My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Liz Hengber

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

Back in the 1980s Reba McEntire was the leading female neo-traditionalists as well as the best selling female artist of her generation. Then around the time of her second marriage, to music industry executive Narvel Blackstock, her music began to take a more contemporary turn, one which became more pronounced as the 90s wore on. It brought her a new fanbase and enormous sales, but many of her older or more traditional-leaning fans regretted her choices.

Then a couple of years ago, after Reba’s marriage came to an end she chose to make a wonderful album of religious material, much of which harked back to older times. Now her first studio album is=n several years shows a definite return to traditional country sounds. It has been vaunted her her most country album ever, which I would disagree with – 1984’s My Kind Of Country, whose name inspired this very blog, and 1987’s The Last One To Know, would both fit that description better. But it is undoubtedly a country album, and a very good one, produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon.

For a start, Reba calls on her Oklahoma roots with two fabulous Western Swing number. Opening track ‘Swing All Night With You’ was written by Jon Randall and Sidney Cox, and is a true dancefloor delight. She wrote the equally charming ‘No U In Oklahoma’ herself with Ronnie Dunn and Donna McSpadden.

Many of the songs are slow sad ones. Jonathan has already reviewed the lead single and title track, a subtle song about heartbreak written by Reba’s nice Autumn McEntire and Hannah Blaylock. ‘Tammy Wynette Kind Of Pain’ was written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore and Shelley Skidmore, and is another devastating depiction of a broken heart set to a traditional country soundtrack:

‘Standing by your man’
That’s a broken plan
When he breaks your heart and all your trust
With his two cheatin’ hands
So it’s ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’
And you don’t want him to see you cryin’
So you’re ‘crying in the rain’
And this is Tammy Wynette
We’re talkin’ Tammy Wynette kind of pain

There’s a sky full of tears in every single note
And every single word is wine and whiskey soaked
So I guess it’s me and her together in this alone
‘Til I can make it on my own’

Also reflecting on a failed marriage, but from the point of view of the husband, is ‘In His Mind’, which was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James based on Reba’s idea.

In ‘The Bar’s Getting Lower’, written by Kellys Collins, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Alex Kline, the unhappy protagonist settles for a one night stand when old dreams of marriage and family haven’t been realised:

Her dreams are disappearin’ like smoke from his cigarette
She hasn’t said yes but she’s thinkin’ she might
The closer it gets to closing time
A lonely heart will take a pick-up line
Anything to get her through the night

‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’ is a heartwrenching story song written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, and previously recorded by Jerry Kilgore and Melonie Cannon. Reba’s version is superb, and the arrangement has a mournful feel as we hear the story of a young woman who has been reunited with the drug addict and prostitute mother who gave her up at birth, just before the latter’s death. This might be the highlight of an excellent group of songs.

Another ballad, but a little more sophisticated AC in its feel, ‘The Clown’ is a beautifully detailed story about the horrifying moment of finding out her marriage is over in public, and having to keep a brave face on it. It was written by Dallas Davidson, Hillary Lindsey and James Slater.

The minor-keyed ‘Your Heart’, written by Kellys Collins, has a classical Spanish guitar accompaniment and is atmospheric and moody. Reba sings it beautifully, but it isn’t really a country song.

A couple of more commercial contemporary up-tempo songs are well performed if less to my personal taste, and may be included to appeal to Reba’s younger fans and possibly with an eye on radio play. ‘Storm In A Shot Glass’ is quite catchy in a 90s pop country way. ‘Freedom’ is more of a rock ballad rejoicing over finding love.

The album closes with the gentle piano-led ‘You Never Gave Up On Me’, dedicated to Reba’s late mother.

While not quite as traditional as one might have been led to believe from the publicity, this is definitely the best thing Reba has released in decades. It is highly recommended, and a strong contender already for album of the year.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘I’m Doing Alright’

In 2007 Adam signed to Sony Australia, and released an excellent debut for the label. The style was a little more contemporary country than his most recent albums, but very well performed and produced.

He wrote the majority of the tracks, mostly with Rod McCormack, including my favorite, ‘Someone Else’s Dream’. This is an excellent ballad, set to a strong melody ideally suited to Adam’s deep voice, with a tasteful string arrangement, and an inspiring lyric about fulfilling your own path in life:

I’ve known hurt and pain
Seen things I hope we never see again
I’ve been bought and sold
I’ve learned not to believe most of what I’m told
We’re all busy making plans
But there’s just a few who can
Have a vision and the will to see it through

Truth knows when things aren’t what they seem
And words fall flat if you d- on’t feel what they mean
You can’t move forward
Till you know where you’ve been
The ones who stand alone see
It’s no life
Living someone else’s dream

‘Walls’ is an excellent song, referring to the Aboriginal population of Australia, the Berlin Wall and other artificial barriers:

When different people find a common ground
There’s no way to stop
Walls from tumbling down

Walls
We all build ‘em
When we need something to hide behind
But if we learn from those that came before us
We let ‘em fall
Walls

Every day we make ‘em like we need ‘em to survive
But what’s the use of feelings if they’re locked up inside?

The solemn ‘A Bigger Plan’ relates grandparental advice to a child, while the sultry jazzy ballad of ‘Will You Be Mine’ is the album’s sole love song. ‘Saturday Night’ is another likeable song about childhood memories of good times at family parties every week:

There ain’t nothing like a party at the Harveys on a Saturday night

The soundtrack include smashing bottles and police sirens.

The title track is a mid paced song with a contemporary feel about satisfaction with one’s life despite lacking material goods. Not bad. ‘Way Too Fast’ is a nice song advising taking time out from a busy life, warmly sung.

‘You’d Do The Same For Me’ is a thoughtful ballad about friendship with an attractive melody and some nice fiddle:

We all need a shoulder when life lets you down
One thing you can count on
I’ll always be around
Nothing’s too much trouble for a friend in need
You’d do the same for me

Most of his usual co-writers refused to work on him with ‘Genie In The Bottle’, which they thought was a stupid idea for a song, but while admittedly a bit silly it’s rather fun, about a lovelorn man who takes to the bottle:

The genie in the bottom of the Jim Bean bottle made me do what I didn’t wanna do
I made a wish with the genie but the genie was a meanie and he didn’t make my wish come true
I was hoping he would make your memory go away but I’m still thinkin’ of you

Of the outside material, ‘The Older I Get’ is a pleasant mid-paced tune about learning how to live well. It was written by Danny Gree, Rob Crosby and Liz Hengber.

‘Flowers’ was a very minor hit for its writer Billy Yates, with its perfectly constructed and emotionally devastating lyric about a man who (spoiler alert!) causes the death of his partner by drunk driving. It has also been cut by Chris Young. Adam’s version is decent but not my favorite, lacking a bit of the combined delicacy and intensity needed to carry it off. I don’t quite *believe* this version.

The best known cover is the Guy Clark song ‘Heartbroke’. Adam’s version is highly enjoyable but not as exciting as Ricky Skaggs’ bluegrass infused hit. Adam also takes on bluesman Keb Mo’’s ‘A Better Man’; the original actually has a jug band feel which might have worked better but Adam’s version is a bit dull.

There are “bonus” acoustic re-recordings of several of the songs on this album, and a few older songs, on my version of the album.

The album won an Australian CMA award, and is well worth finding.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘Tattooed Heart’

61haqvae9cl-_ss500The Nash Icon movement, as I understood it, was meant to provide a platform for veteran artists where they wouldn’t have to compete with the younger generation for radio airplay. Why then, has nearly every Nash Icon artist released an album that still seems to be an attempt to rack up radio hits? Ronnie Dunn’s latest effort follows down the same trail that Hank Williams Jr, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire blazed ahead of him.

Tattooed Heart is Dunn’s inaugural release for the label. He co-produced the set with Jay DeMarcus. It consists of twelve songs written by some of Nashville’s finest, ranging from Liz Hengber, Steve Bogard and Bob DiPiero to Jim Beavers, Jon Randall and Tommy Lee James. Dunn had a hand in writing two of the songs, including the album’s best track “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, co-written with Nikki Hernandez and Andrew Rollins.

Dunn is joined by a couple of old friends on a pair of songs. His current single “Damn Drunk” features his former partner Kix Brooks, whose presence would go unnoticed if he weren’t credited on the label. Reba McEntire makes a more audible contribution on “Still Feels Like Mexico”, which I’m guessing will be the next single. The song itself isn’t particularly interesting, however. The album’s first single was “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas”, which peaked at #42 on the airplay chart last year.

The quality of the material itself is not in question and Ronnie Dunn’s voice remains one of the best in country music. What makes Tattooed Heart such a mixed bag is the production which is too heavy-handed on almost every track. “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” is too loud, the strings are too intrusive on the otherwise very good “I Worship The Woman You Walked On” and ditto for the background vocalists on the 1950s-sounding title track. The self-penned “I Wanna Love Like That Again” is more restrained, although the song itself isn’t very country-sounding. The aforementioned “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, the album’s sole traditional song, is flawlessly executed. I wish the rest of the album were more in that vein; it’s more in line with what the target audience — those of us who have been Brooks & Dunn fans for nearly 25 years — really want to hear.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Ronnie Dunn with Kix Brooks – ‘Damn Drunk’

RD_SINGLE_DD_Cover_2016.05.03_FNLSince splitting with Kix Brooks in 2010, the solo career of Ronnie Dunn has included some shining moments (including “Cost of Livin,” one of the finest singles this decade) interspersed with bizarre rants, record label changes and a handful of forgettable singles. His last, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas,” was so unmemorable and performed so poorly Scott Borchetta and his team have abandoned it all together.

Big Machine Label Group hit the reset button last Friday, with the release of “Damn Drunk,” which is being touted as the first single from Dunn’s upcoming and long overdue debut for Nash Icon. The mid-tempo ballad produced by Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, airs on the side of bombast with loud electric guitars impending on a listening experience more pop/rock than country.

The track is also billed as ‘with Kix Brooks,’ a moniker I’d never thought I’d see in my lifetime. His contributions, solely on the choruses, are slight and add nothing to the song. Folks drawn to ‘Damn Drunk’ in hopes of a reunion of sorts are going to be disappointed. “Damn Drunk” is squarely on Dunn’s shoulders as a solo single.

Beyond those shortcomings, though, the track has merit. “Damn Drunk” was co-written by Liz Hengber, and while it’s not her strongest composition, it is a real song with actual structure. This song isn’t mailed in with hopes of checking off the lyrical boxes needed to produce a radio hit. It may be about a guy lusting after his girl, but there’s a slight maturity to the proceedings that puts “Damn Drunk” just above the rest. It may be rock, but it’s not bro-country by any stretch of imagination.

It also helps that Dunn commits to the song completely, with a tour-de-force vocal that proves he still has the goods after twenty-five years in the business. He does come off desperate with a scraggily appearance that renders him somewhat unrecognizable (he’s too thin or something), but that thankfully (the desperation) doesn’t manifest itself in this recording at all. Dunn is still himself even if that self is packaged in a modern day setting.

Grade: B

Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

MTE1ODA0OTcxODM2MTQ3MjEzThere is no question that Reba McEntire is one of country music’s all-time greatest talents, but for at least the last decade and a half, she’s made musical choices that have ranged from questionable to downright terrible. Her latest album album Love Somebody falls into the latter category, although it does contain two decent tracks, one of which has just been released as her latest single.

“Just Like Them Horses” finds Reba revisiting her musical roots — sort of. No, it’s not a return to the traditional honky-tonk and Western swing that earned her the respect of critics, peers and fans back in the 80s, but it is in the vein of the pop-tinged ballads that worked so well for her in the early 90s, before she set her sights on mainstream pop superstardom. It was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James, the pair that wrote her 1995 hit “And Still”. Separately the pair wrote or co-wrote many more McEntire hits, including “It Don’t Matter”, “If You See Him, If You See Her”, “For My Broken Heart”, “It’s Your Call” and “Forever Love”. The piano-led ballad was produced by Reba and Tony Brown, and tells the poignant story of someone saying goodbye to a dying loved one — perhaps a husband or father. Twenty years ago some might have complained that it was too pop, but in the current radio environment it is a shining example of what country music (and Reba McEntire) needs to get back to — audible fiddle and steel, and substantive lyrics that are beautifully sung.

Radio has been cool towards Reba lately, perhaps due to ageism or a lack of interest in female artists in general. Or perhaps because what she’s sent to them lately hasn’t been anything to get excited about. If radio gives this record a fair chance, I believe it will do well because I feel there is still an audience for this type of song. And if it does succeed, perhaps Reba will help turn the tide at country radio, similar to the way she did 30 years ago.

Grade: A

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Love Somebody’

Reba_LoveSomebodyIn the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Grade: B+

New singles roundup: Reba, Jackson, McBride

Reba McEntire – “Somebody’s Chelsea”     Listen.

Romantic themes have never played a big part in Reba’s catalog probably because she simply doesn’t sing them well.  At the bottom of every great Reba single, there’s a hint of sadness or desperation, provided by the natural ache the singer accomplishes just by opening her mouth and bending a few seemingly irrelevant notes.  With that, she has the ability to bring most any song to life, save for her attempts at love songs. That damns her latest single right away, with its plucking mandolin and piano intro and a swaying chorus built for the slow dance portion of the next wedding reception you attend.  Her attempts to meander sweetly through the verses come off as more rehearsal run-throughs than finished product. The story revolves around the narrator’s encountering an elderly widower on a plane.  After hearing of that couple’s love story and seeing the man’s continuing love for his departed, she simply closes her eyes and daydreams of a love of her own. McEntire co-wrote the song with Liz Hengber and Will Robinson, and I have to wonder how three songwriters couldn’t find something more meaningful to say.  She’s one of the best honky-tonk, swing, and heartbreak singers in the business, who has no business squandering her talents on fluff like this.

Grade: C-

Alan Jackson – “Long Way To Go”     Listen.

Songs about drinking away your troubles, be they love or money-related, with the beach as your background has been fertile subject matter for country’s leading male artists even before Kenny Chesney made a career out of them. With his first single release for new-label home Capitol, Alan Jackson adds another to the long list. As with nearly everything Jackson does, he pulls this off so damn capably, it’s hard to fault him even for overused concepts.  “Long Way To Go” follows the same sound format as past Jackson hits “Chattahoochee” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”, with their blistering electric guitars mixed right beside a heaping helping of fiddle and peppered with the singer’s signature “yee haws”.  Even the unrelenting rain showers, bug in his margarita and encountering another poor soul in the same predicament doesn’t seem to damper the singer’s spirits as he pours on his best feel-good vocal here.  With this single, Jackson is not hitting the ground running with his new label release, nor does it sound like he’s altered his sound or style at all. And that’s okay by me.

Grade: B

Martina McBride – “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”     Listen.

Two singles into her personally-praised upcoming album for Republic Nashville, the singer with the big voice, all those orchestrations behind her, and a penchant for singing topical songs to tug at someone’s heartstrings is back. The story of a woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer is told.  She is personified by the added details of her life – she’s 38, has 3 kids. The track is led by plentiful strings and drums, and there’s even a short steel guitar solo in the bridge.  McBride hits all the right notes, and takes the listener as high as humanly possible with her blue-in-the-face belting (if he’s still paying attention by the end).  It was in a different package – usually domestic violence –  but we’ve heard all these notes before, and even with its gravely universal message, it’s nothing more than a new step to the same old dance. Fans hoping McBride would return to the hard-hitting neo-traditionalism of “A Broken Wing” or “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road” will be disappointed.  Likewise, those who really dig the “Concrete Angel”, “God’s Will” side of the singer’s catalog should be very pleased.  Count me among the disappointed.

Grade: C


			

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘All The Women I Am’

The moon controls the tides, your taxes are due April 15th, and Reba McEntire is having hits on the country charts.  These are some things we’ve become accustomed to.  For her 26th studio album – and 2nd for the Valory Music Co. – Reba has enlisted the help of current hit-making producer Dan Huff, whose production credits run as deep as McEntire’s own career, but is known in country circles for hits by Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and Carrie Underwood.  The ever-evolving redhead has kept it relevant for what is three decades now, and shows no real signs of wear and tear just yet.  She effortlessly glides through the 10 tracks on this set, hitting spine-tingling notes when the need arises, and more often than not, nailing every emotional aspect of the lyrics with precision.  The songs themselves are certainly a step above her current work, and reflect her maturity a little better.  All the women that make up these characters are seasoned at life, looking back with hard-won wisdom or jumping head-first, all the while knowing the risks.

The title track is a jaunty, twangy trip into the psyche of an everywoman.  Though it’s mostly sewn together from the kind of empowerment statements usually reserved for bumper stickers – “I burn brighter than a candle but I melt in the right hands” – and the fact that it comes from a songwriting team of three men, it’s hard to take it for more than a feel-good number without any real message.  A jazzy saxophone solo at the end and lines like “I can light up New York city with my red hair and rhinestones” increase the fun-factor by two however.  And in that regard, it can succeed.  ‘A Little Want To’ follows the same sound template as the title track, yet offers even less in the lyrics, leaving it little more than an up-tempo jam with the guitars mixed way too loud.

‘When Love Gets Ahold Of You’ features the kind of soaring chorus you can almost sing along to on the first listen.  But that’s probably because it sounds like a hybrid of the past 4 pacy Keith Urban hits.‘The Bridge You Burn’ is another earworm, wherein a woman is discovering her own self worth after a bad relationship. Reba makes it hard to dislike either of these songs with engaging performances, but these kind of melodies always make you feel a bit guilty for enjoying them too much.

Reba’s reading here of the Beyonce hit ‘If I Were A Boy’ seems timid compared to her CMT Unplugged performance that was a viral video hit over the Summer.  Pairing a voice like Reba’s with a marvelous lyric like the gender-gap realizations of ‘If I Were A Boy’ was a stroke of genius, and even without all the fancy vocal work of the live version, she does not disappoint.  Then it’s back to coasting through tracks like the album’s closer ‘When You Have A Child’ and ‘Somebody’s Chelsea’, written by Reba with Liz Hengber and Will Robinson, a sweet love song with the obligatory advice-from-a-wise-old-man. (Ever the jet-setter, Reba meets her wise old man on a plane.) Neither offers anything substantial besides a tug at the old heart-strings, and the singer’s performance sounds like she knows these are filler songs.

The real stand-outs come when the songstress gets ahold of a lyric worthy of her talents. She does this best with ‘Cry’ and ‘The Day She Got Divorced’. The first is vintage Reba, a strong woman weeper that quickly turns to power ballad mode, where it remains. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ is wickedly awesome in its frank storytelling. The story revolves around the activities of a woman on the day she goes to court to dissolve her marriage. We follow her to a motel where she continues an ongoing affair with her boss and then on to a house that needs cleaned and is filled with “hungry-mouthed kids”. It’s full of great one-liners and features a funky guitar riff after reach repeat of the title line. Both songs come from the pens of Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally, with Mark D. Sanders co-writing on ‘Divorced’.

An album full of gutsy, emotional songs like ‘Cry’ and ‘Divorced’ would have served the 55 year-old better than covers of recent pop hits side by side with fluffy radio-friendly fare, but Reba is obviously hell-bent on staying at the top of the hit-making heap.  Certainly, a handful of these cuts could find their way to the top of the page of the country singles chart.  As with the songs and themes found on All The Women I Am, the results are varied, but are more enjoyable than not.

Grade: B+

Buy it anywhere.

Album Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Easton Corbin’

I’ve become somewhat jaded in the past few years and no longer expect to like new artists trying to break into mainstream country music. Country radio has gotten so bad, I haven’t listened to it in over two years. As a result, I’m not always up to date on the latest crop of new artists. I’d read a little bit about Easton Corbin on some of the other country blogs, but after hearing about his traditionalist leanings, I avoided reading too much about him until I could hear his music for myself and form my own opinion.

I initially cringed upon learning that Corbin’s debut single was titled “A Little More Country Than That”, expecting it to have come directly out of Jason Aldean’s playbook. It was a relief to learn that this wasn’t another redneck anthem. Instead of a defiant declaration of Southern pride and boasting about his tractor and pickup truck, Corbin makes use of the imagery of rural living while making a declaration of love (and possibly a proposal) to his sweetheart. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the Charley Pride classic “All I Have To Offer You Is Me”. Clearly tailor-made for radio, it’s a pleasant if somewhat fluffy song with slightly cliched lyrics. Written by Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress, and Wynn Varble, it’s not a song that makes the listener stop in his or her tracks and listen, but it’s better than what is typically offered on country radio these days.

The album was produced by Carson Chamberlain, who has also produced Mark Wills and Billy Currington, but I won’t hold that against him since he has written some of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Chamberlain had a hand in writing six of the album’s eleven songs, while Easton himself co-wrote four. The production choices are stellar; I can’t remember the last time I heard the pedal steel featured so prominently on a mainstream artist’s debut release. Corbin and Chamberlain don’t pander to radio’s current pop leanings and wisely avoids the production excesses that have marred so many contemporary country releases.

Corbin has been criticized for sounding too much like George Strait, and the similarities in their vocal styles is undeniable. Many of the songs, such as “Someday When I’m Old” and “Don’t Ask Me About A Woman” sound as if they came from the Strait catalog. “Someday When I’m Old”, written by Nashville tunesmiths Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Troy Verges is my favorite song on the album and “A Lot To Learn About Livin'” written by Liz Hengber, Sonny LeMaire and Clay Mills, is an example of a beach song done properly. Kenny Chesney, please take note. On the other hand “I Can’t Love You Back” doesn’t quite work. The lyrics are somewhat problematic and a bit confusing:

Girl, I love you crazy
It comes so easy, after all we had
I could love you with all my heart
But the hardest part is
I just can’t love you back

The first time I heard the chorus, it didn’t make sense to me. I thought why can’t he love her back, thinking that “love you back” meant “love you in return.” It wasn’t until the second verse that I finally realized that the protagonist’s love interest is gone, and Easton is lamenting that he can’t bring her back, which might have been a better way to phrase the sentiment.

Overall, the album is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. The material is mostly lightweight and the album would have benefited from the inclusion of one or two more substantial songs, as well as a little more variety in tempo. Corbin will also have to develop a more distinctive vocal style in order to avoid being dismissed as a George Strait wannabe. I have no doubt that he can do this; after all, Clint Black was mistaken for Merle Haggard when his first single hit the airwaves, and Owen Bradley was reluctant to sign Loretta Lynn because she sounded too much like Kitty Wells. That didn’t stop Black or Lynn from successfully developing their own styles. If Corbin can do the same, and can find some weightier material the next time around to build upon this solid debut, he has the potential to become a huge star in his own right.

Grade: B

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘For My Broken Heart’

Reba-ForMyBrokenHeartHeartbreak is at the heart of country music. Perhaps that’s because heartbreak is the common denominator for us all. No matter our lot or station in life, we’ve all lost someone or something at some point – a job to the economy, our innocence, a lover to another, a spouse to divorce or death, a child who grows up and away, or even our youth.

But how do you face multiple losses in the midst of tragedy? Alan Jackson’s ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning’ after 9/11 is this decade’s healing anthem grappling with that question. In the 90s, Reba’s album For My Broken Heart as a whole was a healing agent following the tragic loss of her band, tour manager and the flight crew in a fiery plane crash on March 16, 1991 after a tour stop in San Diego.

For Reba and her husband and manager, Narvel, their family, the victims’ families and friends, the fans and the country music community, the world did stop turning. Intense tragedy knocks the breath out of you. How do you go on after such a blow to your heart and spirit?

The album, summed up in the title track, attempts to answer that question: with stumbling steps forward. Though the song ‘For My Broken Heart’ is about a congenial break-up, it traces the beginnings of how one begins to breathe again after loss:

Clocks still tickin’ life goes on
Radio still plays a song as I try to put my scattered thoughts in place
And it takes all the strength I’ve got to stumble to the coffee pot
The first of many lonely mornings I’ll have to face
You called to see if I’m ok I look out the window and I just say:

Last night I prayed the Lord my soul to keep
Then I cried myself to sleep
So sure life wouldn’t go on without you
But oh this sun is blinding me
As it wakes me from the dark
I guess the world didn’t stop
For my broken heart

Not only are the lyrics by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer beautiful and honest, but so are Reba’s vocals backed by light guitar accompaniment on the verses. As others have said, the restraint in Reba’s voice on many of the tracks on this album is noticeable and adds to the overall sense of tentatively moving forward. This song is a perfect opener for this album, with that in mind, from its subtle quiet synthesizer beginning to the clock “still ticking” in the lyrics of the verse to its quiet ending.

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