My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: The Bellamy Brothers – ‘Restless’

Although the New Traditionalist movement would not get fully underway until 1986, there were some signs of the changes that to come as early as 1984. That was the year that The Judds enjoyed their first #1 hit with “Mama He’s Crazy” and Reba McEntire received both critical accolades and commercial success with My Kind of Country, while George Strait and Ricky Skaggs continued to keep traditional country on the radio.

1984 also saw some changes for The Bellamy Brothers, although they moved in the opposite direction, with more layered production and pop elements than had previously been the case with their music. The change was likely precipitated by a change of co-producers, with Steve Klein taking over for Jimmy Bowen, a switch that was probably brought about by a change in label affiliations. In the 1970s and 1980s Curb Records was not a standalone label; they typically partnered up with a larger label to distribute and promote their artists. Up to now, the Bellamys’ albums were released jointly by Curb and either Warner Bros. or Elektra, but beginning in 1984, their music was released by MCA/Curb.

Restless, their first release under this new arrangement, was warmly received by radio, with all three of its singles reaching the Top 10 or better. “Forget About Me” (which I actually had forgotten about) reached #5. The very mellow “The World’s Greatest Lover”, complete with its Kenny G-esque saxophone, reached #6 and “I Need More of You” — the best of the three — climbed all the way to #1, becoming the duo’s seventh country chart-topper. “Forget About Me” was written by Frankie Miller, Troy Seals and Eddie Setser, while the other two singles came from the pen of David Bellamy.

Overall this is a very mellow album with mostly mid-tempo numbers, with “Rock-A-Billy” — which is exactly the kind of song its title suggests — and the title track being notable exceptions. The poppy and lyrically-light “I Love It” is a very catchy toe-tapper. “Diesel Cafe”, about a run-down greasy spoon truck stop has a melody that reminds me of Alabama’s “Christmas In Dixie.” I did not care for the reggae-flavored “We’re Having Some Fun Now.”

While there is nothing truly objectionable on Restless, it seems to be somewhat of an opportunity for the duo to explore other musical styles, which unfortunately results in them straying a bit too far at times from their country roots. I wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy this one, but it is worth streaming.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Out Goin’ Cattin”

Sawyer Brown was often excoriated for the frivolous and superficial lyrical content of the songs they recorded, at least in the days before they associated with ace Nashville songwriter Mac McAnally. While it is true that most of their early songs were not that sophisticated or relevant, the fact remains that none of Sawyer Brown’s early albums were b-o-r-i-n-g, being filled with good cheer and frequently danceable music.

Out Goin’ Cattin’ was Sawyer Brown’s third album and also their third top ten country album. While the album was not full of top ten singles, the album, produced by Randy Scruggs is a well produced and organized album, with varying tempos and varying styles of music encompassed within its ten songs.

The album opens with “Lady of the Evening”, a Mark Miller composition. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad. I don’t like the production much – it reeks of 1980s – but the song is interesting:

She’s got my picture in her locket
I got my hand in her back pocket
Walkin” through the night, in our home town
We take our time as we go strollin’
We might go to a movie, might go bowling
She just says we’ll take on what the night will bring

[Chorus]
‘Cause she’s a lady of the evening
But only just for me man
I’m a wonderin’ why she set her likes on me
She’s got me overflowing
‘Cause she keeps me knowin’
I’ll be doin’ my leavin’
With a lady of the evening tonight

“Better Be Some Tears” is next. Written by Kerry Chater, Bill LaBounty and Beckie Foster, this up-tempo ballad might have been a reasonable choice for release as a single. As relationship songs go, this one is a bit flinty:

Some other fool with his head in the clouds
Might let you get away with what you done
But not me, Baby, not me
You fall out of love and now you’re comin’ around
Any time you want to get back on
We’ll see, Baby, we’ll see
I won’t be waitin’ here forever
Right now I’m tellin’ you

[Chorus:]
There better be some tears
I wanna see some cryin’
Now you do a little dying
To show me you’re sincere
There better be some tears
After the way you left me
Baby if you wanna get me
To let you come back here
There better be some tears

“Not Ready to Let You Go” by Steve Dorff and Mark Miller is a slow, tender ballad that has an easy listening/adult contemporary feel to it, again with typical 80s production.

“Out Goin’ Cattin'” by Randy Scruggs and Mark Miller was the first single released from the album, reaching #11 (it went to #4 in Canada). Frankly, it should have been a bigger hit as it is a fine song with a definite R&B vibe to it. Joe Bonsall, the fine tenor of the Oak Ridge Boys, is featured on the song and the addition of his voice to Mark Miller’s really makes this song work.

We still bop and our cars run hot
We’re out cuttin’ the fool
We’re tearin’ the town got the top laid down
Like we’re back in school
I got a white sport coat and blue suede shoes
We’re gonna find us a Betty and a Bobby Sue

[Chorus]
Well don’t go tellin’ don’t go rattin’
Hey baby baby we’re out goin’ cattin’
Juke joint jammin’ tit for tat
And mama don’t wait up, wait up
We’re out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’

“The House Won’t Rock” a Frank J. Myers – Mark Miller collaboration rocks but gently. The lyrics are not to be taken too seriously, harkening back to the sort of lyrics that permeated early rock and roll.

Next up is “New Shoes” (Bill LaBounty, Beckie Foster and Susan Longacre). Again the song doesn’t feature especially deep lyrics but it is a celebratory and a decent dance number:

She put me down and left me flat
Like a penny on a railroad track
The dust ain’t even settled yet
Now look at me take my first step
Gonna kick this heartache in the butt
Tonight I’m gonna strut

[Chorus:]
Puttin’ on some new shoes
Gettin’ rid of these old blues
All is takes is one quick change
And I’ll just dance away
In my new shoes

“Graveyard Shift” by Gene Nelson and Paul Nelson is the most meaningful song on the album, proof that even before connecting with McAnally that Miller and company were capable of handling more serious fare. As one who worked graveyard shifts for four years, I can identify with the sentiments expressed in this song.

The only way to make a livin’ round here
Is down there on the loading dock
My daddy done it for 35 years
And old is all he ever got

Guess I was meant to follow in his footsteps
Just like an assembly line
But it’s amazing how long the nights get
When I’m working on the graveyard shift
Yes I’m working on the graveyard shift

Wishin’ I could give someone a piece of my mind
There must be somethin’ better than this
Bein’ buried alive where the sun never shines
Workin’ on the graveyard shift

“Night Rockin’ “, another Scruggs-Miller collaboration, really doesn’t rock at all, being but another mid-tempo ballad. It serves its purpose in that it keeps the tempos varied within the album.
“Savin’ the Honey for the Honeymoon” by J. Barry and Rick Vito is kind of a silly song that was the third single released from the album, dying at #58. The song, which has an early Buck Owens tempo, is another one of those songs about the girl not giving it up until receipt of the wedding band. It makes for a great album cut and was probably a little unlucky not to do better as a single.

Mark Miller’s “Gypsies On Parade” is the closing track. Released as the second single, it just cracked the top thirty. The song, a slow ballad, tells the story of a band’s life on the road. The song is well constructed but not necessarily singles material:

We pulled out of Charlotte
The snow is fallin’ down
We make our way in a one eagle sleigh
‘Til we reach another town
Our name is in lights on the billboard sign
In every town we play
But if you may, all it really need say
Are gypsies, gypsies on parade

This is a pretty entertaining album, with good use of varying tempos, although I would have liked for the album to include at least one really fast song, such as “Step That Step”. The album is marred somewhat by the production, with saxophone passages (mercifully few) played by a Kenny G imitator. As a lead singer Mark Miller continued to show improvement and the band remains cohesive. I can’t quite give this album an A, but it is a solid B+ and one I listened to frequently in the first few years after it was released.

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘These Days’

41xt6655asl-_ac_us300_ql65_Released in August 1980, These Days was Crystal Gayle’s  second of three albums recorded for Columbia. Although very successful on Billboard’s Country Albums chart reaching #6 and being certified gold s also definitely NOT a country album. It is also my least favorite of her albums, although there are many redeeming moments. The album seems to run between 80’s lounge and classic pop standards.

The album opens up with “Too Many Lovers”, a #1 record written by Mark True, Ted Lindsay, Sam Hogin. This song is moderately up-tempo with a rock guitar break.  This is followed by “If You Ever Change Your Mind”, a nice ballad written by Parker McGee and Bob Gundry. The instrumentation is basically jazz piano with orchestration. This too reached #1.

“Ain’t No Love In the Heart of The City” is typical cocktail lounge pop. Crystal sings it well but the song itself leaves me cold. Written by Michael Price and Daniel Walsh, the song leans toward modern R&B, as does the next song “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)”, which I find disappointing as Will Jennings and Joe Sample have decent track records as country songsmiths. With a different arrangement, I might like “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)”, but the background vocals on the “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)” probably belong on a Patti Labelle record rather than anything recorded by Crystal Gayle, and the Kenny G style sax leaves me completely cold.

Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill usually crafted good songs, and “Help Yourselves to Each Other” is no exception. A slow ballad with flute and string accompaniment, I could see this song being released as a single to Adult Contemporary radio. Don Williams recorded the song as an album track but I think Crystal’s version is better, even exquisite.

What a time to turn your back on someone
What a day to be without a friend
What a shame when no-one seems to bother
Who will offer shelter to candles in the wind

And it follows we are only helpless children
Ever changing like sunlight through the trees
It’s a long road we must cling to one another
Help yourselves to each other, that’s the way it’s meant to be

The great Delbert McClinton wrote “Take It Easy’ which proved to be a minor hit for Crystal Gayle, reaching #17. Crystal handles it well but her version pales to the McClinton original, and I suspect grittier female country vocalists such as Gus Hardin, Lacy J Dalton, Gail Davies, Wilma Lee Cooper or Jean Shepard  could have done the song better (not that Wilma Lee or Jean could ever have been persuaded to record this song) .

“I Just Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” is another song by Sample and Jennings, this time a mid-tempo blues number , with a traditional jazz accompaniment including clarinet.

“You’ve Almost Got Me Believin'”, by Barbara Wyrick,  sounds like cocktail lounge pop. I really didn’t like this song at all, particularly after the Kenny G-styled sax kicks in. Crystal’s vocal is nice but the song is unworthy.

“Lover Man” is a pop standard classic by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. American listeners may recall Weill as the composer of “Mack The Knife”, but he penned many fine songs, including this one. While the song is often associated with Ella Fitzgerald, Crystal acquits herself well . The arrangement can be best describe as a very bluesy piece of piano jazz.

I don’t know why but I’m feeling so sad
I long to try something I never had
Never had no kissing
Oh, what I’ve been missing
Lover man, oh, where can you be

The night is cold and I’m so alone
I’d give my soul just to call you my own
Got a moon above me
But no one to love me
Lover man, oh, where can you be

The album reaches back to 1934 for its closing number “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, from the pen of Tin Pan Alley writer Harry M. Woods. Harry wrote a number of pop standard classics including “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover”,  “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye”, and “Try a Little Tenderness”.  The song is performed as an up-tempo traditional jazz number with honky-tonk piano similar to what Joanne Castle, Big Tiny Little or Joe “Fingers” Carr might have played, and a very nice clarinet solo.

Ooh, ooh, ooh
What a little moonlight can do
Ooh, ooh, ooh
What a little moonlight can do to you

You’re in love
Your heart’s fluttering
All day long
You only stutter
Cause your poor tone
Just will not utter the words
I love you

For me this is a mixed bag. I do like pop standards and traditional jazz balladry, but I don’t care for cocktail lounge jazz. There are some very nice song on this album and some songs about which I am utterly indifferent. There is nothing remotely country on this album. I think the first two and last two songs on this album, and “Help Yourselves to Each Other” are the best songs  on the album.

Grade: B

Return to bluegrass: Tom T Hall today

tom t hall todayAfter 1985’s Song In A Seashell, Tom T Hall would take the next decade off from recording, with only 1989’s Country Songs For Kids (essentially a reissue of the 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow with some new songs added) making an appearance.

In 1996 album, Mercury would release Songs from Sopchoppy. Although released by Mercury, it was actually an independent album featuring some of Tom’s Florida friends (and none of Mercury’s session musicians), recorded at a barn in Sopchoppy, Florida. Frankly, I did not like this album as the production sounds like a cross between 1980s pop-country and so-called smooth jazz, with electric keyboard and Kenny G-style saxophone competing the debacle. The songs are good, if often downbeat, but the backing does not suit Hall’s voice. Alan Jackson rescued “Little Bitty” from this album and turned it into a number one single.

Finally, in 1997, Mercury released the final (thus far) major label album of new Tom T Hall material with Home Grown. While albums such as Magnificent Music Machine and other scattered album tracks had hinted at a turn to bluegrass, this album made it clear that TTH had returned to his roots. All of the songs were written by Hall, sometimes with an assist from his wife Dixie and are in acoustic settings.

The first track on the album, “Bill Monroe For Breakfast”, basically says it all:

When I was just a little boy we lived down on a farm
Seven miles from nowhere and a hundred miles from harm
We made our livin’ from the dirt if anything would grow
And we got our country music from a big old radio
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
Then we’d head out to the fields a hoein’ corn and mowin’ hay
Aw, mama loved his singin’, daddy loved to hear him play
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
We had a big old battery that ran the radio
Sometimes we run it down a listenin’ to the Opry Show
But we all had our instruments and most of us could play
So we had Bill Monroe for breakfast anyway

I’ve heard many bluegrass bands cover this song, as well as other songs from this album.

Since 1997, Tom T Hall has continued to write songs, usually in conjuction with his wife Dixie, and always in the bluegrass genre. He makes the occasional live appearance at a bluegrass performance, and his songs are eagerly snapped up by bluegrass performers. In 2002 Charlie Sizemore issued The Story Is … Songs of Tom T Hall, a collection of TTH’s country songs cast as bluegrass. In 2007 Blue Circle Records released Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T, a bluegrass album featuring some of Tom’ friends such as Josh Williams, Sonya Isaacs and Don Rigsby with guest appearences by Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Tom T Hall considers himself retired (although a peek at the Bluegrass Unlimited charts suggests no such thing) and at 78 years of age (as of May 25, 2014) he’s surely earned the right to retire, as no singer-songwriter today, other than perhaps Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, has produced as large a catalog of interesting and memorable songs.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘I Walk Alone’

walkaloneLorrie Morgan’s most recent solo album I Walk Alone was released without much fanfare in December 2010, a mere fourteen months after the disappointing covers album A Moment In Time. She played a bigger role in the creation of this album than she had with any of the collections that preceded it; not only was she the album’s co-producer, she co-wrote each of album’s thirteen tracks. Rather than catering to the youth market with a mutton-dressed-as-lamb product, she confronts the age issue head on, with a collection of songs sung from the point of view of a middle-aged woman. She addresses topics that are of interest to female listeners in the same age bracket – the independence and loneliness that occur after failed relationships come to an end , and the need to pick up the pieces and try again with somebody new. In theory there is no one better suited than Lorrie Morgan to tackle these subjects; unfortunately, the execution of the idea doesn’t always quite work.

I Walk Alone is one of the least country efforts in the Morgan discography and seems to be aimed squarely at middle-of-the-road listeners, which is odd considering that near the end of her stint with BNA, Lorrie publicly complained that she wanted to get back to recording more country-sounding material, but she was being pressured to go with a more radio-friendly sound instead. Her voice has deteriorated noticeably since her major label days, although the vocal problems are not as apparent as they were on A Moment In Time.

As someone who is outside the demographic that the album is intended to target, I am perhaps not in the best position to judge its effectiveness, but I was mostly bored with this collection of mostly AC-leaning ballads and midtempo numbers, although there are a few chestnuts among them. The album’s best moments are the more uptempo numbers where Morgan asserts her independence, such as the title track (the album’s best song), “Woman Thing”, and to a lesser extent, the opening track “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, which finds Morgan getting rid of both physical and emotional baggage after a break-up. Although it’s one of the more interesting songs, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is also, unfortunately, one of her poorer vocal efforts.

The campy and very pop-sounding “Very Marilyn” sounds like something Madonna might have recorded in the 80s and evokes images of the “Material Girl” video. It’s not to my taste, but it is at least more interesting than the remaining songs on the album, which I found quite tedious to listen to, with the spacy-sounding “Dangerously Blue” being the worst example. I didn’t enjoy the Kenny G-like saxophone on “”How Does It Feel”. The ballad “Mirror, Mirror” is not a bad song per se, but it sounds like it would be better suited to Barbra Streisand than Lorrie Morgan. “Take You Down”, on which Lorrie plays a Mrs. Robinson-type older woman seducing a much younger and less experienced man is downright embarrassing.

I Walk Alone didn’t receive much publicity when it was released, so it may have slipped below the radar of some fans, but it is hardly essential listening. CD copies are available through Lorrie’s website, but frankly are not worth the $20 asking price. The album is available for more reasonable prices through Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Grade: C

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Swing’

swingAlthough there was a swing revival that lasted for a few years (roughly 1998-2003), swing as a musical genre had its heyday during the period from 1935-1946, the period in which swing was America’s popular music. The economics of trying to keep a large band on the road after World War II led to the great swing bands breaking up and the music scene becoming the domain of smaller musical groups and solo singing stars.

Suzy Bogguss falls into that small group of country artists who comfortably perform in a wide variety of musical genres. Western, folk, country, pop and jazz all are areas which Ms. Bogguss has conquered.

The title of the album, Swing, suggests an album full of classic swing-era music from the Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie era. I would love for Suzy to record such an album, but this one isn’t it, although she does reach into the past for some classic swing numbers.

Swing could be described as Suzy’s tribute to modern day swing/jazz, with five of the twelve songs on the album coming from the pen of April Barrows.  Ms. Barrows, an excellent singer in her own right, composes and sings songs with the feel of swing, but with more modern and introspective lyrics than customarily found in the swing of the big band era.

In order to achieve an authentic feel for this album, Suzy engaged country music’s leading purveyor of swing, Ray Benson and members of Asleep at the Wheel.  Ray Benson plays guitar, Floyd Domino is on piano, David Sanger beats and brushes the drums and Jason Roberts plays fiddle.   Suzy and Ray produced the album.

Swing opens up with the Nat King Cole-Irving Mills composition “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, a major hit for the Nat King Cole Trio during the middle 1940s reaching #1 on the Harlem Hit Parade and spending six weeks at #1 on Billboard’s country chart . The song was based on a folk tale that Cole’s minister father had used as a theme for one of his sermons. In the song, a buzzard who had been taking different animals for joy rides would bounce them off and eat them after they were smashed on the rocks below. The monkey who is riding the buzzard in this humorous song is much too smart to fall for this trick, hanging onto the buzzard’s neck, with the admonition to “straighten up and fly right”.  There are people who swear that Nat King Cole was the best male vocalist ever in any genre of popular music (they may be right). Suzy handles the song effectively, although perhaps not with the quite the humor permeating her vocal that Cole had in his version.

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