My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: LeAnn Rimes

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Christmas Rewind: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Holiday In Your Heart’

Single Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Crazy Women’

Are you watching, Tanya Tucker?  LeAnn Rimes is following your lead.  The teen-country singing sensation turned Hollywood rock-and-roll bad girl isn’t really a new concept to country music, but LeAnn Rimes sure seems to be hitting all those same old Tanya moves these days.  And the best part is that, just like Tanya, LeAnn is wearing her image on her sleeve and even taunting the oval-mouths with her music.  Recent years have found her singing about dancing and drinking in the Mississippi backwoods with two young fellas, and then just as her own marriage crumbled, she issued a new single, a cover of John Anderson’s saucy 80s hit ‘Swingin’, a stalled attempt at leading off the jovially titled covers album Lady and Gentlemen.  All this seemed to beg for more tabloid headlines.

True, the tabloids are giving LeAnn much love these days, but so are the network TV shows – she’s still a featured performer on nearly every major awards show – and she continues to chart higher with both the Hot 100 and U.S. Dance chart, even though her music is clearly tailored for country radio.  The only place she can’t get anybody’s attention these days is with country radio programmers.  Why hasn’t anybody noticed that she’s clearly making some of the best music of any of her peers?  That she’s fully transitioned from child star to a woman with something to say about life, at least her own.

Enter: ‘Crazy Women’, a tale of woman scorned, a new song to accompany the bevy of songs originally recorded by country giants she’s tackling.  A plucking banjo helps the singer tell the story of a woman come to hunt down and drag home her wandering man, and the song even comes complete with a pair of head-turning bookend lines.  It’s a bit too edgy, and yes, even too straightforward country – and therefore might offend, to have much chance at being her next big country hit.  The rest of the production recalls the best of the Dixie Chicks hybrid of bluegrass and country, but does falter a bit at the end when the music and harmonies begin to compete for attention with Rimes’ strong competent singing.  LeAnn Rimes seems to be here to stay, and hell-bent on doing things her way.  Country radio may not pay attention just yet, but I bet Tanya is.

Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

Grade: B+

Listen here.

Too much too soon?

Arguably, the biggest star in country music today, at least in sheer commercial terms, is Taylor Swift. She controversially swept the board at last year’s CMA award ceremony, but has been overlooked in most categories this year. Her undeniable appeal to young girls has led to suggestions that as her fans grow up, they will outgrow Taylor, and that her current stratospheric career may not be sustained at the same level, while others have suggested that she may mature as a songwriter and actually expand her fan base. Fans laud her songwriting (even when they admit her vocal shortcomings), particularly given her youth, implying she will improve further as she gets older. Sales figures for her upcoming third album are likely to be scrutinised closely. A look back at other teenage country stars is not encouraging.

The most famous teenage country stars of the past are LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, both of whom became stars at the age of 13, but neither of them had an easy road to maintaining that success. Tanya’s teenage stardom fizzled out after she moved to a sexier image and pop material, and endured a few years in the wilderness before making her comeback in the mid 80s. The jury is still out on LeAnn; her initial hit with ‘Blue’ was very much in the vein of Patsy Cline, for whom the song had originally been intended, but since then she has seemed uncertain of her identity as an artist. One cannot help wondering if that was because her initial career path was influenced by her parents. Like Tanya, she chased the pop crossover market, with more success, but the pop world is a fickle one, and in 2005, she was back in country music with some accomplished pop-country. Her emotional comeback hit ‘Probably Wouldn’t Be This way’ was a very fine record, but overall I didn’t feel she had really developed as an artist as much as I would have hoped considering how phenomenal she was as a child. She was not able to sustain this second blast, and the recent unfavourable publicity relating to her private life is unlikely to help. Her upcoming covers album may be produced by Vince Gill, but what we’ve heard from it so far does not inspire. Unlike Taylor Swift, however, LeAnn and Tanya were not marketed to their peers, and neither wrote songs as teenagers. Rather, both were presented as girls with voices mature beyond their years, and Tanya in particular recorded very adult material right from the start.

Following the initial success of LeAnn Rimes, the late 90s saw other labels jumping on the bandwagon and signing big-voiced teenagers. The 15-year-old Lila McCann scored the biggest selling debut album of 1997 and a #3 hit in ‘I Wanna Fall In Love’. Hers was another flash in the pan, as she only had one more top 10 hit. Her bright pop-country records have not worn particularly well, and an attempt at a comeback as an adult in the mid 2000s met with general indifference. The very similar Jessica Andrews had an almost identical career trajectory: her first hit at 15, in 1999, a solitary #1 the following year, with radio interest subsequently diminishing, and a comeback attempt which soon fizzled out. These girls were initial beneficiaries and longterm casualties of the Nashville tendency to copy the latest trend. Both had good voices, but not very distinctive ones, and their youth made their vocal ability and longterm potential seem more impressive than perhaps it really was.

What impresses in a teenager does not necessarily translate into exceptional adult ability. Further, many of these young artists have not really developed a strong sense of themselves as an artist, tending to adopt the latest trend. The roots of their artistry often seem to run rather shallow, and there is usually (and inevitably) a lack of maturity. Wynonna was only a teenager when The Judds burst onto the scene, but it seems clear that although Wynonna’s voice provided the essence of their music, their musical direction was largely directed by Naomi. Looking at some of Wynonna’s later solo music, one wonders if left to her own devices, she would have picked country music as the market place for her undeniable talent.

Many young artists are signed to development deals which do not pan out, leaving them high and dry a year or two down the line. Examples of promising young artists chewed up by the system include Ashley Monroe, whose excellent Satisfied finally won a digital-only release last year after years on the shelf; she has now signed to the LA branch of Warner Brothers. Her friend the Australian Catherine Britt never saw her superb RCA album released in the US at all. Both girls were lucky to some degree in that their singles had made some critical waves, and they have been able to continue musical careers, even if mainstream country stardom has so far escaped them. A worse fate lies in wait for the many who sign to a major label, but never seem to release a thing. I remember some years back, there was some buzz surrounding a then-14 year old named Alexis who was signed to Warner Brothers and was supposedly very talented. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because no records were ever released, and she was eventually dropped by the label. Might artists like this (particularly one who should still be in school) be better served if they waited to sign a record deal until they were ready to make a record? Not everyone who wants to become a star is going to succeed, and the excitement of apparently achieving that dream must surely derail thoughts of a backup plan.

Another of today’s superstars, Carrie Underwood, tried and failed to get a deal in Nashville as a 15-year-old, and in the long run that failure probably did her a favour, giving her a free run when she auditioned for American Idol. Fellow Idol alumna Kristy Lee Cook, who did sign to Arista at 17, saw no discernible benefit from this, only to have her second deal with the same label (post-Idol) fizzle out after a rush-released album and some rather half-hearted promotion.

But could this be such an artist’s only chance anyway? Billy Gilman’s career was one which could not wait on maturity because it was based on his unbroken child’s treble. A modest success as a 12-year-old has not translated into a career as an adult. Taylor Swift’s longterm career trajectory is as yet unclear, but so far her success has been built on her appeal to girls her own age and younger; delaying the onset of her career might have helped her hone her often derided performance skills, but she would have lost that USP – the insight into the emotional lives of high school age girls.

One of the artists we are spotlighting this month, Ashton Shepherd was signed to MCA at 20 with a songbook of material she had composed in her teens. In her case, her youth was balanced by the life experience which came with early marriage and motherhood. She was lucky in that her debut album was released within a year, with label boss Luke Lewis saying then that they had not delayed, in order to capture her raw talent before she got sucked into the system. However, that meant that while the album she released showed a great deal of promise, it was also evident that there was room for improvement.

It is mainly females who seem to be victims of this trend, with male singers rarely being spotted before they hit their 20s. One exception is Blaine Larsen, who emerged at just 18 with a mature voice and material which spanned the age appropriate (‘My High School’, and the teen suicide-themed ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’) and songs clearly designed for someone rather older (‘Teaching Me How To Love You’), which however well sung were not entirely convincingly from such a young man. He didn’t really click with radio and is currently going the indie route, with a new album expected this year. It is unclear whether he will have the chance of a comeback, or if his big chance as a teenager was his one and only chance at making it big.

Instrumental musical prodigies run counter to this to a degree. Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Marty Stuart were all playing bluegrass professionally as teenagers, but only became country stars in their own rights years later. Alison Krauss was recording in her teens but although she sang on her records, she was promoted mainly as a fiddle prodigy. Indeed, those early vocal efforts barely hint at the unique vocal talents she developed as an adult.

Sometime your first shot at success is the only chance you’ll ever get. The public’s first impression may well endure, and an artist whose juvenilia becomes the best-selling work of their career, may never achieve what might have been.

Do you think a young singer should take the first shot at realizing their dreams, or wait until they have honed their craft?

Single Review: Ashley Gearing – ‘What You Think About Us’

It’s a little-known fact, but Ashley Gearing has already made history on the Country Singles chart. In 2003, a 12 year-old Gearing signed a deal with Lyric Street Records and released her first single, ‘Can You Hear Me When I Talk To You?’ to country radio. It made a little ripple and peaked at #36, but that was enough to break a 46-year record formerly held by Brenda Lee. A follow-up single failed to chart, and she was soon without a record label. But then an indepenently released album helped secure a contract with Curb Records in 2007. In true Curb Records fashion, after the first single failed to gain traction in 2008, the label waited 2 years to release a follow-up. And that’s a real shame because they’ve really got something in Ashley Gearing, now a gorgeous 19 year-old with a set of pipes to rival the best of the superstar belters.

Ashley Gearing’s big voice is reminiscent of another blonde signed to Curb in the 90s. While Gearing’s vocal prescence can rival that of LeAnn Rimes, she’s not hitting the airwaves with a knockout punch like Rimes had in ‘Blue’. What she does come to the table with is an engaging performance of an infectious song. Co-written by the singer with Brian Davis and Ben Glover, ‘What You Think About Us’ is a pleasant slice of pop-country. Producer Byron Gallimore isn’t shy about adding layers of production, but when they come in at all directions in the chorus – from the wailing guitars to the cooing backing vocals – that big, emotive voice comes through and remains the centerpiece. And with all she’s given to overcome, that’s quite the accomplishment.

The song’s basic premise is of the lady asking her guy to dig a little deeper with his revelations about himself. So far, she knows he doesn’t like going work on Mondays; but he does like driving fast, playing the radio loud and watching the Red Sox on TiVo. The second verse reveals that she has at least learned enought to know he’s a decent, down-to-earth guy with real ambitions. So, she’s got a good thing here, and wants to know just how he feels about their budding relationship.

Overall, ‘What You Think About Us’ is a decent song, not great, but proves Ashley Gearing to be an excellent singer, who, with the right material could really go places.  With a sound like this, coupled with that voice, she’s bound to have a hit, thereby increasing her chances of getting A-material.  I’m truly hopeful and excited for what the future holds for Ashley, and certainly want to hear more music from her.

Grade: B

Buy the song at amazon.

The truth behind the music

A few pieces of news struck me last week. Apparently the new biography of Buck Owens paints him as a sometime-unscrupulous businessman, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ comments on former band member Kristen Hall’s contributions to the band make her sound more than a little arrogant. A little earlier in the week, John Berry admitted to having been “a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label”. Much as I would like to believe all my favorite artists are nice people, I fear he is unlikely to have been unique.

So that conjunction led me to think about how our perception of an artist’s personality affects our appreciation of their music. My gut reaction was that art is not an aspect of morality, but thinking about it more seriously -and honestly – it is a more complex issue. For me, it depends in part on how much I liked the music to start with.

Both George Jones and Keith Whitley were destructive alcoholics who must have been very difficult to live with in real life. Knowing that does not affect my love of their often sublime music at all. George in particular actually used his alcoholism to create great music many times, in classic songs like ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, right up to ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’. After he sobered up he even felt able to refer back jokingly to that period in songs like ‘No Show Jones’ and the video for ‘Honky Tonk Song’.

In contrast, I’ve never been able to think kindly of Troy Gentry since the tame bear-killing incident. But I was never a big fan of Montgomery Gentry to start with – I quite liked some of their singles but they never made it to my purchase list. Their chart success does not seem to have been much affected by the controversy – unlike the reaction of some Dixie Chicks fans to their political storm.

It has been suggested that Sara Evans’ messy divorce contributed to her slowing career in the last few years, and the breakdown of LeAnn Rimes’ marriage, and that of her new boyfriend, has attracted a lot of online opprobrium. Only a minority of country stars seem to find divorce hurts them professionally; perhaps it depends on the level of publicity, and who is perceived to be at fault, or perhaps it depends partly on their fans’ level of investment in their public persona?

Country music is so often rooted in real experience that sympathising with an artist’s real-life tribulations often feeds into our appreciation of their music – think of Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical songs about living with a philandering husband and Tammy Wynette’s many tales of marital breakdown which mirrored her own chequered marital career. There is an added frisson listening to Vern Gosdin’s deeply sad Alone album knowing it was largely inspired by the collapse of his marriage. Hearing that an artist wrote a particular love song for his or her spouse (for instance, when Trace Adkins wrote ‘The Rest Of Mine’ for his wedding) often makes it strike home with a little more emotional force. But then if the relationship fails, does the song stand on its own? I confess personally to finding Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ less resonant as a love song after he left his first wife (for whom it had been written) – but my own reaction is also colored by that song’s conection for me with a failed relationship of my own. Many years later, I can appreciate the song’s beauty again in its own right.

In parallel with these thougts about whether an artist’s bad behavior affects how their music is perceived, I have noticed that many younger fans appear to believe that their special favorite should be immune from criticism because of that artist’s sterling character. Personally, I think being either a nice person or a total jerk does not affect musical ability – although either may conceivably limit someone’s ability to convey a full range of emotions in a song. But what we know about the background does often affect us, sometimes subliminally.

What do you think? Have you ever soured on an artist because of their offstage actions?

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?

Classic Rewind: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Big Deal’

Giveaway: Patsy Cline Prize Package

UPDATE:  The winner is … Lanibug.  Congratulations and we’ll be in contact with you shortly.  Everybody else, thanks for commenting and keep coming back to check out the Gary Allan giveaway we’ll be starting shortly.  Thanks again for reading My Kind of Country.

Patsy Cline has been one of the most influential female vocalists in the history of country music.  The fact that her recording career lasted less than a decade is a testament to her pure talent.  That her recordings have stood the test of time and are still beloved some 50 years later is an even greater accomplishment.  So when we began discussing legendary artists for our Spotlight Artist series, Patsy’s was one of the first names that came to mind.  We’ve been working hard this month to get you acquainted with her catalog if you weren’t already, or just reminisce with you readers who already love these songs.

Be sure to check out all the Classic Rewinds that we’ve put up of Patsy’s limited television appearances.  And to get you started with your Patsy Cline collection – or maybe just add to it – we’re giving away a Patsy Cline prize package.   One reader will win:

Patsy Cline Gold 2 CD set

Sweet Dreams movie starring Jessica Lange on DVD

Certainly Patsy’s influence on artists from Loretta Lynn to Reba McEntire to LeAnn Rimes and everywhere in between can be heard in their own recordings.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg to Cline’s far-reaching and lasting impact on the genre of country music.

To enter, tell us who your favorite singer who’s been obviously influenced by Patsy Cline is, and why. Commenting will close January 31, 2010 at 11:59 PM.  Good luck!

Grammy Rewind: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Blue’

Bill Mack wrote this song back in the early 1960s for this month’s Spotlight Artist Patsy Cline, but her tragic early death meant she never recorded it. Over 30 years later it was revived to become the debut single and career record for a 13 year old named LeAnn Rimes. The song itself won the Grammy for Country Song of the Year in 1997, and LeAnn’s performance won her Best Female Country Vocal Performance and the cross-genre Best New Artist title. Here she is singing ‘Blue’ on her Opry debut:

Spotlight Artist: Patsy Cline (September 8, 1932 – March 5, 1963) – Part 3

After a successful run in Las Vegas, Patsy Cline returned to Nashville and Owen Bradley’s recording studio for what would be her last sessions. In February 1963 she recorded twelve new tracks, including a cover of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” and the Bob Wills classic “Faded Love”. She was unusually emotional and wept throughout the session; the emotion can be heard on both of these tracks. Bradley assumed that she’d had an argument with her husband, and when Charlie stopped by to see how things were going, he was quickly ushered out of the studio before Patsy saw him, so as not to break the mood.

“Leavin’ On Your Mind” had been released about a month before Patsy’s final recording sessions, in January 1963. It was the last single released during her lifetime. It reached #8 on the country chart, but unlike most of her previous hits, it was not a crossover success, stalling at #83 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Patsy Cline died on March 5, 1963 when the Piper Comanche aircraft carrying her back to Nashville from a charity concert in Kansas City, Missouri crashed amidst deteriorating weather conditions near Camden, Tennessee. Also on board were Grand Ole Opry stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Patsy’s manager Randy Hughes, who had piloted the plane. There were no survivors. Patsy was interred near her home in Virginia, at the Shenandoah Memorial Park.

Decca continued to release Patsy’s singles and albums in the years following her death. “Sweet Dreams”, her first posthumous release, was a #5 country hit, and despite having been recorded previously by both Faron Young and Don Gibson, it is Patsy’s interpretation that is considered the definitive version. The follow-up single “Faded Love” reached #7 on the charts and was her last solo Top 10 hit. After that, her singles charted lower, if they charted at all. She returned to the Top 5 one final time in 1981, when RCA Records released an electronic duet of Patsy and Jim Reeves singing “Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)”.

In 1967, Decca released Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, which eventually sold more than 10 million copies. It held the record as the best-selling country album of all-time by a female artist, until the 1990s when it was overtaken by Shania Twain’s The Woman In Me. In 1973, Patsy became the first female solo artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her name began to fade from the public consciousness, but was brought back to the forefront in 1980 when she was portrayed on the silver screen by actress Beverly D’Angelo in the Loretta Lynn bio-film Coal Miner’s Daughter. Five years later, Hollywood told its version of the Patsy Cline story in the film Sweet Dreams, starring Jessica Lange and Ed Harris.

Although her recording career lasted a mere eight years, Patsy Cline cast a long shadow over the country music landscape. Virtually every female country vocalist who has emerged since her death has named Patsy as an influence. Her songs have been covered by such artists as Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, LeAnn Rimes and Sara Evans. Her Greatest Hits still holds the record for the longest run on the Billboard Country Albums chart for an album by a female artist, and she remains a best-selling artist for MCA, the successor company to Decca Records. We hope that you’ll enjoy our coverage as we look back at Patsy’s life and career throughout the month of January.

Week ending 11/21/09: #1 albums this week in country music history

1984: Willie Nelson – City of New Orleans (Sony)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: Mary Chapin Carpenter – Stones In The Road (Columbia)

1999: LeAnn Rimes – LeAnn Rimes (Curb)

2004: George Strait – 50 Number Ones (MCA)

2009: Carrie Underwood- Play On (19/Arista)

Week ending 11/14/09: #1 albums this week in country music history

leann rimes1984: Willie Nelson – City of New Orleans (Sony)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: Mary Chapin Carpenter – Stones In The Road (Columbia)

1999: LeAnn Rimes – LeAnn Rimes (Curb)

2004: George Strait – 50 Number Ones (MCA)

2009: Taylor Swift – Fearless (Big Machine)

Classic Rewind: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Blue’

From the 1996 CMA Awards:

Discussion: Crossover roots?

Taylor SwiftLast week, this article about Taylor Swift’s crossover success got me to thinking about not only Swift, but other country stars who have met with major success in pop and adult contemporary markets.  It’s a mixed bag among the genre’s most steadfast supporters, while we welcome all the new listeners and fans to the format, somehow it would just be sweeter if they’d been wooed over by more traditional sounds.  Which begs the question, ‘Are these fans of middle-of-the-road-country really going to be interested in the roots of the genre’?  And if they’re not, how does bringing pop fans over with what are essentially pop songs broadening country music’s fan base?

Quote from DJ:  J.D. Greene, KISS, FM – Pop/Rock Station
“I think when it’s all said and done, Taylor will always be a country artist, … I don’t think she makes music saying, ‘This can go to the Top 40.’ I think she’ll still make her country songs, and they’ll find a way to get it onto the Top 40.”
… the same could be said for Shania Twain, who made country music, even though aimed at crossover success was rooted enough in the genre that it was justified in calling itself country and also presented the assumption that Twain would turn with the tides if the genre went back to a traditional sound again, like the sweep in the late 80s …
… tie that into this article – http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/ae/music/s_645776.html – and a discussion about artists who started traditional, went crossover, and came back (Lee Ann Womack), those who’ve yet to come back (Shania, etc.) and how crossover success affects Nashville’s view of a singer.
Turn all this into a discussion about what the readers think about Swift’s roots in country music, and those in general whose music is decidedly aimed at being crossover, with a sort of country influence.
– Perhaps best summarized by the pop-country and country-pop tags.  Country-pop is the sort of country made by Garth Brooks, Reba, and even Brooks & Dunn and George Strait, whose music is pretty much rooted in the traditional but has strayed far from it at times, but kept its identity as nothing but country, while other artists like Shania, LeAnn Rimes, Swift, etc. have based their music on pop and added enough country elements to earn the pop-country, keeping just enough of its core sound to be known by the surname of the genre.

I’m not one to question the motives of anyone, especially someone who seems as genuinely honest and endearing as Taylor Swift, but I have to wonder about her roots and her plans for the future now that she’s a bona fide pop star.  Will she continue to release songs to country radio and pop radio simultaneously?  LeAnn Rimes tried that with spotty success.  Or will she decide the country market isn’t for her and forge ahead a pop princess?

J.D. Greene, of Minneapolis’s KEEY-FM, which programs country, and formerly a DJ for a pop/rock station thinks Swift’s heart and roots belong to country, saying, “I think when it’s all said and done, Taylor will always be a country artist, … I don’t think she makes music saying, ‘This can go to the Top 40.’ I think she’ll still make her country songs, and they’ll find a way to get it onto the Top 40.”

The same could be said for artists like Shania Twain, who made country music, even though aimed at crossover success, was rooted enough in the genre that it was justified in calling itself country and also presented the assumption that Twain would turn with the tides if the genre went back to a traditional sound again, like the New Traditionalist sweep in the 1980s.  Hey, we can all dream, can’t we?

Other artist have started their careers with very traditional records and then reached for crossover success.  Lee Ann Womack and Sara Evans fit that bill, and to a lesser degree Rimes, but her pop aspirations were pretty clear early on.  Womack has since come back to the fold.  Her most recent two albums have been an ode back to the classic country sound.  There’s also those who’ve yet to come back – (Twain, Evans, etc.)  Though in fairness, Shania could still come back with a very rootsy record and surprise us all.

So what do you think about country artists aiming at or achieving crossover success? Should it be an accident – a testament to the power of the music’s universal appeal that non-country audiences are interested?  Or should singers actively pursue airplay on outlets outside the country genre?

My thoughts on crossover are perhaps best summarized by the pop-country and country-pop tags.  Mind you, these are only my personal definitions for the terms, and I encourage you to draw your own by listening to these and similar artists.  Country-pop is the sort of country made by Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, and even Brooks & Dunn and George Strait, whose music is pretty much rooted in the traditional but has strayed far from it at times, but kept its identity as nothing but country.  While other artists like Shania, Sugarland, Swift, etc. have based their music on pop and added a few country elements such a barely audible banjo in the chorus or a steel guitar buried in the mix, to earn the pop-country tag, keeping just enough of its core sound to be known by the surname of the genre.

Right now, pop-country seems to be the hot ticket, with Swift as its leader in sales, airplay success, and on the road, so it’s only natural that so many are jumping on the bandwagon.  But will these artists stay with country music for the long haul?

Jeremy Mulder, another country radio DJ – at Pittsburgh’s Froggy 104.3-FM – reiterates “Swift is absolutely a country star and has not tried to be a pop star. She might not have the twang of classic country, but she has boots, a cool dress, a guitar and a story to tell.

“Country music is known for telling a story,” Mulder says. “She’s definitely not singing about her bling bling. … She wrote songs about her life on her guitar, and people relate to her. And that’s country.”

Do you agree with J.D. and Jeremy? Do you think artists like Taylor Swift, Sugarland, and those in general whose music is decidedly aimed at being crossover, with a sort of country influence, have their roots in country music?

Will they return to country as their permanent home or will they reach for the heights of a crossover career?

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Livin’ It Up’

livinitupGeorge Strait’s winning streak, which began in the 1980s, showed no signs of abating as the 1990s began. The Country Music Association named him Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row in 1990, and that same year he released what went on to be the biggest hit single of his career. “Love Without End, Amen”, the lead single from his 1990 album Livin’ It Up, became his 19th #1 hit overall, and the first multi-week #1 of his career, spending five weeks in the top slot in June and July. This feat is particularly impressive considering that at the time Strait was an artist about to enter his second decade on the charts. At a stage in his career when most artists begin to experience a commercial decline, Strait’s commercial fortunes were continuing to expand.

Written by Aaron Barker (who also wrote Strait’s earlier hit “Baby Blue”), “Love Without End, Amen” examines the relationship and unconditional love between a father and a son. In the first verse, the protagonist is a child afraid to face his father after getting into a fight at school. In the second verse, he finds himself in the role of father, when his own son finds himself in similar circumstances. In the third verse, the singer dreams that he has died and is ready to face his maker on Judgment Day. Between each verse is the chorus that delivers a simple yet profound message:

Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love
A secret that my daddy said was just between us
You see, daddies don’t just love their children every now and then,
It’s a love without end, amen.

Livin’ It Up was released in May 1990, while the lead single was still climbing the charts. It became Strait’s ninth consecutive #1 album. The cover art shows a confident Strait, in a tuxedo and jeans, and proudly displaying a belt buckle that acknowledged his status as the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year. His Ace in the Hole band joined him on two tracks — the Harlan Howard-penned “Someone Had To Teach You”, which opens the album, and “She Loves Me (She Don’t Love You)”, which was written and originally recorded by Conway Twitty. Eight years later, it would also be covered by Gary Allan. Strait was also joined once again by steel guitarist Paul Franklin and the legendary Johnny Gimble, who played fiddle throughout the album.

The second single released from the album was “Drinking Champagne”, written by Bill Mack, a DJ who wrote LeAnn Rimes’ breakthrough hit “Blue”. A perfect showcase for Strait’s crooning, this tune features some saxophone, an instrument I normally dislike on a country record, but in this case it works nicely. “Drinking Champagne” peaked at #4 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.

No George Strait album would be complete without a Dean Dillon song or two, and Livin’ It Up is no exception. Dillon contributed two cuts this time around — “I’ve Come To Expect It From You”, which was co-written with Buddy Cannon, and ” We’re Supposed To Do That Now And Then”, which was co-written with David Anthony and Joe Royer. “I’ve Come To Expect It From You” was the third single released from the album, and like “Love Without End, Amen”, it spent five weeks at #1.

Joining an already impressive list of songwriters on this album is the legendary Carl Perkins, who wrote the retro-sounding “When You’re A Man On Your Own”, one of my favorite songs on the album.

Livin’ It Up demonstrated a shift, albeit a very subtle one, from Strait’s 80s work. It is less Western-swing oriented and a little more radio-friendly than most of his 80s albums, but “radio-friendly” was not yet a pejorative term in 1990. The neotraditionalist movement was still in full swing, though this was about to change in the near future. Strait and co-producer Jimmy Bowen managed to put together a very satisfying album that was contemporary by the standards of the day, without being overproduced, and which still holds up nearly two decades after its release.  Still readily available from Amazon and iTunes, it is a worthy addition to any country music lover’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘The Last One To Know’

"The Last One To Know"In 1987 a controversy surrounded Reba McEntire; not unlike the controversy that surrounds LeAnn Rimes and her husband today. The singer has never spoken much about her divorce in interviews. What the public knows for a fact is that Reba filed for divorce from Charlie Battles, her husband of eleven years, and two years later married her manager Narvel Blackstock. Gossip rags said they started going out with each other before they divorced their spouses, but this has been denied by both parties. Regardless of what happened, 1987 was a year of sadness for Reba, and so The Last One To Know resulted from this sadness. Called her “divorce album” by Reba herself, The Last One To Know is an album that focuses on breakups and the uncertainty of the future, both of which are reflected in the title-track, which was also the lead single:

Why is the last one to know
The first one to cry and the last to let go
Why is the one left behind
The one left alone with no one to hold
The last one to know

Penned by Matraca Berg, this tale of a woman whose man has left her for another woman is particularly aching, mostly due to Reba’s vocal and Berg’s sharp pen. It became a #1 hit, and so did the follow-up “Love Will Find Its Way To You”; the only song on the album that brings forth a feeling of hope. Unfortunately it’s also the weakest track, with throwaway lyrics like  ‘So you’ve got to let your love shine through Your eyes, your smile/You’ve got to let somebody know how you feel inside/Your heart, you’ll find/Somebody wants to be a part of your life.’ It’s a theme that’s been done before with much better results, and the modern production feels out of place on an otherwise relatively traditional album.

While this is an album that has very few ‘happy’ songs, it doesn’t lack tempo. In “I Don’t Want To Mention Any Names” Reba is telling a’ friend’ to back off and stop flirting with her boyfriend, but she’s telling it in a sly fashion, as she doesn’t explicitly tell the woman to back off, but instead tells the story to her as if she was a casual confidante. While the subject matter is ‘serious’ enough, the song is filled with clever lines and winds up as a very humorous and amusing track. “Someone Else” is similar in theme to “No Such Thing”, a track from the predecessor to this album: What Am I Gonna Do About You. Reba is firmly assuring her man that she’s not out running around, and that if there was someone else, she wouldn’t be there with him. She almost growls at times here, and the song is very much a track with attitude.  It’s a worthwhile listen, but not the best track on the album as it gets repetitive at times.

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Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘This Woman’

"This Woman"Around the same time as Faith Hill released “Mississippi Girl”, her big return to country, LeAnn Rimes released her first single from This Woman called “Nothin’ ‘Bout Love Makes Sense”. It too, was supposed to be Rimes’ big return to country music after the pop records I Need You and Twisted Angel. It succeeded in doing so; the single peaked at #5 on the country charts, #1 on the Canadian country charts, and #52 on the U.S.  Hot 100. This became her highest ranking single on the country charts since 1998, but this was soon to be beat by the two follow-ups “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” (#3), and “Something’s Gotta Give” (#2). The album has since been certified gold, selling about 750.000 copies.

The set opens  “I Want To With You”, a simple tune about the narrator’s desire to do the important things in life together with her partner.LeAnn is showing off her lower register on this song, which, along with Dann Huff’s soulful production, makes the song sound not only sexy, but also a little bit intimidating, especially as she sings these lines;

Life is a lot like a battle
When love is under attack
Once I was easily rattled
I’d run just like that
I wouldn’t fight back

This combination works very, very well, and definitely makes it stand out among similarly themed songs. A far too busy production slams us in the face as the album’s second track “You Take Me Home” opens (after all, it IS a Dann Huff record). A song that’s supposed to be about love, and how love feels like it takes you home to the simpler times and simpler things, is definitely damaged by such a busy production. LeAnn’s vocal is indeed very fine, but it could be a bit less bombastic. The lyrics are rather well-written though, and LeAnn, while she is a little bombastic, conveys the message of being homesick well, making the song quite listenable, despite the production dragging it down. It’s a shame though, that it’s only listenable, because I’m very convinced that had she recorded this with another producer (Garth Fundis, or even Mutt Lange, for instance), it could be a killer track.

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Single Review: Montgomery Gentry – ‘Long Line of Losers’

montgomery_gentryDriving home late from work the other day, I heard a song on the radio and I was shocked — it sounded country! I heard some wonderful dobro work and what sounded like Montgomery Gentry, and I recognized it as their new single, “Long Line Of Losers”. Even further, I liked the song! Coming off their induction into the Opry, this single is one of their most country sounding singles yet.

Their last single, “One In Every Crowd,” was an annoying repeat song that I hated, so I was surprised to like this one. There have been a lot of singles about family misdeeds (“Family” by LeAnn Rimes, just to name one) and it can be difficult to make the idea sound fresh, but Montgomery Gentry pulls it off here. The anecdotes about their fictional family are amusing from the moonshining grandpa to the mom that was sleeping with the preacher. The narrator admits his family is messed up. Then he admits his family made him the way he is, and he sounds proud of it. It sounds good, with a good melody and lyrics that give a great sense of family pride.

Nobody’s family is perfect and while nobody has a family quite like this, it’s an easily relatable song that gives people pride in their own family’s imperfections. It’s also believable coming from Montgomery Gentry, even though the song was written and performed by Kevin Fowler for a while. This song is sure to be a hit, and for once it may deserve the success it gets.

Grade: B+

Written by: Kevin Fowler and Kim Tribble

Listen here at Last.fm.

Signature songs from superb singers

Love StoryThis past year, Taylor Swift had a massive hit in “Love Story.” I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It went to #1 on 3 charts worldwide, including the American and Canadian County charts as well as Australia’s all-genre chart. Beyond that, “Love Story” went into the top 5 on U.S. Billboard’s Hot 100, Pop 100 and Adult Contemporary charts — no mean feat to say the least. After the massive success inside and outside of country music, “Love Story” has become her signature song. What does that mean? I see it as when someone thinks of that artist, that’s the song they think of — not including one-hit wonders of course.

So this got me thinking, what are the signature songs of other country artists? Some have clear ones, like Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” or Martina McBride’s “Independence Day”, while others are much more murky. Which massive hit of Shania Twain is her signature song? From charts, “You’re Still The One” was her biggest hit, but there are many songs that are very close. It’s impossible to tell from charts, though, because Martina’s “Independence Day” only got to #12. Another difficult pick is for Reba McEntire. Which of her many huge hits is her real signature song? It’s usually considered “Fancy”, but I bet it varies from person to person.

Here are some signature songs of country artists that I’m guessing at:

Patty Loveless – “Chains”
Tim McGraw – “Live Like You Were Dying”
Faith Hill – “Breathe”
Kathy Mattea – “Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses”
LeAnn Rimes – “How Do I Live”
Trisha Yearwood – “She’s In Love With The Boy”
Sara Evans – “Suds In The Bucket”
Sugarland – “Stay”

Here are some artists that I really have no idea:

Brad Paisley (“Whiskey Lullaby”? “When I Get Where I’m Going”?)
The Dixie Chicks (“Cowboy Take Me Away”? “Without You”? This is a tough one…)
Jo Dee Messina (“Bye Bye”? “Bring On The Rain”?)
The Judds (“Mama He’s Crazy”? “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”?)
Toby Keith (Too many to choose from…)

These lists could go on and on, but I want your thoughts:

What are the signature songs of country music’s biggest stars (past and present)? Disagree with any of mine?