My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Outskirts Of Town’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘The Dirt Road’

Sawyer Brown was still riding the wave of “The Walk” when The Dirt Road hit in January 1992. The song is reprised here, as cut #11, partly to draw needed attention to the album and to increase album sales. This album would see two singles of its own and the start of the period when Sawyer Brown would see their most consistent success at radio.

The proper first single was the title track, co-written by Mark Miller and Gregg Hubbard. The song is a meditation on the choices by which we approach our lives:

Daddy worked hard for his dollar

He said some folks don’t

But that’s ok

They won’t know which road to follow

Because an easy street might lead you astray

 

I’ll take the dirt road

It’s all I know

I’ve been walking it for years

Its gone where I need to go

Oh it ain’t easy-it ain’t supposed to be

So I’ll take my time

And life won’t pass me by

Cause it’s right there to find, On the dirt road

 

I have lived life in the fast lane

You gotta watch your back and look both ways

When it’s said and done the time we have is borrowed

You better make real sure you’re headed the right way

The track, which is one of my favorites from them, peaked at #3. Miller solely composed the album’s second and final single, the excellent uptempo “Some Girls Do.” The #1 hit (their first in six years and second overall) finds Miller playing the bad boy, a guy attractive to just a select few women:

She turned up her nose as she walked by my Cadillac

From the corner of my eye I saw you and you laughed

You were sittin’ on the swing on your front porch

Paintn’ your nails like you were bored

And you yelled she was sure impressed with you

 

Well I ain’t first class

But I ain’t white trash

I’m wild and a little crazy too

Some girls don’t like boys like me

Aw but some girls do

 

I yelled and asked if you would like a ride

When we pulled out of your yard I bald a tire

You was laughing at me, I was doing James Dean

You was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen

When you rolled your eyes and twirled my pink fur dice

“Some Girls Do” is a prime example of the effortless cool of early 1990s country music, infectious without being obnoxious or pretentious. This song was actually my first exposure to the band, from the compilation album #1 Country Hit Mix. I really only knew Sawyer Brown as an uptempo act (add “Thank God For You” to this conversation as well) and kind of found it strange to hear Miller croon a ballad when videos for songs like “Treat Her Right” would come on CMT. I learned as I went as a kid and dealt with perceptions in my own way as I developed a taste for country music in that era.

Given the success of both “The Walk” and “Some Girls Do,” one would assume their label (a joint venture between Curb and Capitol Records) would’ve pushed for more songs written by Miller alone. While he co-wrote the majority of The Dirt Road only one other track was credited solely to him. “Burnin’ Bridges (On A Rocky Road)” is a mid-tempo ballad, loaded with steel, concerning a well-intended pearl of wisdom:

He said things have changed for the better

Things have changed in the weather

Well you got to go down easy when you go

So don’t go burnin’ bridges on a rocky road

While the message behind “Burnin’ Bridges (On A Rocky Road)” is good, the lyric leaves a lot to be desired. The core of The Dirt Road came from collaborations between Miller and Hubbard, which amount to five of the albums cuts (besides the title track). None of these offerings are very inspired, and if I was forced to pick a ‘best of the bunch’ I’d say “Another Trip To the Well,” although the song is unremarkable at best. The album’s remaining cuts, “Time and Love” and “Fire In The Rain” are album highlights and the strongest of the non-singles.

As I reflect upon Sawyer Brown from this period, I feel like they’re more a singles band than an albums artist. The two singles from The Dirt Road are easily some of the best music of the day, but the album tracks leave much to be desired. Plus, I have no idea why Cafe On The Corner would arrive just seven months later. If these two projects had been combined, I bet they’d be a stronger set as one unit since the singles from both records were killer.

Grade: B- 

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Buick’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘The Boys Are Back’

The neotraditional revival and the rise of the Class of 1989 might have put paid to the career of Sawyer Brown, as they did those of many of their contemporaries, but instead 1989 was to see Sawyer Brown reinventing themselves. They had had bigger radio hits before, but their energetic and credible cover of the George Jones hit ‘The Race Is On’ showed a new side to the band. It was a #5 hit.

The to follow ups were less successful, languishing in the 30s. ‘Did It For Love’ probably deserved better; it’s an engagingly delivered com-pendium story song about life choices – getting married, single motherhpood and volunteering to fight in Vietnam. The lyrics are awkwardly phrased and in places meaningless (“It was the rage of the age and the hour of the main attraction”), but the earnest vocal and catchy tune sell it. ‘Puttin’ The Dark Back Into The Night’, another catchy story song, is less effective, with rather intrusive percussion.

A cover of Steve Earle’s blue-collar ‘Getting’ Tough (Good Ol’ Boy)’ suits Miller’s voice very well, and this is a real highlight, second only to ‘The Race Is On’. The very best track, though, is the closing ‘Passin’ TRain’, a gently reflective tune written by the band’s keyboard player Gregg Hubbard. Frustratingly, it appears to be missing from the iTunes version of the album.

‘Good While It Lasted’ is a pleasant MOR ballad, and ‘I’m Gonna Miss You After All’ a fair country one, but neither will stick in the memory very long. The mid paced ‘Rosie Knows’ is okay, and I quite enjoyed the country rocker ‘Hey Hey’ despite a disposable lyric. The train themed ‘Locomotive’ is boring. ‘The Heartland’ has some nice traces of fiddle, but the song itself is dull.

Overall, their sound was staring to be gritter and less polished, but Mark Miller’s songwriting was still a work in progress (at least lyrically). They were improving, but still not quite there yet.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Wide Open’

1988’s Wide Open was Sawyer Brown’s fifth studio album and their least successful up to that time. Peaking at #33, it was their first album that failed to crack the Top 40 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It also failed to produce any Top 10 hits. Like its predecessor Somewhere in the Night, it was produced by Ron Chancey, who was best known for his work with The Oak Ridge Boys.

From an artistic standpoint, Wide Open is a mixed bag. It is, for the most part slickly produced — bucking the commercial trends of the day which had begun to favor more traditional sounds. None of the album cuts are particularly noteworthy or memorable. The three single releases, however, are a different story. The first was a spirited version of Dennis Linde’s “My Baby’s Gone”, which had been recorded a few years earlier by The Judds. It seems tailor made for Sawyer Brown; the lyrics tell a sad story but the song’s fast tempo gives it a more upbeat feeling. It reached #11 and I can’t imagine why it didn’t manage to crack the Top 10. It certainly deserved to chart higher. “Old Pair of Shoes”, written by Mark Miller, is good but not great. The metaphor of a comfortable but worn old pair of shoes for a relationship is hardly original. Many other songs have done a better job getting the same point across, but the song is certainly better than its #50 chart peak suggests.

The album’s best song by far is the third single, Skip Ewing’s Christmas classic “It Wasn’t His Child”, which examines the relationship between Jesus and his foster father St. Joseph. It only reached #51, but that is understandable since Christmas singles typically don’t chart very high. It’s a beautiful song that has been recorded many times. Sawyer Brown’s version more than holds its own against the others. It is however, a little out of place on this album and might have been better suited for a multi-artist Christmas compilation.

As far as the album cuts go, “What Am I Going To Tell My Heart” written by Sawyer Brown members Bobby Randall and Gregg Hubbard is the best, the Mark Miller-penned “Blue Denim Soul” is the worst and the rest are all forgettable filler that fall somewhere in between.

Aside from its singles, Wide Open is not essential listening. I recommend downloading “My Baby’s Gone” and “It Wasn’t His Child” and perhaps “Old Pair of Shoes” and skipping the rest. Or if you want to hear it in its entirety, this one is a good candidate for streaming.

Grade: B

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Shakin”

The band’s second album, released in 1985, was, like its predecessor, produced by Randy Scruggs in the contemporary pop-rock-country style popular just before the genre’s return to neotraditional sounds. If I heard any of these songs in a shop or on TV, I honestly wouldn’t think it was a country record. The group’s best asset was the voice of front man Mark Miller, which has an attractive throaty quality and can emote well on the slower songs. At this stage of their career, their flaws were weak material and rock-leaning production which now sounds dated – particularly the tinny keyboards and heavy use of brass.

The first single, the rockabilly ‘Betty’s Bein’ Bad’, written by Marshall Crenshaw, is quite entertaining, although it’s definitely more rock than country. It reached #5 on the Billboard country chart. Follow-up ‘Heart Don’t Fall Now’, an emotional ballad written by Bill La Bounty, Beckie Foster and Carolyn Swilley, is a nice song sung well, spoiled only by a slightly dated production. It peaked at #14. The last single, the brassy title track, which reached #15 is a rather forgettable up-tempo tune with bland lyrics, written by Scruggs with lead singer Mark Miller.

Miller and Scruggs actually wrote half the songs on the record. Two of them are quite good, if not sharing many elements of country music: ‘Sharin’ The Moonshine’ is a pleasant AC ballad with prominent saxophone which Miller sings very effectively. ‘Lonely Girls’ is also pretty good. ‘That’s A No-No’ is irritating with the constant repetition, and the opener ‘When Your Heart Goes (Woo Woo Woo)’ is just boring.

Of the outside material, ‘I Believe’ is a pleasant mid-paced AC love song. ‘The Secretary’s Song’ too overtly panders to young working women, and has a particularly dated production and syncopated vocal.

My favorite song on the whole album is the silly but cute novelty ‘Billy Does Your Bulldog Bite’, about a young man afraid his romantic moves may be stymied by her brother’s aggressive looking pet. The solution is the same as that picked by the protagonist of ‘Ol’ Red’.

Although reasonably successful at the time, this is really not an essential album, and it hasn’t worn well.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Sawyer Brown’

Sawyer Brown’s eponymous debut album, released in 1984 was their highest charting entry on the Billboard Country Albums chart, peaking at #2 and he most successful of their 1980s albums, in no doubt aided by their winning appearance on Star Search. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and spawned three hit singles: “Leona” (#16), “Step That Step” (#1) and “Used To Blue” (#3). The first two were catchy uptempo numbers that set the template for most of their subsequent singles for the next several years. “Used To Blue” proved that they could also handle ballads, though they were not generally associated with ballads in those days.

In addition to writing the band’s first #1 hit, the fluffy but catchy “Step That Step”, lead singer Mark Miller also wrote “Broken Candy”, a very nice ballad about heartbreak, loneliness and trying again. He also co-wrote the uptempo “Feel Like Me” and “It’s Hard to Keep a Good Love Down” with Randy Scruggs.

Some impressive names appear among the songwriting credits: the bluesy “Used To Blue” was written by Fred Knobloch and Bill LaBounty, “Smoking In The Rockies” — which they had performed on Star Search — was written by Buddy Cannon, Gary Stewart and Frank Dycus and “Staying Afloat” was a Don King co-write with J.D. Martin. Sawyer Brown’s origins can be traced to its members’ stint as Don King’s road band. “The Sun Don’t Shine on the Same Folks Every Time” — one of the more country sounding numbers was co-written by Mark Gray with Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate. Gray had secured a record deal with Epic around the same time and is best remembered for “Sometimes When We Touch”, his duet with Tammy Wynette.

Although the album is not particularly country sounding for the most part, it is well within the realm of what was considered country at the time. Although there are no fiddle and steel and just an occasional touch of harmonica, the album is not overproduced like a lot of other music from that era. Only occasionally do the synthesizers betray the album’s age. Sawyer Brown was not particularly taken seriously by the industry at the time and was somewhat unfairly labeled as a “bubble gum” band. It’s true that there’s nothing here as deep as “The Walk” — a big hit that they would enjoy almost a decade later — but the rest of the album is neither more nor less lightweight than anything else that was on the charts at the time. It is a highly enjoyable and solid first effort that for the most part has aged well.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Sawyer Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

Man_Against_Machine_coverExcluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

Miller, it’s worth noting, took over production duties from Brooks’ right hand man Allen Reynolds, who Brooks revealed has retired from the music business. His touch gives the album a fresher feel, but doesn’t hide the fact that Man Against Machine contains tracks far more country than anything released on a major label this year.

It’s no secret that western-themed songs are Brooks’ favorite as he includes at least one on every album. Man Against Machine has two that differ greatly on quality. “Rodeo and Juliet,” which Brooks co-wrote, has an underwritten lyric about a cowgirl on the racing circuit that comes off cutesy despite a pleasing western swing styled production. “Cowboys Forever” falls on the opposite end, standing up against anything he’s ever recorded on the subject. Dean Dillon’s co-written lyric is excellent, using a cowboy theme to relay a greater message about camaraderie.

The idea of a euphemism manifesting a larger message is also tackled in “Fish,” a conversation between a fisherman and a workaholic. The former teaches the latter about the importance of life; all while continuing to live the easy life he’s carved for himself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Fish” is the most sonically country song on whole album. “Wrong About You” follows close behind, with a jaunty banjo/dobro beat that roots the mid-paced number in an organic backbeat. “Midnight Train” comes off as the pop version of a country shuffle.

The majority of Man Against Machine is made up of songs that bring a bit of muscle into the conversation. A prime example is “Cold Like That,” a song that begins quietly but turns bombastic by the chorus. Brooks has the voice for it, but the production doesn’t offer any interesting flourishes to hook the listener. “Tired of Boys” is much better, with Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal coming in loud and clear. I do wish Miller had given it more of a 90s throwback vibe, which would’ve elevated the overall track just that much more. “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is more of the same, a ballad with light steel guitar that sill manages to use power to sell its story.

“All-American Kid,” a tune about a college-bound football star, is a very different song for Brooks both in subject matter and lyrical structure. I’m still debating whether I feel this kind of song is right for him or I’m just taken aback at him trying something new. Either way it isn’t a bad song and I like the ample use of fiddle.

“Tacoma” is Brooks’ bluesy moment, which he executes really well. I don’t usually go for this type of song, so that hinders my enjoyment of it, but people who enjoy these sorts of things will probably love it. The only truly puzzling song is the title track, which puts Brooks back in his faux-rock persona. It’s just too much power and muscle for me, no matter the quality of the lyrics.

Man Against Machine is a bizarre album. Brooks’ classic persona is undeniably present, but nothing here feels like essential listening. With the exception of “Mom” this whole album feels like filler to me, with too much eighties rock, not enough organic sounds, and very little passion on Brooks’ part. I expected more after thirteen years, from both Man Against Machine and his whole comeback extravaganza.

I also never dreamt mainstream country music would erode like it has, so I guess the joke may be on me. While the formula is here (cowboy songs, Yearwood on backing vocals, fiddles and steel) it just wasn’t executed with a timeless feel. Brooks, in his heyday, proved he is much, much better than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.