My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Leslie Satcher

Album Review: Cody Johnson – ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’

After half a dozen self released albums since 2006, and building his career in his native Texas, 31 year old Cody Johnson makes his major label debut with this Warner Brothers record. It is an excellent album, showcasing a fine voice, great songs and perhaps offering mainstream country a way forward by mixing traditional country with some contemporary vibes. Cody’s long term producer Trent Willmon helms the project.

The lead single, ‘On My Way To You’ is a warm romantic ballad reflecting on, and not regretting, all the mistakes of the past. It is a very nice song, written by Brett James and Tony Lane, and is sung beautifully.

The title track, written by Leslie Satcher and David Lee, is a slow meditation on life and how to live, with some lovely fiddle.

‘Fenceposts’ is a lovely song about a young man inviting his sweetheart to settle down and make a life with him on their own farm. In ‘Understand Why’, written by Neil Medley and Randy Montana, a jaded Johnson seeks solitude after romantic failure.

A gorgeous low-key cover of Roger Miller’s ‘Husbands And Wives’ (familiar to younger fans from the Brooks & Dunn version) was recorded live. Radney Foster’s ‘Noise’ is a bit busy for my taste, but an enthusiastic take on Charlie Daniels’ ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ is great, with Johnson coming across like a young Travis Tritt. The sultry ‘Nothin’ On You’ (written by producer Willmon with Barrett Baber) channels Gary Allan. The energetic ‘Honky Tonk Mood’ is written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and is also very good.

‘Monday Morning Merle’, written by Lance Miller, Bart Butler and Brad and Brett Warren. It is a sad song about a man hiding a broken heart during his working week with the help of music:.

Wednesday spins the Beatles
Thursday is the Eagles
“Take It Easy” ’til that Friday rocks his world
After Saturday ol’ Jackson Browne
Is Sunday morning coming down
Then he’s right back to missing that girl
Turns up ‘Misery and Gin’
Here we are again
Monday morning Merle

Monday morning Merle
Lets that ol’ broken heart get back to work
He hides all the holes and the hurt
Under the dirt on his shirt
And the only way that he can get
Through the days and the regret
Is a song full of truth
With some words he never said
With those whiskey remedies
And those old school melodies you can’t forget

Brice Long, Carlton Anderson and Wynn Varble wrote ‘Where Cowboys Are King’, a fond tribute to Texas. ‘Y’all People’, about good-hearted country people, is dedicated to Cody’s fans, and could play well on country radio.

‘Doubt Me Now’, written by Casey Beathard and Mitch Oglesby, is a country rock defiance of those who have doubted the protagonist’s chances:

People like you got nothin’ better to do
Than throw rocks at things that shine
Well, you oughta be chasin’ your own dreams
‘Stead of shootin’ holes in mine

It annoyingly finishes with an electronic fadeout, but is a pretty good song until that point.

Johnson wrote two songs himself. ‘Dear Rodeo’ is a thoughtful retrospective on his first-love former career as a rodeo rider:

Dear rodeo
I’d be lyin’ if I tried to tell you I don’t think about you
After all the miles and the wild nights that we’ve been through
The Lord knows we had a few

Dear rodeo
I’d like to say that I took the reins and rode away
No regrets, no left-unsaids, just turned the page
Oh, but you know better, babe

Between them almost-had-’ems and the broken bones
The dream of a buckle I’ll never put on
I’m jaded
Whoa how I hate it
But somehow the highs outweigh the lows
And I’d do it all again
Even though
We both know
I’d still have to let you go

So dear rodeo
I tried like hell to tell myself it was all your fault
I held on tight with all my might
I just couldn’t hang on
And that’s hard to hang your hat on…

I’d like to think you miss me too
But I know you don’t
Oh, but that don’t change the past
And that don’t change the truth
I’m still in love with you

This is a definite highlight.

The album closes with Johnson’s other writing credit, ‘His Name Is Jesus’, a simple statement of faith.

This is a strong entry onto the mainstream scene, which I hope does well. Do check it out.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Jim Lauderdale — ‘Country Super Hits, Vol. 1’

Released in 2006, Country Super Hits, Vol. 1 is an oddly titled collection, as it sounds like a greatest hits or tribute record when indeed all the tracks are original. But Jim Lauderdale does perform the album in a traditional style, which is a nice change of pace.

Lauderdale co-wrote eleven of the album’s thirteen songs with Odie Blackmon, who is perhaps best known as the writer behind Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” which came out a year prior to this album. The pair kicks the album off with “Honky Tonk Mood Again,” a mid-tempo shuffle about a guy following his woman since she undoubtedly knows where the party is at.

“Playing On My Heart Strings” is a Dwight Yoakam-esque ballad. “Too More Wishes” is a steel-drenched uptempo number about a man who feels luck is on his side. Lauderdale shines on the spellbinding “Cautious,” about a man who’s jumping into his new relationship slowly and surely. A fiddle plays a prominent role on “If You’ve Never Seen Her Smile,” which is as striking as the woman Lauderdale and Blackmon are describing in the lyric. “Right Where You Want Me” is country rock and not to my taste at all and “Are You Okay” is a modernized shuffle.

“Single Standard Time” is reminiscent of Buck Owens and is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “That’s Why We’re Here” is slow and sparse, with Lauderdale exaggerating his twang. The album rebounds with “Change,” which has a wonderful melodic structure and an ear-catching sonic makeup. “You Can’t Stop Her,” about a guy who realizes his girl isn’t ever coming back, is firmly within the 1990s country style and would’ve worked brilliantly in George Strait’s hands during that era.

The album also features two non-Blackmon tracks. Lauderdale teamed with Leslie Satcher for “I Met Jesus In A Bar” and Shawn Camp for “She’s Got Some Magic Going On.” The former is much strong than its title would indicate while the latter has an interesting and engaging melody.

Both songs are very good, as is the album, which owes more to Americana than country, despite the abundance of traditional instrumentation. I highly recommend checking this one out. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘Parading In The Rain’

Chalee’s tenure with Asylum having come to an end, another label decided to give her a chance, and she moved to James Stroud’s Dreamworks. Artistically, it resulted in her finest work, largely inspired by her own most recent divorce; but commercially it was a disaster.

The lead single, ‘Lonesome Road’, was the only single to chart, and t peaked at #54. Written by Bryan Simpson, Ashley Gorley and Melissa Peirce, it has a Celtic country-rock feel, and is an energetically delivered song about surviving against the odds.

Chalee didn’t write her next single, Phillip and Amber Leigh White did, but it feels like a very personal one. ‘Easy Lovin’ You’ is a tender ballad addressed to her daughter, recalling the difficulties and sacrifices of teenage motherhood, and the rewards:

The best thing that I ever did
At the time was my worst mistake
17 and just a kid
I was 17 when I threw my childhood away
For a hazel eyed quarterback

Senior year and 8 months pregnant
I never felt so fat
Wishin’ I could go to prom
But they don’t make dresses for girls like that…

Looking back it was hard lovin’ me
But it’s easy lovin’ you

Chalee’s eldest daughter Tiffany provides harmony vocals on this deeply moving track, which regrettably failed to chart.

The last attempt at a single was the album’s title track, written by Kris Bergsnes and Bobby Pinson. It is an upbeat tune with an optimistic lyric about positivity and making the most of a situation. The lyric is a bit bland, but Chalee’s delivery is infectious on a song I could imagine as a hit for an artist like Jo Dee Messina.

Chalee co-wrote three songs on the record. ‘I Am Love’ (written with Kendall Marvel and Phil O’Donnell) is quite good. ‘Believe’, written with Kelly Garrett, is pleasant and optimistic, if a little clichéd and rather poppy. By far the best of Chalee’s songs is ‘The Mind Of This Woman’, a co-write with Dean Dillon. This is an excellent closely observed depiction of a woman stuck in an unsatisfactory life.

‘I Am Pretty’, written by Buffy Lawson and Eric Pittarelli, is a sensitive story song about a woman rediscovering her dignity and making the decision to leave an abusive husband. It is one of the strongest tracks on the record.

‘Cheater’s Road’, written by Jason Sellers and Sharon Rice, is another story song, about a rich man’s neglected wife finding passion in an extra-marital affair:

She’d rather have him than an empty bed and her self-respect

‘Me And Mexico’, written by Mark Narmore and Liz Rose, is an up-tempo song about adapting well to a breakup by going on vacation. ‘More To This Than That’, written by Gary Burr and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, is a fine ballad about the a couple dividing up their possessions as they split. The record closes with Leslie Satcher’s ‘Peace’, a thoughtful song about people in desperate need of God.

This album is definitely on the contemporary side of modern country, but it is very well performed. It’s a shame it did not do better, as it seems to have had commercial potential.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Leslie Satcher – ‘Why Do I Still Want You?’

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘When The Wrong One Loves You Right’

After Wade’s cover of ‘Wichita Lineman’ failed to catch fire, the recording was swiftly removed from his upcoming album. The next single, which became the true lead single for 1998’s When The Wrong One Loves You Right, was much more successful, reaching #5. It is a great story song written by Mark D Sanders and Steve Diamond, about a young Oklahoma couple, told with subtlety. Led in with a wistful fiddle, the narrator is blindsided by his girlfriend’s pregnancy and her subsequent shame-filled choices:

No, she wasn’t showing yet
But she’d be by Christmas time
Up there like a fool
I took for granted it was mine
She never came out and told me I was wrong
But all of a sudden the light came on
The day that she left Tulsa
In a Chevy in a hurry in the pouring down rain
With the caution lights flashing in the passing lane
From a bridge I watched our dreams going down the drain

I guess she thought the truth would end up driving me away
Well, she was wrong
But I never had the chance to say

This is an outstanding song and performance. Unfortunately the title track did not repeat its predecessor’s chart performance, failing to make the top 40. It’s an up-tempo Leslie Satcher song which is actually pretty good.

The mournful undertones in Wade’s voice are perfect for the next single, ‘How Do You Sleep At Night’, written by Jim McBride and Jerry Salley, as he reproaches his ex:

Do you see me when you close your eyes?
How do you sleep at night?

Now your side of the bed’s as cold
As the lies that I believed
I’m at the point when I can’t even trust you in my dreams
Did the way you left me leave you feeling proud?

This time he was rewarded with a #13 peak for what proved to be his last hit single.

Wade’s last single for Columbia was the song originally intended as the album’s title track. ‘Tore Up from the Floor Up’ is an up-tempo honky tonker which is quite good but not very memorable.

Wade co-wrote two of the songs. ‘Are We Having Fun Yet’ (written with Chick Rains and Lonnie Wilson) is a good honky tonk number about a married man who discovers the grass isn’t greener on the party side of life. ‘One More Night With You’, written with Rains and producer Don Cook, is a decent mid-tempo tune about the dreariness of a working life contrasted with a happy love life.

‘Summer Was A Bummer’ is a charming song penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran which Dillon had recorded himself a decade or so earlier and Ty Herndon also cut. It is a closely observed conversational number about a college girl’s coming home to her hometown (and her farm-based sweetheart) after a year away. Wade’s vocal is exquisite, and there is some lovely fiddle.

‘If I Wanted To Forget’ is a beautiful sad ballad written by Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters about not fully letting go of an old love. ‘Mine To Lose’, written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Matt King, is addressed to the protagonist’s ex’s new love, regretting his own past failures, and is another fine song. Lewis Anderson and Jason Sellers wrote the delicate ballad ‘This Is My Heart Talking Now’, a last ditch plea to a loved one not to give up on their relationship.

This record was not as successful commercially as it deserved to be, but it is well worth rediscovering.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Jo Dee Messina’

jo dee messinaThis album is one of those that has stuck with me over the years, even thou the herself artist didn’t. That’s not usual in that many artists have one great album or perhaps a few great songs in them or have managed to accumulate a few great songs from other sources. After that they struggle to find material.

For instance I always regarded the debut albums of Clint Black, Randy Travis and Charley Pride as being their best albums (of course these three went on to much further success). Others have been but a flash in the pan.

Jo Dee falls somewhere between long term super star and flash in the pan. Thus was not her most successful album (subsequent albums received more promotional push from Curb), but song for song, I think it is her strongest album.

The album opens with Jo Dee’s second single, “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore”, a Zack Turner – Tim Nichols composition which reached #7. A mid-tempo ballad and a bit of a cautionary tale, well sung.

He said “I grew up in Wichita
In a Mayberry kind of town”
He never liked overalls
Or haulin’ hay ’til sundown
He said he dreamed about L.A.
As he plowed away the day on an old John Deere
I said “Boy let me warn you
In southern California there’s some fast trains here”

You’re not in Kansas anymore
Can’t be too careful that’s for sure
City lights will led you on
Morning comes and they’ll be gone
So write my number on your wall
You can call me anytime at all
I’m so happy now boy
You’re not in Kansas anymore

Next up is “On A Wing and A Prayer”, written by Walt Aldridge and Jo Dee about a relationship that is unraveling. This tune is another mid-tempo ballad.

“He’d Never Seen Julie Cry’ comes from redoubtable songsmiths Leslie Satcher and Max T Barnes. THis song is about a relationship untended too long, a slow ballad that was the fourth single from the album, reaching #64.

His heart was tougher than a piece of leather
Had a will carved out of stone
He was stallion who had thrown every rider
No woman could seem to hang on
He didn’t know that it was over
He thought, he could make it right
But then again, he’d never seen Julie cry

He never thought that love would hit him
Like a train comin’ out of the dark
He never thought a friend would hand him back
The keys to his own heart

“Do You Wanna Make Something of It” comes from the pens of Terry Anderson and Bob DiPiero. This is both the first track on the album in which the steel guitar prominently figures into the mix and the first up-tempo song on the album. This song was released as the third single on the album and only reached #53, which at the time stunned me as I thought it had top ten written all over it. It did reach #29 on the Canadian country charts. This may be Jo Dee’s best vocal performance on the album.

There’s a little bitty flame burnin’ deep in my heart
You wanna make something of it?
Oh, do you feel the same, maybe just a little spark?
You wanna make something of it?
Do you wanna turn it into somethin’
That’s a burnin’ like a ragin’ fire out of control?
Well, I’m waitin’ for you tell me what you wanna do
You wanna make something of it?

“Let It Go” by Jamie Kyle, Ron Bloom, and Will Rambeaux, is a mid-tempo philosophical ballad ballad about moving on after the end of a relationship. Not bad but nothing special.

“Heads Carolina, Tails California”, a Tim Nichols – Mark D. Sanders was Jo Dee’s debut single and for my money, her best song. The song went to #1 at radio stations throughout the mid-Atlantic area and reached #2 on Billboard’s national country chart, #3 on the Canadian country chart and also hit Billboard’s all-genre Hot 200 at #111. The song is an up-tempo semi-rocker in which the narrator just wants to get out of town and head somewhere else – anywhere will do as long as her lover comes with her.

Baby, what do you say, we just get lost
Leave this one horse town like two rebels without a cause
I’ve got people in Boston, ain’t your daddy still in Des Moines ?
We can pack up tomorrow, tonight, let’s flip a coin

Heads Carolina, tails California
Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer
Up in the mountains, down by the ocean
Where it don’t matter, as long as we’re goin’
Somewhere together, I’ve got a quarter
Heads Carolina, tails California

“Walk To The Light” written by Walt Aldridge is not a religious song but it has something of a religious feel to it. The song is a medium fast ballad about moving forward after a breakup

I’ve never been one to believe much in ghosts
But to tell you the truth now, my mind is not closed
I’ve heard there are souls that are lost in between
Somewhere they’re goin’ and the places they’ve been
That sounds a lot like a woman I know
Her love is long gone but she will not let go
Somebody oughtta take her by the hand and tell her
Don’t be afraid, just walk to the light
Let go of the past and get on with your life
Someone is waiting out in the night
Ashes to ashes, walk to the light

“I Didn’t Have to Leave You” is a slow ballad written by Jill Wood about a woman trying to fight off the efforts of her lover’s ex to try to win him back. The song is very strong and would have made a good single.

Remember me
The one who picked up all the pieces, me
The one whose love for you increases everyday
And it won’t go away like she did
Remember her

The one who left your heart abandoned, her
Well she’s back again and I can’t stand it
It hurts ’cause with her tears all glistening
She’s got you listening to her promises
Well remember this

I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to lose you first to want you more than ever
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to see if I could tear your world apart
And still win back your heart
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I loved you from the start

“Every Little Girl’s Dream”, written by Dave Loggins and Kenny Mims is a nice medium-fast song, a little too superficial but a nice album track.

The album closes with “Another Shoulder At The Wheel” an upbeat song from Gary Burr and John Jarrard. Nice country production with tasteful steel guitar and a truly meaningful lyric about the way life should be

In my path, there are stones
I could never roll away alone
There are times when I wake
And my knees will tremble and shake
But there’s someone who cares
And when I need you, you’ll be there
Another shoulder at the wheel to see me through
When the road is long and the tears are real
When I’m past the point of giving up
There’s nothing like the feel, of another shoulder at the wheel

At the time I purchased this album in February 1996, I found myself hoping against hope that she would not give in to pressures to make her sound less country. The electric guitars on this album are more rock than country guitars but they are subdued. The steel guitar and dobro of Sonny Garrish and fiddle of Glen Duncan are appropriately spotlighted.

Jo Dee would go on to have some #1 singles and more successful chart albums but this remains my favorite. I have heard all of Jo Dee’s albums, but other than her Greatest Hits album released in 2003, this would be the last Jo Dee Messina album I would purchase (someone gave me Delicious Surprise for Christmas in 2005 because they remembered I had like Joe Diffie’s “My Give A Damn’s Busted” on his 2001 album In Another World).

The songs, vocal performance and production combine to make this album a very solid A.

Album Review: Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time – ‘All Star Duets’

all star duetsOne of my favorite songwriters, Larry Cordle’s latest album has been a long time in the making. he has teamed up with a selection of stars to recreate some of his big hits as a songwriter in a tasteful bluegrass setting, backed by Larry’s bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time and a few added guests. Recording sessions have taken place at intervals over the past decade, and the album was first announced for release a couple of years ago. But the wait was worth it, because this is a truly lovely record filled with great songs.

Alison Krauss recorded Cordle’s ‘Two Highways’ as a teenager; revisiting the song as a mature adult she brings a fuller vocal, and the result is shimmeringly lovely. It’s actually the oldest composition here, having been written in 1977 when the young Larry Cordle was stuck in a job he hated and dreaming of music. Ricky Skaggs was Cordle’s earliest big supporter, and his recording of ‘Highway 40 Blues’ (also written in the late 70s) was his breakthrough as a songwriter. Skaggs revisits the song (one of many great Cordle songs he has recorded over the years) here, playing his mandolin as well as sharing the vocals. Skaggs’ 1983 #1 hit version made Cordle a name to be reckoned with, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “changed his life”.

I was a bit dismissive of Garth Brooks’ recording of ‘Against The Grain’ when I reviewed ‘Ropin’ The Wind’ recently, but the breezier bluegrass version he guests on here is much more enjoyable, although it’s still one of my less favourite tracks here. Much better is the beautiful high lonesome ‘Lonesome Dove’, which like ‘Against The Grain’ was written with Carl Jackson. Trisha Yearwood, who recorded it on her debut album, and is at her glorious best singing it here.

Dierks Bentley is an engaging guest on a version of the wry ‘You Can’t Take It With You When You Go’, which was a single for the great Gene Watson towards the end of his major label career. It is one of Cordle’s many collaborations with his friend Larry Shell. They wrote several songs here, including the most recently written song, the modern classic ‘Murder On Music Row’, which seems more topical every year. The guest vocalists are minor 90s star Daryle Singletary and the very underrated Kevin Denney, both of whom were regarded as “too country” for country music. Daryle is one of the best traditional country singers out there, and I’ve long regretted that Denney hasn’t recorded again since his one and only album in 2002. They do a great, heartfelt job, on this version. It is, incidentally, unfortunate that Denney’s name is mis-spelled on the cover. The liner notes (also available digitally) are otherwise excellent and informative, with a little discussion of how each song was written and picked up for recording.

Diamond Rio contribute duet and harmony vocals on Cordle and Shell’s ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’, which was one of my favorite of the band’s hit songs, and is another real highlight here. The gently melancholy tune is perfect for the emotional yet stoic lyric about the strains of life on the road, and the arrangement is beautiful. Less well known, but a very beautiful song written by the pair which deserves to be known better is the wistful ‘The Fields of Home’, which Ricky Skaggs recorded on Kentucky Thunder in 1989, and which feels like a sequel to ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’. Kenny Chesney appears as the duet partner here, and does a superb job exuding understated regret; I really wish he would return to this style of music.

Bluegrass giant Del McCoury guests on the playful ‘The Bigger The Fool’ (The Harder The Fall)’, which Chesney recorded on his first album (when he was a neotraditional youngster and had not yet gained fame and fortune or discovered the beach). The charming tune is one of two co-writes with Jim Rushing, the other being ‘Lonesome Standard Time’, which gave its name to Cordle’s band. Kathy Mattea, who had a hit with it, duets with Cordle here.

He teamed up with two great female songwriters, Leslie Satcher and the veteran Melba Montgomery, to write ‘Cure For The Common Heartache’. Terri Clark recorded it in the late 90s, and sounds great duetting with Cordle – it’s much better than anything on her current solo release. Cordle wrote ‘Rough Around The Edges’ for Travis Tritt with J P Pennington and Les Taylor from country-rockers Exile; it sounds much better in this energised bluegrass version, featuring Tritt.

This is a superb album, collecting an excellent set of songs and performing them with taste and heart.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White – ‘Hearts Like Ours’

skaggs whiteThe Skaggs and White families have been performing and recording together for decades, so it’s a little surprising that up to now there was never an full-length collaborative album featuring just Ricky and Sharon. They seek to rectify that oversight with the release of Hearts Like Ours, which became available on September 30th. There aren’t any real surprises in this release which fails to break any new ground, despite being a solid effort with many enjoyable efforts.

Produced by Ricky and released on the Skaggs Family Records imprint, the album consists of mostly duets, with a few Sharon solo numbers and plenty of fiddle and steel. The overall message is positive; there are no drinking, cheating or three-hanky songs to be found, although the album might have benefited from one or two of those. It opens with an excellent cover version of “I Run To You”, which doesn’t stray far from the original Marty Stuart and Connie Smith version. Almost as good is their rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, which was a Top 5 hit for Emmylou Harris and Don Williams in 1981. The couple also covers their own 1986 hit “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which is well done, but as is usually the case with re-recordings, it does not compare to the original version.

Neither “When I’m Good And Gone” nor “I Was Meant To Love You” is a duet; Sharon takes the lead and Ricky sings harmony on both songs which were written by Leslie Satcher; the former being co-written with Buddy Jewell who had brief shot at country stardom in the early 2000s. Another former country star, Barbara Fairchild wrote “It Takes Three”, which is a little too saccharine for my taste. Although I enjoyed the title track, another Marty Stuart/Connie Smith composition that features lead vocals from Sharon and harmony from Ricky, it was not quite as good as I thought it would be. I’d like to hear the songrwiters perfrom this one.

The songwriting team of Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote some of my favorite songs back in the 80s, so it is no surprise that their “Hold On Tight (Let It Go)” is the best song on the album (with “I Run To You” running a close second). “No Doubt About It”, the album’s sole bluegrass track, is also quite good. The two Christian-themed songs, “Reasons To Hang On” and “Be Kind”, have to be classified as missteps, albeit slight ones. I enjoy religious music, but the Skaggses have an unfortunate tendency to venture into contemporary Christian territory when more traditonal gospel would play more to their strengths.

Though I wanted to like this album a little more than I did, overall its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and fans of Ricky Skaggs and The Whites will find much to enjoy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Woman I Am’

picklerI wasn’t terribly impressed with Kellie Pickler when she first arrived on the scene and quickly wrote her off as a marginal talent without a lot of staying power. I was forced to reassess my opinion of her with the release of last year’s surprisingly good 100 Proof, which found her eschewing the trappings of contemporary country in favor of a more traditional sound. Predictably, 100 Proof’s singles received little support from radio and the album sold poorly. Pickler’s contract with BNA Records was terminated shortly thereafter, and I figured that the artistic growth she showed on 100 Proof was just a one-off. But once again Pickler proved me wrong. She signed with Black River Entertainment last fall, and The Woman I Am, her first album for the indie imprint, was released just this month.

Like 100 Proof, The Woman I Am was produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. Unlike 100 Proof, it is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, serving notice that though Kellie may no longer be a major label artist, she still has her eye on the charts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider most of today’s mainstream releases unlistenable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this album. It has a couple of weak songs and some questionable production choices at times, but from beginning to end it maintains a semblance to actual country music and never dissolves into the lackluster Lite-FM sound that mars so much of today’s country music.

Two singles have been released so far. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a decent ballad that I probably would have liked a lot more if I’d never heard Pam Tillis’ version. The uptempo “Little Bit Gypsy” is Kellie’s current single. I quite enjoyed this one, despite the slightly cluttered nature of the production towards the end. Sadly, neither single has garnered much attention from radio. I don’t know how aggressively Black River will continue to promote this project, but there are several other worthy contenders for future single release.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Pickler is no exception as she opts to hock her engagement ring rather than return it to her two-timing ex-fiance in “Ring For Sale”, which was written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton. “Bonnie and Clyde”, on which Kellie shares a co-writing credit with Kyle Jacobs and Liz Rose, is also quite good, despite a somewhat heavy-handed “Indian Outlaw” like arrangement. It is the ballads, however, on which Pickler truly shines, particularly on the lovely title track, which she also co-wrote, and “Tough All Over”, a Gary Nicholson and Leslie Satcher composition and not the 1990 Shelby Lynne song of the same name. “Buzzin'” is pleasant but lyrically shallow, and “No Cure For Crazy” quickly disintegrates into a too loud and too cluttered sonic mess.

The Woman I Am isn’t an outstanding album, but it is a very good one that proves that 100 Proof wasn’t just a fluke and that there is more substance to Kellie Pickler than one might have guessed based upon her first two albums and the dumb blonde shtick she engaged in at the time. The Woman I Am deserves a listen, even if like me, you weren’t a huge fan of Kellie’s early efforts.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘My Heart’

MyHeartLorrie Morgan’s 1997 release Shakin’ Things Up did not live up to its title, producing only one bona fide hit. She followed it up with a non-country vanity project, 1998’s Secret Love, a collection of covers of pre-rock-and-roll pop songs from the 1940s and 1950s. By the time she was ready to get back to business, she found herself struggling — like many other veteran artists — to remain commercially relevant in a drastically changed country music landscape that had embraced more crossover-minded artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

1999’s My Heart, which teamed Lorrie up with a new producer, Csaba Petocz, was an attempt to update her sound, with mixed results. The album only produced two singles, one of which was “Maybe Not Tonight”, her duet with Sammy Kershaw, which had already appeared on his album of the same title. The other was “Here I Go Again”, which was written by Kim Richey. These are two of the best songs on the album. The AC-leaning “Maybe Not Tonight” reached #17 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but “Here I Go Again” was a commercial flop that only made it to #72. Leslie Satcher’s “Between Midnight and Tomorrow” would have been a good choice for a third single, but BNA seemed to lose interest in further promoting the album.

The album contains two very nice ballads “Strong Enough To Cry”, written by Max D. Barnes and Rory Lee Feek, and “On This Bed” written by Lorrie’s then-husband Jon Randall. The album’s opening track “The Things That We Do”, which finds Lorrie and guest vocalist Jo Dee Messina, lamenting the monotony of life’s day to day tasks, is pleasant but about as interesting as the mundane chores it enumerates.

The album is less successful when Petocz and Morgan attempt to court the crossover audience. “Where Does That Leave Me?” is a tedious and overwrought AC ballad and “I Did” is a dull acoustic middle-of-the-road number. When I first heard “The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You”, my initial thought was that Lorrie was trying to channel Shania. I was unaware at the time that the song had been written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Bryan Adams.

My Heart contains a handful of decent songs, but overall it is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It would have benefited from a little more variety and tempo and less of a tendency on the part of Petocz and Morgan to play it safe. My Heart sold poorly and was Morgan’s last full-length album for BNA, marking the beginning of the end of the major label phase of her career. She released one more Greatest Hits collection for the label that included a few new tracks, and then collaborated with Sammy Kershaw for a one-off project for RCA, before moving on to the independent labels.

My Heart is not essential listening, but it can be obtained very cheaply and is worth getting for the handful of good songs it contains.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘I Let Her Talk’

i let her talkSinger-songwriter Erin Enderlin is responsible as a writer for two of the best songs to hit mainstream country music in the past decade: Alan Jackson’s hit ‘Monday Morning Church’ and Lee Ann Womack’s last chart record, the top 15 ‘Last Call’. Enderlin is also a fine vocalist in her own right, and has just released her second almost full length album (nine tracks). Producer Alex Kline (a multi-instrumentalist and former member of all-girl group the Lunabelles who BNA were promoting a couple of years ago) has orchestrated a traditionally-based sound with a contemporary edge. Dan Dugmore’s steel and Jenee Fleenor’s fiddle are prominent, although it is occasionally just a little too busy-sounding.

New versions of her two big successes are understandably included, and it’s always interesting to hear the writer’s take. An intimate version of the exquisitely sad ‘Monday Morning Church’ with a delicate piano backing is exceptional and tear-provoking. ‘Last Call’ is inevitably not quite as superlative as the hit versions (Erin has an excellent voice but she can’t quite match up to Lee Ann Womack), but it is still very good, and the very tasteful production supports Erin’s vocal perfectly.

Erin clearly has a gift for story songs, and there are some great examples on this record, brought alive in vivid color. The excellent title track is cowritten with the wonderful Leslie Satcher, and is a real highlight. It is written from the viewpoint of an initially sympathetic listener who, while taking refuge from her own troubles in a bar, listens to another woman tell her story of a sordid affair, with a devastating twist:

She was pouring out her heart and soul
So loud I couldn’t even think

I let her talk about the hotel room
Where she spent last night
I let her talk about the married man
And his soft green eyes
A careless drunk will show you pictures too
So baby, I let her talk about you

Another excellent story song with a bar room and cheating theme, but one more sympathetic to the woman, the very closely observed ‘Get That At Home’ is a about a desperately lonely wife fending off feelings of guilt over her pending first-time adultery. She wouldn’t be out looking for love elsewhere,

If she felt that he still loved her.

The dark-tinged exploration of a conversation with a man whose drink problem has wrecked his life, ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ is another highlight; it has been recorded by hit maker Luke Bryan, and was one of the few redeeming factors on his 2011 album Tailgates and Tanlines, and has also been cut by independent artist Jamie Richards. Erin’s version has an appropriately stark and lonesome feel.

The optimistic ‘Finding My Voice’ is about a woman leaving a bad relationship and finding herself, and is a very good mid-tempo number. The assertive ‘Unbroken’ triumphs over a lying cheating ex, and might have commercial potential.

The vibrant up-tempo ‘Countryside’ offers a gender twist on the hackneyed theme of country boy and city girl; it’s quite enjoyable and refreshingly actually sounds country, if a little bit busy production-wise. It’s very well-played, but there are just a few too many instruments to allow the song to breathe. ‘Good Kind Of Pain’ is a mid-tempo ballad about an obsessive love, and is yet another well-written song with a committed vocal, but the production feels a little cluttered.

It’s a shame one more track wasn’t included to round out the set, especially as she included versions of the two big hits on her last EP, and also that it is only available digitally, but this is still warmly recommended. It’s an indictment of the current country music industry that Erin isn’t either already a big star as an artist or on the fast track.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Rhinestoned’

rhinestonedAfter parting ways with Sony following the release of her 2002 tribute album to her father, Pam Tillis took a five-year hiatus from the recording studio. The time off did her some good from an artistic standpoint; Rhinestoned, which was released in the spring of 2007 on her own Stellar Cat imprint, easily trumps her last couple of uneven releases for Arista.

Surpisingly, Tillis only has songwriter credits on two of the album’s eleven tracks, though she did share production duties with Gary Nicholson and Matt Spicher. Many artists have difficulty getting access to first-rate material by the time the major label phases of their careers have ended, but this is decidedly not the case here. Rhinestoned boasts an impressive roster of songwriters, including Leslie Satcher, Lisa Brokop, Jon Randall, Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Bruce Robison. Pam’s brother Mel Jr. co-wrote one track with her.

My favorite track is the lovely opening number “Something Burning Out”, penned by Leslie Satcher, which finds Tillis lamenting a lost love and avoiding anything to do with fire — namely candles, the fireplace, and cigarettes — which remind her of happier times. I like to contrast this song to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”; the earlier song finds Tillis defiant and determined to party away her troubles, whereas “Something Burning Out” finds her more weary and resigned to her situation. Also quite good is “Band In The Window”, the first of the album’s two non-charting singles, which takes a humorous look at the bar scene, the patrons who hang out there, and the aspiring musicians who perform there.

“That Was A Heartache”, a Bruce Robison co-write with Leslie Satcher, is another favorite. Pam performs it well, but it deserved a wider audience than she was able to reach at this point of her career. I’d like to see a mainstream artist cover this tune, though I can’t think of anyone from the current crop of artists who could do it justice, and country radio would probably not be interested in it anyway. Kellie Pickler did recently cover “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, a pretty but unmemorable and slightly dull ballad.

Pam co-wrote “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” with Gary Nicholson, a track on which she duets with fellow performer John Anderson. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair these two up but they sound very good together and I wouldn’t mind hearing more collaborations from them. The Matraca Berg – Gary Harrison tune “Crazy By Myself” is given a Dixeland jazz arrangement, which provides a nice change of pace, though the production on the track is a little heavy-handed.

“Bettin’ Money On Love” is the album’s most unusual track. It is mostly spoken and not sung. I’m not a huge fan of spoken word songs, but this one has a really good fiddle track and I have to admit it is well done. Tillis portrays a bar owner — perhaps the same bar depicted in “Band In The Window” — who has banned football viewing from her establishment and goes on to recount the tale of her ex-lover who gambled away Tillis’ beloved Mustang on a football game.

Rhinestoned was apparently intended to be a 1970s-style “hippie country” record, and though I’m not sure it really succeeds on that level, it is a very entertaining and well-performed collection of songs that proved that while her hitmaking days may be behind her, the world hasn’t heard the last of Pam Tillis. And for that we are most grateful.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Every Time’

every timePam’s last 1990s release (in 1998) was co-produced by the arist with Billy Joe Walker Jr. It was her first Arista album not to be certified gold, marking a commercial downturn for her. It may also mark a period of personal turmoil following her divorce from songwriter Bob DiPiero, it is also noticeable that she did not contribute to the songwriting on this album. Her vocals are (as usual) excellent throughout.

There were only two modestly performing singles. ‘I Said A Prayer’, an upbeat Leslie Satcher song given rather poppy production which was Pam’s last top 20 hit, peaked at #12. I personally prefer the prettily melodic title track (penned by Tommy Lee James and Jennifer Kimball), but this one only just squeezed into the top 40.

Leslie Satcher got two more cuts on this album. ‘You Put The Lonely On Me’ is another up-tempo number with an assertive approach and some nice honky tonk piano, which isn’t bad. The best of Satcher’s songs (and one of the two best tracks on the album) is ‘Whiskey On The Wound’, a sad story song about a man whose tangled love life leads him into the deep waters of alcoholism.

The other standout is the magnificent pain-filled steel-led ballad ‘Hurt Myself’, written by Savannah Snow. The protagonist compares her relationship with a toxic ex with other forms of self-destructiveness. ‘A Great Disguise’ is another very good song about hiding the pain of a breakup, which had previously been recorded by Martina McBride. Pam’s interpretation is more subtle than Martina’s powerful belting, but both versions are good.

‘A Whisper And A Scream’, written by Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham, is a fine song about striking the right balance in life, which is much better than the title sounds. The insistent mid-tempo ‘Lay The Heartache Down’ written by Jamie O’Hara is also pretty good, with harmonica fills.

‘We Must Be Thinking Alike’ is quite pleasant but ultimately forgettable, while ‘Not Me’ is boring pop filler. ‘After Hours’ is also rather dull.

There are a couple of great tracks and several good ones, but this album as a whole fails to reach the heights of Pam’s best work, and it’s not entirely surprising that it failed to make much of a mark. It’s certainly worth cherrypicking the best tracks on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be obtained very cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review – Aaron Tippin – ‘People Like Us’

TippinpeopleBy the turn of the century, Aaron Tippin was fading into obscurity. His What This Country Needs album didn’t yield any career defining singles and he hadn’t scored a major hit in more than five years. For his second album for Lyric Street, he got the career jolt he was looking for.

An argument between him and his wife Thea birthed the stoke of luck he needed. Muscular revenge anthem “Kiss This” brought Tippin one of his most significant career singles, complete with a perfectly biting lyric:

Why don’t you kiss, kiss this

And I don’t mean on my rosy red lips

Me and you, we’re through

And there’s only one thing left for you to do

You just come on over here one last time

Pucker up and close yours eyes

And kiss this goodbye

“Kiss This” may have everything to do with rock, and I can see where some may deem it distasteful, but for me it works. Tippin gives beautifully confident vocal that works in favor of his unique styling and I love the track’s biting edge.

The success of “Kiss This” pushed Tippin’s People Like Us album into the top 5, marking it the highest charting record of his career. Unfortunately for Tippin, the commercial success of the project ends there.

The similarly sounding title track, which wouldn’t have been out of place on any of Tippin’s earlier work, only managed to squeak into the top 20 where it peaked at #17. A third single, the excellent fiddle-laden ballad “Always Was” petered out at #40.

Given the progressive nature of “Kiss This,” I fully expected People Like Us to lean more in that vein, but co-producers Mike Bradley and Biff Watson keep the record fairly traditional. “And I Love You” has wonderful fiddle riffs even if the lyric is a bit generic, “I’d be Afraid of Losing You” is an excellent country shuffle (written by Mark Collie and Leslie Satcher), “Lost” has a nice early-2000s style honky-tonk beat and lyric, and “Every Now and Then (I Wish Then Was Now)” makes more use of fiddle to give it ear catching appeal.

He slicks up the proceedings again on “Big Boy Toys,” and in the context of the album, it would’ve made a worthy single choice. The track, which Tippin co-wrote with Buddy Brock, isn’t great but it works for his aesthetic and brings out a nice tone in his voice. Same goes for “The Night Shift,” which recalls “Girl on the Billboard” era Del Reeves thanks to Tippin’s somewhat deadpan delivery. He also does well on the twangy “Twenty-Nine and Holding.”

Tippin closes People Like Us collaborating with his wife on the tender “The Best Love We Ever Made.” It’s good, but hearing him trying to pull of tenderness with his gruff voice is kind of laughable. He may be a sweet husband and father, but that doesn’t translate through his vocal on this song.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear the decidedly country arrangements on People Like Us as I had anticipated an amped up rockfest. He doesn’t really hit on anything revelatory with any of the songs here (apart from “Kiss This”) but he gives it a nice valiant effort. People Like Us is a solid, if somewhat unspectacular album.

Grade: B

Album Review: John Corbett – ‘Leaving Nothin’ Behind’

leaving nothin behindWhen a successful actor turns his hand to music, the result is often met with accusations of vanity projects. But I thought John Corbett’s first album, back in 2006, was a good record on its own merits, with the actor showing off a smoky voice with an interesting tone and although he doesn’t write he clearly has a good ear for material. His latest effort is also worthwhile. The album is produced by Gary Paczosa with Corbett’s friend Jon Randall Stewart, who wrote the best song on Corbett’s first project (‘Cash’) and also contributed most of the songs on this one – and that level of quality material helps make the album stand out. Corbett’s smoky voice is fairly distinctive, backed up by the harmonies of Randall, Sarah Buxton, Jessi Alexander and John Cowan, while the overall sound is contemporary but not over-produced.

Perhaps my favourite track is the dark-timbred Western story song ‘El Paso’ (not the Marty Robbins classic of the same name but perhaps a sequel) which Randall wrote with John Wiggins. The narrator is falsely accused of murder:

There ain’t no judge and jury
And there damn sure ain’t no proof
But the sheriff’s needing someone in that noose
Even though I told the truth

I wasn’t even in El Paso
When they gunned that cowboy down
I was in the arms of Rosa
Sleeping safe and sound
So remember when you hang me
All I’m guilty of
Drinking cheap tequila
And falling in love

The track is given a Western style production and allows Corbett to show off the lower extent of his vocal range, and is a real highlight.

Wiggins also co-wrote the reflective metaphorical ‘Me And Whiskey’ about a man’s ongoing on-and-off problems with alcohol. This is another excellent song. ‘Cocaine And Communion’, a Leslie Satcher co-write, tells the age old story of the struggle between addiction and God with a mother’s prayers eventually winning out:

I’ve hung out with the Devil
Like I never knew the Lord
But I was not raised a rebel
And I don’t wanna be a rebel any more

The tenderly sung and very touching story song ‘Dairy Queen’ tells a story about a woman who never forgets her first love (who died in Vietnam), and despite a happy marriage

There’s a part of her still belongs to him

‘Steal Your Heart’ is a likeable breezy declaration of love which opens the album to confident effect, written by Randall with Gary Nicholson and Paul Overstreet. A line from the song lends the album its title.

‘Name On A Stone’ was written with Bill Anderson, and relates a father’s funeral with no mourners beyond family, prompting the protagonist to decide he must leave something of substance behind when his own time comes.

The upbeat ‘Backside Of A Backslide’ was written with Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Chris Stapleton, about a husband begging his wife to let him back yet again. Its irrepressible optimism has a lot of charm, and I wouldn’t bet against it succeeding.

Jon Randall’s songs are rounded out by a few obscure but interesting covers; the Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Rainy, Windy, Sunshine’ (a rodeo rider’s letter from the road to a lover) is pretty good with a relaxed vocal. ‘Satin Sheets’ is not the Jeanne Pruett hit but a sardonic Southern rocker about the celebrity lifestyle written by Willis Alan Ramsey which Waylon Jennings recorded in the 70s; it’s probably my least favorite track here but performed with enthusiasm.

The only new outside song without Jon Randall’s hand is also good. ‘Tennessee Will’, written by Pat McLaughlin and Adam Hood, which has a relaxed feel, rootsy arrangement and atmospheric southern mood.

If Corbett was serious about pursuing a country music career, this is radio-friendly enough for commercial success. As a labor of love, it is a highly enjoyable record, and as a bonus, it is an effective showcase for the songs of one of Nashville’s finest songwriters.

Grade: A

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Waking Up Laughing’

waking up laughingIf Timeless was an encouraging reminder that Martina McBride was a real country singer underneath all the pop gloss, her next studio project was a disappointing regression in form.

Lead single ‘Anyway’ was much vaunted as Martina’s first venture into writing her own material, with the help of the Warren Brothers. Unfortunately, the would-be inspirational lyrics don’t get beyond the Hallmark level, and while no doubt heartfelt, overall it sounds like something written with more of an ear for big notes Martina could excel belting out than real depth of thought or emotion. She certainly sings the hell out of it, to the extent of oversinging at some points; this is not a song or performance with any notion of subtlety. The big contemporary piano-and-strings ballad was however what radio programmers expected and wanted from Martina, and it did much better than the singles from Timeless, giving Martina her first top 5 hit since 2003’s ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’.

Another McBride co-write with the Warrens (plus pop-country writers Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo), the exceptionally forgettable, bland and overproduced ‘How I Feel’ peaked ten spots lower, at #15. It makes its predecessor sound a lot better in contrast.

Martina and the Warren Brothers also wrote (with Nick Trevissick) ‘Beautiful Again’ a frankly depressing tale of an abused girl turned single mother, set to an inappropriately perky and poppy tune. I didn’t like it at all, or find the protagonist’s cheery optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary remotely credible. ‘Cry Cry (Til The Sun Shines)’ is well meaning but lyrically vapid. Other songs fitting the bland and boring template are ‘I’ll Still Be Me’ and ‘Everybody Does’.

The last single, the socially conscious ‘For These Times’, is a well sung and thoughtfully written Leslie Satcher song but the inevitable gospel backing vocals seem unimaginative. It crept into the top 40, but failed to get higher than #35.

Of the better songs, ‘If I Had Your Name’ (written by Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Steve McEwan) isn’t at all bad pop-country, with a vicious little stab at her soon-to-be-ex. ‘Tryin’ To Find A Reason’ has a pretty tune and touching lyric about a relationship on the rocks. Martina’s interpretation is subtle, and Keith Urban guests effectively on harmony. ‘House Of A Thousand Dreams’ is a beautifully delivered mature reflection on a dilapidated home and marriage. ‘Love Land’ is a delicate story song, written by Tom Douglas and Rachel Thibodeau, about a teenage marriage which survives the tragedy of losing a baby. These four are worth hearing.

Overall, though, this album’s principal failing is not that it is bad (she has produced worse, particularly Emotion), but rather too often it’s just plain boring. Martina seems to have been trying to playing things far too safe placating her contemporary fans after Timeless, but the end result doesn’t really deliver on either count. It looks as if fans agreed with my assessment of Martina’s downward trajectory. Timeless was her last platinum release, with this album topping out at gold, while more recent efforts have sold even more poorly.

Grade: C

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Greatest Hits’

220px-MartinaMcBrideGreatestHitsOne of the longest raging debates in the career of Martina McBride is the point in which her music took that pivotal turn from excellent to uninspired dreck. To an extent, it happened with Emotion, but I would argue the last truly great original music McBride has recorded came in the form of the four new tracks included on her Greatest Hits album.

In 2001 RCA saw fit to take stock of McBride’s career to date, releasing her first comprehensive career retrospective. The release came one week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in an eerie parallel, McBride is seen wearing an American Flag tank top on the cover. McBride has stated that the cover wasn’t in response to the attacks (which would’ve been impossible given the CD and cover art were planned long before the release) but rather homage to her signature tune “Independence Day”.

For longtime fans the most intriguing aspect of the project wasn’t the music itself but the CD booklet, which featured ample liner notes from McBride and her producer Paul Worley discussing each track. It was great to read the stories behind the songs and gain insight into their thought processes. It’s kind of a shame most artists don’t take the time to do this, as the deeper level of appreciation I gained for McBride is invaluable.

Although the project itself is fairly typical, it only includes her top ten hits; the generous 18 tracks covering 69 minutes make it my favorite Greatest Hits album of all-time. And although it omits The Time Has Come and singles like “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road,” it’s an excellent comprehensive overview of McBride’s career to date.

The new tracks show an artist experiencing an artistic uptick. All four, vastly different from one another, perfectly illustrate the different sides of McBride’s musical personality while concurrently displaying her measured growth as an artist.

“When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues,” penned by Leslie Satcher, was the lead single peaking at #8 in late summer 2001. A rocking story song, the track proved a departure for McBride both thematically and musically – with a mix of dobro and fiddles (as well as The Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother, Where Art Thou? providing backing vocals), it was the most traditional-leaning track she’d recorded in more than four years.

“Blessed,” a somewhat self-indulgent optimistic prophecy came next, topping the charts in early 2002. Her last #1 to date, the Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Vergas penned tune is far more pop than its predecessor, but she sings it well and I really like the vibe of contentment, a mirror of her personal life. Unfortunately the track sounded better back then. The addition of the drum machine feels very dated more than ten years later.

Far more consistent was the excellent third single, Rick Ferrell and Rachel Proctor’s “Where Would You Be.” By far the strongest of her relationship-turned-sour songs, McBride has never sounded better on record, turning the chorus into a rousing tour-de-force. The track peaked at a respectable #3, but fully deserved to follow “Blessed” to the top of the charts.

McBride hit another high note with Stephanie Bentley and Rob Crosby’s heartbreaking child-negligent tale “Concrete Angel.” Even with the grim subject matter, I’ve always loved the song – it was easily one of the strongest story songs at country radio in the fall of 2002. Bentley and Crosby execute every detail perfectly, from the teacher who ignores the signs to the night she’s killed at the hands of her mother. You feel for the little girl who slipped through the cracks, and it kind of makes you look at your life differently. Next to “Where Would You Be” this is my favorite of the four singles.

Sadly, I had very high expectations that McBride was destined to follow in Kenny Chesney’s footsteps and become huge with her albums to come. I thought this would mark the beginning of a McBride routinely nominated for Album of the Year trophies and selling out large concert tours. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of what did transpire, album after album of dreck (the next one had singles that were far lesser retreads of “Where Would You Be” (“How Far”) and “Concrete Angel” (“God’s Will”) that just didn’t measure up, but at least we have moments like these to remember when she was one of the best contemporary songstresses around.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘His And Hers’

For Joey + Rory’s third studio album, they have stayed with producer Gary Paczosa, who helmed last year’s charming Christmas album. As with that Christmas record, Paczosa does a good job, but not quite as sparking a sound as that given to their first two albums by Carl Jackson. Joey’s voice is what sets this duo apart, and it was a little disappointing that this time around she and Rory have split the lead vocals equally (hence the choice of title). I can appreciate they want to underline the point that this is an equal partnership professionally as in life, but while Rory’s voice is perfectly listenable and he shows fine interpretative skills here, Joey is one of the best female vocalists around at the moment. Another slight disappointment was that the delightful ‘Headache’, released as a single last year, didn’t make the final cut.

I have already written about the somber lead single, the stunning ‘When I’m Gone’, and this impresses me more each time I hear it. There are two other really outstanding songs here, both written by Rory with the impressive Erin Enderlin.

The title track tells the story of a couple slowly growing apart, lyrically very similar to the song of the same title recorded some years ago by John Anderson, but the sweet melody and Joey’s subtle vocal set this apart:

All a husband and wife
Have left of a life
That had such a beautiful start
Are two kids torn apart
And two broken hearts
His and hers

Also excellent, ‘Waiting For Someone’ has a woman who meets the perfect man while waiting in a bar for a blind date (perhaps). It seems in fact to be a more subtle ‘The Chair’ situation, as she winds up telling the man she has been talking to,
I was waiting for someone like you”.

A perfectly constructed lyric and delicate tune are interpreted beautifully by Joey’s sultry but vulnerable vocal.

The other songs on which Joey sings lead are pretty good if not quite up to that standard. Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Let’s Pretend We Never Met’ is a swinging flirtatious number with a wife trying to jazz up her tired marriage, which is quite fun. ‘Love Your Man’ is a pacy and quite enjoyable song encouraging another married woman to persevere with loving her husband, which Joey helped Rory and his daughter Heidi to write. ‘He’s A Cowboy’ is a tribute to the titular cowboy, which doesn’t bring anything new to a wellworn theme, but is beautifully sung with Jon Randall Stewart on backing vocals.

In the compelling story song ‘Josephine’ (on of Rory’s own compositions), he voices the letters of a Civil War Confederate soldier separated from his wife, wracked by guilt over killing a young enemy soldier and anticipating his own death. This is excellent.

‘A Bible And A Belt’ was written by Rory with Philip Coleman and sounds autobiographical. I’m not a big fan of correlating religion and corporal punishment, so this one’s positive, nostalgic feel doesn’t quite work for me, but it is nicely put together with Rory’s finest vocal.

I really like ‘Teaching Me How To Love You’, which rich-voiced teenager Blaine Larsen (who was discovered by Rory) recorded back in 2005. I was disappointed and a little surprised he never broke through, but while Blaine’s version sounds better than Rory’s on a purely aural level, I couldn’t be convinced by the delivery from an 18 year old talking about all the life lessons taught by past loves, and Rory’s maturity makes it infinitely more believable.

The jazzy ‘Someday When I Grow Up’, written by Rory with Tonya Lynette Stout and Dan Demay has a father refusing to mature, and is quite amusing with an interesting instrumental arrangement, but has Rory’s least impressive vocal performance. A similarly slightly flawed but lovable man is the protagonist of a charming relaxed cover of Tom T Hall’s love song ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey’ ( a #4 hit for the singer-songwriter in 1974), and this is highly enjoyable in a Don Williams/Alan Jackson style.

‘Cryin’ Smile’ is a bit of a list song (written by the team of Phil O’Donnell, Gary Hannan and Ken Johnson), but Rory’s invested vocal lifts this song about those emotional and sometimes bittersweet moments in life.

As expected, this sounds good, but although there are a number of standout tracks, overall the material falls just a little short of their first two albums. But at its best, there are some great songs, and the duo remains one of my favourite acts in country music.

Grade: A-

Television Review – ‘The Joey + Rory Show’

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-