My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Larry Michael Lee

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Trouble At The Door’

There was a lot of great music in 1991, and the debut album by Virginia-born Donna Ulisse fell through the cracks. Produced by Ray Baker, Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee and released on Atlantic Records, which was dipping its toes into country music, it showcased Donna’s beautiful alto voice.

Lead single ‘Things Are Mostly Fine’ is an understated mournful ballad about not getting over an ex, which Donna sings beautifully. It is one of four songs written by John Adrian, whose other writing credits appear to be for Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock. Sadly it peaked in the 70s on the country charts. Also gorgeous is his tender steel-laced ‘Fall Apart With You’, about seeking consolation in a one night stand with some guy who a looks a little like her true love. The gentle waltz ‘My Broken Hearts Breaking All Over Again’ has lovely fiddle and an exquisite vocal. ‘Legend In My Heart’ is another ballad, a tender tribute to a real life hero who is better than fictional characters, with a beautiful melody.

The bright fiddle-led up-tempo ‘When Was The Last Time’ did a little better as the second single, with its #66 peak making it Donna’s most successful stab at radio. The Buck Moore/Frank D Myers song urges the protagonist’s husband to keep their love life fresh despite struggling through hard times. It is a really nice song which deserved to be a hit.

The title track failed to chart. Written by husband and wife team Kerry and Lynn Gillespie Chater, it is an emotionally intense but subtly sung story about a wife who answers the door to her husband’s secret lover:

She says she knows you
And she’s got the right address
She’s talkin’ crazy
So I didn’t catch the rest
She wouldn’t tell me
Just what her name is
There’s one thing for sure
Boy, you’ve got trouble at the door

I tried to tell her
That you’ve been out of town
She seems to know that
But she still won’t calm down
I even mentioned that it was business
She tells me it was more
Boy, you’ve got trouble at the door

Tell me she’s crazy
Tell me she’s wrong
Say that she’s mistaken
Say that you were strong
Tell me she’s lyin’
Then tell me one thing more
Tell me that’s not trouble at the door

This is a great song which should have been a career making record.

Bob McDill and Jim Weatherly contributed ‘Fire In An Old Flame’s Eyes’, a fine ballad about yearning for an ex, with regret for the path not taken replaced by a rekindling of that early passion. ‘Guess Who’s Back In Town’, written by Ernie Rowell and Dave Lindsey, is an up-tempo tune bewailing an on-and-off relationship. ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’ is a determinedly positive song about moving on after a breakup.

‘You Always Take Her Memory Out On Me’, written by R C Bannon, is another excellent emotional ballad, about dealing with the overpowering shadow of her partner’s ex:

I’m not the one who lied to you
Made you fall apart
I didn’t find someone else
And leave you in the dark
I’ve tried my best to heal the wounds and ease your misery
Then you turn around and take her memory out on me

How long before you let go of who let go of you?
How can you be blind to all her faults,
Then find fault in everything I do?

This album should have made Donna a star. Perhaps being on Atlantic was the problem, and a label with greater influence would have helped. Donna retired into obscurity, only emerging years later as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I like her current work, but this is still my favorite of her albums. It does not appear to be available on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be found cheaply. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Cheap Seats’

cheap seatsI guess the end of the road comes for everybody and in this case the end of the road is actually the end of the #1 singles for Alabama, with “Reckless” being the band’s final Billboard #1 and “Cheap Seats” being the first single in fourteen years to miss the top ten.

Cheap Seats was produced by Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, and was released in October 1993, with three singles released from the album (“Reckless”, “T.L.C. A.S.A.P.” and “The Cheap Seats”). The album was the second consecutive album to miss the top ten on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, reaching only #16, their worst showing to-date on RCA. Although the next four albums would chart better, even reaching the top ten in two instances, it was becoming clear that Alabama was no longer a dominant force in country music.

Despite this, I really like this album, as some of the songs personally resonate with me.

The album opens with the Rick Bowles-Josh Leo composition “Still Goin’ Strong”, a moderate rocker, that features Jim Horn on tenor sax.

Next up is “T.L.C.A.S.A.P” a song penned by the Baker-Myers duo. This song only reached #7 but likely would have been a number one a few years earlier.

Well, we work real hard six days a week,
Honey, this is somethin’ we both need…

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
A little TLC ASAP.

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
I need TLC ASAP.

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

“Katy Brought My Guitar Back Today” is a tender slow ballad that had little potential for use as a single. Ditto for the Mark Alan Springer ballad “On This Side of The Moon”.

The title track “The Cheap Seats” is the outstanding track on the album, even though it only reached #13. The song, a perfectly crafted uptempo ‘slice of life’ by Randy Sharp and Marcus Hummon tells it like it is in many small towns. Believe me, I’ve lived this story many times growing up:

This town ain’t big, this town ain’t small
It’s a little of both they say
Our ball club may be minor league, but at least it’s triple A
We sit below the Marlboro man, above the right field wall
We do the wave all by ourself
Hey ump, a blind man could’ve made that call
We like beer flat as can be
We like our dogs with mustard and relish
We got a great pitcher what’s his name
Well we can’t even spell it
We don’t worry about the pennant much
We just like to see the boys hit it deep
There’s nothing like the view from the cheap seats

“Cheap Seats” was the only song from this album that was made into a video.

“Reckless”, written by Jeff Stevens and Michael Clark, was actually the first single released from this album and would prove to be Alabama’s last #1 single. The song, a mid-tempo rocker, is a typical ode to restless youth:

Let’s take my Thunderbird and leave tonight,
I’ll keep the pedal to the floor till we see the morning light.
They can’t live our lives for us,
If we let them we’ll lose our love.
And love dies hard in this Texas sun,
I’d rather be reckless and on the run

Let’s roll the windows down, turn the radio up
Let the wind blow through our hair
There’s a moon tonight and a road outside, baby
We’re gettin out of here.
I could care less where it leads us
Love is reckless, let’s get reckless tonight

Teddy Gentry, Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler collaborated on “That Feeling”, a lovely ballad that would have made a good single. I consider this song to be the unearthed gem of this album:

I’ve made some decisions
Never not the best
Against my better judgment
I must confess
I went astray so many ways
So my dreams fall apart
And came a day I’m glad to say
I followed my heart

That feeling the one I’m feeling now
Oh that feeling that turned me all around
That feeling oh what love can do
That feeling that never let’s me down
Oh that feeling that always come around
I never need another
It’s gonna last my whole life through
That feeling I’m feeling for you

Jeff Cook had a hand in writing “This Love’s On Me” a kind of generic up-tempo rocker that, this time featuring Jim Nelson on tenor sax. Jeff Cook handles the lead vocals on this track.

“Clear Water Blues” , another Gentry- Rogers-Fowler collaboration, was not on the cassette version of this album, but was on the CD version as a ‘bonus’ track. The song is a gentle jazzy ballad which features harmonica, banjo, organ and trumpet as integral parts of the arrangement. Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals on this song and does an excellent job of it.

“A Better Word For Love” is another track not found on the original cassette release, but available as a CD ‘bonus track’. The song was written by Andy Anderson (of NRBQ) and Gary Nicholson and is yet another gentle ballad. NRBQ would record the song on one of their albums.

The final song, Becky Hobbs’ excellent “Angels Among Us” has an interesting history. Unlike the rest of the album, this track was produced by Teddy Gentry. Not only did Becky Hobbs include the song on her excellent 1994 album The Boots I Came to Town In, but the Alabama album track received considerable attention at county radio and twice entered the country charts from unsolicited airplay: reaching # 54 in 1994, and later clocking in at # 28 in January 1995. The sonmg charted again for Alabama at #22 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart in January 1996. Maybe Alabama should have issued the song as an official single! The choir on this song was provided by the Sanctuary Choir & Young Musicians Choir of First Baptist Church, Fort Payne, Alabama.

I was walkin’home from school
On a cold winter day,
Took a short cut through the woods
And I lost my way.
It was gettin’ late, and I was scared and alone.
Then a kind old man took my hand, and led me home.
Mama couldn’t see him,
But he was standing there,
And I knew in my heart
He was the answer to my prayer.

[Chorus]
Oh, I believe there are Angels Among Us,
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love.

This wasn’t Alabama’s best album but a strong album worth a B+. I liked all three released singles, and while “Angels Among Us” wasn’t released as a single, I have several friends who consider the song to be their favorite Alabama song. Since the album tracks were all at least passable, and most very good, no one should be disappointed with this album.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘American Pride’

00024235Alabama’s fourteenth album for RCA, American Pride, was their third produced in conjunction with Larry Michael Lee and Josh Leo. The album, released in August 1992, spawned four singles.

Slick rocker “Take A Little Trip” previewed the record and hit #2. A tale about a couple with ambitious dreams planning a staycation, the song employed heavy drums and guitars and allowed for a gravely lead vocal from Randy Owen. Final single “Hometown Honeymoon,” which peaked at #3, continued in this theme. While the latter features a fiddle-laced production I love, neither song is lyrically memorable and all but forgotten today.

The hometown theme spreads to “Homesick Fever,” which is a love-where-you’re-from mid-tempo southern rocker that’s good but nowhere near great. A more generic focus on Americana is found on the title track, the album’s most personal song thanks to Owen’s sole writing credit. He keeps the details generic, but the ballad has heart.

While listening to American Pride for review I was surprised to learn “Richard Petty Fans” was a tender ballad and not the rocker the title suggests. It certainly works, but the results feel like a typical Alabama piano ballad but with a tight focus.

The dreadful “You Can’t Take The Country out of me” has the vibe of “Pass It On Down” mixed with a lyric that mirrors “Down Home.” From the token banjo that opens the track to the southern gothic rock atmosphere, I genuinely dislike everything about this song.

The second single, and the only chart topper from American Pride, is arguably their most iconic radio offering from the 1990s. “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is brilliant commercial contemporary country music – an engaging melody (featuring drums and guitars with ample breathing space) mixed with a memorable chorus and distinct harmonies. It’s also a great song, built from a premise seemingly without promise.

For the requisite ballad single, the band offered “Once Upon A Lifetime.” The #3 peaking song tries to update their watered down slow jams from the previous decade but fails to give the listener anything interesting or exciting. I give them points for attempting to give radio a sincere love song but they shouldn’t have so blatantly mailed in their efforts.

The ballads only get worse from there. Jeff Cook co-wrote and takes the lead on “Pictures and Memories,” a track that feels like a left over from the early 1980s. I would’ve enjoyed it more had the overall vibe leaned country in even a slightly noticeable way. “Sometimes out of Touch,” which features Teddy Gentry on lead vocal, also has a dated sound. But the piano flourishes and Gentry’s interesting vocal tone keep the track from joining the others at the bottom of the remainder bin.

“Between The Two of Them” appears on American Pride in its original form. A deep album cut for the band, it would be a single from Tanya Tucker in 1994. There’s no arguing that she has the better version. Alabama’s take on the ballad is far too slow and lacks any country signifiers to make it interesting.

I had been gunning to review American Pride since I love “I’m In A Hurry” and “Hometown Honeymoon” so much. It’s also one of the first Alabama albums I purchased when I began listening to country music about twenty years ago.

But neither of those things excuses the fact that American Pride is nothing more than a bizarre album. Listening thru, it’s obvious this is nothing more than a commercial album frontloaded with the four offerings suitable for radio while the remaining seven tracks have little to no value for the listener. In most respects, it’s hard to even categorize American Pride as a country album at all.

Grade: C+

 

 

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Southern Star’

41OBKFV1XkLAlabama arrived on the national stage in 1980 at a time when country music was dominated by crossover acts. By mid-decade, however, the pendulum had swung wildly in the opposite direction and by the end of the decade, many veteran acts had been swept off the charts altogether. Those that survived the tide change were forced to adopt a more traditional sound in order to remain relevant. 1989’s Southern Star was Alabama’s back-to-basics album — sort of. While it was less slickly-produced than most of their earlier albums, a traditional album it is not. The radio singles were carefully crafted to appeal to the change in commercial tastes, but on the album cuts the band continued to explore different styles, including Southern rock and pop.

Southern Star found the band working with a new production team. Gone was Harold Shedd, who had co-produced all of their albums for RCA, and in his place were Barry Beckett; Larry Michael Lee, and Josh Leo. The album continued Alabama’s winning streak on the singles charts, with all four of its singles reaching #1, starting with “Song of the South”, a catchy Bob McDill number that had been recorded several times previously — originally by Bobby Bare, and later by Johnny Russell and Tom T. Hall with Earl Scruggs. Ballads were always a strong point for the band and the excellent “If I Had You”, the album’s second chart-topper was no exception. The uptempo “High Cotton” takes a look back through rose-colored glasses at growing up during the Great Depression, and “Southern Star” gives Alabama an opportunity to showcase their tight harmonies.

The rest of the songs on Southern Star could have appeared on any of Alabama’s previous albums. Though the production is more organic, the songs occasionally stray into different musical territory. “Down On The River” is pleasant if not particularly memorable Southern rock song. “She Can” is pop-flavored number that is somewhat marred by a synthesizer, “Dixie Fire”, featuring Jeff Cook on lead vocals, is similarly dated sounding. “Barefootin'” (another Cook-led effort) is a throwaway number with annoying horns.

The Randy Owen-penned “Ole Baugh Road” is one of the better album cuts. The Spanish-tinged “The Borderline”, with Teddy Gentry singing lead with guest Charlie Daniels, is the album’s biggest creative stretch.

Though not without its missteps, Southern Star proved that Alabama was able to adapt to changing commercial tastes and remain relevant after nearly a decade on charts. It was a great way to close out the decade and the album is still worth listening to today.

Grade: B+