My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mac McAnally

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Six Days on the Road’

Sawyer Brown was nearing the end of their hitmaking days when Six Days on the Road dropped twenty years ago this month. The album was their second to last to be produced by Mac McAnally, who had significant influence over the project.

The lead single was the title track, a cover of the 1963 Dave Dudley classic. Their version, which I would regard as very good, peaked at #13. They rose to #6 with another cover, “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” previously a hit for both Bill LaBounty and Michael Johnson. I also really liked their version of this song, as well.

The final two singles weren’t as successful. The wonderful “Another Side,” a ballad solely penned by Miller petered out at #55. A fourth and final single, “Small Talk,” a Miller and McAnally co-written dud, hit #60.

McAnally had two solely written songs on the album. “With This Ring” is a tender love song while “Night and Day” is uptempo with generic rockish production. Neither song quite measures up to McAnally’s high standard with the group, which if we’re being honest is an impossible bar to reach.

Five more tracks were either written or co-written by Miller. “Transistor Rodeo,” “Half A Heart,” “A Love Like This” and “Every Twist and Turn” are unmistakable of their era and very catchy. “The Nebraska Song,” which Miller wrote alone, is a tribute to Bill Berringer, quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers who was killed in a 1996 plane crash. The track is a nice and tender acoustic ballad.

“Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” by Mark Alan Springer, is a wonderfully infectious mid-tempo ballad laced with nice flourishes of steel. “Between You and Paradise, which Springer co-wrote with Neal Coty, is a very strong traditional-leaning ballad.

Six Days on the Road is a nice, above average mid-1990s country album. The music is in no way traditional, yet it isn’t overwhelming poppy or rock either. There’s nothing to jump out of your skin over, though, with brings the album down a notch. But Six Days On The Road is a bit better than good.

Grade: B

Side Note: If you haven’t checked out Drive Me Wild, which hit in 1999, do so if only for “I’m In Love With Her.” The ballad, written by Chuck and Cannon and Allen Shamblin, is one of the band’s finest moments on record. As a single it peaked at #47. I have no doubt if it had come out at the height of the band’s popularity it would’ve been ranked among their most iconic singles (with different, less busy, production values). It’s just that strong.

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All’

This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All was the eleventh studio album released by the former Don King Road Band and their fourth studio album for Curb Records.

Released in 1995, the album was the first top ten country album for the band since 1989’s The Boys Are Back, although it actually sold fewer copies than two of the three most recent prior albums. Four charting singles were released from the album: the title track, “‘Round Here”, “Treat Her Right”, and “She’s Gettin’ There”. Although this album and the next two albums would all be top ten albums, the success of the single releases was beginning to slow down. Whereas eleven of the previous twelve singles reached the top five, only one of the four singles would crack the top ten (and there would be only two more top ten singles after this album).

The album opens with “Nothing Less Than Love”, one of four Mark Miller-Hobie Hubbard collaborations on the album. This song is a mid-tempo ballad. “Big Picture” by Mark Miller & Mac McAnally is another mid-tempo song that might have been considered for single release. “I Will Leave the Light On” by band member Duncan Cameron is a nice slow ballad.

The up-tempo “(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All” comes from the pens of Dave Loggins and Ronnie Samoset, and reached #11 on the country charts. I was surprised that the song didn’t crack the top ten since here in Central Florida it seemed as if I could not escape from the song as it received a little bit of pop and Adult Contemporary airplay. It is a good song (Loggins was always capable of cranking out good material) and one of my favorite Sawyer Brown songs. This was the first single taken from this album:

Rich man grew old, owned a mansion on top of the hill
Now he’s sitting at the table with his lawyer
Goin’ over his will ’cause he’s ill
The kids don’t call, they’re waitin’ for the man to die
He’s gonna leave ’em all a little somethin’
But they’re gonna be real surprised

There’s a poor man livin’ on a budget at the bottom of that hill
With a wife and two kids and a worried mind
About how he’s gonna pay the bills
Well, only the rich man knows, see
That’s where a lot of his money goes
To the man that brought wood in the winter
To take a little weight off his shoulders

There’s this thing called wantin’ and havin’ it all
If you’re gonna get there, you’re gonna have to walk
But first, you’ll have to crawl
And you know you’ve gotta do it step by step
Miss one and you’ll fall into this well
Called wantin’ and havin’ it all

“Another Mile” written by Miller & Hubbard is a typical ‘we can make it’ ballad that fits well in the context of the album although I can’t imagine it being released as a single.

The second single, “Round Here” has Miller & Hubbard joined by Scotty Emerick as the songwriters. This single reached #19 is a mid-tempo ballad extolling small town virtues:

Sue and Jack fell in love ’round here
They been goin’ steady now for years
He couldn’t afford much of anything
But he worked and bought her a diamond ring
And that’s the way we do it ’round here

That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here
That’s the way we live and that’s the way we love ’round here
Strong hearts and folded hands
A workin’ woman and a workin’ man
That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here

There is an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and “She’s Gettin’ There” (composed by the team of Mark Miller, Scotty Emerick, John Northrup, and M.C. Potts (remember her?) is the weakest song on the album, a generic endeavor. It was released as the fourth single and died at #46, the first single to miss the top forty after fifteen consecutive top forty singles.

The third single, the Lenny LeBlanc-Ava Aldridge composition “Treat Her Right” was the big hit off this album, a tender ballad that peaked at #3.

A good woman ain’t easy to find
The faithful and the loving kind
And if you don’t hold her tight
She’ll slip right through your hands
Love gives more than it takes

So be willing for her sake
Stand by her when the strong winds blow
Even when it hurts, don’t let go

The album closes with two songs that are pitched to rural and small town America. The first song, a lovely ballad written by Mark Miller and Bill Shore, “Like a John Deere”, laments that hearts should be as reliable as John Deere tractors:

Oh, if hearts were built like John Deere tractors
There’d be happy ever afters
Strong, true and tough, and made of steel
They pull through when times get hard
And never fall apart
If hearts were built like a John Deere

The final Miller – Hubbard composition closes out the album with “Small Town Hero”, a story of what might have been and what actually happened.

I just turned twenty-nine three years in a row
Too young to be the president
Too old to turn pro
But when the seventies came and Elvis died
I could not fill his shoes
But oh, how I tried

It was the life and time of a small town hero
But it’s another day
I’ve got my wife, my kids, a job and it’s ok
This letter of intent now, is just for show
They say it’s lonely at the top
So I did not go

As I noted earlier, the album sold well, but the rural/small town orientation of the songs was not likely to entice urban country disc jockeys and programmers to be totally sold on the singles, a trend hat carried through on the next two albums, each of which featured one top ten single and several singles that missed the top ten. That said, this is a decent country album, which features three different steel guitar players (Jay Dee Maness, Dan Dugmore, Paul Franklin) and to my ears sounds how I think a country album should sound. Producers Mac McAnally and Mark Miller again demonstrate the ability to make an appealing album by keeping the tempos sufficiently varied to retain the listeners interest.

Mark Miller and Hobie Hubbard continued to progress as songwriters and there really isn’t a dud on this album. I suppose that I should try to find it on CD, as my copy is a well-worn cassette. I would give this an A-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Outskirts Of Town’

1993 saw the release of the band’s third and final Gold certified album. The material was all in-house, and Mark Miller and Mac McAnally provided solid production.

Things got off to a great start with the chart-topping lead single ‘Thank God For You’, a warm and likeable mid-tempo number written by Miller and McAnally, which still stands up well. ‘The Boys And Me’ (about enduring friendship groups) from the same writing team peaked at #4, and is enjoyable. There is also a ‘dance re-mix’, aimed at the then-popular line dance market. Tis feels regrettably self-indulgent now, if less offensive than much of what passes for everyday radio fare today.

In contrast the title track, written by band members Gregg “Hobie” Hubbard and Duncan Cameron, barely squeezed into the top 40. That’s a shame, because it’s a very nice song, a harmonica-led story song about a farmer who stays in his dying small town. I liked it better than the fourth and final single, the Miller-penned ‘Hard To Say’, even though the latter revived the band’s hitmaking ways, with a #5 peak. It’s perfectly pleasant, just not very memorable.

Dana McVicker had had a short and not very successful career attempting to make it as a star, with one album and a few low charting singles on Capitol in the late 80s. Her husband Michael Thomas was one of the musicians in Reba McEntire’s road band who was tragically killed in the 1991 plane crash. Sawyer Brown recruited her to duet on ‘Drive Away’, a somewhat rock/AC leaning ballad Miller wrote with Bill La Bounty, which is a highlight. Her gravelly alto is distinctive and powerful, and like Sawyer Brown she had got her Start on Star Search.

‘Farmer Tan’ (a Hubbard-Miller co-write) is a sympathetic, gritty look at the tough life of a famer about to be evicted, while the pair’s ‘Listenin’ For You’ is quite attractive. They were joined by Cameron to write ‘Eyes Of Love’, a nice love song about making it through the hard times.

Hubbard’s ‘Hold On’ is a beautiful ballad tenderly addressing an aged mother or grandmother. Also very good is the brisk ‘Heartbreak Highway’, which has an electrified bluegrass feel, thanks in part to Cameron’s mandolin and dobro.

Other than the aforementioned dance mix, the only song I could do without is the poppy ‘Love To Be Wanted’.

The album was followed by a second Greatest Hits collection, which spawned two more top 5 hits, ‘This Time’ and ‘I Don’t Believe In Goodbye’.

This is a very good album which is Sawyer Brown at their best.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Cafe on the Corner’

1992’s Cafe on the Corner was Sawyer Brown’s first album after they ended their nearly decade-long association with Capitol Records. Released on the Curb label, it continues along the same path as their previous effort The Dirt Road. Like that collection, it was produced by Mark Miller and Randy Scruggs.

Eight of the album’s ten tracks were co-written by at least one of the band members (mostly Mark Miller), with the other two coming from the pen of Mac McAnally. The first of the McAnally tunes is the title track, which was the lead single. It tells the story of a displaced farmer who is now forced to support himself by busing tables in a corner cafe and serving coffee to customers who were similarly affected by the recession that America was facing at that time. It peaked at #5 but deserved to go all the way to the top and I’m not sure why it didn’t. Also peaking at #5 was the follow-up single “Trouble on the Line” written by Mark Miller and Bill Shore. The third single, “All These Years” charted slightly higher at #3. Sawyer Brown is not well known for their ballads, but this Mac McAnally composition is a beautiful ballad about a husband confronting his cheating wife and the brutally honest conversation that takes place in the aftermath of his discovery. Featuring a nice cello arrangement, it was also a minor Adult Contemporary hit where it became Sawyer Brown’s only entry on that chart, peaking at #42. McAnally had released his own version of the song earlier that year.

The rest of the album’s songs generally lack the substance of the title track and “All These Years” but they are well performed — particularly “Travelin’ Shoes”, “A Different Tune” and “Chain of Love” (not the Clay Walker song of the same name from a few years later). “A Different Tune” in particular includes some wonderful guitar picking and steel guitar playing. The album is one of Sawyer Brown’s more traditional efforts, without the poppiness of their early work — at least until we reach the last two tracks. Gospel artist and Nashville session singer Donna McElroy lends her voice to “I Kept My Motor Running”, an R&B-inflenced number written by Miller, Greg Hubbard and Randy Scruggs, that I did not care for at all. I was also rather unimpressed with the closing track “Sister’s Got a New Tattoo” about a young woman who shocks her family by joining the military. It’s not a terrible song but not up to the standards set by the album’s first eight tracks.

Cafe on the Corner is a solid effort that I was ready to grade an A until it suddenly detoured with the last two tracks. It is still a worthwhile effort, however, and is available for streaming.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Buick’

Buick was Sawyer Brown’s first album of the 1990s, and the first album to feature a song by Mac McAnally, although it would be another two albums before McAnally became a major presence in the totality of Sawyer Brown’s sound. For this album, McAnally did vocal arrangements, and Mark Miller and Randy Scruggs co-produced the album.

Unlike most of their prior albums, gone was the dreaded 80s production, with more reliance on traditional musical instruments (alas, no steel guitar). More importantly, the songwriting of band members Hubbard and Miller continued to improve.

Three singles were released from the album. The first two singles “One Less Pony” and “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Me” both stiffed at radio reaching #70 and #68 respectively. The third single “The Walk”, reached #2, their first top ten recording after five consecutive records failed to reach the top twenty. Moreover, “The Walk” would kick off a string of eight straight singles (and eleven out of twelve) that would reach the top five of the Country singles chart.

The album opens up with a Gregg Hubbard-Mark Miller composition “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Me”. The song was not a terrible choice for a single, but this mid-tempo ballad was a little too similar to several other singles that had been released to radio by various other artists.

Miller collaborated with Randy Scruggs on “My Baby Drives A Buick”, a somewhat funky slow ballad. I’m not sure you could get away with this lyric in today’s PC environment:

“You think that you’ve been through it, But you ain’t seen nothin’ till your baby drives a Buick.”

Mac McAnally makes his Sawyer Brown debut with “When You Run From Love”, a song co-written with Mark Miller. The song has a meaningful lyric that foreshadows future efforts. The instrumental accompaniment has a blues/rock feel to it.

Love up and beat a path to my back door
I could always walk away before
I thought, I could get away untouched
But you think to much when you run from love
When you run from love
When you run from love

The quickest way ain’t fast enough and the
Trains and the planes will let you down
If you hide your eyes
You make a chain of pain and lies
And you know that
You’re only losing ground
When you run from love

Mark Miller’s “The Walk” may be the best song that Miller ever wrote. Since the Buick album was not an overwhelming sales success, Curb carried the song over to the next album, using it as the title song. This song definitely signaled a directional shift by the band to more lyrically sophisticated songs.

Down our long dusty driveway
I didn’t want to go
But I set out with tears in my eyes wonderin`
Daddy took me by the hand
Looked down at the school bus and his little man and said,
“Don’t worry boy it will be all right”

[Chorus]
‘Cause I took this walk you’re walking now
Boy, I’ve been in your shoes
You can’t hold back the hands of time
It’s just something you’ve got to do
So dry eyes I understand just what you’re goin` through
‘Cause I took this same walk with my old man
Boy, I’ve been in your shoes

“Forty-Eight Hours Till Monday” is another Miller-Hubbard collaboration, this time a mid-tempo song celebrating the weekend. I think this would have made a very decent single.

It’s Friday night and I’ve been workin’ all week long
After the rent all I have left is this old song
My baby’s right beside me, we’re gonna have a ball
Ain’t gonna care about anything, anything at all
I’ve got 48 hours and 25 dollars in change ’til Monday

Got on my skin tight jeans
And my shirt with the ketchup stains
I’ve got a hole in my pocket and the world by the tail
And everything is going my way
I’ve got 48 hours and 25 dollars in change

I’m not sure why Mark Miller wrote “Superman’s Daughter”, as the song is rather gimmicky. As a mid-tempo rocker, the song does no harm as an album track.

She was the most unusual girl I’d met
She stole my heart and she took my breath
She had these certain ways I did not understand
And when I made my move to execute my plan
She was leading me like a lamb to a slaughter

You don’t mess around with Superman’s daughter
Superman’s daughter got looks that kill
She got X-ray eyes, she got a heart of steel
When she fell in love, I never would have caught her
If I’d only known she was Superman’s daughter

“One Less Pony”, another Miller composition, is an up-tempo ballad that functions well as an album track but was too derivative to make a good single.

Donna McElroy has had a long career as a background singer, although little success as a recording artist. Her contributions to the Hubbard-Miller composition “Still Water” add a gospel quality to a lovely
song .

“Stealing Home” is yet another Hubbard-Miller composition, this time a mid-tempo ballad that makes use of baseball analogies

No, I’m not just crazy, I’ve lost more than my mind
Since I looked into your blue eyes
I’m swingin’ for the bleachers with my heart
Thinking this time that I might win looking at you
Stealin’ home, stealin’ home
I’m rounding third and I’m heading on in
Look at me taking chances again
Maybe this time, I’ll beat out the throw stealing home

The album closes with “Thunder Bay”, a Scruggs-Miller collaboration.

I never thought that anyone could do me like you do me
I never thought that love would get in the way
But there was magic in the air and there were stars out on the water
On a moonlit night in Thunder Bay

As with other Sawyer Brown albums, there is a nice mix of styles and tempo to keep things interesting.

I think that “The Walk” was a bit unlucky to not reach #1, and in general, this album represents an upgrade over earlier albums in terms of songwriting and production values. I would rate this an A-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Out Goin’ Cattin”

Sawyer Brown was often excoriated for the frivolous and superficial lyrical content of the songs they recorded, at least in the days before they associated with ace Nashville songwriter Mac McAnally. While it is true that most of their early songs were not that sophisticated or relevant, the fact remains that none of Sawyer Brown’s early albums were b-o-r-i-n-g, being filled with good cheer and frequently danceable music.

Out Goin’ Cattin’ was Sawyer Brown’s third album and also their third top ten country album. While the album was not full of top ten singles, the album, produced by Randy Scruggs is a well produced and organized album, with varying tempos and varying styles of music encompassed within its ten songs.

The album opens with “Lady of the Evening”, a Mark Miller composition. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad. I don’t like the production much – it reeks of 1980s – but the song is interesting:

She’s got my picture in her locket
I got my hand in her back pocket
Walkin” through the night, in our home town
We take our time as we go strollin’
We might go to a movie, might go bowling
She just says we’ll take on what the night will bring

[Chorus]
‘Cause she’s a lady of the evening
But only just for me man
I’m a wonderin’ why she set her likes on me
She’s got me overflowing
‘Cause she keeps me knowin’
I’ll be doin’ my leavin’
With a lady of the evening tonight

“Better Be Some Tears” is next. Written by Kerry Chater, Bill LaBounty and Beckie Foster, this up-tempo ballad might have been a reasonable choice for release as a single. As relationship songs go, this one is a bit flinty:

Some other fool with his head in the clouds
Might let you get away with what you done
But not me, Baby, not me
You fall out of love and now you’re comin’ around
Any time you want to get back on
We’ll see, Baby, we’ll see
I won’t be waitin’ here forever
Right now I’m tellin’ you

[Chorus:]
There better be some tears
I wanna see some cryin’
Now you do a little dying
To show me you’re sincere
There better be some tears
After the way you left me
Baby if you wanna get me
To let you come back here
There better be some tears

“Not Ready to Let You Go” by Steve Dorff and Mark Miller is a slow, tender ballad that has an easy listening/adult contemporary feel to it, again with typical 80s production.

“Out Goin’ Cattin'” by Randy Scruggs and Mark Miller was the first single released from the album, reaching #11 (it went to #4 in Canada). Frankly, it should have been a bigger hit as it is a fine song with a definite R&B vibe to it. Joe Bonsall, the fine tenor of the Oak Ridge Boys, is featured on the song and the addition of his voice to Mark Miller’s really makes this song work.

We still bop and our cars run hot
We’re out cuttin’ the fool
We’re tearin’ the town got the top laid down
Like we’re back in school
I got a white sport coat and blue suede shoes
We’re gonna find us a Betty and a Bobby Sue

[Chorus]
Well don’t go tellin’ don’t go rattin’
Hey baby baby we’re out goin’ cattin’
Juke joint jammin’ tit for tat
And mama don’t wait up, wait up
We’re out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’

“The House Won’t Rock” a Frank J. Myers – Mark Miller collaboration rocks but gently. The lyrics are not to be taken too seriously, harkening back to the sort of lyrics that permeated early rock and roll.

Next up is “New Shoes” (Bill LaBounty, Beckie Foster and Susan Longacre). Again the song doesn’t feature especially deep lyrics but it is a celebratory and a decent dance number:

She put me down and left me flat
Like a penny on a railroad track
The dust ain’t even settled yet
Now look at me take my first step
Gonna kick this heartache in the butt
Tonight I’m gonna strut

[Chorus:]
Puttin’ on some new shoes
Gettin’ rid of these old blues
All is takes is one quick change
And I’ll just dance away
In my new shoes

“Graveyard Shift” by Gene Nelson and Paul Nelson is the most meaningful song on the album, proof that even before connecting with McAnally that Miller and company were capable of handling more serious fare. As one who worked graveyard shifts for four years, I can identify with the sentiments expressed in this song.

The only way to make a livin’ round here
Is down there on the loading dock
My daddy done it for 35 years
And old is all he ever got

Guess I was meant to follow in his footsteps
Just like an assembly line
But it’s amazing how long the nights get
When I’m working on the graveyard shift
Yes I’m working on the graveyard shift

Wishin’ I could give someone a piece of my mind
There must be somethin’ better than this
Bein’ buried alive where the sun never shines
Workin’ on the graveyard shift

“Night Rockin’ “, another Scruggs-Miller collaboration, really doesn’t rock at all, being but another mid-tempo ballad. It serves its purpose in that it keeps the tempos varied within the album.
“Savin’ the Honey for the Honeymoon” by J. Barry and Rick Vito is kind of a silly song that was the third single released from the album, dying at #58. The song, which has an early Buck Owens tempo, is another one of those songs about the girl not giving it up until receipt of the wedding band. It makes for a great album cut and was probably a little unlucky not to do better as a single.

Mark Miller’s “Gypsies On Parade” is the closing track. Released as the second single, it just cracked the top thirty. The song, a slow ballad, tells the story of a band’s life on the road. The song is well constructed but not necessarily singles material:

We pulled out of Charlotte
The snow is fallin’ down
We make our way in a one eagle sleigh
‘Til we reach another town
Our name is in lights on the billboard sign
In every town we play
But if you may, all it really need say
Are gypsies, gypsies on parade

This is a pretty entertaining album, with good use of varying tempos, although I would have liked for the album to include at least one really fast song, such as “Step That Step”. The album is marred somewhat by the production, with saxophone passages (mercifully few) played by a Kenny G imitator. As a lead singer Mark Miller continued to show improvement and the band remains cohesive. I can’t quite give this album an A, but it is a solid B+ and one I listened to frequently in the first few years after it was released.

Spotlight Artist: Sawyer Brown

Those only intimately familiar with Sawyer Brown’s output in the 1990s, may be surprised to learn the origins of the group are traceable back to the mid-1980s when Mark Miller and the boys competed on and won Star Search.  With the $100,000 prize in their pockets and a recording contract with Capitol/Curb Records, they entered the studio to record a self-titled album released in 1984. The album peaked at #2 and their second single, “Step That Step” was their first #1 hit.

Sawyer Brown would hit the top ten just four more times in their first decade, where big hits included “That Missing You Heart of Mine” and an iconic cover of the George Jones classic “The Race Is On.” Their fortunes changed in 1991 when they dropped the slick sound that had become their trademark with “The Walk,” a stunning ballad about the cycles of life solely written by Miller. The song returned them to #2 for the first time in four years.

The band’s greatest period of consistency followed, with their next eight singles reaching the top 5. “Some Girls Do” and “Thank God For You” were the band’s second and third number one hits, respectively. This uptick in their commercial fortunes is related to the addition of Mac McAnally, who wrote some of the hits and co-produced a number of the albums reasonable for changing perceptions and allowing both fans and critics to take the band seriously.

McAnally’s contributions include “Cafe on the Corner,” a masterwork in blue-collar oppression. “All These Years” tackles infidelity, with a husband confronting his wife while she’s in bed with her lover. He and Miller co-produced four of the band’s albums, beginning with Outskirts of Town in 1993 and ending with 1999’s Drive Me Wild. Sawyer Brown’s final major hit was the title track to the latter project, which hit #6 in 1999. Two years prior they took a cover of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” to #13 while their take on “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” a pop hit for Michael Johnson in 1979, hit #6.

While our spotlight of Sawyer Brown will conclude with their Six Days on the Road album, released in 1997, the band has been recording into the new millennium. Their aforementioned Drive Me Wild album was issued with Miller dancing courtesy of a hologram cover image in 1999. Just three more albums have followed in the years since all of which have yielded singles that either charted low or didn’t chart at all. The band’s most recent single, the failed “Walk Out of the Rain” was issued back in 2014.

As far as distinctions go Sawyer Brown was never able to walk away with the CMA Award for Vocal Group of the Year, despite seven consecutive nominations between 1992-1998. This feat has since been tied, by Zac Brown Band, who also has seven consecutive nominations (2010-2016) without a win. Like Sawyer Brown, Zac Brown Band has also won the CMA New Artist Award.

Album Review: Bryan White – ‘Between Now and Forever’

between-now-and-foreverBryan White was an established newcomer when Between Now and Forever dropped in March 1996. The final two singles from his self-titled debut had topped the charts and he was on his way to winning the ACM for Top Male Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award.

White teamed once again with Kyle Lehning and Billy Joe Walker, Jr for his sophomore set. They led with “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” an excellent power ballad written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees. The song tells of a man conflicted by thoughts of his former flame:

We agreed that it was over

Now the lines have all been drawn

The vows we made began to fade

But now they’re gone

Put your pictures in the shoebox

And my gold ring in the drawer

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Now Sherri says she’s jealous

Of this freedom that I’ve found

If she were me, she would be out on the town

And she says she can’t imagine

What on earth I’m waiting for

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Oh, I shouldn’t care or wonder where and how you are

But I can’t hide this hurt inside my broken heart

I’m fighting back emotions that I’ve never fought before

‘Cause I’m not supposed to love you anymore

Also admirable was the second single “So Much For Pretending,” a break-neck uptempo that became White’s third number one hit. The catchy guitar and drum driven arrangement coupled with the charming lyric make this one of my favorites of his.

White was back in ballad territory for the lowest charting single, the #15 peaking “That’s Another Song.” The ballad of lost love is lovely, with a beautiful steel-led instrumental break framing White’s passionate performance. I wanted to say this was my least favorite of the album’s singles, but I love it as much as anything he released from his first two albums.

The album’s fourth single, the uptempo “Sittin’ On Go” impacted country radio twenty years ago this week. It’s yet another worthy turn from White and a perfect slice of uptempo radio fodder. The song deservedly hit #1 and retained its impact for years, at least on my local country station here in Boston.

I’ve owned this album since its release; I was nine at the time, a point in my musical journey in which I primarily listened to the radio hits a record had to offer. But I distinctly remember being enamored with the title track, a mid-tempo ballad co-written by White. I still find the track appealing although it is a bit more thickly produced and less subtle than the ballads released as singles.

The remaining uptempo numbers – “Nickel in the Well” and “A Hundred and One” are typical mid-1990s album filler. White also co-wrote “Blindhearted,” a ballad with nice flourishes of steel and “On Any Given Night,” just more of the same steel-fueled pop balladry.

I hold anything Mac McAnally writes in the highest of regard, as he composed “Café On The Corner,” one of the strongest down-on-your-luck working man tunes of the 1990s, and the best of the sub-genre I’ve ever heard. To Between Now and Forever he contributes “Still Life,” a ballad I wouldn’t have given a second look but for he wrote it. The track begins shaky, and is not McAnally even close to his best lyrically, but hits its stride in the second verse when the story, about a man stuck without his woman, takes a memorable turn:

The chances were given to get on with livin’

The truth is that he never tried

And no one ever sees him most folks don’t even

Remember which one of ’em died

But he still denies it, he closes his eyes and

 

It’s still life without you and I still hold on

What it feels like you can’t go by that

It’s still life, still life without you

Oh, still life, still life without you

Between Now and Forever is above average as far as squarely mainstream releases go. The set is very solid and the singles were worthy of release. White would have success as a writer when Diamond Rio took his co-penned “Imagine That” into the Top 5 in 1997. He would score just two more notable hits, both coming the following year. He would hit #4 with his own “Love Is The Right Place” and #6 as Shania Twain’s duet partner on “From This Moment On,” which later abandoned his contributions in favor of a solo pop-focused rendition of the now-classic love song. He would fade away at dawn of the new millennium.

Between Now and Forever captures an artist at their artistic peak, a time when everything worked for hits and platinum level sales. White was never truly a hot comity in country music although those from this era will remember his music, especially “Sittin’ On Go.”

Grade: A

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfield last year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Feels So Right’

61l1zC9YGNL1981’s Feels So Right was Alabama’s fifth album overall and their second for RCA. The band once again co-produced the album with Harold Shedd and Larry McBride, the team that had made their major label debut album a runaway success. It sold more than 4 million copies — twice as many as the highly successful My Home’s In Alabama, and spawned three #1 country hits. It also found the band making inroads on the pop charts for the first time, with both the title track and “Love In The First Degree” landing in the pop Top 20. The latter has always been one of my favorite Alabama songs; I was just getting interested in country at the time and it was one of the few songs played on Top 40 radio that I could enjoy. I like the first single “Old Flame” slightly better, though. The most country-sounding of the three singles, it was written by Donny Lowery and Mac McAnally and was always one of the most popular numbers in the band’s live shows.

I have to admit that prior to preparing for this review, I had never heard an Alabama album all the way through. Although I enjoyed most of the band’s radio hits, I was more of an Oak Ridge Boys fan in those days and had limited financial resources for buying albums. My prep work has underscored that it’s almost always a good idea to dig a little below the surface beyond an act’s hit singles. Listening to the full album exposes another side to Alabama that is much more diverse than what could be heard from them on the radio. Always considered to be on the more progressive end of the country music spectrum, the album cuts are often more traditional, although there are also some cuts that were a little too Southern rock for country radio.

“Ride The Train”, written by Teddy Gentry, is a great number with a lot of fiddle and harmonica and great harmonies and far too country for country radio in 1981. “Woman Back Home” was also too traditional for a radio single in 1981, though it would probably have done well about a decade later, if given a chance. “Burn Georgia Burn” gives Teddy Gentry a turn to sing lead, and the Southern rock laced “See The Embers, Feel The Flame” gives Jeff Cook a chance to do the same. Both are very good vocalists and it’s a shame that neither got a chance to sing lead more often; I’ve always thought that groups that let more than one member sing lead, like The Statler Brother and The Oak Ridge Boys, were more interesting than those that featured the same lead singer every time.

The album has mostly stood the test of time well, although its age is occasionally betrayed by some of the production choices. Many of the tracks feature a string section, although they are relatively restrained for the most part. The album is less slickly produced than many from this era, with the exceptions of the tracks “Hollywood” and my least favorite track “Fantasy”, a late 70s-sounding number that sounds like it would have been a big hit for The Bee Gees.

Feels So Right, is by and large a very enjoyable album and a pleasant surprise that has shown me that I have a lot of work to do to catch up on what I’ve been missing out on for the past 35 years.

Grade: A

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’

bangbangbang1999’s Bang, Bang, Bang was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sole release from DreamWorks Records, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the band’s decade-long commercial decline. Emory Gordy, Jr. and Steve Fishell were brougnt in to co-produce with Josh Leo. The result was an album that relied more heavily on outside songwriters than most of their earlier work and a more mainstream country-pop sound instead of the country-rock for which they had become well known. As the title suggests, Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t their most substantive collection of songs, but it still has its enjoyable moments.

The opening track “If This Ain’t Love”, written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a big departure for the group. The horns are a bit jarring but the tune is catchy and contains plenty of steel guitar in the mix, which is a very welcome inclusion — remember this was the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill when many artists had one eye on the pop charts. The title track, which was the album’s sole single, is a disappointing piece of fluff. It died at #52 when it was originally releasd in 1998. The following year’s re-release fared even worse, recaching only #63. Even more disappointing is the Steve Bogard/Rick Giles tune “Forget The Job (Get A Life)”, an extremely annoying number that sounds like something Shania Twain rejected. I don’t know what they were thinking when they recorded this one but everyone involved should have known better. “It’s About Time” isn’t a first-rate song but it is saved by a nice harmony vocal provided by Matraca Berg.

Things get better with a nice cover of Mac McAnally’s “Down The Road”, which I prefer to the original. “Singing To the Scarecrow”, about a Kentucky farm girl who dreams of stardom, is one of two Dennis Linde compositions and is also quite good. Even better is “Dry Town”, an uptempo Gillian Welch-Jown Rawlings number. The novelty tune “The Monkey Song”, written by Jimmy Ibbotson, is the album’s sole song written by a NGDB member.

While Bang, Bang Bang ultimately did nothing to relaunch the band’s recording career, and it may not be the best remembered entry in their discography, it is certainly worth a listen. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Album Review: Rice, Rice, Hillman And Pedersen – ‘Out Of The Woodwork’

out of the woodworkIn 1996 Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen teamed up with brilliant bluegrass brothers Tony and Larry Rice to record a delightful acoustic record together, calling themselves an “anti-supergroup”. The four had first met as teenage musicians at a California bluegrass festival back in 1963. Their paths crossed a number of times over the next few decades, and in the mid 1990s came up with the idea of working together after the Rice Brothers played at the same festival as Herb’s then group, the Laurel Canyon Ramblers.

Vocals are split between Chris, Herb and Larry.

Larry Rice takes the lead vocal on the best track on the album, his own ‘Street Corner Stranger’. This haunting tale tells the somber story of an alcoholic who has lost everything good in his life thanks to his addiction, and is reduced to taking advice from a man who has fallen even further.

He also sings lead on Richard Thompson’s contemporary folk classic ‘Dimming Of The Day’, Norman Blake’s ‘Lord Won’t You Help Me’, and his own ‘Just Me And You’ – all fine performances and songs.

The wistful ‘Somewhere On The Road Tonight’, written and sung by Chris Hillman, has a protagonist dreaming of home. ‘So Begins The Task is a resigned take on learning to live without a former love. ‘Change Coming Down’, which he wrote with Steve Hill, picks up the tempo, but not the mood, with the protagonist bemoaning the departure of his loved one.

Soul classic ‘Do Right Woman’ is completely reinvented both musically and with the inversion of gender of the original, and works remarkably well, with Chris’s sympathetic lead vocal making it a very unexpected highlight. There are also revivals of the Desert Rose Band’s ‘Story Of Love’ and ‘Hard Times’, slowed down and more intimate and contemplative.

Herb sings ‘No One Else’, which he had also done on the Desert Rose Band’s True Love, and the philosophical Mac McAnally song ‘Only Passing Through’ with a coyly disguised ‘Mystery Singer’ (I think McAnally himself) on harmony.

Everything is tastefully arranged and beautifully played. In short, this is an excellent record which should appeal to all lovers of acoustic music.

Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen reunited for two further collaboration: a self-titled effort i n 1999 and Running Wild in 2001

Grade: A

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

long time cominThe early 90s saw changes for Shenandoah. They had left Columbia after their legal troubles, and signed to RCA. They recruited Keith Stegall to produce their debut effort for the new label alongside longterm collaborator Robert Byrne. It continued the style familiar from earlier work, but the songs were not quite as strong.

The lead single was a pleasantly radio-friendly mid-tempo song about a man going home to ‘Rock My Baby’ after a hard day’s work and a night out with the boys. Although not particularly memorable, It has an airy feel with some attractive fiddle, and it returned the group close to the top of the charts, with a #2 peak.

Unfortunately the other singles from the album were not as successful. The follow-up ‘Hey Mister (I Need That Job)’ offered a change of pace, portraying the voice of a young expectant father facing unemployment and desperate for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family. Perhaps it was a little too serious to play well on radio, more accustomed to Shenandoah’s lighter material, as it barely scraped into the top 30, but it is an excellent song (written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand) with a moving vocal from Marty.

‘Leavin’s Been A Long Time Comin’, the up-tempo title track, was a return to a brighter feel (despite a downbeat lyric), and this one peaked at #15. ‘Give Me Five Minutes’ (written by Robert Ellis Orrall) is a charmingly optimistic number typical of Shenandoah’s up-tempo material. It would have made a fine radio-friendly single had they tried one more.

‘Same Old Heart’ is a tender Mac McAnally ballad acknowledging that a relationship is faltering, in which Marty’s phrasing is very reminiscent of McAnally’s version (on his excellent 1989 Simple Life album). I really liked this one.

Nostalgia for times past has a strong thematic role on this album. ‘Right Where I Belong’ (written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo) is also good, a sweet look at the simple joys of small-town country life which a young man’s ambitions for something more exciting led him to pass up. Now, he’s back home to settle down, since in his quest for success,

I lost myself and that’s a high price to pay.

The tender ballad story song ‘There Ain’t No Beverly Hills In Tennessee, written by Marty Raybon and Mike McGuire, was the CD bonus track (omitted from the cassette). It is one of the best songs here, telling the story of a girl who marries young but leaves her husband with dreams of greener pastures:

There ain’t no California gold in a smoky mountain stream
There ain’t no silver linin’ to lace a poor boy’s dream
As she walked away I was thinking someday she’d come on back to me
But there ain’t no Beverly Hills in Tennessee

The gentle ballad ‘I Was Young Once Too’, written by the co-producer Robert Byrne with Richard Leigh, also looks back, with its tender portrait of the relationship between the protagonist and his father. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ is a little too similar melodically and thematically to their big hit ‘Sunday In The South’, but is beautifully sung.

The lively rockabilly ‘Rattle The Windows’ is a feelgood celebration of being in a smalltime country band.

This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it lacked obvious hits. With only one real hit single (in the shape of one of the record’s more lackluster songs), it did not sell as well as their last couple of Columbia releases. However, used copies are easy to find cheap, and it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘The Road Not Taken’

Shenandoah_road_not_takenAfter their eponymous album produced two top-twenty singles, Shenandoah saw a reversal of fortunes when they gathered at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Sholes, Alabama to record their sophomore record, The Road Not Taken. A major success, the album spawned three #1 hits, was certified gold, for shipments of 500,000 copies, and turned 25 upon the anniversary of its Jan 31, 1989 release just one week ago.

Columbia Records noticed the band’s upward swing when their third single, “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore” cracked the top ten, peaking at #9. Written by Robert Byrne (their co-producer) and Will Robinson, the track is a forlorn synth heavy ballad that shows the band’s promise but isn’t indicative of their strongest work. To capitalize on the song’s success the label carried it over to The Road Not Taken, releasing it as the third single from the band’s debut and first from their second album.

This album’s first official single, “Mama Knows,” gave the band their inaugural top five hit. An excellent mandolin and string centric ballad, “Mama Knows” began their tradition of singing simple tales about small-town life. This one’s about a mother who always knows whatever her son is trying to hide:

Mama knows, Mama knows

Somehow I think she’s got a window to my soul

Mama knows, Mama knows

Even when I think it doesn’t show

Mama knows, mama knows

“The Church on Cumberland Road,” Their first of three consecutive #1 hits came next, impacting the country charts in early 1989. A two-week #1, the track marked the first time a band had their first chart-topper spend multiple weeks atop the charts. A catchy rocker about a groom late for his wedding, the song uses electric guitars in its production, and is heavy on the charm. A piece of nostalgia from my childhood, it remains one of my favorites of their singles to date.

Their second number one came courtesy of Jay Booker’s masterpiece “Sunday In The South,” which is my favorite thing Shenandoah has ever committed to record. The song is a day—in the life of the southern US on a sacred Sunday, bringing alive the traditions of going to church, enjoying family dinners, and getting one’s haircut. While the track retains a bit of laundry-list tactics, it succeeds on its sincerity, Marty Raybon’s impeccable lead vocal, and the flawless traditional production that weaves gorgeous ribbons of harmonica throughout.

The more contemporary “Two Dozen Roses,” co-written by Byrne with Mac McAnally, finished off the band’s banner 1989, becoming their third #1 hit. Another excellent song, “Two Dozen Roses” contains everything I love about country music – twang (both vocally and from guitars), a killer chorus, and an effortless vibe that seems easy to pull off, but really isn’t. “Two Dozen Roses” is just a great, great song all around.

The album’s final single, “See If I Care,” bookends the album with a track similar in nature to “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore.” That isn’t a complement, though, as the song retains the former’s somewhat listless production and vocal stylings and feels almost like a regression from the excellence of the band’s three previous singles. The track justifiably peaked at #6.

Like the blander singles, the title track has an adult cotemporary vibe that’s somewhat unbecoming. Raybon doesn’t do that great a job singing it either, which is a shame. An on-point vocal from him could’ve elevated this tale of regret, but instead we’re left with a song that’s just bland. “Changes” is more interesting thanks to its cadence, which allows entry into the song, but Raybon’s delivery could once again use a little zap of energy.

McAnally, who’s one of my favorite songwriters of all-time, wrote “She’s All I Got Goin’” solo. Raybon gives an exquisite vocal performance and the production is a pure delight, no matter how retro it sounds to today’s ears. The track should’ve been the finale single, instead of “See If I Care.” Also good is “Hard Country” although the harmonies from the other band members on the chorus just sound strange.

It’s easy to see why The Road Not Taken was Shenandoah’s breakthrough album. A strong collection of songs and Raybon’s indelible voice help raise the record above the average radio faire. It’s also a testament to all involved that two of the projects biggest hits, “The Church on Cumberland Road” and “Two Dozen Roses” have go on to become classics, with Rascal Flatts covering the former on occasion. Gary LeVox is nowhere near the astute vocalist that Raybon is, but they do a surprisingly decent job.

It’s hard to believe the CD is 25 years old, but it sounds nearly as good today as it did when it was released all those years ago.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘Doug Stone’

dougstoneReleased towards the end of the New Traditionalist movement, Doug Stone’s eponymous debut is his best and most traditional album. The Epic album was produced by Doug Johnson and featured top-notch songs and an impressive roster of musicians including Mark O’Connor, Mac McAnally, and Paul Franklin. The album’s first single was the superb country weeper “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)”, an indulgent tale of self-pity written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark. Songs like this are the reason many people dislike country music, but they are also the reason so many of us love it so passionately. Stone knocked it out of the park on his first try; although he released many songs after this that I thoroughly enjoyed, nothing ever matched this masterpiece. It peaked at #4 but deserved to go to #1, and I’ve often thought it might have become a top charter if it had been held back and released after Stone had built up some name recognition, instead of being the first out of the box. But chart position aside, it’s a great record.

The rest of the album is almost as good. Doug’s follow-up single “Fourteen Minutes Old” is another break-up song despite its uptempo arrangement. Written by Dennis Knutson and A.L. “Doodle” Owens, it topped out at #6. The Harlan Howard tune “These Lips Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”, another favorite of mine, fared slightly better by reaching #5. Stone finally reached #1 with the album’s fourth and final single, “In A Different Light”, which was written by the great Bob McDill along with Dickey Lee and Bucky Jones. It is the album’s least traditional song, but its biggest hit, perhaps foreshadowing country music’s imminent shift back to a more pop-oriented sound. It also allowed Stone to showcase his skills as a balladeer and it cast the template for many of his future hits.

I’ve often second-guessed record label choices for singles, but in the case of this album I think that Epic got it right. The album’s remaining songs are good, but not as strong as the ones sent to radio. “Turn This Thing Around” is not quite as good as Keith Whitley’s version from the year before. “High Weeds and Rust”, my least favorite song here, was later covered by its songwriter David Lee Murphy. Producer Doug Johnson’s “We Always Agree On Love” isn’t quite as strong as the rest of the album, but I really liked Randy Boudreux’s “My Hat’s Off To Him” and “It’s A Good Thing I Don’t Love You Anymore” by Bobby P. Barker and Keith Palmer.

I was still in college when this album was released and it certainly does not seem like nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then. In listening to the album again, though, it’s age is sometimes betrayed by the electronic keyboard arrangements, which were considered cutting-edge at the time but seem quite dated today. Thankfully, producer Doug Johnson avoided being too heavy-handed with them, and they are not as intrusive as the keyboard arrangements on other records of the era. It is however, the album’s sole flaw, albeit a minor complaint overall. Albums this good were not uncommon in the early 90s, and thus were sometimes easy to take for granted. This one is especially worth dusting off and listening to again, particularly for those fans who have become disillusioned with the current state of mainstream country. Inexpensive copies of Doug Stone are easy to find.

Grade: A

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Feelin’ Good Train’

Sammy’s third album for Mercury/Polygram was released in 1994, and was produced as before by the team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson.  The first single, ‘National Working Woman’s Holiday  proved to be Sammy’s biggest hit since She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful, just missing the top spot with a #2 peak.  It was co-written from the usually estimable Roger Murrah, but while it is catchy, this well-meaning tribute to a man’s hard working wife comes across as pandering.

A cover of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ 1970s hit ‘Third Rate Romance’, which is much better, also reached #2.  The closely observed lyric is on the surface unjudgmental, but sharply honest and precise about the sleazy nature of the situation.  The original singer and the song’s writer, Russell Smith, contributes backing vocals.

Mac McAnally’s gently atmospheric but slightly overproduced ‘Southbound’) with McAnally on backing vocals) was perhaps too subtle for country radio, and showed the first signs of a commercial slowdown for the artist, not getting far into the top 30.  ‘If You’re Gonna Walk, I’m Gonna Crawl’ did a little better, and was a top 20 hit.  It’s actually my favourite of the album’s singles, an entertaining upbeat number about a honky tonker seeing the error of his ways only when his wife is set to walk away.  It was written by co-producer Cannon with Larry Bastian.

There is a rare writing credit for Sammy on the joyous Cajun rocker ‘Better Call A Preacher’, which features Jo-El Sonnier’s accordion. I’m surprised this irresistible track wasn’t a single.  Another joy is ‘Never Bit A Bullet Like This’, a playfully performed duet with George Jones.  Also quite entertaining is ‘Paradise From Nine To One’, a cheerful if rather generic up-tempo number about a couple painting the town red.  The title track, however, is just pointless

Breakup song ‘If You Ever Come This Way Again’ is a Dean Dillon co-write (with Donny Kees).  The phrasing and melody bear all the hallmarks of a Dillon composition, while the production utilizes adelicate string arrangement to add sweetness to the melancholy mood. This is an excellent, subtle song about the complicated emotions felt by the protagonist facing separation from someone for whom we feel he has stronger feelings than he actually admits.

Also excellent is the delicately mournful ballad ‘The Heart That Time Forgot’, written by Tony Martin and Sterling Whipple, about failing to get past the memory of a lost love.  The soulful ‘Too Far Gone To Leave’ is an emotional ballad which isn’t bad, but has an obtrusive string arrangement which drowns the vocal at times.

It did not sell quite as well as its predecessors, but was certified gold.  While not Sammy Kershaw’s best work, it is a pretty solid effort, and used copies are available so cheaply it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Uncaged’

The Zac Brown Band’s music is difficult to categorize. While much of it is firmly rooted in country music, it is also heavily influenced by Southern rock and reggae, and at times it also reminds me of what Top 40 and adult contemporary radio used to sound like back in the 1970s. Because their selections tend to be eclectic, I’m always a little apprehensive when they release a new album, figuring it is only a matter of time before they release something that I don’t like. I’ll also admit that I was initially put off by Uncaged’s creepy cover art by Brandon Maldonado, which depicts what looks like a demonic representation of the Virgin Mary, and which is titled “Our Lady of Merciful Fate”. Cover art aside, however, Uncaged is a solid collection of tunes, though it isn’t quite as satisfying as the band’s previous two releases.

Once again Keith Stegall shares production duties with Zac Brown, and the band members all had a hand in writing ten of the album’s eleven tracks, and once again they’ve managed to push the boundaries of country music while maintaining a freshness that continues to elude the music of most of their peers. The album opens with the Caribbean-flavored “Jump Right In”, a catchy and enjoyable, though not remotely country number. The Caribbean theme is revisited a few tracks later with “Island Song”, a fun but lightweight summertime number that is the album’s only song not written by any of the band members.

The album’s best track is the current single “The Wind”, a bluegrass-tinged, fast-paced number that Occasional Hope reviewed last month. It is quite different from anything that the band has done previously and the sort of song I never expected to hear from them. Nothing else on the album comes as close to traditional country, which is a slight disappointment because I’d really like to hear more music in this vein from them. They push the envelope further on a few other tracks, which unfortunately don’t work as well. The Southern-rock title track is a bit too heavy on the electric guitars for my taste, though it is probably a good number to jam onstage. Likewise, I could have done without the R&B flavored “Overnight” with guest artist Trombone Shorty, which really sounds out-of-place in this collection.

The bulk of the album sounds similar to the band’s first two major label releases and all of the songs are worth listening to. “Sweet Annie” reminds me a lot of “Colder Weather” and is a good candidate for a single release, and the fast-paced “Natural Disaster”, which has a beat similar to John Denver and Emmylou Harris’ “Wild Montana Skies” is a particular favorite of mine. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” reminds me of the kind of song Blackhawk used to do; it too is a potential hit single. The album’s last two tracks, “Day that I Die” with guest artist Amos Lee, and “Last But Not Least”, which the band co-wrote with Mac McAnally, are both excellent but probably aren’t commercial enough to be sent to radio.

Despite a few missteps, Uncaged is a good example of why one shouldn’t judge a book — or an album — by its cover. While I prefer The Foundation and You Get What You Give, Uncaged has grown on me with repeated listenings and there is more than enough here to keep Zac Brown Band fans satisfied.

Grade: B+