My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Leslie Satcher

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Next Big Thing’

Vince wrote or co-wrote all 17 of the songs on 2003’s Next Big Thing, and produced the album himself. It represents a marked return to form after the gloopy lovefest that was Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, inspired by Vince’s second marriage to contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant.

He might have had a top 10 hit from his last album, but this album sees him apparently (and presciently) accepting that his time in the spotlight might be over. The beaty and surprisingly upbeat title track (written with Al Anderson and John Hobbs and featuring horns) and the more resigned ‘Young Man’s Town’ (with Emmylou Harris on harmony) both take a look at the fleeting nature of the music business and its fascination with youth and good looks. Both were released as singles, with the brassy party sound of ‘Next Big Thing’ providing Vince with his last top 20 hit and the more reflective ‘Young Man’s Town’ not making the top 40; perhaps the accuracy of the lyric hit a bit too close to home for country radio.

‘This Old Guitar And Me’ is an old musician’s love song to his first instrument and fond memories of his early career. The Leslie Satcher co-write ‘Old Time Fiddle’ is an enjoyable love letter to Cajun music, with appropriate fiddle solo and Leslie herself on harmony. Leslie also co-wrote the tenderly delivered ballad ‘Two Hearts’, where Lee Ann Womack provides the harmony vocal.

‘Someday’, the album’s second single (peaking at #31) is a delicately pretty AC-influenced ballad written with former pop star Richard Marx, wistfully dreaming of the possibility of future love. ‘These Broken Hearts’, written by Vince with his keyboard player Pete Wasner, is a sad ballad about breaking up with someone, with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald on harmony. Both songs are set against a string arrangement courtesy of John Hobbs and the Nashville String machine, and are pleasant listening without being truly memorable.

There are a few other less inspired moments, like the throwaway ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine On You’. The mid-tempo ‘Don’t Let Her Get Away’, written with Anderson, is OK filler which sounds like some of Vince’s RCA recordings with banked but thin harmonies.

A number of the songs brood about failed relationships past. In the contemporary ballad ‘She Never Makes Me Cry’, Vince prefers an unexciting life with his new wife to the ups and downs of a passionate past love. ‘We Had It All’ is a mid-tempo plea to rekindle an old flame with a subtle Tex-Mex feel to the instrumentation. The bouncy and solidly traditional country ‘Without You’ delivers a more cheerful reaction to being single again, with Dawn Sears on harmony.

Dawn also sings a piercing harmony on the best song on the album. ‘Real Mean Bottle’ is a standout tribute to Merle Haggard, with a high lonesome feel and Bakersfield guitars:

It must have been a real mean bottle that made you write the songs that way
A real mean bottle
Poured straight from the Devil
It’s a miracle you’re standing here today

‘From Where I Stand’, written with Anderson and Hobbs, is a classic declaration of fidelity in the face of temptation, set to a beautiful tune with a bluesy harmony from Bekka Bramlett. This is another highlight, which could have been a big hit if released a few years earlier in Vince’s peak commercial period.

‘Whippoorwill River’, written with Dean Dillon, gently recalls childhood memories of life with his father. Vince’s daughter Jenny keeps things in the family by singing the harmony. A fictional look at family comes from the fiddle-led ‘You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody’, written with Reed Nielsen, is addressed to the protagonist’s motherless daughter who is running wild in a small town.

The album closes with the mellow and reflective farewell to a dying friend, ‘In These Last Few Days’, with wife Amy Grant on harmony. It was the fourth and last single to be released, but did not perform very well.

Sales were disappointing, with the record his first not to reach at least gold status since he signed to MCA, but that is no reflection on the quality of the music. The album could perhaps have done with a bit of weeding, as there are a few forgettable songs, but overall this was a strong release with a lot of worthwhile material. It’s easy to find, and well worth adding to your collection if you have previously overlooked it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Leslie Satcher – ‘Gypsy Boots’

Leslie Satcher is one of my favourite current songwriters, and she is also a fine singer with a velvety tone who can tackle both understated ballads and full-on attack songs with attitude. When she first came to Nashville from Texas, she did so with the aim of becoming a recording artist, before discovering her talent writing, and she has released two previous albums – the excellent Love Letters in 2001 and Creation in 2005. After a long delay, she has returned to the studio to record some of her more recent compositions, and it has proved to be worth the wait.

A couple of the songs are familiar. The title track has been recorded by Terri Clark, who co-wrote it with Leslie and Jon Randall. It’s not a favorite of mine, but Leslie’s version is funky and assertive with a strong rhythm and backing vocals effectively quoting the Motown classic ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, which give it real impact. The unapologetic ‘Tough’ was written for Kellie Pickler and is her most recent top 30 single; the original is okay but has struggled on the charts somewhat, and Leslie’s voice has more force behind it.

The mid-tempo ‘Where I Am’ (written with Michael P Heeney) is on a similar theme to ‘Gypsy Boots’ about a restless spirit with no particular destination in mind (and “only Jesus knows where I am”). It is, however, a much better song, which could easily be a hit if recorded by a major label artist.

The gently sung and pretty sounding ‘Reasons To Hang On’ (written with Stephanie Chapman) has Leslie affirming the joys of life, possibly to someone struggling to find reasons to live:

What more do you want?
You wanna hear the voice of God?
He’d just tell you to hang on
If he could get you on the phone
Oh what’s it gonna take for you to find your faith,
To wake up before they’re gone,
Your reasons to hang on?

The unusual and charming mid-tempo ‘Sing Like Loretta Lynn’ is written with Jim Lauderdale and tells of an angel’s night time visit to a similarly despondent woman, making her forget her broken heart with a vision of the music-filled streets of Heaven. There are also a couple of good but more conventional religious songs, ‘In The Shadow Of Your Wings’ and the very pretty ballad ‘Rock Of Your Love’ (written with Al Anderson and Vince Gill, and previously recorded by Vince on his These Days set in 2006).

The enjoyable and energetic ‘And The Well Run Dry’ is a story song co-written with Jim Beavers, sung with aggressive attack. It tells the story of a moonshining woman who finds religion, something which kills the party mood in the technically dry town:

She sold beer to the just gettin’ started
Shine to the too-far-gone
Whiskey to the broken hearted and the ones just holdin’ on…

Y’all, she had the whole town out there getting high
Til she got Jesus
And the well run dry

The effervescent ‘Somethin’ ‘Bout Your Lovin’’ written with Al Anderson and Delbert McClinton has a fun rockabilly feel with lots of Jerry Lee Lewis styled piano. ‘Delta Wedding’ is a slower sultry Southern blues which offers an atmospheric and closely observed picture of a shotgun wedding on a hot summer day in Mississippi, with a melting cake and a bride whose fancy hairdo “even Jesus wouldn’t mess with”:

And she’s just about covered up what they’ve just about covered up
All for a nail biting bundle of joy

The melancholic ‘Lonely Doesn’t Know How To Leave’ (also written with Anderson) has a soothing vocal as the protagonist stays up all night dwelling on her sadness.

Leslie’s voice is shown off by the completely acappella solo delivery (and occasionally spoken) of the closing story song about her father’s journey to visit relatives, ‘Georgia Trip ‘56’, which is a tour de force. There are also impressive harmonised acappella opening to ‘If I Had Wings’, a delicate ballad with a lovely tune, and ‘Where That Train Was Going’, a gripping story song written with Jon Randall, which has a bluesy feel.

This record is a joy from start to finish, although the overall feel is a bit bluesier and less traditional than one might expect from her songs written for others.

Grade: A

It is widely available digitally. Hard copy CDs can be obtained from Leslie’s website or from CDBaby, where you can also hear brief clips of the songs:

http://www.lesliesatcher.com/
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/lesliesatcher2

Amazon also sells the CD version, but at a higher price.

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Guitar Slinger’

It’s been half a decade since Vince Gill released a new album. On that occasion, he came out with four at once, with the critically acclaimed box set These Days. This time around the same team of Vince, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank has created a more concentrated effort with 15 tracks, recorded in Vince’s home studio. Vince’s vocals sound thoroughly energised and invested in the material, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which I feel is more consistent in quality than that on These Days. It is definitely a mature work, with a number of the songs focussed on the prospect of death, but never a depressing one.

The joyous and amusing title track opens proceedings with a bang with many references to Vince’s life ranging from his “contemporary Christian singer” wife to last year’s Nashville floods (“half my stuff’s in the Cumberland River”. This really conveys the sheer joy of making music. In the equally lively up-tempo ‘All Nighter Comin’’ (written with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and only on the deluxe version) a newly unemployed truck driver sets aside his troubles for the evening. Despite the depressing background, the mood is uplifting, and either of these songs would sound great on the radio.

The beautifully sung lead single ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ is a tender but confident gospel ballad written with Vince’s wife Amy Grant, Will Owsley (who tragically committed suicide last year) and Dillon Osborn. Owsley and Amy also co-wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘When Lonely Comes Around’, which is pleasant but forgettable. Amy and Vince duet on their song ‘True Love’, an AC ballad which pays tribute to their relationship, “true love that found us in time”. It isn’t a particularly interesting song, but the authenticity of the emotions make it touching beyond its merits. Amy’s daughter Sarah Chapman sings harmony.

Talented singer-songwriter and now a Pistol Annie, Ashley Monroe wrote two songs with Vince. The excellent ‘If I Die’, a beautifully constructed reflection on mortality and what comes after, is one of the best tracks on a fine record. Her other contribution, ‘Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You’ is a low-key, tender love ballad with a pretty melody and Ashley’s distinctive voice evident on harmony.  Lee Ann Womack, meanwhile, provides tasteful backing vocals on ‘Lipstick Everywhere’, a retelling of a passionate one night stand with no subsequent regrets or repercussions. Another fine artist, Texas traditionalist Amber Digby co-wrote ‘One More Thing I Wished I’d Said’, dwelling with regret on the missed opportunities in a failed relationship. Sadly, she doesn’t sing on the track, but Dawn Sears makes a good substitute. These two are only included on the deluxe version, which is well worth the additional cost.

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Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘You And You Alone’

Partly due to the disappointing performance of 1996’s Full Circle, Randy Travis departed from Warner Bros. to become the flagship artist of the newly-formed DreamWorks Nashville in 1998. You And You Alone was his first collection for the fledgling label. Hoping to rejuvenate his flagging career, he put together a new production team consisting of himself, Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, marking only the second time in his career that he worked without Kyle Lehning. The result was a slightly more contemporary, definitely more radio-friendly but still true to the traditions of country music, collection of songs. The uptempo “Out Of My Bones” was released as the advance single in March 1998. It found Travis sounding more energetic than he had in quite some time, and it quickly re-established him at country radio. Returning to the Top 10 for the first time since 1995’s “The Box”, “Out Of My Bones” told the tale of a man’s vain attempts to rid himself of the memory of his ex. It peaked at #2.

DreamWorks decided to follow up this success with another uptempo number, the album’s opening track “The Hole”, which didn’t fare quite as well, but still managed to crack the Top 10, landing at #9. Next, they sent to radio the beautiful midtempo “Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man”, written by Trey Bruce and Glen Burtnik and previously recorded by Mark Collie. More contemporary than most of Randy’s singles, it may have been an acknowledgement of the changing tides at country radio, which had shifted back towards pop. Like “Out Of My Bones”, “Spirit of A Boy” just missed topping the chart, leveling out at #2.

The album’s fourth single was the decidedly more country — and possibly too country for country radio — “Stranger In My Mirror”, written by Kim Williams and the great Skip Ewing. The sound was a throwback to Randy’s Storms of Life days, but despite being the best track on the album, it stalled at #16 and unfortunately marked the beginning of Randy’s declining chart performance.

There is only one throwaway track in this collection — the Billy Livsey and Don Schlitz-penned “I Did My Part”, but the rest of the collection is first rate and holds its own with Randy’s better known earlier work. Particularly good are the bluegrass-tinged “I’m Still Here, You’re Still Gone” which features background vocals from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, and the superb title track, which features harmony vocals from two of its co-writers, Leslie Satcher and Melba Montgomery, along with Vince Gill. Melba, of course, is best known for her duet work with George Jones before he began recording with Tammy Wynette.

You And You Alone reversed Randy’s declining fortunes at country radio, albeit temporarily, but it failed to garner the impressive sales he’d enjoyed at the beginning of his major label career. Travis teamed up with Gallimore and Stroud one more time for 1999’s A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, which was a critical and commercial failure. Shortly thereafter, he was dropped from the DreamWorks Nashville roster and spent most of the next decade recording religious music, which resulted in one final #1 hit, 2000’s “Three Wooden Crosses.” He later rejoined Warner Bros. and returned to secular music with 2008’s Around The Bend.

Despite having produced three substantial hit singles, You And You Alone tends to be another overlooked gem in the Travis discography, and as a very small part of his catalog not controlled by Warner Bros., its singles rarely appear on hits compiliations. The album itself is still available at reasonable prices from third-party sellers at Amazon, and is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Life Goes On’

Life Goes On was the last album Terri Clark released during her decade-long association with Mercury Records.  It’s also her first without long-time producer Keith Stegall at the helm, as Byron Gallimore and James Stroud produce different tracks.  While it would be her only number-one charting album (on the Canadian Country Albums chart), only one single gained a little traction at radio. Two subsequent releases failed to chart in the U.S. or Canada, a sign that the label wasn’t at all invested in the album’s success.

The lone hit single from the set, ‘She Didn’t Have Time’, is a waltzing three-act story song that follows an independent woman through a separation from her husband, reinvention as a single mother, and finally, on to a happy ending when she meets the man of her dreams. Unfortunately, this stalled at a rather disappointing #25, no other singles charted, and was the signal of the end of Terri Clark’s hit-making days with country radio.

As with most Terri Clark records, here ballads make for the strongest moments. The album’s cornerstone is ‘I Wish He’d Been Drinking Whiskey’, a stone-country weeper in which the narrator laments her newly sober husband telling her he doesn’t love her anymore. And then there’s ‘Not Enough Tequila’, an understated healing-heart ballad that leans more to the contemporary than most of the album, and is another highlight.

The disc opens on a high note with a couple of jaunty up-tempo romps. The title track ‘Life Goes On’ revisits past heartaches on the way to true love, while ‘Damn Right’ bemoans the loss of a ill-fitted, yet passionate, love affair. Both follow the Terri Clark sound-template with the electric guitar leading the way, but also with prominent fiddle and the rhythm section mixed in high. The raucous ‘Honky Tonk Song’, from the pens of hit-making heavyweights Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher, is another high-octane number that hits all the right grooves.

The only duds come from the unbalanced number of up-tempos. Songs like ‘Bigger Windows’ and ‘Cowboy Days’ sound forced in both production, and Clark appears to be phoning them in. These are counter-balanced nicely by some of Clark’s own co-writes stacked at the end. ‘Travelin’ Soul’ is the obligatory life-on-the-road song the singer always finds room for, and ‘Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime’ is a shuffling number with the theme of goodbye is inevitable. Embrace it.

Label support or no, Life Goes On would prove another strong album in Terri Clark’s discography.

Grade: B-

Buy it from amazon.

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: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Twice Upon A Time’

Though he did release a handful of great ballads to country radio, some of which became bonafide hits, Joe Diffie was always more successful with fun, up-tempo numbers.  By the latter half of the 90s – nearly a decade into his hit-making career – country radio had begun to cool toward even Joe’s brand of humor meets neotraditional sound.  Like the last 2 singles from Life’s So Funny, the single releases from Twice Upon A Time continued Joe’s downward spiral from the limelight at country radio. There are no top-ten hits here, and the highest showing comes from the insidious ‘This Is Your Brain’s #25 peak.  Without much support from radio, it was also Joe Diffie’s first album since his debut not to be certified by the RIAA.  Its lack of radio and retail success notwithstanding, Twice Upon A Time doesn’t deserve its status as the end-note for Joe’s short-lived glory days, and is a step above some of his other, more commercially successful albums.

‘This Is Your Brain’ is a fast-paced, partly spoken, mostly amped up romp narrated by, you guessed it, your brain. Taking the hook from the pop-culture favorite drug resistance ads ‘this is your brain on drugs’ that featured an egg sizzling in a frying pan, among other scenarios, the brain is cautioning this guy about his lack of resistance for the opposite sex. Even with repeated warnings from the body’s control center, he still falls in love and loses more than a few I.Q. points every time. The Kelly Garrett and Craig Wiseman-penned tune has its clever moments, but it’s earworm melody will cool you on those before long.

My favorite on the album, and another missed single opportunity for Joe, was the album’s superb title track. Songwriters Skip Ewing and Kim Williams paint a picture of a couple at a crossroads. Tough times have clouded both their minds with doubt, and the idea of leaving has occurred to both of them, ‘The choice is ours, the pen’s still in our hands/We can right the wrong, or we can write the end‘, Joe sings with heartbroken conviction.

‘The Promised Land’ finds a man nostalgic for the place where his roots began. The strong religious undertones between the real-life memories should have played nicely on late 90s country radio (think: ‘Holes In The Floor of Heaven’), but as the final single it barely registered at #61 on the charts.

‘Show Me A Woman’ chugs along at breakneck speed, but doesn’t offer much more than the opportunity to jam with the band. Likewise, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’ features guitar solos that would make Brad Paisley envious, but is basically the product of a buzz-word mentality, taking the catch-phrase from the Apollo movies and attempting to build a song around it.

Joe contributed only one of his own songs this time out – a co-write with frequent collaborator Lonnie Wilson, ‘I Got A Feelin’, which was was first recorded by Tracy Lawrence  – though he did draw from the usual suspects found on his previous albums.  In addition to the title track, Craig Wiseman contributes the Bob DiPiero collaboration ‘Zero’, a much better song in the novelty format, wherein a man is counting down reasons, rights, and wrongs that lead to him being single, all to an infectious melody.  Dennis Linde’s ‘Call Me John Doe’ is a honky-tonking tale of a man who did his woman wrong one too many times.  Now he’s shivering in her freezer. Better than just album filler, any of these would were worth sending out to radio, some more than what was shipped to radio.

‘One More Breath’, written by Leslie Satcher, closes the set on a high note.  The mostly-piano lead ballad is a tender expression of gratitude coupled with a promise of never-ending devotion.  Perhaps a bit saccharine at times, it’s a well-written song that Joe delivers beautifully.  Though Joe continued to fill his albums with more schtick than substantial songs, Twice Upon A Time is an album that is more balanced between the two sides of Joe Diffie – the balladeer and the novelty-song singer – but it also offers other glimpses to a more contemporary artist with tracks like ‘Zero’ and the album closer.

Grade: B-

Twice Upon A Time is still widely available, on CD and digitally from amazon.

Unexpected places

Les Rochers de Naye, SwitzerlandA week ago I was on top of a mountain in Switzerland. I was startled when in the cafe the music playing in the background turned to Lady Antebellum’s ‘Need You Now’. I was in fact vaguely aware that the single had been released to pop radio in Europe as part of a serious attempt to break the group outside North America, following in the footsteps of Taylor Swift’s international assault on the ears of the tone-deaf. It was still a surprise for me to hear it. On investigation, I find the song is currently rising up the Swiss charts. Many country artists try to break Europe, some with more commitment than others, and success rates vary, but it seems to be working for Lady A, with their AC/melodious pop-influenced sound. The more solidly country rooted Brad Paisley was touring in Europe the same week and actually sold out his first London show before ticket sales were formally announced – I missed out on that due to having already planned the vacation time.

It reminded me of the most unexpected place I ever came across country music (also on vacation). That was in the lovely medieval city of Bruges in Belgium, which I visited a few years ago (probably around 2002 or 2003). On my way to a bus stop I came across a little shop selling country and blues CDs. It was closed at that time, but I took note of the opening hours and returned later, to find it had a pretty left field selection, including some really obscure independent releases. I ended up spending most of my souvenir budget for that trip on a selection of albums, most bought unheard, although in some cases they were ones I had read reviews of previously.

One I remember buying was Real Thing, a 2001 album by songwriter Monty Holmes under the joky band name Monty And The Pythons, for which I had been looking unsuccessfully for some time, having enjoyed Monty’s previous album All I Ever Wanted, released under his own name a few years earlier. It turned out not to be quite as good, but still worth having. I also picked up Rodney Hayden’s debut, coincidentally also entitled The Real Thing (both albums included covers of Chip Taylor’s song of that title), and No Regrets, an early release by the Texan Jamie Richards, whose most recent effort I reviewed recently. These two are both great records I still listen to quite often, and would recommend to anyone who likes real country music.

Others well worth the purchase included Shawn Camp’s Lucky Silver Dollar, and Jason Allen’s Something I Dreamed, plus a highly entertaining, mostly up-tempo album by a young man named Elbert West. From female artists there was a pretty good record by a Hispanic singer named Lydia Miller including early versions of ‘Singing To The Scarecrow’ (later cut by Sara Evans) and ‘Man With A Memory, Woman With A Past’ (subsequently recorded by Joe Nichols), Lisa O’Kane’s rather good, slightly jazzy-country ‘Am I Too Blue’, and a fine record from Leslie Satcher, one of the best songwriters in Nashville showing she has a lovely voice as well.

Although it isn’t one of my favorites from this haul, recent events have led me to return to Living In Your World, an uncompromisingly hard country/Bakersfield style CD by a then-unknown Arizona singer-songwriter named Troy Olsen which was produced in California by James Intveld, and featuring Jay Dee Maness (late of the Desert Rose Band) on steel. This showed some promise, but I didn’t hear of him again until recently; he’s spent a number of years honing his craft and eventually got signed to a major label deal with EMI. His debut single for the label, ‘Summer Thing’, is a generic and frankly boring summertime-themed number, and to be honest it would probably have passed me by altogether if I hadn’t recognised his name. Based on that early record, acquired by chance, I do at least feel confident that here is an artist who is genuinely a country singer rather than a pop singer in a cowboy hat, albeit one without the most distinctive of voices, and hope that the material improves – and that he hasn’t had to make too many compromises for the sake of a major label deal.

Where have you been most surprised to hear a country song played in public, or found a country record on sale?

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘No Place That Far’

After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.

Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.

Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30.  It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly.  I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.

Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher.  Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters.  Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.

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Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘Three Chords and the Truth’

Had Three Chords and the Truth been released about a decade earlier, it would have been a monster hit for Sara Evans. All of the tracks on this very traditional-sounding album would have been right at home on country radio in the late 80s, alongside the hits of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Reba McEntire and The Judds. But by the mid-1990s, the New Traditionalist movement had run out of steam and country music began once again to drift toward a more pop-leaning sound. Someone at RCA Records apparently felt that the time was right for traditionalism to make a comeback and thought that Sara Evans was the one to spearhead the movement. Unfortunately, country radio wasn’t interested in a traditionalist revival and gave the album little support. As such, it sold poorly, despite being one of the most solid debut efforts by any artist of any era. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Pete Anderson, who was best known for his work with Dwight Yoakam. Together he and Sara Evans crafted a retro-sounding collection that makes no attempt to tone down the twang in Sara’s voice. It is part Bakersfield, part Nashville Sound, and 100% country.

Sara shared co-writing credits on seven of the album’s tracks, including ‘True Lies’ which was released as her first single in advance of the album. It stalled at #59 on the Billboard country singles chart. The follow-up single, the excellent title track, fared slightly better, peaking just outside the Top 40 at #44. It was accompanied by Sara’s first music video, which, in keeping with the song’s retro theme, depicted her driving a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible and wearing vintage 1960s clothing. RCA made one final attempt to pitch this album to radio, with the release of a third single, ‘Shame About That’, which like its predecessors, failed to crack the Top 40, peaking at #48.

Three of the album’s eleven songs were covers: ‘I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail’ written by Harlan Howard and Buck Owens, ‘Imagine That’, a Justin Tubb composition that had reached #21 in 1962 for Patsy Cline, and ‘Walk Out Backwards’ which had been written by Bill Anderson, and had also been recorded by Connie Smith. The influences of all of these legends is apparent on these tracks, and throughout the album. The Bakersfield sound is represented with ‘I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail’. This was the song that Sara had recorded as a demo, which so impressed Harlan Howard that he helped her to secure her record deal with RCA. ‘Imagine That’ allowed her to show off her ability to sing a torch song, while “Walk Out Backwards” is pure, unadulterated, vintage country.

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Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘The Long Way Home’

terri clark the long way homeFollowing her exit from long-time label home Mercury Records in 2006, Terri Clark inked a deal with BNA Records just a few months later.  Under the Sony imprint, she released two singles to radio, but both stalled just inside the Top 40 on the U.S. Country chart.  Both were bona fide hits in her native homeland of Canada, however, as ‘Dirty Girl’ rose to a #13 peak and the unreleased album’s title cut, ‘In My Next Life’ went all the way to #1.  After delaying the release of the album several times, the label and Clark parted ways, with the singer promising to focus more of her energy on her native country, and possibly form her own label.

She did just that in earlier this year when she created BareTrack Records.   As promised to her fans, a live album was soon available.  Terri Clark Live: Road Rage was the first release on the new label, sold digitally and exclusively through Terri’s website and at her concerts.  When time came to release The Long Way Home, BareTrack struck a distribution deal with Capitol Nashville/EMI Canada to get physical copies of the CD to retailers across North America.  Recording the album in a bit of an unconventional way, Terri took to the studio for two days, and recorded the entire album in three takes.

Amid the turmoil within her career and label changes, Terri’s mother Linda Clark, was diagnosed with cancer.  The singer’s priority became caring for her mother and she returned to Canada for an extended stay.  After a long fight and with her mother in remission, Terri returned to Nashville to record The Long Way Home, armed with an arsenal of stellar songs and a vision of just how she wanted them to sound.  Every track on the album was written or co-written by Terri and her age is showing, and the signs of maturity setting in on Terri Clark, the woman, is evident in these songs.

‘Gypsy Boots’ is the album opener and first single, released in the U.S. and Canada, and reached the top 10 in Canada, but failed to chart below the border.  Terri wrote the song that tells of a musician and her penchant for the traveling life with Leslie Satcher and Jon Randall.  An acoustic version, which showcases the lyric in a much more flattering aesthetic, closes the album.

There are really no throwaway tracks on the set, but plenty of standouts.  The second single, released only in Canada, is the melodically-driven ‘If You Want Fire’.  Drums and bass kicks help keep the song moving too.  It’s thematically similar to Garth Brooks’ ‘Standing Outside the Fire’, and is just a real lyrical treat with a great hook. Spoken like someone who’s been burned a time or two herself, Terri imparts a bit of wisdom she’s picked up, ‘If you gotta have it, all that madness and  passion, then you’ll learn/If you want fire, it better be worth the burn.’

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul’

patty loveless - mountain soulAfter 2000’s lackluster Strong Heart failed to chart any significant or memorable hits for Patty Loveless, she took a different approach with the material for her next record.  But these songs were really nothing new to Loveless, who had been including one or two of these sort of rootsy chestnuts on each of her mainstream albums for the past decade.

She’d also long been including them in her live shows, recalling at the time, “I was doing it during my shows, about three, four songs. The people would come up and ask, ‘where can we get this kind of music?… that song that you did?’, and I would say like, ‘I haven’t recorded it yet..’ So I said, well, this is something I want to do. And, for those folks that are going to be listening, or looking out for some of the more acoustic type of mountain blues, or mountain soul.. is what I’m calling it Mountain Soul.

So for her sixth album for the Epic label, and her eleventh overall, Patty Loveless returned to her Appalachian roots and the acoustic instrumentals and harmonies associated with bluegrass music.  The resulting album, recorded in Lepier’s Fork, Tennessee, featured an all-star cast of guests, contributing vocals and instrumentals.  Though it peaked at #19 on the Country Albums chart, it did go to #5 on the Bluegrass Albums chart.  Additionally, Mountain Soul made many critics year-end lists in 2001 as the best album of the year, and marked the beginning of a series of traditional and classic-sounding albums from Patty Loveless spanning this decade.

The disc leads off with ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, which was also the lead-single, though it failed to chart.  It’s a rousing number, with a plucky banjo mixed in with some tap-your-toes fiddling from Stuart Duncan.  This is an arrangement that frames many of the tracks on Mountain Soul.

A second single featured Travis Tritt.  The haunting tune, written by Kostas and Melba Montgomery is a tale of two lovers who are rekindling the fires of their relationship, but also bringing back the heartache that came with it:

Pain has no memory when you burn with desire
The flames grow higher and higher
Till we’ve reached an out of control ragin’ fire

Despite a major push from the superb music video being in heavy rotation on CMT, this single too failed to chart.  ‘Out of Control Raging Fire’ was also previously recorded by Tracy Byrd.  Travis Tritt also appears on ‘I Know You’re Married (But I Love You Still)’, a bluegrass standard which sounds admirable in the pair’s hands.

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Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘Bill’s Barber Shop’

billyyates7Billy Yates managed just one top 40 hit with ‘Flowers’ back in 1997, but since losing his major label deal he has released a string of records on his own MOD label, as well as forging a successful songwriting career.

Billy’s music is firmly rooted in mainstream traditional country. His voice is not exceptional, but it is good with a pleasing twang, and he is a very accomplished writer with a good ear for playful lyrics, writing or co-writing all the material on his latest effort. It opens promisingly with the plaintive honky tonking ‘Famous For Being Your Fool’, in which the protagonist, formerly happy in obscurity, finds himself a public laughing stock thanks to the woman he is hopelessly in thrall to.

Several songs tackle faltering relationships with an undercurrent of suspicion. The best of the songs tackling this theme is the slow ‘Tell Me I’m Wrong’, written with Carson Chamberlain and Billy Ryan, as a husband vainly hopes he may be reading wrongly all the signs of a woman on her way out of the marriage:

“That note you left was hard to read
Through the teardrops in my eyes
I think it said you’d rather be alone
Tell me I’m wrong

You can say I’m crazy, that I’ve lost my mind
Tell me what I’m seeing is a sign I’m going blind
And those bags sitting right there by the back door
Lead me to believe that you don’t love me any more”

Well, yes. Equally desperate not to see what is in plain view to everyone else is the protagonist of ‘I Just Can’t See It’, written with Irene Kelley, who admits,

“If I look for trouble, then trouble is what I’ll find”

but claims he “can’t see a single cloud up in the sky”, before finally declaring:

My love is strong and that will never change
And that is why I look the other way.”

The protagonist of the neatly constructed ‘Get Ready, Get Set, She’s Gone’, is a little more prepared for heartbreak, as he engages in a conversation with his heart:

“Get ready, ’cause we’re about to break
Get set for the steps she’s about to take
Hold on, be steady,
One of us has to be strong
Get ready, get set, she’s gone.”

The mid-tempo ‘It Goes Without Sayin”, written with John Raney, is the most contemporary sounding song, and is probably my least favorite as Billy seems to be glossing over the heartbreak beneath the lyric. Much more convincing is the straightforward heartbreak of the one solo composition on the set, as the subdued protagonist tries to conceal ‘This Pain Inside Of Me’ from the woman who has caused it.

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Album Review: Zona Jones – ‘Prove Me Right’

Prove Me RightThere must be something in the water in Beaumont, Texas. Not only was it the hometown of George Jones, Mark Chesnutt was born there, and the city was once also home to Tracy Byrd. Another Beaumont resident, Zona Jones, put his career as a lawyer on hold a few years ago when he released his excellent first album Harleys & Horses on indie label D Records. I enjoyed that record enough to keep a eye out for his follow-up, which has at last appeared on his friend Tracy Lawrence’s Rocky Comfort Records. Zona is not quite in the same league as the aforementioned sons of Beaumont, but he does have a good voice very much in the George Strait style, which is particularly effective on mellow ballads like the majority of the material on this album. Half the songs were produced by no less than James Stroud, the remainder by Zona himself with Mike Jones, but the overall feel of the album is fairly consistent, and it is solidly country from start to finish.

He opens with a cover of Aaron Tippin’s ‘Could Not Stop Myself From Loving You’, which he delivers nicely enough, but his phrasing is too reminiscent of the original while lacking Tippin’s hypnotic quality. Tippin’s co-writers on that track, Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, also wrote my favorite song on the album, ‘Go Away’. This excellent song feels like a sequel to Steve Earle’s modern classic ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, a link I think is made explicit in the salutation, “my old foul-weather friend”. The protagonist is tired of feeling bad about his loss, and begs:

“Go away, blues don’t hang around
Let me love again somehow
I tried but I could not make her stay
So be like her and go away”

Another really enjoyable number is ‘Drinkin”, a drinking song (obviously) from the pens of John [Scott?] Sherrill and Neal Coty, which sounds cheerful even as the protagonist tries to drown his miseries:

Damn it, I think I drank myself sober
And I still can’t drink myself over you

At least I’m a couple sheets to the wind
With any luck, honey, I’ll forget again
That I don’t know where you are or where I am”

The title track (a Radney Foster/Stephanie Delray composition) is a hopeful look at the prospects for love. Also good is ‘She Showed Me’, written by Troy Olsen and Kerry Kurt Phillips, neatly set around a conversation with an ex. The narrator smugly thinks she’ll be begging for another chance, but as it turns out he could not be more wrong – she is happily married with two children (underlining the guy’s cluelessness given the time that must have elapsed since they were together).

One of the songs which stands out the most is the uptempo jerky rhythm of ‘Never Took My Eyes Off You’, written by Dave Frasier, Ed Hill and Josh Kear, and although this track (alone on the album) feels a little over-produced and the lyric is rather slight, it is still fun with definite singalong potential as the protagonist can’t pay attention to the football game or great view on his dates with his love interest.

Similar but better is ‘Day Off’, a lively paean to relaxation time written by Al Anderson, Bob DiPiero and Leslie Satcher. For such a heavyweight writing team, the lyric verges on the absurd at times – while it is indeed true that we all welcome a check in the mail, few of us are in the need to break out of a Mexican jail. But as fluff goes, this is entertaining fluff, as Zona tells us with a little growl in his voice:

“Everybody needs a little too much fun
Everybody needs a little coming undone
Take a brain vacation, I’m telling you, hoss
Everybody needs a day off”

The love ballad ‘You Should’ve Seen Her This Morning’ is nice enough if not very memorable, as the protagonist boasts the joys of domestic bliss to his bar friends whose heads are turned when his woman walks in, claiming sweetly, “If you’re thinking ‘Wow, she looks beautiful now’, you should’ve seen her this morning.” ‘Two Hearts’, another pleasant love song, is repeated from Harleys & Horses.

The album is rounded out by three more covers, Strait’s ‘Blame it On Mexico’ and ‘When You Love ‘Em Like Crazy’ (recorded as ‘When You Love Her Like Crazy’ by Mark Chesnutt are both sung well but not as ood as the originals. I am not as familiar with the sweetly delivered ‘Bluer Than Blue’, written by Randy Goodrum, which was a big pop and AC hit in 1978 for Michael Johnson, who was to go country in the 80s. This last song (for which there is a video) has a very pretty tune and has grown on me over repeated listens.

I think the songs were a little stronger on Zona’s first album, but nonetheless this is an enjoyable record. It is available on iTunes or from Zona’s website.

Grade: B

What lies around the bend for Randy Travis?

randytravisTwo news items over the weekend made me think about the career of Randy Travis and where (if anywhere) it might be headed now.

Last summer saw the long-awaited release of Around The Bend, widely trumpeted as his return to mainstream secular country music after some years pursuing Christian music.  It also marked his return to Warner Brothers, the label which launched his spectacular early career over 20 years ago.  The album was received well by critics, and received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album, although sales have not been spectacular.  Sadly the two singles released so far, ‘Faith In You’ and ‘Dig Two Graves’, were completely ignored by country radio.  In some ways this is understandable; both are perfectly decent songs, but not outstanding ones, although they are lifted to a higher level by the fine vocal performances.  I was surprised by the Grammy nomination of ‘Dig Two Graves’ for Song of the Year, but not Male Vocal Performance, since I rank the performance significantly above the song itself.

While the label did not select the best songs as singles, I doubt that one of the two truly great tracks on the album (the powerful but somber ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ and ‘From Your Knees’) would have fared any better.  With the exception of the #1 hit ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ in 2002 (which is now looking like something of an anomaly), Randy has actually not had a country hit for a decade. 

Warners has announced the release of a new compilation on March 17, entitled I Told You So: The Ultimate Hits Of Randy Travis, in order to capitalize on the current chart success of Carrie Underwood’s flashy cover of the title track.  There are two new tracks, ‘Love’s Alive And Well’, ‘You Ain’t Right’, and ‘Faith In You’ and ‘Turn It Around’ repeated from Around The Bend, but otherwise the material will be familiar to Travis’ existing fans.  Presumably the plan is that this release will be marketed to younger listeners who are aware of Travis only as a name, but who may have been intrigued by the Carrie Underwood cover.  I can only hope that this does not signal the label’s abandonment of Around The Bend.  The inclusion of ‘Turn It Around’ may signal this is intended to be a single to promote both albums.  If so, the label has made another mis-step, picking another of the good but not great tracks rather than something more memorable.  The safe choices turned out to be a little too easy to ignore: why not go for a more challenging song like ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’?  It still might not be a hit, but it would have more of a chance of making an impact.

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