My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Larry Willoughby

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Keys To The Highway’

Diamonds & Dirt was always going to be a hard act to follow. The resulting album, released in 1989, is certainly more uneven than its predecessor, but there are some very fine songs here. All the material was written by Rodney, and much of it feels very personal. Rodney produced once more with boss and friend Tony Brown, and his own road band, the Dixie Pearls, provided the nucleus of the backings with guests including another old friend, Vince Gill, on backing vocals.

The first single, the folky ‘Many A Long And Lonesome Highway’ broke his streak of #1s, peaking at a still-respectable #3. It has a gentle melody and introspective lyric about a troubadour-type songwriter’s rambling life, written with Will Jennings, and is an excellent song:

I heard a wild world calling,
I saw a lone star falling
I caught a song and set it free
And many a long and lonesome highway
Lies before us as we go
And in the end I’ll do it my way
Look for me where the four winds blow

The album’s second top 10 hit came with a more contemporary sound. ‘If Looks Could Kill’ incisively depicts a troubled relationship which it is all too tempting to read as a portrait of Rodney’s crumbling marriage to Rosanne Cash, which was to culminate in divorce a couple of years later. It is notable that this record, unlike its predecessor, did not see a duet between the pair.

The insistent ‘My Past Is Present’ (written with Steuart Smith) is a bit lacking in melody but has a bluesy groove that won’t let you go as Rodney is afflicted by the presence of an ex in an “hourglass dress” with her new man. However, it was not received particularly well at radio and missed the top 20.

‘Now That We’re Alone’ did a little better, peaking at #17. The song is melodic and introspective and is another that sounds as though it could have been written about Rosanne with its offer of a sympathetic hearing when:

Too many smiling faces
Try to turn your head around
Too many times and places
When those uptown dreams
Just drag you down

Final single ‘Things I Wish I’d Said was barely played on radio, but is an outstanding song. A delicately tender reflection inspired by his father’s deathbed and their reconciliation, it is the most nakedly honest and personal song on the record, and has a beautiful melody.

The album bogs down a bit in the middle, with a trio of songs which while not bad fail to match the standard of the remainder. The funky bluesy rock of ‘We Gotta Go On Meeting Like This’ written with Larry Willoughby is quite sexy with its story of repeat encounters with a woman “they call … trash”, but there is not much of a tune. ‘The Faith Is Mine’ is an interestingly written song, but repetitive, while the insistently bluesy rock’n roll of ‘Tell Me The Truth’ is definitely too repetitive and feels self-indulgent musically.

In general, the slower songs are the most effective. The song which provides the album title ‘Don’t Let Your Feet Slow You Down’ is truly excellent, a downbeat ballad about a relationship about to come to an end, with a lovely melody as a resigned Rodney generously offers his loved one a graceful exit:

Now you feel like going and you know I’m knowing
The keys to the highway hang right on the wall
If you’ve gotta go, hell, you oughta know
Your blue eyes said goodbye a long time ago

I know you’re hearing sounds of those bright lights downtown
I know how you sparkle when I ain’t around
Your heart is young and my time has come
So don’t let your feet slow you down

‘I Guess We’ve Been Together For Too Long’ is another breakup song, but one with a relatively cheerful mood. Once more, Rodney accepts “something’s wrong” in a relationship which has simply run its course, but here he sounds more than ready to move on himself. Written with Guy Clark, it is quite catchy and might have made a successful single.

Also potentially radio friendly is the wistful and melodic mid-tempo ‘Soul Searchin’, which tells of a past lover, Jessie, and the effect on the protagonist of her enduring memory. The reflective ‘You Been On My Mind’ ends the album on a pensive note as the protagonist thinks once more about an ex he can’t forget. A pretty melody and sensitive vocal make this one another winner.

The singles’ uneven performance was matched by sales which failed to meet those of Diamonds & Dirt (the only gold album of Rodney’s career). It has been overshadowed both because it came in the wake of Diamonds & Dirt, and because his mainstream career slowed down after this, but while it may be a mixed bag, the best songs are great and worth catching up with. Used copies are available cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+