My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Keith Stegall

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Love Lies’

I always regarded Janie Fricke as primarily a singles artist, and the market apparently agreed as Love Lies, Janie’s eighth album (ninth album if you include the Greatest Hits album released in October 1982) was the first of her albums to reach the top ten of Billboards Country Albums chart, punching in at #10. This would prove to be rarefied air for Janie as only one more album, Black and White, in 1986, would reach the top ten.

Released in late 1983 and produced by Bob Montgomery, Love Lies was the second album he produced for Janie. Love Lies would see three singles released, “Tell Me A Lie” (#1), “Let’s Stop Talking About It” (#1) and “If The Fall Don’t Get You” (#8). “If The Fall Don’t Get You” was the first single to not go top four after eight consecutive such successes.

In the past I had described Janie’s earlier singles as ‘lovey-dovey drivel’ but perhaps I was a bit harsh. Today I would describe her previous singles as ‘confections’. I would not describe any of the singles on this album using such terms. These are more mature songs.

The album opens with “If The Fall Don’t Get You”, a biting commentary on love, co-written by Van Stephenson, who later was a member of BlackHawk.

So you say you’re thinking of falling in love
Going way out on a limb
And it seems like push is coming to shove
Just look at the shape that I’m in

I have paid the price for love
And it ain’t cheap
Better take a long hard look
Before you leap

If the fall don’t get you, baby
And your fading heart is beating still
If the fall don’t get you
Baby, the heartache will

Next up is “Have I Got A Heart For You”, a mid-tempo song which sells the virtues of a heart on the rebound. Written by Keith Stegall, the song is a decent album track.

I would also describe track three “How Do You Fall Out of Love”, a slow ballad of heartbreak as a decent album track. The Nashville String Machine is a little obtrusive but Janie’s voice cuts through the clutter.

“Love Lies” was an early single for Mel McDaniel, reaching #33 in 1979. It would be a few more years before Mel’s career caught fire, but I though his performance of the song was excellent. For whatever reason, the song never made it to one of Mel’s albums, so I am glad that Janie covered the song; however, she should have released it as a single.

Side one of the original vinyl album closed with “Tell Me A Lie”, a song carried over from the previous album It Ain’t Easy. Columbia during the 1970s and 1980s had this annoying habit of pulling songs from an existing album, releasing it as a single, then adding it to the next album. Since albums during this period only had ten songs, this meant that if you purchased both albums, you would get only nineteen different songs at rough two and a half minutes per song. This cover of a Lynn Anderson album track (and later a top 20 pop hit for Sami Jo) reached #1 for Janie.

Tell me a lie
Say I look familiar
Even though I know
That you don’t even know my name

Tell me a lie
Say you just got into town
Even though I’ve seen you here before
Just hangin’ around

Umm, tell me a lie, say you’re not a married man
Cause you don’t know I saw you slip off your wedding band

Side two of the vinyl album opens up with “Let’s Stop Talking About It”, an up-tempo that reached #1. The song was written by the dynamic trio of Rory Bourke, Rafe Van Hoy & Deborah Allen, who collectively authored many hit singles. You can give your own interpretation to what the lyrics mean:

We’ve had a lot of conversations
We’ve analyzed our situation
There’s only so much that words can say
After awhile they just get in the way

So let’s stop talking about it
And start getting down to love
Let’s stop talking about it
We’ve already said enough

This is followed the Troy Seal-Mike Reid collaboration “Lonely People”, a quiet ballad that makes for a decent album track.

Written by Dennis Linde and Alan Rush, “Walkin’ A Broken Heart” would be released as a single by Don Williams in 1985, reaching #2. Janie does a really nice job with the song and I think the song could have been a big hit for her. I slightly prefer Don’s version but it’s a thin margin of preference.

Walkin’ down this midnight street
Just the sound of two lonely feet
Walkin’ a broken heart
Walkin’ a broken heart

Empty city, not a soul in sight
And a misty rain falls on a perfect night
To walk a broken heart
To walk a broken heart

And I know that you’re thinkin’
This couldn’t happen to you
But you’re a fool for believing
Dreams don’t fly away, cause they do.

Another slow ballad follows in “I’ve Had All The Love I Can Stand”. Janie sings it well, but the song to me is a bit overwrought and not of much interest. The Nashville String Machine is prominent in the arrangement.

The album closes with “Where’s The Fire”, a nice upbeat melody camouflaging a song of angst as the narrator asks her love why he’s in such a hurry to leave.

For me this album is a bit of a mixed bag. Janie is in good voice throughout, and I appreciated the more mature lyrics but I’d like to hear more fiddle and steel. That said, this album is quite worthwhile.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘She Won’t Be Lonely Long’

she won't be lonely longClay’s first album in three years was released in 2010. It was mainly produced by Keith Stegall, with Doug Johnson taking the helm for a few tracks, but neither man shows his usual light hand.

The first single, the title track, was the album’s only big hit, peaking at #4. It’s a good song about a woman who “wants to hold a stranger, but not the one at home”, who has done her wrong. Clay sings it strongly, if lacking nuance.

‘Where Do I Go From You’ was a minor hit, making the top 30. A mid-tempo tune about getting over an ex, it is well written but Walker’s vocal lacks real emotional conviction and towards the end he oversings. ‘Like We Never Said Goodbye’ didn’t make the top 40, but offers a more subtle vocal on a fine song about a meeting with an ex and the complicated emotions it produces.

The final single, Western themed ‘Jesse James’ opens with a bluegrass feel and an impressive wailing vocal , but soon deteriorates into a horrible over produced mess. It was a deserved flop.

Clay contributed four co-writes, three of them with old friend Jason Greene. ‘Double Shot Of John Wayne’ is the best of these (and infinitely better than the similarly themed ‘Jesse James’), a very traditional country tribute to old western movie heroes. I really liked this. The pair’s other songs are ‘All American’, a very bland patriotic number which was used as a campaign theme tune by one of the unsuccessful candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012; and ‘Summertime Song’, a rather boring song about a working man dreaming of beach time, which might work better if it contrasted the two worlds more consistently through the song, but does have some nice fiddle. Clay wrote ‘Wrong Enough To Know’ with Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. It is an unremarkable but adequate mid-tempo love song given a poppy production.

‘People In Planes’, written by Barry Dean and Luke Laird, is an observational song about fellow travellers spotted on a flight, spoiled by very intrusive electronic effects and autotuning. ‘Keep Me From Loving You’ reminiscences about a high school romance which lasts, despite the disapproving parents. The song is okay, but it is heavily over produced.

Randy Owen harmonises on the Alabama hit ‘Feels So Right’, which is well sung but not a favourite of mine, and is given a very AC production with heavy use of strings. ‘Seven Sundays’ is very pretty sounding, and is an affectionate tribute to church attendance.

Overall this is a record which doesn’t seem to know how to position itself. There are some decent songs mixed in with more mediocre fare, and blatant attempts at getting radio play set against some real country sensibility.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘If I Could Make A Living’

if i could make a livingClay’s second album was released in September 1994. The engagingly bouncy title track was written by Alan Jackson, Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, and charged to #1 on the country charts. It has a copyright date of 1989, so I assume it was a reject from Alan’s first album, but it has genuine charm if not much depth.

Passionately sung ballad ‘This Woman And This Man’ about a couple on the cusp of breaking up was another chart topper. The run of hits was halted with ‘My Heart Will Never Know’, the final single, which peaked at #16. The sad lost love song was another ballad, with a pretty melody.

‘You Make It Look So Easy’ is another sad love song, written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, with the protagonist failing to cope with a breakup.

However, the record was dominated by up-tempo numbers. One of my favourites is the insistent kiss-off ‘What Do You Want For Nothin’, written by Keith Follese and Michael Woody. Clay demands scathingly,

All I wanted was your love
But it was more than you would pay
Now you want a second chance
To give me more of the same

What do you want for nothin’, baby,
A solid gold guarantee
That you get everything you need?
But there was no love in it for me
You wanna deal on the way I feel
But I’m not buyin’ that
What do you want for nothin’, baby?
Your money back???

‘The Melrose Avenue Cinema Two’ is an effervescent reminiscence of childhood friendship and teenage romance which is quite enjoyable. ‘Boogie Till The Cows Come Home’ is ramped up western swing with honky tonk piano.

Clay wrote four songs, three of them with Kim Williams and Kent Blazy. ‘Heartache Highway’ is a wistful song about failing to patch things up:
It’s a hell of a road
When you’re leavin’ heaven behind

‘Down By The Riverside’ is another remembrance of first love. ‘Money Ain’t Everything’ is a dramatic swampy story song full of atmosphere. Finally Clay wrote the solid honky tonk song ‘Lose Your Memory’ solo.
James Stroud’s production isn’t bad, a little dated in places now, but sufficiently recognisable as country music with some nice fiddle, and Clay’s vocals are good throughout. The album sold very well, and was certified platinum.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Little Bit Of Life’

little bit of lifeCraig’s third and final album for Broken Bow was released in 2006. He co-produced the record with the always reliable Keith Stegall, and it sounds solid throughout, but suffers from relatively weak material.

The rapid paced rather generic title track about country living was the first, and most successful, single, reaching #7. ‘Tough’ just missed the top 10, peaking at #11. A tender ballad paying tribute to a hard working wife and mother, it was written by Monty Criswell and Joe Leathers, and is nicely sung. The effervescent ‘International Harvester’ (about a tractor driving farmer happy to block the roads for other motorists) got Craig back into the top 10. It got some critical attention online at the time, but I always liked it. There is a genuine charm about Craig’s delivery.

Craig co-wrote four songs this time around. ‘I Am’ and ‘My Kind Of Woman’ are rather bland filler. The rapid paced and not very melodic ‘I Guess You Had To Be There’ is a bit silly, with Craig sounding like Joe Diffie at his novelty worst. ‘The Song’ is a pleasant sounding but not terribly interesting semi-story song about the power of a record to touch people’s lives.

Morgan’s friend and frequent cowriter, Phil O’Donnell, also wrote ‘Nothin’ Goin’ Wrong Around Here’ with Buddy Owens and Gary Hannan; once more this sounds decent but is lyrically dull. Much the same goes for ‘Sweet Old Fashioned Goodness’, written by Michael White, Carson Chamberlain, and Lee Thomas Miller.

Much better than any of these is ‘The Ballad Of Mr Jenkins’ a tearjerker of a story song written by D Vincent Williams and Steve Mandile. Williams also co-wrote the album closer, ‘Look At ‘Em Fly’, with Jim Femino; this is a nice little song about noticing the little things.

The songs are limited lyrically, but this is a recognisably country sounding record, which is always a plus.

Grade: C+

Single Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’

500x500The message behind Aaron Watson’s latest single release is that everyone should take time to live in and enjoy the moment, because life is short we never know when it might unexpectedly end. It’s a tried-and-true theme in country music, but it is especially poignant here when one takes into account that “Bluebonnets” was inspired by the loss of Watson’s daughter Julia, who died in infancy in 2011.

The first verse is a nostalgic look back at Watson’s childhood memories of his grandparents and reminds me somewhat of the opening lines of Andy Griggs’ “If Heaven” — a bittersweet look back at a happier and more carefree time. The chorus uses the imagery of now-faded bluebonnets in the spring to convey the message that Watson’s grandparents are now deceased. It is the second verse, however, that packs the big emotional punch. This is the verse that deals with Julia’s death — Watson “kisses his angel girl goodbye” but expresses faith and hope of one day being reunited with her. That he is able to get his message across without becoming maudlin is a testament to his skill as a songwriter.

The track, like the album from whence it came, was produced by Keith Stegall. It’s considered Texas country, despite the use of a Nashville producer and some well-known Nashville musicians, including the great Paul Franklin on pedal steel. There is absolutely nothing about it that would not have been considered solidly mainstream just a few years ago before the “Bro Show” got underway. The production is restraint, tasteful and traditional. Like the previous singles from The Underdog, this one is unlikely to chart but traditional country fans who seek it out are bound to enjoy it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell – ‘Letter To Home’

letter to homeFor his second Atlantic album, 1984’s Letter To Home, Glen turned to a new producer, Harold Shedd, and something of a new approach, deliberately aiming the album at mainstream country radio.

The concerted effort to appeal to country radio paid off. The first single, a nicely performed and tastefully arranged cover of J. D. Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’, was a top 10 country hit – Glen’s first since the theme song from movie ‘Any Which Way You Can’ in 1980. it was also the first time the song had been a hit single for anyone, although it was a decade old, having been cut by Linda Ronstadt on her classic Heart Like A Wheel album.

It was followed by Glen’s biggest country hit since 1977 – the #4 peak of ‘A Lady Like You’. This song, written by Jim Weatherly and Keith Stegall, is a solemn AC leaning ballad with a pretty tune. The somewhat tinny keyboard backing has dated a bit, but the vocal is impeccable. Disappointingly ‘(Love Always) Letter To Home’, a charming Carl Jackson song which lent its title to the album and which was released as the album’s last single, only made it to #14.

The beautiful Paul Kennerley ballad ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ has been recorded by others, including Don Williams and Marie Osmond, and even making an appearance on the third volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (featuring Kennerley’s former wife Emmylou Harris), but I don’t believe anyone ever released it as a single, which definitely seems like a missed opportunity, because it’s a lovely song. Glen’s version may just be the best of all of them, sincerely sweet and tender, and deeply romantic.

He reflects on the vicissitudes of stardom in a brace of tunes. The wistful lullaby ‘Goodnight Lady’ (written by Buddy Cannon and Steve Nobels) is pretty, as it voices a touring musician’s wistful longing for the loved one back home. ‘After The Glitter Fades’, about the loneliness lying behind stardom, is a cover of a minor pop hit for Stevie Nicks, one of the members of rock band Fleetwood Mac. It suits Glen pretty well. ‘Tennessee’, a Micheal Smotherman-penned tribute to the state, is a bit repetitive melodically but has an attractive feel to it

The mid-tempo ‘Leavin’ Eyes’ is very dated mid-80s country pop, although Glen does invest it with some energy. It was the first cut for its writer, Ted Hewitt. The beaty ‘Scene Of The Crime’, written by Carl Jackson and T Kuenster, also has a dated arrangement, but is quite catchy.

The set ends with an ethereal version of ‘An American Trilogy’, Mickey Newbury’s medley of three historic tunes reflecting American history and the long shadow cast by the Civil War: the now controversial ‘Dixie’, the spiritual-turned 1960s Civil Rights anthem, ‘All My Trials’, and the Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

This is a pretty good album, but one which does not stand with the very best of Glen’s work – apart from the gorgeous ‘I’ll be Faithful To You’, which I would recommend to anyone.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Angels and Alcohol’

81S0JZvN9pL._SX522_After a pair of non-commercial albums that found him venturing into gospel and bluegrass, Angels and Alcohol, which was released last week, is both a return to form for Alan Jackson and his strongest collection since he parted ways with Arista Records five years ago.

Like the vast majority of Jackson’s catalog, Angels and Alcohol was produced by Keith Stegall. In many ways it is reminiscent of their best work from the 90s; there are no concessions to current trends and no attempts to chase radio hits. The current single, “Jim and Jack and Hank”, which I reviewed earlier this month, currently resides at #47 on the charts. Despite being a fun and catchy uptempo number, it’s unlikely to rise much higher in the current commercial environment.

Although I stand by the B+ rating I gave the single, I would not include it among one of my favorites from the album, because there are other more substantive songs which which a fluffy lightweight song simply cannot compete. With all due respect to Alan Jackson the songwriter, who penned seven of the album’s songs, my favorites are the three he didn’t write. Troy Jones’ and Greg Becker’s “When God Paints” is a beautiful ballad, with lyrics that are rich with imagery about life’s simple pleasures. Even better is “The One You’re Waiting On” by Adam Wright and Shannon Wright, which finds the protagonist sitting in a bar, admiring his love interest from afar, knowing that he doesn’t stand much of a chance but wondering exactly what she is holding out for. “Gone Before You Met Me”, an uptempo number by Michael White and Michael P. Heeney is about a free spirit who has long since settled down, and when he finds he is still rambling, is relieved to discover that it was only a dream. Country music needs more songs like this.

Jackson’s own compositions are nothing to sneeze at, either. The opening track “You Can Always Come Home” finds him reassuring a child who is about to leave the nest, and the title track is a beautiful ballad that is vintage Alan Jackson. It would have been a huge hit 20 years ago, and even ten years ago it might have been given a fair shot by radio. The closing track “Mexico, Tequila and Me” finds Jackson switching back to Jimmy Buffett mode, and is reminiscent of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”.

I can’t find anything to complain about with this album. The current crop of singers who are doing their best to ruin country music (and largely succeeding), could learn a lot from Alan Jackson. There are no stretches or surprises here, just good old country music that will not leave Jackson’s fans disappointed. Sometimes that’s enough.

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: Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog’

the underdogAlthough it is an independent release, our Spotlight Artist’s brand new album The Underdog is produced by the always reliable Keith Stegall, who does a great job.

Aaron Watson should have been a huge star years ago, but he has been plowing his own furrow making real country music in Texas, and doggedly building up a fanbase. He addresses his career in the part-spoken valedictory ‘Fence Post’, touching on the fight between compromise and integrity, and the current state of country music. A record executive is shown telling Aaron he “don’t have what it takes to make it here in Nashville”, before coming back once Aaron has honed his skills and developed his fanbase to what even a record company man can see is “commercial appeal”. Aaron’s response, in both adversity and triumph, is to affirm:

I’d never sell my soul to rock and roll and rap and wear those tight skinny jeans
‘Cause you know I’d rather sing my old songs than be a puppet on a string
I’ll wear what I wanna wear
I’m gonna sing what I wanna sing
Heaven knows all I need is my faith, my friends, my fans and my family
Besides I’d rather be an old fence post in Texas than the King of Tennessee

The somber opening ‘The Prayer’ is a powerful imagining of the conversion of Johnny Cash:

There’s the man in white
His words are painted red
There’s power in his blood
And only truth in what he said
There’s the man in black
With the beetle in his vein
Lying flat on his back this is the prayer he once prayed

He said
My mountain is a molehill
My throne’s a busted chair
His crown is turned to rust and it’s all tangled in my hair
This high horse that I ride on is gonna buckle at the knee
On my castle made of sand
I cannot be the King of Peace

This is a quite remarkable song, and it’s brave to sequence such a challenging song right at the beginning of the album.

As powerful, and even more moving because it is so personal, is ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’, a wistfully poetic elegy to Aaron’s daughter Julia, who died soon after birth in 2011. The admirable title track may be addressed to his other children, offering sensible life advice about leading a good life, ranging from not living on credit, to reacting to adversity. Family memories are explored in the warm hearted ‘Family Tree’.

On the lighter side, a brace of songs were inspired by Aaron’s wife. ‘Wildfire’ is a pleasant mid-paced love song which is catchy and attractive if not earth-shattering, while ‘Blame It On Those Baby Blues’ is similarly likeable. ‘That Look’ is quite pretty, and has the honor of being Aaron’s first single to chart on Billboard. ‘One Of Your Nights’ is my favourite of the love songs, a sweet song about returning to her loving arms after a bad day.

The rapid paced ‘Freight Train’ is quite a good song about separation from a loved one due to the needs of his career but is so fast and one-note melodically it’s hard to decipher the lyrics. ‘Getaway Truck’ is an up-tempo love song which could do with a bit more melody. The perky ‘That’s Gonna Leave A Mark’ is more melodic.

Aaron’s Texas roots influence ‘That’s Why God Loves Cowboys’, a respectful and perhaps somewhat idealised tribute to cowboys and cowgirls and their care of the environment. It also has a smooth attractive melody. ‘Rodeo Queen’ is written from the point of view of a lovelorn rodeo clown, and is the only track where I don’t really like the production/vocal arrangement although it’s an interesting story.

Overall, an excellent album from one of the most underrated performers in country music.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Tracy Byrd’

Tracy byrd debut

Most of Tracy’s self-titled debut album, released in 1993, was produced by Keith Stegall in solidly neotraditional vein. However when the pleasant but somewhat anonymous initial single, ‘That’s The Thing About A Memory’ failed to make much traction, and he went back into the studio with label head Tony Brown to add three further tracks, which included the next two singles.

A cover of Johnny Paycheck’s hit ’Someone To Give My Love To’ (like the previous effort) showed off his deep voice and underlined his traditionalist credentials, but didn’t quite crack the top 40, and like its predecessor it didn’t really stand out. The big break came with single number three, ‘Holdin’ Heaven’ becoming the artist’s first charte topper. A very commercial rhythmic number with line dance potential it is not particularly memorable now

A fourths ingle, ‘Why Don’t That Telephone Ring’ then flopped just inside the top 40. That’s a shame because it’s an excellent mature ballad about man clinging on to a forlorn hope that his relationship is not over, which is the best of the three singles to my ears.

‘An Out Of Control Raging Fire’ (the third track produced by Tony Brown) is a duet with Dawn Sears, who was another rising star at the time. Both vocalists sing beautifully on the tune (which was later recorded by Patty Loveless with Travis Tritt).

My favorite trick, however, is the fabulous shuffle ‘Hat Trick’, written by Jim Weatherly and Glenn Sutton. The protagonist responds with wry resignation as he gets thrown out by his ex:

Now I ain’t no magician
Can’t change the way things are
I can’t make you love me if its not in the cards
I can’t wave a magic wand and make you want me near
But I can do a hat trick
I’ll put it on and disappear

I quite liked his cover of the western swing ‘Talk To Me Texas’, although it lacks the character of Keith Whitley’s version. Much the same goes for ‘Back In The Swing Of Things’, which was written by Vern Gosdin, Dean Dillon and Buddy cannon, and which Gosdin later cut himself.

At this stage of his career Tracy had not quite found his own voice as an artist. In particular the regret-filled ‘Why’ and ‘Edge Of A Memory’ are both excellent songs which sound as though Tracy is trying a little too hard to sound like George Strait (one of his big influences).

While this is not an essential purchase, it was a promising debut, and you can find used copies very cheaply. Or just download ‘Hat Trick’.

Grade: B

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

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: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Shakin’ Things Up’

shakin things upFor 1997’s Shakin’ Things Up, for the first time Lorrie shared in the production duties, being credited alongside James Stroud. The production has a glossy sheen to it, in keeping with the contemporary direction of country radio, but it is not appreciably different from her previous record stylistically. While Lorrie is in good voice, this is definitely an album of two halves: the first half is commercial and just a little dull, the second half has much better material.

The vivacious lead single ‘Go Away’ is quite poppy, but frivolous fun. Its radio friendly style led it to a top 5 chart peak and it was in fact to be Lorrie’s last top 10 hit. The even more pop oriented (but with little more lyrical substance) ‘One of Those Nights Tonight’ peaked at #14.

I liked the assertive rejoinder to a parting lover, ‘I’m Not That Easy To Forget’, quite a bit, but even though it sounds like a hit, country radio was less impressed, and the song failed to make into the top 40. It was written by Chris Waters, George Teren and Stephanie Bentley.

The best single from the album was the least successful of all: a lovely cover of the underrated Bobbie Cryner’s ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’. If you’re not familiar with Cryner, check her out now – she released two excellent albums on major labels in the mid 90s, but for some unaccountable reason gained no traction despite a beautiful voice and fine songs. This particular song, Cryner’s version of which had charted in the 50s in 1996, is a sharp, subtle indictment of a self-absorbed narrator who can’t understand why her marriage is failing, yet makes it all to clear to the listener. It’s a shame neither recorded version was a big hit; perhaps the emotion is too uncomfortable.

Another attempt to bring a new but relatively obscure song to a wider audience was Lorrie’s cut of ‘In A Perfect World’. This fine Keith Stegall song had been included on Stegall’s 1996 album Passages (another recommended purchase). Lorrie’s wistful vocal is beautifully judged, but the string section is unnecessary and does its best to smother the song. A quietly understated countryish cover of pop classic ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ works quite well with similarly intimate, throaty vocals.

The album’s most traditional track, ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’ is a timeless country classic, written by Bill Anderson and Jeanie Seely and originally a hit for Porter Wagoner. Like ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ it is about someone too insensitive to read another’s signals, although in this case it’s the man to blame. Lorrie interprets it beautifully, as she encounters an ex and finds it too painful to keep on chatting with him about the way he has moved on, when it is clear that she hasn’t. Vern Gosdin’s harmony adds the perfect finishing touch.

The sultry story song ‘Crazy From The Heat’ (written by Wally Wilson, Sam Hogin and Jim McBride) tells the story of Mississippi teens finding passion together. It’s quite good, but the instrumental sections sound a bit cluttered in places.

‘You Can’t Take That’ is a good ballad with Lorrie clinging to memories of the good times in the aftermath of a breakup. The bright ‘Finishing Touch’ is about a woman preparing for her man’s return home. The title track is a mid-tempo pop country number about chasing dreams.

The album was certified gold. While it’s not Lorrie’s best work, there is enough here to make it worth picking up a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Never Regret’

neverregretCraig Campbell’s eponymous debut album was one of the few bright spots in country music in 2011. It contained some first-rate songs, but lacking the support of a major label, it didn’t sell as well as it should have. Never Regret, which was released last month, continues in the same neotraditional vein. Keith Stegall and Matt Rovey produced the set, and Campbell shares songwriting credits on half of the album’s songs.

“Truck-N-Roll”, the opening track, is not as fluffy as the title might suggest. Co-written by Campbell with Brett Beavers and Chris Lindsey, it sounds a lot like something Beavers might have written for Dierks Bentley. It is also reminiscent of Easton Corbin’s “All Over The Road”, but it’s a better song and would make a good summertime single. Another mid-tempo number, the more contemporary “Keep Them Kisses Comin'” likewise should have a lot of appeal to radio, as would the humorous “My Baby’s Daddy” in which Campbell discusses an uneasy relationship with his future father-in-law. To date, however, only one single has been released — “Outta My Head”, a pleasant but forgettable piece of fluff that cracked the Top 40 last fall.

The album’s best track is the ballad “When She Grows Up”, about a father’s aspirations for his infant daughter, though I could have done without the very young child singing “Jesus Loves Me”, which serves as the song’s intro. “That’s Why God Made A Front Porch” is another winner, though it is probably not commercial enough to be released to radio. Another Campbell co-write, it is one of those increasingly rare songs that manages to pay homage to the country lifestyle without a lot of amped-up electric guitars and redneck posturing. “You Can Come Over”, is another nice ballad in which Campbell attempts to keep at arm’s length an old flame that he’s not quite over yet.

There isn’t anything particularly memorable about the remainder of the album’s songs. Overall, the material on Never Regret isn’t as strong as that of the first album. Campbell didn’t write as many of the songs this time around, and it appears as though he and his producers may have had some trouble finding an entire album’s worth of first-rate tunes. It comes off as a largely play-it-safe effort that probably won’t earn Campbell any new fans, but also won’t alienate those who liked his first album.

Grade: B

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’

1991 was the height of the neotraditional movement, and the period saw a host of exciting new artists rooted in traditional country music breaking through. It was the ideal time for Sammy Kershaw, with his astonishingly George Jones soundalike voice, to make his debut. Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson produced his first album for Mercury, and did a fine job showcasing the artist’s voice.

His debut single ‘Cadillac Style’ was an immediate success, reaching #3. It sunnily celebrates the power of true love to overcome the limitations of poverty. The sultry title track (penned by Chapin Hartford and Jim Foster) relates the passions of first love somewhere in the South. Imbued with Southern atmosphere, the record peaked just outside the top 10.

The record’s finest song, ‘Yard Sale’ was Sammy’s third straight top 20 hit, and his finest single to date. Written by Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian, it depicts in precise detail the sad aftermath of a failed marriage, with the couple’s goods being sold off cheap to all comers, leading to Sammy’s sardonic comment,

Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?

This excellent song would have been perfect for George Jones himself at his peak. While Kershaw isn’t quite the superlative interpreter Jones is, he still delivers the song very well.

The final single, ‘Anywhere But Here’, was Sammy’s second top 10. A vibrant up-tempo treatment belies the protagonist’s broken heart and desire just to get away from the scene of his broken heart.

Bob McDill’s regretful ‘Real Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ has a lovely fiddle/steel laden arrangement. The protagonist finds his sophisticated modern worldview collapses when his heart gets broken, and he reverts to an older style of dealing with heartbreak:

I play Hank Williams on the jukebox
Order up old whiskey at the bar
And through my tears I light another Lucky
I’ve got a real old fashioned broken heart

This is another gem, as is ‘Kickin’ In’, a heartbreak ballad written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, with a pretty melody and fiddle underlining the sad mood.

Underlining the comparisons to George, Sammy picked an obscure George Jones song to record. ‘What Am I Worth’ has the protagonist plaintively questioning his value regardless of other achievements in life, because his loved one is rejecting him. A vivacious up-tempo mood belies the downbeat lyric.

My favorite track is the hardcore cheating song with a twist – both parties in the marriage are running around behind the other’s back, ‘Every Third Monday’. It was written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Billy Henderson. Also with a twist, the ballad ‘I Buy Her Roses’ initially sounds like a sweet love song, but there is a sting in the tale. The protagonist’s loved one has actually left him, and he is buying the flowers he always forgot to do when they were together. A sincerely delivered vocal sells the song effectively.

Closing out the set, ‘Harbor For A Lonely Heart’ is a pleasant but not particularly memorable ballad written by Kostas and Jenny Yates.

While Kershaw’s vocal similarity to George Jones meant he perhaps lacked a degree of individuality, there are far worse singers to emulate. This was a pretty solid album with some very fine moments, and a promising debut. It sold well at the time, and was certified platinum. Used copies can now be found very cheaply, and it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Uncaged’

The Zac Brown Band’s music is difficult to categorize. While much of it is firmly rooted in country music, it is also heavily influenced by Southern rock and reggae, and at times it also reminds me of what Top 40 and adult contemporary radio used to sound like back in the 1970s. Because their selections tend to be eclectic, I’m always a little apprehensive when they release a new album, figuring it is only a matter of time before they release something that I don’t like. I’ll also admit that I was initially put off by Uncaged’s creepy cover art by Brandon Maldonado, which depicts what looks like a demonic representation of the Virgin Mary, and which is titled “Our Lady of Merciful Fate”. Cover art aside, however, Uncaged is a solid collection of tunes, though it isn’t quite as satisfying as the band’s previous two releases.

Once again Keith Stegall shares production duties with Zac Brown, and the band members all had a hand in writing ten of the album’s eleven tracks, and once again they’ve managed to push the boundaries of country music while maintaining a freshness that continues to elude the music of most of their peers. The album opens with the Caribbean-flavored “Jump Right In”, a catchy and enjoyable, though not remotely country number. The Caribbean theme is revisited a few tracks later with “Island Song”, a fun but lightweight summertime number that is the album’s only song not written by any of the band members.

The album’s best track is the current single “The Wind”, a bluegrass-tinged, fast-paced number that Occasional Hope reviewed last month. It is quite different from anything that the band has done previously and the sort of song I never expected to hear from them. Nothing else on the album comes as close to traditional country, which is a slight disappointment because I’d really like to hear more music in this vein from them. They push the envelope further on a few other tracks, which unfortunately don’t work as well. The Southern-rock title track is a bit too heavy on the electric guitars for my taste, though it is probably a good number to jam onstage. Likewise, I could have done without the R&B flavored “Overnight” with guest artist Trombone Shorty, which really sounds out-of-place in this collection.

The bulk of the album sounds similar to the band’s first two major label releases and all of the songs are worth listening to. “Sweet Annie” reminds me a lot of “Colder Weather” and is a good candidate for a single release, and the fast-paced “Natural Disaster”, which has a beat similar to John Denver and Emmylou Harris’ “Wild Montana Skies” is a particular favorite of mine. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” reminds me of the kind of song Blackhawk used to do; it too is a potential hit single. The album’s last two tracks, “Day that I Die” with guest artist Amos Lee, and “Last But Not Least”, which the band co-wrote with Mac McAnally, are both excellent but probably aren’t commercial enough to be sent to radio.

Despite a few missteps, Uncaged is a good example of why one shouldn’t judge a book — or an album — by its cover. While I prefer The Foundation and You Get What You Give, Uncaged has grown on me with repeated listenings and there is more than enough here to keep Zac Brown Band fans satisfied.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Thirty Miles West’

Listening to a new Alan Jackson album is much like watching a John Wayne movie; one pretty much knows what to expect and there are very seldom any big surprises, yet when it’s over, one usually feels satisfied and fully entertained. His latest effort, Thirty Miles West, is his first release on his own imprint, through a new arrangement with EMI Nashville. Despite the label change, the album’s content is still very much in the same vein as most of his Arista albums. Longtime collaborator Keith Stegall is once again in the producer’s chair.

Radio seems to have cooled towards Jackson lately; aside from his guest appearance on the Zac Brown Band’s #1 hit “As She’s Walking Away”, he hasn’t scored a Top 10 hit in three years, and the first of Thirty Miles West’s two advance singles, the self-penned “Long Way To Go”, failed to reach the Top 20. A catchy, fun, if somewhat unoriginal Jimmy Buffett-style summertime song, it deserved to chart higher than its #24 peak. The current single “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” currently sits at #26. It is a very nice break-up ballad written by Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, in which the male protagonist graciously offers to take the blame for the relationship’s failure.

One of my favorite tracks is the energetic bluegrass-tinged “Dixie Highway”, which features a guest appearance by Zac Brown. It’s the best of the six songs that Alan wrote for the album. At nearly seven and a half minutes, it is too long to be a single, though a heavily edited version might eventually be released to radio. I also quite “Life Keeps Bringing Me Down”, which is a real toe-tapper and not a mournful ballad as the title suggests.

The album does contain a few missteps; Alan’s compositions “Everything But The Wings” and “Look Her In The Eyes and Lie” aren’t quite up to his usual standard. Likewise, “She Don’t Get High” — which despite its title isn’t about a recovering addict — is a bit pedestrian; however, it is just middle-of-the-road enough that it might have a shot at being well received at radio.

There are no great artistic stretches here; Jackson remains fully within his comfort zone for the entire album. However, it is a solid and entertaining album that holds its own against Alan’s impressive back catalog. Sometimes that’s all that the listener wants, especially in an era in which country music is increasingly overwhelmed by over-the-top pop and rock. It remains to be seen if Thirty Miles West can revive Alan’s radio career, but even if it does not, it is one of this year’s better efforts and is worth buying.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams’

In his lifetime Hank Williams was keen to be recognised as a songwriter and grateful for pop covers f his work. in the years since his tragic and self-induced death, his songs have been covered from artists across the This album presents a dozen songs based on lyrics or scraps of lyrics left by Hank Williams, which have been completed by contemporary artists. It is an interesting project if a controversial one, and I would have liked it to be clearer what each participant contributed to the creative process. The tunes are all newly composed; the lyrics apparently range from completed lyrics which need only the music to be added (‘The Love That Faded’, the original manuscript lyric for which is the only one to be reproduced in the liner notes) to just a couple of lines serving as springboard for a modern songwriter’s inspiration. Each artist also uses his or her usual producer and their own selection of studio musicians.

The results range from the excellent to the dire, with some in between. The artists include both country singers-songwriters and those from other genres with a longstanding appreciation for country music and Hank Williams in particular, with Bob Dylan the first to be approached. Perhaps unsurprisingly those artists with a deeper grounding in country music have produced results more in keeping with the original, and more to my personal taste.

The best track is Alan Jackson’s ‘You’ve Been Lonesome Too’, which opens the set and manages to sound genuinely inspired by Hank, helped along by Keith Stegall’s sensitively authentic production, the excellent recreation of the Drifting Cowboys by the likes of Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin and Alan’s straightforward reading. It really doesn’t feel like pastiche, but a genuine unknown Hank Williams song, and one which stands up in its own right as an excellent song.

Vice Gill and Rodney Crowell collaborated on ‘I Hope You Shed A Million Tears’, and perform the song together. The Drifting Cowboys’ Don Helms provides added authenticity by guesting on steel on what must have been one of his last recording sessions (he died in 2008). Gill’s sweet vocal is interspersed with Crowell’s narration – the latter sounds more authentically Hank, but Gill sounds lovely and the final result is a fine song in its own right. I loved Crowell’s line, “I loved you like there’s no tomorrow, then found out that there’s not“. Merle Haggard tackles Hank’s religious side, giving a simple retelling of ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ an attractive melody.

Patty Loveless and husband Emory Gordy Jr carried out the writing duties on, and Patty sings the up-tempo ‘You’re Through Fooling Me’, which is highly enjoyable and sounds convincingly like a hillbilly song from the late 1940s if not necessarily a Hank Williams song. It would have fitted in well on either of her last two albums.

These four songs are the ones for country fans to download if going the digital route, and are all well worth adding to your digital library.

Hank’s grand daughter Holly Williams gives the family’s seal of approval to the project, and is repsosible for another highlight, although like a number of the artists included, her melody, while perfectly attractive, does not sound quite like a Hank Williams song. She delivers a smoothly sultry vocal on ‘Blue Is My Heart’, which is a very strong song in its own right, supported by her father on (uncredited) harmony. Norah Jones’s song, ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’ has a jazz-based tune and a stripped down production set to the acoustic guitars of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who also add tasteful harmonies. It is pleasant listening but ultimately lightweight, without the emotional intensity the lyrics demand. Lucinda Williams’s effort, ‘I’m So Happy I Found You’, has the opposite problem – a positive love song which sounds more like a dirge.

I was bored by Sheryl Crow’s ‘Angel Mine’ on first listen, but the multi-tracked vocals give it a folky feel which works quite well. Levon Helm’s distinctive vocal on ‘You’ll Never Again Be Mine’ (co-written with Helm’s producer Larry Campbell) has a nice old-time feel, backed up nicely by the backing vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, but is not the most interesting song.

The songs completed and sung by Bob Dylan (‘The Love That Faded’) and Jack White (‘You Know That I Know’) suffer from both gentlemen’s limited (to put it kindly) vocal ability, although they are both good songs. I would have really enjoyed ‘You Know That I Know’, an accusatory cheating song, if only a more competent singer had been allowed to front the performance, as White is awful. Dylan is not much better, but the sensitive production of his track is some recompense. His son Jakob is an unimpressive and bland vocalist and the melody of his song, ‘Oh Mama, Come Home’, lacks the urgency of the lyric.

Multi-artist tributes or concept albums always tend to be hit and miss, and this is no exception. There are enough tracks which work for this to be worth hearing.

Grade: B

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Craig Campbell’

Craig Campbell is a relatively new artist on the successful independent label Bigger Picture, helmed by famed producer Keith Stegall. He has a single rising up the country charts, but had managed to fly under my radar until a week or so ago, when C M Wilcox pointed out Craig’s song ‘You Probably Ain’t in a recent edition of Quotable Country over at Country California, his witty weekly take on the more notable or bizarre comments made relating to country music. That song appears on Craig’s self-titled debut album, which has just been released.

A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio, however, A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio is as keen on such fare as ever, but it looks as if Craig Campbell, Keith Stegall, and Michael White. writers of this song, share our frustration:

You can talk to me about tractors
Cowboy boots and pickup trucks
Old canepoles and dirt roads
And spit and skoal and a dixie cup
You can tell me (all a)bout your grandpa
And how he turned you on to Hank
If you gotta tell me how country you are
You probably ain’t

But if this initially seems to be a well-deserved sharp and well deserved little jab at the popular “I’m country” songs, in some ways, it is what it appears to disparage, when the old man in the bar who has voiced the comment adds:

He said, country is a way of life that’s almost gone
It’s about being honest and working hard
Looking someone in the eye and
Being who you say you are

I’m afraid I’m not convinced that everyone in rural areas is (or used to be) honest and hardworking, so although I still like the complete song, and love the chorus, it doesn’t really hold up lyrically for me as a whole. On the positive side, Craig has a fine voice, and at least this is a well written and genuinely country song.

And if Craig is critical of those posturing about country lifestyles, he does not eschew the subject himself. The likeable ‘Chillaxin’’ is not very ambitious, but has an attractive tune, and a lovely and appropriately relaxed feel, which could make it a summer hit. The next single, however, is reportedly, the rather dull ‘Fish’, which is rather like one of Brad Paisley’s lesser songs, trying to be amusing but falling short, and not even successful at the double entendre it tries for. Carson Chamberlain and Tim Nichols helped Craig write ‘That’s Music To Me’, with nods to Keith Whitley and Merle Haggard as well as the usual litany of high school football, family life, church on Sunday mornings and the Georgia scenery. It’s quite a good example of its kind, with another pleasing melody, and Craig sells the genuineness of the emotion underlying it, but it’s hardly groundbreaking lyrically:

Soaked in the whiskey and washed in the blood
That’s who I am and what I love
A hoe down fiddle, a little off key
An old hound dog howling
That’s music to me

The very perky ‘Makes You Wanna Sing’ (written by Craig with Rob Hatch and Lance Miller) glorifies the simple pleasures in life (and yes, rural ones), and the humming on the chorus gets irritating with repeat listens.

Others will have been introduced to Craig by way of his charming current single ‘Family Man’. This paints a realistic picture of a hard-pressed married man desperate to keep his temporary factory job to support his wife and kids, and is filled with genuine warmth and sincerity as he relates the various responsibilities of a father and shows how important his kids are to him. ‘My Little Cowboy’ (about striving to live up to his father’s belief in him, first as a child and then as struggling musician trying to support a wife and child of his own) is a little more heavy handed lyrically and offers a heavier vibe musically, which is less suited to Craig’s voice.

Trying to make ends meet in hard times also inspires the cheerful and very catchy mid-tempo response to a debt collector, ‘When I Get It’, which he wrote with Jason Matthews and Jim McCormick, although I found the na-na-nas in the chorus annoying.

One of the highlights is the interesting and nicely paced ‘I Bought It’, written by Craig with Philip Douglas and Dan Murphy. It starts out sweetly with a young couple just starting out in life together, with him buying a ring, the the mood sours with her infidelity and lies (which he also buys), and finally there is a little twist in the tale when he lies to her that he is willing to take her back.

Craig and/or his writing partners have a good ear for melody which is more consistent that their lyric writing, which is occasionally a little cliche’d. He co-wrote most of the songs, with only a couple from outside writers, one of which is provided by his producer. Keith Stegall wrote the seductive fiddle-led ‘All Night To Get There’ with Craig’s friend Lee Brice and Vicky McGehee. The only completely outside song is ‘That Going Away Look (About Her)’, written by Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Michael White, a well-written third-person account of a couple on the brink of separation, with a lovely mellow sound, which sounds like an outtake from Chamberlain’s protégé Easton Corbin.

Keith Stegall produces with his usual reliable light touch, offering sympathetic support for the young Georgia-born singer, whose voice is the real star here. His warm vocals with a lovely smooth tone are a delight to listen to, even on the less stellar material – rather like the aforementioned Corbin. Overall it’s a very likeable project and one showing great promise for the future. I certainly hope his career goes well and we hear more from him.

I am, incidentally, less than impressed by the packaging of the physical product. The CD liner notes are unfortunately almost entirely illegible thanks to being squeezed into a minuscule space to make room for a lot of pictures.

Grade: B+