My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mack Vickery

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Ballads Of The Hills And Plains’

balladsBy 1965, it was becoming apparent that Hank Williams, Jr. would not be content to simply remake his father’s songbook. The first shot across the bow was this album of western and folk songs and similar songs by Nashville songsmiths. While it was a rebellion of sorts, it was a gentle rebellion as Hank gathered his own footing with this, his fourth album, and first not to feature any songs written by his father.

The band for this album was billed as the Cheatin’ Hearts but in reality it was a group of session musicians consisting of Grady Martin, Jerry Kennedy, Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton on guitars, Bob Moore on electric bass, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano with the Jordanaires providing vocal accompaniment. While Hank did have a touring band of Cheatin’ Hearts in future years, I doubt that this group ever backed Hank on stage unless it was on the Opry stage, since Hank was still only 16 years old.

The great outdoors, the old west and cowboys are themes Hank would turn to at many points in the future. This was the starting point.
Side One of the album opens with “The River”, an early Mack Vickery co-write with Cliff Friend and Jack Sanders that is a slow ballad about a young lad going after the man who gunned down his father. Unlike the lad in Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, the young man here heads back home to his mother.

Next up is “Doc Holiday”, John Paulovic’s tale about Wyatt Earp’s old sidekick. This song is not about the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, but simply an incident (probably fictional) in the life of Doc Holiday. The dominant instrument in this arrangement is Pig Robbins honky-tonk piano.

Have another drink on me, Doc Holiday
The kid ain’t gonna shoot you down

“Cowpoke” comes from the pens of Tillman Franks and David Houston. Houston was about to emerge as a first tier star, at least for a few years, but this song is western fare, which finds Hank displaying his cowboy yodel/falsetto:

I’m lonesome but happy,
Rich but I’m broke,
And the good Lord knows the reason,
I’m just a cowpoke.

From Cheyenne to Douglas,
All the ranges i know,
I drift with the wind,
No one cares where i go.

Well I ain’t got a dime,
In these old worn out jeans,
So i’ll quit eatin’ steak,
And go back to beans.

“Blood’s Thicker Than Water” by ace songwriters Danny Dill and Wayne P. Walker is a western ballad with a Mexican feel to the guitar work about a gunfight between two brothers that is broken up, at great personal cost by the boys’ mother. A very dramatic ballad.

Jim Reeves had a major hit with Harlan Howard’s “The Blizzard” in 1961. Hank is not a smooth balladeer in the same league as Reeves (very few are in that class) but this song is a narration rather than a crooner’s ballad and so Hank is very much in his element.

“Stampede” by Jim Dale and Frances Paulin is a nice western ballad that closes out side one of the vinyl album.

Side Two starts with “The Rainmaker”, another song from the trio of Cliff Friend, Jack Sanders and Mack Vickery. This narrative song is about a stranger who shows up in the town of Dry Gulch promising to make it rain. This lyric has an interesting twist to the lyric.

Nearly every folk singer and cowboy singer has sung “The Streets of Laredo”, a tune which appears in the folk music of nearly every English-speaking culture, albeit sometimes with very different lyrics. Hank’s vocal is very effective and the backing is very sparse as befits the stark nature of the song.

“Black Lightning” is a jog-along ballad about a gunfighter on the run, speaking to his horse (and himself) as he is about to be run down by the posse chasing him.

“Big Twenty” is another ballad, the story of a muleskinner being pursued by the Apache , the title referring to his twenty mule team pulling a load of borax.

“The Eyes of Death” written by Danny Dill is the story of an inmate who knows that the brother of the man he killed is an inmate in the same prison, but he doesn’t even know what the brother looks like and the anticipation of being killed is worse than actually being killed.

The album ends with “I’m Afraid” by Allen Nelson and Carolyn Stringer. This is an up-tempo about an impending gunfight with a former friend. The dispute, of course, is over a woman.

Unfortunately this album has never been released in a digital format and only “The Blizzard” and “The River” are to be found on the MGM boxed set Living Proof.

All is not lost, however, as ten of the songs have been posted to You Tube as audio clips.

This album is essentially a western or cowboy album, a genre that Hank handles very effectively. The accompaniment is appropriately subdued and Hank is in great vocal form. The musicians and arrangements are all top flight and this is an album I greatly enjoy. As a first attempt at getting away from being a clone, this is a solid effort – at least a B+ or maybe an A-

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Album Review: Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon – ‘Those Were The Days’

those were the daysRCA gave the duo of Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon another chance to break through, although they were relegated for their second release to a six-track EP known as a mini-LP, which the label was using in the mid 1980s as a marketing manoeuvre for new acts. Stewart and Dillon were actually one of the first acts to release one, and the series later launched the careers of the Judds, Vince Gill and Keith Whitley. Dillon wrote or co-wrote all six songs, many of them with Stewart.

The reflective title track was the album’s lead single, and it got some radio play but did not crack the top 40. It is a pair of hellraisers’ wistful look back at teenage memories of a time when “dreams could still come true”. It is a pretty decent song (written by the duo alongside Rex Huston), although the vocals are a bit messy. It seems oddly appropriate, given the pair’s reputation as heavy drinkers, that one of the fondest memories is of getting drunk for the first time.

The second single (the duo’s last), ‘Smokin’ In The Rockies’, is a fast paced celebration of the pair’s life as touring musicians. A live cut, it namechecks a number of the top country stars of the period. It is quite entertaining, although the lyrics are hard to make out at times. It was written by the duo with Frank Dycus and Buddy Cannon, and was later covered by Sawyer Brown.

The rebellious ‘Misfits’ is dominated by wailing (and not always comprehensible) vocals and equally wailing fiddle. The mid-tempo ‘Living On The Ragged Edge’ is a solo Dean Dillon composition about those straying from the strait and narrow path at risk to themselves. He takes the lead vocal.

The best song on the album, ‘Hard Time For Lovers’ is an excellent if very downbeat song (which Dean revived for his solo album debut at the end of the decade). A string arrangement is a little too sweet, but Dean Dillon’s delicate vocal is his best on the album as he compares the stories of various friends and family members whose love lives are in crisis, with his own happy relationship.

Gary Stewart leads on ‘Lovers And Losers’, which the pair wrote with Mack Vickery and Rex Huston. This is another depressed ballad with strings and a vulnerable vocal.

There were some good songs on this mini-album, but it wasn’t a very commercial one.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Backroads’

backroadsRicky’s fourth studio album was released in 1991, and certified platinum before the end of the year. As usual, it was dominated by beautifully sung ballads and a pure country production.

The first three singles continued his admirable chart record by hitting #1. First came ‘Rockin’ Years’, a melodic duet with Dolly Parton (also included on her then-current album Eagle When She Flies). It is a gently melodic ballad about growing old with the one one loves – pretty and delicate with a lovely steel intro. However, I find the rocking ‘I Am A Simple Man’ rather dull. The third chart topper was the gentle tearjerking tribute to a father-son relationship, ‘Keep It Between The Lines’.

A nice, steel-dominated cover of Warner Mack’s downbeat ballad ‘After The Lights Go Out’ only reached an unlucky 13, but deserved better. The pleasant but not that memorable uptempo title track then made it back to #2.

My favorite of the non-singles is ‘Some Things Are Better Left Alone’, a fabulous ballad written by Roger Murrah and Larry Shell about the enduring power of an old flame endangering present happiness:

Every time I stir the ashes
That old fire begins to burn
When I wake those sleepin’ memories
Those old feelings still return

Oh, I shouldn’t think about you
But my heart keeps hangin’ on…

All the smoke from burnin’ bridges
Makes it hard to catch my breath
But the precious love I’m missin’
Is chokin’ me to death

Oh you’re still my strongest weakness
And I’ll love you ’til I’m gone
But I’ll have to remember
Some things are better left alone

Almost as good is the lesser-known classic ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights’, a solid country Wayne Kemp/Mack Vickery song previously recorded by George Jones, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap and Mel Street among others. Ricky’s version is great. ‘If You’re Ever In My Arms Again’ is a nice wistful ballad written by Bobby Braddock.

‘Call Me Up’ was the obligatory rockabilly number. More to my taste, ‘Oh Heart of Mine’ is a likeable uptempo tune with a bluegrass feel, which was written by Allen Shamblin and Bernie Nelson.

The cute little terrier shown on the album cover was the Sheltons’ own pet, Lucky, who they found starving and abandoned while househunting on first moving to Nashville. She also appeared in the video for ‘Keep It between The Lines’.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Wings’

Around the middle of the 1990s Mark Chesnutt’s career began to wind down commercially. Wings, released in 1995, was his first album not to be certified at least gold, but it marks a return to form after the disappointing What A Way To Live, his first for MCA’s sister label Decca. There was a new producer at the helm, Mark Wright being replaced by label boss Tony Brown, and he did a good job with a sympathetic production.

Sadly, however, Mark was beginning to outwear his welcome at radio. It probably didn’t help that some of the less memorable tracks on this album were selected as singles. ‘Trouble’, with its bluesy and apparently radio-friendly groove, performed extremely disappointingly (especially as the lead single for a new release), barely cracking the top 20. The song lacks much melody, and it’s not one of my favourite Chesnutt recordings; but it is mildly notable as an early country cut for its writer, Americana singer-songwriter Todd Snider.

There must have been a sigh of relief all around when ‘It Wouldn’t Hurt To Have Wings’, a sprightly take on the difficulty of getting over someone, which lends the album its title, reached #7 on Billboard. I like this song although it is relatively lightweight. The third and last single, though, the semi-comic tale of an ill-fated night out in the ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, penned by Jimmy Alan Stewart and Scott Miller, was Mark’s biggest flop to date, only just squeezing into the top 40. It changes the pace both in terms of tempo and mood, and is enjoyable enough, but is not really funny enough to work as a comic song.

It was lucky for Mark that ‘It’s a Little Too Late’ (from a hasty Greatest Hits release) brought him back to the top of the charts in 1997 – but he would never again enjoy the consistent streak he had had at the beginning of the 90s. No career lasts forever, but I think the label may have made the wrong choices for singles to promote this album, as there are far stronger songs on the set.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Ocean Front Property’

Ocean Front PropertyStrait was on a serious hot streak in 1987 when he released Ocean Front Property, his seventh studio album, co-produced with Jimmy Bowen again. Each of the three singles from the album went to #1, starting with the title track, and the album itself was the first album ever to debut at the top of the Billboard Country Album charts. At present, it is the only one of his 80s releases to have achieved double platinum status.

That title track, written by Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran and Royce Porter, has become one of George’s classics, with its ironic lyric telling his ex that he’s over her, and barely concealed subtext that only an idiot could believe that:

“I don’t love you, and now if you’ll buy that
I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona
From my front porch you can see the sea …
If you buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate in free”

Dean Dillon contributed two further songs, the solo composition ‘I’m All Behind You Now’, a resigned post-breakup number which closes the album in sightly downbeat mood, and the sweetly melancholic ‘Without You Here’, where he teamed up again with Royce Porter to produce the tale of a wife who can’t enjoy herself on a Caribbean cruise because her husband isn’t with her:

“There’s just no fun in the sun to be had
Without you here
It’s no place to be
This dream vacation is a bad situation
I’m in misery
In a sea of tears
Without you here”

It’s not altogether clear why they’re not vacationing together, but one assumes business kept him at home.  There is a happy ending, as he misses her too, and ends up flying out to join her. The song’s phrasing is very characteristic of Dillon’s work, and the song has faint but subtle Caribbean tinges to the production which do not stop it from sounding country.

The second single was another all-time Strait classic, the amusing western swing ‘All My Exes Live In Texas’, written by the great Sanger D Shafer. He had written ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ with his third wife Darlene, and he wrote this one with his fourth wife Lyndia. On one level this might be dismissed as little more than a novelty song, as the narrator reels off a list of the exes after his blood resulting in him escaping to Tennessee, but George’s laidback ironic delivery carries the track.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’

Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your MindGeorge Strait’s fourth album, released in 1984, marked yet another advance in his career. He started working with a new producer (his third), label head Jimmy Bowen, but for the first time George himself received a co-production credit, something he has done ever since. There was no obvious change in musical direction, as the album was once more a solidly country production, still flying in the face of country radio’s pop influences. The musicians are in great form throughout, especially fiddle great Johnny Gimble, who positively sparkles. George’s vocals are still a little rawer than his more recent fans will be accustomed to hearing him.

The album offers a fine set of songs which have a pretty cohesive feel, despite a range of tempos, thanks to the solid production, and the subject matter. The songs here cover two basic themes: honky tonking, and lost love/trying to find someone new, with the two merging at times. Indeed, a number of the songs could be interepreted as parts of the same story, and with different sequencing and a couple of changes (omitting ‘The Fireman’ and possibly ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’), this could almost have been presented as a concept album.

The decisions paid off. This was George’s second straight #1 album, eventually selling platinum, and it supported three top 5 singles. It also won both ACM and CMA Album of the Year awards in 1985, and contributed to his winning the Male Vocalist title from both organizations. A massive sea-change was about to roll over the country music industry with an influx of new traditonally-inspired artists, but of all the established artists, George Strait was perhaps in the best position.

Favored songwriter this time around was the legendary Sanger D Shafer, who contributed four of the songs, including the title track, which he wrote with his then-wife Darlene Shafer. ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ was a #1 hit single and is still one of George Strait’s great classics. Instantly recognisable from the plaintive fiddle opening, George’s vocal is perfectly restrained with just an underlying hint of the pain beneath, as his jilted husband speaks to the ex-wife who has abandoned him for another man in Dallas.

George also picked Shafer’s much-recorded ‘Honky Tonk Saturday Night’, which had been on John Anderson’s Wild And Blue a couple of years earlier. Shafer also wrote the beautifully measured ‘What Did You Expect Me To Do’, which is one of my favorite tracks. Here, another cuckolded husband, this time one who has moved on, offers a gentle reproach to his cheating ex:

“Each time I forgave you, you grew bolder
And each time you hurt me, my heart grew colder
Sure, I loved you, but I’ve found someone new
What did you expect me to do?”

Shafer’s fourth cut was the mid-tempo ‘I Need Someone Like Me’, which feels like a sequel to ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’. The lonely protagonist dreams of finding a woman in the same boat so they can cry on one another’s shoulders:

“Someone lonesome, someone hurtin, someone blue –
That’ll be you
We’ll help each other start all over
A tear for a tear, a shoulder for a shoulder
You’ll be someone that’s born to lose
‘Cause I need someone like me to hold onto.”

It may not sound like the most promising basis for a relationship, but George sells it in the song, as he conveys a mixture of hope and unhappiness. What might be a third stage in the same story comes with the charming waltz, ‘You’re Dancing This Dance All Wrong’, written by John Porter McMeans and Ron Moore, as the protagonist thinks he may have found new love:

“The way that you touch me I want to give in
But it’s not so easy holding you when
You’re dancing this dance all wrong
New steps don’t come easy when old memories hang on
I’m finding I’m falling as the music plays on
Keep dancing this dance all wrong.”

The second single was the melodic ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’, written by Sonny Throckmorton and Casey Kelly which allowed George to exercise the smoother side of his voice as he tracks the end of yet another relationship. The final single was the frenetic double-entendre of ‘The Fireman’ (written by Mack Vickery and Wayne Kemp), not one of my personal favorites despite some smoking fiddle.

Kemp also wrote ‘I Should Have Watched That First Step’, which I much prefer, a rueful admission of regret from a cheating husband who can see his wife slipping away as a result of his own actions:

“Though she’s still lovin’ me
It’s not the way it used to be
That first step did something to her mind
I watched her slip away a little more every day
For my conscience couldn’t live with all that shame
And she’s growing colder since the day I told her
And the love we had will never be the same.”

An unrepentant cheater makes his appearance in Fred J Freiling’s sprightly and surprisingly cheerful ‘Love Comes From the Other Side of Town’, as love has staled at home:

“The feelings that we shared are just no longer there
And love comes from the other side of town
When love means an hour with your stand-in
And not an empty house where love just has been.”

Finally, there is a very authentic-sounding helping of western swing in the form of ‘Any Old Time’; it is insubstantial lyrically but very enjoyable thanks to the impeccable musicianship.

This was George’s finest album to date, and one which helped to consolidate his status as one of the major male country stars of the mid 80s. Its pure country sound has not dated in the manner of more pop contemporaries, and with the success of this album George Strait was in an ideal position to compete on the same stage as the new traditionalists who were about to burst on the scene and change the face of country music, and for whom he had helped to pave the way.

It is still readily available.

Grade: A

Album Review: John Anderson – ‘All The People Are Talkin’

johnanderson-all the people are talkinAfter his wildly successful Wild and Blue album, propelled by the smash crossover hit, ‘Swingin’, John Anderson’s next album featured much of the same formula as the previous release.  So while there are still plenty of stone-country moments here, we also find John branching out into the rock and roll sound that he embraced for the rest of the 1980s.  All The People Are Talkin’ was released in September 1983 and reached the #9 spot on the albums chart as the lead single was climbing the singles charts. ‘Black Sheep’ would reach the top in December of that year and the follow-up single would also reach the top 10 in early 1984.

Danny Darst and Robert Altman penned the growling rocker, ‘Black Sheep’.  This clever tune tells the tale of a truck driver who, in his family’s eyes doesn’t measure up to his professional siblings.  Though his parents don’t seem to understand, he’s just as happy in his own element as they are in their ivory tower lifestyle: ‘Yeah I drive me a big ol’ semi truck I’m makin’ payments on a two room shack/My wife she waits on tables and at night she rubs my back’. It’s a very relatable song.  The message of living your life on your own terms, even though it doesn’t meet your family’s expectations, is very universal.

Another grooving track was released to radio with ‘Let Somebody Else Drive’, and crested at #10.  Merle Kilgore and Mack Vickery wrote the song, which was adopted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving as an anthem for the group.  Though the song’s message is anti-drunk-driving, it’s a rocking tune in zydeco fashion complete with horns and strings.

The album opens with the title track, an uptempo ditty written by Fred Carter Jr.  In this tune, driven by some snazzy sax, the narrator’s friends are all telling him the things his lady has been up to, but he chooses not to believe them.  Love is blind and blindness is bliss.  Twin fiddles kick off ‘Blue Lights and Bubbles’, one of my favorite songs on the album.  A twist on the old ‘get out to a smoky, neon-lit bar to get over you’ tune, you can almost hear the beer caps popping off as it plays.

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