My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Keith Gattis

Album Rewind: Kendell Marvel – Lowdown & Lonesome’

Successful songwriter Kendell Marvel’s debut album proves he is a strong singer as well with a booming baritone. The record is in a mainly Outlaw vein with honky tonk and Southern rock elements combining in a way which should appeal to fans of Chris Stapleton. Marvel co-wrote nine of the ten tracks, all with either the aforementioned Stapleton or with his producer Keith Gattis. The songs all focus on heartbreak and drinking.

The title track, written with Gattis and Randy Houser, sets the stage with its passionate and southern rock infused vocal and lyrical nods to Johnny Cash as the narrator treats a broken heart with booze and barroom life. I believe Houser is on backing vocals on the track. ‘Heartache Off My Back’ is another energetic tune about battling heartbreak, set to a train rhythm assisted by Mickey Raphael’s harmonica.

The tender ballad ‘Gypsy Woman’ (officially a single) paints a sympathetic portrait of a restless drifter, but appealing for her return home. In the misleadingly seductive sounding ‘Watch Your Heart’ the protagonist cautions a potential love interest against getting too emotionally involved with him.

There are three co-writes with Stapleton. The best of them is ‘Closer To Hell’ which Gattis also helped write. This is a traditional country drinking song about a man slowly destroying himself after his loved one moves on:

Well, my sweet little baby lit out of here like a bat out of you know where
So I’ve been drinkin’ every day and night til the dog aint got no hair…

Well, my Godfearin mama, bless her heart,
Sent the preacher out to talk to me
Sat on the couch, said “Let it all out,
Son, the truth is gonna set you free”
So I started confessin’
And he started sweating
Til he had to get up and leave
I guess the preacher agrees that

I’m just one more day closer to hell
No, it won’t be long til I’m walking with the Devil himself
I got one foot in the fire
And the other one’s on the way…

Well, they say the road is paved with good intentions
But I don’t intend on doin’ nothin’ good

‘Untangle My Mind’, which the pair wrote with Jaron Boyer, is a mid-paced tune about hard living which is quite enjoyable, loaded with honky tonk piano. ‘Tryin’ Not To Love You’, which they wrote with Casey Beathard, lacks melody, and leans a little more in the southern rock direction. However, this is the only track I didn’t much enjoy.

My favorites on this album are two sad ballads written with Gattis. ‘Hurtin’ Gets Hard’ (also written with Audley Freed) is about missing an ex whenever he is home alone and can’t distract himself any more:

You’d think that I couldn’t care
Til I walk in the front door and you’re still not there
And that’s when it stops being easy
And that’s when it all falls apart
When I’m here and you’re out wherever you are
And that’s when the hurtin’ gets hard

The steel-led ‘That Seat’s Saved’ is about a man in a bar hoping against hope that his love interest will come back.

The album closes on a high with the sole cover, Charlie Daniels’ ‘Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye’, on which Kendell is joined by Jamey Johnson.

This is a really good album which has a lot to offer.

Grade: A

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Single Review: George Strait – ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’

goin-goin-gone-cover-artBeyond a few dates in Las Vegas with Kacey Musgraves, George Strait has remained dormant for the better part of the last year. Cold Beer Conversation has continued his downward trend as country radio continues to find little room for many with traditional-leanings. In the past few weeks Strait has returned, sitting down with The Dallas Observer (the interviewer, surprisingly, is no relation to me) for a must-read interview and mining his most recent album to release “Goin’ Goin’ Gone,” a honky-tonk rocker co-written by Wyatt Earp and Keith Gattis.

The lyric finds the protagonist down on his luck, with little savings:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much

 

I ain’t got no 401, ain’t got no benefits

They don’t hand out stock options, not down here in the pits

Despite his grim financial situation he is determined to forget his troubles, even if he only digs himself deeper:

I’m overdue so throw it on the card

Bartender, keep it open, I’m just getting started

Come Monday morning, I just might be overdrawn

But it’s Friday night, so, I’m goin’, goin’ gone

Even without a solid foundation, he does find the silver lining:

Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain

It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays

 

But I’ve got old glory hanging by my front porch light

Might not be the perfect world but then again, it might

Blue-collar anthems, once a staple of country music, have fallen by the wayside as the Nashville Machine went into overdrive to deemphasize the harsh realities of life in modern country songs. At its core, “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” is a drinking song dosed in realism, with the writers gifting us intent behind his need to keep throwing ‘em back.

While I do find the record infectious, and Strait sounds as high-energy as ever, the execution is lacking the uniqueness that would take this single over the top. Plus the arrangement, while excellent, feels a tad loud in the final mix.

“Goin’ Goin’ Gone” may have appeared on Cold Beer Conversation but MCA has serviced it as the promotional push for Strait Out of The Box: Part 2. Strait’s second boxed set (3 CDs), a Wal-Mart exclusive, will be released on November 18. In that case, “Check Yes or No” this is not. But it is very good.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jason James – ‘Jason James’

jason jamesTexan tenor Jason James is a country traditionalist, which is always good to discover in a young artist. His debut album, on New West Records, is packed with a retro melange of self-composed shuffles, country ballads and rockabilly. Half the tracks were produced by John Evans in Texas, the remainder by Keith Gattis in Nashville.

The fabulous ‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’ (the official first single but a world removed from contemporary radio) sounds like a lost classic from the 1960s, with a lovelorn protagonist drowning his sorrows:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

‘Here Comes The Heartache’ is another very retro shuffle. I loved both of these.

‘I Wonder If You’ll Ever Come Around’ is an excellent wistful ballad about a man with a straying wife. The emotional ‘World Of Make Believe’ is a anguished soaring ballad reminiscent of some of George Jones 1960s recordings complete with Nashville Sound backing vocals. (The opening is as if he is about to launch into ‘The Window Up Above’.) ‘Back In My Arms’ is another lonesome ballad with an extended steel guitar instrumental in the middle. There is more gorgeous steel guitar and fiddle on the excellent suicidally depressed ‘I’ll Set You Free’:

Now honey I’m still trapped under your spell
And I’m fresh outa change for the wishing well
You’re as cruel as the river here is cold
I’ll set you free but my heart won’t let you go

‘Welcome To The Blues’ is lyrically downbeat but sounds more mellow. The romantic ‘Walk Through My Heart’ is another fine song.

He turns to pretty authentic rockabilly in the frantic ‘Hot Mouth Mama’ and ‘Fancy Limousine’. I liked these less than the straight country tracks, but that’s an issue of personal taste rather than quality.

The oddly titled ‘Buppa Bup Bow Wow’ features a wail just short of a yodel, and is very Hank Williamsesque apart from the title refrain. ‘True Blues’ is somewhat in the same vein, but more subdued. ‘Pullin’ Out The Suit’ picks up the tempo again.

Jason has a nice, if not very distinctive, tenor voice with a smooth tone, but the real strength of the album is in the songs and production. It’s a good listen if you miss older style country music.

Grade: A-

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Single Review: George Strait – ‘Let It Go’

Let-It-GoFor the vast majority of his long major-label career, George Strait has relied on outside songwriters for his material. In fact, the 1982 album cut “I Can’t See Texas From Here” held the distinction of being his only self-penned recording until 2009 when he co-wrote “Living For The Night” with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. He has been making up for lost time ever since; the trio has collaborated on a number of songs, including “Here For a Good Time” (2011), “Drinkin’ Man” (2012), and “I Believe” (2013). Strait’s newest single “Let It Go” finds him and Bubba teaming up with Keith Gattis.

“Let It Go” is also noteworthy because it finds Strait teaming up with a new co-producer Chuck Ainlay, marking the first time since 1992 that he has shared production duties with anyone other than Tony Brown. While the song’s commercial impact remains to be seen, the change in co-producers has paid off from a creative standpoint. “Let It Go” is my favorite George Strait single in quite some time. It is a light-hearted, carefree tune that should be peaking on the charts by early summer. It is contemporary enough to be radio-friendly, without making any embarrassing attempts to chase current commercial attempts, like a few of the tracks on the new Reba McEntire album. The inclusion of steel drums towards the end of the song give it a breezy, summertime Caribbean feel without beating the listener over the head (Kenny Chesney, please take note).

Strait, who will be 63 next month, hasn’t had a single on the charts since 2013’s “I Got a Car”, which was one of the lowest charting singles of his career, peaking at #37. Only its predecessor “I Believe”, which did not chart at all, has performed worse. Changes in Billboard’s charting methodolgies and the fact that he isn’t touring anymore don’t help. His reign on the charts may be winding down, but I’m hoping that this deserving late-career entry will buck the trend and enjoy some success.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s favorite singles of 2013

i let her talkCountry radio may have gone from bad to worse this year, but as ever there were a few bright spots – and some great singles away from the mainstream offerings. Here are my favorite singles of 2013:

10. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker
A vibrant, charming cover with rootsy production. What a pity the rest of the album was so deadly dull.

9. It Ain’t The Whiskey – Gary Allan
A bit loud, and perhaps rather similar to past songs, but a great vocal makes this worthwhile.

8. Songs About Trucks – Wade Bowen
An emotion I think we can all get behind – no more songs about trucks, please. But this isn’t just a complaint, this song also has a genuine emotional storyline which lets it stand on its own merits.

overnight success7. Overnight Success – Zane Williams
The independent artist explains how to become a country star, overnight (well, after nine or ten years hard work, of course). A fine song, by turns ironic, self-deprecating and good humoured.

6. Stripes – Brandy Clark
The witty song isn’t the best on the singer-songwriter’s excellent album 12 Stories, but it’s highly entertaining nonetheless. It’s a pity it hasn’t got more mainstream attention.

what are you listening to5. What Are You Listening To – Chris Stapleton
A very tastefully arranged recording, a well written song, and intensely emotional vocal. It wasn’t as successful as I had hoped it would be, and the singer-songwriter and former SteelDriver still awaits release of his solo album for Mercury, but it’s a fine and memorable record.

4. I Got A Car – George Strait
The story song about a couple’s journey from first meeting to starting a family, written by Keith Gattis and Tom Douglas, was an obvious single choice from George’s current album. It is packed full of charm, and shows the veteran (unexpectedly named the CMA Entertainer of the year) still has commercial potential.

3. Could It Be – Charlie Worsham
A debut single from a young artist with a fresh, youthful sound. Utterly charming. I wasn’t as taken by the album, but the single (which reached #13 on the country airplay chart) stands up as one of the more refreshing moments on country radio this year.

borrowed2. Borrowed – LeAnn Rimes
A cheating song from LeAnn’s somewhat controversial Spitfire album. Her mature vocals are beautiful, and the self-penned song draws with an unsparing honesty on LeAnn’s own experiences with her early relationship with her current husband, when both were married to others. The song’s complicated emotions didn’t help LeAnn’s increasingly chequered image, but it’s a fine and deeply truthful song – what country music is all about. The production is delicately sensitive and allows the vocals to shine.

1. I Let Her Talk – Erin Enderlin
A fantastic story song from the singer-songwriter, this beautifully realised tale narrates a bar room encounter between two women drowing their troubles. In an unexpected twist the meeting turns out to be between a man’s wife (the narrator) and his clueless “careless drunk” lover. Erin wrote the song with the great Leslie Satcher, and it is perfectly constructed. This was the promotional single for Erin’s independent album of the same name, and although it received limited mainstream attention it was absolutely the best single of the year for me.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Single Review: Randy Travis with Joe Nichols – ‘Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum’

possumVirtually every country artist that has emerged during the past 30 years has claimed to have been influenced by George Jones, so it was inevitable that the legendary singer’s recent death would spawn a series of tributes. One would be hard pressed to tell from listening to the music of a lot of these “fans” that Jones had any influence over them at all, but there is no doubt that Randy Travis’ admiration for the late singer was sincere. It is therefore, entirely appropriate that he is among the first, if not the first, major country star to release a Jones tribute single.

Written by Keith Gattis, “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is, as one might expect from a song about George Jones and sung by Randy Travis, a traditional country number. It is sung from the point of view of a grieving Jones fan who, fueled by cigarettes and alcohol, vows to spend however long it takes to go listen to the entire Jones discography. The tone is one of unabashed reverence, and references are made throughout to some of Jones’ biggest hits — “Bartender’s Blues”, “Why Baby Why” and of course, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Though unlikely to be a huge radio hit, the record should be well received by fans of both Jones and Travis.

There is one glaring problem with this record, and sadly, it is that Travis’ voice is showing signs of substantial wear and tear and at times is almost unrecognizable. As a result, Joe Nichols was recruited as a duet partner to do most of the heavy lifting. His traditional baritone succeeds in compensating for Travis’ vocal shortcomings, and in fact the recording seems more like a Nichols vehicle with a guest vocal from Travis as opposed to the other way around. I’m glad that Joe was available to save the day — and the record — but listening to this tune makes me sad on two counts: that one of my favorite country singers is gone, and that another appears to be past his vocal prime.

Grade: B

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Set You Free’

set you freeGary Allan’s career seemed to be on a bit of slowdown, with his last top 10 single coming in 2007. Gary has responded by turning to a variety of producers, often a ploy of the artist in decline and desperate to get another hit, but on the whole it seems to have worked. The result is probably the artist’s most sonically adventurous album to date, which is a mixed blessing, but after an initial sense of disappointment on my first hearing, I’ve warmed to the record more than I was expecting.

His biggest hit single in years, the resigned ‘Every Storm Runs Out Of Rain’, is a good song in a contemporary vein. The production (overseen by Gary with Greg Droman) is adventurous and a long way from Gary’s earliest traditional leanings, but not unattractive (apart from an echo which I could do without but is only used a couple of times). It places Gary’s best plaintive vocal at the heart of the track, supported by an effective harmony from co-writer Hillary Lindsey. This is the song which give the album its title.

Gary and Droman also produced ‘You Without Me’, a weary reflection on dealing with having split from someone the protagonist still loves, which Gary wrote with John Lancaster and Rachel Proctor, with another fine vocal. ‘Sand In My Soul’, their third collaboration, on the other hand, is a boring Warren Brothers song about depression on the beach, with a weird echoey sound. The bluesy rocker ‘Bones’, written by Keith Gattis, has an interesting lyric but it sounds like a loud tuneless mess. Disappointingly it is one of the songs flagged on the CD packaging as a likely single.

Gary turned to Mark Wright to help with a further three tracks. The best of these is ‘Hungover Heart’ which is a solid number despite a sometimes heavy hand with the electric guitars. Gary’s vulnerable vocal is perfect for the song, written by Matt Warren and James Leblanc. Gary’s own ‘No Worries’ is bland and boring reggae-lite which sounds like a Kenny Chesney reject, with irritatingly whispery, echoey production. ‘Good As New’ closes the album with an air of philosophical resignation, and is okay but a little over-produced.

The producer with the biggest role is Jay Joyce, best known for his work with Eric Church, and although I was concerned that I wouldn’t care for his work with Gary, it turns out to be better then expected. The best track on the album is one of his production efforts, is the downbeat ‘It Ain’t The Whiskey’, which showcases Gary’s grainy voice and is reminiscent of his best work, and where the production choices are inventive in a mostly good way (although the last instrumental break is pointlessly loud). An unusual opening with the faint sound of an organ leads into the body of the song, in which Gary declares to an AA meeting “in the church of the broken people” that depression is the root of his addiction, and

It ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me

The song was written by Greg Barnhill, Jim Daddario and Cole Degges.

Joyce also does a good job with the chugging ‘Tough Goodbye’, about a commitment-phobe with some qualms about breaking up with his latest victim. Penned by Josh Thompson and Tony Martin, the song is pretty good and gets a committed delivery from Gary, with an interesting ending where he suddenly sounds more vulnerable and even regretful. It might make a good single.

‘Drop’, another likely single does have a compelling, sexy vocal, but the song is just okay and the instrumental arrangement and production don’t really appeal to me, although it might work on radio. The mid-tempo ‘Pieces’ (written by Gary with Odie Blackmon and Sarah Burton) isn’t bad but is a bit loud, while ‘One More Time’, written by Gary with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren, is inoffensive but boring.

Overall, I think this album is a distinct improvement over his last couple of albums, although the quality of the material is not up to his classic work.

Grade: B

J.R. Journey’s Top Singles of 2012

Four veteran superstars, two of country music’s hottest groups, a couple of up-and-comers, and two debut singles make up my top ten singles list this year. Rather than tell you why it’s a damn shame that radio was unwelcoming toward Alan Jackson and George Strait’s respective singles and how they’ll probably cool toward Kasey Musgraves soon and likely won’t give Ashley Monroe a shot either, I’ll just say that six of my ten favorites were big hits. That’s something. And I’ll tell you why I like these songs.

10. Jana Kramer – “Why You Wanna”

One Tree Hill star Jana Kramer made the actress-to-country-singer leap flawlessly with her promising debut on this fiddle-laced plea. (Take note, future wannabes.)  “Out of all of the places in this little town/Yeah, you had to come walking in here and sit down” she mews and wins over millions of country fans, myself included.

kenny chesney - el cerrito place9. Kenny Chesney – “El Cerrito Place”

Kenny Chesney hits a sweet spot with medium-tempo ballads like this one, and he’s gotten a lot better at selecting them recently. (See: “Better As A Memory”, “You Save Me”, “You and Tequila”.) This Keith Gattis tune is more evidence of Chesney’s superior skills for selection and delivery.

8. Easton Corbin – “Lovin’ You Is Fun”

This guy has the vocal chops and the strutting neotraditional sound to keep this kind of country alive for a new generation of fans. I really like the rapid fire verses meeting the toe-tapping chorus here.

carrie underwood - two black cadillacs7. Carrie Underwood – “Two Black Cadillacs”

Underwood’s finest single to date is “Does He Love You” meets “Delia’s Gone” set to an appropriately ominous contemporary sound.

6. Ashley Monroe – “Like a Rose”

As one-third of the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe and company gave us one of the best albums of 2011. This year, she attempts solo country stardom once more on a sweet song with smart lyrics. The hook is not original, but its memorable nonetheless. And it sticks in my ear just right.

zac brown band - uncaged5. Zac Brown Band – “Goodbye In Her Eyes”

Their breezy harmonies and snappy songs have made the Zac Brown Band a perennial favorite for me since their debut. And they didn’t disappoint this year with this slow-burning number.

4. George Strait – “Drinkin’ Man”

Thirty years into his recording career, Strait set a new high-water mark for himself with his Here for a Good Time album. This stunning narrative from a man battling his alcohol demons is one of his best singles ever.

band perry - better dig two3. The Band Perry – “Better Dig Two”

This song comes from two of my favorite current writers – Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark – with Trevor Rosen, but fits well with Kimberly Perry’s own clever musings on mortality and love. Continued kudos to the band for sticking with this organic sound following their big breakthrough.

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

Jackson’s first single from his excellent Thirty Miles West album is stone country at its melancholy finest. It’s similar to those early gut punches in Jackson’s catalog like “Here In The Real World” and “Wanted”. Here, he’s taking all the blame for the end of this love affair and even says he won’t pick up if she ever drunk dials him one night. That’s downright decent.

kasey musgraves - merry go round1. Kacey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”

The Texas singer and former Nashville Star contestant’s debut is a vivid and sometimes startling yarn about small town life and features a light touch of production well-suited to the lyrics and one of the neatest rhyme schemes I can remember.

Listen to a playlist of my favorites on Spotify.

Single Review – Kenny Chesney – ‘El Cerrito Place’

There’ve essentially been two Kenny Chesneys of late – the artistic mastermind (“You and Tequila,” “Somewhere With You”) and the commercial lightweight (“Live A Little,” “Feel Like A Rock Star”) with each coexisting somewhat seamlessly amongst each other. After three singles categorized as lightweight, it was time for his artistic side to rear its head. But when I heard said single was Keith Gattis’ “El Cerrito Place” I was nervous.

I’ve been a big fan of Charlie Robison’s 2004 reading, with Natalie Maines providing gorgeous backing vocals. Their voices melt together like a pure Texas dream, while the production smartly stays out-of-the-way allowing both to shine. More importantly there’s grit in Robison’s voice that allows him to convey the nuances in the story so that you believe him as the song’s protagonist.

But after ten years of stadium tours and album after album of odes to beachfront life, Chesney has lost the sense of how to appropriately covey a song like this. He sounds completely foreign singing in his lower register, like a comedic actor trying to show dramatic range. He finally morphs into the Kenny Chesney we’re all familiar with by the first chorus, but Buddy Cannon frames him with a bombastic production that turns “El Cerrito Place” into the typical generic single, not the emotionally wrought tale it was in Robison’s capable hands. Even the female backing vocals, reuniting Chesney with his “You and Tequila” partner Grace Potter, are lost in the sea of sound.

It’s all a shame because Gattis’ song is wonderful, and I was so looking forward to Chesney turning in a killer recording that would help to elevate the standards of country radio for the time it was in heavy rotation, in much the same way Tim McGraw and Faith Hill did with “Angry All The Time” in 2001. He’s shown he’s fully capable of turning in phenomenal performances on this type of emotionally wrought material in the past, but I guess those days are firmly in the rearview mirror.

Grade: C+ 

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Blame The Vain’

Dwight’s last album of original material to date was this 2005 release on independent label New West, recorded in California. He dispensed with the services of longtime producer Pete Anderson, taking the reins himself, while Keith Gattis (a former RCA recording artist himself) takes Anderson’s role as lead guitarist. The end result is not that different from Dwight’s earlier work, although it is not as traditional as his first few albums. He wrote every song. He sounds energized and committed throughout, despite the overwhelming downbeat nature of the lyrics, with not a happy song in the selection. Mainly they concentrate on the aftermath of failed relationships, with an overarching theme of trying to conceal pain.

The up-tempo ‘Intentional Heartache’ is a story song with a muscular beat about a woman driving away from her cheating man after an assault on his Chevrolet. This is more than a little reminiscent of the following year’s Carrie Underwood hit ‘Before He Cheats’. Interestingly, in both songs the action is moved by the woman’s emotional pain, but the revenge she takes (and sees as having more impact than her heartbreak) is on the man’s possessions, particularly his car. It ends with a spoken outro with Dwight voicing the husband over a thrashing backing, which feels unnecessary. It was a fairly unsuccessful single for Dwight, as was the title track, a rather ironic exploration of the practice of blaming others for one’s problems:

Til there’s nobody left
Then I’ll just blame me…

Blame is always never enough
It just keeps you in the game
Until you’ve only got yourself to bluff

This is a strong and memorable song, but independent labels rarely have the resources to support singles at radio, and like its predecessor it faltered outside the top 50.

The wistful desire to relive the beginnings of a love affair which is coming to an end is expounded in the mid-tempo ‘I Wanna Love Again’, which was the final single. This too is better than its failure to chart would suggest. On a similar theme, ‘When I First Came Here’ initially seems to strikes a rare positive note with its tribute to love, but even this song has a depressing undertow, as it is yet another relationship to have failed leaving the protagonist to face “endless moments alone”.

My favorite track is the slow and lonesome ‘Lucky That Way’, a steel-led number with a faintly familiar tune and perfectly judged phrasing. The title belies the despairing tone of the lyrics as Dwight clings to a new woman while imagining the relationship’s inevitable demise:

Have you ever heard a voice start to moanin’
After despair’s choked its last words away?
Well, any worse sound defies your ears even knowing’
And Lord I’ve heard plenty –
I’m lucky that way

So wrap your warm arms around me
And let our weak hands deal out love’s sad fate

Also excellent is ‘Does It Show’, a restrained yet intense picture of a man trying to hide his heartbreak and continuing love for the woman who has left “love’s biggest clown”, with effective close harmony from Jonathan Clark. The protagonist is equally determined not to admit to pain in the mid-tempo ‘I’ll Pretend’, but the vocal is so agonized perhaps what he is really pretending to himself is that he is even capable of pretending he doesn’t care. In the lowkey and pretty-sounding ‘Just Passin’ Time’ (another highlight), he is beyond pretending, and forlornly wanders the streets and his empty house.

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Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘No Place That Far’

After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.

Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.

Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30.  It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly.  I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.

Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher.  Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters.  Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.

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