting steel guitar dominating the arrangement.

The wry ‘One, Two … Many’ offers a little self-directed justification for a fall from grace drinking too much:

I’ve had one, two … many
And that’s just enough to make me
Think so much that I can’t stand

‘Liars & Fools’ addresses two kinds of man, concluding he prefers the latter because

Liars, they live in their own little world
While the fools lay it all on the line

Yet he himself fits in the firmer category, as he reveals regretfully:

I watched as it all came undone
She was a fool for leavin’ my lies
And now I’m left with the damage I’ve done

Picking up both mood and tempo, ‘We Just Might Miss Each Other’ is a charming duet with Courtney Patton about trying to avoid an awkward encounter with the ex, with a lovely retro feel and bright fiddle.

The gently melancholic title track sees the protagonist facing up to his tangled life the morning after a drunken hookup with a stranger, but with no answers for himself:

I hear the normal people talkin’
Walkin’ right outside my window
And I wonder what they know that I don’t
Are they just survivin’ after all this time
And just going through the motions that I won’t?

‘Lonesome Down & Out’ is more forceful, as he admits defiantly that his druinking lifestule is due to his relationship breakdown:

I started runnin’
After the stayin’ failed to work

The melancholic ‘Whiskey & You’ (a Chris Stapleton tune which is one of only two songs on the album not written by Eady, and has previously been recorded by Julie Roberts and Tim McGraw) is a more somber reflection of life after divorce, almost a despairing one, which fits perfectly into the sequence. It is followed by the other outside song, Adam Hood’s ‘Late Night Diner’, which adds similar insight and sounds as if it was written for the project with its wistful acceptance of the high cost of failed love.

Finally, Eady joins up with Hayes Carll for the amusing story song ‘A Memory Now’, which ends the record on an upbeat note, with the passage of time having got the protagonist over his ex at last and revisiting all the warning signs. The sardonic tone makes this slightly out of keeping with the more thoughtful mood elsewhere, and it feels like more of a Carll song than an Eady one, but it does provide a positive conclusion to the story told through the album.

This portrait of a troubles soul is Jason Eady’s most ambitious record to date, and his finest achievement. This is highly recommended top anyone who wants some depth in their country music.

Grade: A+

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

Album Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Good Wine & Bad Decisions’

good wine and bad decisionsIt’s nearly 10 years since Julie Roberts first appeared on the radar of country fans, and in the years since she’s endured more reverses than many artists, including losing her major label deal, losing her home in the Nashville floods, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and last year being passed up for The Voice. Her career never quite fulfilled the promise of her distinctive emotion-filled voice; even her biggest hit, ‘Break Down Here’, barely cracked the top 20 even though it sold over half a million copies. I loved her two Mercury albums, but was left a little disappointed by her independent album a couple of years ago. Now, she has been signed to a revived Sun Records, and has new music.

Jason Collum co-produces and co-wrote many of the songs with Julie. The result is much stronger than her last record. Collum’s production is often low-key, mixing the country torch balladry at which Julie has always shone, with occasional rock and soul influences, but always allows Julie’s trademark sultry vocals to take center stage.

The outstanding song is ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray’, written by Chris Stapleton. This is a very touching tribute to a religious father after his death. I also rather liked the album’s other religious song, the longing ‘Arms Of Jesus’, backed by subtle strains of churchy piano and organ.

Steve Earle’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ (recorded in the early 90s by Mark Chesnutt) is a reminder that Earle, better known for his country rock and political songs, can write a stunning country ballad when he chooses, and Julie does the song full justice.

‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is a Bobbie Gentry cover, and the production and arrangement of a southern teenager’s sexual awakening. The vocal is convincing enough for it to be an enjoyable track, although the production is like the original to the point of sounding like a pastiche.

Buddy Miller harmonises on his own ‘Gasoline & Matches’. Julie sturdy version is less frenetic than others I have heard, including the recent cut by LeAnn Rimes, allowing the lyrics more prominence. This is a very good recording which grows the more you hear it.

Vince Gill guests on the lonesome ballad ‘Old Strings’, which Julie sings beautifully as she agonises over her continuing feelings for an ex. A lovely melancholy feel and tasteful arrangement make this another highlight.

The seductive ‘Keep Me Up All Night’, addressed to a husband who has let the romance fade, which Julie originally wrote for her debut album a decade ago with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten, but never recorded, is pretty good, and was worth pulling off the shelves.

The title track is an excellent song about a one-night stand with an old flame, regretted almost before it takes place. This should be ideal for Julie’s sultry voice, but unfortunately her pitch sounds noticeably off in places.

‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ is another excellent song about a woman refusing to acknowledge her husband is leaving, with a soothing melody and an understated acoustic arrangement. ‘Old Habit’ is another instant classic, a despairing ballad about facing the last vestiges of a relationship, with a desperate Julie realising her lover is treating her as a convenience. The phrasing and emotional interpretation are beautifully judged.

Some of the material stretches the boundaries a little. The harmonica-led bluesy country-rock of ‘If I Were You’, addressed to a neglectful lover by his partner in adultery, is quite catchy, with a heavy drum beat anchoring the rhythm; the harmonica is played by Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael. The rocking ‘When It’s Over’ is not quite as good, seemingly at odds with the downbeat lyric and not quite right for Julie’s voice. The minor keyed ‘Bones’ is a fairly faithful cover of a song from British retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. It’s not country, but Julie sings it well and it is certainly an interesting choice. The bluesy soul of ‘Wrong About You’ works better for me.

The liner notes are in unreadably tiny print and essentially useless. The music, however, is mostly very good; a little more adventurous than her major label work, and a definite advance on her last release. if you’ve missed Julie’s bluesy voice, this is a very worthwhile purchase or download.

Grade: A

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘All of This Love’

PamTillisAllofThisLoveIn the wake of the success of Sweetheart’s Dance – a platinum selling album that nabbed her the coveted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1994 – Pam Tillis decided to produce the follow-up record by herself, and became the first woman on a major label to do so. The stakes were high when All of This Love hit with a bang in November 1995.

The main reason I enjoy the women of 90s country so much is their dedication to their music. Most were often too smart for mainstream radio, thus enjoying relatively short commercial careers while reaping the rewards artistically. Tillis is one of these artists and she proved it with All of This Love, an album that had little to do with the bouncy sound of its predecessor. Instead the project was somber, moody, and alienated the casual fans that loved hits like “Mi Via Loca.”

Well, it was their loss because All of This Love produced some brilliant singles. “Deep Down,” a mournful fiddle drenched tune, peaked at #6. The song is the rare record where the juxtaposition of mournful lyric and upbeat melody comes together to create magic. Tillis co-wrote another tour de force, “It’s Lonely Out There,” with her now ex-husband Bob DiPiero. It’s a ferocious lyric, with a woman letting her man go, only to warn him “Go on and get your share/But believe me baby/It’s lonely out there.” The song may’ve only hit #16, but of all her singles, it’s left the biggest impression on me. One of my all-time favorite songs from the moment I first heard it all those years ago.

In between them, Tillis sent the album’s centerpiece to #8. “The River and the Highway,” written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz, is a poetic masterwork about two people trying to find comfort in each other. That Tillis could get such a left of center ballad into the top 10 speaks to her strong relationship with country radio at the time.

She wasn’t so fortunate on the final single, which became her first for Arista to miss the top 40. Despite or may be even in spite of its innate stupidity, I’ve always liked “Betty’s Got A Bass Boat.” The lyric is generic and the production has aged horribly, but the Bernie Nelson and Craig Wiseman-penned tune got me to purchase this album in the first place. Much like Julie Roberts’ misguided cover of Saving Jane’s “Girl Next Door,” it’s Tillis’ attempt at scoring a big hit with ripe radio fodder. In both cases the experiment failed, proving that trying to fit in just isn’t worth the embarrassing effort.

Tillis is much better when she’s not being guided by radio, and she proves it with a stellar cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain,” which features Marty Stuart playing the bluegrass staple. The collaboration is a gorgeous marriage of my favorite musical instrument and Tillis’ otherwordly voice. She’s similarly excellent on the mandolin, fiddle, and steel guitar soaked country shuffle title track, a Chapin Hartford song about a woman saving all her love for the man she has yet to meet. “Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” is an underappreciated Kim Richey number about budding love that’s as effervescent and sunny as the vivacious fiddle throughout suggests.

It’s easy to compare All of This Love with its predecessor, given all eyes were on Tillis (a budding superstar) at the time of its release. Most will refer to it as a lesser album given how it isn’t as radio friendly nor as appealing for casual fans (the songs could be looked at as not being ‘instantly catchy’ enough) but it’s certainly just as good but in many ways better than Sweetheart’s Dance. This is where Tillis came into her own as a powerhouse selector of material and while the two albums that followed weren’t nearly as strong, she’s bounced back in the last decade.

Grade: A

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Julie Roberts – ‘Break Down Here’

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Songs of 2012

Unlike the experimental nature of my top albums of 2012, this list of singles reflects my nineties country upbringing to the umpteenth degree – I gravitate towards songs that are sincere, understated, and most importantly, unmistakably country. They might not have been huge hits, but that hardly matters anymore. For an even stronger reflection of my tastes, check out my year-end top 40 singles (on my blog) throughout the month.

Chick on the links to hear the songs.

BrandiCarlile_BearCreek1-300x29810. Brandi Carlile – ‘Keep Your Heart Young’

In our increasingly adolescent leaning world, it’s easy to forget there is a correct way to keep our childhood innocence – keep our hearts young, before we get too old, before our time is done.

But the most ironic thing about this Bear Creek single is how well she “sells” country music. Carlile gave up her self-penned “Same Old You” to Miranda Lambert on the grounds she couldn’t sell it herself. Turns out Carlile can be quite the convincing country singer when she wants to be.

9. Eric Church – ‘Springsteen’

A long ago romance between a guy, his girl, and the all-American anthem bounding them for life. Oh, the joys of being 17. Here’s where Church went from wannabe to superstar, consistent hit maker to heavy hitter. His artistic triumph is easily one of the most satisfying singles of the year.

the wind8. Zac Brown Band – ‘The Wind’

By evoking the effortless bluegrass meets country fusion that catapulted Ricky Skaggs to superstardom in the 1980s, Zac Brown Band have recorded their greatest artistic achievement to date. The classic rip-roaring lead guitar and flourishing bursts of fiddle help it sound iconic and vintage yet modern and fresh without risking radio expulsion. One of the best country singles of 2012 is also one of the best country singles to come along in years.

7. Julie Roberts – ‘Whiskey and You’

A classic drinking song infused with Roberts’ stunning alcohol soaked vocal, she’s forced to admit her stark reality – quitting the whiskey is the easy part. It’s the man, whom she knows isn’t good for her, who is the real addiction.

George-Strait-2012-160-026. George Strait – ‘Drinkin’ Man’

Much like Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” “Drinkin’ Man” is a tale of a life gripped by the bottle – in all its bleak, honest, and raw glory. Strait has crafted one of his finest singles to date by capturing the full essence of this man, worts and all. Sometimes its easier to admit defeat than be bound by the expectation of having to be perfect.

5. Chris Young – ‘Neon’

It’s so not the 1990s anymore. Twenty years ago this neo-traditional gem would’ve been the CMA Single of the Year, a #1 hit single, and on its way to classic status. Young is exceptional on this timeless tale of a man drowning his sorrows in a barroom, underneath the neon lights he now calls home.

I-Just-Come-Here-for-the-Music4. Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss – ‘I Just Come Here For The Music’ 

Quiet and understated, “I Just Come Here For The Music” is the rare breed that doesn’t come along much anymore, the story song with a heart and soul. He’s itching to buy this woman that crucial next drink, the beginning of mending his broken heart. She says no, not realizing he’s just here for the music (and her company) not a relationship.

3. Joey + Rory – ‘Josephine’ 

A heartbreaking Civil War-themed ballad, it’s the true story of a soldier and the woman named Josephine he left at home. Rory Feek, ever the history junkie, composed the lyrics from letters he found at the local historical society. Set behind a rocking mandolin-soaked production, Feek paints the picture in stunning fashion placing the listener deep within the action, feeling every turn of the plot, wincing at the twist in the final verse.

2. Alan Jackson – ‘So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore’ 

It’s been too easy to cast Alan Jackson off as a has-been in last few years, thanks to one mediocre single after another. But he came roaring back to life with this timeless ballad, a near brilliant reflection of a man taking the fall in order for the woman to move on. “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” is his finest single in over ten years and likely one of the best he’s ever recorded.

when i'm gone1. Joey + Rory – ‘When I’m Gone’ 

A dear friend of the duo, Sally Emory Lawrence wrote “When I’m Gone” following the passing of her mother, and these are the words she’d wished her mother had said to her in the days and weeks prior. Now it’s the message she’s passing on to her husband and son.

In the hands of a lesser vocalist, “When I’m Gone” could easily become an overwrought sentimental confection, but in the gentle hands of Joey Martin Feek it becomes the poignant masterpiece Lawrence envisioned when she wrote it. Feek’s tender yet authoritative vocal hits every nuance of the lyric perfectly, moving seamlessly from near whisper to resounding boom with natural ease.

Like Joey + Rory themselves, “When I’m Gone” seems pulled from a bygone era when the likes of “Where’ve You Been” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” were as commonplace on radio playlists as the latest hit from Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. This type of song, one that hits the heart of human emotion, isn’t found much anymore, and when it is, a weak lyric or bombastic arrangement usually stands in the way of any emotional resonance.

The brutally shortened and ruthlessly competitive playlists of country radio won’t (and didn’t) make room for this, and to deny a song this good the chance at maximum exposure is a tragedy in and of itself, but that doesn’t lessen its power or grace. Joey + Rory’s recording of “When I’m Gone” is the greatest you’re likely to hear all year, and easily one of the outstanding achievements for country music in this century, let alone this decade.

EP Review – Julie Roberts – ‘Who Needs Mistletoe’

Every year with anticipation, I look forward to adding new Christmas recordings to my personal collection, which I’ve been steadily adding to for more then fifteen years. When I heard Julie Roberts had a holiday record available for download, I jumped at the opportunity to add it amongst my favorites from years past.

Roberts brings to life songs we’ve all know and love such as “Blue Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Away In A Manger,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and adds newer fare like “Pretty Paper” and the title track. She adds warmth to these tunes that allows them to feel fresh, as though we’re just hearing them for the first time.

“Blue Christmas” showcases the bluesy qualities to her voice and allows Roberts to truly shine. It was a smart choice to open the album as the drum crescendo welcomes you in before being hit by the power of Roberts’ voice. When she sings the opening line, “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you” you know she was born to sing this tune.

But it’s the addition of the mandolin on both “Away in a Manger” and “Pretty Paper” that makes Who Needs Mistletoe the best country Christmas album of 2011. I find it refreshing Roberts didn’t go the full big band route that many a country singer has traveled down with their own Christmas recordings. She’s managed to strike the perfect balance, appealing to both country and non-country fans alike while still sounding like a country singer singing Christmas songs. It’s as elegant as any country album you’ll hear all year.

But in terms of vocal prowess, “O Holy Night” is the biggest surprise. Roberts brings so much power to this song I was blown away. I wasn’t expecting the range in her vocal performance and the simple Dobro and guitar-laced production suits her perfectly. I always new she could sing, but this adds another dimension to her vocal ability that she’s yet to fully cultivate on one of her previous albums.

And like her previous albums, Roberts adds her signature flirty playfulness here, this time by way of the title track. In its own right, “Who Needs Mistletoe” is a well-executed song, but I found the hook, “who needs mistletoe/I’d rather be under you” weirdly placed among tunes celebrating the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday. But it works simply because its so memorable and doesn’t overdue the frank sexual undertones.

Who Needs Mistletoe is a first-rate collection of songs all brought to life by Roberts’ stellar voice. Whenever I hear her sing I always wonder why she never broke through and garnered the attention she’s so richly deserved by country radio and the fans. When music is this sophisticated and classy it deserves just such recognition.

I only wish this EP had included more than just seven songs, as by the end I was hungry for so much more. I feel like Roberts has only scratched the surface in what a holiday album from her can sound like and I hope there is much more coming down the line in the years to come.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Comin’ On Strong’

2001’s Chrome helped Trace Adkins out of a commercial slump, somewhat at the expense of his artistic integrity. His fifth release, 2003’s Comin’ On Strong, follows in a similar vein, moving him further away from his traditional roots and towards more lightweight, less serious fare. Although the strategy had the desired effect of getting Trace back on the radio, it eventually did considerable harm to his credibility as an artist. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to like here; much like its predecessor, Comin’ On Strong is very much a mixed bag.

The first single release was “Hot Mama”, which like “Chrome”, is a beat-driven, lyrically shallow number that does little to challenge the listener. To be fair, “Hot Mama” is a much better song than “Chrome”, but it’s far from Trace’s best and it’s easy to see that he had already started down that slippery slope that reached its nadir with the excerable “Honkytonk Badonkadonk” two years later. “Hot Mama” did quite well at radio, returning Trace to the Top 5 for the first time since 1997’s “The Rest of Mine”. The second single was the good ol’ boy attitude song “Rough and Ready”, which is somewhat catchy, particularly coming at the tail end of an album comprised mostly of mid-tempo ballads. However, it loses its appeal after repeated listenings. It failed to crack the Top 10, petering out at #13. Despite its failure to reach the Top 10, “Rough and Ready” sold enough downloads to become Trace’s first gold-certified single.

After “Rough and Ready” finished it run on the charts, no further singles were released, despite the presence of some worthy candidates. “I’d Sure Hate To Break Down Here” was surely a missed opportunity; a few months later newcomer Julie Roberts released it as her debut single and took it to #18. Although arguably the song is more effective when sung from the female point of view, I prefer Trace’s version and believe that as a more established artist, he could have taken this one into the Top 10. It’s by far the best song on the album. The title track is also one of the better songs on the album. Though not very deep lyrically, it’s one of the more country sounding tracks in the collection, which was a bit surprising because the title implies a more rock-oriented tune. Instead, the rock is provided by the overproduced “One of Those Nights”, which along with the equally overproduced “Missin’ You”, is among the weakest songs on the album.

The rest of the album is mostly forgettable, middle-of-the-road filler that is sometimes marred by the heavy-handed production of Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks. I’ll give points to “One Nightstand” for trying to be a little creative. In this tune, written by Patrick Jason Matthews and Trey Bruce, Adkins is a husband who has strayed and got caught. At the song’s climax, he is on the bed with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other — “One of them was gonna save me,” he sings, “the only question was which one.” On the surface, it has all the makings of the perfect country song, but the melody is not very interesting, and the use of the “One Nightstand”, which refers to both his illicit affair, and a table in his seedy rented room, seems very forced and just does not work. Ultimately deciding against taking his own life, he sings, “Funny how a man’s life can all come down to one nightstand.” It seems odd to give credit for the decision to the piece of furniture and not its contents — his wedding ring and a photograph of his family.

Despite having produced only one Top 10 hit, Comin’ On Strong was certified platinum, exceeding the sales of its gold-certified predecessor. With the exception of “I’d Sure Hate To Break Down Here”, there’s nothing here that’s really essential listening, but cheap new and used copies are readily available from third party sellers at Amazon. At a reduced price, it’s worth adding to your collection.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Nascar Party’

When Julie Roberts debuted on the scene in 2004, she won raves for her killer voice and astute song selection. Unfortunately radio didn’t bite past her first single, “Break Down Here,” and after two very underappreciated albums, she quickly faded into oblivion.

So imagine my happiness when I heard she finally has new music and picture my shock when I heard her new single, “NASCAR Party.” The song is poorly constructed and a case of style over substance. The story isn’t interesting enough to hold the attention of the listener and lacks the emotional depth needed to draw people in. The writers put little effort into making this even slightly memorable and it shows.

Not even Roberts can elevate lines such as “My man/he qualified/ he’s right there in the front of line” and make them sound exciting. When she starts singing about “The sweet smell of gasoline” in the second verse, it’s so out of character for someone who made a name for herself on gems like “Wake Up Older,” that you almost wonder who Roberts is artistically. She’s caved into the pressure for success with “Girl Next Door,” but even that doesn’t reek as bad as “NASCAR Party.”

But, surprisingly, it isn’t all that bad. Roberts is a gifted vocalist, and she tries to use that to her advantage here. While her voice tends to even out too much when singing with backing vocalists, she puts a great deal of energy into her delivery and doesn’t hide the twang in her voice. She seems to be mustering up a little effort to rise above the inane lyrical content. And with a song this underwhelming, that’s hard to do.

As a big fan of her music, I can only hope her new album Alive contains stronger material than “NASCAR Party,” and brings back the Julie Roberts I know and love.

Grade: C-

Watch the official music video here.

Some hidden treasures of the decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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The ones that got away

Bobbie CrynerHave you ever thought an artist was just so good they were destined for stardom, especiallly when they seemed to have a major label behind them, but then watched as … nothing actually happened? They had the voice, sometimes their own songwriting ability or musicianship, great material, a label which seemed supportive, and yet it just didn’t work out. Over the years I’ve been listening to country music that’s often happened to me. Here are a few of my favorite ‘stars in the making’ whose careers never really got going over the past 20 years, organised chronologically. I’ve limited it to artists who were signed to a major label which invested at least enough time, money and effort to release an album, but who never achieved more than one top 30 hit single.

Donna Ulisse had a beautiful alto voice and released a fine neotraditional album, Trouble At The Door, on Atlantic in 1991. None of the singles reached the top 60 on Billboard. After she lost her deal, Donna moved into bluegrass, and I reviewed her recently released second bluegrass album here earlier this year.

Joy WhiteOne of the best albums of 1992 was Between Midnight And Hindsight by Joy White on Epic – Joy’s strong, distinctive voice and intense approach was matched to some great material, but the singles (which included ‘Cold Day In July’, subsequently covered by the Dixie Chicks) all flopped. She moved to Columbia and rebranded herself as Joy Lynn White for 1994’s Wild Love, another strong set which failed to produce anything approaching a hit. She has recorded sporadically since for independent labels, but her later music is less commercial and less immediately appealing. I think she may have been a little ahead of her time, as her style would have appealed to Dixie Chicks fans.

Rhonda Vincent may seem like a strange choice for this list, but technically she qualifies. After a string of bluegrass albums for Rebel in the very early 90s, Rhonda spent several years trying to make it as a mainstream country artist. She released two excellent albums, Written In The Stars on Giant Records in 1993, and Trouble Free on Warner Bros in 1996. The singles made no impact whatsoever, and in 2000 Rhonda returned to her first love, bluegrass. She has gone from strength to strength since.

I have always been surprised that Bobbie Cryner‘s career never took off. She had a beautiful voice and wrote and picked some fine material to record, but two different labels tried and failed to make her into a star. Both her self-titled debut on Epic in 1993 and Girl Of Your Dreams on MCA in 1996 are well worth seeking out, even though none of the singles reached the top 50. She continued to write for other artists through the 90s.

Neotraditionalist Ken Mellons, had a promising start when his ‘Jukebox Junkie’ (one of the poorer songs on his self-titled debut album) was a top 10 hit in 1994. His hopes of stardom were dashed when none of the other singles from his two Epic albums hit the top 30, and he then made the serious mistake of signing to Curb. Six years later, after a handful of singles and one further album, the good but misleadingly titled The Best Of (it was actually all new material apart from a horrendous dance mix of ‘Jukebox Junkie’), he escaped. He released an independent album in 2004.

Keith PerryAnother of the 90s hat acts who I really liked was Wesley Dennis, who released a very good Keith Stegall-produced record on Mercury in 1995, which was spurned by radio. That was the last we heard of him. Keith Whitley soundalike Keith Perry had a very nice record on Curb in 1999 whose singles yet again failed to make an impact; I understand he also recorded an inspirational album for the same label a few years later, but I haven’t heard that.

Elizabeth Cook Hey Y'allElizabeth Cook‘s distinctive voice was probably too country for country radio, as she had no hit singles from her excellent Warner Bros album Hey Y’all in 2002. She has gone on to garner critical esteem from her independent releases, most recently Balls, making her another artist to do better without a major label.

Two of my favorite singles in 2004 came from artists on this list. After I heard Australian Catherine Britt‘s top 40 hit ‘The Upside Of Being Down’ I waited anxiously for her RCA debut album. And I waited. And waited. It was eventually released in 2006, I believe in Australia only, and she is now based back home in Australia. Julie Roberts‘ debut single ‘Break Down Here’ is still her only top 30 hit, although her label Mercury released two good albums, the first of which has been certified gold. She is still on the label roster, but as no new material has been released since 2006 one doubts she will stay there much longer.

Bobby Pinson Man Like MeThe last name on my list is Bobby Pinson, who had a top 20 hit with ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ in 2005. Sadly, none of the other singles from his excellent Man Like Me on RCA did as well, and he was soon cut loose. I suspect his problem was that he was too similar to Eric Church, another new artist at the time, although I preferred Bobby’s work. He subsequently released an independent album, and seems to be doing well as a songwriter, co-writing extensively Toby Keith and the members of Sugarland.

Which artists can you think of who you expected to be stars, who never made it?

Recommendation: Songs of marital discord

lee ann womackYesterday while driving around from one place to another, I decided I needed some real country music, so I popped in Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From in my car’s CD player. I only got this CD last August, but it became an instant favorite the first time I heard it, just because it’s so country and so well-made. The CD played as I drove and sang along, and eventually one of my favorite songs came up, “He Oughta Know That By Now”, a #32 hit on the charts back in 2005. This song is just one of many songs about a marriage going wrong, here due to the man working too much.

Some of my favorite songs are about “marital discord”, like the turn-the-tables “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” by Patty Loveless or dealing with a cheating man on “Paint And Pillows” by Julie Roberts. It seems that today, songs about these kinds of issues between husbands and wives are becoming more and more rare, probably because they don’t make people feel happy, something radio wants to avoid.

This is why I’m so glad Lee Ann Womack still isn’t giving up these songs, sad songs about real problems. This leads to my real recommendation, “Either Way”, from her latest set Call Me Crazy.

This song paints a bleak portrait, a lie of a marriage where both parties pretend it’s all okay, but it’s not:

We pass in the hall
On our way to separate rooms.
The only time we ever talk
Is when the monthly bills are due

We go to work, we go to church,
We fake the perfect life
I’m past the point of give a damn
And all my tears are cried…

This all leads to the kicker of “Baby you can go or you can stay/I won’t love you either way.” Ouch. It’s a gorgeous song with a great guitar lick that underlines it while Lee Ann gives a killer performance. This is the stuff true masterpieces are made of, and I think you need to check this song and album out.

What are your favorite songs about marital un-bliss?