My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lari White

Classic Rewind: Lari White – ‘There’s Power In The Blood’

Classic Rewind: Lari White – ‘That’s How You Know’

Classic Rewind: Lari White – ‘Lead Me Not’

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Don’t Fence Me In’

dont-fence-me-inThe singles from Wishes would prove to be the peak of Lari White’s popularity. The followup album, Don’t Fence Me In, which saw her stretch her wings artistically, was less successful in the marketplace.

The first single, ‘Ready, Willing And Able’, is quite a good mid-tempo song about being open to falling in love, which Lari delivers with commitment. It was written by Jess Leary and Jody Alan Sweet, and reached the top 20.

The only other single, the vivacious up-tempo ‘Wild At Heart’, failed to make the top 40, and combined with unspectacular sales of the album led to RCA dropping Lari. Lari wrote it with Al Anderson, and it’s pretty good and well performed.

‘Ain’t Gonna Worry About Love No More’ (written by Michael Noble) is in a similar contemporary up-tempo vein.

Lari wrote three songs with her husband Chuck Cannon. The best of these, ‘Something Blue’, is a bluesy torch song about a marriage in the course of disintegrating:

Our love is something old
Her kiss is something new
And now we live on borrowed time
Cause all that’s left is something blue

The upbeat poppy ‘Do It Again’ affirms the narrator’s past choices and mistakes. ‘Next To Love’ is fairly forgettable filler.

‘Ghost Of A Chance’, written by Lari with Chuck Jones, is a low key soulful ballad about fighting the unseen rival of her partner’s ex, with some nice fiddle. This is excellent, and my favourite track.

I also like another ballad, ’The Test’ (written by Don Schlitz and Billy Livsey), although it feels a little bit contrived. A married woman reviews the strength of her relationship on paper, listing all the fights and bad times, which makes her think it must be over – but set against that she has just one positive: she loves him.

‘I’ve Been Waiting For Your Love’ is a pretty AC-leaning ballad written by Stephony Smith and Terry Burns, with some nice fiddle. ‘Woman Of The World’ is an upbeat song about women as survivors.

Rather pretentiously, two tracks have short teasers earlier in the set list. The title track is the Cole Porter-penned standard. Right at the start of the album Lari sings the first chorus fairly straight, with harmony singers Trisha Yearwood and SShelby Lynne, but with old dusty vinyl sound effects. Then almost at the end of the album she launches into a speeded up rockabilly take on the song. It doesn’t really work for me.

Similarly, ‘Soul Searchin’ Blues’ starts out randomly inserted three quarters of the way through with one verse, and then continues right at the end. This is a straight blues tune.

The record is not particularly country, and certainly not traditional, but Lari White was a very talented singer and songwriter, and if you like a slightly poppy/jazzy/AC edge to your country, this album is well worth while.

Although Lari would enjoy one more top 20 hit with ‘Stepping Stone’ on a new label, Lyric Street , and then a top 20 duet with Travis Tritt, that was the end of her mainsteam success.

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Lead Me Not’

lari-whiteLead Me Not was Lari White’s debut album, released in 1993 on the RCA label. This was Lari’s second stab at major label stardom as her prize for winning the television talent show Star Search in 1988 was a recording contract with Capitol Records.

Unfortunately the single released on Capitol (“Flying Above the Rain”) went nowhere and she was released by Capital . A person of many talents, including songwriting, Lari marked time by joining Ronnie Milsap’s publishing house, took acting lessons and performed in local theatre productions. In 1991 after attending an ASCAP showcase Rodney Crowell invited her to perform in his band. White signed to RCA, which brings us to this album, which Rodney Crowell produced.

Lead Me Not spotlights Lari’s vocal prowess and her talents as a songwriter as Lari wrote or co-wrote eight of the ten tracks on the album. The album only reached #36 on Billboard’s Heat Chart and missed charting on the Country Albums chart; however, all three of the singles released charted country (none cracked the top forty).

The album opens up with “Itty Bitty Single Solitary Piece of My Heart’, a co-write with John Rotch. The title sounds as if it would be a novelty number, but the song is actually a bluesy ballad warning off a would-be suitor. Jerry Douglas on dobro is featured prominently in the arrangement.

Chorus:

So you won’t get a taste of this, not even a kiss
The fact that your middle name is heartache is no coincidence
You made a livin’ out of lovin’ and leavin’ ‘em to fall apart
So now you better understand youi’ll never lay one hand on one
Itty bitty little single solitary piece o’ my heart

Next up is “Just Thinking” a romantic piece of cocktail jazz, written by Lari, and one that perhaps would have made a good single is pushed to another genre such as Lite Jazz or Adult Contemporary. Bergan White (no relation) arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

“Lay Around and Love On You” was written by Bobby David and David Gillon. Released as the third single, the song reached #68 on the country charts. The song isn’t remotely country having a strong New Orleans R&B vibe. It’s a great song, and if released during the mid 1970s or early 1980s, likely would have been a hit.

Time for me to go to work again
But all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you
Seven thirty, but I don’t care
What you’re doing is gonna keep me here
‘Cause all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

Lay around and love
Lay around and love on you
You’ve got me so turned on
Honey, I can’t turn you loose
Hope nobody calls
Got the phone off the hook
We’re gonna try everything in the book
All I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

“Lead Me Not” was the second single from the album. Written by Lari, the song has a strong gospel feel to the arrangement, not surprisingly since the title is a play on a familiar religious theme. Nice saxophone work by the appropriately named Jim Horn is the highlight of the arrangement.

Well, I should have been home hours ago
I always lose track of the time
I’ll just hold up this wall while I try to recall
A thought from the back of my mind
Oh yeah I remember, it began with a wink
When you caught me looking at you

So don’t ask me if you can buy me a drink
I know what you’re trying to do
Lead me not into temptation
I already know the road all too well
Lead me not into temptation
I can find it all by myself

This is followed by another Lari White solo composition “Made To Be Broken” a lovely, well performed easy-listening ballad.

“What A Woman Wants” was the first single and biggest hit on the album reaching #44. Lari co-wrote this with soon-to-be husband Chuck Cannon (they married in 1994 and are still married, with two daughters). This song deals with the changing roles in society and the effort to try to explain to men what women today want. The song is taken at a quick tempo, and frankly I am surprised that the song wasn’t a bigger hit.

Come here darlin’, let me whisper in your ear
A precious little secret that I think you need to hear
With the way the women’s movement’s always making the news
I can see how a man might get confused
Now a woman doesn’t mind a man holding the door
But slaving in some kitchen ain’t what God made a woman for
We’ve come a long way baby, but way down deep we’re still the same
What a woman wants will never change

What a woman wants is to be treated like a queen
By a man who deserves to be treated like a king
What a woman wants, what keeps her holding on
Is a loving man who understands what a woman wants

The seventh track features a Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson composition “Anything Goes”. The song has a definite Mexican flair. Verlon’s career as a recording artist never took off, but he remains a prominent songwriter and instrumentalist.

It took until track eight to reach a song that I would regard as truly being country music, that song being “When The Lights Are Low”, a song Lari co-wrote with Chris Waters (bother of Holly Dunn). This song features classic steel guitar work by Tommy Spurlock, fiddle by Jonathan Yudkin and a great vocal by Lari. The song is a prototypical country ballad with lyrics any fans of traditional country music could enjoy and should have been released as the first single. While I don’t know whether or not this would have been a big hit at radio, at least it would have pegged Lari as a legitimate country artist. As it was, if I were a DJ dealing with Lari’s first three RCA singles, I would not known how to classify her (Con Hunley had the much same problem fifteen years earlier).

In the dark I’m just part of the crowd
It’s hard to tell who it is I’m there without
In some tall stranger’s arms
Your memory’s not so clear
I can cry all night long
‘Cause no one sees the tears
Where the lights are low

Where the jukebox plays
The saddest song it knows
Through a smoky haze
Since you’ve been gone
That’s where I go
‘Cause everything looks better
Where the lights are low

Lari collaborated with her future husband again on “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”, another easy listening/adult contemporary ballad. It’s a nice song, well sung but again not especially country. As on track two, Bergan White arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

The album closes as it began, with a Lari White – John Rotch collaboration in “Good Good Love”. As with the opening number with is a bluesy R&B tinged ballad, with gospel overtones in the production.

If you want a good good love
Hold on when the times are bad
‘Cause if you jump ship when trouble hits
Good for nothin’ is all you’ll have
You gotta anchor down in the winds of doubt
You can’t give in and you can’t bail out
If the water’s high hold your head above
And hang on for that good good love

When love sets sail it’s always a sunny day
And when the skies are blue it’s so easy to make love stay
But when the clouds roll in and the ship begins to strain
You gotta try a little harder
Go on, test the water
‘Cause the air is so much sweeter
After a real good rain

This album features a bewildering array of instruments: bells, bongos, cowbells, dobro, fiddle – you name it, it is probably on here somewhere.

I purchased the album on the recommendation of a friend. I really liked the album but I wasn’t sure where to place it in my collection, finally settling on filing it with my pop/rock/ R&B records. Lead Me Not is a very good album that I would not hesitate to recommend as fans of varying forms of music can find things to like about this album. On this album Lari White reveals herself as a very talented songwriter and vocalist, albeit one not easily pigeonholed. Her breakthrough would occur on her next album, and wouldn’t last long but her music is worth the search.

I would give this album an A-

She still performs and maintains a website where you can purchase most of her music.

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘I’m Already There’

im-already-thereThe band’s fourth album was released in June 2001. Producer Dann Huff gave the somewhat generic rock-pop-country hybrid music a commercial sheen which appealed to fans, but has already dated.

The title track, a soaring ballad which shows off Richie McDonald’s voice at its best, was another big hit for them – not only a chart topper, but selling over half a million copies. An emotional song about a loving father stuck working on the road with a pretty melody and swelling strings, the passionate vocal just saves it from sentimentality. McDonald also gets a songwriting credit, alongside Gary Baker and Frank Myers (who had a shortlived attempt at a country career as a duo in the 90s). Unfortunately it is by far the best song on the album.

Follow up ‘With Me’ broke Lonestar’s streak of five straight #1s, only just squeezing into the top 10. Unsurprising, because it really isn’t a very good, or country, song. Unsubtle, intrusive production doesn’t help a boring lyric without much of a tune.

‘Not A Day Goes By’ was back to the ballads, and was much more successful, reaching #3. A wistful song about the power of a memory, McDonald sings it beautifully. It is more AC than country, but very well done.

The final single, Mark McGuinn’s ‘Unusually Unusual’ made it to #12. Huff’s production and arrangement choices are intrusive; the song itself tries to depict a charmingly quirky girl, but falls a bit flat for me.

‘I Want To Be The One’ is quite a good song about unrequited love, written by Chuck Cannon, Lari White and Gary Nicholson, but very pop backing vocals dominate it.

Most of the other tracks have strong rock leanings, with even the ballads loud, and are not particularly interesting.

The remains their second best seller, after the ‘Amazed’-spurred monster success of Lonely Grill. However, I would only bother downloading ‘I’m Already There’, and perhaps ‘Not A Day Goes By’.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘White Trash With Money’

white trash with money2006’s White Trash With Money marked a departure for Keith, as it was the first release on his own Show Dog label. Another change involved recruiting the female singer songwriter Lari White as his co-producer; this was the first time a woman had ever produced a male artist in mainstream country music. The title, at once self-deprecating and proud, was inspired by an insult offered to his daughter Krystal by a wealthy friend’s snobbish mother. Happily, it also marks a step back from the over-reliance on pandering patriotic material.

As usual Keith wrote or co-wrote all the material, but this time he had only two collaborators: Scotty Emerick on most of the songs, and quite frequently Dean Dillon. This works well, with a good set of songs all fitting well together.

The lead single was the brassy working man’s ode to the weekend when he can ‘Get Drunk And Be Somebody’, which reached #3 on the Billboard country chart. Follow-up ‘A Little Too Late reached #2. A ballad swathed with sweeping strings, it is a good song about the aftermath of a failed relationship.

The final single, ‘Crash Here Tonight’, peaked at #15. A sweet and tender ballad about being on the verge of falling in love with a friend and not wanting to scare her off, I like it a lot.

The ironic ‘Can’t Buy You Money’, which turns an old saw on its head, with money troubles not derailing the protagonist’s happy home life:

Yeah, we’d save it all up for a rainy day but it’s always sunny
Guess all the happiness in the world can’t buy you money

Now, I ain’t got no money, Lord
I’m knee deep in debt
We must be livin’ on love from above
We ain’t hit bottom yet

In the tongue-in-cheek ‘Grain Of Salt’ the protagonist defies a broken heart with the help of several tequilas, and seems to be too hungover to care when she comes back again:

I took your leavin’ with a grain of salt,
Tequila and a slice of lime,
Yeah the minute you left
Me and the boys went out and had a real good time,
It’s nice of you to check up on me,
Just to see how I was gettin’ along
But I’d already gotten over it baby,
Before you were even gone

By now you’ve observed
I was a little over-served last night,
I need to catch a few Z’s
Baby please
Turn off that bedroom light

The self-deprecating ‘Note To Self’ sees the collapse of a marriage thanks to bad decisions and things left undone. ‘Hell No’ is on similar lines:

Oh, she didn’t say no
But in her eyes I could see
Ah, this wouldn’t turn out to be
The fairytale ending I thought it might be
I sure found out
I got a long way to go
She didn’t say no
She said
“Hell no”

‘I Ain’t Already There’ is about a booty call which is part of a long term on-off relationship, and in which anticipation trumps the reality.

More seriously, the subdued ‘Too Far This Time’ is a downbeat ballad in which the protagonist faces the fact that his wife is cheating.

The somber ‘Ain’t No Right Way’ ponders moral choices: a teenage girl facing motherhood or giving up the baby for adoption, a father who beats his children in the name of discipline, and the controversy over prayer in schools. It’s a little muddled in places, with the three stories not quite hanging together with each other or the chorus, but the gentle melody and Toby’s obvious sincerity make it work.

The fluffy happy birthday wish of ‘Brand New Bow’ sounds like a personal gift for Toby’s wife, but has less resonance for other listeners.

This album is one of Keith’s more solid efforts. Almost every song would have been an effective single. It’s no real surprise that this was Toby at his commercial peak. Unfortunately, he can’t leave things there, and includes the gratuitously offensive ‘Runnin’ Block’, about a double date with a pair of overweight women. This aside, the album is recommended to all Toby Keith casual fans.

Grade: A

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Unleashed’

KeithunleashedBy 2002, you couldn’t find a male country singer bigger than Toby Keith. He was routinely topping the charts turning over multi-week numbers ones with each radio offering. But it was also during this time he lead by his ego and lost of some of his better judgment. That fall made a mockery of himself with the Country Music Association, blasting them for making him the belle of the ball with a front row set and prime exposure, only to lose each of the six awards for which he was nominated.

Two of those nominations were for the lead single from his seventh album Unleashed. I first heard “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” when Keith debuted it in April at the CMT Flameworthy Awards (now the CMT Video Music Awards). When he got to the line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way” I was cheering. I really enjoyed the fire in that one line.

Thirteen years later, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” is nothing more than a bombastic document capturing an era in country music. The brash attitude of the track worked well with Keith’s persona, but caught the ire of Natalie Maines, who called the track ‘ignorant.’

I still can’t believe I ate up the second single, the horrible chart-topping “Who’s Your Daddy.” Keith’s ego exploded as he failed to mix humor, brash, and country-rock on a song that had very little redeeming value. Radio was surprising cool to “Rock You Baby,” a bland power ballad that was the only slower song released from Unleashed. Given Keith’s prominence at the time, I was very surprised when it stalled at #13.

The final single was the Willie Nelson duet “Beer For My Horses.” I quite like this song, although the production has worn thin through the years. The song is a battle cry for justice, detailing despicable actions that deserve repercussions:

Well a man come on the 6 o’clock news

Said somebody’s been shot, somebody’s been abused

Somebody blew up a building

Somebody stole a car

Somebody got away

Somebody didn’t get too far

 

We got too many gangsters doing dirty deeds

We’ve got too much corruption, too much crime in the streets

It’s time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground

Send ’em all to their maker and he’ll settle ’em down

“Beer For My Horses” went on to spend six weeks at number one, becoming Keith’s longest consecutive stay at the top. Nelson, who was 70 at the time, became the oldest male artist to score a chart topping single.

Keith had a hand in co-writing all twelve of the album’s songs, including two with long-time collaborator Chuck Cannon. “Good to Go to Mexico” is a catchy yet far too lightweight mariachi drenched number about making a permanent escape to paradise. They succeed on the splendidly sweet, “Huckleberry,” a plucky love song in the vein of Bryan White’s ‘Rebecca Lynn:’

Baby I’ll be your Huckleberry, you don’t have to double dare me

If the storm gets wild and scary count on me to be right there

You’re so extra ordinary sweet like maraschino cherries

We’ll grow up and we’ll get married

I’m gonna be your Huckleberry

Five more of the album’s tracks found Keith co-writing with his close friend Scotty Emerick. “It’s All Good” begins with poignant commentary, by ends up as an immature tale of two lovers. “Losing my Touch” is a nicely restrained ballad about the inability to shine in a relationship. “Ain’t It Just Like You” has a by-the-numbers lyric about the end of a relationship, but the melody is a bit too progressive for my liking. Even worse is “That’s Not How It is,” a slice of pure pop that goes nowhere melodically. Thankfully the pair wrote “It Works for Me,” a pure country shuffle about being with not having the newest or shiniest possessions. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album.

The final song is the steel drenched waltz, “Rodeo Moon,” which Keith co-wrote with Chris LeDoux. It’s a great song (with beautiful harmonies by Lari White), in both Keith’s and LeDoux’s versions, but I feel like they need far more restrained vocal performances and a softer waltz melody.

I remember buying Unleashed the day it came out. I rushed to the store because I knew by the afternoon it would sell out. Looking back, I was a bit too eager to own what turns out to be a sonically disjointed album aimed at appealing to a wide array of country music fans. While most of the album is filler, I did enjoy “Huckleberry,” “It Works for Me” and the duet with Willie Nelson is a modern day classic.

Toby Keith is one of the most naturally talented country music vocalists of the past twenty or so years. More often then not, though, he fails to put his gifts to good use on quality material. There are a few notable tracks, but on the whole Unleashed just isn’t worth the effort.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Blue Moon’

TobyKeithBlueMoonThe shuffling of Toby Keith from label to label (all were a subsidiary of Mercury Nashville) had reached its apex by the time Blue Moon, his third album, was released in 1996. Keith was now the flagship artist on the Music City division of A&M, a label originally started in the early 1960s in California. In the process, Harold Shedd was dropped as Keith’s producer. Keith would step up and co-produce the album with Nelson Larkin, who had assisted Shedd on Keith’s previous records.

After he took complete control of his career in the 2000s, Keith reminisced about his 1990s work saying he was known as the ballad singer in his early years. Keith certainly has the voice for such material and from a singles standpoint, Blue Moon delivered. He solely penned the album’s lead single, the title track, which found him at his most tender. The AC-leaning lament, about a guy taking responsibility for his role in ending his relationship, peaked at #2.

The second single was the cinematic “A Woman’s Touch,” which Keith composed with Wayne Perry. The track opens with sweeping guitars and cymbals that nicely give way to more of a typical Keith arrangement. “A Woman’s Touch,” which peaked just outside the top 5, is a very good song although not strong enough to be much remembered today.

The album’s final single (and Keith’s third #1) is probably the greatest use of clever wordplay in a country love song I’ve ever heard. “Me Too,” which Keith co-wrote with frequent collaborator Chuck Cannon, finds him stepping into the shoes of a man who has difficulty saying ‘I love you:’

Oh, I’m just a man, that’s the way I was made

I’m not too good at sayin’ what you need me to say

It’s always right there on the tip of my tongue

It might go unsaid, but it won’t go undone

So when those three little words come so easy to you

I hope you know what I mean when I say, me too

Keith had a hand in writing all but one of the album’s remaining seven tracks, including two with Perry. “She’s Perfect” is a similarly styled ballad and another tune in which Keith admits he’s at fault for the state of his relationship:

There’s nothin’ wrong with her, she’s perfect

She’s as pure as she can be

She’d never say, but the only mistake she ever made was me

It might appear to you she’s broken

By the teardrops in her eyes

But there’s nothin’ wrong with her, she’s perfect

I’m the one who made her cry

Another such ballad is “The Lonely,” the Cannon and Lari White co-write Keith didn’t help compose. The track isn’t terrible, but it isn’t memorable either. “Every Night,” a semi-uptempo, finds Keith helping his woman through the heartbreak wrought from her previous relationship. “She’s Gonna Get It,” the other co-write with Perry, is faux uptempo encumbered by a clumsy lyric. “Lucky Me” is an above average rocker about a man reveling in the emptiness in his home in the wake of a breakup. While the premise shows promise, Keith should’ve gone further with the lyric and provided some kind of interesting twist or clever ending. “Hello,” which finds Keith in Mexico, closes Blue Moon with pure dreck.

“Closin’ Time At Home” may suffer from a suffocating and uninteresting arrangement, but it should’ve been a single. Keith is a man in San Bernardino thinking about the woman he left back home in Tulsa:

If it’s midnight in California, must be closin’ time in Oklahoma

I know that she’s already danced another night away

And these west coast nights sure seem colder

Knowin’ somebody else’s arms will hold her

Midnight in California means it’s closin’ time at home

Blue Moon finds Keith in a holding pattern. The three singles are excellent and kept him within country radio’s good graces. But the album presents a subdued and average Keith not taking any chances either lyrically or sonically. The guy who brought us the memorable run of iconic 1990s fare on his first two studio sets was gone and we still had another three years before he became the artist who took the bull by its horns. This Keith feels like a timid people-pleaser.

Blue Moon is the weakest of his Mercury/Polydor/Polygram/A&M recordings. Its no wonder he unapologetically tore down the walls and rebuilt the house. If he’d stayed in this vein, he would’ve been just another 1990s has-been. Toby Keith is too good for material like what he co-wrote, co-produced and recorded here.

Grade: B

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘The Restless Kind’

the restless kindAfter the Greatest Hits album, 1996’s The Restless Kind denotes a new start of sorts, with long term producer Gregg Brown dropped for veteran rock producer Don Was, with Tritt also getting a co-production credit. The pairing does a pretty good job, and the general feel of the album is not that far removed from Tritt’s usual style, except that the harmonica is more prominent than the steel guitar. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs, and friend and tour partner Marty Stuart also contributed.

The first single, ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is a very well sung but not particularly interesting ballad of devotion to a wife. The album’s biggest hit, it peaked at #3.

It was followed by ‘Where Corn Don’t Grow’, which made it to #6. Written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer, it had originally been recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1990, and is an excellent story song about a country boy who has to find out the hard way how hard city life is.

‘She’s Going Home With Me’ and ‘Still In Love With You’ both peaked in the 20s, and are equally forgettable mid-tempo numbers.

Sent to radio in between those two, the much better ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ did creep into the top 20 but should have done better. It is a sensitive ballad Tritt wrote and sings with Lari White about a couple both struggling to move on with new partners. An excellent vocal from Tritt is matched by White’s distinctive voice.

My favorite non-single (and a clear missed opportunity) is the ballad ‘Did You Fall Far Enough’, written by Tritt with Troy Seals. The protagonist is wracked with doubt for no clear reason:

You’ve given me no cause to doubt you
And I know passion burns in your heart
But does that same fire keep on burning
In the hours that we spend apart?

If you knew the question that burns in my mind
Then you know why I worry so much
I can’t help but wonder when we fell in love
Sweetheart, did you fall far enough?
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Mark O’Connor’s beautiful fiddle winds through the song, and with Travis’s excellent vocal, helps to make this a real highlight.

‘Sack Full Of Stones’ is the best of the three songs here co-written by Marty Stuart, a somber breakup song with a fine vocal. ‘Draggin’ My Heart Around’ is a pretty good chugging Marty Stuart/Paul Kennerley song typical of what Stuart was doing at that period, with a strong groove and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen on high harmony. The less successful ‘Double Trouble’ is a self-indulgent buddy duet with Stuart with a silly story of two friends accidentally dating the same girl, which the pair wrote with Kennerley. Stuart also plays electric guitar throughout the album.

‘Back Up Against The Wall’ is pure Southern rock/outlaw, and while it is catchy and enthusiastically performed, I was entirely unconvinced by the hardboiled jailbreak story. A meaty version of the title track, an uptempo number penned by Michael Henderson which has been recorded by a number of other artists, including Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood, is pretty good. The romantic commitment of ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is quite a nice ballad benefitting from a sincerely delivered vocal and attractive folky harmonica-led arrangement.

Overall, this is a fairly solid album with a couple of high spots. It’s worth picking up especially at cheap used copy prices.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Judds – ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’ plus later recordings

Released in September 1990, Love Can Build A Bridge saw the duo continuing their success into the new decade. A bittersweet project, it would be the last during their hit making years and was followed by the famed farewell tour in 1991. It was also the first Judds album not to feature a #1 hit.

Lead single “Born To Be Blue” opens soft with Wynonna’s distinctive twang coupled with piano accompaniment until the track kicks into high gear on the chorus. Producer Brent Maher was smart to showcase Wynonna’s bluesy vocals as they elevate this otherwise boring song and foreshadow what was to come in her solo work.

The spiritual title track, co-written by Naomi with John Barlow Jarvis and Paul Overstreet is the highlight of the album and like “Born To Be Blue” only reached a chart peak of #5. The soft and tasteful production heightens the overall message connecting us with God.

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Album Review: Sarah Buxton – ‘Sarah Buxton’

Sarah Buxton seems to have been around for ages, but in fact this is her debut album. It has taken her label, Lyric Street, so long to get her to this point, because radio has been surprisingly resistant to her brand of bright pop-country despite her releasing some very good songs as singles. Five of the tracks here were previously digitally released as part of a digital EP Almost My Record as long ago as 2007, and these older tracks are the ones I enjoyed the most which is discouraging in regards to her future direction. Sarah’s distinctive throaty voice with a hint of gravel is very listenable, and she is a talented writer.

The best songs are perhaps the most familiar. The best known is ‘Stupid Boy’, which Keith Urban covered a few years ago. The reproach to the folly of a man and the damage he has done to his girlfriend (and to his own chances of happiness) by constraining her comes across a little differently from a woman’s voice than it did in Keith’s more forceful version. It is a well-written song (composed by Sarah with Dave Berg and Deanna Bryant) and although it doesn’t sound very country structurally it is well worth hearing:

She laid her heart and soul right in your hands
And you stole her every dream
And you crushed her plans
She never even knew she had a choice
That’s what happens
When the only voice she hears is tellin’ her she can’t
Stupid boy

Berg also helped to write (together with Jeremy Stover and Georgia Middleman) Sarah’s debut single, the sweetly nostalgic look back at lost ‘Innocence’, which is full of charm as she reminiscences about teenage romance and the girl she was. The vocals sound a little compressed, though, at times on this track.

The former single ‘Space’ is delivered a little breathy but is a fine song with a bitter edge, written by Sarah with husband-and-wife team Lari White and Chuck Cannon, about a man unwilling to commit:

Does it make you feel free
Make you feel young
How does it feel not to need anyone
You say you want space
Well, I’ll give you space

You need your own bed
You need your own room
How about an island
I bet you could find one
On the dark side of the moon

Then you won’t have to deal
With anything real
Cause I won’t be here
I’ll just disappear

This is by far my favorite track.

Australian Jedd Hughes is prominently billed singing harmony on a number of tracks here, with a full-scale duet on his own pretty love song ‘Big Blue Sky’ which closes the set and is the only song not written or co-written by Sarah. ‘Wings’, another of the songs with Jedd on harmony, is pleasant but forgettable.

I like the optimistic autobiographical opening track ‘American Daughters’ which Sarah wrote with Bob DiPiero. It strikes a nice balance between country and pop influences, with a pretty tune, although the spoken list of places borders on shouting.

The bright recent single ‘Outside My Window’ (Sarah’s biggest hit to date) is a bit too far in the pop direction for me, and the newly recorded ‘Radio Love’ (with Jedd) and ‘For Real’ are even more so, and over-produced to boot, and do not interest me at all. ‘Love Like Heaven’ (featuring Sarah on harmonica) meanwhile is warmer and more engaging although it is not the strongest of lyrics. I don’t care for the self-consciously chirpy and occasionally shouty ‘That Kind Of Day’ with its too-many squealed heys and yeahs, although Sarah sounds engagingly like Dolly when she sing-speaks, and the lyric is better than the production. This track palls quickly.

Sarah is a very talented artist with a distinctive sound who deserves to do well, even if her chosen style is not altogether to my taste. It is hard to see where her career will lead her, though, as the best tracks on this album have already been released to radio and failed to make a major impact.

Grade: B-

Sarah’s debut is available everywhere, in CD form and digitally from amazon for only $5.99.

Drive time

shaniaI’ve spent about 5 hours today in my car.  My best friend Angel and I were about an hour north of our hometown in the city of Columbus, OH doing some shopping.  So, half of the time was just ‘road time’ where we were on the same highway going directly from point A to point B.  The other half was spent hopping the parking lots and parking garages, and maneuvering our way around the busy streets of the Polaris Center in Columbus.  Those are two very different driving experiences for sure.  Open road as opposed to congested city streets.  But there was one constant for the entire trip that both Angel and I agreed on: music.  What is a road trip without music?  Hell, what’s a jaunt to the grocery store without a tune along the way?  One of the first things I like to do when I get in the car is make sure I have a CD (you know, those round plastic circle things people used to listen to music on?) in the car stereo.  

I usually opt for up-tempo stuff when I am driving.  My friend Angel, on the other hand, always prefers the weepers.  So, we went from Jo Dee Messina’s ‘Bye, Bye’ to ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ from Travis Tritt and Lari White.  Then, we might listen to Garth Brooks’ ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge’ followed by ‘Texas Tornado’, the Tracy Lawrence classic. And you can guess who picked what.  Now, when I was on the air as a DJ for WPAY, I hosted a show from 3pm to 7pm for a short time and we called it Drive Time with J.R. Journey.  The show was designed for the rush-hour crowd as they were making it home from work.  Not that I really had any say about the music I played, but it’s always been my thinking that at the end of the day – and especially in their cars – people want to hear music that kicks a little.  

But, based on some of the requests I used to get (which I wasn’t allowed to play anyway), there are a lot of people who want to hear the ballads at the end of the day.  I guess it depends on the mood I’m in too.  Some days it’s Shania Twain’s Come On Over and others it’s Trisha Yearwood’s Hearts In Armor.  It’s usually the former though.  Like I said, I like the fun, snappy, fast-paced songs when I’m driving.  Then I’ll let the ballads pour out once I get home and get my shoes off and a glass of bourbon in my hand.

So, do you agree with me and Angel; is music essential in the car?  What’s your music of choice on the road?