My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Collie

Classic Rewind: Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Radney Foster and Mark Collie – ‘The Weight’

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Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review – Aaron Tippin – ‘People Like Us’

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

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

Why don’t you kiss, kiss this

And I don’t mean on my rosy red lips

Me and you, we’re through

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

You just come on over here one last time

Pucker up and close yours eyes

And kiss this goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: Aaron Tippin – ‘Read Between The Lines’

aarontippinBy 1992 Aaron Tippin was well on his way to becoming a one-hit wonder when his second and third singles tanked at country radio. On the surface, he seemed to have a lot of things working against him: he was slightly older than most new artists and had more twang in his voice than was generally considered commercially viable, even in those days. He also lacked the chiseled good looks that were important in a genre that was becoming increasingly image conscious.

Tippin’s commercial fortunes changed with a song about a car that, with the notable exception of its entertainment system, was a pile of junk. The catchy “There Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With The Radio”, which he co-wrote with Buddy Brock, was tailor-made for radio and quickly shot to #1, becoming his first chart-topper. It was released one month in advance of his sophomore album, Read Between The Lines, which like its predecessor, was produced by Emory Gordy, Jr. He followed this success with “I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”, which could have been titled “You’ve Got To Stand For Something Redux”. It’s a decent but not terribly original, as it is sonically and lyrically very similar to his first hit. Nevertheless, it reached the Top 5.

Aaron stumbled a bit with the album’s third single, “I Was Born With A Broken Heart”. It only reached #38, though it outperformed Josh Logan’s original 1989 version. Like all of the songs on Read Between The Lines, “Broken Heart” is a Tippin co-write. I consider it to be the weakest of the album’s four singles. “My Blue Angel”, though a bit shallow lyrically, was more radio friendly and returned Tippin to the Top 10. It’s less traditional than the rest of the album, but with a voice like Aaron Tippin’s pretty much anything sounds country.

RCA missed an opportunity by not releasing as a single the ballad “If I Had It To Do Over”, which is my favorite track on the album. I also quite like the upbeat honky-tonker “I Miss Misbehavin'”, a co-write with Charlie Craig and Mark Collie in which Tippin takes a nostalgic look back at his younger hell-raising days.

I have to admit that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to Aaron Tippin during his commercial heyday. I enjoyed most of his radio hits but not enough to make we want to buy any of his albums. Listening to the entire album for the first time more than twenty years after its release, I realize how easy it was in the 90s to take for granted an album like this, which may not have been one of favorites at the time, but would be extremely welcome if released today.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘All I Can Be’

all i can beCollin Raye made his solo debut in 1991 on Epic Records. His first album for the label was produced by Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, and their sympathetic work grounded Collin’s silvery tenor in neotraditional country backings slathered in fiddle as sweet as his voice. Collin keeps the vocals understated and subtle. The team also found some excellent songs well suited to Collin’s voice, and the result was delightful.

The enchanting title track, ‘All I Can Be (Is A Sweet Memory)’ is a sweetly sung older Harlan Howard tune (once recorded by Conway Twitty) whose married protagonist parts from his younger lover for her own good. As Colin’s debut single, it was a modest start for him, just creeping into the top 30, but it is an extremely good song, with Vince Gill providing a close harmony vocal.

However, the followup ‘Love, Me’ was a career song for the newcomer, rocketing to the top of the charts and helping the album to platinum status. It is still probably Collin’s best remembered song. Written by Skip Ewing and Max T Barnes, it is a sweet story of the lifelong (and beyond) love of the protagonist’s grandparents. It escapes schmaltz thanks to Collin’s beautiful and palpably sincere vocal and the tastefully understated arrangement.

The third and last single, Every Second’ is a sunny mid-tempo love song with a traditional feel, and peaked at #2.

My personal favorite track is the plaintive lost-love ballad ‘It Could’ve Been So Good’, which Chris Waters wrote with Lonnie Wilson. Collin reflects on the opportunity he and his ex lost of potential lifelong happiness.

Almost as good, the wistful ballad ‘Faithful Old Flame’, penned by Lonnie Wilson and Brent Mason, has a lovely melody and allows Raye’s voice to soar as he dwells on an old love whose memory can’t be shaken off.

The charming ‘Scuse Moi My Heart’ scatters in some random French phrases as country boy Collin tries to woo a sophisticated country club lady in New Orleans. It’s one of the most engaging songs of its kind.

‘Sadly Ever After’ written by Mark Collie and Bruce Burch, uses the fairy tale metaphor for a failed relationship; there is a surprisingly upbeat feel thanks to the pacy tempo and full-blooded vocal. There is a rare co-writing credit for Collin with ‘Blue Magic’, written with his producers. This is an attractive if unexceptional mid-tempo love song with some lovely Rob Hajacos fiddle.

Collin’s strength is as a balad singer, but he takes it uptempo with ‘Any Old Stretch Of Blacktop’, expressing the joy of coming home to a loved one. The album also closes with the bright up-tempo warning to a neglectful husband, ‘If I Were You (And She Was Mine)’.

Everything about this album is a delight. Copies can be found cheaply, and this is an essential purchase for fans of 90s country.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mark Collie – ‘Alive At Brushy Mountain Penitentiary’

Back in 2001 90s star Mark Collie recorded a live album at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Tennessee for MCA.  But Mark hadn’t managed a top 20 hit since 1994, and the departure from the label of its boss Tony Brown (who co-produced) meant this record was shelved for more than a decade.  The artist has now regained control of the masters, and the album has been released – some years after the prison itself closed its doors.  Production and sound engineering values are more or less studio-quality, and the band play well and enthusiastically.

There is a deliberate attempt to emulate Cash’s seminal prison albums, starting with the opening statement “Hello, I’m Mark Collie”, before the singer launches into rocking opener ‘One More Second Chance’ (co-written with 80s star T Graham Brown).  Later on he throws in a cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, talking about a then-ailing Cash.  Collie is not as distinctive or compelling a vocalist as Cash, but his rough-edged voice works well on the material he chooses here, most of it calculated to appeal to the audience in terms of the overarching theme of prison and criminality, and the devil-may-care but occasionally God-fearing attitude.  Most of the songs were written by Mark especially for the project.

I liked the unrepentant prisoner’s confession ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’.  The very good and rather amusing ‘Maybe Mexico’, written by the late Harley Allen with Deborah Nims, has the protagonist a fugitive from Memphis calling his lover while on the run and on his way south of the border.

‘Dead Man Runs Before He Walks’, written by Mark with the always interesting Shawn Camp (who also plays fiddle in the band), is a cheery piece about escaping from a not very secure sounding Death Row.  The pretty sounding bluegrass ballad ‘Rose Covered Garden’, written by Mark with Roger Cook, is the story of a prisoner in Mexico who romances the gaoler’s daughter to get away, but ends up recaptured and alone.  Collie revived this song for an obscure independent release in 2006, which is now hard to find.

The chugging ‘Do As I Say’ is a father’s wry advice not to copy his bad example in life.

Kelly Willis sings lead on the okay ‘Heaven Bound’ and the loungy ‘Got A Feelin’ For Ya’.  I like her quirky voice (and she was clearly well received by the audience), but these songs are not particularly memorable.  She also sings an effective harmony on a cover of Krisofferson’s ‘Why Me, Lord?’, which is very good.

‘On The Day I Die’ is a killer’s frank confession of his multitudinous past sins and his present faith, acknowledging before his execution,

I ran from the light like I ran from the law

But you know the wages of sin catches up with us all

This is a real highlight.

Not everything here is country.  Blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown guests on his own ‘Someday My Luck Will Change’, while ‘Reckless Companions’ marries a folk feel to the lyrics with a rock sound, a combination which doesn’t quite work for me.  They end with ‘Gospel Train’, a bluesy gospel number backed by the prison choir.

The thematic unity of this record is part of what makes it work but at times it all feels a little like pandering to the audience and trying too hard to copy Cash.  Overall, though, the interesting songs and effective performances make it a worthwhile experience, and I am pleased it has made its belated way out of the vaults.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Hillbilly Rock’

The major label phase of Marty Stuart’s career is considered to have begun in earnest with the release of 1989’s Hillbilly Rock, following a brief and somewhat inauspicious stint with Columbia. Now signed to MCA, Marty finally began to enjoy some commercial success, primarily thanks to the album’s catchy but lyrically light Paul Kennerley-penned title track, which would become his first Top 10 hit.

Produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, Hillbilly Rock, as its title suggests, has got a distinct rockabilly flavor and the influence of Marty’s mentor Johnny Cash is readily apparent. In fact, Marty’s first single release for MCA was a cover of Cash’s 1955 hit “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It was an odd choice to launch the career of a relatively unknown artist, especially since it occurred during a period when Johnny Cash was decidedly out of vogue in Nashville. Not surprisingly, Marty’s faithful-to-the-original version was not a huge hit, though it did crack the Top 40, making it his highest charting single (at #32) since 1985’s “Arlene”, which was his only Top 20 hit up to that time. The next single, “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long”, is my favorite track on the album. It was written by Marty and Kostas and sounds a lot like the music The Mavericks were doing around that time. Unfortunately, it was met by a big yawn at country radio and it stalled at #42. The tune was revived by Gary Allan almost a decade later when he included it on his It Would Be You album.

Marty’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s title track as the third single. Fueled by a video that was in heavy rotation on TNN and CMT, “Hillbilly Rock” allowed Marty to crack the Top 10 for the first time. Peaking at #8, it was not a smash hit, but it was a significant and hard fought milestone for an artist who had enjoyed a fair share of critical acclaim but seemed to be in danger of failing to catch on in the marketplace.

Mainstream country music in the early 1990s was obsessed with “hat acts”. Marty didn’t fit the mold and that may have made his music more difficult to market, though he eventually turned this to his advantage a few years later when he teamed up with Travis Tritt for the highly successful “No Hats” tour. It became apparent that he still faced an uphill climb at country radio when Hillbilly Rock’s fourth and final single, “Western Girls” disappointingly peaked at #20, though it deserved to chart much higher.

I was somewhat surprised at the time to learn of Marty’s bluegrass background and his vast knowledge and devotion to traditional country music because his music that was getting radio airplay at the time was anything but traditional. But after looking past the radio hits and delving more deeply into the album cuts, another side of his musical personality can be heard. “When The Sun Goes Down” is the album’s most traditional cut, sounding a lot like the Merle Haggard classic “The Bottle Let Me Down”, and the beautiful and understated closing track “Since I Don’t Have You” would be right at home on Ghost Train or Marty’s most recent album. Both tunes were written by Marty and Mark Collie.

Although Hillbilly Rock was only moderately successful, it earned a lot of critical acclaim and introduced Marty Stuart to mainstream audiences. It also stands as an example of how much more diversity was on country radio twenty years ago, before things became too homogenized, as it is quite different from most of the music on the charts at the time. It was a particular favorite of then-President George H.W. Bush, who requested and received a copy of Hillbilly Rock to listen to on Air Force One. It is still easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: George Jones – ‘Cold Hard Truth’

By the late 1990s, country radio had decidedly cooled toward George Jones, just as it had done with most of his contemporaries. During that decade, Jones had made the transition from hit-maker to country music’s elder statesman. Although the radio hits had tapered off, he still managed to generate respectable sales, with two of his 90s discs earning gold certification. However, the sales weren’t considered good enough for him to keep his record deal, and in 1999 he parted ways with MCA Nashville after an eight-year stint with the label. It looked as though his major label career was over when he was suddenly given a reprieve — albeit a temporary one — when he was signed to the Nashville division of Asylum Records. The label assured him that he could have complete creative control and asked only that he record the album that he would have made twenty years earlier if he had been sober.

Jones teamed up with producer Keith Stegall, best known for his work with Alan Jackson, and his old pals Vince Gill and Patty Loveless who supplied harmony vocals to the project. The album that resulted was Cold Hard Truth, which was released in June 1999. It was hailed by the label as George’s return to hardcore country, which may have been overstating things a bit, since Jones had never abandoned his traditional sound. Still, the album was a change in direction in a sense, as its material was more substantive and serious, with none of the semi-novelty tunes or beat-driven “Young Country” style songs that had been characteristic of his work with MCA.

By this time, Jones had 158 charted singles — more than any other artist in any genre in history — under his belt. He kicked off the Asylum era of his career with “Choices”, a song about living with consequences of one’s actions which Billy Yates and Mike Curtis seem to have written with George in mind. In a just world, “Choices” would have returned George to the top of the charts, much as “Buy Me A Rose” would do for Kenny Rogers a few years later. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but “Choices” did reach a respectable #30, higher than any of his MCA singles except for “High-Tech Redneck”. Interest in the song was undoubtedly fueled by the controversy that ensued when Jones refused to perform it on the CMA’s award show because that organization refused to allot him enough time to sing it in its entirety. However, the song holds its ground on its own merits, and is one of the finest performances of Jones’ career. One can imagine another singer tackling “Choices” but not with the credibility that Jones brings.

Jamie O’Hara’s “The Cold Hard Truth” was chosen as the follow-up single. It is another fine performance, somewhat similar in theme to “Choices”, but it is not quite as good a song. It stalled at #45. For the next single — his last on a major label — Jones released the more light-hearted and somewhat fluffy “Sinners & Saints”, written by Vip Vipperman, J.B. Rudd, and Darryl Worley. It peaked at #55.

Many artists have difficulty obtaining first-rate material once their hit-making days are over, but that definitely was not the case here. There are some true gems from some of Nashville’s finest songwriters among the album cuts, including “Day After Forever” from the pen of Max D. Barnes, “Ain’t Love A Lot Like That” written by Mark Collie and Dean Miller, “This Wanting You” by Bruce Burch, Bruce Bouton, and T. Graham Brown, and Emory Gordy Jr.’s and Jim Rushing’s haunting “When The Last Curtain Falls”.

The Asylum era appeared to be off to a strong start for the new millenium, but regrettably we will never know what direction they would have taken with subsequent projects. The label’s Nashville office was shut down in 2000 by its parent company Time Warner. George apparently turned down an offer to join the Warner Bros. Nashville roster, opting instead to become a partner with former Asylum president Evelyn Shriver in the newly formed Bandit Records, which has released all of his music from 2001 to the present day.

Cold Hard Truth
is somewhat of a creative renaissance for Jones, more consistent in quality than any other album he’d released in the preceding decade. Although at age 68 his voice was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, he proved that he was still worthy of the title of country music’s greatest living singer. The album was meant to be a commercial comeback for George, and indeed it was a both a critical and commercial success, earning gold certification. However, it will be best remembered as the capstone to his major label career and it is hard to imagine how he could have ended his tenure with the majors on a higher note.

Grade: A

Cold Hard Truth
is still readily available in both CD and digital form from sources such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review – Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album

Keith whitley tributeOne of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.

The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).

Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.

Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.

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