My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Karen Staley

Abum Review: Forester Sisters – ‘Sincerely’

Sincerely was the Forester Sisters’ fifth studio album for Warner Brothers, although it should be noted that the fourth album was a Christmas album. Released in July 1988, Sincerely continued the downward trend of charting lower than each previous (non Christmas) album, reaching only #30 on the charts. Three singles were released from the album, each reaching the top ten but none getting any higher than #7.

The album opens up with “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which was written by Paul McCartney & John Lennon an album track for the British version of the Beatles Help! album. The song has been covered and performed by many country and bluegrass groups over the years and Calamity Jane released it as a low charting single (#44 in 1982). The Forester Sisters give the song a slow intro but then launch into the standard tempo for the song. It’s nice but nothing special.

Byron Gallimore and Don Pfrimmer wrote the next song, “I Will”, a slow ballad that was released as the third (and highest charting) single from the album, reaching #7. It’s a nice song:

Nothing grows in the driest places,
the bitter cold,
or children’s faces,
like love will,
love will…

Nothing can be everlasting
or send an iron curtain crashing
like love will,
love will…

“Letter Home” is up next and was the first single from the album. It only reached #9 but in my opinion this Wendy Waldman composition was the best song on the album

Dear mama, I hope that you’re alright
I can hear the thunder rollin’
Across the Southern sky tonight
The kids are asleep and the T.V.’s on
And I’m sittin’ here alone
So I thought I’d write this letter home

I was the one you were counting on
The family’s high school star
Jimmy and me ran off that summer
Must have broken your and daddy’s heart
We didn’t need nobody’s help
We were 18 years and grown
That’s why there was no letter home

Letters home I wrote them in my dreams
Askin’ if I know what I know now
Would it even have changed a thing
The hardest part of looking back
Is the mistakes are all your own
I just couldn’t tell you
So there was no letter home

Doug Stone would have a #5 hit in 1990 on Harlan Howard’s “These Lips Just Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”. The Foresters do a pleasant enough job on the song, but it seems more effective from a male perspective. Stone’s version was deservedly a hit, this version is nothing more than album filler.

Next up is the title track “Sincerely”. This song, written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, was originally recorded by Moonglows, the group of which Fuqua was a member. The Moonglows’ version reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and number 20 on the Billboard Juke Box chart in the early months of 1954. Later during the year the song was covered by the McGuire Sisters. The song reached #1 in 1955 and sold well over a million records. The Forester Sisters version of “Sincerely” is pretty, albeit over-orchestrated and a bit bland. The song reached #8 and was the second single released from the album.

The next track “Things Will Grow” is filler. “Some People”, written by Carol Chase and Dave Gibson, speaks a lot of truth and is perhaps more than simply filler – I can envision a string voiced singer making a hit out of the song.

Russell Smith and Susan Longacre combined to write “On The Other Side Of The Gate”, a song given a more hard country treatment than most of the songs on the album, with steel in evidence and fiddle breaks. I really liked this song.

“You Love Me” from the pens of Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset is a really interesting song with a different feel than anything else on the album. At points the arrangement reminds me of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” although the lyrics are entirely dissimilar

The last song on the album is Karen Staley’s “Matter Of Time”, a slow ballad about loss of love and the slow passage of time.

The Forester Sisters were bucking the emerging “New Traditionalist” movement with this album. While I like the album a lot, it has more of a 50s-60s easy listening vibe to it than a modern/traditional country vibe. As a easy listening album I would give it an “A” but as a country album I would downgrade it to a “B”.

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Album Review: Lee Greenwood – ‘Love’s On The Way’

Released in late 1992, Love’s On The Way was the third album released on the Liberty label and his thirteenth major label studio album. Unfortunately it also signaled the end of Lee Greenwood as a viable chart artist. While the immediate prior release of patriotic songs, American Patriot, had sold platinum in the wake of the cowardly attacks of 9/11/01 and temporarily brought the fading Greenwood back into prominence, this more conventional album again failed to chart. The two singles released from the album made almost no impact – “Before I’m Ever Over You” made the slightest dent on the singles charts reaching #73 and the other single released, “I Never Thought Your Memory Would Ever Go This Far” failed to chart at all despite getting a favorable review in Billboard: “Perhaps country’s Phil Collins, Greenwood has a ballad to brag about. Slow and dreamy instrumentation sets the mood for Greenwood’s pristine performance.”

Of course, by the time this album was released, Greenwood had already turned fifty years old, and was rather long in the tooth for the youth-oriented playlists of the early 1990s. My copy of this album is on an audio cassette so I do not have the songwriter or production credits, although I was able to find the session personnel through other sources.

The album opens up with “Before I’m Ever Over You”, a mid-tempo rocker written by Sandy Ramos and Jerry Van Diver. This is followed by the tender ballads “In Other Words” and “Final Touches”
“Linda Lu” would have made an interesting single. The song was originally an R&B hit in 1959 for Ray Sharpe. Sharpe was sometimes described as the ‘the greatest white-sounding black dude ever’ and the song got some rockabilly airplay as well as R&B.

This is followed by “I Never Thought Your Memory Would Ever Go This Far” (discussed above).

“I Miss The Romance” is a decent nostalgic slow ballad. This is followed by the mid-tempo “Soldier Of Love” and another slow ballad in “Waiting On The Tables To Turn”. All three of these are what I would describe as album filler, albeit of decent quality.

On the other hand “She Wants To Be Wanted Again” is a good song that I can see being a hit had it occurred during Lee’s peak years or had it made its way to Kenny Rogers.

The album closes with the title track “Love’s On The Way”, given a very soulful treatment by Greenwood. This sounds like some something that T. Graham Brown or Con Hunley would have tackled successfully.

This album has a slightly more country sound than does some of his earlier albums; however, the early 1990s were the peak period for the “New Traditionalists” movement. Included among the musicians are such country stalwarts as Don Potter (acoustic guitar); Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar, mandolin); Steve Gibson (electric guitar); Weldon Myrick & Dan Dugmore (steel guitar); Rob Hajacos (fiddle); Brent Rowan (dobro, electric guitar, bass); Matt Rollings (piano); David Briggs (piano, synthesizer); Mike Lawler (synthesizer, organ); David Hungate, Michael Rhodes (bass); Paul Leim, Eddie Byers (drums); Ron “Snake” Reynolds (percussion); and Andrea Zonn, Greg Gordon, Donna McElroy, Russell Smith, Curtis Young, Carol Chase, Cindy Richardson, Karen Staley, J.D. Martin, Russell Smith (background vocals). Even so this is more of a ‘blue-eyed soul’ album than the market was buying at the time plus, of course, Lee was already well into middle age.

I didn’t dislike any of the songs, but I didn’t really love any of them either. I would give this album a C+ or B-.

Album Review: Lee Greenwood – ‘A Perfect 10’

The winds of change swept through country music in the late 1980s, with younger stars reviving more traditional sounds. Lee Greenwood’s singles were getting less radio play than they had earlier in the decade, and he must have realised that if he wanted to stay relevant he needed to make some changes. In 1990 he moved from his longstanding label MCA to Capitol, and for his second album for that label (then using the Liberty name), in 1991, he released a duet album with ten female vocalists. They were mainly newcomers the label wanted to promote with a few of Lee’s contemporaries.

The only single was ‘Hopelessly Yours’, a duet with Suzy Bogguss, who was about to make her breakthrough. It peaked at #12 but deserved better, as it is a beautiful song written by the great Keith Whitley and Curly Putnam with hitmaker Don Cook, sung by both vocalists with a wistful tenderness, and tastefully produced with some lovely steel guitar.

One of the label’s biggest stars at the time was Tanya Tucker. ‘We’re Both To Blame’ is a traditional sounding waltz about a couple whose marriage is breaking down – another really lovely track.

All-female bluegrass-country group Wild Rose collaborate on the vibrant up-tempo ‘The Will To Love’, which I enjoyed a great deal.

Karen Staley was better known as a songwriter, but released a couple of excellent albums herself in the 90s. I don’t believe she was ever formally signed to Liberty or Capitol (she certainly didn’t release anything for them), but label boss Jimmy Bowen had produced her 1989 MCA album Wildest Dreams. She has an distinctive and unusually deep voice for a woman, and almost overpowers Greenwood on the brassy ‘I’m Not Missin’ Anything’. Cee Cee Chapman, a Curb artist with another deep alto voice, has a boring song for her duet with Lee, ‘You’re Not Alone’.

Carol Chase has an excellent voice and is well matched to Lee on the enjoyable mid-paced pop-country ‘Looking At A Sure Thing’. ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ is a cover of an R&B classic sung with Donna McElroy, who has provided backing vocals on many country records but is predominantly a gospel singer herself. This version of the song pays not the slightest attempt to sound country, but is pleasant enough listening in its own vein, with a strong soulful vocal from McElroy.

Of the older artists, Lacy J Dalton is wasted on ‘From Now On’, a nice enough but bland MOR ballad which just does not showcase her. Previous duet partner Barbara Mandrell joins Lee for ‘I’d Give Anything’, another dull ballad. Marie Osmond’s pristine vocal on ‘It Wasn’t Love Before’ has phrasing from musical theater.

This is generally a fairly strong album with something for everyone.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘The More I Learn’

Ronna’s second album for Mercury was released in 1992. It was slightly more successful in gaining radio play, although there were still no bona fide hits.

The mid-paced title track, ‘The More I Learn (The Less I Understand About Love)’, was written by one of the most successful female songwriters of the era, Karen Staley, with Steve Dean, and it is radio friendly enough to have been a potential hit. Its #49 peak would make it the closest ever Ronna ever got to the charts.

Follow-up ‘What If You’re Wrong’, written by Austin Cunningham and Denise Davis, is a big ballad in which Ronna offers to set her a restless husband free:

If you think the magic is gone
I agree, maybe you should move on
If you’re sure that your love for me has really died
If there’s something still missing for you
Then there’s nothing more I’ll know to do
So I’ll have to go along with whatever you decide

But what if you’re wrong?

Some nice steel augments the song effectively. It peaked at a dismal #70, one place higher than the third and last single, the pacy ‘We Can Hold Our Own’, which is pleasant if unremarkable.

My favorite track is ‘Nobody Here To Love’, an excellent Bob Mc Dill ballad about the loss of love. There is a gentle Celtic feel to the fiddle arrangement on the verses behind Ronna’s vulnerable vocals, which then soar on the chorus:

I was living all alone
And though I had a heart of stone
You touched my hand and melted me
And I believed

It was you that made me see
What love could be
But I walked in today and no one was there
Now nothing matters after all

Funny how things work out
Can’t believe somehow
You could leave me now
Tell me, what were you thinkin’ of
‘Cause now that you taught me how
There’s nobody here to love

Another solid McDill tune, ‘Honky Tonk Hearts’, had been a minor hit for Dickey Lee in 1980, and was also recorded by John Anderson. Ronna’s version is pretty good. ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ is a sweet love song (written by Paul Kennerley) offering a second chance to someone who has been hurt by another. It was previously recorded by Don Williams. I also quite enjoyed the up-tempo ‘Heartbreak Shoes’.

‘Frontier Justice’, written by Bobby Fischer, Charlie Black and Austin Roberts, is a dramatic number in which Ronna seethes about being done wrong and lied to:

‘Cause you can’t hang ’em high
You can’t lay ’em low
The way you could a hundred years ago
When love and honor were the law of the land
If frontier justice prevailed today
My daddy and brothers would make you pay
That’s the kind of justice you’d understand

Ronna’s attitude is directed triumphantly at her lover’s ex in the upbeat ‘Bless Your Cheatin’ Heart’, an entertaining song written by Buddy Cannon and Jessica Boucher:

You know, it’s almost funny to see you standing there in tears
I just wanna thank you dear, because he no longer cares about you

You had everything you didn’t want but then somehow
He started looking good to you the minute he fell in my arms
And I’m obliged to you
And bless your cheatin’ heart

Sammy Kershaw duets with Ronna on ‘There’s Love On The Line’. Their voices work well together on this song (written by Jerry Fuller) about a separated couple laying phone tag as they try to make a connection again.

There was a lot of strong material on this album, and it’s one I enjoyed listening to.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘Only The Heart’

Big Spring, Texas native Ronna Reeves released her debut album on PolyGram/Mercury Records in 1991. Only The Heart was a commercial dud, with the album and all four of its singles failing to chart.

Reeves’ debut single, the excellent steel laced chugger “Sadly Mistaken” was co-written by Byron Gallimore. The would-be power ballad “The Letter,” which followed, wasn’t very good or well-written.

The third single, “That’s More About Love (Than I Wanted To Know)” came with pedigree — Dickey Lee and Bob McDill co-wrote the mid-tempo ballad, which was originally released as a low-charting single by Nicolette Larson in 1986. Reeves’ version is good but hasn’t aged well through the years.

“Ain’t No Future In The Past,” a nice up-tempo rocker, ending the label’s promotional run with this album. The title track, a wonderful ballad, was written solely by Karen Staley.

In addition to the Lee/McDill co-write, Only The Heart had one more notable moment. Reeves covered country legend Ernie Ashworth’s classic “Talk Back Trembling Lips.” Her version is spellbindingly good and easily one of the best songs on the albums.

“I Could Be Loving You” is a well-executed and engaging uptempo rocker. “Sayin’ You’re Wrong Don’t Make It Right” is a wonderful example of 1990s country at its best. “If I Were You” features an almost identical story to Terri Clark’s classic of the same name, which would appear four years later. Clark’s take on the theme is better and far more polished. “Same Old Story” is an excellent Tony Arata ballad.

Only The Heart is a mixed bag with some truly great songs, some that are just okay, and not enough to make me excited to see where Reeves will head as an artist. I can see why it failed. The album just isn’t distinctive enough to stand out from the pack. She’s a great singer in search of better material.

Grade B+

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Linda Davis’

In 1992, Linda released her second album. Like the first it was produced by label boss Jimmy Bowen, with Linda getting a co-production credit, but it was uninspiringly self-titled. Where her earlier singles had failed to make much impact, the singles from this record were resoundingly ignored by country radio.

The reason why is clear when you listen to ‘There’s Something ‘Bout Loving You’, an upbeat but thoroughly forgettable pop-country song which now sounds very dated. It was written by hitmakers Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, but was one of their poorest efforts, and a really bad choice for a single for an artist hoping to make her breakthrough. The follow-up, Dewayne Blackwell’s ‘He Isn’t My Affair Anymore’ is a much better song, an emotional ballad which Linda delivers with conviction, although it has a bit of a musical theater vibe.

The best song on the album is a cover of John Conlee’s 1982 hit, ‘Years After You’, which Linda manages to make her own with a lovely, emotionally invested vocal, although the production has not aged well, and the backing vocals are curiously old-fashioned for an album made in 1992. But the song itself is a great Thom Schuyler song about an enduring love which long survives a breakup:

I knew that it wouldn’t be easy
For my heart to find somebody new
But I never thought
It still would be broken in two
These years after you

They tell me time is a natural healer
It kinda smooths the pain away
But this hurtin’ within hasn’t yet given in
And it’s been over 2000 days
I still remember the taste of your kisses
And your eyes that were beautifully blue
I can still hear the sound of your voice
When you said we were through

There’ve been mornings when I couldn’t wake up
There’ve been evenings when I couldn’t sleep
My life will be fine for months at a time
Then I’ll break down and cry for a week
‘Cause when I told you I’d love you forever
I know you didn’t think it was true
But forever is nothing compared to some nights I’ve been through
These years after you

‘LA To The Moon’, another emotional ballad, is a fine song written by Susan Longacre and Lonnie Wilson about a country star and the hometown sweetheart left behind:

You were always different
Had a big dream in your heart
This old cowtown couldn’t hold you down
Once you caught your spark
I stood out on the runway
And watched you taxi past
I would’ve gone anywhere with you
But you never asked

You went from Beaumont to LA
And LA to the moon
An overnight success
You put a lot of years into
You tell me nothing’s different
I’m just a call away from you
But it feels more like the distance
from LA to the moon

‘Isn’t That What You Told Her’ is another excellent song, written by Karen Staley and Karen Harrison, with a barbed lyric addressed to a man with a questionable past record in love by his new love interest, who is understandably dubious. It is very well sung, but once more with dated backings.

‘Tonight She’s Climbing The Walls’ is a story song about a neglected wife ready to make a break, written by Craig Bickhardt and very well sung by Linda. ‘The Boy Back Home’, written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, is another ballad, about nostalgia for a first love, and is quite nice in a more contemporary style.

Of the up-tempo material, ‘Just Enough Rope’ (later cut by Rick Trevino) is fun. ‘Love Happens’ and ‘Do I Do It To You To Too’ are both forgettable pieces of filler.

As a whole, this album is hampered by some of the production choices, but it did show Linda was a great singer given the right material, and some tracks are definitely worth downloading.

The commercial failure of this record was to lead to an unexpected second chapter in Linda’s career. Released by her label, she signed up as Reba McEntire’s backing vocalist, and the result would make country music history.

Grade: B

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘House On Old Lonesome Road’

House On Old Lonesome Road was Conway Twitty’s third album since returning to MCA Nashville after six albums with Warner Bros. The record was released in 1989 and spawned three singles.

The lead radio offering, “She’s Got A Single Thing In Mind.” was a forceful Walt Aidridge-penned ballad that peaked at #2. The title track, a ballad reminiscent of “That’s My Job,” hit #19. “Who’s Gonna Know,” another bland ballad, stalled at #51.

Clinton Gregory had a #25 hit with “Play, Ruby, Play,” an excellent mid-paced number co-written by Tony Brown and Troy Seals when he released it in 1992. Twitty’s version provides the album with a much-desired change of pace. “Private Part of My Heart,” another Seals co-write (this time with Max D. Barnes), returns the album to the sounds of mid-1980s country somewhat successfully. “Pieces of You,” which Barnes co-wrote with Skip Ewing, is far and away the record’s most traditional number, with lovely doses of fiddle throughout.

“Too White To Sing The Blues,” co-written by Lacy J. Dalton, is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings. Karen Staley and Gary Harrison co-wrote the jaunty and ear-catching “Take Me Home to Mama,” a nice slice of modern honky-tonk. “Child With Child” is another of the sappy ballads for which Twitty had come to be known for during this period of his career. “Nobody Can Fill Your Shoes” feels a step out of touch and sounds just a couple years out of date.

I’m going to go out on a limb and reveal how truly out of touch I am. Given that House On Old Lonesome Road was released in 1989, at the height of the new-traditionalist movement, I had fully expected an album not unlike what Keith Whitley and Don Williams were turning out at the time. What I got instead was a kaleidoscope of sounds and textures attempting to showcase Twitty in the many different lights for which he found success that decade. There isn’t any truly outstanding number among these 10 tracks, although Gregory had the good sense to revive “Play, Ruby, Play.”

Grade: B

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Hold On’

220px-Nitty_Gritty_Hold_OnBy the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was routinely peaking in the upper regions of the country charts and had even scored two number one hits along the way. But they’d yet to release their signature song, which would change when Hold On hit stores in July of 1987.

The album saw three singles released. Non-descript rocker “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” came first, peaking at #2. The album’s third single “Oh What A Love” was much better, with a pleasant acoustic-based shuffle arrangement featuring prominent mandolin. The mid-tempo ballad comes off a tad cheesy today, but the arrangement and tight harmonies from the band keep it listenable.

Between those two singles, which are forgettable at best, came the aforementioned signature song. Written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, “Fishin’ In The Dark” is an iconic single from the period, a modern masterpiece that sounds as timeless today as it did twenty-seven years ago. The combination of Jeff Hanna’s commanding vocal and Josh Leo’s flawless production is irresistible. Not since Alabama’s “Mountain Music” a full five years earlier had an opening sequence (Gentle acoustic guitar plucking building to include twangy electric guitar, ribbons of harmonica, and attention-grabbing drum beats) been so identifiable.

Eddy Raven took his version of “Joe Knows How To Live,” written by Max D. Barnes, Lyle Graham, and Troy Seals to number one in 1988. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is just as good as Ravens, albeit identical except for Hanna’s smoother vocal tone and the band’s inclusion of harmonica.

Bruce Springsteen solely wrote “Angelyne,” a slick slice of synth drenched country rock that contains a good lyric but is packaged too neatly for my taste. Richard Leigh co-wrote “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl,” a brilliantly excused ballad that would’ve been even stronger had Hanna sang lead. Karen Staley wrote the album’s closing number, “Tennessee.” I love the fiddle, steel, and band harmonies on the track, but the overtones of synth drown out any real enjoyment of the neo-traditional leaning track. Wayne Holyfield co-wrote “Dancing To The Beat of a Broken Heart,” which still leans on the synth, but is better with Hanna in the lead.

Various members of the band contributed songs to the project as well. Hanna co-wrote, “Keepin’ The Road Hot,” a generic number similar to Restless Heart’s style at the time. Jimmie Fadden, meanwhile, solely wrote “Oleanna.” The production on the ballad is too synth driven, and Fadden’s vocal is bland.

Hold On is a mixed bag of an album, heavy on synth, and lacking any real identity beyond “Fishin’ In The Dark.” The harmonies are fantastic, though, but to today’s ears the album is a bit too 80s.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tracy Bird – ‘No Ordinary Man’

TracybyrdnomIn the wake of the success of “Holdin’ Heaven” Tracy Byrd readied his sophomore album, No Ordinary Man, for release a year later in 1994. Country and pop songwriter / musician Jerry Crutchfield,  handled the production duties, taking over from Tony Brown and Keith Stegall, and gave the project a straightforward mainstream sound that worked well with fans and radio programmers alike.

The first single was Byron Hill and Wayne Tester’s “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous,” a delightful honky-tonker about a couple being filmed for a television show that peaked at #4, The lyric may be clichéd and try too hard to paint the scenario of this couple, but the overall track exudes a likeable charm that remains enduring more than twenty years later.

The line dance craze sweeping the country music nation at the time give rise to such numbers as second single “Watermelon Crawl,” which also peaked at #4 as a result. The song, about a Watermelon festival in Georgia, is corny and dated but hasn’t aged as horribly as other such songs and is still listenable today.

“The First Step,” the third straight sound-alike honky-tonker to be released from No Ordinary Man impacted radio next. Another line dance song this one may’ve peaked at #5, but unlike the previous two, it’s hardly remembered today (I’ve never even heard it before). Line dance burn out, and the fact this number is pure filler, is likely to blame for this track’s demise. The production doesn’t help either, as it’s indistinguishable from Garth Brooks’ “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” from a year earlier.

MCA Records at the time didn’t want to release the biggest hit from No Ordinary Man as a single, but Byrd pushed, citing crowd reaction in his argument. Byrd won and “The Keeper Of The Stars” was released in February 1995. An instant classic, the gentle acoustic and steel guitar accentuated love song quickly raced to #2, became an anthem for weddings, and won its writers (Dicky Lee, Danny Mayo, and Karen Staley) CMA Song of the Year that fall.

The single version of “Keeper of the Stars” was different from the one featured on No Ordinary Man. Byrd re-recorded the track because he felt he sang it better in a lower key. This second version, the one he sang in concert, was also used in the accompanying music video for the song. Byrd would re-record the song again in 2001 when he was signed to RCA Records.

The remainder of No Ordinary Man focused heavily on uptempo numbers no different than the majority of the singles. “Right About Now” and “Pink Flamingos” are throwaway filler while “You Just Don’t Know How Good You’ve Got It” is noticeable only because Crutchfield gave it a honky-tonk arrangement not far removed from Alan Jackson’s classic style.

The remaining two – the title track and “Redneck Roses” are Byrd co-writes. The title track is a convincing cowboy number not far removed from Mark Chesnutt’s trademark style while “Redneck Roses” is the album’s lone neotraditional number and an excellent one at that.

With two million copies sold, No Ordinary Man reversed Byrd’s commercial fortunes by planting him squarely within the line dance craze and the fever surrounding rockin’ honky-tonkers. Unfortunately that sound doesn’t make for a great listening experience as the album lacked the lyrical and sonic verity needed to help it stand above the fray. But as a commercial product it couldn’t have been much hotter or more successful.

Grade: B

Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s: Part 7

honey i dare youIt’s been a while since my last installment of this series. Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Honey (Open That Door)” – Ricky Skaggs
The early 1980s belonged to Ricky Skaggs as he racked up eight #1 records before the end of 1984. Some of his records were bluegrass/country hybrids, others, like this cover of Mel Tillis-penned Webb Pierce record were more straightforward country. This record topped the charts in 1984 and had a very amusing video to accompany it.

A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After disappearing from the charts for six years, Connie emerged with this excellent single in 1985. Epic didn’t give the record much of a promotional push so it only reached #71, but it was one of my ten favorite records for the year 1985.

He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills”– Margo Smith
Margo Smith has a short run of chart success in the late 1970s but by the end of the decade her run was almost over. This 1980 record would stall at #52 and other than a pair of duets with Rex Allen Jr., she would not see the top forty again. Margo is still an active performer and lives in the Villages, FL. When she’s feeling well, she can still yodel with the best of them.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street”– Sammi Smith
Sammi’s last top twenty record, reaching #16 in 1981. Sammi should have become a much bigger star than she did.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-el Sonnier
This Cajun accordion player had two top ten records for RCA in 1988 before fading away. Cajun has never been mainstream so he didn’t figure to have too many hits (and he didn’t). This record reached #9 and the one before it “No More One More Time” reached 7. Nothing else reached the top twenty.

Hasn’t It Been Good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
Hank’s eighty-fifth chart hit and the very last singles chart appearance for ‘The Singing Ranger’. This song crept to #80 in 1980. Hank would only record one more time after the album from which this album was issued, a duet album with Willie Nelson a few years later. Read more of this post

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

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

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

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

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Just The Same’

Terri’s second album, released in 1996, followed along broadly the same pattern as her debut, balancing high-energy radio friendly entertainment with traditional roots. She co-wrote most of the material, most often alongside the established songwriting team of Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, and the quality is consistently high. Waters also co-produced with Terri and Keith Stegall.

The first single was, however, actually a cover of the Warren Zevon song/Linda Ronstadt 70s hit ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’. Terri’s vibrant version (belying the dark lyrics) peaked at #5 on Billboard and #1 in Canada. The equally lively up-tempo Emotional Girl’ (written with Rick Bowles and Chris Waters) was another Canadian #1 and US top 10 hit. The title track and third single is a gorgeous mellow love ballad with a little more of an AC feel and a subtle string arrangement, which allowed Terri to show off her vocals, but radio was less receptive to Terri’s ballads than to her up-tempo numbers, and this peaked disappointingly low at #16.

The twangy ‘Something In The Water’ was the last single, but while it has a good groove and attacking vocal, it is not particularly memorable, and only just squeaked into the top 40. Equally twangy, but more memorable, is the ironic salute to an old ‘Neon Flame’ (written by Terri and Chris Waters with Chuck Jones), and perhaps this would have been a better single choice. I really like the catchy and uncompromising ‘You Do Or You Don’t’ (one of the few outside songs, written by Bob DiPiero and Karen Staley), and this too would have made a great choice as a single. Terri’s love interest isn’t quite committed to her, and she sets out an ultimatum, telling him firmly he either loves her, or he doesn’t:

Love ain’t followed by a question mark…
We’re not talkin’ brain surgery

The other song not written by Terri is the amped-up bluegrass of ‘Hold Your Horses’, a revival of a song written by Carl Jackson and Pam Gadd for the latter’s former band Wild Rose. ‘Twang Thang’ keeps up the energy levels, but is rather noveltyish. The mid-tempo ‘Not What I Wanted To Hear’ has a rueful admission to herself that the guy isn’t going to call.

My favorite song here is Terri’s solo composition ‘Keeper Of The Flame’, with its beautiful melody, excellent vocal, and downbeat lyric about a neglected wife desperately holding on to hope that things will somehow go back to the way things were:

I am the keeper of the flame
You only helped my build the fire
And it’s getting harder every day
To make our love burn with desire
Cause if I left it up to you
Only ashes would remain

Another outstanding ballad is ‘Any Woman’, where Terri gives us a sympathetic portrait of a woman’s heartbreak, suffered in silence:

Night can be so cold when a memory’s all you hold
Yeah, I know what she’s going through tonight
Any woman who’s been hurt by a man understands
It’ll take some time for her to find a way to love again

There is another great vocal here, balancing sympathetic advice to a man interested in the heartbreak victim, and sisterly empathy with the woman.

Just The Same has been certified platinum in the US and double platinum in Canada.  This is an excellent record, full of fine material delivered with commitment.

Grade: A

It’s still easy to find, both digitally and on CD, with used copies being extremely cheap.

Some hidden treasures of the decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Bobby Marquez – ‘Bobby Marquez’

bobbymarquezTexan country singer Bobby Marquez’s debut album on independent label Grande Star is a good example of solid country music with a Texas feel, underpinned with generous helpings of fiddle and steel. Bobby has quite a light voice but a very listenable one, and he is a very promising songwriter, having contributed to half the tracks on this album, collaborating most often with the album producer Gerald Smith. Smith worked with other writers on a further three tracks. All the material is at least decent, with a few standouts.

It opens with one of the two wholly outside songs (the other being a cover of Jim Lauderdale’s swooping ‘Whisper’), the western swing ‘She’s Not From Texas’, a lyrically slight but cute Karen Staley/Anita Cochran song about falling for a girl the protagonist meets on a Beaumont dancefloor: the payoff being “she’s from heaven”. Karen Staley also helped Bobby to write ‘That’s Life’, which hit #1 on the regional Texas country chart. Bobby’s sincere delivery lends a warmth and authenticity to this charmingly nostalgic and ultimately touching song as it imparts some small-town fatherly philosophy (admittedly the latter is a little cliche’d, but it feels churlish to dwell on that when the feel of the song is so endearing). Staley (a fine singer in her own right) also sings harmony vocals on the album.

Smith wrote the plaintive lost love ballad ‘Just Look At Me’ with Curtis Wayne, and this is another highlight with some lovely yearning fiddle and some very retro backing vocals towards the end of the song:

I’m still your fool
One look at you
And just look at me
Still under your spell so helplessly

Steve Frame wrote the very best track with Bobby and Smith, the cautionary tale of the ‘Marlboro Man’, about a girl who hooks up with a nameless guy in a bar, set to a classic country tune:

She wrote her number on the back of his Marlboro pack
He gave her his too but so much for that
The number he gave her was as fake as his name
So she named him the Marlboro man

Naturally it doesn’t go well:

He had her heart in the palm of his hand
In the morning she awoke to the mirrors and smoke
And just the memory of the “Marlboro man”

So don’t strike a match with a cowboy
He’ll only put out your plans
And all you’ll have left are the ashes
Where there once was a Marlboro man

I love this one.

Written by Bobby, Smith and Donna DeSopo, ‘Neon Tan’ is an amusing Caribbean style song with a difference as Bobby forsakes the beach for the bar:

I won’t have to worry about those UV rays
Burning my skin and peeling for days and days
No sand in my pants
No oil on my skin
From the glow on my face you’ll know I’ve been
Working on my neon tan
If you’re wondering where I am
Holding an cold one in my hand

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘If My Heart Had Windows’

ifmyhearthadwindowsSigned to MCA in 1985, Patty Loveless enjoyed some modest success on the singles charts, which did not translate into album sales by the time her eponymous debut disc was released in 1987. Her second album, released in 1988, didn’t fare much better at retail, but it did provide a much needed breakthrough at radio. Like its predecessor, If My Heart Had Windows, produced by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Tony Brown, is an album strictly in the neotraditionalist vein.

The album starts out strong, opening with Karen Staley’s “So Good To Be In Love”, followed by the catchy “ Working Man’s Hands”. The third track, “You Saved Me”, written by Curtis Wright, was the album’s lead single. Though it is a decent song and Loveless’ performance is solid, it seems like an odd choice to launch a new album by an artist who had yet to have her commercial breakthrough, particularly considering that there were much stronger songs on the album to choose from. Not surprisingly, “You Saved Me” performed about as well as Loveless’ previous singles, reaching #43 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The title track is a cover of a 1968 George Jones hit, written by the legendary Dallas Frazier. Loveless’ emotional performance, as well as the song’s traditional arrangement and simple message, as expressed in the chorus – “if my heart had windows, you’d see a heart full of love just for you,” resonated with audiences. Released as the second single, it provided Loveless with her first big radio hit, peaking at #10. Loveless would perform this song later in the year at her Opry induction. Hot on the heels of this success, MCA released a cover of Steve Earle’s “A Little Bit In Love”, which was an even bigger hit, climbing all the way to #2. Strangely, this song is somewhat forgotten today, and was even overlooked when Patty’s first Greatest Hits package was compiled in 1992.

The next track on the album is an excellent cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind”. The most uptempo song on the album, featuring a rollicking honky-tonk piano track and a superb vocal performance, it is both the highlight of the album and a missed opportunity. Why this track wasn’t released as a single is a mystery; by the late 1980s, the neotraditionalist movement had completely taken over country music and this is the type of song that would likely have done very well on the charts.

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