My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark D. Sanders

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Some Things Are Meant To Be’

Sometimes life just isn’t fair. Linda Davis was beautiful, a talented and versatile vocalist and had two stints on major labels but basically nothing ever really worked out for her. Ironically, her daughter Hillary Scott, a far less talented vocalist, would have a big career as part of the band Lady Antebellum.

This album, her second for Arista Records would prove to be her highest charting album reaching #26 on Billboard’s county albums chart. Released in January 1996, three singles were released from the album, including the title track, her most successful solo single reaching #13.

“Some Things Are Meant to Be” is a nice contemporary ballad from the pens of Michael Garvin & Gordon Payne. It strikes me as more adult contemporary than country but it is a great performance. Since this song couldn’t get Linda into the top ten, it figures that nothing else could either.

 I know that you’ve got feelings

For me like I got feelings for you

So shouldn’t you be reaching

For me like I keep reaching for you

Save yourself a lot of trouble

Trying to fight it

There’s just no way you can

 

No, you can’t stop the river from rollin’ to the ocean

It’s a destiny that the good Lord put into motion

Like a baby’s tears and a mother’s devotion

Some things are meant to be

And one of them is you and me

“A Love Story in the Making” by Al Anderson & Craig Wiseman is a decent ballad that Linda sings well. The song was the second single from the album reaching #33 (our Canadian country neighbors liked it more, sending it to #22). The song sounds much more country than the title track and should have been a much bigger hit.Jenny’s got a trailer on the county line

Jenny’s got a trailer on the county line

Satellite dish working overtime Watchin’ those movies on a

Watchin’ those movies on a 30 inch screenDreamin’ about places she’s never seen

Dreamin’ about places she’s never see

 

She’s in the diner by five o’clock

Playin’ Elvis on the old juke box

Staring out the window at nothing in sight

As she sings ‘Are you lonesome tonight’

 

Every time some stranger walks in through that door She can’t help but wonder if he’s the one she’s been waiting for

She can’t help but wonder if he’s the one she’s been waiting for

It’s a love story in the making

It’s a love story in the making
Something that was meant to be
A heart patiently waiting for a little bit of destiny
A sweet love story is all she needs

“Walk Away” by Marc Beeson& Robert Byrne was the third single from the album and it stiffed completely, not even charting (the Canadians had it reach #80). The song is a bland ballad that wasn’t really single-worthy although Linda sings it well

What do I do now that our love’s come to such a bitter end
We’ve been through too much together for me to be your friend
And I can’t pretend
I’m sure I’ll see you, but when I do I will

Walk away
And hope my feet don’t fail me
Walk away
As far as they will take me
Long before you have a chance
To look into these eyes
I’ll be gone and you won’t see me cry
If I walk away

Harry Stinson is a very talented fellow, singer, songwriter, drummer, who I think could have been a big star if only he had wanted to be,   “Always Will” is a terrific song that I would have released as a single:

If time is a train rollin down the tracks
Every minute is a box car that don’t come back
Take a look around you it’s all gonna change
Whatever you see ain’t neve gonna stay the same
Except for the rain and the wind in the trees
And the way I feel about you and me

And the way I feel when I’m with you
It’s like the roll of the ocean
And the calm quiet of the moon
And when you hold me time stands still
It always has and it always will

“Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”by Jim Weatherly was a big po[p hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips back in the early 1970s. It was covered as a county hit by Bob Luman, reaching #7 while the Knight version was on the pop charts. Linda sings the song well, but it is strictly an album track

Nancy Lee Baxter ‘s “She Doesn’t Ask” is a typical ‘wronged woman waiting for her man to show up’ song – in other words, nothing special

“Cast Iron Heart”, written by Dennis Linde had been a single twice – for Pearl River in 1992 and for Blackhawk in 1995. Since neither of the above two bands released this song as a single, it might have been a decent single for Linda. it would have been grittier than anything else she had released as a single

 Go on and cry, but you won’t change my mind

Your pain and troubles don’t concern me

I gave you my love, but it was not enough

I was just your bridge and girl you burned me

 

So don’t hand me no hard luck story

Hopin’ I’ll just fall apart

Remember you’re the one who left me

With nothin’ but this cast iron heart

The album closes with “There Isn’t One” (writers Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ, Stephony Smith), “What Do I Know” (another Majeski, Russ, Smith collaboration) and “If I Could Live Your Life”(writers Tim Nichols, Mark D. Sanders), all competently performed (the latter song with Reba McEntire) but none of them especially singles worthy .

“If I Could Live Your Life” is a melodramatic pop ballad, without much of anything to make it a standout track

 You jet from coast to coast

Dressed in designer clothes

When you appear somewhere

Your chauffeur drives you there

I would think twice

If I could live your life

 

You see your friends at the store

Your sister lives next door

You kiss your babies goodnight

Your husband’s there at your side

I’d love to give it a try

If I could live your life

Linda would issue an album on Dream Works about three years later, and then a few albums on independent label Center Hill from 2003-2007, before disappearing from recording for a decade. She can sing anything and perhaps she could have become a major adult contemporary star if promotional efforts (and record production) had been pointed in that direction. As it was she was caught somewhere in-between without being given her best chance at stardom.

On the whole, I like this album. While it teeters between adult contemporary and country, it is a pleasant album to listen to (it could use more fiddle and steel and a few more up-tempo tracks) and I have listened to this album a few times over the last few years and would give it a B.

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Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘In A Different Light’

Released on Capitol-Nashville in February 1991, In A Different Light was Linda’s first major label album. Released nearly a decade after her moderately successful duets with Skip Eaton as “Skip & Linda”, this album was Linda’s first opportunity to shine as a solo act.

As it happened, the album itself failed to chart and none of the three singles released from the album make much of an impact on the country charts.

By my lights, this is not at all a country album. I think it should have been marketed to the easy listening/middle of the road. Don’t get me wrong, Linda Davis is a fine singer but the singles from this album received virtually no airplay on county stations around Central Florida.

The album opens with “In A Different Light,” an overwrought ballad from the pens of Ed Hill and Jonathan Yudkin. This song was released as the first single and died at #61.

Next up is “Some Kind of Woman” by Annette Cotter and David Leonard. This song was released as the second single from the album, and died only reached #68. I think this gritty up-tempo ballad was the best track on the album – similar to something Brooks & Dunn might have released, but I suspect that country radio was so disgusted with the previous single, that they simply did not give this song a chance

 Well, I guess you’re showing me a thing or two

Loving with a vengeance every night with someone new

And I got this funny feeling, it’s for my benefit

So I’m gonna take it as a kind of compliment

 

Oh, I must be some kinda woman

Look how many women you seem to need

To take the place of one good one

And give you what you had when you had me

Oh, I sure must be some kinda woman

 

Since you need a different girl each night

There must not be a one of them, knows how to do you right

So add them little numbers, try and equal me

Meanwhile I’ll just take it as a form of flattery

Next up is “Three Way Tie” (written by Mary Beth Anderson, Lisa Silver, and Carol Grace Anderson) was the third single released. Another overwrought ballad, this song failed to chart, and frankly, it sounds like something any cocktail lounge singer might tackle.

None of the remaining tracks were released as singles:

“From Him to Here” (Mark D. Sanders, Verlon Thompson) is a pretty good mid-tempo song, that actually sounds like a country song. I think this would have made a decent single

“If Your Greener Grass Turns Blue” (Cindy Greene, Marsha Spears) has a bit of that country cocktail lounge feel to the mid-tempo instrumentation but it is a decent song, that Linda sings well. This would have made a decent single.I had never even been outside the county line

Unless you count the million times I left inside my mind

In my day dreams, I could see

The way the luck would shine on me

When I finally found the wings to fly

As my mama helped me pack my suitcase

She said you know I love you and I’ll say it once more anyway

 

So you’ll know what to do if your greener grass turns blue

If your sunny sky turns gray

Sometimes you gotta run

To see just what you’re running from

Here at home there’ll always be place for you

If your greener grass turns blue

“There’s a Problem at the Office” (Annette Cotter, Kim Tribble) is a bland ballad …

He calls to tell me he’ll be late again

There’s a problem at the office

So don’t wait up for him

And I guess I shouldn’t worry but I do

Cause a woman senses changes

Her man is going through

 

He’s changed the way he’s worn his hair for years

And bought some shirts in colors

I’ve never seen him wear

And when we touch that old time feeling’s gone

There’s a problem at the office

And it’s hitting close to home

… whereas “Knowin’ We’ll Never Know” (Jim Rushing, James Dean Hicks) is a nice ballad of what might have been

What if we’d stayed together
What if we’d really tried
Would we still be in Tennessee
Would I have been your bride
Would we be blessed with children
Lovingly watching them grow
Oh the hardest part of seeing you now
Is knowing we’ll never know

We’ll never know
How much we missed
By not taking love all the way
If we held on just a little bit longer
Where would we be today

“White Collar Man” (Vernon Rust) is a slow semi-acoustic ballad, nicely sung about a husband who places all of his priorities on work and none on family.

“The Crash of 29” (Ron Moore, Billy Henderson) has a very folksy sound to it. The crash of 29 has nothing to do with the great Wall Street Crash of 1929, but rather the self-realization that time is marching on and she is getting bored. This a pretty good album track

“If I Could Only Be Like You” (Kendall Franceschi, Quentin Powers, Reba McEntire) is a slow piano ballad, nicely sung, but ultimately not very interesting.

Linda’s vocals on this album are very reminiscent of Reba McEntire, only not quite as powerful as Reba’s vocals – sort of a Reba-lite. I know Linda Davis can actually sing country music and do it well as I have heard her do it. I don’t dislike this album, but I am not very charged up about it. I regard two of the three singles released as mistakes, with several of the album tracks being more single-worthy.

This album has keyboards, synthesizers and, cello, but no fiddle, steel guitar, mandolin, banjo or anything else to lead you to think of this as a country album.

Grade: C+         

Album Review: Ty England – ‘Two Ways To Fall’

Ty turned to Byron Gallimore and James Stroud to produce his second RCA album in 1996. It was filled with positive, mainly up-tempo material, without a broken heart in sight.

The lead single, the energetic up-tempo blue-collar love song ‘Irresistible You’ is, if not quite irresistible, quite enjoyable, although the production is a bit too busy. Written by Billy Lawson, it peaked at #22. The second and final single ‘All Of The Above’, written by Chris Waters and Jon Robbin, failed to crack the top 40, but I actually prefer it. It’s a little fluffy lyrically, with its multiple choice test with no wrong answers, but Ty’s earnest vocal sells it as a sweet love song.

Ty was generally more at home on the upbeat material. The frantic opener ‘It Starts With L’, written by Sandy Ramos, is very catchy and could have been a single. ‘Never Say Never’ (by Al Anderson and Craig Wiseman) has a similar vibe.

The title track, written by husband and wife team Barry and Holly Tashian with Mark D Sanders, is a nice mid paced song about the ups and downs of love, although the arrangement does sound a little dated now.

‘I’ll Take Today’ is a nice ballad about an encounter with an ex he no longer regrets losing, and affirming his love for his present partner. ‘Sure’ is another pleasant love song.

‘The Last Dance’, written by Tony Martin, Reece Wilson and Roger Springer, is a lovely midpaced story song on the lines of Rhett Akins’s 1995 hit ‘She Said Yes’, with a shy boy finding love at a high school dance, and then marrying the girl:

Nervous and scared I asked you for a dance
All of my buddies said “Yeah, right, fat chance
She’ll never go for a good ol’ boy like you”
But somewhere between my stutter and stammer
Before I could ask you had already answered
And to my surprise you said that you’d love to

And they all laughed when I stepped on your toes
But they got quiet when you moved in close
They lost their smiles when they knew they’d lost their chance
My two left feet couldn’t do a right thing
I looked like a fool but I felt like a king
Oh, they got a laugh
But look who got the last dance

Nervous and scared after saying “I do”
All of my buddies made fun of the new groom
As they stood in line waiting to kiss the bride
They kept us apart dancing with you all night long
But when the band started into their last song
I was the one standing by your side

I really like this song. The same writing trio provided ‘Kick Back’, a bright western swing tune about accepting life.

The highlight of the record, though, is ‘Backslider’s Prayer’, a touching story song about a man struggling with life and faith who ends up praying out loud in a crowded diner:

He said “I know this ain’t the time or place
But Lord, I need to talk”
In a business suit in a corner booth
In a crowded little restaurant

We all tried not to listen
We all tried not to look
But a whole room full of customers
And the waitress and the cook
All stopped what we were doing
When he bowed his head
In that silence we heard every word he said

“I’ve been trying to do things my way
Down here on life’s highway
Slippin’, slidin’ sideways
Between no way and nowhere
If I could only gain a foothold
Up there on your high road
Lord, if you hear me help me
I’ll do anything you tell me to
All I’ve got to offer you is this
Backslider’s prayer

Well, the waitress made the first move
When she filled his coffee cup
She said “You ain’t alone here, mister
You’re speaking for the rest of us”
I heard some scattered Amens
And a couple of “I’ve been theres”
Then things got back to normal
The dishes and the silverware
Were clanging in the kitchen
Like an angels’ band
As I took my place in line
To shake his hand

While a perfectly capable singer, Ty was not at all distinctive as a vocalist, and the lack of emotional depth and variety on this album is another drawback. It’s not a major surprise that radio lost interest, and RCA pulled the plug on his record deal after this album. It remains pleasant listening, but not essential.

Grade: B

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘When The Wrong One Loves You Right’

After Wade’s cover of ‘Wichita Lineman’ failed to catch fire, the recording was swiftly removed from his upcoming album. The next single, which became the true lead single for 1998’s When The Wrong One Loves You Right, was much more successful, reaching #5. It is a great story song written by Mark D Sanders and Steve Diamond, about a young Oklahoma couple, told with subtlety. Led in with a wistful fiddle, the narrator is blindsided by his girlfriend’s pregnancy and her subsequent shame-filled choices:

No, she wasn’t showing yet
But she’d be by Christmas time
Up there like a fool
I took for granted it was mine
She never came out and told me I was wrong
But all of a sudden the light came on
The day that she left Tulsa
In a Chevy in a hurry in the pouring down rain
With the caution lights flashing in the passing lane
From a bridge I watched our dreams going down the drain

I guess she thought the truth would end up driving me away
Well, she was wrong
But I never had the chance to say

This is an outstanding song and performance. Unfortunately the title track did not repeat its predecessor’s chart performance, failing to make the top 40. It’s an up-tempo Leslie Satcher song which is actually pretty good.

The mournful undertones in Wade’s voice are perfect for the next single, ‘How Do You Sleep At Night’, written by Jim McBride and Jerry Salley, as he reproaches his ex:

Do you see me when you close your eyes?
How do you sleep at night?

Now your side of the bed’s as cold
As the lies that I believed
I’m at the point when I can’t even trust you in my dreams
Did the way you left me leave you feeling proud?

This time he was rewarded with a #13 peak for what proved to be his last hit single.

Wade’s last single for Columbia was the song originally intended as the album’s title track. ‘Tore Up from the Floor Up’ is an up-tempo honky tonker which is quite good but not very memorable.

Wade co-wrote two of the songs. ‘Are We Having Fun Yet’ (written with Chick Rains and Lonnie Wilson) is a good honky tonk number about a married man who discovers the grass isn’t greener on the party side of life. ‘One More Night With You’, written with Rains and producer Don Cook, is a decent mid-tempo tune about the dreariness of a working life contrasted with a happy love life.

‘Summer Was A Bummer’ is a charming song penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran which Dillon had recorded himself a decade or so earlier and Ty Herndon also cut. It is a closely observed conversational number about a college girl’s coming home to her hometown (and her farm-based sweetheart) after a year away. Wade’s vocal is exquisite, and there is some lovely fiddle.

‘If I Wanted To Forget’ is a beautiful sad ballad written by Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters about not fully letting go of an old love. ‘Mine To Lose’, written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Matt King, is addressed to the protagonist’s ex’s new love, regretting his own past failures, and is another fine song. Lewis Anderson and Jason Sellers wrote the delicate ballad ‘This Is My Heart Talking Now’, a last ditch plea to a loved one not to give up on their relationship.

This record was not as successful commercially as it deserved to be, but it is well worth rediscovering.

Grade: A

All about the song: Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley at City Winery in Boston

Brandy Clark (with L-R, Miles Aubrey and Vanessa McGowan) performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

I had my inaugural City Winery experience on a cool, but surprisingly dry, Sunday evening in late January. The chain venue, which has successful outposts in New York, Chicago, and Nashville and just opened here in Boston in early December, mixes an urban winery with a full-service restaurant and tantalizing live music.

All 310 seats at their One Canal St location, just steps from the Government Center Garage with sweeping views of the Lenny Zakim Bridge, were adorned with the crisp cloth napkins and sparkling silverware of an establishment still in its infancy. The service, from the management to the wait staff, had the execution of a well-oiled machine fully prepared to report for duty.

In a venue of this size, with grouped seating that decreases in price the further away you sit from the stage, you’re all but guaranteed an exceptional viewing and listening experience. The owners pride themselves on the first-rate acoustics and strict policy that you remain quiet and respectful during the show.

I had no idea when selecting seats at a front row table, I would be so close to the stage you could rest your elbow on the edge. Such proximity to the action does lead to “concert neck,” a term coined by country music journalist Juli Thanki to describe the sourness from extended time with your head in an unnatural position. Thanki likes to say pain is totally worth it, and I have to agree, especially when the live entertainment is Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley.

I always knew that City Winery had the potential to bring blockbuster shows to Boston, but I didn’t know they would strike gold this quickly. This was Clark’s first headlining show in the city, after multiple supporting gigs with Jennifer Nettles, and the first time I’d ever heard of Presley playing around these parts in any solo capacity.

Clark flawlessly executed a tightly focused set segmented thematically by her clever and blunt perspectives on substance abuse and revenge. Her richly drawn character sketches came alive with minimalist accompaniment that accentuated her wit and candor while highlighting her silky twang.

She began unassumingly with the one-two-punch of “Hold My Hand” and “Love Will Go To Hell” before undertaking the risky move of gifting the audience a new song, “Favorite Lie,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. Clark unveiled the origins of “The Day She Got Divorced,” which came to fruition during a phone call between Clark and Shane McAnally concerning a writing session with Mark D. Sanders and, of all people, Ms. Presley herself. The session ended by mid-afternoon when Sanders asked Presley how she planned to spend the remainder of her day. She quipped, “well, I got divorced this morning.”

The tight segments from which Clark split her set began with substance abuse, which lasted a healthy portion of the evening. She began with “Get High” and turned in excellent readings of “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin,’” “Take A Little Pill” and to my surprise, “Hungover.” She sprinkled in “When I Get to Drinkin’” and “You’re Drunk” to round it out.

The revenge portion of the evening was more slight but no more impactful. She followed “Daughter” with “Stripes” and promptly put every no-good man in his place. Clark gave a shoutout to our local wonder kid, Lori McKenna, and played their single-mom anthem “Three Kids No Husband.” “Big Day In A Small Town” and “Girl Next Door” were highlights earlier in the evening.

Clark purposefully surprised with the encore, beginning with a request by a group of female super fans who had followed her to attend each of the four Northeast stops she played in four days (Clark went from Connecticut to New York back to Connecticut and finally, Boston). They wanted to hear her sing a particular song by her idol, Patty Loveless she had obsessively tried learning on a newly-purchased electric guitar while it was climbing the charts. Her efforts in learning “Blame It On Your Heart” were as unsuccessful as her mastery in singing it were successful. Clark finished with another new song, that I instantly loved, entitled “Apologies” and concluded with “Pray to Jesus.”

Angaleena Presley performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

Clark’s set was everything one would expect it to be and the accompaniment — Miles Aubrey on Guitar and Vanessa McGowan on Upright Bass — allowed the songs to shine without sacrificing flavor. I found Clark’s song selection, while perfectly executed, to be lacking in diversity, begging for a third course of “what else I can do” songs such as “You Can Come Over,” What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and the one I kept waiting for all night — “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” Her ballads are a killer illustration of her artistry and I wish she had expanded her set to show them off.

Presley’s brisk opening set was a whirlwind tour of her four albums. Her candor, never mind her throwback hairstyle and leopard-print top, stole the evening while her southern charm had everyone in the palm of her hand. Her songs, though, spoke for themselves, with the audience in respective stitches with each turn-of-phrase.

She opened with “American Middle Class” and “Dreams Don’t Come True,” a shining example in a long list of songs about the dream of making it in music city. She also admitted to inviting the already-committed Lori McKenna to the show, in advance of playing “Bless Your Heart,” which she called the enthuses of a song McKenna would write.

Presley dedicated “Knocked Up” to her first husband, who she admitted did nothing more than make her a mother, and joked about her upbringing in Beauty, Kentucky. She intertwined her work with Pistol Annies so easily with her solo stuff, I all but forgot “Unhappily Married” and “Lemon Drop” weren’t on her solo releases.

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonestar’

lonestarLonestar kicked off their recording career with the eponymous album Lonestar. Released in October 1995, the album hit the streets on the strength of the successful single “Tequila Talkin’” which was released in August 1995 and reached #8. There would be four more singles issued after the album was released. The album received mixed reviews upon its release, more than a few critics viewing the band as a lightweight version of Shenandoah, a comparison I did not feel to be very valid.

The album was definitely decent honky-tonk country music, with the band augmented by a solid corps of Nashville session men such as Bruce Bouton (pedal steel ), Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar), Brent Mason (electric guitar) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) and such distinguished vocal harmonists as Curtis Young and John Wesley Ryles. Unless otherwise stated, Richie McDonald handles the vocals on the singles.

The album opens up with the up-tempo ballad “Heartbroke Every Day” from the pens of Bill LaBounty, Cam King and Rick Vincent. This album track featured John Rich on lead vocals, and would be the fifth single released, reaching #18. I like Rich’s vocal, which has a bit of a bluegrass feel to it.

Why do I do this to myself
Why do I want the one that wants somebody else
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Why do I always take the fall
I’d rather have you hurtin’ me than not have you at all
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could
If I could
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Track two was the first single released, “Tequila Talkin’” penned by Bill LaBounty and Chris Waters (the brother of Holly Dunn). This single reached #8, the first top ten recording for the group:

I don’t know what they put in Cuervo that got me to say those things
Usually I wouldn’t care so much or make such a scene
But seeing you there in that dress you were wearing just drove me right out of my head
So don’t hold me responsible for anything I might’ve said

It was just the tequila talkin’
When I told you I’m still not over you
I get a little sentimental when I’ve had one or two
And that tear in my eye was the salt and the lime
Not the memory of you walkin’
If I said I’m still in love with you
It was just the tequila talkin’

John Rich, Don Cook and Wally Wilson wrote “I Love The Way You Do That’ – a good song but the intro sounds too much like the intro to track two.

“Running Away With My Heart” was penned by Michael Britt, Sam Hogin and Mark D Sanders. This would be the third single released from the album and would reach #8. This song is a mid-tempo ballad, which features some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Hey Buddy can you get me some faster wheels
I got a heartache nippin’ at my heels
I’ll be hurtin’ if she gets a big head start
First that girl stole my attention
Not to mention all my affection
Now she’s running away with my heart

“What Would It Take” was written by Billy Lawson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson, and is a slow ballad with heavy Nashville Sound string accompaniment of the kind that Billy Sherrill used with George Jones and David Houston. I think that this song, issued 15-20 years earlier, could have been a big single, but by 1995 it was very much an anachronism.

I held the world in my arms
I threw away the moon for the stars
Couldn’t see the forest for the trees
Couldn’t see the love in front of me

What would it take to take me back
Rebuild that bridge, retrace my tracks
I would give all I own
For one little stepping stone
What would it take to take me back

The redoubtable trio of John Rich, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson contributed “Does Your Daddy Know About Me”, an up-tempo honky-tonk song with solid steel and fiddle accompaniment that would have made a good single:

Well you say your daddy is a real cool dude and you keep no secrets from him
Well he knows you got a wild hair, knows your kinda out there and knows about your crazy friends
And he done found out about the night you snuck out with the Cadillac keys
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Well he knows you been skippin’ them Sunday School meetings
He’s heard how fast you drive
Knows you got an attitude, seen your little tattoo, but he lets all that slide
And I bet my boots that he think he knows you from A to Z
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Billy Lawson’s “Ragtop Cadillac” probably was very popular with line dancers. The lyrics are nothing special but it has a rhythm and feel very similar to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”.

“No News” was the second single and the first #1 record for the group reaching #1 in both the US and Canada. The song was written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders, and tells the story about a man whose woman has left him without telling him.

She said “It’s just a woman thing” and pulled out of the drive
I said not to worry I’m an understanding guy
I’ve heard that when you love someone you gotta let ’em go
She hollered “When I find myself you’ll be the first to know”
Ooh no news

I learned to do the laundry, feed the cat, and clean the house
I promised to be patient while she worked her problems out
When she packed her bags, her destination wasn’t clear
But I sensed that her intentions were honest and sincere
Ooh no news

Chick Rains has written a number of fine songs, but “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” is nothing special, a dance number that makes for a decent album track.

Richie McDonald and Kyle Green co-wrote “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance”, the only song McDonald had a part in writing. The song was the fourth single from the album reaching only #45 (but #18 in Canada). I don’t think I would have released this song as a single, although it makes a decent enough album track.

This would be one of two albums issued by the original lineup of Richie McDonald (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Rich (bass, vocals), Michael Britt (lead guitar, background vocals), Keech Rainwater (drums), and Dean Sams (keyboards). Other than John Rich’s contributions, the band relied on outside writers for material. Richie McDonald would emerge as a co-writer on subsequent albums, but I have doubts as to how essential were his contributions to the process.

I would give this album a B+. Of five Lonestar studio albums in my collection, this one is the one I listen to with the greatest frequency as it is the most consistently good album of the bunch.

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’

how do you like me nowAs the millennium drew to a close, Toby Keith released the best album of his career on new label Dreamworks.

The lead single, ‘When Love Fades’ is a powerfully sung ballad written by Keith with Chuck Cannon. It’s not a bad song, but it failed to catch fire at radio and didn’t enter the top 40. Keith was understandably concerned by the poor start for his new deal, and asked for the single’s promotion to be pulled in favour of the title track. It was with this song (another Keith/Cannon effort) that Toby really found his voice. The vengeful ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’ was perfect for Keith’s personality as he gleefully shows off his wealth and fame to the object of his unrequited affections in high school, who is now unhappily married. It was a career-making five-week chart topper, and while the protagonist’s motivation is immature, Toby Keith sells it completely.

Keith kept the tempo up with the horn-driven ‘Country Comes To Town’, which peaked at #4. I much prefer the final single, the tender ballad ‘You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This’, which captures the moment when a pair of “just friends” tentatively become something more:

You shouldn’t kiss me like this
Unless you mean it like that…

They’re all watching us now
They think we’re falling in love
They’ll never believe we’re just friends
When you kiss me like this
I think you mean it like that
If you do, baby, kiss me again

It reached #1 in March 2001, and it stands up well today.

Equally tender a performance, though not as memorable a song, is the sweet ‘Do I Know You (Bottom Of My Heart)’. ‘Heart To Heart (Stelen’s Song)’ is Keith’s real-life observation of his young son Stelen and his relationship with his wife Tricia, Stelen’s mother. (As a footnote the couple are still happily married and Stelen is in college.) ‘She Only Gets That Way With Me’, also probably about Tricia, was written by Toby with Scotty Emerick.

The breakup song ‘Blue Bedroom) was a co-write with Chuck Cannon, and is pretty good. More abstract is the macho philosophy of ‘Die With Your Boots On’, as voiced by a hard working truckdriving protagonist and his gambler father.

Toby wrote all but three of the songs. One of those outside numbers, ‘New Orleans’, is not only my favorite on the album, but probably my favorite Toby Keith cut ever. A compelling story song written by Mark D Sanders, Bob DiPiero and Steve Seskin, it relates the tale of a young woman fleeing something (or someone) in New Orleans, who finds a new life for herself in a random small town:

He was 25, she was 28
He was home grown country,
She just pulled off the interstate
She bought a Dr. Pepper, ten dollars worth of gas
She was obviously lost but too afraid to ask directions

So he offered her a smile and a stick of beechnut gum
Said “where you headed to girl, where you coming from?”
She said, “New Orleans
That’s another story
New Orleans
That’s another time
That’s another town
That’s another life”

First she stayed a day
Then she stayed a week
A couple of months later they were living on his parents’ street

Wednesday night supper at the First Baptist Church
Stranger standin’ in the doorway
As they’re passin’ out dessert
He said “Go and pack your bags
Cause I’m here to take you home
Goin’ back to Louisiana
Woman, I ain’t gonna go without you”

There’s a few defining moments in every person’s life
When you know what you’ve done wrong
And you know what you done right
Before the congregation
Her husband and her kids
She said, “How dare you even speak to me
After everything you did in New Orleans”

It’s effective partly because of what it doesn’t spell out; we never hear exactly what her ex did to her, or what happens next, although we can guess. Toby sings it with unusual restraint.

Not as intense, but still very good is the mid-tempo ‘I Know A Wall When I See One’, written by Jerry Salley and J B Rudd, about an encounter with an ex which brings back painful memories. The other outside song, ‘Hold You, Kiss You, Love You’ is a bit flat.

The production, courtesy of Toby and his new label boss James Stroud, is glossy and often hard driving contemporary fare which has dated a little but is effective enough. The material is generally strong, and overall this is my favorite Toby Keith album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Jo Dee Messina’

jo dee messinaThis album is one of those that has stuck with me over the years, even thou the herself artist didn’t. That’s not usual in that many artists have one great album or perhaps a few great songs in them or have managed to accumulate a few great songs from other sources. After that they struggle to find material.

For instance I always regarded the debut albums of Clint Black, Randy Travis and Charley Pride as being their best albums (of course these three went on to much further success). Others have been but a flash in the pan.

Jo Dee falls somewhere between long term super star and flash in the pan. Thus was not her most successful album (subsequent albums received more promotional push from Curb), but song for song, I think it is her strongest album.

The album opens with Jo Dee’s second single, “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore”, a Zack Turner – Tim Nichols composition which reached #7. A mid-tempo ballad and a bit of a cautionary tale, well sung.

He said “I grew up in Wichita
In a Mayberry kind of town”
He never liked overalls
Or haulin’ hay ’til sundown
He said he dreamed about L.A.
As he plowed away the day on an old John Deere
I said “Boy let me warn you
In southern California there’s some fast trains here”

You’re not in Kansas anymore
Can’t be too careful that’s for sure
City lights will led you on
Morning comes and they’ll be gone
So write my number on your wall
You can call me anytime at all
I’m so happy now boy
You’re not in Kansas anymore

Next up is “On A Wing and A Prayer”, written by Walt Aldridge and Jo Dee about a relationship that is unraveling. This tune is another mid-tempo ballad.

“He’d Never Seen Julie Cry’ comes from redoubtable songsmiths Leslie Satcher and Max T Barnes. THis song is about a relationship untended too long, a slow ballad that was the fourth single from the album, reaching #64.

His heart was tougher than a piece of leather
Had a will carved out of stone
He was stallion who had thrown every rider
No woman could seem to hang on
He didn’t know that it was over
He thought, he could make it right
But then again, he’d never seen Julie cry

He never thought that love would hit him
Like a train comin’ out of the dark
He never thought a friend would hand him back
The keys to his own heart

“Do You Wanna Make Something of It” comes from the pens of Terry Anderson and Bob DiPiero. This is both the first track on the album in which the steel guitar prominently figures into the mix and the first up-tempo song on the album. This song was released as the third single on the album and only reached #53, which at the time stunned me as I thought it had top ten written all over it. It did reach #29 on the Canadian country charts. This may be Jo Dee’s best vocal performance on the album.

There’s a little bitty flame burnin’ deep in my heart
You wanna make something of it?
Oh, do you feel the same, maybe just a little spark?
You wanna make something of it?
Do you wanna turn it into somethin’
That’s a burnin’ like a ragin’ fire out of control?
Well, I’m waitin’ for you tell me what you wanna do
You wanna make something of it?

“Let It Go” by Jamie Kyle, Ron Bloom, and Will Rambeaux, is a mid-tempo philosophical ballad ballad about moving on after the end of a relationship. Not bad but nothing special.

“Heads Carolina, Tails California”, a Tim Nichols – Mark D. Sanders was Jo Dee’s debut single and for my money, her best song. The song went to #1 at radio stations throughout the mid-Atlantic area and reached #2 on Billboard’s national country chart, #3 on the Canadian country chart and also hit Billboard’s all-genre Hot 200 at #111. The song is an up-tempo semi-rocker in which the narrator just wants to get out of town and head somewhere else – anywhere will do as long as her lover comes with her.

Baby, what do you say, we just get lost
Leave this one horse town like two rebels without a cause
I’ve got people in Boston, ain’t your daddy still in Des Moines ?
We can pack up tomorrow, tonight, let’s flip a coin

Heads Carolina, tails California
Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer
Up in the mountains, down by the ocean
Where it don’t matter, as long as we’re goin’
Somewhere together, I’ve got a quarter
Heads Carolina, tails California

“Walk To The Light” written by Walt Aldridge is not a religious song but it has something of a religious feel to it. The song is a medium fast ballad about moving forward after a breakup

I’ve never been one to believe much in ghosts
But to tell you the truth now, my mind is not closed
I’ve heard there are souls that are lost in between
Somewhere they’re goin’ and the places they’ve been
That sounds a lot like a woman I know
Her love is long gone but she will not let go
Somebody oughtta take her by the hand and tell her
Don’t be afraid, just walk to the light
Let go of the past and get on with your life
Someone is waiting out in the night
Ashes to ashes, walk to the light

“I Didn’t Have to Leave You” is a slow ballad written by Jill Wood about a woman trying to fight off the efforts of her lover’s ex to try to win him back. The song is very strong and would have made a good single.

Remember me
The one who picked up all the pieces, me
The one whose love for you increases everyday
And it won’t go away like she did
Remember her

The one who left your heart abandoned, her
Well she’s back again and I can’t stand it
It hurts ’cause with her tears all glistening
She’s got you listening to her promises
Well remember this

I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to lose you first to want you more than ever
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to see if I could tear your world apart
And still win back your heart
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I loved you from the start

“Every Little Girl’s Dream”, written by Dave Loggins and Kenny Mims is a nice medium-fast song, a little too superficial but a nice album track.

The album closes with “Another Shoulder At The Wheel” an upbeat song from Gary Burr and John Jarrard. Nice country production with tasteful steel guitar and a truly meaningful lyric about the way life should be

In my path, there are stones
I could never roll away alone
There are times when I wake
And my knees will tremble and shake
But there’s someone who cares
And when I need you, you’ll be there
Another shoulder at the wheel to see me through
When the road is long and the tears are real
When I’m past the point of giving up
There’s nothing like the feel, of another shoulder at the wheel

At the time I purchased this album in February 1996, I found myself hoping against hope that she would not give in to pressures to make her sound less country. The electric guitars on this album are more rock than country guitars but they are subdued. The steel guitar and dobro of Sonny Garrish and fiddle of Glen Duncan are appropriately spotlighted.

Jo Dee would go on to have some #1 singles and more successful chart albums but this remains my favorite. I have heard all of Jo Dee’s albums, but other than her Greatest Hits album released in 2003, this would be the last Jo Dee Messina album I would purchase (someone gave me Delicious Surprise for Christmas in 2005 because they remembered I had like Joe Diffie’s “My Give A Damn’s Busted” on his 2001 album In Another World).

The songs, vocal performance and production combine to make this album a very solid A.

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘No Fences’

image1989 was a watershed year for country music when an unusually high number of artists enjoyed their commercial breakthroughs. Garth Brooks initially emerged as a member of the Class of 1989 and although from the beginning he was a solid performer, few would have guessed that he would soon emerge as the biggest star in music, regardless of genre. He began to break away from the pack with “The Dance”, which was the final single released from his debut album. By the time his 1990 sophomore disc No Fences was released, it was obvious that he was on his way to superstardom.

“Friends In Low Places”, written by DeWayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee, was the album’s first single. It took only eight weeks to reach #1, where it remained for four weeks. The delightfully rowdy drinking song went on to become Garth’s best known recording. It won the 1990 Single of the Year award from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. It may have been the album’s biggest hit, but it is not my favorite, perhaps partially due to the fact that it was overplayed by radio.

On several of its tracks, No Fences marked a subtle shift towards a softer, more middle-of-the-road sound, as opposed to Garth’s very traditional debut album. The album’s second single, the ballad “Unanswered Prayers” included a string arrangement which, though subtle and tastefully restrained, marked the beginning of a shift away from the ultra-traditional sound that had dominated country music during the last half of the 1980s. “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House”, on the other hand, was very traditional. The more contemporary and controversial “The Thunder Rolls” was the album’s final single. Written by Garth and Pat Alger, it tells the tale of a worried wife waiting during a thunder storm for her cheating husband to come home. It was originally recorded by Tanya Tucker but her version went unreleased until it was included on her 1994 boxed set. Garth’s version omits the final verse, in which the wife takes a gun and plans to kill her philandering spouse, leaving many who only knew Garth’s version to wonder what the controversy was about. Indeed, there really was no controversy at first, until the accompanying video with its graphic scenes of domestic violence, was released. It was the first but certainly not the last controversy of Garth’s career. TNN refused to play the video unless a disclaimer was included. CMT, which had initially played the clip, also pulled it. It nevertheless was awarded the Video of the Year Award by the CMA in 1991.

All of the aforementioned singles were #1 hits. A fifth single was eventually released more than a decade later, when “Wild Horses”, with a re-recorded vocal track was inexplicably sent to radio in between singles from Garth’s then-current Scarecrow album. It only reached #7 and isn’t one of Garth’s best remembered hits today, but it has always been one of my favorites.

Notable among the album cuts is “Victim of the Game”, a Garth co-write with Mark D. Sanders. Garth’s future wife Trisha Yearwood covered the song a year later on her debut album. The album’s most unusual track is Garth’s cover of the 1959 Fleetwoods hit “Mr. Blue”, which had been written by “Friends In Low Places” co-writer DeWayne Blackwell. The twang added to appeal to country fans is overdone and this track has to be considered a misstep on an otherwise very solid album.

While I don’t like No Fences as much as Garth’s first album, it sold more than 17 million copies and established him as an international superstar well beyond the usual confines of country music and for that reason alone it was a landmark album and a game changer. Garth’s rising tide lifted the boat of many other country stars and for a while country music, at least in North America, was outselling every other genre of music. Unfortunately, it set the bar high and none of Garth’s subsequent albums were ever able to match it. Most country fans, if they don’t already own a copy, have probably at least heard the album, but those who somehow managed to miss it won’t have any trouble tracking down a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked’

sunnysweeneyFollowing a three-year break from the recording studio, Sunny Sweeney is back, and as you may have deduced from the title of her new collection, she is in a feisty mood.  She’s been through a lot of changes both professionally and personally since the release of 2011’s Concrete:  divorce, remarriage and parting ways with Republic Nashville Records.  Those who, like me, were hoping that freedom from the shackles of a major-label contract would result in an album more like the excellent Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, will find much to be happy about.  The Luke Wooten-produced Provoked is not as rootsy as her debut, but it is less polished than Concrete and has plenty of traditional moments.  There are more than a few concessions to contemporary tastes, with perhaps an eye still on the charts, but the prospects of a radio hit are unlikely without major label backing.

Provoked contains a generous 13 tracks, eleven of which were co-written by Sunny.  The album opens with the excellent “You Don’t Know Your Husband”, a collaboration with Angaleena Presley and Mark D. Sanders.  It’s a Loretta Lynn-style confrontation over a man, although Sunny is cast in the role of the other woman rather than the agrieved wife.  It’s followed by  “Bad Girl Phase”, which was written by Brandy Clark, Jesse Jo Dillon and Shannon Wright and released as a single a ilttle over a year ago.  It’s got more of a rock edge than we’re used to hearing from Sunny but to her credit she makes no attempt to tone down her twang on this number or anywhere else on the album.  It’s a catchy number that I like more each time I hear it, but the production is a bit cluttered and at times threatens to drown out her vocals.

Following “Bad Girl Phase”, the album enters a somewhat lengthy dull phase, through the more contemporary “Second Guessing”, “Carolina on the Line” and “Find Me”, none of which are particularly memorable.  But just when one might be about to give up on the album, things pick up nicely with the uptempo “Can’t Let Go”, a Randy Weeks number that reminds me of something The Judds might have recorded in their early days.

The album’s best moments are primarily in the second half, beginning with “My Bed”, a duet with Will Hoge that Sunny wrote with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.  “Sunday Dress” finds her jilted, presumably at the altar, and unwilling to face the prying eyes of her small-town neighbors.  “Used Cars” is a nice mid-tempo number about finding love even when one is a little past one’s prime.  Her feisty side emerges again on the album’s last two tracks; on “Backhanded Compliment” ,she takes issue with those who either knowingly or inadvertently make catty or thoughtless remarks and the confrontational “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is a working class honky-tonker of the kind that Johnny Paycheck used to pull off with gusto.

Provoked is an intelligent, well-written collection of music that will probably be ignored by the mainstream but it has all the makings to be a cult hit. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an album by a current female artist this much.  I highly recommend it.

Grade:  A

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Cornerstone’

cornerstoneHolly’s second album for MTM, released in 1987, built on the success of ‘Daddy’s Hands’ and a hit duet with Michael Martin Murphey (the charming ‘A Face In The Crowd’), and saw her cementing her status as a rising star for the fledgeling label.  Her high soprano voice is well suited to the songs selected.

The mid-tempo ‘Love Someone Like Me’, which Holly wrote with Radney Foster, was the lead single, and it only just missed the top spot on the country chart.  It had previously been recorded bluegrass style by the group New Grass Revival; Holly’s version is a little more on the pop-country side and the production has dated a bit, but it isn’t bad, thanks mainly to her vocal.

Better is ‘Only When I Love’, a post-breakup number in which the protagonist is mostly okay – until she falls for someone else.  It was one of a brace of songs written by Holly with her most frequent writing partners, Tom Shapiro and her brother Chris Waters, and reached #4.

Holly and Chris wrote the third and last single ‘Strangers Again, a rueful ballad about the pain of a breakup, in which they are left

not even friends.

Wistful fiddle backs up Holly’s emotional vocal, making this by far my favorite of the singles.

The Dunn/Waters/Shapiro team also wrote one of my favorite tracks, ‘Why Wyoming’, in which a cowboy’s jilted sweetheart bemoans the competition of the wide open spaces:

He’s the only cowboy that I’ve got

And you’ve got all you need

He could never love a woman

Like he loves being free

Tell me, why, Wyoming

Do you take him from me?

 

The beautiful ballad ‘Fewer Threads Than These’ (also recorded by Dan Seals) is another highlight, with Holly supported by a sympathetic harmony vocal.

Jim Croce’s ‘Lover’s Cross’ is a pretty sounding but angsty ballad about breaking away from a difficult relationship:

It seems that you wanted a martyr

Just a regular girl wouldn’t do

But I can’t hang upon no lover’s cross for you

The small town lifestyle is often idealised in country songs, and the big city seen as a poor alternative.  Holly offers a more jaundiced view with her vibrant reading of ‘Small Towns (Are Smaller For Girls)’.  This winsome depiction of the limitations of small town life for a restless teenager was written by Mark D Sanders, Alice Randall and Verlon Thompson.  The protagonist feels stifled and restricted by a life where:

Everybody that she knew knew every move she made

So she stood behind the backstop playing sweet 16

While the boys were stealing bases and pitching for their dreams

She knows that there’s gotta be more

Small towns are smaller for girls

She learned to dance around desire

And act like the nice girls act

So the boys found out about love with the girls across the tracks

While their souls burned holes through the heat of the southern night

She was reading about New York City with her daddy’s flashlight

Holly hedges her bets a little though, with her fond tribute to a ‘Little Frame House’, with the Whites singing harmony vocals.  The title track is an idealistic eulogy to the central importance of love, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz.

The production on the up-tempo ‘Wrap Me Up’ (a Radney Foster co-write) sounds a bit tinny now, and this is the only track I really don’t like.

This is not easy to find at a reasonable price these days (partly because it was on a label which lasted only a few years), but it is a fine album which is well worth checking out if you can find it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘The Bluegrass Album’

the bluegrass albumDisappointingly, it seems as though Alan Jackson may be at the end of his hitmaking career, with the poor performance of the singles from his fine last album. But unlike many fading stars, Alan has not tried trimming his music to fit the latest trends, rather he is taking the opportunity to experiment with some deliberately less commercial forms of country music, with a religious album earlier this year, and now his long-awaited bluegrass album. His collaboration with Alison Krauss some years ago was a disappointment because it wasn’t bluegrass (or very interesting); this one is very definitely the real thing – pure bluegrass, with some excellent songs from one of the most reliable artists around.

Sensitively produced by longtime producer Keith Stegall and Alan’s songwriter nephew Adam Wright, with most of the songs written by Alan in traditional bluegrass style, the result is the delight I had hoped for when I first heard of the project. A solid bluegrass band, including star names Sammy Shelor on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro and Adam Steffey on mandolin, plays beautifully throughout, with Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman providing harmonies and backing vocals. The tempo is generally slow to medium with no real barn-burning numbers, which is the only slight disappointment – but the music we do get is all so good we can’t really complain.

Most of the songs were specially written for this album, and show Alan has lost none of his creativity. He revives one of his older songs. ‘Let’s Get Back To Me And You’; this seemed like a throwaway in 1994 (on Who I Am), but the acoustic arrangement gives it new life and I much prefer it to the uninspired-sounding original.

I really like the reflective opener ‘Long Hard Road’, in which a man considers his mistakes and sins. This road is metaphorical, but in ‘Blacktop’ Alan recalls childhood on an old dirt road, and his pleasure when it was replaced with a modern surface.

‘Mary’ is a touching love song to a beloved wife with a warm vocal; it sounds very like something Don Williams would have recorded in his heyday, and Alan sounds rather like Don vocally here, too. ‘Tie Me Down’ offers the voice of a rambler persuaded to settled down when he meets that one special girl, and is another nice song.

The slow inspirational ‘Blue Side Of Heaven’ is written from the viewpoint of a dying man addressing his loved one, and has a very pretty melody and tender vocal. ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Song’ is a touching story song about true love, discovered young, and sustained alone forever by the bereaved husband after her death far too soon.

‘Appalachian Mountain Girl’ picks up the tempo, and lyrically sounds as though it could be a long-lost traditional number rather than one of Alan’s newly penned contributions.

Adam Wright composed another song sounding like an authentic old song in the rhythmic and ironic ‘Ain’t Got Trouble Now’, which is highly enjoyable. Adam and wife Shannon wrote the resigned but thoughtful ‘Knew All Along’ about coming to terms with the death of a parent.

‘Way Beyond The Blue’ is a bluesy number written by Mark D Sanders, Randy Albright and Lisa Silver. A cover of the Dillards’ ‘There Is A Time’ (from the iconic Andy Griffith Show) is one of the more up-tempo tracks, and while pleasant and a nice change of pace, is actually one of the less memorable moments for me. A plaintive ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ is taken at the original waltz-time tempo, and unexpectedly interrupted by a rundown of Alan’s thanks to the musicians and others involved with making the record.

An unusual but very welcome choice of cover is an intimate version of John Scott Sherril’s ‘Wild And Blue’, best known from John Anderson’s hit version from the early 80s. Alan’s version is far tamer, sounding almost cosy compared to Anderson’s raw intensity, but the lovely acoustic arrangement and Alan’s kindly vocal (nicely backed by the harmony singers) emphasize the safe harbour the protagonist offers his troubled lover, where Anderson’s edgier vocal interpretation gave the woman’s desperation a more central role.

Releasing the record on Alan’s own ACR Records with distribution by EMI has allowed Alan free reign artistically, which is excellent news for the discerning listener. The artwork, however, while quite stylish, comes across as cheap, with no photographs apart from one tiny one of the entire team in the recording studio on the back page of the booklet in which no one is actually identifiable – you can only guess which Alan in by the hat, and good luck with anyone else. Luckily, it’s the music that matters, and this is an excellent, timeless album which offers solace for those fleeing in horror from today’s commercial mainstream. It is an essential purchase.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Right Out Of Nowhere’

By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear Kathy’s time in the limelight was over. One last album for MCA (The Innocent Years) failed to score any hit singles, and she moved to independent label Narada, where she was able to concentrate on artistry with little thought for commercial viability.  The second of her albums for this label came out in 2005.  This is not a very country sounding record, but it bears the hallmarks of evident thought and attention throughout, and is clearly a serious artistic endeavour.

‘Live It’, the solo single failed to chart.  Not one of Harley Allen’s better songs, it’s a cluttered and unoriginal exhortation to live life to the full and concentrate on love.  ‘Hurt Some’ is a jazzy AC ballad with a gospel feel (particularly in the vocals).  The rather obvious lyrics attempt to be insightful, advising a woman to expect a range of emotional ups and downs, written by Tia Sillers and Mark D Sanders.

‘Only Heaven Knows’ is quite a pretty ballad about acceptance of one’s lot, which is much better.  ‘Give It Away’ is an artfully constructed, melodic and beautifully sung song written by Kathy with husband Jon Vezner and Bob Halligan.  The three-story structure narrates encounters with individuals (a veteran star backstage, a woman in a doctor’s waiting room, and finally the protagonist saving herself from breaking off a love affair in a fit of pique following an argument), giving the sage advice that with music and love,

The only way to keep is to give it away

The best of the more philosophical songs here is Darrell Scott’s ‘Love’s Not Through With Me Yet’, given a plaintive Celtic sound and with Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

The title track is an okay but unexciting story song about a woman moving on, with an attractive melody.  The breakup song ‘Loving You, Letting You Go’ is lyrically forgettable but the wheezy harmonica gives it some sonic character.

The best song is ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, a subtly cutting piano ballad written by Skip Ewing and Angela Kaset, which sounds tailor-made for Trisha Yearwood, although Kathy does a fine job.  It narrates a meeting with the woman the protagonist’s ex left her for, finding he has moved on again:

I thought the only thing wrong with her was you

Cause you don’t find joy within
You’re always wanting out
That’s not what love is all about
You’ll never find happiness
Til you let your heart invest
Baby you don’t know how
I hope you’re happy now

This is an excellent song which is well worth downloading even if nothing else here appeals.

Kathy extended her artistic range with a couple of unexpected rock covers.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is performed confidently, and is the biggest departure from preconceived ideas of what a Kathy Mattea record sounds like.  It’s not to my taste, but is interestingly done with inventive acoustic production, and Kathy deserves credit for trying something so different.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down On The Corner’ is an enjoyable singalong.  ‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, is a traditional gospel song which is played around with a little too much.

This record was an interesting experiment.  Not everything works, but a period in the commercial doldrums is the obvious time to try branching out. Used copies can be found very cheaply

Grade: B-

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Trouble Free’

Rhonda’s second Giant album took broadly the same approach as its predecessor. Producers James Stroud and Richard Landis provide sympathetic backings for Rhonda’s sparkling vocals. Sadly, however, country radio had begun its move in a poppier direction following the crossover success of Shania Twain, and Rhonda’s music was just a little too traditional for the time.

‘What More Do You Want From Me?’ (written by Bob Regan and Mark D. Sanders) was the only single, and it failed to gain enough airplay to chart. That was a shame, because it’s an excellent up-tempo song with some attitude and banked harmonies as Rhonda bemoans her lot to the personification of Love.

The opening ‘Somebody’, written by Al Anderson and Robert Ellis Orrall, sounds as though it was recorded with an eye on chart potential. It is well sung but feels a bit generic (despite Alison Krauss’s harmony), and is the only disappointing moment. Another song written by Orrall, this time with Curtis Wright and Billy Spencer, the wistful lost-love ‘If I Could Stop Loving You’, is better.

‘It Ain’t Nothin’ New’ is a lovely duet with Randy Travis, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Keys. Randy’s voice is at its best, and the pair’s voices meld extremely well, while the song is a sweet look at the hard work developing a relationship and keeping it alive once the shine has worn off a little, and affirming their love. It is one of my favorite tracks, with some beautiful fiddle. The love song ‘You Beat All I’ve Ever Seen’ was written by the winning combination of hitmaking songwriter Kostas, veteran Melba Montgomery, and Kathy Louvin (daughter of Ira). It has a pretty melody and a sweet and sincerely delivered lyric.

Melba Montgomery wrote ‘An Old Memory (Found Its Way Back Home Again)’ with Jerry Salley. This is a delightful up-tempo number with Rhonda wryly facing the revival of feelings she thought she had left behind, with an unexpectedly cheerful feel as she attacks the lyric, comparing her ex’s memory to
an old dog that you drop off just outside of town, uninvited, comin’ back anyhow.

The vibrant up-tempo title track was written by Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, and is also highly enjoyable. Rhonda triumphantly denies that her ex’s departure has caused her any sleepless nights. The sunny ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’ was written by George Teren and Tom Shapiro, and features a cameo from Dolly Parton on harmony.

‘When I’m Through Fallin’ Apart’ written by Michael Huffman, Gene Dobbins and Bob Morrison, is another good song, with Rhonda deferring a promising new prospect for new romance until she has got over the last one.

The John Jarrard/Kenny Beard-penned ballad ‘At The Corner Of Walk And Don’t Walk’ has a lovely traditional feel and tune with some atmospheric steel guitar underpinning the melancholic mood, although the metaphor feels a little forced. The underlying story, with the protagonist calling from a payphone as she has second thoughts about leaving, and uncertain whether her future lies with or without her lover, is still good, and Rhonda’s vocal is excellent, making this another favourite of mine.

The album was no more successful than its predecessor, and it marked the end of Rhonda’s flirtation with mainstream country music. It is however, a very fine album which has a lot to appeal to country fans.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Chrome’

Trace Adkins’ first album of the new millennium, released October 2001, was the first to showcase his pivot from ’90s crooner to the eventual second stage of a career now filled with forgettable anthemic singles. To his credit, Adkins had seen little chart success following the neo-traditional format, and while Chrome features flashes of the singer’s past sounds, it is mostly a stepping stone to later testosterone-filled ditties. Trace enlisted the production of Dan Huff and Trey Bruce to separately produce the album’s tracks, and all the single releases come from Huff’s half.  This time out the singles would fare much better than those from his previous album with 2 top 10 hits here and another top 20, and the album would also add to his collection of precious metal with a gold-sales certification.

Lead single “I’m Tryin'”, a first-person account of a man with many problems, a demanding job and more demanding ex-wife not the least of them, is recounted to a soaring 70s rock production, complete with Guitar Hero-worthy licks and layers of percussion. Adkins authoritative voice finds its way through the production and effectively delivers Anthony Smith and Jeffrey Steele’s well-written lyric.  “Help Me Understand” is one of Adkins’ best releases in his career, even if it is marred a bit by Huff’s heavy-handed production. Akin to Tanya Tucker’s gorgeous ballad “(Without You) What Do I With Me”, it clearly captures the hurt, but also the confusion, that comes with the abrupt end of a relationship, and was the only one of the album’s three singles not to reach the top 10, stalling out at #17.

The title track impacted radio as the third and final single, and just 10 seconds in, when the electric guitar begins to moan softly and Adkins’ throaty scatting begins, it becomes apparent this is a song with more groove than goods. And it is. The Chevelle-driving girl whose “favorite color is chrome”, and who will appear repeatedly in future Adkins singles, makes her first one-dimensional appearance here, and provided the singer with another top 10 radio hit.

It’s interesting that two producers independently helmed these tracks since nearly all of them fall into the same medium tempo pace and nearly every one outside the singles have an interchangeable melody.  Some songs break through the shuffle, buoyed by the songwriting or the singer’s commanding performance. “Come Home”, written by Ed Hill, Bob DiPiero and Mark D. Sanders, is a mid-tempo delight in the neo-traditional mold. Trace plays the part of a man full of “I’m sorry’s” trying to put back together a broken relationship. The hackneyed subject matter is elevated by verses full of the narrator’s broken thoughts and a tinkling piano track throughout.  “I’m Paying It For It Now” is another mid-tempo, but with fiddles and a prominent steel guitar built around a fairly weak hook and plotline.

Others are just forgettable. The mid-tempo quasi-rock “Thankful Man” serves as a written thank-you to the narrator’s father for his blue-collar ways, and more thank-you’s to the Lord above that he followed the same path. “Scream” sounds much like the title track and finds the singer longing to “scream at the top of his lungs” in sheer love-fueled delight.  The obligatory country boy out-of-place in the big city tale comes in “I’m Going Back”, wherein our narrator is leaving a world full of “lunatics” (a lady with unconventional hair color and a cross dresser) for one of “windmills and dirt roads and bean fields“.  And so the album goes for the remaining tracks.

I’d be remiss to say these new lecherous-party boy attitudes, the slick guitar work, pounding drums and all aren’t directly responsible for his climb to country music A-lister.  He’d eventually hit much lower lows than this, and there are a handful of great songs to be plucked here, but Chrome was when Trace Adkins jumped completely over the shark and into the deep, dark water of musical nothingness.

Grade: C-

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A