My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kix Brooks

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘In My Eyes’

Released in 1983, In My Eyes, Conlee’s sixth album, would prove to be John’s most successful album, reaching #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, The album would feature three #1 singles in “I’m Only In It for the Love”, “In My Eyes” and “As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You” , as well as a fourth single “Way Back” that reached #4.

The album opens up with “I’m Only in It for the Love”, a song written by Kix Brooks, Deborah Allen and Rafe Van Hoy, The song was released in June 1983 as the first single and proved to be John’s fourth number one on the country chart. The song is up-tempo and upbeat,

I want you to know you got my full attention
And every move is with my best intention
Before we go on, I thought I ought to mention
I’m only in it for the love

I’m only in it for the love and affection
I think I’m heading in the right direction
I guess the question that I’m really asking
Is do you want a love that’s everlasting?

Next up is a love song, the somewhat pensive “As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You”. This song was the third single from the album. The song was written by Bruce ‘Hey ! Baby’ Channel and Kieran Kane.

Wherever I’m goin’, wherever I’m stayin’
It doesn’t matter, long as I’m stayin’ with you, stayin’ with you
I’m always happy, whatever I’m doin’
It doesn’t matter, long as I do it with you, do it with you

I may never have much silver and gold
But, I’ve got something more precious and warmer to hold
And that old rockin’ chair don’t scare me, like it used to
It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m rockin’ with you

“Together Alone” is filler about a marriage that seems to be unraveling, but nicely sung by John.

It wasn’t like Conway Twitty to miss a hit, but Conley pulled “In My Eyes” from Conway’s 1982 Dream Maker album. It is a really nice ballad:

She just a woman a hundred pounds of flesh and blood
Quick with a smile warm with a touch for me
she’s just a woman and not the least or the most desired
But she’s set one man’s heart of fire and it’s me that she wants to please

And in my eyes god never made a more beautiful girl
In my eyes there’s no one more lovely in all of the world
And she looks at me at times with such surprise
When she sees how special she is in my eyes

“Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine” was the title track of Ricky Skaggs’ 1981 album for Epic. The song was written by Sonny Throckmorton and while Ricky did not release it as a single, the song received quite a bit of airplay. Ricky’s version is better but John acquits himself well on the song:

I been standing underneath this dark old cloud
Waiting for the sun to shine
Waiting for the sun to shine in my heart again

I been throwing a lot of good love away
Waiting for the sun to shine
Waiting for the sun to shine in my heart again

Oh, I’m just waiting for the sun to shine
I’m just waiting for the sun to shine
I know it will be sometime
But I’m just waiting for the sun to shine

“Lay Down Sally” is an Eric Clapton song that has been covered by numerous pop and country artists . Conley’s version is a nice change of pace for the album.

“Way Back” was the fourth single pulled from the album – it reached #4 but perhaps could have done better with a little different arrangement. The song is a nostalgic look back at a relationship that has changed over time, and not for the better.

“New Way Out” was a Randy Sharp tune that was a single for Karen Brooks in 1982. The song would prove to be her biggest hit, reaching #17. It is a good song and John does a credible job of covering it.

I know how hard she’ll take it
When she finds out I can’t stay
So I don’t want to have to tell her
If there’s any other way.

Is there any new way out?
Where hearts are never broken
(Is there any new way out)
Where no one’s ever hurt in anger
(Is there any new way out?)
And harsh words are never spoken
(Is there any new way out?)

“Don’t Count The Rainy Days” is a song more associated with Michael Martin Murphey, who released the song in August 1983 and had a top ten hit with it.

The album closes with Mickey Newberry’s “American Trilogy”, today used as patriotic flag-waver, but far less over-exposed at the time this album was issued. John’s version is perhaps my favorite of all the versions I’ve heard.

As time went on John Conlee’s sound became more solidly country. This is a very good album which I would give an A.

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Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘On A Good Night’

Released in June 1996, On A Good Night was Wade’s second album on Columbia. Produced by Don Cook, who also sings background on the album, the album climbed to #11 on the country albums chart and reached gold (500,000 sales) status. The album features a Who’s Who of Nashville session musician with Bruce Bouton on steel guitar, Mark Casstevens on acoustic guitar, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, Dennis Burnside on piano and organ, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glenn Worf on bass guitar and Lonnie Wilson on drums. This is nothing if not a country album.

The album opens up with the title track, written by Larry Boone, Don Cook and Paul Nelson. The first single released from the album, it topped out at #2 on Billboard’s Country chart. The song is a rocking up-tempo romp:

On a good night I could hop in my truck
Round up my friends and with any kind of luck
We could end up howling at a harvest moon
On a good night I could put on my hat
Head down to the honky tonk and dance
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Brown hair blue eyes once in a life time countrified kind of girl
Heart-breaking chance-taking wild little love making
Shaking up my world
Hey on a good night I can picture the day
All my dreams come true
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Next up is a nice cover of the Willie Nelson- Hank Cochran collaboration, “Undo The Right”. The original was a top ten hit in 1968 by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush. Bush’s recording is one of my top ten all-time favorite recordings. Hayes is no Johnny Bush, but he acquits himself well.

“The Room” was written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro. Chris is the brother of the late Holly Dunn and produced many of her records. The song is a slow ballad, rather introspective song of getting over the loss of love. It makes a nice change of pace but would not have made a good single.

Wade collaborated with Chick Rains and the redoubtable Bill Anderson on the up-tempo “It’s Over My Head” . The song was released as the third single from the album and topped out at #46. It’s a good song, well sung and I do not understand why it failed to do better:

That just goes to show how crazy love can be
Look at us now baby who would have thought it
I don’t know why you chose me

It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall
This beats anything I ever saw
Well I don’t see what you see in me at all
It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall

Marty Stuart and Chick Rains wrote “ I Still Do”. The song is a medium-slow ballad that I think could have made an effective single. This is not the same song that was a top twenty country hit for Bill Medley in 1984.

Don Cook and Chick Rains teamed up for “My Side of Town”, an up-tempo rocker that serves well to keep tempos appropriately varied on the album.

Wade Hayes and Chick Rains wrote “Where Do I Go To Start All Over”. Released as the second single from the album, the song stiffed, only reaching #42. It’s a nice ballad but and I’m not sure why it didn’t do better, especially since the previous five singles all went top ten or better.

I drove around last night, and tried with all my might
To leave the past behind, cause you stayed on my mind
So I stopped for a drink, I never stopped to think
That it wouldn’t work, It just made it worse
So I came on back home, I hadn’t changed a thing
And sat here all alone, missing you and wondering

Where do I go to start all over
From your memory
Where do I go to start all over
When in your arms is where I won’t be

“Our Time Is Coming was written by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn and appeared on their Hard Workin’ Man album. The song is a dramatic ballad that Wade does masterfully – in fact it is my favorite song on the album, and I much prefer Wade’s recording to that of Brooks & Dunn.

Times are hard and the money’s tight
Day to day we fight that fight
Nothing new, it’s the same old grind
Uphill all the way

Boss man says forget the raise
Preacher says to keep the faith
Good things come to those who wait
Tomorrow’s another day

Our time is coming
When or where the good Lord only knows
Our time is coming
When this road we’re on will turn to a street of gold

Long as we keep love alive
Something tells me we’ll survive
It’s the little things that’ll get us by
And hold us together

I feel it when you hold me close
Baby we got more than most
Steady through the highs and lows
We’ll go on forever

The album closes with “Hurts Don’t It”, a ballad from the pens of Sam Hogin, Jim McBride & Greg Holland, and the mid-tempo semi-autobiographical “This Is the Life for Me” that Hayes penned with Chick Rains & Gary Nicholson. Dennis Burnside’s piano is well featured on this track.

I really liked this album and would give it an A-.

I am sure that Wade and producer Don Cook was greatly disappointed by the poor chart performance of the last two singles from the album. Accordingly they tried something different.

Unfortunately, that effort failed miserably. As I sit here writing this article I am listening to the single release that effectively killed Wade Hayes’ career at country radio. Intended as the initial single for the next album When The Wrong One Loves You Right, radio reaction to Wade’s cover of the old Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman” single was so negative that the single was withdrawn (it peaked at #55) and ultimately did not appear on that album.

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Old Enough To Know Better’

A performance of “Restless” by The New Nashville Cats featuring Mark O’Connor, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner at the 1991 CMA Awards proved pivotal in shifting Wade Hayes’ life focus towards a career in country music. He had been signed to an independent label by his father when he was eleven, but the deal fell through when the label filed for bankruptcy.

He dropped out of college and returned to Nashville after seeing that performance and became buddies with songwriter Chick Rains, who introduced Hayes to Don Cook, primarily known at the time for producing the catalog of Brooks & Dunn. With Cook working his connections, Hayes was able to score a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1994.

With Cook in the production chair, Hayes wasted no time and had his debut album Old Enough To Know Better in stores by January 1995. The record was preceded by the title track, which Hayes co-wrote with Rains. The uptempo honky-tonk rocker is 1990s country at its finest, still relevant today and boasts a killer hook “I’m old enough to know better, but I’m still too young to care” that made me take notice instantly as a nine-year-old kid when this song came out.

Hayes hit #1 with that song, a feat he wouldn’t repeat again in his career although he would come close. The fiddle and steel drenched contemporary ballad “I’m Still Dancing With You” followed, peaking at #4. The heartbreaking tale of lost love was an excellent showcase for Hayes’ ability to show palpable emotion with his voice, a talent lost on many of his contemporaries. He would have far stronger showcases for this gift, especially as he grew into himself as an artist, but he was doing very well right out of the gate.

A second uptempo honky-tonk rocker was sent to radio in an effort to repeat the success of the title track. “Don’t Stop,” which would stall at #10, isn’t as strong or relatable as the title track and peaked about where it deserved. It’s still enjoyable to listen to today although the music video seems to have been buried in the archives somewhere out of view.

When thinking about ballads from Old Enough To Know Better, “What I Meant to Say” comes to mind a heck of a lot sooner than “I’m Still Dancing With You” and for good reason. The contemporary ballad is the better song, and while both have emotive vocal performances from Hayes, this is the more believable song. Hayes makes you feel his regret deep inside of you. The song would only peak at #5, which is a shame, as it deserved to at least reach as high as #2.

Cook, as I said, was Brooks & Dunn’s producer, the architect of their now classic sound. So I know how Hayes came to record “Steady As She Goes” although I was unaware the duo released any of their songs for other artists to record. It’s a great uptempo song with an engaging melody brimming with steel guitar. Brooks & Dunn would release their version, on a limited edition, promotional bonus disc as part of the joint marketing of their If You See Her and Reba’s If You See Him albums.

Cook co-wrote “Steady As She Goes” with Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, which is another likely reason it fell into Hayes’ hands. He also co-wrote “Kentucky Bluebird,” which became the title track of the first posthumous collection of songs by Keith Whitley in 1991. It takes a lot of courage to sing a song previously recorded by Whitley, and I do think Hayes was up to the task. It also didn’t hurt he got Patty Loveless to provide pretty audible background vocals on the song.

Another song with pedigree was “Someone Had To Teach You,” a Harlan Howard co-write that found its way to George Strait on his Livin’ It Up album in 1990. It’s another phenomenal song and while both versions are excellent, I’m giving Hayes the edge. He brought an authority to it I feel Strait missed.

Howard co-wrote “Family Reunion” with Rains. The traditional ballad is a killer, with a spellbinding twist. The family reunion is reuniting a dead mother with the father of her child, who the kid tracked down at a cemetery in Denver. There’s speculation this could’ve been a true story for Rains, but I couldn’t corroborate it.

Cook was the sole writer on “Don’t Make Me Come To Tulsa.” The track fit right into the line dance craze sweeping Nashville at the time and was even given a dance remix. The song kind of reminds me of Holly Dunn’s “You Really Had Me Going.” I enjoyed it, and the lyric is good, but the whole aesthetic has lost its appeal 23 years later.

The album ends as its singles cycle began, with a collaboration between Hayes and Rains. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” was the third of their songs together on the record, besides the title track and “I’m Still Dancing With You.” The mid-tempo ballad follows in the high quality of the rest of the record.

I can count on one hand, with a leftover finger or two, the number of debut albums I would regard as perfect. Old Enough To Know Better is far and away one of those albums. Hayes didn’t waste any time in showcasing the wide breadth of his talents as both a vocalist and a songwriter.

So many artists, I’m specifically thinking of Clay Walker among others, have let me down with debut albums that deliver in terms of singles but fail on every other level with subpar song selections beneath the artist the singles prove them to be. Hayes far exceeded my expectations and makes me regret having purchased On A Good Night when it came out but not going back and adding Old Enough To Know Better to my collection, too.

If you’ve never heard this album or need to hear it again after all these years, I highly recommend putting aside the time to do so. You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘Tattooed Heart’

61haqvae9cl-_ss500The Nash Icon movement, as I understood it, was meant to provide a platform for veteran artists where they wouldn’t have to compete with the younger generation for radio airplay. Why then, has nearly every Nash Icon artist released an album that still seems to be an attempt to rack up radio hits? Ronnie Dunn’s latest effort follows down the same trail that Hank Williams Jr, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire blazed ahead of him.

Tattooed Heart is Dunn’s inaugural release for the label. He co-produced the set with Jay DeMarcus. It consists of twelve songs written by some of Nashville’s finest, ranging from Liz Hengber, Steve Bogard and Bob DiPiero to Jim Beavers, Jon Randall and Tommy Lee James. Dunn had a hand in writing two of the songs, including the album’s best track “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, co-written with Nikki Hernandez and Andrew Rollins.

Dunn is joined by a couple of old friends on a pair of songs. His current single “Damn Drunk” features his former partner Kix Brooks, whose presence would go unnoticed if he weren’t credited on the label. Reba McEntire makes a more audible contribution on “Still Feels Like Mexico”, which I’m guessing will be the next single. The song itself isn’t particularly interesting, however. The album’s first single was “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas”, which peaked at #42 on the airplay chart last year.

The quality of the material itself is not in question and Ronnie Dunn’s voice remains one of the best in country music. What makes Tattooed Heart such a mixed bag is the production which is too heavy-handed on almost every track. “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” is too loud, the strings are too intrusive on the otherwise very good “I Worship The Woman You Walked On” and ditto for the background vocalists on the 1950s-sounding title track. The self-penned “I Wanna Love Like That Again” is more restrained, although the song itself isn’t very country-sounding. The aforementioned “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, the album’s sole traditional song, is flawlessly executed. I wish the rest of the album were more in that vein; it’s more in line with what the target audience — those of us who have been Brooks & Dunn fans for nearly 25 years — really want to hear.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Ronnie Dunn with Kix Brooks – ‘Damn Drunk’

RD_SINGLE_DD_Cover_2016.05.03_FNLSince splitting with Kix Brooks in 2010, the solo career of Ronnie Dunn has included some shining moments (including “Cost of Livin,” one of the finest singles this decade) interspersed with bizarre rants, record label changes and a handful of forgettable singles. His last, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas,” was so unmemorable and performed so poorly Scott Borchetta and his team have abandoned it all together.

Big Machine Label Group hit the reset button last Friday, with the release of “Damn Drunk,” which is being touted as the first single from Dunn’s upcoming and long overdue debut for Nash Icon. The mid-tempo ballad produced by Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, airs on the side of bombast with loud electric guitars impending on a listening experience more pop/rock than country.

The track is also billed as ‘with Kix Brooks,’ a moniker I’d never thought I’d see in my lifetime. His contributions, solely on the choruses, are slight and add nothing to the song. Folks drawn to ‘Damn Drunk’ in hopes of a reunion of sorts are going to be disappointed. “Damn Drunk” is squarely on Dunn’s shoulders as a solo single.

Beyond those shortcomings, though, the track has merit. “Damn Drunk” was co-written by Liz Hengber, and while it’s not her strongest composition, it is a real song with actual structure. This song isn’t mailed in with hopes of checking off the lyrical boxes needed to produce a radio hit. It may be about a guy lusting after his girl, but there’s a slight maturity to the proceedings that puts “Damn Drunk” just above the rest. It may be rock, but it’s not bro-country by any stretch of imagination.

It also helps that Dunn commits to the song completely, with a tour-de-force vocal that proves he still has the goods after twenty-five years in the business. He does come off desperate with a scraggily appearance that renders him somewhat unrecognizable (he’s too thin or something), but that thankfully (the desperation) doesn’t manifest itself in this recording at all. Dunn is still himself even if that self is packaged in a modern day setting.

Grade: B

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Paint the Town’

51uqPseH44L1989’s Paint the Town, the third entry in Highway 101’s discography, was the band’s final full length album before Paulette Carlson’s departure as lead singer. Like its two predecessors it was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The songwriting credits boast a number of prestigious names including Kix Brooks, Matraca Berg, Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, Gretchen Peters, and Roger Miller. While not quite as commercially successful as their previous albums, the material is top notch and it received a warm reception from country radio.

“Who’s Lonely Now”, written by Don Cook and a pre-Brooks & Dunn Kix Brooks was the lead single, and it quickly became the last of Highway 101’s four chart toppers. It was followed by my all-time favorite Highway 101 song, “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”, which was written by Justin Tubb and the great Roger Miller, who made a memorable guest appearance in the song’s video. Despite the mournful sounding title and subject matter, it’s a bouncy uptempo tune with plenty of pedal steel. It peaked at #4 and was the band’s last excursion into the Top 10. “This Side of Goodbye” just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11.

The rest of the album is a mix of contemporary and traditional country. On the contemporary side are the opening track “I Can’t Love You Baby” and “Rough and Tumble Heart”, a Pam Tillis co-write that Tillis would cover herself a few years later. More traditional are the plaintive Gretchen Peters-penned “I’ll Paint the Town” (blue, not red — this is no party song) and a gorgeous, version of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, which closes the album. Featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica, a touch of pedal steel and a stellar vocal performance by Paulette Carlson, the track is simply stunning and a good example of why it pays to dig a little deeper into any artist’s catalog to find the hidden gems that are overshadowed by the radio hits.

The album is a mere ten tracks, which was standard for the day, and plays for just over 33 minutes. Though lean and mean it may be, the songs are all winners, with just one dud. “Midnight Angel” had been a Top 20 hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1976. I’ve always liked the song very much and at first it seemed like a number that Carlson could easily nail, but the Highway 101 version is surprisingly lackluster. It’s probably my least favorite track on any of the band’s first three albums. That one misstep aside, however, Paint the Town is top-notch affair that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first released 26 years ago.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘RVS III’

RVS IIIRVS III appeared in January 1990, a little more than a year after Loving Proof. Like its predecessors, it was produced by Steve Buckingham and was a mixture of both new material and some carefully selected covers of older songs that were suddenly back in vogue during the New Traditionalist era. This time around, however, there was slightly less emphasis on rockabilly-style numbers on more on ballads which were proving to be Ricky’s strong point.

Preceding the release of RVS III was a maginificent cover of “Statue of a Fool”, which had been a #1 hit for Jack Greene in 1969. Ricky’s version just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, but it remains one of the standout singles of his career and is his greatest moment of this album. The uptempo “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You”, written by Tony King (who was engaged to Wynonna Judd at the time) and Chris Waters was the next single. This one did reach #1, but it’s not one of my favorites, which is a not a criticism of the song, but a testament to the strength of the rest of the album. Another great ballad “I Meant Every Word He Said”, in which the protagonist is forced to watch the woman he loves marry another man, also topped out at #2. The album’s fourth and final single was a cover of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”. The blues-tinged track was an underperforming single for Charlie Rich in 1969. Ricky’s version reached #4, and although it provides a change of pace, it’s my least favorite track on the album.

There are only two rocking numbers on RVS III – “Love Is Burnin'”, which is in the same vein as “Crime of Passion” and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The rest of the album was comprised of ballads, most of which could have been hit singles, but Columbia was likely reluctant to release too many ballads in a row to radio. Among these choice tracks are “You Would Do The Same For Me”, a Rory Bourke-Mike Reid composition that I would have preferred to see as a single in lieu of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, “I’m Starting Over” written by Kix Brooks with John Wesley Ryles and Mark Sherrill, and a fantastic version of Cindy Walker’s “Not That I Care”. This beautiful waltz had been a minor hit for Jerry Wallace in 1966 (peaking at #44) and had also been recorded by The Wilburn Brothers.

Another standout is album’s closing track “Sweet Memories”, which had been an adult contemporary hit for Andy Williams in 1968 and covered by Willie Nelson in 1979. Ricky is joined by Brenda Lee, who was long past her commercial peak, but her voice was still strong and lovely and complemented his nicely. The track features a tasteful string arrangement which gives it a little more countrypolitan feel than the rest of the album.

Despite a couple of weak spots, namely “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” and the self-penned and forgettable “I Still Love You”, RVS III is packed with top-drawer material and it quickly attained platinum status as its two predecessors have. However, by this time the formula of a few rockabilly numbers and a lot of ballads, a few old songs and a few new was starting to become predictable and may partially account for Shelton’s relatively brief reign at the top of the charts. Nevertheless, it is an album well worth listening to and I enthusastically recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Partners, Brothers And Friends’

partners brothers and friendsBy 1985 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were confident in their mainstream country/country-rock style, and released the excellent Partners, Brothers And Friends, a fine collection of mainly up-tempo, mainly positive songs which shows the band at their best.

The lead single, ‘Modern Day Romance’ was their second country chart topper. It is an early Kix Brooks songwriting credit (alongside Dan Tyler), and is a solidly enjoyable story song about a roadside pickup which turns into a wild weekend and a broken heart when the girl leaves him stranded:

I tried to love her without any strings
But a modern day romance has left me some old fashioned pain

The wistfully nostalgic ‘Home Again in My Heart’ then hit #3, with the banjo most prominent in the mix helping to give it a rustic feel. The charming ‘Old Upright Piano’ (written by Don Schlitz and Rhonda Kye Fleming) also looks back fondly to childhood memories of the narrator’s grandparents, and allows Bob Carpenter to shine on the piano.

There is a similar mood to Jimmy Ibbotson’s song ‘Telluride’ (not the song of that name later recorded by Tim McGraw but a cover of a song Ibbotson had written in the 1970s. Its poetically folky lyrics about a 19th century gold miner and his love for his wife are counterpointed by a more contemporary arrangement.

The autobiographical title track (written by Jimmy Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna) peaked at #6, but is one of my favourites of their records as it cheerfully chronicles the ups and downs of their career.

There are a number of enjoyable upbeat numbers, any of which would have been possible singles. The exuberant ‘Redneck Riviera’ (witten by Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter) is an early version of the country beach song, but it’s quite entertaining and rooted in real life. Hanna, Ibbotson and Steve Goodman wrote the catchy ‘Queen Of The Road’, a joyful tribute to a tough girl biker. The breezy cowboy song ‘Other Side of The Hill’ (sometimes also known as ‘Cadillac Cowboy’ and recorded by a number of other artists) is another enjoyable cut.

Slowing things down for a moment, ‘As Long As You’re Loving Me’ is a love song with a pretty melody written by Don Schlitz, Lisa Silver and Russell Smith.

They close up with the dramatic saga of ‘Leon McDuff’, a farmer who loses his riverside farm to floods, an unhelpful bank and an unscrupulous tax official who grabs his land for his own benefit. The song is structured as the defence lawyer’s speech at his trial for murdering the sheriff sent to evict Leon and his family:

I’m asking you to be the judge of when enough is enough

The band’s instrumental playing on this track is spectacular.

This album sees the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at their best. It is strongly recommended (and can be found as part of a 2-4-1 CD with its predecessor.

Grade: A

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Under The Kudzu’

220px-Shenandoah_-_Under_The_KudzuShenandoah released their second album for RCA Records (and fifth overall) in the summer of 1993. Don Cook, known at the time for producing Brooks & Dunn, helmed Under The Kudzu. The hope was a little of the Brooks & Dunn magic would rub off on Marty Raybon and the boys, and while the album wasn’t successful at a superstar level, it did keep them in favor with country radio.

Legendary songwriter Dennis Linde penned the album’s first single, the decidedly upbeat “Janie Baker’s Love Slave.” While the drum heavy production was right in line with the trends twenty years ago, the song is an awful mess, and one of Shenandoah’s weaker single offerings. Radio somewhat agreed, and the track peaked at #15.

Sentimental piano ballad “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” a story song about a guy’s longing to enjoy a lengthy marriage to his true love, returned the band to the top 5, when the song peaked at #3 in late 1993. While the song is a marked improvement over “Janie Baker’s Love Slave,” and boasts nicely understated production behind Raybon’s sincere vocal, it’s a little too schmaltzy.

They return to form with “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can To),” my favorite of the album’s singles, and one of their strongest radio offerings (it was the band’s final #1, too). Raybon co-wrote the tune with Mike McGuire and Bob McDill after seeing line dance instructional videos advertized on TV, and while the concept is clearly dated, the whole things works because Cook backs Raybon’s vocal with twangy guitars that are as ear catching as the song’s hook.

“I’ll Go Down Loving You,” a contemporary piano balled composed by Chapin Hartford, Sam Hogin, and Monty Powell, was the album’s finale single and the first song of the band’s career to miss the top 40 since their debut. This track would’ve been a bigger hit apparently, and it was good enough that it deserved to be so, if the band hadn’t partied ways with RCA shortly after the single’s release.

Linde wrote the title track as well. “Under The Kudzu” references the kudzu plant, which is a vine-like weed from Asia that’s become invasive in the Southeastern United States. The mid-tempo drum driven number is actually much stronger then I expected, although the melody is very reminiscent to Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of my Double Wide Trailer.”

“Nickel In The Well” is another similar sounding uptempo number but Cook smartly helps it stand out thanks to the heavy dose of dobro heard throughout. “Say The Word,” a contemporary mid-tempo number is also good, even if it lacks the extra magic to help it stand out.

“The Blues Are Comin’ Over To Your House” is an excellent more traditionally styled number that Cook wrote with Kix Brooks. It’s one of the album’s stronger songs, and while it hasn’t held up perfectly with time, it should’ve been released to radio, where it would’ve likely been a big hit. “That’s The Kind of Woman I Like,” another up-tempo number co-written by Cook, packs on the charm but lacks a little in the lyric department. It’s darn catchy, though, which is more than enough to help it stand out. Raybon co-wrote “It Takes Every Rib I’ve Got,” and it’s just plain uptempo filler, nothing great, and kind of dumb lyrically.

Under the Kudzu is nothing more than a contemporary country album designed to attract maximum airplay thanks to abundance of uptempo numbers heavy on the drums and somewhat catchy hooks. Cook’s production was very ‘of the moment’ and thus lacked the universal appeal that would help this project age gracefully. There are still some wonderful songs in the mix that keeps the album listenable, but Under The Kudzu is little more than a product of its time.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes’

Ronnie-DunnSince parting ways with Kix Brooks in 2010, Ronnie Dunn has struggled to remain commercially relevant in an era when veteran artists are under-appreciated. After one solid solo album, he also cut ties with his longtime label Arista Nashville and started his own label. To say that his first two self-released singles, “Country This” and “Kiss You There” were disappointments would an understatement on a massive scale. But just when I was about to write Dunn off, he has redeemed himself nicely with his latest effort “I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes”, a tune penned by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean.

Though the title suggests that Dunn is tempted to resume a long-conquered vice, he is actually waxing nostalgic for lost innocence and a time when life was less complicated. The lyrics evoke images of fast cars, carefree youth and dreams going up in smoke. Unlike Dunn’s previous two efforts, the production is tasteful; the electric guitar is the track’s dominant instrument, but it is not intrusive or overly loud, and it is accompanied by some gentle, understated pedal steel. It is a lyrical masterpiece, that sounds like something Brooks & Dunn might have done in their heyday. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dunn’s voice is showing no signs of deterioration. From a creative standpoint, Dunn seems to have found his niche; whether country radio is willing to embrace an independent record with politically incorrect references to smoking from a 60-year-old artist remains to be seen. I suspect it will be an uphill climb, but at this stage of his career, Dunn no longer needs to prove himself commercially. I hope that his upcoming album will contain more music like this song and less of the “Country This” and “Kiss You There” type.

Great songs seem to be rarer than hens’ teeth these days, so when one comes along, it is the duty of fans to support it. I strongly encourage everyone to visit iTunes and download this very worthwhile recording.

Grade: A

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘In This Life’

inthislifeCollin Raye’s sophomore disc is slightly more polished and less neotraditional than his debut effort. John Hobbs returned to co-produce the album, this time with Garth Fundis, who replaced All I Can Be’s co-producer Jerry Fuller. The title track and lead single was an obvious — and successful — attempt to capitalize on the success of “Love, Me” and cement Raye’s reputation as a ballad singer. “In This Life”, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin spent two weeks at #1 in the autumn of 1992. It also reached #21 on the Adult Contemporary chart and might have been considered Raye’s career record had he not already recorded “Love, Me”.

If “In This Life” helped solidify Collin’s credentials as a balladeer, the next single “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” was meant to ensure that he didn’t get pigeonholed. The uptempo number has just a bit of a rock edge, but the vocal is a little shouty and it doesn’t quite work for me. It is my least favorite track on the album and possibly my least favorite of all of Raye’s singles. While it did not chart as high as the three records that preceded it, it managed to peak at a respectable #7. “Somebody Else’s Moon”, another ballad, saw him return to the Top 5, as did “That Was A River”, yet another ballad which is just a little too syrupy and one of the weakest tracks on the album.

It will come as no surprise to longtime readers that my favorite song on the disc is also its most traditional. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a suprisingly upbeat number about an unraveling relationship; Collin tells his soon-to-be ex:

When I gave you my heart, I gave it forever
But you can’t take it with you when you go.

The Texas two-step number was written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Chick Rains and features some excellent fiddling by Rob Hajacos. Stylistically, it would have been more at home on Collin’s first album. It should have been released as a single, and so should Hugh Prestwood’s “Latter Day Cowboy”, another one of my favorites from this collection.

The collection also includes a pair of remakes. Collin covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, which is a decent effort, but Raye is no Man In Black. His rendition of the pop standard “Let It Be Me”, which closes the album, is more suited to his voice.

Like its predecessor, In This Life earned platinum certification in the US and gold status in Canada. While not quite as good as his debut album, it is one of the stronger entries in his discography. Cheap copies are readily available and worth purchasing.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Kix Brooks – ‘New To This Town’

After the breakup of hitmaking duo Brooks & Dunn, Ronnie Dunn’s solo career was greeted with considerable interest. It is fair to say that there was less anticipation for partner Kix Brooks’ solo endeavours. Kix Brooks was definitely the member of Brooks & Dunn held in less regard even by fans of the duo. He rarely sang lead on one of the duo’s singles, but he sang his share of album tracks, and often provided the more interesting moments.

Conversationally drawling his way through the song, Kix presents a man stuck in the same small town his ex lives and wistfully wondering what it would be like not to be surrounded by memories, or the fear of running into her around every corner. The picture painted is full enough to be convincing.

Production is reasonably contemporary without completely overwhelming the song’s essential sadness in a complete wall of sound, and although there is an extended guitar solo (courtesy of the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, who gets a special credit), it doesn’t take over the song. The melody is simple, allowing the lyrics center stage.

Kix wrote the song with frequent collaborator Terry McBride and Marv Green. It sounds very like a good B&D album cut, which makes its substantially more interesting than most radio playlists. It would probably be a more memorable record sung by a better singer, but Kix’s vocals, while limited, work on this song. He imbues it with a resigned regret which is very efefctive.

Grade: B+

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Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Cowboy Town’

For what would be their final studio album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the duo turned in a near carbon copy of their previous releases from this decade.  And in what appears to be a split-down-the-middle approach, Ronnie Dunn dominates the first half of the disc with both his lead vocals taking on the first five songs as well as them coming from his own pen.  Kix Brooks gets his chance to shine on the second half.  And while both members turn in a few solid performances to winning lyrics, they seem to have either went out of their way to separate their contributions, or were just getting sloppy at this point, and stacked Ronnie’s studio performances next to Kix’s to make the disc’s eventual song order.  I’d think it was a bit of both, but more of the latter.

For his half, Ronnie Dunn would obviously account for the singles.  Kix had become a full-time sideman by this point, having not sang lead on a Brooks & Dunn single since 1999.  The title track kicks off the disc, written by Ronnie with Paul Nelson and Larry Boone.  It’s another declaration of affection for the small town life, only this time it’s a ‘cowboy town’ though sentiments like ‘sweat of our brow’ and wearing your boots to church have been used to describe more than the ranching lifestyle lately, so the lyric is a bit generalized.   The same writing team also gave us ‘Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)’, which finds Dunn singing the praises of his heroes.  The lead single, ‘Proud of the House We Built’, a mid-tempo Marv Green and Ronnie Dunn composition.  This testament to the power of lasting love sailed to a #4 peak on the Country Singles chart.

Citing Reba McEntire as the inspiration behind ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’, the pair performed the song on the 2008 CMA Awards show with Reba, before adding her to the single version, and crediting the song on the charts to Brooks & Dunn with Reba McEntire. Peaking at #2 on the charts, it became the second top 10 pairing of the two acts.  The concept of a tough cowgirl, set to a three-act country story song, is akin to ‘Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma’, which Ronnie Dunn wrote with Reba for her 2007 Duets project.  I’ve always said I don’t think McEntire added much to the single, but the more I listen to it (thanks, radio), the more I understand and appreciate her contribution.

The rocked up ‘Put A Girl In It’ was third to radio, and it’s a tribute to the duo’s hits of the past if nothing else.  One of few outside written songs, this one was penned by one time ’90s hit-maker Rhett Atkins with Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson. Complete with rodeo-style yells from Ronnie, it fits in neatly with their similar-sounding hits and works just as well in concert with their mega-size inflatable cowgirls.  It went to #3 on the charts.  So ends the Ronnie Dunn-styled half of Cowboy Town, though he still has a few more vocal performances to give before the disc ends.

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Red Dirt Road’

Following the momentum-reviving Steers & Stripes album, Brooks & Dunn released Red Dirt Road in 2003.  This album would continue the evolution of the sound of the duo, with more pop-leaning tracks and fewer of the high-octane honky tonk that defined their 1990s work.

Another generous helping of music from the duo – the 15 tracks total just under an hour’s worth of music – it would also continue in the success of its predecessor, hitting #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and housing three top 10 singles.

The title track was the lead single, and quickly shot to the top.  With a basic concept that could easily become cringe-worthy, writers Kix and Ronnie keep the lyrics simple enough for everyman, yet original enough to please the tough-sell critics.  And lines like ‘I learned the path to heaven, Is full of sinners and believers’ aren’t really ground-breaking, they’re definitely worth repeating.  The catchy melody didn’t hurt it any with radio either.

Backsliding a little into old habits, ‘You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out of The Girl’ tells the story of Connie, a jet-setting honky tonk lady who shows up barefoot at her cousin’s wedding reception before eventually running off with the groom to Mexico. This classy gem went to #3 on the charts.

The final single – which peaked at #6 – is the romantic ‘That’s What She Gets For Loving Me’, not to be confused with Diamond Rio’s ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’. The swaying number, complete with fiddle and steel, is a great listen, and Ronnie turns in a stellar vocal performance.

Other memorable moments include the bluesy plea for mercy ‘Caroline’, which finds Ronnie reaching for falsetto a little more often than is really necessary.  ‘Feels Good Don’t It’, written by Ronnie Dunn with Terry McBride, is a classic rock inspired ode to true love.

‘I Used To Know This Song By Heart’ is one of my favorites from the album.  My favorite Brooks & Dunn songs are the great ballads Ronnie Dunn’s blistering tenor bring to life, and this is great example of that.  The Jerry Lynn Williams-penned tune features nearly 2 minutes work of electric guitar solos in between Ronnie’s vocal, and the choir in the background gives the song a vintage vibe.

Again stepping outside their comfort zone, the calypso-inspired ‘Till My Dying Day’ is a fun listen.  A swampy guitar kicks off the swinging ‘My Baby’s Everything I Love’, which sounds like something that would feat neatly on a George Strait album.

Meandering through every topic and emotion imaginable, this album seems like it has more of Kix and Ronnie’s personal stamp on it than any other album of their career, and for that, it’s also the most varied, yet cohesive set in their catalog.  Listening to the songs in order, you get a sense the two were trying to tell their stories, one by one, and succeeded on almost every level.  Co-produced with Mark Bright, Red Dirt Road would be another platinum-selling album to add to the duo’s collection, and further cemented their place as the reigning duo in country music for the next few years.

Grade: A-

Red Dirt Road is in print, and is widely available at all retailers, including Amazon.

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Steers & Stripes’

1999’s Tight Rope was a commercial failure by Brooks & Dunn’s standards; it yielded no major radio hits and became the duo’s first studio album not to be certified platinum. Not surprisingly, they made some some changes for their next project, in their attempts to break out of the artistic and commercial rut in which they had found themselves. Mark Wright came on board as co-producer for 2001’s Steers & Stripes, which proved to be one of Brooks & Dunn’s more consistent and satisfying albums. Though it does have its flaws, they are more easily forgiven, thanks to a generous offering of fourteen tracks. Steers & Stripes finds the duo updating their sound, moving away from the beat-driven, barn-burning sound that had been the hallmark of many of their 90s hits, and moving towards more pop-oriented music.

“Ain’t Nothin’ About You”, the first single, was released two months in advance of the album and returned the duo to the top of the Billboard singles chart, becoming their first #1 hit since 1998’s “Husbands and Wives”. It also reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, the duo’s best showing ever on that all-genre chart. The patriotic anthem “Only In America”, which opens the album, was chosen as the second single. Released in mid-2001, it predated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but in their aftermath, it quickly became a rallying cry for a nation struggling to come to terms with what had happened. It reached the #1 spot in Billboard in October of 2001 and was later featured prominently as a theme song for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. In the spirit of bipartisanship, it was also played four years later at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The next single, “The Long Goodbye”, was somewhat of a departure for Brooks & Dunn. Composed by Irish songwriters Paul Brady and Ronan Keating, it had originally appeared on Brady’s 2000 album and was subsequently covered by Keating, whose version became a Top 5 hit in the United Kingdom in 2003. Though wildly successful – providing yet another #1 hit for the duo – Brooks & Dunn’s version is marred by overproduction, a problem that occasionally plagues other tracks on the album, namely “When She’s Gone, She’s Gone” and “I Fall”, both of which feature Kix on lead vocals, and especially “Unloved” – the most purely pop Brooks & Dunn song to date. All of these songs feature a more slick and polished sound than the duo’s previous work, and on “Unloved” in particular, the strings and synthesizers tend to overwhelm the song. Fortunately, Ronnie Dunn’s vocal performance is restrained, and he wisely resists the temptation to turn the song into an 80s-style power ballad.

More to my taste is “Every River”, the fifth and final single released from this set. It is one of the album’s more traditional-leaning songs and its least successful single, peaking at #12. “Lucky Me, Lonely You”, my favorite song on the album, is the sole purely traditional number. Also providing a nice change of pace from the strings, synthesizers and rock guitar licks that characterize most of the album, are the two Latin-flavored songs, “My Heart Is Lost To You” and “Deny, Deny, Deny”. “My Heart Is Lost To You” was the album’s fourth single, released between “The Long Goodbye” and “Every River”. It reached #5 in Billboard. The remaining tracks are largely forgettable, with the exception of “See Jane Dance”, which closes the album. This song is a throwback to the line-dancing songs of the 90s, and one I could have lived without.

In addition to a new co-producer and a change in musical styles, Steers & Stripes marks the beginning of a shift towards a little less Brooks and a little more Dunn. Whereas previous albums had the two members sharing lead vocalist duties more or less equally, Steers & Stripes is about one-third Brooks and two-thirds Dunn, with Kix taking the lead on only five of the album’s fourteen tracks. The changes paid off; Steers & Stripes marked a commercial recovery, reaching #1 on the albums chart and earning platinum certification. More importantly, it helped the duo break out of their creative rut. Despite the prevalence of more pop-leaning songs, Steers & Stripes is one of the stronger albums in the Brooks & Dunn catalog, and is worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

It is still widely available from both Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Brooks and Dunn – ‘Tight Rope’

Tight RopeThe duo’s sixth studio album, 1999’s Tight Rope, saw them in bit of a rut. After a string of multi-platinum sellers, this album remains their only studio effort to date (apart from their latest, Cowboy Town) not to be classified platinum, and none of the three singles was a really big hit. Each of the previous albums had elicited five singles, with all but two making the top ten, with a good proportion hitting the top of the charts, until ‘South of Santa Fe’ had faltered outside the top 40 just before the release of Tight Rope. Poor Kix never got another single released after this catastrophic failure.

This really is an album of two halves. Not only did Kix and Ronnie divide the vocal leads fairly evenly, they contributed six songs each as writers, each singing lead on his own songs, with Ronnie also getting a bonus cover. Furthermore, although the duo are credited as co-producers throughout, one suspects this was a matter of courtesy. Kix’s tracks were co-produced by old friend Don Cook, but Ronnie’s were co-produced by Byron Gallimore at another studio. All the singles came from Ronnie’s half. As a whole the album sounds their most pop-influenced to date.

Only three singles came from Tight Rope, and the first two failed to crack the top 10. ‘Missing You’, a 1980s pop cover, reached #15. The arrangement may have been a little too pop for country radio, with its whispery call-and-response background vocals, but Ronnie’s lead vocal is excellent. The cheerful rocked-up honky tonker ‘Beer Thirty’ barely squeaked into the top 20, despite being in the same vein as many of their past successes, and the chart failure of this must have been a shock. The big declaration of love ballad ‘You’ll Always Be Loved By Me’, their only single released in the year 2000, deservedly did better, reaching #5. This was the song which provided the album title, from the line “trust is a tightrope we all have to walk”.

Ronnie is in great voice on this album. The brooding ballad ‘Hurt Train’ and the sad ‘All Out Of Love’ have a slightly pop feel, but are very well sung. ‘Goin’ Under Gettin’ Over You’, which opens the set is a fairly brisk number about getting resigned to heartbreak, which might have been better with a more subdued vocal. It did actually get a small amount of unsolicited radio airplay.

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘If You See Her’

Brooks & Dunn spent 1997 on tour together with Reba McEntire as co-headliners.  One night Reba would open for Brooks & Dunn and the next night they’d switch.  At the end of that tour, Reba and Ronnie Dunn would perform ‘You Don’t Know Me’ as a duet before being joined onstage by Kix Brooks for a song I think was called ‘Cotton Fields’.  But Reba and Ronnie’s take on the Cindy Walker classic was really the highlight of the evening. Between them, they possess two of the finest voices in modern country music.  But that 1997 tour was supposed to be a one time deal, and besides, Ronnie Dunn already had a duet partner at the time.

In early 1998, both acts were working on new albums.  Reba and Kix Brooks both heard a song called ‘If You See Him’ (or maybe it was called ‘If You See Her’ and Reba intended to change the lyric – that part I don’t know) and put it on hold, unbeknownst to each other.  When they found out what happened, they decided to do the song a duet between the two acts, becoming a sort of trio at the end.  Recording that duet set the wheels in motion for another national tour pairing between the redhead and the pair of cowpokes, plus it set the stage for a really innovative cross-label promotion of the albums that would contain the song, now titled ‘If You See Him, If You See Her’.  I’ve always been impressed with the album-counterpart idea, and given the success both acts had I’m surprised the idea hasn’t been repeated.

I’m not sure a duo had ever taken on another star pairing for a single release in country music’s history, but Brooks & Dunn did just that with the release of the single. Likewise, both albums were released on the same day.  Reba would call hers If You See Him and the duo’s would be billed If You See Her.  They both hit stores June 2, 1998.  The Brooks & Dunn disc would bow at a #4 peak on the Country Albums chart and eventually sell two million copies – on the strength of three chart-topping singles and a fourth top 5.  A fifth single release would fail to crack the top 40 – the first of their career – and so far the only release – to do so.

After the chart-topping title track, the mid-tempo ‘How Long Gone’ was sent to radio. Melodic and melancholy, it continued the style the pair had set for themselves, and sailed to the #1 spot as well.  A cover of Roger Miller’s country and pop hit from 1966, ‘Husbands and Wives’ was the third consecutive #1 from the set.  This tune finds the narrator observing the number of marriages breaking up, and finally concludes, ‘It’s my belief, pride if the chief cause/In the decline of husbands and wives‘.  The mournful waltz seemed tailor made for Dunn’s smooth tenor.

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