My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kostas

Album Review: Dixie Chicks – Wide Open Spaces’

It was the recruitment of Natalie Maines as the Chicks’ new lead singer which transformed their fortunes. The band signed to Monument Records, a subsidiary of Sony. Their debut major label album, released in January 1998, was produced by Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, who were able to meld the group’s organic roots with a commercial sound, showcasing both Natalie’s strikingly distinctive voice and the other women’s accomplished musicianship. With the help of five top 10 singles, it would prove an enormous crossover success, eventually selling 12 million copies.

The first single, the infectious ‘I Can Love You Better’, was written by one of the top Nashville songwriters of the era, Kostas, with Pamela Brown Hayes. A plea to a love interest who is hung up on an ex, it is utterly charming with Natalie’s vocals exuding a mixture of confidence and wistfulness as she offers herself as a better romantic partner than her rival. It was very radio-friendly, and reached #7 on the Billboard country charts.

Follow-up ‘There’s Your Trouble’, written by Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, Is based on a similar theme. The single became their first chart-topper, and also won the girls a Grammy.

The title track made it back-to-back #1s. It was written by Texan singer-songwriter Susan Gibson, who had recorded the song with her alt-country band The Groobees on an album produced by Natalie Maines’ father Lloyd, who then pitched the song to his daughter. An airy melody and bluegrassy instrumentation with sweet harmonies back an optimistic lyric about a young woman leaving home and making her start as an independent adult. It was named the CMA Single of The Year.

The pace slowed for the next single, yet another #1. ‘You Were Mine’ is an exquisitely sad lost love ballad which showed Natalie Maines was capable of subtlety as well as attack. It was the only song on the album to be written by any of the band members, namely Martie and Emily Erwin, and was inspired by the disintegration of their parents’ marriage when they were children:

Sometimes I wake up cryin’ at night
And sometimes I scream out your name
What right does she have to take your heart away
When for so long you were mine

I can give you two good reasons
To show you love’s not blind
He’s two and she’s four and you know they adore you
So how can I tell them you changed your mind?

A rare fifth single, ‘Tonight The Heartache’s on me, is a super honky tonker which had previously been cut by Joy Lynn White in a very similar arrangement. It was not quite as successful as its predecessors, peaking at #6.

Another recent cover was Radney Foster’s ‘Never Say Die’, a nice love song. ‘Let ‘Er Rip’ is a rocker which allows Natalie to let loose vocally. ‘Once You’ve Loved Somebody’ is a wistful ballad about struggling to movie on after a breakup.

One of my favorite tracks is a cover of ‘Loving Arms’, penned by 70s folkie Tom Jans and previously recorded by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Elvis Presley, and others. Natalie’s compelling vocal, imbued with intense regret, makes this the best version ever of the song in my opinion.

J D Souther’s ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ is tender and has another fine vocal. Maria McKee’s ‘Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)’ is a rock ballad, again very well sung, while Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Give It Up Or Let Me Go’ is a raucous blues number.

The album’s eclectic mix of material is all very well sung and played, and although its massive success has been somewhat overshadowed by later events (both greater success and more fractious times) it still stands up very well.

Grade: A

Album Review: Many Barnett – ‘Mandy Barnett’

When Asylum Records released Mandy Barnett’s eponymous album Mandy Barnett in 1996, I hoped I was hearing the first in a long string of albums for this excellent vocalist. Mandy was not unknown to me, having made television appearances in conjunction with her role in the play Always … Patsy Cline, starting around 1994 or 1995. Unfortunately, the market shifted away from anything resembling real country music so while Mandy remains active, her solo recordings remain few and far between.

Mandy Barnett would prove to be Mandy’s only successful chart album in terms of singles, but the contents were strong, the voice is terrific and her artistic integrity has been maintained through the years. The album would reach #60 on the country charts (it reached #28 on the Canadian country charts)

The album opens with “Planet of Love”, a song written by the much underappreciated Jim Lauderdale. The song was never a big hit for anyone, but it has been recorded quite a few times. Mandy’s bluesy take reveals a song that Patsy Cline could have done as well as, but not better than, Mandy herself.

 I’ve found a new planet that only I can see

Just came back to get you let’s leave this misery

Nothing can reach us so far from harm’s way

Only sunshine and rainbows every day

We’ve got to get back there hurry up and get your things

The countdown has started go ahead try on these wings

Don’t need no spaceship for what I’m thinking of

Didn’t I tell you that I’d take you to the planet of love

I should mention that this album was produced by Bill Schnee and Kyle Lehing, but clearly,  both understood what Owen Bradley accomplished with Patsy Cline and at times have created an updated version of that sound.

Next up is “Maybe”, a then-contemporary song aimed at getting Mandy some radio airplay. The son was the second single and peaked at #65. Written by Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, and John Leventhal, the song should have been a hit but perhaps it was too similar to some other songs currently floating about at the time (I could mentally hear Patty Loveless doing this song)

I know how the story ends where everything works out

I get the feelin’ once again that I can’t shake your doubt

Instead of hidin’ from romance

You’re gonna have to take a chance

 

Baby, don’t say Maybe

There’ll be no comin’ back tomorrow, Baby

“Rainy Days” is a gentle ballad sung to perfection. The song, written by Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes,   is filler but of a high grade.

“Three Days”, from the pen of Willie Nelson, is also filler. The song was a top ten hit for the great Faron Young back in 1962, and k.d. lang took it to #9 on the Canadian country charts in 1990. This is one of my favorite Willie compositions, and while Mandy does an excellent job with the song, the song seems a little more believable from the male perspective. I love the endless time loop perspective of the song – if this isn’t the definition of depression, I don’t know what would qualify

Three days I dread to see arrive

Three days I hate to be alive

Three days filled with tears and sorrow

Yesterday today and tomorrow

 

There are three days I know that I’ll be blue

Three days that I’ll always dream of you

And it does no good to wish these days would end

‘Cause the same three days start over again

“Baby Don’t You Know” was written by Jamie O’Hara has that traditional vibe, accentuated by the walking bass line and I think that I would have tried this as a single as this is just an excellent track. The song has a great sing-along chorus

Baby don’t you know I still love you

Baby don’t you know I still miss you

Baby don’t you know you’re breaking my heart

Oh, oh, oh

Baby don’t you know I still want you

Baby don’t you know I still need you

Baby don’t you know you’re tearing me apart

Kostas and Tony Perez penned “Now That’s All Right with Me”, the first and most successful single released on from the album. This is a very then-contemporary sounding song with late 90s-early 00s country instrumentation including some steel guitar in the background. The song peaked at #43. I don’t recall the song getting much of a promotional push but perhaps my memory is wrong. I only heard the song a few times on the radio.

Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp wrote “A Simple I Love You”, the last and least successful single released from the album. Mandy sings it well, but the song itself is a rather bland string-laden ballad, the only track on the album to heavily feature strings. The song died at #72.

Two more Kostas songs follow, “I’ll Just Pretend” and “What’s Good For You” (with Kelly Willis as co-writer). The former is a gentle and wistful medium slow ballad; the latter is a bit more up-tempo and a bit more of a downer. Both are excellent songs and well sung.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is one of the great folk/gospel classics, that first appeared in the early to mid-1800s. I’ve heard many versions of the song with many and varied verses. Below is a “standard” version of the lyrics (insofar as any version can be called standard) that is pretty similar to Mandy’s version. This song features very sparse instrumentation

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through a world of woe

But there’s no sickness, toil or danger

In that fair land to which I go

 

I’m going there to see my father

I’m going there no more to roam

I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home

 

I know dark clouds will gather round me

I know my way is rough and steep

But beautiful fields lie just before me

Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

 

I’m going home to see my mother

She said she’d meet me when I come

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

I’m just a going over home

It is clear that the producers of this album were trying for radio success with this album. The singles are all good – worth about a B+ but the tracks where the producers let Mandy follow her own inclinations are excellent – an easy A+. I would give this album an A and I still pull it out occasionally and listen to it.

The album is available as a digital download. If you want an actual CD, a later Warner Brothers release titled Many Barnett: The Platinum Collection contains nine of the ten songs on this album and eleven of the twelve songs on her second album I’ve Got A Right To Cry.

Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘Nothin’ But Good’

Mark Wright produced Dawn Sears’ second album, Nothin’ But Good, which arrived on Decca Records in August 1994. She was the first artist signed to the label’s newly revived country music branch.

The investment proved moderately successful from the onset. The rockin’ “Runaway Train,” which was co-written by fellow spotlight artist Kim Richey, peaked at #52. Sears’ fortunes would, unfortunately, reverse, as the mid-tempo title track, co-written by songwriter-of-the-moment Kostas, failed to chart.

“Close Up The Honky Tonks” is a clean and precise cover of the Buck Owens classic. “That’s Where I Wanna Take Our Love” is a classically styled torch song, written by Dean Dean Dillon and Harlan Howard and flawlessly executed by Sears.

“No Relief In Sight” is a contemporary ballad about the inability to move on from a past relationship. “Uh Oh (Here Comes Love)” is an excellent ditty, with an infectious melody, co-written by Carlene Carter.

“Planet of Love,” easily a standout track, is a spellbinding torch song co-written by Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal. “It was Too Late” returned Sears to the up-tempo stylings that comprise the majority of the album.

Around this time, Sears also became known for her collaborative work with her fellow contemporaries. She teamed with Tracy Byrd for the duet “Out of Control Raging Fire” (later covered by Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt) from his debut album and provided backing vocals for Vince Gill on I Still Believe in You.

The association with Gill would prove most fruitful as she would continue to guest on many of his albums, accompany him on tour, and join his Western Swing band The Time Jumpers along which her husband Kenny. Their friendship impacted this album with the brilliant traditional ballad “If I Didn’t Have You In My World,” which Gill co-wrote with Jim Weatherly.

The album’s centerpiece closed out the album. Sears would have just one writing credit on this album, “Little Orphan Annie,” which she wrote solo. She wrote the tune in tribute to her parents, who died far too soon. It’s as perfect and effective a country song as I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear:

I saw the love

In mama’s eyes

I saw the fear she tried to hide

She knew she’d never see the morning sun

She left this world so young

 

On a windy day

In my Sunday best

I watched them lay my dad to rest

After months of pain, I tried to help him through

But there was nothing I could do

 

I feel like

Little Orphan Annie

Left here all alone

Little Orphan Annie

Trying to be strong

Every night I kneel and pray

Lord help me through another day

Help me fill this empty heart

Please don’t let me fall apart

Give me the strength to be

Little Orphan Annie

 

I miss them more

Then I can say

It’s not supposed to be this way

All grown up I should understand

But the child in me

Can’t comprehend

There are moments of sheer brilliance on Nothin’ But Good that show why Sears was one of the best and most criminally underrated female artists to fly under the radar in the 1990s. Some of the uptempo material is aimed at commercial viability and is, therefore, filler, but the vast majority of the album is beyond excellent.

Sears would sadly exit Decca shortly after the release of this album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘It Only Hurts When I Laugh’

The modest success achieved by the singles from Jann’s debut album was sadly not to be repeated, with neither of the two singles from its successor charting at all. ‘Better Love Next Time’, written by Gail Davies and Paul Kennerley, is a mid-paced song addressed to a departing lover, with pain filled vocals belying the generous lyrics. It’s a pretty decent song, but wasn’t really memorable enough to have an impact. It was followed by the title track, written by hitmaker Kostas and Marty Stuart, which on paper was made for radio and combines an upbeat tune with a heartbreak theme. Coincidentally it would be covered a couple of years later by another of our current spotlight artists. This really ought to have been a hit.

Jann cowrote a pair of songs with Pat Gallagher. ‘Blue Heart In Memphis’ is a country-blues-rocker with a solid groove. The ironic ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Next Love’ is another up-tempo tune but with a bluegrass feel.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘I Don’t Do Floors’, written by Don Cook and Chick Rains. This is a classic style country shuffle about being over someone and telling him so. The nights of walking the floor are over. The album closes with another outstanding track, ‘Where Nobody Knows My Name’, a ballad written by John Hiatt and Jimmy Tittle about moving on, which has a beautiful melody led by a simple acoustic guitar and a soothing vocal:

Even when the past comes calling
Looking for somebody to blame
I’ll be easing on down the road
Where nobody knows my name

When the burning sun surrenders
Will he still remember me?
I never told him I was going
Out where the wind is blowing free

If he thinks about me tonight
I know he won’t miss the pain
I’ll be taking it down the road
Where nobody knows my name

Almost as good is a lovely version of Nanci Griffith’s wistful ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, which acts as a lyrical counterpoint to the message of the Hiatt song:

Once I had a love from the Georgia pines who only cared for me
I wanna find that love at 22 here at 33
I’ve got a heart on my right and one on my left
And neither suits my needs
Oh, the one I love is a way out west and he never will need me

So I wish it would rain and wash my face clean
I wanna find some dark cloud to hide in here
Oh, love and a memory sparkle like diamonds
When the diamonds fall, they burn like tears …

I’m gonna pack up my two-step shoes and head for the Gulf Coast plains
I wanna walk the streets of my own home town where everybody knows my name
I want to ride the waves down in Galveston when the hurricanes blow in
Cause that Gulf Coast water tastes sweet as wine
When your heart’s rolling home in the wind

A folk-bluegrass arrangement with harmonies from Iris DeMent makes this a delight. Also great is ‘I Knew Enough To Fall In Love With You’, a lovely ballad written by Gary Nicholson and Hank DeVito about finding true love after a hard life, with a very pretty tune – a really sweet love song.

‘My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You’ is an old Bob Wills tune which became a country standard. Jann’s version is excellent and very traditional country, with some very nice fiddle and steel. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ (later cut by George Strait) is a Jim Lauderdale/John Leventhal song on which Lauderdale provides backing vocals.

It is a shame this album did not perform better for Jann, as it is excellent. You can download it from iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joy White – ‘Between Midnight And Hindsight’

between-midnight-and-hindsightBilled simply as Joy White (she incorporated Lynn later), the redhead from Arkansas and Indiana had a sound as striking as her appearance. Signing to Columbia Records in 1992, no doubt the label had great hopes for her debut album, filled as it was with great songs and Joy’s distinctive vocals, by turns fierce and vulnerable, in a way which presages the mainstream music of the Dixie Chicks with Natalie Maines half a decade later. It is unsurprising that they even covered songs Joy did first. Paul Worley and Blake Chancey produced the set, and would go on to work with the Chicks.

Unfortunately country radio was not quite ready for Joy’s intensity, and none of the album’s three singles reached the top 40. First up was ‘Little Tears’, an up-tempo tune about defying the pain of heartbreak written by Michael Henderson and Mark Irwin.

‘True Confessions’, the closest Joy came to a hit single, peaked at #45. Written by Marty Stuart with hitmaker Kostas, it is a very good song given a compelling performance. Stuart has been quoted saying Joy’s voice “could make time stand still”, and she commits to a passionate tale of falling in love despite the man initially not being in it for the long run:

He only wanted my shoulder to cry on
He only wanted my love for a while
I was lookin’ for someone to rely on
I traced his heart from his smile

The stars were fallin’ in every direction
The moon was rockin’ back and forth in the sky
Modern day lovers with true confessions
Written in their eyes

The last single from this album, ‘Cold Day In July’, which was also recorded around this time by Suzy Bogguss, and was later a hit for the Dixie Chicks, was written by Richard Leigh, known for his songs for last month’s Spotlight Artist Crystal Gayle. A graceful subdued ballad about the shock of a breakup, Joy’s version shows her vulnerable side.

Another song which may be familiar is ‘Wherever You Are’, which Highway 101 had included on their Paul Worley produced Bing Bang Boom – an album on which in turn they had recorded a Joy White penned tune, ‘Big City Bound’.

Joy continues the assertive dealing-with-heartbreak up-tempo theme with songs like ‘Wishful Thinking’, written by the team of Michael Henderson and Wally Wilson. The same pair contributed the more positive ‘Let’s Talk About Love Again’, a catchy number which might have been a good choice for a radio single. ‘Hey Hey Mama’ has a rockabilly feel.

Slow and intense, ‘Those Shoes’ (written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson) is an excellent song addressed to the woman her ex left her for, and who has now shared the same fate:

I’ll bet you don’t know what went wrong
Why has your darling gone with her
You’re half wild
You wanna track him down
You think you can bring him round again
There’s nothing that you’d love more
Than to tear her in two
I know how close I came
Coming after you
Yes, I’ve walked in those shoes

I know where you’re headed
There’s still time to turn around
Don’t follow in my footsteps
Cause it’s a long way down
I’ve come back here tonight
To give you the news
You might think you’ve lost it all
But there’s a lot more you can lose

My favorite song, and the one whose lyrics provide the album title, is the beautifully constructed story song ‘Why Do I Feel So Good’, written by the great Bobby Braddock. It relates the tale of a young girl persuaded to marry the boring rich guy rather than her working class true love, and regretting every second:

Mom and Dad didn’t like her boyfriend
Cause working in a factory
Just wasn’t satisfactory
They said he’s too rough and a little too wild
They knew all the reasons she should leave him
She just smiled

“If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?
Why am I walking on air
Dropping his name everywhere?
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?”

Now she lives in a 40 room mansion
With a man so boring
That Mom and Dad adore him
She lost in the big bed where she lies
And somewhere between midnight and hindsight she cries

“If he’s so good
Why do I feel so bad?
Why am I chilled to the bone
Wishing I’d never left home
And if I should feel so good
Why do I feel so bad?”

Then she runs home to Mama
And she cries to her Dad
“Why did you talk me out me out of
The only chance for happiness I ever had?

If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?
Why was I walking on air
And dropping his name everywhere
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?”

Joy wrote a couple of the songs herself, both ballads. ‘Bittersweet End’, a co-write with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride, is a reflective song about the aftermath of a relationship where “the taste of forever still lingers”. Some lovely fiddle augments it beautifully. The delicate ‘It’s Amazing’ is a gentle love song given a string arrangement to close out the set.

I was always sorry this album did not help Joy to break through. It is well worth checking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Wynonna’

51xTAFnKBVLWynonna Judd’s solo debut was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 1992, as the music world waited to see what direction her post-Judds career would take. Released in March 1992 and produced by Tony Brown, Wynonna found the songstress straddling the fence between pop and country. Most of the uptempo numbers allowed her to show off her rockin’ side, but others weren’t too different from her work with The Judds. Production-wise, though, the album is more middle-of-the-road than anything she’d done prior, with very little country instrumentation. The steel guitar is noticeably absent, and nearly a quarter century after its release, it’s a little easier now to see this album for what it was: the initial step in Wynonna’s efforts to distance herself from country music.

That’s not to suggest that Wynonna is a bad album; quite the contrary. I’d have been very happy had she continued in this vein, and I expect she would have enjoyed a longer run at the top of the singles charts if she had. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable album and I still consider it to be the best in Wynonna’s solo discography. Wynonna’s solo career had been officially kicked off a few months earlier when she debuted the album’s lead single on the American Music Awards telecast. “She Is His Only Need” is an AC-leaning ballad penned by Dave Loggins. Sonically it’s not very country, but it does keep with country music’s tradition of telling a story. I often thought it could be construed as the further adventures of the couple from The Judds’ hit “Young Love (Strong Love)” from a few years earlier. I’m afraid I found the song rather bland and it’s my least favorite on the album. Pretty much everyone else disagreed with me, though, as it quickly became Wynonna’s first #1 solo hit.

“She Is His Only Need” was followed by two more #1s: the uptempo “I Saw The Light”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the rock-tinged “No One Else On Earth”, which is probably Wynonna’s most successful solo single and the one that got the most radio airplay as a recurrent. The fourth single is a beautiful ballad, “My Strongest Weakness”, which was written by Naomi Judd and Mike Reid. Had The Judds remained active, I could easily imagine this one on one of their albums, perhaps with some steel guitar to give it a more country feel. The song reached #4. I had totally forgotten that it had ever been a single; surprisingly, it didn’t have a very long shelf life once it fell off the charts.

By far, the best song on the album is “When I Reach The Place I’m Goin'”, written by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Joe Henry. This one features background vocals by Naomi, and is the most country-sounding song on the album. It’s slightly reminiscent of “Wayfaring Stranger” and is beautifully written and sung. It has a Gospel theme, as does Paul Kennerley’s “Live With Jesus”, which closes the album. The lyrics of It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye” aren’t overtly religious, but it has a definite Gospel feel.

There aren’t any bad songs on the album, though the opening track “What It Takes” and the Kostas-Marty Stuart number “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)” are pure album filler.

Wynonna accomplished its goals of establishing Wynonna Judd as a solo artist, distinct from her prior work with her mother, and it managed to do so without alienating any existing fans. Wynonna would make some unfortunate musical choices in the future, but on her first solo project, she knocked it out of the park.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘I’m Alright’

51phmj5EClL-2Although Jo Dee Messina enjoyed some initial success with “Heads Carolina, Tails California”, her career did not really take off until the release of her sophomore set in 1998. Coming on the heels of two failed singles, producers Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw took a play-it-safe approach when choosing material for I’m Alright, an album that is heavy on radio-friendly material. The strategy paid off: the album spawned five hit singles, the first three of which went to #1. The first, “Bye Bye”, written by Rory Michael Bourke and Phil Vassar, is an energetic uptempo number — slightly reminiscent of “Heads Carolina” — at which Jo Dee excels. It was followed by another uptempo ear worm — “I’m Alright”, another Vassar composition which is my favorite Jo Dee Messina song. Jo Dee proved that she was equally adept at singing ballads when “Stand Beside Me” became her third #1.

“A Lesson In Leavin'”, written by Randy Goodrum and Brent Maher had previously been a hit for another redhead when Dottie West took it to #1 in 1980, scoring her first chart topper as a solo artist rather late in her career. Jo Dee’s version, which is faithful to the original, just missed topping the charts,leveling off at #2. She does a good job at interpreting a song that was deserving of being introduced to a new audience. Another ballad, “Because You Love Me”, written by Kostas and John Scott Sherrill, was the album’s fifth and final single, peaking at #8.

As far as the rest of the album is concerned, I really enjoyed the ballad “Even God Must Get The Blues”, which laments the state of the world. It’s the album’s most serious number, and while it was probably not sufficiently commercial to be considered for single release, it is effective in delivering its message and is very well done. I also enjoyed Jo Dee’s version of “I Know A Heartache”, a remake of Jennifer Warnes’ 1979 hits. Warnes was not primarily known as a country artist but her original version did reach #10 on the country charts, as well as #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. There are also a couple of misses, namely “Silver Thunderbird”, with its dated production and pedestrian lyrics and “No Time For Tears” which is forgettable filler.

I enjoyed the radio hits from this album when they were on the charts, though I considered them to be mostly lightweight ear candy at the time. Today I’d be thrilled to hear anything half this good on the radio. I’m Alright is not a great album, but it is a very good one. If you are only going to own one Jo Dee Messina album, this is the one to have.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘What A Crying Shame’

51C7p4ENGmL._SS2801994’s What A Crying Shame was The Mavericks’ third album overall, their second for a major label and the first to have any significant commercial impact. It paired them for the first time with Don Cook who would produce (or co-produce with Raul Malo) all of the group’s albums for MCA from this point forward.

The Mavericks made their first chart appearance in 1992 with a remake of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking'”, which peaked at #74. “What A Crying Shame” did significantly better, reaching #25. There were four additional singles released from the album. two of them – “O What A Thrill” and “There Goes My Heart”, reached the Top 20. “I Should Have Been True” reached #30 and the final single “All That Heaven Will Allow” topped out at #49.

As noted in some other discussions, The Mavericks were largely considered to be a “fringe” act; however, What A Crying Shame is bonafide country with plenty of fiddle and pedal steel — albeit with glossy production and highly polished vocals from Raul Malo that are often reminiscent of Roy Orbison. It is solidly within what was considered mainstream country at the time, which makes radio’s tepid response a bit puzzling. I can only speculate that it is because there was a lot of formidable competition in the 90s. Perhaps in another era The Mavericks would have made more of an impact.

What A Crying Shame may not have received a lot of support from radio, but it did connect with fans, and generated platinum-level sales. It’s a shame that it didn’t get more airplay because it is an excellent album from start to finish. Most of the songs have a 60s feel to them. Raul Malo had a hand in writing seven of the album’s eleven tracks, teaming up on several of them — including the title track and my favorite “There Goes My Heart”, with Kostas, who was one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville at the time.

In addition to Raul Malo and Kostas, What A Crying Shame boasts some impressive songwriting credits, including Jesse Winchester who wrote “O What A Thrill”, Bruce Springsteen who wrote “All That Heaven Will Allow” and the great Harlan Howard who co-wrote “Ain’t Found Nobody” with Kostas.

Even though it sold more than a million copies in the US, the album’s limited radio airplay means that few outside of the million people that bought it have heard most of these songs, and younger fans are unlikely to have heard them at all. I strongly recommend that anyone who hasn’t heard the album pick up a copy; this is exactly the sort of country music that Nashville should be making today.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Bang Bang’

KellyWillisBangBangThe early 1990s were an interesting time for Kelly Willis. Razor X, in his review of her debut, motioned that Willis was signed to MCA in 1989 in an effort to expand the definition of country music. In accordance with her musical output at the time, MCA also went all out with a marketing campaign that saw Willis gaining national exposure both on news magazines and in movies, where she scored bit parts.

While the efforts at maximizing her exposure were well received, Willis never really caught on with the mainstream nor was she able to sell many records. That being said, MCA continued to try and her sophomore album Bang Bang was released just a year after Well Traveled Love. Produced once again by Tony Brown, the album contained a variety of songs from a mix of both left of center and mainstream songwriters.

For the album’s lead single, MCA went with “Baby Take A Piece of My Heart,” an excellent uptempo tune Willis co-wrote with Kostas, a male songwriter who was in high demand at the time. The tune, which peaked at #58, is Willis’ only charting song from her tenure with MCA and easily her best known single from this period of her career.

The second and third singles failed to chart. Kostas and Willis’ husband Mas Palermo co-wrote “The Heart That Love Forgot,” a mid-tempo guitar and drum centric number that is more Texas than Nashville country. Texas country singer/songwriter Joe Ely self-penned “Settle For Love,” an upbeat rocker that perfectly showcases Willis’ biting twang. While both are excellent songs, neither was in line with the radio trends of the era making it unsurprising they didn’t catch on.

The remainder of Bang Bang features mostly uptempo rockers that are heavy on drums, and while light on commercial country, are excellent just the same. “I’ll Try Again” is a honky-tonk rocker while “Too Much To Ask” and “Standing By The River” borrow from Gram Parsons’ signature style. The title track rocks just as hard although Brown smartly adds steel and electric guitars to give it needed spice.

My main complaint with Bang Bang lies with Brown’s production. His slick arrangements drown Willis’ distinctive voice when they should’ve been highlighting it instead. Problem is, as evidenced by “Sincerely (Too Late to Turn Back Now),” Willis hadn’t yet found voice as an artist. As good as the Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen ballad is, her vocal isn’t nearly as confident as it would be if she recorded it today. The same is true for the sinister “Not Afraid of the Dark,” which seems out of place in comparison to the rest of the album.

Those concerns are elevated on “Hidden Things,” which proves she was already a gifted vocalist in 1991, and while she might not have completely understood how to best use her talents, she could turn in a stellar performance if given the right vehicle. Unlike the majority of the Bang Bang Brown’s production actually aids the track and frames her quite nicely.

It’s always a pleasure to go back and listen to early music from gifted artists, especially recordings made before they found their authentic voice within the industry. In the twenty-three years since Bang Bang it’s remarkable how much Willis has grown which is even more astonishing given that she was a knockout vocalist back then, too. This might not be the most essential album in her collection but it provides a fine listening experience and comes recommended for those looking to fully understand Willis as an artist.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Love Lessons’

lovelessonsTAfter enjoying tremendous commercial success with 1994’s No Ordinary Man, Tracy Byrd stumbled a bit with the following year’s Love Lessons, which failed to produce any major hits. Of its four singles, only the title track reached the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The album found him working once again with Tony Brown, who had produced some of his early hits from his debut album. First out of the box was the catchy line-dance number “Walking To Jersusalem”, which peaked at #15, a far cry from the #2-peaking “Keeper of the Stars” that had preceded it. The title track was the album’s biggest hit, but it is a bit dull and far from memorable. Much better is “Heaven In My Woman’s Eyes”, which sounds like something out of Merle Haggard’s catalog, but was actually written by Mark Nesler. I also liked “4 to 1 in Atlanta” which finds the protagonist preparing to visit Georgia in search of Ms. Right.

Love Lessons is one of those albums which is neither great nor terrible, and thus not very memorable. It lacks the compelling material of its predecessor. Tracy still sounds a lot like George Strait on a lot of the tracks. All of the songs are at least good, and today they might be considered great, but they did not stand out in era in which country music routinely turned out much higher quality material than it does today. There is no “Keeper of the Stars” or “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous” on this collection with the exception of two numbers written by two of country music’s greatest songwriters: “You Lied To Me” by the great Bill Anderson and “Don’t Need That Heartache” by Kostas and Melba Montgomery. Both of these songs are head and shoulders above anything else the album has to offer.

Love Lessons is not essential listening but is worth the small cash outlay required to obtain a used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘T-R-O-U-B-L-E’

Travis TrittIn the early 1990s, the major Nashville labels signed a seemingly endless string of cookie-cutter male artists that became known as “hat acts.” Travis Tritt was a notable exception. Not only did he not look like his contemporaries, he was less restricted by the musical boundaries of the era, offering up a healthy dose of Southern rock with more traditional country fare.

T-R-O-U-B-L-E was his third album for Warner Bros., released in the summer of 1992. Like his two previous albums, it was produced by Gregg Brown. It produced five singles, beginning with the blue collar anthem “Lord Have Mercy On The Working Man”, which featured a chorus of guest artists including Brooks & Dunn, T. Graham Brown, George Jones, Little Texas, Dana McVicker, Tanya Tucker, and Porter Wagoner. The Kostas-penned tune, unlike the cliched “I’m country” songs that plague the airwaves today, paints a sympathetic picture of the protagonist and makes him someone to which the listener can relate. It reached #5 on the Billboard country singles chart, and was followed by the #1 hit “Can I Trust You With My Heart”, a song he co-wrote with Stewart Harris. Tritt has always been a strong, if somewhat underrated ballad singer and nowhere is that more evident than on this song, which shows his more vulnerable side.

The pace changes dramatically with the uptempo title track, which was a cover of a 1975 Elvis Presley single. Travis does the song justice, but it has never been one of my favorites. It was somewhat surprising to learn that it only peaked at #13, since it seemed to me that it was overplayed on the radio. “Looking Out For Number One”, a kiss-off number in the vein of “Here’s A Quarter, Find Someone Who Cares”, is much better. In no uncertain terms, Travis announces that no longer will he be anyone’s doormat. This is another one of his own compositions, co-written with Troy Seals. Surprisingly, it only reached #11. The final single, “Worth Every Mile”, which he also wrote, only reached #30, possibly due to a lack of promotional push by the label. It deserved to chart higher.

Also quite good are the Marty Stuart number “A Hundred Years From Now” and the self-penned “Blue Collar Man”, on which he revisits the working class theme again, this time with a more Southern rock arrangement. Less enjoyable is the bluesy “Leave My Girl Alone”, a cover of a Stevie Ray Vaughan hit that closes the album. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, it is self-indulgent and overly long. But even though it is not to my personal tastes, Tritt deserves credit for pushing the envelope. It’s hard to imagine any of the other top male acts from the era trying to tackle this number.

Though T-R-O-U-B-L-E contains many fine cuts, I’m not much of a Southern rock fan so it makes for a somewhat uneven listening experience. However, it is worth seeking out a cheap copy if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’

1991 was the height of the neotraditional movement, and the period saw a host of exciting new artists rooted in traditional country music breaking through. It was the ideal time for Sammy Kershaw, with his astonishingly George Jones soundalike voice, to make his debut. Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson produced his first album for Mercury, and did a fine job showcasing the artist’s voice.

His debut single ‘Cadillac Style’ was an immediate success, reaching #3. It sunnily celebrates the power of true love to overcome the limitations of poverty. The sultry title track (penned by Chapin Hartford and Jim Foster) relates the passions of first love somewhere in the South. Imbued with Southern atmosphere, the record peaked just outside the top 10.

The record’s finest song, ‘Yard Sale’ was Sammy’s third straight top 20 hit, and his finest single to date. Written by Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian, it depicts in precise detail the sad aftermath of a failed marriage, with the couple’s goods being sold off cheap to all comers, leading to Sammy’s sardonic comment,

Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?

This excellent song would have been perfect for George Jones himself at his peak. While Kershaw isn’t quite the superlative interpreter Jones is, he still delivers the song very well.

The final single, ‘Anywhere But Here’, was Sammy’s second top 10. A vibrant up-tempo treatment belies the protagonist’s broken heart and desire just to get away from the scene of his broken heart.

Bob McDill’s regretful ‘Real Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ has a lovely fiddle/steel laden arrangement. The protagonist finds his sophisticated modern worldview collapses when his heart gets broken, and he reverts to an older style of dealing with heartbreak:

I play Hank Williams on the jukebox
Order up old whiskey at the bar
And through my tears I light another Lucky
I’ve got a real old fashioned broken heart

This is another gem, as is ‘Kickin’ In’, a heartbreak ballad written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, with a pretty melody and fiddle underlining the sad mood.

Underlining the comparisons to George, Sammy picked an obscure George Jones song to record. ‘What Am I Worth’ has the protagonist plaintively questioning his value regardless of other achievements in life, because his loved one is rejecting him. A vivacious up-tempo mood belies the downbeat lyric.

My favorite track is the hardcore cheating song with a twist – both parties in the marriage are running around behind the other’s back, ‘Every Third Monday’. It was written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Billy Henderson. Also with a twist, the ballad ‘I Buy Her Roses’ initially sounds like a sweet love song, but there is a sting in the tale. The protagonist’s loved one has actually left him, and he is buying the flowers he always forgot to do when they were together. A sincerely delivered vocal sells the song effectively.

Closing out the set, ‘Harbor For A Lonely Heart’ is a pleasant but not particularly memorable ballad written by Kostas and Jenny Yates.

While Kershaw’s vocal similarity to George Jones meant he perhaps lacked a degree of individuality, there are far worse singers to emulate. This was a pretty solid album with some very fine moments, and a promising debut. It sold well at the time, and was certified platinum. Used copies can now be found very cheaply, and it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Trouble Free’

Rhonda’s second Giant album took broadly the same approach as its predecessor. Producers James Stroud and Richard Landis provide sympathetic backings for Rhonda’s sparkling vocals. Sadly, however, country radio had begun its move in a poppier direction following the crossover success of Shania Twain, and Rhonda’s music was just a little too traditional for the time.

‘What More Do You Want From Me?’ (written by Bob Regan and Mark D. Sanders) was the only single, and it failed to gain enough airplay to chart. That was a shame, because it’s an excellent up-tempo song with some attitude and banked harmonies as Rhonda bemoans her lot to the personification of Love.

The opening ‘Somebody’, written by Al Anderson and Robert Ellis Orrall, sounds as though it was recorded with an eye on chart potential. It is well sung but feels a bit generic (despite Alison Krauss’s harmony), and is the only disappointing moment. Another song written by Orrall, this time with Curtis Wright and Billy Spencer, the wistful lost-love ‘If I Could Stop Loving You’, is better.

‘It Ain’t Nothin’ New’ is a lovely duet with Randy Travis, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Keys. Randy’s voice is at its best, and the pair’s voices meld extremely well, while the song is a sweet look at the hard work developing a relationship and keeping it alive once the shine has worn off a little, and affirming their love. It is one of my favorite tracks, with some beautiful fiddle. The love song ‘You Beat All I’ve Ever Seen’ was written by the winning combination of hitmaking songwriter Kostas, veteran Melba Montgomery, and Kathy Louvin (daughter of Ira). It has a pretty melody and a sweet and sincerely delivered lyric.

Melba Montgomery wrote ‘An Old Memory (Found Its Way Back Home Again)’ with Jerry Salley. This is a delightful up-tempo number with Rhonda wryly facing the revival of feelings she thought she had left behind, with an unexpectedly cheerful feel as she attacks the lyric, comparing her ex’s memory to
an old dog that you drop off just outside of town, uninvited, comin’ back anyhow.

The vibrant up-tempo title track was written by Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, and is also highly enjoyable. Rhonda triumphantly denies that her ex’s departure has caused her any sleepless nights. The sunny ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’ was written by George Teren and Tom Shapiro, and features a cameo from Dolly Parton on harmony.

‘When I’m Through Fallin’ Apart’ written by Michael Huffman, Gene Dobbins and Bob Morrison, is another good song, with Rhonda deferring a promising new prospect for new romance until she has got over the last one.

The John Jarrard/Kenny Beard-penned ballad ‘At The Corner Of Walk And Don’t Walk’ has a lovely traditional feel and tune with some atmospheric steel guitar underpinning the melancholic mood, although the metaphor feels a little forced. The underlying story, with the protagonist calling from a payphone as she has second thoughts about leaving, and uncertain whether her future lies with or without her lover, is still good, and Rhonda’s vocal is excellent, making this another favourite of mine.

The album was no more successful than its predecessor, and it marked the end of Rhonda’s flirtation with mainstream country music. It is however, a very fine album which has a lot to appeal to country fans.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Written In The Stars’

It is unfortunate that the fledgling Giant label was the label chosen to break Rhonda Vincent into mainstream country music. Giant was one of Nashville’s many “flatfish” labels (it starts up, flounders around for a while and then disappears) and didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote Rhonda’s music properly. That notwithstanding, Written In The Stars is a very good album, well recorded with Ms. Vincent’s vocals front and center in the mix and a cast of supporting musicians comprised from Nashville’s A-List.  Rhonda is in excellent voice and the album is well laid out in terms of tempo and style variations. The album was released in October 1993.

The album opens up with an up-tempo number, “What Else Could I Do”, which was released as the second single from the album. I am not sure why this song failed to chart as it has engaging lyrics and a memorable melody (supplied by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall) and Rhonda nails the lyrics:

I wasn’t looking to jump into love

But I had no choice when your push came to shove

I guess I should not be surprised that I fell for you

Tell me, what clse could I do?

“Written In The Stars” follows. This song is a slow ballad, also from the pen of Robert Ellis Orrall. The lyric takes us to a place many of us have been:

I guess the love written ever so deep in my heart

Was not written in the stars

Another up-tempo romp, “Ain’t That Love” follows, this time from the pen of noted songwriter Kostas. This is one of my two favorite songs from this album. This song has more of a bluegrass sound and feel to it than most of the songs on this album.

Harley Allen penned “In Your Loneliness”,  treated here as a slow ballad. Harley was a gifted songwriter, but this is just another song.

“Mama Knows the Highway” was a #8 single released in June 1993 by Hal Ketchum. Written by Pete Wasner and Charles John Quarto, the song fits Rhonda’s style well. This might have made a good single for Rhonda if Hal hadn’t gotten to it first.  “When Love Arrives” is another slow ballad from the pen of Harley Allen. Again, in my opinion it’s just another song.

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Album Review – Marty Stuart – ‘Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best’

Released in June 1996, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best marks the final album of the hit-making portion of Stuart’s career. His sixth release for MCA Records, and produced as usual by Tony Brown, the album had four singles and peaked at #27 on the charts.

The lead single and title track reunited Stuart with Travis Tritt for their first duet in four years. Released in April of 1996, “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best” wouldn’t be nearly as successful as their previous collaborations, missing the top twenty completely, and peaking at #23. It didn’t help that the song rocked harder than their previous work and Stuart’s growly vocal may’ve been a slight turn-off for radio programmers. To make matters worse, the mix of loud guitars and screaming steel hasn’t aged well. But the lyric, about a misunderstood boy who’s born to honky tonk, is still relevant today.

Second single “Thanks To You” wouldn’t faire much better on the charts, peaking at #50 that same year. But Stuart and Gary Nicholson wrote an outstanding lyric that holds up extremely well today. A love song, it’s a thank you note to the woman who saved the man’s life:

I searched for love my whole life through

Then it came like a blinding flash from the blue

Thanks to you

Empty nights and long lost days

Roving eyes and rambling ways are through

Thanks to you

“You Can’t Stop Love,” a guitar-heavy mid-tempo number co-written by Stuart and Kostas, peaked at #26 in 1997. Not as commercial as the previous two singles, it amazes me this garnered more airplay than “Thanks To You,” a much better single choice for the late 90s. But it’s still a good song, although the moody and somewhat dark arrangement is a better fit for Gary Allan than for Stuart.

A final single, “Sweet Love” came in the spring of 1997 but failed to chart. Written by rock and roll singer Del Shannon, “Sweet Love” was far too out of step with the times upon its release. Stuart, meanwhile, seems overproduced a bit and the loud guitar-heavy accompaniment drowns out his vocal.

As “Sweet Love” aptly illustrates, at his core Stuart is an individualist. By not bucking to trends or trying to sound like his contemporaries, his albums come off unique to the man creating them. That downside is that uniqueness doesn’t have a home on country radio. But commercial aspirations aside, it makes for a very interesting listening experience.

The most unique of all the songs on the album is “The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow,” which features Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin along with his country music coon dog and beagle hounds. The track opens with Martin giving a recitation as though he and Stuart are relaxing on a porch in the country. The barking dogs give way to bluesy number heavy on guitar and originality but low on appeal. This is an acquired taste kind of song, and out of place on a commercial country record.

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Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Tempted’

Marty Stuart’s second release for MCA was released in January 1991. Like its predecessor, Tempted was produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, and contained a balance of some of Marty’s original compositions and some well-chosen covers that paid homage to country music’s past. It is a little less rockabilly-oriented than Hillbilly Rock, with more emphasis on harmonies and more prominent use of the steel guitar.

The first single “Little Things” was written by Marty and Paul Kennerley. It follows the same template as “Hillbilly Rock” and matched that song’s chart performance, peaking at #8. It was, in fact, Marty’s first Top 10 since “Hillbilly Rock” and his second Top 10 overall. He stumbled slightly with the next release, the ballad “Till I Found You”, which was written by Paul Kennerley and Hank DeVito. It just missed the Top 10, peaking at #12. I’ve always found the song a bit lacking in energy and it’s my least favorite track on the album. Much better is the title track, another Stuart-Kennerley composition, which reached #5, becoming Marty’s highest charting single as a solo artist. It is my favorite of all of Marty’s mainstream singles. “Burn Me Down”, a rockabilly number written by Eddie Miller was the album’s fourth and final single. It too reached the Top 10, topping out at #7.

With the exception of the title track, the real meat of this collection is in the album cuts. Most Stuart albums include a Johnny Cash tune, and Tempted is no exception. This time he chose to cover “Blue Train”. It is a decent performance but even those unfamiliar with the original will instantly recognize it as a Johnny Cash song. It just underscores how difficult it can be to put one’s own mark on an iconic figure’s song, though the intent seems to be to pay tribute to Cash, rather than to reinterpret his work. “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” which opens the album was written by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams and serves as notice to the listener that Marty Stuart was more than just a mere hillbilly rocker, with a deep respect for country music’s heritage. “Paint The Town Tonight” with its heavy emphasis on the Telecaster and steel guitar is a Stuart original composition that is reminiscent of Buck Owens. It really should have been released as a single. “Half a Heart” is a straightforward country number that is one of two tunes on which Marty collaborated with the then very popular songwriter Kostas. It too should have been released as a single. The album closes with the fiddle-led hoedown number “Get Back To The Country”, which surprisingly was written by Neil Young, a name not normally associated with traditional country music.

Tempted is the best of Marty’s major label efforts, with nine excellent tracks (“Till I Found You” is the only one that falls a bit short) and marks the peak of commercial success. It was his second gold album and the most well received by country radio. It is his only album to contain more than one Top 10 hit. Unfortunately, after “Burn Me Down” he would never again reach the Top 10 as a solo artist, although two collaborations with Travis Tritt did chart inside the Top 10. Tempted is easy to find and worthy of inclusion in any country music fan’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Hillbilly Rock’

The major label phase of Marty Stuart’s career is considered to have begun in earnest with the release of 1989’s Hillbilly Rock, following a brief and somewhat inauspicious stint with Columbia. Now signed to MCA, Marty finally began to enjoy some commercial success, primarily thanks to the album’s catchy but lyrically light Paul Kennerley-penned title track, which would become his first Top 10 hit.

Produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, Hillbilly Rock, as its title suggests, has got a distinct rockabilly flavor and the influence of Marty’s mentor Johnny Cash is readily apparent. In fact, Marty’s first single release for MCA was a cover of Cash’s 1955 hit “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It was an odd choice to launch the career of a relatively unknown artist, especially since it occurred during a period when Johnny Cash was decidedly out of vogue in Nashville. Not surprisingly, Marty’s faithful-to-the-original version was not a huge hit, though it did crack the Top 40, making it his highest charting single (at #32) since 1985’s “Arlene”, which was his only Top 20 hit up to that time. The next single, “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long”, is my favorite track on the album. It was written by Marty and Kostas and sounds a lot like the music The Mavericks were doing around that time. Unfortunately, it was met by a big yawn at country radio and it stalled at #42. The tune was revived by Gary Allan almost a decade later when he included it on his It Would Be You album.

Marty’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s title track as the third single. Fueled by a video that was in heavy rotation on TNN and CMT, “Hillbilly Rock” allowed Marty to crack the Top 10 for the first time. Peaking at #8, it was not a smash hit, but it was a significant and hard fought milestone for an artist who had enjoyed a fair share of critical acclaim but seemed to be in danger of failing to catch on in the marketplace.

Mainstream country music in the early 1990s was obsessed with “hat acts”. Marty didn’t fit the mold and that may have made his music more difficult to market, though he eventually turned this to his advantage a few years later when he teamed up with Travis Tritt for the highly successful “No Hats” tour. It became apparent that he still faced an uphill climb at country radio when Hillbilly Rock’s fourth and final single, “Western Girls” disappointingly peaked at #20, though it deserved to chart much higher.

I was somewhat surprised at the time to learn of Marty’s bluegrass background and his vast knowledge and devotion to traditional country music because his music that was getting radio airplay at the time was anything but traditional. But after looking past the radio hits and delving more deeply into the album cuts, another side of his musical personality can be heard. “When The Sun Goes Down” is the album’s most traditional cut, sounding a lot like the Merle Haggard classic “The Bottle Let Me Down”, and the beautiful and understated closing track “Since I Don’t Have You” would be right at home on Ghost Train or Marty’s most recent album. Both tunes were written by Marty and Mark Collie.

Although Hillbilly Rock was only moderately successful, it earned a lot of critical acclaim and introduced Marty Stuart to mainstream audiences. It also stands as an example of how much more diversity was on country radio twenty years ago, before things became too homogenized, as it is quite different from most of the music on the charts at the time. It was a particular favorite of then-President George H.W. Bush, who requested and received a copy of Hillbilly Rock to listen to on Air Force One. It is still easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘There’s More Where That Came From’

2005’s There’s More Where That Came From is a pivotal album in the discography of Lee Ann Womack that helped to erase memories of the disastrous Something Worth Leaving Behind and to re-establish much of the credibility that she had lost with that ill-advised flirtation with pop diva-dom. Three years after her last full-length studio release, Lee Ann was back in a big way, with a new producer and a new sound. Or, perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be a new old sound. There’s More Where That Came From pays homage to a bygone era, with a retro sound and artwork that made it resemble a Tammy Wynette album from the 1970s. The disc itself even has the same design that MCA had used on its vinyl releases in the 70s and 80s, with a rainbow coming out of the clouds.

The country music landscape had changed considerably since Lee Ann’s debut just eight year earlier. Whereas her first album arrived at a time when it appeared that the genre might be swinging back toward its roots, There’s More Where That Came From was released at a time when things had moved decidedly toward the pop end of the spectrum and when the youth movement was in full force, leaving artists over the age of 40 at a distinct disadvantage. It is therefore, a little surprising that Lee Ann was allowed to release what could only have been viewed at the time as a non-commercial album, but her career had nosedived so badly by that time, her label perhaps felt that there was nothing left to lose.
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Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Long Line of Heartaches’

When I interviewed Connie Smith in March 2009, we both lamented the current state of country music, particularly the fact that an entire generation of fans — and performers — are unaware of the genre’s rich heritage. “It’s not their fault,” she commented, “because no one taught them.” With Long Line of Heartaches, her first studio album in 13 years, she undertakes the task of finally showing the younger generation how it’s done. The 12-track collection is both a homage to tradition and a sampling of what country music might once again (hopefully) become.

Comparisons to Smith’s husband Marty Stuart’s recent Ghost Train are inevitable. Both albums were produced by Stuart and feature a generous sampling of the couple’s original compositions. In addition, both albums seek to recreate the traditional sound, while maintaining a contemporary feel, and both albums were recorded in RCA’s legendary Studio B, where most of Connie’s 1960s classics were created.

Long Line of Heartaches makes no concessions to the latest radio trends, perhaps in acknowledgement that it is unlikely to receive much mainstream airplay. As such, no singles have been released. Instead, Stuart and Smith concentrate on creating a collection that sounds right at home with Connie’s 60s hits; the steel guitar is up front and center, as it should be, throughout the album. And as with Ghost Train, they’ve managed to recreate that sound without sounding dated or retro.

The couple contributed five original songs to the album, including the title track, which opens the set. It’s a traditional country shuffle that sets the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this isn’t going to be the typical Nashvegas pop fare. “The Pain of a Broken Heart” was written by Stuart and Smith several years ago, on the same day they wrote “Farmer’s Blues” which Marty recorded with Merle Haggard. The uptempo waltz has a melody that is reminiscent of “The Long Black Veil”, albeit at a faster pace. Connie steps outside of her comfort zone just a bit for “Blue Heartaches”, which proves that she’s as comfortable tinging her country wtih blues as she is at singing straight honky-tonk. Of all the songs she and Marty have written, Connie says this is one of the ones of which she is most proud. My favorite of the Stuart-Smith compositions, however, is “I’m Not Blue”, which they co-wrote with the famed songwriter Kostas. It’s a little more contemporary than the other songs they wrote for the album, and I can’t help but think that somebody could have a big hit on their hands if they covered this song.

In addition to their own compositions, Stuart and Smith armed themselves with stellar material from an impressive line-up of outside songwriters. Harlan Howard and Kostas’ “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel” has been recorded many times; Tanya Tucker included it on her 1997 disc Complicated. It’s usually given a Tex-Mex feel complete with mariachi horns, which Connie and Marty omitted on this version. The legendary Dallas Frazier makes a contribution with “A Heart Like You”. Written after a 30-year hiatus from songwriting, it contains one of country music’s all-time great lines — “what’s a heart like you, doing in a fool like me?”, which one wonders why someone didn’t think of before. “My Part of Forever” is another beautiful ballad, which, surprisingly, was originally recorded by Johnny Paycheck. But my favorite song on the album by far is “That Makes Two of Us” which was written by Kostas along with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr. This is a beautiful number, impeccably sung, and in a sane world it would be a monster hit. The album closes with a stripped-down, acoustic hymn “Take My Hand”, on which Connie is joined in harmony by her three daughters.

Dolly Parton once named Connie Smith as country music’s greatest female singer in her now famous quote, “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” That may have been an exaggeration, but only a slight one and as strong a case can be made for Smith’s greatness today as when Dolly first spoke those words many years ago. There isn’t a single dud among the twelve tracks on this album. It’s great to have new music from Connie Smith; hopefully she can be persuaded to record more frequently. I don’t want to have wait another 13 years for her next record.

Long Line of Heartaches
can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+