My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lee Thomas Miller

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Time Flies’

After he was dropped by Warner Brothers. JMM released one further album, 2008’s Time Flies, on independent label Stringtown Records. Recorded in his brother Eddie’s home studio, it was produced by Byron Gallimore with, for the most part, his trademark sheen and lack of subtlety.

The lead single (or at least the first song released, as it did not chart), ‘Mad Cowboy Disease’, is a tongue in cheek country rocker written by Jamey Johnson, Jon Maddox and Jeremy Popoff. JMM sings it with a commitment which carries off a sometimes silly lyric, and there’s even a fun nod to Mel Tillis in the song. Next up was ‘If You Ever Went Away’, an emotional ballad written by Randy Houser and Daryl Burgess. It is a nice song which JMM sings well, but a bit over-produced. ‘Forever’, which was an actual radio single and made it into the top 30, is a very boring AC song.

Jamey Johnson contributed another pair of songs. ‘What Did I Do?’ (written with George Teren) is a rocking love song – not bad but over-produced. ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is quite a pleasant ballad which Johnson wrote with Arlis Albritton and Jeremy Popoff.

‘Loving And Letting Go’, written by Greg Barnhill and Gary Hannan, is a rather dull AC ballad. ‘Fly On’ is better, a wistful ballad about loss.

Luke Bryan’s own career has led to considerable (and often justified) disdain from more traditional country fans, but his cowrite with Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller included here, ‘With My Shirt On’ is actually rather good, with a wryly amusing lyric about noticing the ravages of middle age:

Remember Key West spring break
We were 21, in perfect shape
We stayed oiled up and half naked all week long
But that was 10 years and 20 pounds ago
Girl, you’re still a 10 but I’m somewhere below
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on?

Now you say our love has grown beyond the physical
And you tell me that you think I’m irresistible
Today I had a salad but I gave in and ate a roll
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on

The best tracks all cluster at the end of the set, with Gallimore reining it back a bit. The best is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, a powerful Chris Stapleton song which Stapleton himself finally recorded in 2017. JMM’s vocal is much less intense but it is a pretty good performance of a great song which feels believable, and there is a tasteful steel-laced arrangement.

‘All In A Day’ is a warmly sung song about the passage of time as a beloved grandfather comes to the end of his life, set to a soothing melody. Written by Daryl Burgess and Dan Denny, it provides he album’s title.

JMM co-wrote the charming autobiographical ‘Brothers Til The End’, about growing up playing country music in a family band with his parents and brother Eddie, and thein their rival country music careers, “chasing each other up and down the charts”.

Grade: B

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Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Brand New Me’

The last couple of singles from Home To You had not got the new millennium off to a good start for John Michael Montgomery, but later in 2000 he came up with his biggest hit for years.

‘The Little Girl’, written by Harley Allen, is a story song allegedly based on a true story about a neglected child who witnesses the fatal culmination of her father’s domestic violence, and later tells her loving foster parents she recognises a picture of Jesus as the one who protected her on the night her father killed her mother and herself. A gently soothing melody and harmonies from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski make this a very pretty sounding song. It topped the Billboard country charts for three weeks.

The two other singles from JMM’s gold-selling 2000 album Brand New Me fell short in comparison. The up-tempo and rather rowdy country-pop ‘That’s What I Like About You’ was probably too much of a contrast in tone to do well while ‘The Little Girl’ was still getting a lot of radio play, and it isn’t a strong enough song to stand on its own. ‘Even Then’ (written by Pat Bunch and Shane Teeters) is better, a smooth AC-leaning love song which plays to JMM’s vocal strengths. However, neither song cracked the top 40.

‘That’s Not Her Picture’ is a beautiful pure country ballad written by Bill Anderson and Gary Burr, which was also recorded in 2000 by Jason Sellers, ex-husband of Lee Ann Womack, who was an aspiring artist at the time. A tasteful steel-led arrangement is perfect for the song and JMM sounds great on the poignant song abot a man who has torn up his ex’s real photos (presumably in anger or grief) and kept a standard shot sold with his wallet purely because it looks a little like her.

Another highlight is ‘Thanks For The G Chord’, written by Byron Hill and Mark Narmore, a tribute to a loving father who taught him music with other life advice.

Also very good is ‘Bus To Birmingham’, an emotional song written by Jess Brown and Tony Lane about a man watching his loved one leaving, thinking he has done the right thing driving her away:

I know she missed her mama
‘Cause that’s the kinda life she comes from
Ain’t no kinda life I’m ever gonna have
She said she’d call me from the station
But I’ll be gone before she gets there
And I’ll see her every time I’m lookin’ back

Heaven knows I ain’t no angel
And I don’t always do the right thing
And right now I know that she don’t understand
But I’ll sleep better knowin’
The only thing I ever loved
Is on that bus to Birmingham

Tonight I’ll slip back in the shadows
And I’ll sip a glass of whiskey
And I’ll try to keep from whispering her name
But there’s some highways I ain’t driven
And there’s some towns that I ain’t lived in
And there’s some times that I can’t get out of the rain

And Lord I can’t bear to break another promise that I made her
So I made out like I wanted her to go
And I’m better off believin’ that she’s better off without me
‘Cause I don’t want her to see me do her wrong

‘Weekend Superstar’ is a fun honky tonker with some nice fiddle about letting loose as a release from a hard week’s work.

The title track, which opens proceedings, is an upbeat song about survival, written by Kris Bergnes and Lee Thomas Miller. ‘Real Love’ (from the pens of Kent Blazy and Neil Thrasher) is a mid-paced country pop love song which is fairly forgettable.

The closing ‘I Love It All’, co-written by JMM himself with Blair Daly is a tribute =e to his love of his career as a musician, and is pretty good.

Overall, a pretty strong album which is worth finding, esecially if you like JMM.

Grade: A-

Review: new tracks from Craig Morgan – ‘The Journey – Living Hits’

the journeyCraig’s second release for Black River Entertainment was a reworking of some of his past hits so the new label could cash in, together with four completely new tracks.

Two of the new songs were released as singles, but as is commonplace in such cases they were considerably less successful than the previous singles had been. Top 20 hit ‘Wake Up Lovin’ You’, written by Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen, is about love outlasting the presence of its object, and while lyrically strong is rather boring melodically, notable only for its opening sounds of an alarm clock. A full blooded vocal does its best to give the song some life, struggling against somewhat cluttered, uninspired production. It was Craig’s last real radio hit to date.

‘We’ll Come Back Around’ a better song, did not crack the top 40. Written by Rosen again, with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, it is a mid paced tune about a couple who fight but always make up again. I could do without the na-na-na-nas, which always sound as if the writer ran out of inspiration, and the production is a bit muddy, but otherwise this is a solid song which was too adult for contemporary radio:

Put your fist through the wall
Say you’re through with it all
Baby I’m through too
Let’s throw a log on the fire of the heat of the moment
Put your key in the car
Jerk it right outta park
Flip a big F-you

You say you won’t come back
I say amen to that then I lock that door
But I know you got a key
And I’m gonna leave a light on

‘If Not Me’ is a beautifully written and sympathetically sung song about a young man taking the step of joining the military, which must have struck a chord with veteran Morgan, although the song is written (by Tom Douglas and Lee Thomas Miller) from the point of view of the boy’s parents. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single.

‘Party Girl, on the other hand, is a dreadful throwaway bro-country number complete with electronic distortion.

Grade for the new tracks: B-

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Little Bit Of Life’

little bit of lifeCraig’s third and final album for Broken Bow was released in 2006. He co-produced the record with the always reliable Keith Stegall, and it sounds solid throughout, but suffers from relatively weak material.

The rapid paced rather generic title track about country living was the first, and most successful, single, reaching #7. ‘Tough’ just missed the top 10, peaking at #11. A tender ballad paying tribute to a hard working wife and mother, it was written by Monty Criswell and Joe Leathers, and is nicely sung. The effervescent ‘International Harvester’ (about a tractor driving farmer happy to block the roads for other motorists) got Craig back into the top 10. It got some critical attention online at the time, but I always liked it. There is a genuine charm about Craig’s delivery.

Craig co-wrote four songs this time around. ‘I Am’ and ‘My Kind Of Woman’ are rather bland filler. The rapid paced and not very melodic ‘I Guess You Had To Be There’ is a bit silly, with Craig sounding like Joe Diffie at his novelty worst. ‘The Song’ is a pleasant sounding but not terribly interesting semi-story song about the power of a record to touch people’s lives.

Morgan’s friend and frequent cowriter, Phil O’Donnell, also wrote ‘Nothin’ Goin’ Wrong Around Here’ with Buddy Owens and Gary Hannan; once more this sounds decent but is lyrically dull. Much the same goes for ‘Sweet Old Fashioned Goodness’, written by Michael White, Carson Chamberlain, and Lee Thomas Miller.

Much better than any of these is ‘The Ballad Of Mr Jenkins’ a tearjerker of a story song written by D Vincent Williams and Steve Mandile. Williams also co-wrote the album closer, ‘Look At ‘Em Fly’, with Jim Femino; this is a nice little song about noticing the little things.

The songs are limited lyrically, but this is a recognisably country sounding record, which is always a plus.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Randy Rogers Band – ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

41c2t4yC8TL._SS280After a decade on the dark side chasing mainstream success, The Randy Rogers Band has returned to its indie roots with Nothing Shines Like Neon, their first album in nearly three years. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the band’s back catalog, although I did thoroughly enjoy Randy Rogers’ side project with Wade Bowen (Hold My Beer, Vol. 1), which was reviewed by Occasional Hope last year. Though not as traditional as Hold My Beer, Neon is reportedly more rootsy than any of the Band’s four releases for Mercury and MCA, which ought to please fans who had been complaining that the band had lost its edge during its tenure in Nashville.

One of the problems with music that falls under the Americana/alt-country Red Dirt umbrella is that much of it really isn’t country and much of it is a wasteland of non-commercial material sung by those with vocals that are too rough to have any kind of mass appeal. There is always some wheat among the chaff, though it can often be difficult to separate the two. The effort is worth it, though, when an album like this one comes along. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s more polished than I expected. The most surprising thing about it is that 10 or 15 years ago it would have been solidly within the realm of the mainstream, though it would definitely be out of place on today’s radio next to the Sam Hunts and Jason Aldeans.

Randy Rogers co-wrote seven of the album’s tracks, two of them with producer Cannon, but the album’s best cuts are the ones contributed by outside songwriters, starting with the opening track, the fiddle-led “San Antone” written by Keith Gattis. I particularly enjoyed “Things I Need to Quit”, which follows the tried-and-true theme of comparing an ex-lover to bad habits that need to be broken, in the vein of Patty Loveless’ “A Thousand Times a Day”. The mid-tempo “Old Moon New”, a Rogers co-write with Lee Thomas Miller and Wendell Mobley, sounds like something Collin Raye might have released early in his career.

The album’s best track is “Look Out Yonder”, which features beautiful harmonies by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski. Jamey Johnson joins the band on “Actin’ Crazy”, a number about the morning after a night of tying one on, and fellow Texan Jerry Jeff Walker joins in on “Takin’ It As It Comes”, a party number that probably works better live in concert than it does on record.

The album’s weaker moments come when the band tries to be too middle-of-the-road; “Rain and the Radio”, “Neon Blues” and “Tequila Eyes” (a Cannon and Rogers collaboration with Dean Dillon) all fall into this trap. It was a little surprising to find songs like these on a Texas indie release. Perhaps the band hasn’t fully freed itself of Nashville’s shackles. Nevertheless, Nothing Shines Like Neon is a solid effort that refugees from bro-country and radio’s other atrocities are sure to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘These Old Walls’

these old wallsSinger-songwriter Billy Yates has released his latest independent album. As usual, it consist entirely of his own songs.

Five of the songs involve veteran and onetime George Jones duet partner Melba Montgomery as co-writer. The steel-drenched title track sadly reminisces about a childhood home.

‘No Fool Like An Old Fool’ (written with Melba and Tommy Polk) is great , with a sardonic lyric about a cheating wife who thinks she’s getting away with it – but:

Late last night in your sleep
You whispered soft and low
You told me that you loved me –
I just wish my name was Joe

This trio also wrote ‘She’s Got A Heart’, a nice love song.

Billy and Melba were joined by Monty Criswell to write the semi-up-tempo ‘Fallin’ Over Myself’ which is pleasant but not all that memorable. I preferred their ‘It’s Just A Scratch’, in which he soothes the wounded pride of a lady who has been hurt in love.

Billy and Criswell teamed up with Lee Thomas Miller for a pair of songs. The relaxed ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’ is a charming love song about love triumphing over poverty. The entertaining western swing ‘Zeros’ has the poor man rejected by the object of his affections, because:

You never will amount to much nohow

Miller and Billy wrote another couple together. He is torn about taking back an ex revisiting ‘Her Old Stompin’ Grounds’. The resigned ‘Carry On’ is about pretending to be over someone as a way of working towards really getting over her. Both are good songs.

‘Waiting For The World To Turn My Way’ was written with John Northrup. The perky tune about an optimistic attitude to a really bad day and a tough life, with sprightly honky tonk piano prominent in the mix, makes this thoroughly enjoyable.

The closing ‘That’s All She Wrote’, written with Bill Able, is a breakup song in which the departing lady writes goodbye in lipstick on the wall. It’s a clever idea but the key is a bit too low for Billy in places, taking him down into a less attractive timbre.

The only solo composition is the quietly religious ‘Potter’s Hands’.

This is another excellent collection of songs from an underrated singer-songwriter whose music is always reliably genuine country.

Grade: A

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

Man_Against_Machine_coverExcluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

Miller, it’s worth noting, took over production duties from Brooks’ right hand man Allen Reynolds, who Brooks revealed has retired from the music business. His touch gives the album a fresher feel, but doesn’t hide the fact that Man Against Machine contains tracks far more country than anything released on a major label this year.

It’s no secret that western-themed songs are Brooks’ favorite as he includes at least one on every album. Man Against Machine has two that differ greatly on quality. “Rodeo and Juliet,” which Brooks co-wrote, has an underwritten lyric about a cowgirl on the racing circuit that comes off cutesy despite a pleasing western swing styled production. “Cowboys Forever” falls on the opposite end, standing up against anything he’s ever recorded on the subject. Dean Dillon’s co-written lyric is excellent, using a cowboy theme to relay a greater message about camaraderie.

The idea of a euphemism manifesting a larger message is also tackled in “Fish,” a conversation between a fisherman and a workaholic. The former teaches the latter about the importance of life; all while continuing to live the easy life he’s carved for himself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Fish” is the most sonically country song on whole album. “Wrong About You” follows close behind, with a jaunty banjo/dobro beat that roots the mid-paced number in an organic backbeat. “Midnight Train” comes off as the pop version of a country shuffle.

The majority of Man Against Machine is made up of songs that bring a bit of muscle into the conversation. A prime example is “Cold Like That,” a song that begins quietly but turns bombastic by the chorus. Brooks has the voice for it, but the production doesn’t offer any interesting flourishes to hook the listener. “Tired of Boys” is much better, with Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal coming in loud and clear. I do wish Miller had given it more of a 90s throwback vibe, which would’ve elevated the overall track just that much more. “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is more of the same, a ballad with light steel guitar that sill manages to use power to sell its story.

“All-American Kid,” a tune about a college-bound football star, is a very different song for Brooks both in subject matter and lyrical structure. I’m still debating whether I feel this kind of song is right for him or I’m just taken aback at him trying something new. Either way it isn’t a bad song and I like the ample use of fiddle.

“Tacoma” is Brooks’ bluesy moment, which he executes really well. I don’t usually go for this type of song, so that hinders my enjoyment of it, but people who enjoy these sorts of things will probably love it. The only truly puzzling song is the title track, which puts Brooks back in his faux-rock persona. It’s just too much power and muscle for me, no matter the quality of the lyrics.

Man Against Machine is a bizarre album. Brooks’ classic persona is undeniably present, but nothing here feels like essential listening. With the exception of “Mom” this whole album feels like filler to me, with too much eighties rock, not enough organic sounds, and very little passion on Brooks’ part. I expected more after thirteen years, from both Man Against Machine and his whole comeback extravaganza.

I also never dreamt mainstream country music would erode like it has, so I guess the joke may be on me. While the formula is here (cowboy songs, Yearwood on backing vocals, fiddles and steel) it just wasn’t executed with a timeless feel. Brooks, in his heyday, proved he is much, much better than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Punching Bag’

Josh Turner’s deep burnished baritone is one of the most distinctive on today’s country radio, but his choice of songs has sometimes let him down.  Happily, this time he has found a better selection of material than on his last effort, the disappointingly pedestrian Haywire, much of it written or co-written by the artist.  Frank Rogers’ attractive production puts the vocals at the heart of the record, in a restrained but firmly country setting.

A silly novelty spoken introduction on a boxing match theme by real-life ring announcer Michael Buffer leads into the title track, written by Josh with Pat McLaughlin.  The song itself is thankfully much better, a well-written driving up-tempo number which uses boxing effectively as a metaphor about dealing with difficulties in life, specifically heartbreak:

She broke her promise and now she’s gonna leave me
She floated like a butterfly, it stung me like a bee
She took off the gloves and took a cheap shot
And she left me hanging in a pretty tough spot
I’m a punching bag

This is great fun and it could be a good single choice with obvious video possibilities.  It is certainly more interesting than Josh’s current top 20 hit, the unexciting ‘Time Is Love’, which is pleasant listening but nothing more.

Josh teamed up with Mark Narmore to write two songs.  The better of these is the very good ‘Cold Shoulder’, the plaint of a bewildered man struggling to understand why his wife is freezing him out when he has done nothing wrong.  Some lovely steel guitar from Steve Hinson dominates the backing, while the vocal is excellent.  ‘Good Problem’ is less memorable but still a pretty good song about a man getting ready to settle down to married life and give up his freedom with no regret, with an interesting arrangement.

‘Find Me A Baby’, written by Josh with Frank Rogers, is another good-sounding take on finding true love, but this time clearly autobiographical drawing its details from Josh’s real life and featuring his wife Jennifer and their small children on faintly embarrassing “na-na-na”s, something I normally hate, but the good humor of the song as a whole just about carries it off.

Ben Hayslip is not a bad writer when separated from his Peach Picker friends, and he helped Josh with ‘Left Hand Man’ (yet another take on committing to getting married but one which benefits from a playfully charming arrangement) and the lyrically slight but catchily melodic ‘Whatcha Reckon’.

Josh alone wrote the album’s standout track, the mournful ‘Pallbearer’.  Iris DeMent adds a harmony vocal and Marty Stuart plays mandolin on this take on love lost for good:

She don’t call and she don’t try to
And my prayin’ can’t bring her back
My eyes are wide open watchin’ my future
My eyes are wide open watching my future fade to black
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer
Walkin’ down the aisle
Travelin’ to the graveyard counting down the miles
With every earth filled shovel they dig that eternal bed
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer carrying the dead

I’ve pondered trading places with the man layin’ in that hearse
I try to hold my head up but her leavin’ is like a curse

Josh’s deep bass-baritone has a natural gravitas showcased at its best on serious songs like this with emotional weight rather than the more frivolous fare radio prefers.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the religious ‘For The Love Of God’, contributing mandolin, an instrument described as a cello banjo and harmonies to the bright acoustic treatment of a heartfelt if slightly moralistic song about living the right way and for the right reasons.  This was another solo composition by Josh.

Also very well done is the album’s other religious song, ‘I Was There’, written by Tim Menzies and Monty Criswell, where Josh reverently portrays the voice of God.

‘Deeper Than My Love’ is a nice love song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller with some great growly bass vocals from Josh and cool banked backing vocals which give the track a life and individuality perhaps missing in the relatively obvious lyrics.

The redundant deluxe version  just adds live versions of ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Time Is Love’ and some of Josh’s bigger past hits, which add little to the recorded versions.

Overall this is an enjoyable album which is a definite step back in the right direction after Haywire.  Some of the material is still lacking in lyrical depth, with the melodies generally stronger, but the whole package is solid.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Bradley Gaskin – ‘Diamonds Make Babies’

I loved Bradley’s debut single, ‘Mr Bartender’, but despite a warm response from country radio DJs at last year’s CRS seminar, their stations failed to follow through and support the song above a peak position of just #32.  For his sophomore release, a year later, he has picked a song which also appears on Dierks Bentley’s new album, and which my colleague Razor X suggested would be a good single for Bentley.  Back in the 60s and 70s it was quite common for multiple artists to record the same songs, and even for rival versions to compete against each other on the singles charts.  But it is a practice which has largely fallen out of use, making this an extremely unexpected choice for Bradley’s follow-up to the fantastic ‘Mr Bartender’, and perhaps an unwise one in terms of establishing him as an individual artist, when that debut was notable in part for its vocal echoes of Travis Tritt.

Written by Jim Beavers, Chris Stapleton, and Lee Thomas Miller, the song is slight but quite charming.  The protagonist offers a slightly tongue in cheek warning  to a friend about to take the plunge and get engaged that all too soon his bride will be getting broody, and that really will change their lives.  He claims the engagement ring has “some crazy powers of its own”:

Diamonds make babies

And babies make mamas

And mamas make daddies make changes they don’t always wanna…

You’ll talk about it on your honeymoon

You’ll both agree that its way too soon

Next thing you know she’s seeing pink and blue

Everywhere she goes

The inevitable comparisons with Dierks’s version are not altogether to Bradley’s favor, as Dierks’s voice is more distinctive and the vocal grittier and more incisive.  Bradley’s vocals are good, and more clearly his own than they were on ‘Mr Bartender’, but not really distinctive enough to stand out.  However, taken on its own merits, it is an enjoyable track which would sound a lot better on the radio than most of the playlist.  It’s just a shame that unless it’s a complete flop, it almost certainly means that Dierks’ version will remain an album track.

The track is one of four cuts by Gaskin to be released as an EP on iTunes on 10 April.  A full length debut album will hopefully follow soon, and despite my reservations about this track, I do have high hopes for the artist.

Grade: B

Listen here.

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Let It Go’

Like most of Tim McGraw’s albums, 2007’s Let It Go is a combination of the good, the bad, and the mediocre on which Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith returned to share co-production duties. The lead single was the annoyingly fluffy “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” which was written by Big & Rich’s Big Kenny. It’s a mediocre song with a sing-songy chorus that grows tiresome with repeated listenings. The final chorus on which McGraw is joined by his three young daughters only adds to the irritation factor. Nevertheless, it reached the top spot on the charts, becoming McGraw’s first #1 hit since 2004’s “Back When”.

Much more to my liking is the album’s second cut, “I’m Workin'”, written by Darrell Scott and Lori McKenna. It’s a gritty number that in years past would have been a big hit on country radio. From the opening line, “Damn, I hope no one dies on this night shift tonight”, the listener is immediately pulled into the story. The narrator’s profession is never revealed. My first thought was that he was a policeman, but he could just as easily be a paramedic or even an ER doctor. Another song that should have been a single is the album’s best track “Whiskey and You”, a pure country number written by Lee Thomas Miller and then-Steeldrivers member Chris Stapleton. Likely deemed too traditional for country radio, “Whiskey and You” was left to languish in obscurity as an album cut, passed over in favor of schlock like the title track, a boring AC-leaning duet with Faith Hill, and a cover of an Eddie Rabbitt song — one of the songs in the late singer/songwriter’s catalog least worthy of a remake.

Faith Hill makes one of her two guest appearances on “I Need You”, a rather lackluster number written by David Lee and Tony Lane, that reached #8. It’s not nearly as good as “Shotgun Rider”, which is not a true duet but features a prominent harmony vocal from Hill. Written by Anthony Smith, Jeffrey Steele and Sherrie Austin, it’s the best McGraw/Hill song I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad Tim and Faith haven’t done more songs in this vein.

“Suspicions” was a #1 hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1979, an era when a lot of barely-country sounding songs were big hits. It’s one of my least favorite Rabbitt songs. Tim’s version is very faithful to the original, but it only reached #12, making it one of the very few McGraw singles not to make the Top 10, in spite of Tim’s popularity and country radio’s increasing willingness to play non-country material. The follow-up single was the much more traditional “Kristofferson”, a tribute to one of country music’s greatest songwriters, written by Anthony Smith and Reed Nielsen. It fared even worse on the charts than “Suspicions”, stalling at #16. Tim bounced back, however, with the generic and overproduced title track, which climbed to #2.

The very best of the album’s seven singles was not included on the album when it was initially released. “If You’re Reading This”, on which Tim shares a rare songwriting credit with Brad and Brett Warren, was performed on the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. It tells the heartbreaking story of a fallen soldier, in his own words, in a letter to his wife, to be sent to her in the event of his death. It was one of the best performances of Tim’s career and was so well received that the song entered the Billboard charts from unsolicited airplay of the audio from the telecast. This prompted Curb to release the live recording as a single, between “I Need You” and “Suspicions” and to include it on subsequent pressings of the album. “If You’re Reading This” peaked at #3; I was surprised that it didn’t go all the way to #1.

Mid-2008 was about the time when Curb Records began playing games to prolong Tim’s contract. Instead of releasing a new album, they opted to release a seventh single, “Nothin’ To Die For”, a preachy and overproduced “don’t drink and drive” number that reads like a public service announcement that somehow climbed to #5 on the charts.

The rest of the album is mostly generic filler, with the exception of “Between The River and Me”, which tells the story of a son’s revenge against an abusive father. It’s a southern Gothic number in the traditon of “Ode To Billy Joe”, “Fancy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, but unlike those classics, “Between The River and Me” is ruined by over-the-top production that renders it almost unlistenable. To call it bombastic would be an understatement.

Though it has its share of duds, Let It Go is one of the stronger album’s in Tim’s discography and has enough good songs on it to make it worth recommending. It is easy to find at reasonable prices.

Grade: B

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Pain To Kill’

Released in 2003, after the relatively disappointing commercial performance of Fearless, Pain To Kill marked a change in producer for Terri, with the recruitment of Byron Gallimore, perhaps the leading commercial country producer of the day. It looks as though the label was hedging its bets with regards to the direction of the album, with Gallimore working on half the album, and old standby Keith Stegall being brought back in for the remainder of the material. Byron Gallimore applied a fairly sophisticated pop-country sound to mainly outside songs, and successfully balances Terri’s voice with a radio-friendly sheen.

Keith Stegall, meanwhile, tackled the bulk of Terri’s own songs, with a sound more in keeping with her past work. Gallimore’s tracks front load the set listing (and provided all three of the singles), with most of the Stegall tracks relegated to the second half of the set. Throughout the album, Terri’s vocals sound great and very committed to the material, and there is an overarching theme of relationship troubles and moving on which helps give a cohesive feel to the set as a whole.

The contemporary sounding lead single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Mad’, written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller, made a good start with radio, peaking at #2 in 2002. It is my favorite of the single choices from this album with its convincing and mature lyric about a couple married for seven years (when “some days it feels like 21”) and squabbling over the little things, while affirming the underlying strength of their relationship:

I think I’m right
I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just wanna be mad for a while

The woman-on-the-verge-of-leaving whose story is conveyed in ‘Three Mississippi is less successful. While well sung, it’s a rather pop-leaning song written by Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges and Angelo, whose rather uninteresting tune and overdone production drains the emotion from the lyric. It was closer to a flop, only just making the top 30. The life-affirming ‘I Wanna Do It All’ is better, if not very memorable. It took Terri back to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #3.

The title track is a radio-friendly mid-tempo number written by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard, with a cheery approach to partying away the troubles of life. The very contemporary Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song ‘Working Girl’ (comparing an ordinary working woman’s life to glossy media images) was previously recorded by Loretta Lynn. It suits Terri better than it did Loretta, but is still one of my least favorite Terri Clark recordings.

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Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.

The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.

Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.

The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.

If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,

The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high

is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.

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Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Southern Voice’

Southern VoiceTim McGraw has never impressed me as one of the great country voices, but where he frequently has impressed me is in his choice of interesting material, the kind of songs which are worth hearing in anyone’s hands. His tenth studio album is produced by the same production team of McGraw, Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith (the lead guitarist in Tim’s band the Dancehall Doctors) as Tim’s last three, with backing from the Dancehall Doctors on all but one track, occasionally augmented by additional musicians or string sections. The sound is definitely quite rock-influenced, and a long way from traditional country, but the production is a good deal more restrained than on much of what is emerging from Nashville at the moment. Overall, there isn’t much variation in tempo or melody, but the material is mostly interesting and adult. There isn’t much to appeal to the children and emotional adolescents at whom current radio playlists seem aimed, and this is a good thing. I don’t like everything here, but it is a serious attempt at making an artistically satisfying album.

It gets off to a discouraging start. Opening track ‘Still’, written by fellow-Curb artist Lee Brice with Kyle Jacobs and Joe Leathers, is a very well-written song with a nice reflective feel and effective restrained vocals in the verses about seeking refuge from the stresses of the world in memory and imagination, and finally in church, but the chorus is musically rather pop-sounding, with strings and detectable vocal processing in places. The next track, ‘Ghost Town Train (She’s Gone)’, a heavily allusive song written by Troy Olsen and Marv Green about a woman leaving, is a bit dull and emotionally unconvincing with a lot of soulless “oh nos” despite some nice fiddle lines from Dean Brown.

Things really start to pick up with ‘Good Girls’, the first of the well-chosen story songs which dominate the song selection. The downbeat melancholy tale of a woman’s murderous response to her husband cheating with her best friend was written by the Warren Brothers with Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, and is well played out although I don’t much like the tune on the chorus.

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