My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Keith Whitley

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+

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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:

Classic Rewind: Chris Young – ‘I’m Over You’

The best singer in today’s commercial mainstream country music covers Keith Whitley:

Chris included the song in his three-song EP Voices.

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: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

honky tonk crazyOne of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.

The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:

I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong

I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone

Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.

The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:

My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain

‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:

I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name

When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace

God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do

In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.

‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.

‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.

‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.

The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:

There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine

After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.

This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Memories To Burn’

memories to burnIn 1985 Gene moved from MCA to Epic, and recorded Memories To Burn, which he produced with band member Larry Booth. Lead single ‘Cold Summer Day In Georgia’ was a modest hit, peaking at #24. It is a good song in which a man ponders a breakup and the unlikelihood of his woman coming back.

The Western Swing title track did much better, reaching the top 5. It is a slightly anxious message to a new love interest the protagonist hopes will workout better than his past experiences.

The final single, ‘Carmen’, was rather atypical of Gene’s style, and peaked just outside the top 30. It did make a bit of a splash among country fans overseas, after he performed the Spanish-style tune at the Wembley International Country Music Festival. It is quite a pretty plaintive ballad about a roving cowboy from the US falling for a Mexican girl.

‘The Note’ is a stunning lost love ballad which was to be a top 30 single a decade later for neotraditionalist Daryle Singletary. The best song on the album, it is perfect for Gene, and should probably have been a single. The vocal rivals his classic ‘Farewell Party’.

‘Speak Of The Devil’ is another fine ballad and great performance about dealing with a breakup. The protagonist is struggling to get over a really bad relationship with the help of his friendly neighbourhood bar, and it only gets worse when she turns up:

The songs on the jukebox tell of cheating and sin
Speak of the devil – and she walks in

In ‘Stranger In Our House Tonight’ (another great ballad), the protagonist has just heard his wife plans to leave, and is completely blindsided. In ‘New York Times’ (written by African American country singer O. B. McClinton) he is searching for his runaway wife who prefers city lights to a rural Texas home.

The up-tempo ‘I Want My Rib Back’ is a jaundiced number about an unhappily married man co-written by Keith Whitley and later recorded by Kenny Chesney. The call-and-response backing vocals (also making an appearance on the closing ‘Get along Little Doggie’) are a bit dated, but otherwise this is an entertaining performance.

On a happier note, ‘If I Painted A Picture’ is a romantic love song laden with fiddle.

This album is available on a 2-4-1 CD, paired with its successor Starting New Memories (also a great album – I particularly like the story song ‘Atlanta Anymore’ which has a nice twist in its tale of the end of an affair). It is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mary Sarah & Friends – ‘Bridges: Great American Country Duets’

bridges18 year old Mary Sarah Gross (who has, like many very young performers, dropped her surname for professional purposes) has been performing country music since her childhood. Discovered on Youtube by veterans the Oak Ridge Boys, her debut album, produced by songwriter Freddy Powers, features a number of very starry guests. The style harks back, sometimes to traditional country, but more often to the Nashville Sound and the pop music of that era. Mary Sarah’s voice has quite a light timbre at present, perhaps because of her youth, but she clearly has a lot of potential.

A real highlight is ‘Crazy’, which really suits Mary Sarah vocally, and is performed as a duet with the song’s writer Willie Nelson (offering his usual idiosyncratic vocal), with an arrangement similar to the Cline version. Very impressive.

She tackles Merle Haggard’s ‘Fighting Side Of Me’ with a perky confidence, and is joined by Haggard. A great traditional country arrangement make this very enjoyable although I’m not sure the defiance of the original quite survived. ‘Heartaches By The Number’, sung as a duet with the late Ray Price, is also great, with a wonderful traditional arrangement.

’Go Rest High On That Mountain’, which Vince Gill recorded in memory of Keith Whitley, seems like a curious choice of cover due to the personal and specific nature of the lyrics, but it is beautifully and tenderly sung by Mary Sarah, with Gill’s heavenly harmony the perfect counterpoint.

I took a while to warm up to Mary Sarah’s vocal on ‘Jolene’, despite a nice arrangement and Dolly herself harmonising prettily. I think she just sounds a little too forceful and not quite vulnerable enough, but the version has grown on me over repeated listens.

‘Rose Garden’ works well for Mary Sarah, on which she duets with Lynn Anderson. Tanya Tucker helps out on an energetic take on ‘Texas (When I Die)’. I can’t normally stand Big & Rich, so I was surprised to quite enjoy their contribution to a pretty but rather old fashioned love song. The ballad ‘My Great Escape’. ‘All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song’, sung with her producer Freddy Powers, is also nicely done.

‘What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life’ is in 70s/early 80s pop-country style, with new Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Milsap harmonising and offering the odd solo line. It sounds a bit dated by today’s standards, and the production is a bit cluttered with strings and belted out vocals without room for much subtlety, but it has a certain guilty pleasure quality about it. ‘Dream On’ featuring the Oak Ridge Boys is more of a disappointment – cluttered sounding and not very interesting, although Mary Sarah sings it well.

I really disliked the retro-pop ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Where The Boys Are’, a duet with Neil Sedaka, which has no country influences at all.

The sequencing of the album groups the stronger, and more country, tracks at the start, with the effect that after halfway through it feels like a downhill ride. I’m not sure I quite know who Mary Sarah is an artist, but I enjoyed quite a lot of the album, and she definitely has talent.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone’

A young Keith Whitley in his bluegrass days: