My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Irwin

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

Sundown_heaven_townTim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title, Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Grade: B-

Advertisements

Album Review – Jim Lauderdale – ‘I’m A Song’

Jim-Lauderdale-070114-300x300Jim Lauderdale, recording once again for Sky Crunch Records, has gifted us with a self-produced double album to follow-up his acclaimed Buddy & Jim duets project from 2012. I’m A Song, his 26th album, spans twenty songs over a single disc of pure honky-tonk bliss with not a clinker in the bunch.

For this project Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote every song, opting to self-pen eight of the album’s tracks. For these numbers he mainly focuses on different aspects of relationships, from the hopeful beginnings of “Lets Have A Good Thing Together” to a woman’s uniqueness in “You’ve Got A Way With Yours.” “There’s No Shadows In The Shade” confronts what we tend to hide from one another in relationships, while the title track cleverly compares a romance to different aspects of a song. All are excellent, with gorgeous twangy guitar, drum, and pedal steel based arrangements that nicely complement Lauderdale’s southern drawl.

Much like “There’s No Shadow In The Shade,” “Hope and Find” has a very modern, and somewhat heavy, accompaniment the builds along with the sinister lyric. “The Day The Devil Changed” is the exact opposite – sunny and bright, despite a lyric about a man’s desire to course correct his troubled past. “We Will Rock Again” closes the album by echoing the honky-tonk beat of opener “Lets Have A Good Thing Together,” but presenting it as straight up rock. The lyric, about endings that aren’t goodbye, is in its chosen spot given its appropriateness as an album ending song.

Lauderdale teamed up with Jimmy Richie and Mark Irwin for “Past It,” in which the guy is eternally hopeful that he and his woman may be over the ‘rough patch that we’re on.’ The jaunty beat nicely aids in his optimism, while his cynical vocal suggests otherwise. Newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Bare shares co-writing credits on “This Feeling’s Hanging On,” a glorious straight-up traditional number bursting with steel and fiddle. “End of the World Rag” is one of the louder numbers, a doomsday lament that’s rock in every way.

Odie Blackmon, probably best known for writing Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” collaborated with Lauderdale on three cuts. “Neon Hearts” is a lonely man’s ode to drinking in bars, “Makin’ Honey” is a jarringly happy love song that seems somewhat out of character for the album, and “The World Is Waiting Below” concerns a very happy couple who are so in love they haven’t come down to earth yet. Of these three, which are all good, “Neon Hearts” is a cut above the rest, a wonderful bar song that gets to the heart of why we sometimes just need a stiff drink to wash away our troubles. Matt Warren and Gary Allan (along with Lauderdale) co-wrote “I Wish You Loved Me,” a fabulous honky-tonk number about unreciprocated love.

Womack provides harmony vocals on two of the four duet tracks on I’m A Song. Co-written with Robert Hunter, “A Day With No Tomorrow” is an excellent mid-tempo traditional country ballad about a recently heartbroken man. Even better is “Doin’ Time In Bakersfield” a Frank Dycus co-write about a man behind bars in the aforementioned California city. I wish Womack could’ve done more than harmonize here, making it a true duet, but her contributions only add to the outstanding quality of the track.

A collaboration with Patty Loveless on the self-penned “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays” is given the same harmonizing treatment as the Womack numbers, and while it’s a great song with a flawless production, I would’ve liked to have seen Lauderdale give her some lines to sing solo. Their voices sound sharp together, too, as the both have distinct twangy vocals that keep them from harmonizing perfectly, like he was able to do with the sweeter voiced Womack. The Buddy Miller partnership on his Elvis Costello co-written “I Lost You” works the best given the format, as they are essentially a duo anyways.

“The King of Broken Hearts,” which George Strait brought prominence with the Pure Country soundtrack and Womack cut on Call Me Crazy gets recorded here by its writer twenty-three years after his original release since that project is long out of print. A staple of his shows and easily his most popular song, its revival here is a welcomed treat.

Most times when an artist opts to gift their fans twenty songs on a single disc, the results are uneven at best, and often wrought with wide sweeps of varying styles meant to please each and every sector of the audience. Lauderdale smartly forgoes that in favor of crafting a pure honky-tonk project as cohesive as any album could aspire to be. While not a fault of his own the track do tend to run together a bit, but the standout numbers (“Doin’ Time in Bakersfield,” “Neon Hearts,” and “The Day The Devil Changed”) stand out loud and clear.

Grade: A

Album Review: Irene Kelley – ‘Pennsylvania Coal’

pennsylvania coalPennsylvania-born Irene Kelley is one of the finest songwriters around. A decade on from her excellent Thunderbird album she is back on record in her own right. She wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, and all have pretty melodies which showcase her pure, beautiful voice. Produced by Mark Fain, the music is in that overlap between acoustic country and bluegrass, and is beautifully played.

The opening ‘You Don’t Run Across My Mind’ is a thoughtful song about someone who the protagonist can never forget despite the passage of time. Darrin Vincent sings harmony on this attractive tune. It is co-written with Peter Cooper, as is the even prettier ‘Feels Like Home’. The latter has bluegrass’s Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals and some lovely fiddle lines from Stuart Duncan (who plays throughout). A cold rainy day in Nashville brings reminders of Irene’s Pennsylvania birthplace, whose weather is remembered with less fond nostalgia than many songs about childhood:

You can take a trip but you can’t go back
Too many times I’ve heard that
It’s prettier in clouded memory
Just today a north wind came
Tapped my shoulder
Brought the grey
And a chill I know by heart came over me

Feels like home
Though I never felt at home there
And I know that the winters were too long
Like the wind against the shutters
In a town I used to know
Any time it looks like rain
Feels like home

‘Pennsylvania Coal’ (written with Thomm Jutz) is an atmospheric story of the Pennsylvania coal country where Kelley’s immigrant grandfather was a miner, and later a farmer. Its honesty and emotional insight rivals some of the great coalmining songs from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Family is an important theme running through the album, with Irene’s daughters Justyna and Sara Jean contributing both with harmonies and songwriting. The record even closes with a bonus track, ‘You Are Mine, on which Kelley’s daughter Sara Jean sings the lead over her mother and sister’s trio harmony. Written by the three of them, it has a charming old fashioned feel.

The delightful ‘My Flower’ uses the traditional ‘You Are My Flower’ (which Irene sang as a lullaby for her children as babies) as its theme. It was written with Irene’s daughter Justyna, who also sings harmonies alongside Claire Lynch. Irene then segues into a few lines of the original song, accompanied by herself on autoharp, which is charming.

Lynch also sings background on ‘Angels Around Her’, about Irene’s relationship with her late mother, using her collection of angel-themed ornaments as the focus of the song. Dale Ann Bradley sings harmony on the brooding ‘Sister’s Heart’, a heartfelt tribute to Irene’s beloved sister, which she wrote with Jon Weisberger. Bradley is also present on the idealistic ‘Garden Of Dreams’, inspired by Kelley’s daughters, which is a beautiful and poetic ballad.

Trisha Yearwood sings harmony on the graceful waltz ‘Better With Time’, a mature love song (written with Peter Cooper and Justyna) about the way love matures and grows, with a delicate stripped down arrangement.

Another outstanding song, ‘Breakin’ Even’ (written with Mark Irwin) takes a bleakly moving look at the pain of a breakup. ‘Things We Never Did’ is full of tender regret at lost chances, with its wistful look at what was “nearly a dream come true”. Carl Jackson’s harmony and Jeff Taylor’s tasteful accordion add the perfect finishing touches to the arrangement.

Rhonda Vincent sings a close harmony on the quirky upbeat ‘Rattlesnake Rattler’, in which part of a dead snake is incorporated into a guitar.

This is a lovely sounding record, and one filled with moving songs, beautifully sung.

Grade: A

5 questions with Dakota Bradley

dakota bradleyDakota Bradley has already caught the attention of talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, country star Tim McGraw and hit-making producer Byron Gallimore, who were all instrumental in the eighteen-year old’s eventual signing to Streamsound Records.  In a quick phone chat before his show at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Phoenix last week, we talked about his first single, “Somethin’ Like Somethin'” and the celebrity connection to his claim to fame.

J.R. Journey: You first appeared on the Ellen show as a duo. Now you’re a solo artist. How did that come about?

Dakota Bradley: Everything happened so fast after I was on that show. I literally just hit my eighty-fifth city on my radio tour. I just finished an album – produced by Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw.

J.R.: How did that appearance lead to the Byron Gallimore/Tim McGraw connection? 

D.B.: Well, right after I was on Ellen, I got to meet some really cool people in Nashville. I got introduced to writers and everybody. And I got introduced to Byron. He gave me a publishing deal and a record deal right away, which was pretty unbelievable. And he introduced me to Tim. I played a couple songs for Tim and the next day we were cutting records. And I’ve been on a radio tour ever since then. It’s pretty wild out here.

J.R.: So, in addition to those guys producing your record, I see your first single was co-written by Shane McAnally (who is one of the hottest writers on Music Row right now) with Josh Kear and Mark Irwin. You’re keeping pretty good company for a teenage newcomer. Tell me about how came to record that song.

D.B.: Oh, I feel very lucky. Mr. Gallimore – Byron Gallimore – and Missy, Byron’s wife, have been instrumental in finding songs for Tim over the years, over his entire career. Missy found that song and brought it to the studio. Tim loved it, and we cut it. And Tim is actually the one who picked it for the first single.

J.R.: Anybody else you’d like to work with?

D.B.: Keith Urban. John Mayer. Taylor Swift. Just anybody who loves good music.

J.R.: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

D.B.: Hopefully still touring and making music, if I can be that lucky. It’s hard to see where I’m gonna be tomorrow. I just hope I’m still making music.

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Eleven’

In recent years Martina McBride has struggled to remain commercially relevant. Having landed only one Top 10 hit in the past seven years, she left her longtime label RCA last year in the hopes of reviving her flagging career. Unfortunately, the move to Republic Nashville has done little to change her commercial fortunes, as it has become apparent that her chart decline is due not to any neglectfulness on the part of RCA, but to her seeming inability to select decent material. She shares co-writing credits on six of Eleven’s tracks, the most she’s ever contributed to a single album, but for the most part this doesn’t result any measurable improvement over her other recent efforts.

When an artist ends a long term relationship with the label where she scored her greatest achievements, it can signal a bold new change in direction or a continued long period of stagnation. In Martina’s case, it’s definitely a case of the latter, as Eleven is more or less in the same vein as her last few, very lackluster albums for RCA. Her debut single for Republic Nashville, “Teenage Daughters”, offered a brief glimmer of hope that she might be getting her mojo back, but those hopes were quickly dashed as rest of the album is mostly a relapse back into the bubblegum pop she’s been peddling since 2006.

Though not a great song by any means, “Teenage Daughters” showed a spunkier side of Martina, which we’ve not seen in quite some time. Written by McBride and the Warren Brothers, the song deals with the challenges of raising adolescent daughters and was in no doubt inspired by Martina’s real-life experiences. The record peaked at #17. It was followed by what appears to be the intended centerpiece of the album, the God-awful “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”, the most shameless attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions to hit the airwaves since “God’s Will”. McBride and producer Byron Gallimore were likely hoping for a big power ballad hit that explores serious issues, in the vein of “Concrete Angel” or “A Broken Wing”. The problem is that the lyrics lack any subtlety whatsoever. It’s currently at #19 on the charts, but since most radio listeners really don’t want to hear songs about people suffering from cancer, I’ll wager that this one isn’t going to go much higher.

Most of the other tracks on the album, from the opening track “One Night” to the annoyingly sing-songy “Always Be This Way” and “Broken Umbrella” sound like throwbacks to 1970s-era Top 40 AM radio, reminiscent of the poorer efforts of artists like Helen Reddy, The Carpenters or The Captain and Tennille.

Despite these considerable drawbacks, Eleven does have its brighter moments. Though not very country, “Marry Me”, a cover of last year’s minor adult-contemporary hit by the pop/rock group Train, is quite pleasant. It is performed with the song’s writer and Train’s lead singer Pat Monahan. The bluesy “Whatcha Gonna Do”, written by Rachel Thibodeau, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jason Sever also works quite well and I’m guessing that it will eventually be released as a single. And things improve considerably with the album’s last three tracks, “Summer of Love”, “When You Love a Sinner” and the stunningly beautiful closing track “Long Distance Lullaby”, which Martina co-wrote with Mark Irwin and Josh Kear. These three numbers are the album’s best tracks, and serve as a reward of sorts for having persevered through the earlier tracks.

Having been disappointed by Martina’s previous three albums, I wasn’t expecting Eleven to be an outstanding effort, and it definitely isn’t, but it’s worth the $4.99 that Amazon MP3 is currently asking for it (the version with digital liner notes is $9.49). A deluxe version with four bonus tracks and three music videos is available exlusively from Target stores.

Grade: C

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Drive’

January 2002 saw the release of Alan’s tenth studio album, which showcases him as a confident singer-songwriter at the height of his commercial success. He is in fine voice, and Keith Stegall does his usual excellent job in the producer’s chair. Drive was the first of Alan’s albums to debut at #1 on the cross genre Billboard Hot 200 chart, despite making no concessions to crossover tastes, and it was named the ACM Album of the Year. But this is a record where one song has an impact which overshadows everything else.

Alan’s masterpiece ‘Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning?)’ defined a nation’s mood in the aftermath of 9/11. Alan had not originally intended to record it at all, but the popular response after he sang it at the CMA Awards in November 2001 led to a studio version being released as a single. When it was a #1 smash hit, it obviously had to be included on his new album. Over eight years on, it has lost none of its emotional impact, either in the studio recording or the original live version, which was added as a bonus to the end of the album, including Vince Gill’s introduction. If nothing else on the album is of quite the same calibre, that is because few songs can approach the perfection of this. Part of what makes it so effective is that it offers no judgment of the various choices he imagines people taking; it is entirely inclusive. It still makes me cry every time I hear it, with its quiet questioning and insistence that love is what really matters in the end:

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?….

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers?
Stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
And thank God you had somebody to love?…

But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

The song received another accolade by being included (in a cover version by The Wrights, Alan’s nephew and the latter’s wife) as one of the songs illustrating America’s history in Song Of America, a three-CD collection produced for US schools.

Eight of the twelve songs on the album were written solely by Alan. The opening track, and second single, ‘Drive (For Daddy Gene)’, which provides the album title is a very personal nostalgic look back at a childhood spent with his father around boats and cars. Car songs tend to leave me cold, but this one has an engaging warmth impossible to dislike, and it duly headed straight to #1. The car theme is bookended with the final track, the awkwardly scanning ‘First Love’, about his teenage love for his first car, restored to him in 1993. The driving theme is further illustrated in the CD liner notes with appropriate symbols taken from road signs attached to the lyrics of some of the songs.

Read more of this post