My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Keith Whitley

Album Review: Lorraine Jordan and Caroline Road – ‘Country Grass’

country-grass-2016If you like real country music, the kind that was played before 2005, with meaningful lyrics written by master craftsmen like Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard and Tom T Hall, where do you go to hear it live?

Unless you live in Texas, your best choice is to visit a bluegrass festival. Today’s bluegrass acts are vitally concerned about finding good songs, regardless of the copyright dates. They are not concerned about the feeding and watering of mediocre songwriters simply because they are part of the pool of co-writers. A typical bluegrass group will include anywhere from 20% upwards of classic country songs in their repertoire.

Exhibit number one is the most recent album, Country Grass, by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. This album is a bit of an outlier, because all of the songs are classic country, but one listen to this album and you will plainly hear that the legacy of 60s-90s country music is in good hands.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road are a veteran act, having performed at the bluegrass festivals for over fifteen years. Lorraine plays mandolin and handles most of the lead vocals. She is joined by Ben Greene (banjo), Josh Goforth (fiddle), Brad Hudson (dobro) and Jason Moore (upright bass).

In putting this album together of classic country songs, Lorraine assembled a fine cast of guest stars, obtaining the services of the original artist where possible.

The album opens up with the Kentucky Headhunters’ song “Runnin’ Water”, a track from the Kentucky Headhunters’ fourth album. Doug Phelps of the Kentucky Headhunters sings lead on this entertaining track with bandmate Richard Young contributing harmony vocals. This track is straight ahead bluegrass.

Eddy Raven had a #1 record in 1984 with “I Got Mexico” and he chips in with the lead vocals on a track that is more bluegrass flavored than actual bluegrass.

“Darned If I Don’t, Danged If I Do” was a Shenandoah song. Shenandoah’s lead sing Marty Raybon has spent much of the last decade on the bluegrass circuit performing bluegrass versions of Shenandoah hits with his band Full Circle. The song is done in overdrive, but Marty remains one of the premier vocalists.

John Conlee is a long-time Opry veteran who had a decade (1978-1987) long run of top ten hits, including his 1983 #1 hit “Common Man”, taken at about the same tempo as his 1983 hit. Brad Hudson takes a verse of the lead vocal.

country-grass-2015Crystal Gayle had a #1 Country / #18 Pop hit in 1978 with “Waiting For The Times To Get Better”. Crystal and Lorraine trade verses on this one, an elegant sounding song and arrangement.

Lee Greenwood had a #1 record with “Dixie Road” in 1985. Unfortunately, Lee’s voice has eroded over the years so having Troy Pope sing a verse is welcome.

Jim Ed Brown has a top twenty recording of “You Can Have Her” back in 1967. This was probably one of Jim Ed’s last recording before his recent death, but he was in very fine voice indeed. Tommy Long takes part of a verse and harmonizes on this jazzy ballad.

“Boogie Grass Band” was a big hit for Conway Twitty in 1978, the title explaining the feel of the song completely. Unfortunately, Conway has been gone for over twenty years so Lorraine simply got everyone involved in this project to take short vocal turns, preserving the original tempo.

Randy Travis was in no shape to perform so Tommy Long handles the vocals on “Digging Up Bones”. Meanwhile T. G. Sheppard is still with us, so he and Tommy Long handle the vocals on “Do You Want To Go To Heaven”. The instrumentation here is bluegrass, but the tempo remains that of the country ballad that T.G. took to #1 in 1980.

Jesse Keith Whitley is the son of Lorrie Morgan and the late great Keith Whitley. Jesse sounds quite similar to his father and acquits himself well on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Jeannette Williams contributes gorgeous harmony vocals to this track which is taken at the same tempo as Keith’s original.

It would be hard to conceive of a bigger country/pop hit than Joe South’s “Rose Garden”, taken to the top of the charts in 1970-1971 by Lynn Anderson. Not only did the song top the country and pop charts in the USA, it went top four or better in nine foreign countries. Lynn Anderson and Lorraine Jordan share the lead vocals on this song, which probably sounds the least similar to the original of all the tracks on this album. Lynn passed away last summer, so this is one of the last tracks (perhaps the last track) she ever recorded.

Lorraine’s band shines on the last track of the album “Last Date”. Although there were several sets of lyrics appended to Floyd Cramer’s piano classic, I don’t really like any of the lyrics I’ve heard, so I appreciate that this was left as an instrumental.

I picked up this disc about a month ago and it has been in heavy rotation in my CD player since them. I was inspired to write this when Jonathan Pappalardo posted a video of John Anderson singing with Lorraine and Carolina Road. John is not on the original (2015) version of the album, but his performance can be purchased on Lorraine’s website http://www.carolinaroadband.com/, and is on the new re-released version.

Even if you do not particularly care for bluegrass you might really like this album, chock full of solid country gold songs, fine vocals and exquisite musicianship. I give it an A-, docking it very slightly for the eroded voices of a few of the guests.

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Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Turn Me To Love’

Album Review: Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection – ‘Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection’

mike bentley cumberland gap connectionThe bluegrass band Cumberland Gap Connection, now slightly rebranded by featuring the name of its lead singer and chief songwriter, and with an almost completely new lineup, has strong country influences behind the traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Bentley’s smooth lead vocal and a solid collection of songs make this album well worth tracking down.

‘Truck Drivin’ opens the album with a soulfully sung depiction of a truck driver’s life, as he heads home after a trip away. Bentley’s own ‘Coal Miner’s Dance’ offers a somber look at a miner’s dangerous life with a tragic culmination. The emotional ‘Chill Of A Late Frost’ (written by Shannon Slaughter) bewails the hard life of a farmer.

Slaughter also co-wrote (with Gerald Ellenburg) ‘Giving Up On You’, a sad song with a soothing melody which really suits Bentley’s voice. Nice harmonies, too, help to make this track a real winner.

The talented Bentley wrote four of the songs altogether. ‘Better Days’ is a fine song about a relationship on the edge. He teamed up with Terry Foust and Daniel Salyer to write the inspirational ‘He Knows My Name’, which is about a homeless ‘lost soul’ who nonetheless has inner peace. Together with Mark Brinkman they wrote ‘She Don’t Talk To The Moon’, another portrait in song, this one about an elderly woman with her feet on the ground and her heart set on heaven.

Terry Foust wrote ‘Back To Carolina’ with Ray Edwards; this picks up the pace with its optimistic tale of a an starting over by going back home. Also up-tempo, the good-humored ‘Old Steamboats And Trains’, written by Edwards and Larry Joe Cox, offers a travelogue. The upbeat ‘I Hear Kentucky Callin’ Me’ is very pretty.

Bentley is a big fan of the late great Keith Whitley, and he pays tribute here with a lovely version of the Lefty Frizzell classic Keith made his own, ‘I Never Go Round Mirrors’.

The record closes with an accappella hymn, ‘When I Make My Last Move’, sung solo by Bentley.

This is a highly enjoyable album, generally low key and mellow, centring on Bentley’s warm voice. It is recommended to anyone who likes the overlap between country and bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Retro Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Straight From The Heart (2007)

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

Daryle Singletary never managed to become a megastar, mostly because he has too much soul and integrity for today’s Nashville. Simply put, Daryl is “too country”.

This album picks up where Daryl’s 2002 album That’s Why I Sing This Way left off, with one original song “I Still Sing This Way”, one cover of a recent hit, the Larry Cordle-penned Rebecca Lynn Howard hit “Jesus and Bartenders”, and ten classic country covers sung with feeling.

The cover songs are as follows:

“The Bottle Let Me Down” – a Merle Haggard hit from 1966

“Black Sheep” (w/John Anderson) – a #1 for John Anderson in 1983

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” – a #1 for Don Williams in 1977

“Promises” – a minor Randy Travis hit which Randy co-wrote

“I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” (w/Ricky Skaggs) – a Buck Owens classic from 1965

“These Days I Barely Get By” – a top ten George Jones record

“Miami, My Amy” – Keith Whitley’s first top twenty record from 1986

“Lovin’ On Back Streets” – a #5 record for Mel Street in 1973. Like Daryle , Mel Street was ‘too country’, and like Daryle, he was a fine, emotive singer.

“Fifteen Years Ago” – Conway Twitty’s immediate follow up to “Hello Darling”, I always thought that Conway’s performance was better than the song’s rather maudlin lyric. Daryle also handles it well, although it’s still a silly song.

“We’re Gonna Hold On” (w/Rhonda Vincent)- a George & Tammy classic from 1973 that comes off very well. No surprise, really since Rhonda is a superior singer to Tammy, and Daryle hold up his end of the bargain.

The presence of legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins lends a strong sense of authenticity. Best of all no electronic keyboards or synthesizers – this is real country music played on real country instruments.

I’ve heard a bunch of good albums this year and this was my favorite album so far this year, better even, than the Nelson – Haggard – Price collaboration. This is not to say that Singletary is quite in their league as a singer, but his pipes are at least 30 years younger and in better shape.

Grade: A+

EP Review: Post Monroe – ‘Post Monroe’

post monroeThe latest female trio in country music, Post Monroe consists of two one-time Nashville Star contestants, Whitney Duncan (who had a short deal with Warner Brothers and a hit duet with Kenny Rogers) and Ashlee Hewitt (married to Jesse Keith Whitley, son of Lorrie Morgan and Keith Whitley), who have teamed up with Shelby McLeod. Their new EP, produced by Lady Antebellum’s Dave Haywood and Chuck Ainlay (who worked on the Pistol Annies projects). The sound is pop country, but with more country than pop.

The single ‘Red Hot American Summer’ has a nice banjo lead-in but a rather cliche’d lyric about rural partying which sounds as though it was written for radio. All three girls wrote this with Blair Daly. The three were joined by Dave Haywood and Dave Thompson to write ‘Dixie Dust’, which looks back nostalgically at a small town Southern upbringing and is pretty good.

The other songs are all Whitney Duncan co-writes. The best song by far (unfortunately marred by some clashing percussion) is ‘Lucky One’, which she wrote with Kelly Collins. This reflects on a bullet missed as the protagonist is not jealous her toxic ex has a new love, but deeply grateful:

She’s thinking she stole my man
But I’m the lucky one
Maybe I should buy her a shot
Yeah I owe that girl a lot
For being everything I’m not
Cause I’m the lucky one

No more crying
No more of your lying
Now I am stronger for the things you put me through…

My toughest lesson was you
You burned me like 80 proof
But I came out shining like new
Cause I’m the lucky one

‘Hell On Me’, is a ballad Whitney wrote with Chris Tompkins. The production is a bit jarring on the chorus, but it is pretty good with a melancholy undertow as the narrator falls for a new guy while knowing it is going to end badly.

‘Half Hearted’ is quite a nice song demanding commitment from a lover, but one which ironically lacks real emotional conviction in its delivery. Whitney wrote this one with bandmate Ashlee Hewitt, and with Greg Decker.

I quite enjoyed this release, although I would have preferred a slightly more stripped down production. But it’s a pretty fair step in the right direction.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley ft Allen Frizzell – ‘I Never Go Round Mirrors’

EP Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘William Michael Morgan’

william michael morganOccasionally my faith in the future of mainstream country music is revived. That’s when an artist like William Michael Morgan emerges, signed to a major label (in this case Warner Brothers). When Razor X reviewed his debut single ‘I Met A Girl’ last year he praised Morgan’s song and country credentials, while noting, correctly, that the song was ‘generic and unmemorable’. It is saved by Morgan’s voice, which has tonal echoes of Keith Whitley, and his tender commitment to the song which makes it quite convincing. The single is slowly making its way up the chart, and has sold over 30,000 downleads, prompting Warner Brothers to issue this six-track EP, which gives us the chance to hear how he stands as an artist beyond that one song.

I was concerned when the record opened with the love song ‘Vinyl, which is similarly pleasant but underwhelming, and suffers from too many repeats of the word ‘girl’. It was written by Wade Kirby, Ashley Gorley, and Carson Chamberlain. ‘Beer Drinker’ (written by Wynn Varble, David Lee and Don Poythress ) raises the tempo a little, and is bearable potential radio fodder but a little dittyish and over-produced, at least by the standards of this record. None of these songs is bad, just not likely to set the world on fire.

But the second half of the set is much more like it. ‘Lonesomeville’ is an excellent sad song written by Morgan with Mark Sherrill, Ash Underwood, and former Lyric Street artist Trent Tomlinson, A steel guitar dominates the arrangement, complementing Morgan’s classic country vocal.

Just as good, the plaintive ‘Cheap Cologne’ has the protagonist sleeplessly fretting over the too-obvious signs of his wife’s infidelity:

She’ll get in from God knows where
I’ll smell that honky tonk in her hair
I don’t know if there someone she’s holdin’
But my suspicion keeps on growing
And a shower won’t cover it up when she gets home
She don’t smoke cigarettes and I don’t wear cheap cologne

But tonight she’s in for a surprise as he plans to be gone before she gets home. This song was written by Jimmy Ritchey, Odie Blackmon and another ex-Lyric Street performer who sadly never quite made it, Kevin Denney. (Incidentally I understand Denney is planning on releasing new music himself in the near future.)

Finally, the valedictory ‘Back Street Driver’ (written by Robert Counts, Nicolette Hayford, and Matt Willis) is a father’s good luck message for a departing son starting out on his new life:

There’s a Bible on the dash and a map tucked in the door
I can’t be your back seat driver any more

The only disturbing note is that he feels the need to pack a baseball bat in the back.

This is a very promising debut from an artist I very much hope to hear more from.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music.’

real country musicWhile his commercial success never equalled his prowess, Gene Watson is one of the great country singers. Furthermore, of all the veterans still performing, his voice has held out the best, and almost unbelievably, he still sounds glorious at over 70. Gene’s producer for the last few projects, Dirk Johnson, does his usual sterling job – few album titles are as accurate about the contents as this one. The songs are all older ones, making this album something of a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and are almost all emotional ballads about lost love, which play to Gene’s strengths as a vocalist.

One does not normally expect to hear a Gene Watson album opening with swelling strings, but his voice soon takes over, and the remainder of the album comprises familiar country arrangements featuring fiddles and steel guitars. ‘Enough For You’ is an excellent Kris Kristofferson tune which first appeared on the latter’s Jesus Was A Capricorn album in 1972. Gene says he first heard it in 1980 in the form of Billie Jo Spears’s cover (from her 1975 album Billie Jo), and has wanted to record it ever since. The suicidal cuckold’s lament is perfectly suited to Watson’s perfectly judged vocal, and is the first single.

‘She Never Got Me Over You’ is the last song Keith Whitley wrote before his untimely death (with the help of Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran). A powerful song about love and obsession, it was recorded a few years ago by Mark Chesnutt, but Gene makes it sound as if it was written just for him. If you want to check out Keith’s original demo, it’s on youtube.

There are two covers of Larry Gatlin songs, both of which were recorded by Elvis in the 70s. The gospel ballad ‘Help Me’ is delicately understated (and may serve as a taster for a new religious album Gene plans to release later this year). ‘Bitter They Are, Harder To Fall’ is a classic heartbreak ballad which Gene actually recorded many years ago on his early album Because You Believed In Me.

Gene revisits a number of other songs he has previously recorded on this album. ‘Old Loves Never Die’ was never a single, but as the title track of one of his most successful albums is perhaps the most familiar to fans. The melancholic ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was on his excellent but often overlooked 1987 alDbum Honky Tonk Crazy (his final Epic release). He covered the superb ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’ (previously cut by George Jones) on his now hard to find 1997 album A Way To Survive; this new steel-led recording is beautiful. He cut Bill Anderson’s ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’ on his Sings set in 2003; another jealous man’s pain-filled take on love lost but still deeply felt, this is magnificently sung.

A little less familiar is ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ – not the classic song of that name, but a David Ball song from the latter’s underrated 2004 album Freewheeler. A subtly sad, slow song about poignant memories of lost love with the steel guitar to the fore, it fits nicely with the other material. ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’ is a wonderful song written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah which was one of Conway Twitty’s last few singles. Nat Stuckey’s emotional All My Tomorrows’ is another fine song and recording.

The one song not fitting the pattern of slow sad songs is a honky tonker previously recorded by Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘I’ll Find It Where I Can’. One venture away from country territory is a cover of the Nat King Cole hit ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. Although there have been country covers of the song before, none was a big hit. Gene’s version is nice, and he certainly mnages to make it sound like a country song, but insofar as this album has a weak spot, this is it.

This is a superb album of excellent songs by one of the genre’s all time great singers, who is, thankfully, still in possession of his golden voice.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback’

throwbackWhen reviewing the year’s releases for my end of year lists, I realised that I never reviewed this album properly. As the album’s title hints, Alabaman Kevin Moon is a thorough going traditionalist who could have been a big star if he had been around in the late 80s or early 90s – the era of most of the songs on this album. He has a fabulous country voice with rich tones and characterful inflections, and he stands up well against the stars who guest on this album.

He teamed up with Ken Mellons (who he sounds very like) to rework the latter’s ‘Honky Tonk Teachers’. It’s an appropriate choice with its loving tribute to the great country singers of the past, and this version is great.

Kevin pays tribute to the late Keith Whitley a number of times, starting with a nice version of ‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose’, with Rhonda Vincent taking Lorrie Morgan’s duet part. This is one track where the original is better, but it is a beautiful song with a lovely melody. Whitley wrote ‘Hopelessly Yours’, recorded by John Conlee, George Jones, and Lee Greenwood/Suzy Bogguss. Moon’s cover is an emotional duet with young singer Mary Sarah. The heartbreaking ‘Tennessee Courage’ serves as tribute to both Whitley and to Vern Gosdin, and is performed with two artists who should have been stars, Wesley Dennis and Kevin Denney, and a younger singer I hadn’t previously come across but who bears further investigation, Billy Droze.

Another star not currently available to help out is Randy Travis, so Travis’s one-time protégé Daryle Singletary helps out on an excellent version of ‘The Storms Of Life’. Conway Twitty’s son Michael assists on the sentimental ‘That’s My Job’.

John Anderson guests on his early 90s comeback hit. ‘Straight Tequila Night’ – again, I prefer the original, but this is still good. Marty Raybon’s voice blends beautifully with Moon’s on a lovely version of Shenandoah’s ‘Moon Over Georgia’. Doug Stone still sounds good on a version of his ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’. ‘You’ve Got To Stand For Something’ features Aaron Tippin, but is less forceful than the original.

A couple of new songs are included. ‘Low Key’ dreams about a much-needed beach vacation, mixing a steel guitar dominated arrangement with Spanish-influenced guitar, and is nicely done. The title track strings together quotes from a selection of great country classics and calls for some throwback country, “with some drinkin’, cheatin’ lyin’, leavin’”, and is quite clever.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from a young man with a lot of talent. The lack of originality in making most of the material cover songs is ameliorated by making them duets with, in most cases the original stars.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Miami, My Amy’

Single Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘I Met a Girl’

For those of us who long for country music to return to a more traditional sound, the debut single from Vicksburg, Mississippi and Warner Bros. recording artist William Michael Morgan seems to be, on the surface, at least, just what the doctor ordered. The understated, pedal steel-laced mid tempo number was written — surprisingly — by Sam Hunt with Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally. The 21-year-old Morgan reportedly grew up listening to Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley and their influence on his singing is apparent.

But context is everything. In a genre that has seen a complete collapse of any type of defining boundaries, “I Met a Girl” seems like a breath of fresh air, a throwback to the 90s when traditional sounding “hat acts” ruled the country radio airwaves. But those of us who are old enough to remember that era will inevitably compare the record to those of Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and George Strait, and that is where the record fails to measure up. Had this record been released 20 years ago, I probably would not have deemed it worthy of much attention. It’s a very generic song and not particularly memorable. That being said, it doesn’t have an annoying hip-hop with banjo arrangement, or lyrics about tailgating in a corn field. It’s a step, albeit a tiny one, in the right direction, and in 2015 the bar has been lowered sufficiently that a small positive step is enough. Morgan is a promising vocalist and I hope ‘I Met a Girl’ garners enough attention from radio that he will be allowed to continue exploring the more traditional side of country music.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Sara Evans covers ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’

Sara pays tribute to Keith Whitley:

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind’

31zL+wHAa1LIt isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Dean Dillon never became a major recording star; as it has been noted by others several times already, at times he sounds like George Strait and, at other times, Keith Whitley, but he is a decidedly less distinctive vocalist than either of them. He’d also discovered that it was more lucrative to pitch his best material to country music’s heavy hitters, rather than saving them for himself. The combination of a lesser vocalist and less than first-rate material is hardly a formula for success.

Nevertheless, none of this means that Dillon’s recordings are not worthwhile; on the contrary, most his albums contain at least a handful of enjoyable tracks. 1991’s Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is a prime example. Co-produced with Blake Mevis, it was Dillon’s first release for Atlantic Records and his highest-charting solo album, peaking at #58. Because of his close ties with George Strait, Dean Dillon’s name is associated with traditional country music. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to hear the pop influences that permeate many of the album’s tracks. Synthesized keyboards – which I thought were pretty much out of vogue by 1991 – are quite prominent on many songs, including the opening track “Friday Night’s Woman”, a somewhat dull number that was the collection’s only single to crack the Top 40 (landing at #39), as well as the schmaltzy “Best Love Friends”, which is a Dillon co-write with Buddy Cannon and Vern Gosdin. The saxophone-laced “She Knows What She Wants” sounds like something Dan Seals might have recorded during his “Bop” era. The more traditional “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, which preceded “Friday Night’s Woman” as the album’s first single, draws more comparisons to Keith Whitley but unfortunately every time I listen to it I can’t help thinking that Whitley would have done a much better job with the song.

Fortunately, despite getting off to a rocky start, the album does pick up by the fifth track. “Holding My Own”, arguably the album’s best track, preceded the better-known George Strait version by a year. It’s a decent effort, but again, the keyboards make the track sound instantly dated. “Don’t You Even (Think About Leaving’)” is a pleasant, though not terribly memorable song that at least doesn’t cause the listener to think about other singers. It was the album’s third and final single, peaking at #62. “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doing Her Wrong (Ain’t Doing Me Right)” is another Keith Whitley type number but unlike “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, it is a great song and it’s a bit surprising that someone else didn’t come along and have a hit with it.

“A Country Boy (Who Rolled The Rock Away)” is a surprisingly effective Buddy Holly tribute; “You Must Be Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind” is superior to any of the album’s singles.

Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is not a great album, but it is an above-average effort that recovers nicely after the first three tracks, with a few moments (“Holding My Own”, “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” and the title track) that approach greatness. There is nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here, but it’s worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Miami, My Amy’

Album Review – Dean Dillon – ‘Slick Nickel’

51noFXwA3hLFive years after his second duets album with Gary Stewart, Dean Dillon struck out on his own. His first solo album, Slick Nickel, was released via Capitol Records in 1988. Although it contained some minor radio hits, the album itself failed to chart.

“The New Never Wore off My Sweet Baby” hit #51, “I Go To Pieces” peaked at #39, and “Hey Heart” stalled at #58. All three are excellent neo-traditional numbers, although “Hey Heart” has a bit of synth added into the mix. They richly deserved the heavy rotation status they never received.

The majority of Slick Nickel perfectly encapsulates the contemporary side of late 1980s mainstream country – slightly watered down and synth-drenched. This production choice gives the album a glossy feel that’s actually quite enjoyable, even if considerably ages the record almost thirty years later.

“When The Feeling’s Right” is a perfect example of the late 1980s sheen, while “Hard Time for Lovers” illustrates the limitations of the sound. A slow-paced ballad, the track bares no resemblance to actual country music and sounds like a wasted album cut from an Eddie Rabbitt recording. From a tempo standpoint, “Still Got A Crush on You” is a marked improvement. But the track, marred by a weak lyric and uninteresting production, fails to leave an impression. “Station to Station” does leave an impression, although it’s not memorable enough to stand out.

“Appalachia Got to Have You Feelin’ In My Bones” returns Dillon to actual country music with a brisk paced honky-tonker led by twangy lead guitars. The production still makes concessions to album’s slick sound, and could’ve used ample banjo, but it’s good in comparison to the majority of the album.

The longest track on Slick Nickel gives the album a stunning conclusion. “Father Son and Holy Ghost” is a sparse ballad about a family coming together for their loved one’s funeral, told though the eyes of the deceased man’s son. Dillon’s vocal is a masterclass of hurt and longing that conveys the drunken ways of the father and son. The ballad could’ve used flourishes of steel guitar, but it works well despite it, too.

I’d never listened to a Dean Dillon album before writing this review, and I expected more from the man who practically built George Strait’s legendary career from the ground up. Dillon, who wrote or co-wrote three tracks for Keith Whitley’s L.A. To Miami three years earlier, seems to be borrowing too heavily stylistically from Whitley’s record. Slick Nickel is little more than a mainstream country album, a collection of songs that pander to a fraction of the country radio pie. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the tracks were artistically strong, but they’re not. Slick Nickel isn’t a terrible album, just horribly middle of the road.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon – ‘Those Were The Days’

those were the daysRCA gave the duo of Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon another chance to break through, although they were relegated for their second release to a six-track EP known as a mini-LP, which the label was using in the mid 1980s as a marketing manoeuvre for new acts. Stewart and Dillon were actually one of the first acts to release one, and the series later launched the careers of the Judds, Vince Gill and Keith Whitley. Dillon wrote or co-wrote all six songs, many of them with Stewart.

The reflective title track was the album’s lead single, and it got some radio play but did not crack the top 40. It is a pair of hellraisers’ wistful look back at teenage memories of a time when “dreams could still come true”. It is a pretty decent song (written by the duo alongside Rex Huston), although the vocals are a bit messy. It seems oddly appropriate, given the pair’s reputation as heavy drinkers, that one of the fondest memories is of getting drunk for the first time.

The second single (the duo’s last), ‘Smokin’ In The Rockies’, is a fast paced celebration of the pair’s life as touring musicians. A live cut, it namechecks a number of the top country stars of the period. It is quite entertaining, although the lyrics are hard to make out at times. It was written by the duo with Frank Dycus and Buddy Cannon, and was later covered by Sawyer Brown.

The rebellious ‘Misfits’ is dominated by wailing (and not always comprehensible) vocals and equally wailing fiddle. The mid-tempo ‘Living On The Ragged Edge’ is a solo Dean Dillon composition about those straying from the strait and narrow path at risk to themselves. He takes the lead vocal.

The best song on the album, ‘Hard Time For Lovers’ is an excellent if very downbeat song (which Dean revived for his solo album debut at the end of the decade). A string arrangement is a little too sweet, but Dean Dillon’s delicate vocal is his best on the album as he compares the stories of various friends and family members whose love lives are in crisis, with his own happy relationship.

Gary Stewart leads on ‘Lovers And Losers’, which the pair wrote with Mack Vickery and Rex Huston. This is another depressed ballad with strings and a vulnerable vocal.

There were some good songs on this mini-album, but it wasn’t a very commercial one.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Dean Dillon & Gary Stewart – ‘Brotherly Love’

0124albums018The pairing of Dean Dillon with Gary Stewart seems an odd one; often these types of collaborations are meant to garner some attention for a newcomer or revive the flagging career of a veteran. But in 1981, neither artist had the commercial pull to carry the other; Dillon was still a newcomer hoping for a breakthrough and Stewart’s career was on a downward spiral. 1982’s Brotherly Love did nothing to change the commercial fortunes of either artist, but nevertheless it is a good — though not great — collection of songs.

Brotherly Love features duets as well as solo efforts by both artists. The title track was co-written by both artists and released as a single in advance of the album in 1981. The duet is not the Keith Whitley and Earl Thomas Conley hit that appeared a decade later. Rather it is about two brothers planning for a night out on the town with two sisters from the local honky tonk. Although pleasant, it lacks subtlety and is ultimately not very memorable. It was the album’s highest ranking single, peaking at #41. The uptempo “Play This Working Day Away” finds the pair trying to remedy their situations of all work and no play. It reached #74. It was followed by a pair of solo efforts from each: Dillon’s rather dull “You To Come Home To” which climbed to #65 and Stewart’s “She Sings Amazing Grace”, which is by far the best song on the album, despite petering out at #83.

“Honky Tonk Crazy”, a Dillon co-write with Frank Dycus, will be familiar to George Strait fans; his cut was included on his sophomore disc Strait From The Heart which was also released in 1982. “Suburban Life”, about a pair of newly divorced men about to embark on a night on the town — trading “the suburban life for the bourbon life” is less rowdy than the lyrics suggest and for that reason it doesn’t quite work.

What is perhaps the most surprising about this album is its reliance on outside songwriters. Dillon had a hand in writing only four of the album’s tracks, and Stewart co-wote two. I was expecting more original material, and perhaps some versions of Dillon’s songs that later went on to be hits for other artists, but in all likelihood he was still cutting his teeth as a songwriter and many, if not most, of his most memorable songs were still to be written. Overall, the material on Brotherly Love isn’t quite as strong as it ought to be, but the production — though a bit dated — isn’t as heavy-handed as most of Nashville’s output during that era. Brotherly Love wasn’t a huge commercial success, but Dillon and Stewart paired up for another collaborative effort Those Were The Days the following year. Both albums are available on a 2-for-1 disc, but the $20.99 price tag seems a little high considering that neither album produced any major hits.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Ten Feet Away’

Spotlight Artist: Garth Brooks

garthTroyal Garth Brooks was born February 7, 1962 in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the youngest child of Troyal Raymond Brooks and Colleen Carroll. His father worked in the oil business while his mom was a country singer, signed to Capitol Records in the 1950s. Young Brooks was required to participate in his family’s weekly talent nights, where he learned to play both Guitar and Banjo.

As a teenager, Brooks turned his attention to athletics. He was on his high school’s football, baseball, and track & field teams. He was talented enough to earn a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University (in Stillwater) where he competed in Javelin and earned a degree in advertising.

Brooks would begin his professional music career shortly after graduating college in 1984. He played the club circuit around Stillwater and sang the wide range of music he was exposed to in his childhood. It wasn’t until he came across a recording of George Strait’s debut single “Unwound” that he decided to set his sights on country music.

A year later he caught the attention of Rod Phelps, an entertainment lawyer from Dallas, who urged Brooks to go to Nashville and make a go at the big time. His first trip to Nashville in 1985 was a 24-hour disaster. He returned home and married Sandy Mahl, a woman he met while working as a bouncer at a local club. The couple moved to Nashville two years later and Brooks began making headway in music city. He connected with songwriters and producers and began singing demos. With a powerful management team behind him, Brooks pursued a record deal. He was passed over by every label in town, finally getting his deal when an exec at Capitol Records, the same label his mother recorded for thirty years prior, saw him perform at a local club. This came six months after they had previously passed on him.

Brooks released his eponymous debut April 12, 1989. (J.R. Journey reviewed the album as part of our Class of 1989 coverage in 2009). Like most of the era’s neo-traditional leanings, Brooks’ debut skewed hardcore country. His debut single, “Much To Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” peaked inside the top ten while the follow-up “If Tomorrow Never Comes” became Brooks’ first #1 hit. He would top the charts again with the album’s final single “The Dance,” which featured a masterful ACM and CMA winning music video that depicted historical figures (John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Keith Whitley, Lane Frost, the Challenger Astronauts, and John Wayne) linked by their tragic deaths.

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Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Hickory Wind’

A rare glimpse of the young Keith Whitley: