My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kent Blazy

Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – Girl Of Your Dreams’

After the failure of her first album to make any waves, Bobbie left Epic. She was fortunate enough, however, to be picked up by Epic. Her second album, released in 1996 and produced by new label head Tony Brown, was a little more contemporary in sound than her debut, and thematically was influenced significantly by her recent divorce.

Regrettably, that did not make her any more successful with country radio. The lead single was ‘I Just Can’t Stand To Be Unhappy’, a moderately up-tempo kissoff song written by Hugh Prestwood and previously cut by Baillie And The Boys. The protagonist takes no nonsense from an unsatisfactory man:

You made this bed, you can lie in it
But you can do it without me

Love ain’t worth a wooden nickel
If you haven’t got the trust
The brightest fire burns to ashes and the sweet dreams bite the dust

Ain’t no point in being sorry
Ain’t no use in being nice
‘Cause I ain’t gonna hang around and let your lightning strike me twice

It is a pretty good song, and well performed, but perhaps not distinctive enough to be a hit. It peaked at #63.

The self-penned ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ would prove to be Bobbie’s closest to a hit, reaching #56. A cover by Lorrie Morgan was also a flop. It is a subtle song with complicated emotional layers as the protagonist fools herself into thinking she is in the right about her crumbling marriage.

One final single, ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’, was written by Bobbie with Kent Blazy and Sonny LeMaire. A contemporary ballad musing on coming to terms with a new life alone, it is a strong song with an empowering message.

She wrote a further three songs, all melancholy ballads about the end of her marriage, and all excellent songs. ‘Nobody Leaves’, which she wrote with David Stephenson, agonises about the dying days of the relationship. ‘The Girl Of Your Dreams’ looks back poignantly at the blissful early days of their love. ‘Vision Of Loneliness’ is about trying to hide her unhappiness by partying with friends.

‘Oh To Be The One’, written by Randy VanWarmer and Roger Murrah, is a wistful song about unrequited love, with a pretty melody. ‘Just Say So’ (by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski) is a seductive invitation to a loved one who may be wanting to leave. This is a lovely song with a sad undertone reflecting the mood of the album as a whole.

A couple of more uptempo covers are thrown in. A sultry and soulful ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is performed very well but feels a little out of place, with Bobbie channelling her namesake Bobbie Gentry. Bobbie’s version of Dottie West’s 1980 chart topping ‘A Lesson In Leaving’ may have acted as template for Jo Dee Messina’s 1999 hit.

I don’t love this album as much as Bobbie’s debut, but it still an excellent album which I recommend.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘She’s Not Really Cheatin’ (She’s Just Getting Even)’

1982 saw the release of She’s Not Really Cheatin’ (She’s Just Getting Even). Moe’s biggest hit in three years, the mid-paced title track is a pointed narrative about a wife who gets her revenge on a cheating husband by copying him. Written by Ron Shaffer, it peaked at #4. The album’s second single, ‘Only If There Is Another You’, which reached #12, is an earnestly sweet declaration of eternal fidelity.

The same writer (D Miller) contributed another pair of songs. ‘Our Love Could Burn Atlanta Down Again’ is a nice mid-tempo love song. ‘The All American Dream’, a co-write with the young Kent Blazy, is a sunny patriotic tune:

I drink Kentucky whiskey
I love California wine
My old car’s from Detroit
And suits my taste just fine
My boots were made in Texas
This song’s from Tennessee
I’m proud of my country
And what it’s done for me

You’re lookin’ at a believer in the all American dream
From a small farm in Texas to singin’ on TV
There ain’t a thing we can’t do
Nothing we can’t be
As long as we’re believers in the all American dream

Every single thing I own says made in USA
I don’t buy those products with names that I can’t say
We may be having hard times
But brother we’re still free
I’m glad I’m living in the land of opportunity

‘He’s Taking My Place At Your Place’ is a wistful lament for lost love, now that the ex he thought he could go back to isn’t interested any more. ‘Your Memory Is Showing All Over Me’ is a steel laced ballad about the shadow of the past preventing the protagonist from moving on.

The more contemporary ‘An Angel Like You’ is a mid tempo attempt to pick up a girl, slightly marred by intrusive backing vocals from the Jordanaires. The perky ‘Can I Pick You Up’ is a bit more effective.

My favorite track is the wonderful tribute to Moe’s traditional country roots, ‘Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul’, written by Dallas Frazier and Doodle Owens. This was a cover of a minor hit for Stoney Edwards in the early 70s. (Incidentally the song was later rewritten to pay tribute to George Jones and Merle Haggard; a pre-fame Alan Jackson recorded it.)

I also like the pacy ‘Jesus In A Nashville Jail’, in which a failed country singer finds God after “the bottle got the best and the blues got the rest of me”.

This is a very good album, but not one of Moe’s very best. It was released on a 2-4-1 CD with the excellent It’s A Cheating Situation, and the combination is well worth tracking down.

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Come As You Were’

come as you wereFor his third album, T Graham Brown moved to a new producer, Ron Chancey. The mixture of country, blues, soul and rock was similar to his previous work, but with a little more country mixed in. The production does feel a little dated, particularly the backing vocals, but the song quality is high, and the vocals are great.

The plaintive mid-paced love song ‘Darlene’ was the first single. It was very successful, becoming Brown’s third and last #1 hit, and although the production sounds a bit dated now, the vocal is solid and the song quite nice. The Paul Craft-penned title track, an excellent soulful ballad previously recorded by both Jerry Lee Lewis and Barbara Mandrell, is given an emotional delivery by Brown, backed up by a brass section, and peaked at #7.

The last single. ‘Never Say Never’ flopped in comparison, topping oyt at #30. A rather shouty blues/rock style number reminiscent of Eddy Raven, it has little to do with country music and sounds very dated today. This and the R&B ‘You Left The Water Running’ are the only tracks I don’t like at all on the album.

The remaining ballads are much more country sounding than any of the singles, and are all excellent songs. The slow agonised ‘This Wanting You’ was written by Brown with Bruce Bouton (a legendary steel player) and Bruce Burch, and is a highlight with relatively stripped down production. ‘I’ll Believe It When I Feel It’, also written by Brown, is another very good downbeat ballad with a little more of a bluesy feel as the protagonist fails to get over someone. The waltz-time ‘The Time Machine’ (a great Dennis Linde song) refers to a jukebox whose songs remind the protagonist of happier times with a lost love.

One of the best songs on the album, ‘The Best Love I Never Had’ is a regretful cheating song written by Kent Blazy and Jim Dowell:

We came so close
So close I thought I had her love – for a time
She could never break the ties that bind
She was never really mine

And I never will forget those nights
The taste of stolen love is sweet but never right
I’d face the fires of Hell just to hold her tight
But I wanted her that bad
Oh, but she belonged to someone else
I knew, but oh, I couldn’t help myself

The protagonist of the midpaced ‘I Read A Letter today’ (another Brown tune) gets a nasty surprise when he discovers his beloved is planning on leaving by opening her message to her secret love. A great song and passionate lead vocal is somewhat let down by dated production.

‘She’s Okay And I’m Okay’, written by Harlan Howard, revisits a failed relationship.

While certainly no New Traditionalist, T Graham Brown brought interesting diversity to country radio in the late 1980s, and this album is a good example of his style. Some of the production sounds dated now, but his vocals are always strong.

The album is unfortunately not available digitally, but it’s worth finding a cheap used CD.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Lost Sessions’

lost sessionsIn 2005 Garth came briefly out of retirement with the release of a lavish box set exclusive to Walmart, which included one disc called The Lost Sessions, a collection of offcuts from previous records with a handful of new songs. This was subsequently given a separate release with added tracks.

Opener and lead single ‘Good Ride Cowboy’ is a tribute to rodeo rider and cowboy singer Chris Ledoux, who was so famously namechecked in Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)’ at the start of Garth’s career, and who had died earlier that year. He launched the song on an unsuspecting world live in Times Square, New York, during the CMA awards show, and that gave the single enough impetus to send it racing up the charts. An eventual peak of #3 made it Garth’s biggest hit since 1998. Garth did not actually write the song himself; the writers include later hitmaker Jerrod Niemann. He and Steve Wariner are among the chorus of backing vocalists on the rowdy tune.

It was followed by a duet with Trisha Yearwood, to whom he was now married. ‘Love Will Always Win’, which had been recorded in 1999. It is a pleasant enough but rather bland song, and only reached #23. The third and last single, the fiddle-led ‘That Girl Is A Cowboy’, was a new Garth co-write with Niemann and Richie Brown, two of the writers of ‘Good Ride Cowboy’. It’s quite a nice song, and the arrangement makes it one of Garth’s most traditional country records.

‘Under The Table’, another Garth song (written with Randy Taylor) may date back to the recording sessions for his self-titled debut. It is an excellent song in traditional vein, a pained ballad about trying to drink away a memory. A breezy cover of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Fishin’ In The Dark’ is also very enjoyable.

Five songs have copyright dates of 1996-7, three of them Garth co-writes, and I suspect they are rejects from the Sevens recording sessions. ‘Allison Miranda’ (a Garth co-write) is a pleasantly understated story song about picking up a hitchhiker and falling in love. The heavily strung and very short (less than two minutes) ‘American Dream’, which he wrote with Jenny Yates, is a gentle ballad about growing up in America, which feels like an unfinished first draft, consisting of only two short verses disguised by an orchestra. ‘Meet Me In Love’ is a loungy jazz style number.

My favourite of these tracks is DeWayne Blackwell’s ‘Please Operator (Could You Trace This Call)’, a solidly country and entertaining drinking song about a man who’s consumed so much to forget his troubles that he has no idea where he is.

I also very much like Bruce Robison’s catchy ‘She Don’t Care About Me’, one of three songs Garth subsequently passed on to his former sideman Ty England for the latter’s 2000 Garth-produced Highways and Dancehalls album. The pleasant Tex-Mex ‘My Baby No Esta Qui No More’ is also enjoyable, but ‘I’d Rather Have Nothing’ is a bit cluttered and just okay.

Alison Krauss harmonises on the chorus of ‘For A Minute There’, a gently melancholic tune about a remembered romance which dates from 1999, and which Garth wrote with Kent Blazy. The western swing ‘Cowgirl’s Saddle’ is an attempt at quirky humor from 2001; I enjoy Garth doing this style and it sounds great musically; but the lyric (another of his co-writes) is a bit off-color. Dating from 2002, Steve Wariner and Marcus Hummon’s ‘You Can’t Help Who You Love’ is a self-justifying cheating song which is quite good, but over-produced. The brand new ‘I’ll Be The Wind’ is plain dull.

The set closes with a delicate reading of the 1950s anti-war folk song ‘Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream’.

This is a very varied, if not terribly cohesive album, with elements of most of the styles Garth has pursued over the years. It certainly wasn’t worth buying the original boxed set for, but is a better bet as a standalone especially now that used copies are available relatively cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Fresh Horses’

220px-FreshhorsesGarth Brooks’ sixth album Fresh Horses came in November of 1995, just as he was on the cusp of a three-year tour that would earn him multiple CMA Entertainer of the Year honors. The main criticism of Brooks at the time where rumors he was going pop after the massive success he’d had in the previous few years. That turned out false, as Brooks instead issued an album featuring more of his songwriting than anything up to this point and thus more of him and the topics he most enjoyed singing about. Seven Million copies have been sold to date.

The first single was an effortless love song entitled “She’s Every Woman.” His 14th number one, he co-wrote the tune with Victoria Shaw, who he teamed up with for “The River” three years earlier. “She’s Every Woman” is one of Brooks’ most delicate love songs, with a lush production, and tender vocal. It’s one of my favorite things he’s ever done.

The album’s second single is a prime example of how Brooks’ ego can get the best of him, leading to lapses in judgment. “The Fever” is a cover of the Aerosmith song and horrible country-rock. It worked in concert, with Brooks shaking open water bottles into the crowd, but didn’t translate to a studio recording. Country Radio gave it a deserved lukewarm reception resulting in a #23 chart peak.

Brooks rebounded with the third single, his 15th number one “The Beaches Of Cheyenne” a tune about a woman going crazy after too many years putting up with her rodeo cowboy husband. She would tear apart their home and eventually drown off the California coast, all while he ‘rode a bull no man should ride.’ It’s an excellent tune about tolerance, and with ample steel guitar, one of his more country leaning efforts.

The fourth single was another ‘statement’ song from Brooks, a ballad given a hard-to-watch video with heartbreaking footage of the Oklahoma City Bombings. C-written by Tony Arata and Wayne Tester and peaking at #19, “The Change” is another of his powerful singles, although I can see where some may find it heavy handed. On 9/11, when I got home from eighth grade, this was the first song I ran to my room to play. Brooks’ powerful vocal sells me on the track every time.

Easily one of Brooks’ most idiotic singles was released next. “It’s Midnight Cinderella,” co-written by Brooks with Kim Williams and Kent Blazy, is direct pandering to the line-dance craze that had reached its peak by 1996. I do love the honky-tonk production, but the lyrics are trepid at best. Country Radio, though, loved it as the song peaked at #5.

I love vivid story songs so the final single is right up my alley. The track is a co-write between Brooks and Leigh Reynolds, and reached a peak of #4. “That ‘Ol Wind” details the story of a young mother who reunites with an old musician fling when he’s ‘back in town for one last show.’ Not much is said between the pair, least of which the money he hid or the fact her song is actually his. The track is excellently crafted and a testament to Brooks’ power at country radio that it would even peak inside the top 10, when most songs of its ilk have a very difficult time of gaining serious traction.

The singles from Fresh Horses are wildly uneven at best, with attempts at trying different sonic textures at the hope of diversifying Brooks’ appeal. When bad they were horrible, but a few gems managed to sneak in there. As for the album tracks, they proved somewhat more enjoyable, although a couple of generic songs sneaked in. “Rollin’” is a generic slice of unmemorable bluesy country rock, while “Cowboys and Angels” is just another cowboy song to add to Brooks’ repertoire. He co-wrote “The Good Stuff,” which he used to open each date on his massive 1996-1999 World Tour.

“Ireland” is probably my favorite of the album cuts, an anthem to the emerald isle that may seem puzzling coming from Brooks’ pen, but just works really well as a song. The other excellent inclusion is his version of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love.” The track, which he recorded for the Hope Floats soundtrack in 1998, was added to Fresh Horses during The Limited Series re-release. The sparse piano ballad is an excellent showcase for Brooks’ tender voice and was a complete 180 from everything he was doing at the time. The track works really well, even if it’s more a slice of pop than anything resembling traditional-leaning country music.

As a whole, Fresh Horses is a solid Brooks album that features some fantastic songs mixed with a lot of filler. Even though “The Change” gained notoriety, “The Beaches of Cheyenne” is the album’s only essential track and the one Brooks includes in his concerts to this day. I’ve always enjoyed the tender side of Brooks’ persona, one that’s often overlooked, which tracks like “She’s Every Woman” and “That ‘Ol Wind” show off (as does Sevens’ “She’s Gonna Make It” and “You Move Me”) perfectly. As compared to some of Brooks’ earlier recordings, a lot of Fresh Horses has held up well overtime, too, which is saying something. This isn’t Brooks’ finest work by any means, but the aforementioned numbers are among his most underrated.

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘In Pieces’

Garth In PiecesStarting with No Fences, Garth Brooks achieved a level of sales that had previously been unheard of in country music. It propelled him to international superstardom, and the pressure on him and producer Allen Reynolds to sustain that level of success must have been overhwhelming. Having reached a significant number of people outside the usual country music audience, it was perhaps inevitable that he would tailor his sound to accomodate them. As a result, his albums became increasingly eclectic — and inconsistent in quality. This trend began with 1992’s The Chase and continued with 1993’s In Pieces.

The album spawned five singles, two of which reached #1. The first was “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til The Sun Comes Up”, a Garth co-write with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams. Though it was more country than most of the singles from The Chase, it has more of a rock edge than his earlier work, and while I don’t intensely dislike the song, it’s not one of my favorites. It was followed by another #1 hit, “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”, which is aimed squarely at the country audience. It’s meant to be in the same vein as “Friends In Low Places”, but tries a little too hard and lacks the charm of that earlier hit. “Standing Outside the Fire” is better, though I still wouldn’t rank it among Garth’s best work.

“One Night A Day”, written by Gary Burr and Pete Wasner is one of Garth’s least country-sounding songs. Completely lacking in country instrumentation, the piano and saxophone-led track leans towards jazz and seems to have been an attempt at a crossover hit. It did not chart outside the country charts, where it peaked at #7. While some artists can successfully pull off an occasional venture beyond the confines of country music, Garth Brooks, to my mind, has never been one of them. He seems to have thought otherwise, as he tended to test the non-country waters fairly regularly. I’ve never thought that his voice or delivery were particularly suited to this type of song. He seems equally out of his comfort zone on the bluesy “Kickin’ and Screamin'”.

The album’s final and best single is a cover version of the Dennis Linde-penned “Callin’ Baton Rouge”. Originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys in 1978, it was later covered by New Grass Revival, who released it as a sigle in 1989. Their version peaked at #37, but Garth’s version, on which members of New Grass Revival sang and played, reached #2. It is one of the two great tracks on the album, the other being the album’s closing track, “The Cowboy Song”, a low-key number that is much more suited to Garth than some of the overblown power-ballads he seemed so fascinated with during this phase of his career.

“The Red Strokes”, while not released as a single in the US, became Garth’s biggest hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at #13 on the British pop charts. It’s not surprising that one of his more pop-leaning recordings was successful in a country not normally known for embracing country music, but artistically, the track is one of his poorer efforts.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with this album when it was first released, and was somewhat surprised to find that I like it a lot better now than I did then. However, that says more about the current state of country music than it does about the current state of country music than it does about the quality of this album. I’m tempted to say that it’s worth downloading “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “The Cowboy Song” and skipping the rest, but this is Garth Brooks we’re talking about, so single-track downloads aren’t an option. Pick up a cheap used copy if you haven’t heard this one.

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Ropin’ The Wind’

ropin the windGarth’s third album was released in September 1991, with the artist at the peak of his commercial success. The first single, Larry Bastian’s ‘Rodeo’ was a portrait of a rodeo rider’s obsession with his pursuit of excitement over love. Delivered with an intensity and drama hovering on the edge of too much, it is pretty good, and peaked at #3.

A cover of Billy Joel’s pop hit ‘Shameless’ was to become one of Garth’s biggest hits. Despite not sounding remotely like a country song, Garth’s passionate vocal (backed by Trisha Yearwood’s harmony) and star status pushed it to #1.

Much, much better is ‘What She’s Doing Now’ (one of seven Garth co-writes on the album, but the first of them to be sent to radio. A gently sad reflection on a failed relationship and its continuing hold on the protagonist, with a string arrangement which sweetens it, this is a very good song. It had been previously recorded by Crystal Gayle with a gender twist in 1989, when she was well past her peak, but Garth’s own version hit the top of the charts. The similarly paced ‘Burning Bridges’ is another understated ballad (written by Garth with Stephanie Brown) which might serve as a prequel to it. This is the confession of a serial leaver, and shows Garth can be subtle. The style is perhaps more James Taylor than honky tonk, but it’s very palatable.

Next to radio was the punchy drama of ‘Papa Loved Mama’, written by Garth with Kim Williams. Telling the story of a trucker who kills his faithless wife and her lover by driving his rig into the motel she is staying at, it peaked at #3.

Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Now Mama’s in the graveyard
Papa’s in the pen

The same songwriting partnership, with the addition of Kent Blazy, produced the best song on the album in ‘Cold Shoulder’, the story of a lonely trucker missing his wife while on the road. A tasteful production helps make this a standout:

I wish I could hold her
Instead of hugging this old cold shoulder

The fifth and last single was #1 hit ‘The River’. Written by Garth with Victoria Shaw, it is one of his well meaning but slightly preachy earnest declarations of the importance of taking risks and living life to the full. It is quite pleasant and likeable, with an attractive arrangement.

‘In Lonesome Dove’, which Garth wrote with Cynthia Limbaugh, is a Western story song which is back to the drama but with a relatively low key reading which makes it all the more effective. It may have been inspired by the Western novel and TV drama of the same name, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the same.

‘We Bury The Hatchet’, written with Wade Kimes about a tumultous relationship, is playful western swing and quite entertaining. The lively up-tempo rebellious attitude of ‘Against The Grain’ came from bluegrass singer-songwriters Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson with Bruce Bouton, but doesn’t quite convince.

Not on the original record, but added to subsequent re-releases is ‘Which One Of Them’, a pretty good song about a heartbroken man pretending his one night stands are his lost love, as he muses wearily,

I’ve forgotten what’s wrong
Given up on what’s right

Ropin’ The Wind has sold over 14 million copies in the US alone, and a further 3 million worldwide, making it his biggest ever seller. Is it his best work? Not quite, but it’s not at all bad.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Good Wine & Bad Decisions’

good wine and bad decisionsIt’s nearly 10 years since Julie Roberts first appeared on the radar of country fans, and in the years since she’s endured more reverses than many artists, including losing her major label deal, losing her home in the Nashville floods, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and last year being passed up for The Voice. Her career never quite fulfilled the promise of her distinctive emotion-filled voice; even her biggest hit, ‘Break Down Here’, barely cracked the top 20 even though it sold over half a million copies. I loved her two Mercury albums, but was left a little disappointed by her independent album a couple of years ago. Now, she has been signed to a revived Sun Records, and has new music.

Jason Collum co-produces and co-wrote many of the songs with Julie. The result is much stronger than her last record. Collum’s production is often low-key, mixing the country torch balladry at which Julie has always shone, with occasional rock and soul influences, but always allows Julie’s trademark sultry vocals to take center stage.

The outstanding song is ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray’, written by Chris Stapleton. This is a very touching tribute to a religious father after his death. I also rather liked the album’s other religious song, the longing ‘Arms Of Jesus’, backed by subtle strains of churchy piano and organ.

Steve Earle’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ (recorded in the early 90s by Mark Chesnutt) is a reminder that Earle, better known for his country rock and political songs, can write a stunning country ballad when he chooses, and Julie does the song full justice.

‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is a Bobbie Gentry cover, and the production and arrangement of a southern teenager’s sexual awakening. The vocal is convincing enough for it to be an enjoyable track, although the production is like the original to the point of sounding like a pastiche.

Buddy Miller harmonises on his own ‘Gasoline & Matches’. Julie sturdy version is less frenetic than others I have heard, including the recent cut by LeAnn Rimes, allowing the lyrics more prominence. This is a very good recording which grows the more you hear it.

Vince Gill guests on the lonesome ballad ‘Old Strings’, which Julie sings beautifully as she agonises over her continuing feelings for an ex. A lovely melancholy feel and tasteful arrangement make this another highlight.

The seductive ‘Keep Me Up All Night’, addressed to a husband who has let the romance fade, which Julie originally wrote for her debut album a decade ago with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten, but never recorded, is pretty good, and was worth pulling off the shelves.

The title track is an excellent song about a one-night stand with an old flame, regretted almost before it takes place. This should be ideal for Julie’s sultry voice, but unfortunately her pitch sounds noticeably off in places.

‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ is another excellent song about a woman refusing to acknowledge her husband is leaving, with a soothing melody and an understated acoustic arrangement. ‘Old Habit’ is another instant classic, a despairing ballad about facing the last vestiges of a relationship, with a desperate Julie realising her lover is treating her as a convenience. The phrasing and emotional interpretation are beautifully judged.

Some of the material stretches the boundaries a little. The harmonica-led bluesy country-rock of ‘If I Were You’, addressed to a neglectful lover by his partner in adultery, is quite catchy, with a heavy drum beat anchoring the rhythm; the harmonica is played by Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael. The rocking ‘When It’s Over’ is not quite as good, seemingly at odds with the downbeat lyric and not quite right for Julie’s voice. The minor keyed ‘Bones’ is a fairly faithful cover of a song from British retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. It’s not country, but Julie sings it well and it is certainly an interesting choice. The bluesy soul of ‘Wrong About You’ works better for me.

The liner notes are in unreadably tiny print and essentially useless. The music, however, is mostly very good; a little more adventurous than her major label work, and a definite advance on her last release. if you’ve missed Julie’s bluesy voice, this is a very worthwhile purchase or download.

Grade: A

Album Review: Randy Houser – ‘How Country Feels’

how country feelsRandy Houser’s third album, while his most consistent to date, is still a very mixed bag. Derek George’s production is generally unsubtle and loud, and acceptable but uninspired on the quieter tracks. Houser’s career seemed to have hit the roadblocks, when he left Show Dog-Universal for independent label Stoney Creek. However, ‘How Country Feels’ his first single for the new label proved to be a hit, and became only his second top 10 single to date. It isn’t a very interesting song, but regrettably that seems to be what it takes for commercial success these days.

New single ‘Running Outta Moonlight’, written by Dallas Davidson, Kelly Lovelace and Ashley Gorley, is quite catchy but too loud, and while not dislikeable, rather bland lyrically with its generic picture of outdoor romance in the South. However, its very flaws make it a good bet to repeat the performance of ‘What Country Feels’. Much the same goes for the equally loud ‘Growin’ Younger’, written by Randy with Justin Weaver and Brett James, with its positive but unoriginal message about living life to the full, and I could see this as a successful single later this year.

The nadir of the album is reached with ‘Absolutely Nothing’, a half-spoken, largely tuneless, incredibly bland and completely pointless song about doing nothing. It’s the kind of thing that was probably fun at an uninspired writing session, but has no interest for anyone else (the guilty parties are Lee Brice, Joe Leathers and Vicky McGehee). Luckily, it is the only track (of 15) which has absolutely no merit.

There is a handful of genuinely outstanding songs which make this project worthwhile (or are at least worth downloading separately). Perhaps the best of all is ‘The Singer’, written by Trent Willmon and Drew Smith. It is a tender portrait of the (ex?) wife of a successful but troubled musician:

She loved the singer
She just couldn’t live the song

Almost as good is Randy’s own ‘Power Of A Song’, written with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten. This gentle but powerful ballad sounds as though it was inspired by ‘Three Chords and the Truth’, telling the story first of a man planning on leaving his wife and kids and turned around by hearing a song on the radio:

That’s the miracle of music
Loves’s the only thing as strong

The second verse is a contrasting, and even more powerful, story of a woman who never thought she would have the courage to leave a violent relationship – and this time the song gives her the strength not to turn round, 40 miles out. Oddly, this great song has a copyright date of 2004, but somehow has never been cut before. I’m garteful Randy revived it for this album.

The third great song is ‘Along For The Ride’, a pensive philosophical number with gospel-style paino and a bluesy feel to the vocals which Randy wrote with Zac Brown and Levi Lowrey. The last standout is the closer, ‘Route 3 Box 250D’, even though it is a co-write about rural life with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson. What makes it work is that it is an emotionally invested, detailed story about a specific family situation which feels very real, which does not shy away from the dark side. The story of growing up in a trailer in Mississippi with a violent stepfather with the only refuge fishing on a neighbour’s pond until the child’s prayers are answered when rescue comes from an uncle is deeply moving, as the protagonist reflects,

That’s where I became a man
Long before my time

The lyrics note bleakly, “Hollywood don’t make no movies” about the kind of life he led, but actually there is the kernel of a film, or perhaps a novel, in this song.

I liked ‘Shine’, written by Neil Thrasher, Trent Summar, Wendell Mobley. Set to an engaging banjo-led arrangement (but still a bit too loud), it tells the story of a rural moonshiner giving some hope to the residents of a town badly affected by the economic downturn of the past few years.

‘Top Of The World’, written by Jason Sellers, Rob Hatch, Lance Miller and Vicky McGehee, is a pretty good mid-tempo love song with a catchy tune, and I also quite liked ‘Goodnight Kiss’, written by Hatch and Sellers with Randy. ‘Wherever Love Goes’ is a pleasant contemporary country duet with labelmate Kristy Lee Cook, written by Sellers with Neil Thrasher and Paul Jenkins.

‘Like A Cowboy’ and ‘Let’s Not Let It’ are decent songs both co written by Randy, hampered by heavy handed production. ‘Sunshine On The Line’, written with Dallas Davidson, has a fairly generic lyric about good times with a pretty girl in the summer, but is saved by the energetic Southern rock performance.

This is an uneven record, which always makes giving a grade somewhat notional. The best songs deserve A status, and I recommend cherrypicking those to download. I suspect these are the ones that won’t get played on radio, but it is good to see that artists with one eye on the charts are stil able to include songs of substance on their albums.

Grade: B

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘His And Hers’

For Joey + Rory’s third studio album, they have stayed with producer Gary Paczosa, who helmed last year’s charming Christmas album. As with that Christmas record, Paczosa does a good job, but not quite as sparking a sound as that given to their first two albums by Carl Jackson. Joey’s voice is what sets this duo apart, and it was a little disappointing that this time around she and Rory have split the lead vocals equally (hence the choice of title). I can appreciate they want to underline the point that this is an equal partnership professionally as in life, but while Rory’s voice is perfectly listenable and he shows fine interpretative skills here, Joey is one of the best female vocalists around at the moment. Another slight disappointment was that the delightful ‘Headache’, released as a single last year, didn’t make the final cut.

I have already written about the somber lead single, the stunning ‘When I’m Gone’, and this impresses me more each time I hear it. There are two other really outstanding songs here, both written by Rory with the impressive Erin Enderlin.

The title track tells the story of a couple slowly growing apart, lyrically very similar to the song of the same title recorded some years ago by John Anderson, but the sweet melody and Joey’s subtle vocal set this apart:

All a husband and wife
Have left of a life
That had such a beautiful start
Are two kids torn apart
And two broken hearts
His and hers

Also excellent, ‘Waiting For Someone’ has a woman who meets the perfect man while waiting in a bar for a blind date (perhaps). It seems in fact to be a more subtle ‘The Chair’ situation, as she winds up telling the man she has been talking to,
I was waiting for someone like you”.

A perfectly constructed lyric and delicate tune are interpreted beautifully by Joey’s sultry but vulnerable vocal.

The other songs on which Joey sings lead are pretty good if not quite up to that standard. Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Let’s Pretend We Never Met’ is a swinging flirtatious number with a wife trying to jazz up her tired marriage, which is quite fun. ‘Love Your Man’ is a pacy and quite enjoyable song encouraging another married woman to persevere with loving her husband, which Joey helped Rory and his daughter Heidi to write. ‘He’s A Cowboy’ is a tribute to the titular cowboy, which doesn’t bring anything new to a wellworn theme, but is beautifully sung with Jon Randall Stewart on backing vocals.

In the compelling story song ‘Josephine’ (on of Rory’s own compositions), he voices the letters of a Civil War Confederate soldier separated from his wife, wracked by guilt over killing a young enemy soldier and anticipating his own death. This is excellent.

‘A Bible And A Belt’ was written by Rory with Philip Coleman and sounds autobiographical. I’m not a big fan of correlating religion and corporal punishment, so this one’s positive, nostalgic feel doesn’t quite work for me, but it is nicely put together with Rory’s finest vocal.

I really like ‘Teaching Me How To Love You’, which rich-voiced teenager Blaine Larsen (who was discovered by Rory) recorded back in 2005. I was disappointed and a little surprised he never broke through, but while Blaine’s version sounds better than Rory’s on a purely aural level, I couldn’t be convinced by the delivery from an 18 year old talking about all the life lessons taught by past loves, and Rory’s maturity makes it infinitely more believable.

The jazzy ‘Someday When I Grow Up’, written by Rory with Tonya Lynette Stout and Dan Demay has a father refusing to mature, and is quite amusing with an interesting instrumental arrangement, but has Rory’s least impressive vocal performance. A similarly slightly flawed but lovable man is the protagonist of a charming relaxed cover of Tom T Hall’s love song ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey’ ( a #4 hit for the singer-songwriter in 1974), and this is highly enjoyable in a Don Williams/Alan Jackson style.

‘Cryin’ Smile’ is a bit of a list song (written by the team of Phil O’Donnell, Gary Hannan and Ken Johnson), but Rory’s invested vocal lifts this song about those emotional and sometimes bittersweet moments in life.

As expected, this sounds good, but although there are a number of standout tracks, overall the material falls just a little short of their first two albums. But at its best, there are some great songs, and the duo remains one of my favourite acts in country music.

Grade: A-

Television Review – ‘The Joey + Rory Show’

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Chris Young – ‘Neon’

Chris Young’s second album moved him from former Nashville Star winner to bona fide country star. His eagerly anticipated third, Neon, is a self-assured neotraditional record with just enough radio gloss to keep him at the top, produced by the experienced James Stroud.

He has one of the great classic country voices, a rich burnished baritone with phrasing and interpretative ability, which is improving with time. His material has up to now been patchy, with a few highlights rising out of a mediocre mass lifted only by Chris’s exceptional voice, and on the whole this album is a step in the right direction with his most consistent selection of material to date.

Chris co-wrote seven of the ten songs, including the excellent lead single and current big hit, ‘Tomorrow’ (with Frank Myers and Anthony Smith), which showcases his mastery of the classic heartbreak ballad. The vocals are better than the song itself, although that is very good, with the protagonist clinging on to the remnants of a relationship he knows is about to fall apart:

We’re like fire and gasoline
I’m no good for you
You’re no good for me
We only bring each other tears and sorrow
But tonight I’m gonna love you like there’s no tomorrow

The second best song is ‘Flashlight’, with its fond memories of a father’s love, shown by his teaching his son how to fix cars – but really, of course, lessons are in how to live and love rather than car maintenance. Just as well, because the son here never does quite grasp the latter, but has got the point of the former:

To this day I still can’t make ‘em run right
But I sure did learn a lot
Just holding the flashlight

In other words, it’s basically a teenage boy version of Trace Adkins’ current hit ‘Just Fishing’.

Great voice aside, Chris has gained success by capitalizing on the clean-cut sexiness on songs like his breakthrough hit ‘Gettin’ You Home’, and there is a focus on love songs here, but with a fairly varied feel. The good-humored opener ‘I Can Take It From There’ is a mid-tempo come-on written with Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip, referencing Conway Twitty with rather more reason than most recent namechecks of country stars. ‘Lost’, written by Chris with Chris Dubois and Ashley Gorley, is a mellow (and potentially commercial) invitation to a girl to get ‘lost’ on purpose together, and while I prefer the former, I could see either of these do well on radio. The tender ‘Old Love Feels New’ (written with Tim Nichols and Brett James) is my favourite of the love songs, with its tribute to a long-lasting relationship. The tender ballad ‘She’s Got This Thing About Her’, which Chris wrote with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten has a string arrangement, and while it is well sung, it sounds a bit out-of-place aurally on this record.

The Luke Laird co-write ‘You’ and Monty Criswell and Shane Minor’s ‘When She’s On’ are the only dull moments. The rowdy ‘Save Water, Drink Beer’ is not as amusing as it seems to think it is, but successfully raises the energy levels, could well be a successful single and would probably go down well live with its obvious singalong possibilities. The traditional sounding title track, with a wistful-sounding vocal comparing the beauties of nature in the American southwest to the joys of the honky-tonk, with Chris declaring neon to be his favourite color.

iTunes has a couple of exclusive bonus tracks. ‘I’m Gonna Change That’ is a pretty solid but slightly too loud mid-tempo with muscular vocals. ‘Don’t Leave Her (If You Can’t Let Her Go’ is very good indeed, a melancholy tinged proffering of advice to a friend planning to break up with his sweetheart, which is all too obviously based on the protagonist’s biter experience. It’s a shame this one didn’t make the cut for the standard release, and even more so that the label didn’t consider adding as bonus tracks the three classic covers he released as an EP last year. Overall, though, this is a fine release from one of the brightest young stars in Nashville.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Life Goes On’

Life Goes On was the last album Terri Clark released during her decade-long association with Mercury Records.  It’s also her first without long-time producer Keith Stegall at the helm, as Byron Gallimore and James Stroud produce different tracks.  While it would be her only number-one charting album (on the Canadian Country Albums chart), only one single gained a little traction at radio. Two subsequent releases failed to chart in the U.S. or Canada, a sign that the label wasn’t at all invested in the album’s success.

The lone hit single from the set, ‘She Didn’t Have Time’, is a waltzing three-act story song that follows an independent woman through a separation from her husband, reinvention as a single mother, and finally, on to a happy ending when she meets the man of her dreams. Unfortunately, this stalled at a rather disappointing #25, no other singles charted, and was the signal of the end of Terri Clark’s hit-making days with country radio.

As with most Terri Clark records, here ballads make for the strongest moments. The album’s cornerstone is ‘I Wish He’d Been Drinking Whiskey’, a stone-country weeper in which the narrator laments her newly sober husband telling her he doesn’t love her anymore. And then there’s ‘Not Enough Tequila’, an understated healing-heart ballad that leans more to the contemporary than most of the album, and is another highlight.

The disc opens on a high note with a couple of jaunty up-tempo romps. The title track ‘Life Goes On’ revisits past heartaches on the way to true love, while ‘Damn Right’ bemoans the loss of a ill-fitted, yet passionate, love affair. Both follow the Terri Clark sound-template with the electric guitar leading the way, but also with prominent fiddle and the rhythm section mixed in high. The raucous ‘Honky Tonk Song’, from the pens of hit-making heavyweights Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher, is another high-octane number that hits all the right grooves.

The only duds come from the unbalanced number of up-tempos. Songs like ‘Bigger Windows’ and ‘Cowboy Days’ sound forced in both production, and Clark appears to be phoning them in. These are counter-balanced nicely by some of Clark’s own co-writes stacked at the end. ‘Travelin’ Soul’ is the obligatory life-on-the-road song the singer always finds room for, and ‘Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime’ is a shuffling number with the theme of goodbye is inevitable. Embrace it.

Label support or no, Life Goes On would prove another strong album in Terri Clark’s discography.

Grade: B-

Buy it from amazon.