My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Nesler

Single Review: Josh Turner – ‘Lay Low’

lay lowEvery year there seem to be fewer and fewer traditionally rooted country singers on mainstream labels still making a play for radio attention. Josh Turner is one of the holdouts, so it’s always good to hear from him, even if his material is sometimes less ambitious than one would ideally like. The precipitous recent decline in lyrical themes makes his conservative approach all the more welcome. Even in better times for country music Josh’s richly burnished bass-baritone voice would stand out.

His newest single, ‘Lay Low’ paints a comforting picture of the tranquillity to be found in a rural retreat with a loved one, a million miles away from the dispiriting partying songs we hear too much. Although Josh didn’t write the song (reliable songwriting team Tony Martin, Mark Nesler and Ross Copperman are responsible), it was apparently written especially for him and was inspired by a cabin owned by Josh and his wife. A pretty melody and sincere vocal make this a breath of fresh air on the airwaves, and raise hopes for Josh’s new album.

The production is given a little radio friendly gloss which will hopefully make it palatable for DJs while retaining the song’s country roots, and allowing Josh’s great vocals to shine (although I regret to say that I hear traces of vocal processing in some places – completely unnecessary. It isn’t the best thing he’s ever recorded, but it is a decent song and has a welcome maturity in its approach to

Grade: A-

Advertisements

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Different Things’

different thingsAfter leaving RCA, Tracy struck out on his own. His last album to date was released on his own label in 2006). Freedom from commercial concerns led him to his most mature work, and the best album of his career. He produced the set alongside Mike Geiger, and they did a fine job showcasing the songs tastefully.

My very favourite track is the incisive and gloriously judgmental cheating song, ‘Cheapest Motel’ in which a man loses everything after a fling:

They used the Bible for a coaster
And it never crossed their mind
Maybe they should have opened it
Instead of that high dollar wine

But he ends up exchanging his happy marriage and family for a lonely existence:
The cheapest motel in town cost him everything

It was written by Cole Deggs, Mike Geiger and Trey Matthews. It was the lead single, and got a little airplay, but really deserved to do much better.

Almost as good, the sober realisation of the title track shows a man who has come to understand his failings. He looks back on a lifetime’s rash choices, now that his marriage is collapsing.

What I want is to give up
Just let go and walk out on us
What I need is to see this through
Oh, and find a way back to you

The last thing that I reach for every evening
Is a woman who I can’t reach any more
Time has worn the new off of the feeling
And right now I wanna just walk out the door
But what I want and what I need
Have always been different things

This excellent song was written by John Ramey, Brice Long and Bobby Taylor, and is interpreted with the just the right amount of resignation by Tracy. A stripped down production gives it the perfect support.

A similarly rueful attitude dominates ‘She Was Smart’, in which a rich man finds out money isn’t enough to make up for his lack of commitment to his girlfriend.

Sweet but not overly sentimental, ‘Just One Woman’ is a ballad with a spoken introduction about an old man’s lifelong love for his wife. Also rather sweet, ‘A Cowboy And A Dancer’ is a story song in which a cowboy down on his luck meets a girl whose dreams of musical theatre stardom have sputtered out by working as a stripper to put herself through college. A shared ride out of Texas turns into romance.

‘Saltwater Cowboy’ is a lighthearted and likeable beach song. ‘The Biggest Thing In Texas’ is a fun little slice of western swing which allows Tracy to affectionately dig at his fellow Texans’ pride in their home state:
Pride is the biggest thing in Texas

‘Better Places Than This’ the second and last single sadly failed to chart, but it is an entertaining honky tonker with sadness at its heart. In response to being thrown out of a second-rate bar where he’s been drowning his sorrows a little too long, the protagonist declares:

Keep your old cold shoulder and your lukewarm beer

I haven’t lost anything here I can’t live without
Can’t you see everything’s already gone that I ever cared about?

I’ve been thrown out of better places than this
I know where to go and I know what to kiss
I’ve heard it all before from my sweet angel’s lips

‘Before I Die’ offers up a bucket list with a wistfully delivered lyric and lovely melody. Not outstanding, but nicely done.

The closing ‘Hot Night In The Country’ is a rare Tracy Byrd co-writing credit (alongside Mark Nesler and Tony Martin) but is a bit dull. ‘The More I Feel Rockin’’ is a cheerful mid-tempo celebration of refusing to slow down despite growing older – pleasant filler but enjoyable enough.

Overall, though, this is the best album Tracy has ever recorded, and is an essential purchase. That makes it all the more disappointing that he has gone silent since its release.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Love Lessons’

lovelessonsTAfter enjoying tremendous commercial success with 1994’s No Ordinary Man, Tracy Byrd stumbled a bit with the following year’s Love Lessons, which failed to produce any major hits. Of its four singles, only the title track reached the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The album found him working once again with Tony Brown, who had produced some of his early hits from his debut album. First out of the box was the catchy line-dance number “Walking To Jersusalem”, which peaked at #15, a far cry from the #2-peaking “Keeper of the Stars” that had preceded it. The title track was the album’s biggest hit, but it is a bit dull and far from memorable. Much better is “Heaven In My Woman’s Eyes”, which sounds like something out of Merle Haggard’s catalog, but was actually written by Mark Nesler. I also liked “4 to 1 in Atlanta” which finds the protagonist preparing to visit Georgia in search of Ms. Right.

Love Lessons is one of those albums which is neither great nor terrible, and thus not very memorable. It lacks the compelling material of its predecessor. Tracy still sounds a lot like George Strait on a lot of the tracks. All of the songs are at least good, and today they might be considered great, but they did not stand out in era in which country music routinely turned out much higher quality material than it does today. There is no “Keeper of the Stars” or “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous” on this collection with the exception of two numbers written by two of country music’s greatest songwriters: “You Lied To Me” by the great Bill Anderson and “Don’t Need That Heartache” by Kostas and Melba Montgomery. Both of these songs are head and shoulders above anything else the album has to offer.

Love Lessons is not essential listening but is worth the small cash outlay required to obtain a used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Album Review – Aaron Tippin – ‘What This Country Needs’

CountryneedsChange was afoot for Aaron Tippin in 1998. His tenure at RCA Nashville ended in 1997 and Lyric Street Records quickly signed him in early 1998. He went to work on a new album, and released What This Country Needs in October. Tippin co-produced the project along with Pat McMakin, marking their first time working together.

He previewed the album with Mark Nesler and Tony Martin’s “For You, I Will,” which peaked at #6. A love song, it succeeds on a pleasant mid-tempo production featuring a nice dose of fiddle and steel. It’s a fairly middle of the road song at best, and Tippin’s somewhat disengaged vocal is partly to blame. But I do really enjoy the production.

Subsequent singles didn’t fair as well. The neo-traditional “I’m Leaving” hit #17 and is quite good, although his vocal is too gruff and out of place. Piano and steel ballad “Her” peaked at #33 and overall is much better than its predecessors, especially vocally, although the track isn’t anything overly special. The in your face title track, a Tippin co-write with Donny Kees, hit #47. Somewhat clever play on words the track isn’t talking about America (like the opening lines suggest), but the country genre’s move in a poppier direction:

‘Cause what this country needs

Is a little more steel guitar

And put a little fiddle right in the middle

Straight out of a Texas bar

And give us a song, we can all sing along

From sea to shining sea

Be proud of it and always love it

That’s what this country needs

Tippin may get his point across, but the track is no “Murder On Music Row.” The rock production is too jarring for a song about reconnecting with traditional sounds. He mostly sticks with those traditional sounds on the remaining tracks, with “Don’t Stop (We’re Just Getting Started)” leading the pack. By 1998 this line dance ready barroom romper was a bit dated, but the drenching of steel helps it rise above the pack.  The same classic elements bring the excellent “Somewhere Under The Rainbow” to life.

“I Didn’t Come This Far (Just to Walk Away)” is a favorite track of mine because I really enjoy both the melody and overall country feel. Same goes for “Back When I Knew Everything” and “Sweetwater,” two barroom anthems. The honky-tonk production and twang-y guitars are excellent additions to the songs. The remaining tracks, “Nothing Compares to Loving You” and “You’re The Only Reason For Me” are the only clunkers suffering from being too loud and far too adult contemporary, respectively, for my tastes.

Overall, What This Country Needs is just an okay album – nothing terrible yet nothing outstanding (none of the songs are particularly memorable in any significant way). My main issue with the project is Tippin himself – he sounds neither comfortable nor confident and gives spotty vocals throughout. He’s proven he can be strong enough on somewhat traditional material, but he hardly brings any of those goods here.

Grade: C

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Everywhere’

By the time Everywhere saw the light of day in June 1997, Tim McGraw was an established hit maker but not a superstar. His music was mostly cast aside as nothing more than novelty and he had yet to prove he was more than just another 90s hat act. That all would change here as Everywhere would go on to sell four million copies and win McGraw the respect of the industry. He was finally a force to be reckoned with at both country radio and on the road.

Lead single “It’s Your Love,” a massively successful duet with his wife Faith Hill, would take on a life of its own spending six weeks at #1 and winning boatloads of awards from the ACMs and CMAs. It would also be named Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1997.

The romantic ballad, pinned by Stephony Smith, worked because the chemistry between McGraw and Hill was enough to sell the song. The nicely restrained arrangement, complete with the light acoustic guitar and organ flourishes, is also a stunning moment for commercial country in those days.

The title track would follow also peaking at #1. While not as massive a hit, “Everywhere” was even more important – it proved McGraw could sell subtlety and emotional depth through further developing the promise he showed with “Can’t Be Really Gone.” Written by Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman, “Everywhere” is easily my favorite song on the whole album and sounds as fresh today as it did back then.

I love the story here – a man’s regretting the end of a relationship and sees his ex wherever he goes – and the brilliance of the songwriting. Reid and Wiseman spend much of the song focused on the man’s travels, but smartly take a second to ground his journey with the line:

Cause you and I made our choices

All those years ago

Still I know I’ll hear your voice

And see you down the road

I can’t even begin to imagine how poorly “Everywhere” would be written by today’s standards (especially by the Peach Pickers). In conjunction with the lyrics, the soaring arrangement complete with fiddle, steel guitar, and gorgeous acoustic guitars nicely compliment the vastness of the many places this man has been.

The third single, the irresistibly catchy “Just To See You Smile” would match the success of “It’s Your Love” by spending six weeks at #1 and becoming Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1998. The banjo driven arrangement complete with pedal steel and acoustic guitar make it one of those sunny songs you have to turn up when it comes on the radio. I love this one as well and can’t believe how good it sounds all these years later.

Fourth Single “One Of These Days” may be the best ballad of McGraw’s career. Written by Marcus Hummond, Monty Powell, and Kip Raines, it would peak at #2 in the spring of 1998. I always regarded it as a love song until writing this review – I never saw the whole picture (a man’s journey towards self-forgiveness for bullying a boy who “was different/he wasn’t cool like me”) until listening to it again this week. It’s a stunning lyric and just may be the best thing McGraw has ever recorded, let alone his best ballad.

Following the “One of These Days” juggernaut was another McGraw standard and multi-week #1 “Where The Green Grass Grows.” Written by Jess Leary and Craig Wiseman, it may be the most lyrically dumb of any of the singles from Everywhere but the fiddle and drum heavy melody are so infectious, you cannot help but sing along.

But “Where The Green Grass Grows” is actually more insightful than meets the eye. A entry into the “couturier than thou” linage, it succeeds by taking the protagonist back to small town living without hitting us over the head with grass is better than concrete imagery. His move out of city life finds him naturally following his heart.

The sixth and final single, “For A Little While” would peak at #2 in spring 1999. Composed by Steve Mandie and Jerry Vandiver along with country singer Phil Vassar, it was a simple love song about a romance not able to last more than a few months:

And I laugh every time I start to think about us

We sent that summer out in style

And she’s gone but she let me with a smile

‘Cause she was mine for a little while

She wasn’t one to be tied down – which he wasn’t looking for anyway – but he’ll always have the memories of their times together. The execution is flawless here; the fiddle, drum, and piano laced production work perfectly to frame the love story contained within.

Of the non-singles on the album, the majority are typical album filler you would’ve expected to populate a country album in the late-90s. There isn’t much there to grasp onto except for “I Do But I Don’t” written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, the team behind “Just To See You Smile.” The fiddle and steel guitar laced ballad is quite strong and wouldn’t have been out of place on Mark Wills’ Wish You Were Here album.

Taking another listen, it’s easy to see why Everywhere won the 1998 CMA Album of the Year award and put McGraw’s career into overdrive. The singles are some of the strongest of his career to date with not a bad one in the bunch.

I have very found memories of this project as well. Each of these songs displays a little piece of my third and fourth grade childhood. So listening to them again brings back fond memories of those years. And it’s also nice to see how well the songs have held up after fifteen years time, even if they display how sharply commercial country music has declined since.

If you don’t have a copy they can be easily found on both iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

Single Review – Josh Turner – ‘Time Is Love’

After a year in which Turner saw his last single, “I Wouldn’t Be A Man” painfully climb to a #18 chart peak, you’d assume he’d return with a much stronger song able to push momentum in his direction again. Unfortunately, he’s returned with another example of subpar material far below his obvious talent.

Written by Tom Shapiro, Tony Martin and Mark Nesler, “Time Is Love” is the type of filler used by artists who need songs to fill out their albums. The generic melody, weak lyrical content, and sub-par vocal performance will likely keep this song from making a big impact at country radio.

“Time Is Love” is constructed as a spin on the phrase time is money with the opening lines setting up the protagonist’s fixation of being with his woman:

 I know I gotta put in the hours,

Make the money while the sunlight shines

But anything I gotta get done,

It can get done some other time

Much like need for people to leave concrete for dirt in southern pride anthems, there’s a sense of unhealthy obsession where priorities are out of whack. He only becomes more delusional in the second verse:

I only get so many minutes,

Don’t wanna spend ’em all on the clock

In the time that we spent talkin’,

How many kisses have I lost?

The chorus doesn’t add much to the overall story except to continue building up the urgency of the man’s need to be with his woman. But like any poorly constructed song, the story goes nowhere very fast.  There’s all this build up but no culminating moment when he finally meets up with this woman. And by the time the bridge finally comes around, you’ve lost interest anyway.

I only wish we could be celebrating Turner’s return to form after two less than stellar singles. He has all the goods and he’s proven just how good he can be on songs like “Long Back Train” and “Your Man.” I just hope the rest of the album isn’t summed up in this single and there’s still some reason to be excited for his music.

Grade: C- 

Single Review: Gwyneth Paltrow – ‘Country Strong’

“Country Strong” is a very conventionally-produced power anthem, with fluffy lyrics performed by a beautiful blonde singer. In other words, it has all the trappings of a potential smash hit. Having grown weary of the steady onslaught of outside-the-genre celebrities trying to crack the country music market in recent years, I was initially more than a bit skeptical upon learning that Gwyneth Paltrow was releasing a single to country radio. Therefore, I was a pleasantly surprised after listening to the song to discover that Paltrow proves herself to be a competent, if non-distinctive, vocalist, though admittedly the excellent harmony vocals provided by Vince Gill and Patty Griffin help to camouflage Paltrow’s vocal shortcomings. I may revise my opinion of Gwyneth’s singing depending on how her live performance on the upcoming CMA Awards show goes, but in the studio, at least, she is definitely up to the task.

Written by Jennifer Hanson, Tony Martin and Mark Nesler, and produced by Byron Gallimore, “Country Strong” is the title track of a new soundtrack album being released by RCA this week, to promote the upcoming motion picture of the same title. In the film, Paltrow portrays a fallen country star, struggling to recover from alcoholism and rebuild her career. Tim McGraw co-stars as her manager and husband.

There is nothing particularly memorable or interesting about this record, and in fact, a strong case can be made that the last thing country radio needs right now is another generic, relentlessly positive female empowerment anthem. However, since the track’s purpose is solely to act as a promotional tool for a movie, and since Gwyneth Paltrow is not normally known as a singer, I’m prepared to cut her and the record a little slack. And since, presumably, Paltrow’s character triumphs over her adversities by the end of the film, the positive message is entirely appropriate.

A music video of “Country Strong” can be viewed on YouTube. The single can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon. The soundtrack album, which also contains contributions from Chris Young and Patty Loveless, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, Trace Adkins, Lee Ann Womack, and others is also available from Amazon.

Grade: B

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Savin’ The Honky Tonk’

After the relative commercial failure of Thank God For Believers, Mark’s label forced him to record the Aerosmith song ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’. While this was a big hit, it undoubtedly alienated much of his core fan base, and his career never really recovered. One more album for MCA (the underrated Lost In The Feeling), and a sole release for Columbia (the lackluster Mark Chesnutt), failed to recapture his commercial glories, and Mark was relegated to the minor leagues of independent labels.

Yet the loss of his last major label deal turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Mark as he was enabled to produce some of the best music of his career. His first venture into independent territory (on Vivaton Records) marked a deliberate reclamation of traditional country now that he was free of major label constraints and the need to produce radio fodder. Savin’ The Honky Tonk, released in 2004, is formally dedicated to “all the Honky Tonks and all the bands playing the hard core country music”, and it is almost a concept album with only a handful of the generous 15 tracks not on the theme. Jimmy Ritchey’s production is solid, and Mark’s vocals are great throughout.

The record reached #23 on Billboard – the same peak as Mark Chesnutt, which had benefitted from more radio play thanks to the #11 hit ‘She Was’ – and the first two singles at least did better than his last two for Columbia. While these were only modest successes by his own standards, it’s always been harder for artists on small labels to get played on radio at all, let alone charting inside the top 40.

The lead single, a tongue-in-cheek ode to alcohol, ‘The Lord Loves The Drinkin’ Man’, was one of two songs from the pen of Texas artist Kevin Fowler. The protagonist defies his mother and preacher, both saying he’ll never get to Heaven if he keeps on drinking, by saying,

I hear that He can turn the water into wine
Any man can do that is a good friend of mine
I’ve been baptised in beer, I’m here to testify
I was speaking in tongues when I came home last night
Some folks say I’m living in sin
But I know the Lord loves the drinkin’ man

The single charted well for an independent release, making the country top 40.

Fowler’s other cut here, the resolutely secular ‘Beer, Bait & Ammo’, has also been recorded by Sammy Kershaw and George Jones, and is an ode to a useful country store with “everything any old beer-drinkin’ hell-raisin’ bona fide redneck needs”.

Read more of this post

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘It’s All Happening’

Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics.  He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters.  Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel.  James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.

The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set.  The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:

There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke

It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart

And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar

That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool

Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:

I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight

I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight

Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.

Read more of this post

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Old Things New’

Old Things NewA few years ago, Joe Nichols looked to be one of the brightest young country stars, with an interestingly textured voice and a sound with genuinely country roots which still worked on country radio, thanks to some very good songs. His career seems to have gone off track since them – no doubt not helped by a spell in rehab just after the release of his last album, Real Things, two years ago. That album produced a couple of top 20 singles, but no major hits. In some ways, then, this album is something of a comeback attempt. It is mainly produced by Joe’s longterm producer Brent Rowan, with three tracks courtesy of Mark Wright.

Leadoff single ‘Believers’ performed relatively poorly, peaking at #26 on Billboard, despite an obviously sincere vocal praising those with faith in something, whether that’s a matter of politics, love or religion, with some gospel-style backing vocals on the last chorus which fortunately do not overwhelm it, and are at least in keeping with the subject matter. The song might have more impact if it concentrated on one of the three stories it touches on. The current single, the oddly spelt ‘Gimmie That Girl’ (co-written by 90s chart artist Rhett Akins with Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip) is a warmhearted but over-produced love song lauding the narrator’s girlfriend au naturel. It is one of three tracks produced by Mark Wright, and is as close as the album gets to pop-country (with one glaring exception, of which more later).

‘The Shape I’m In’ is another Akins/Davidson/Hayslip song produced by Wright, but is much better than the single. The protagonist is suffering both a literal hangover and a metaphorical one, the after-effects of a failed relationship, but is starting to feel better, commenting:

I’m doing alright
For the shape I’m in

The third Wright-produced track is ‘Man, Woman’, written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, a midtempo song about a guy who realizes his heartbreak is worse than he had thought it would be, with some nice fiddle from Aubrey Haynie. Joe does have a engagingly warm and fairly distinctive voice with inflected edges which can make average material sound better than it is, and he does that on songs like this pleasant if undistinguished song. Similarly, ‘We All Go Home’, written by Jimmy Melton, Neal Coty and Michael Mobley, is quite a nice song about being reminded of one’s childhood home. It doesn’t break new ground, but is very well sung, which also features Mac McAnally on acoustic guitar,and is another possible single. Its main flaw is unnecessary and slightly overpowering gospelly backing vocals at the end.

‘This Bed’s Too Big’, written by Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw, is a tenderly sung love song about needing to stay really close to the protagonist’s loved one, but it sounds a little dull.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Zona Jones – ‘Prove Me Right’

Prove Me RightThere must be something in the water in Beaumont, Texas. Not only was it the hometown of George Jones, Mark Chesnutt was born there, and the city was once also home to Tracy Byrd. Another Beaumont resident, Zona Jones, put his career as a lawyer on hold a few years ago when he released his excellent first album Harleys & Horses on indie label D Records. I enjoyed that record enough to keep a eye out for his follow-up, which has at last appeared on his friend Tracy Lawrence’s Rocky Comfort Records. Zona is not quite in the same league as the aforementioned sons of Beaumont, but he does have a good voice very much in the George Strait style, which is particularly effective on mellow ballads like the majority of the material on this album. Half the songs were produced by no less than James Stroud, the remainder by Zona himself with Mike Jones, but the overall feel of the album is fairly consistent, and it is solidly country from start to finish.

He opens with a cover of Aaron Tippin’s ‘Could Not Stop Myself From Loving You’, which he delivers nicely enough, but his phrasing is too reminiscent of the original while lacking Tippin’s hypnotic quality. Tippin’s co-writers on that track, Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, also wrote my favorite song on the album, ‘Go Away’. This excellent song feels like a sequel to Steve Earle’s modern classic ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, a link I think is made explicit in the salutation, “my old foul-weather friend”. The protagonist is tired of feeling bad about his loss, and begs:

“Go away, blues don’t hang around
Let me love again somehow
I tried but I could not make her stay
So be like her and go away”

Another really enjoyable number is ‘Drinkin”, a drinking song (obviously) from the pens of John [Scott?] Sherrill and Neal Coty, which sounds cheerful even as the protagonist tries to drown his miseries:

Damn it, I think I drank myself sober
And I still can’t drink myself over you

At least I’m a couple sheets to the wind
With any luck, honey, I’ll forget again
That I don’t know where you are or where I am”

The title track (a Radney Foster/Stephanie Delray composition) is a hopeful look at the prospects for love. Also good is ‘She Showed Me’, written by Troy Olsen and Kerry Kurt Phillips, neatly set around a conversation with an ex. The narrator smugly thinks she’ll be begging for another chance, but as it turns out he could not be more wrong – she is happily married with two children (underlining the guy’s cluelessness given the time that must have elapsed since they were together).

One of the songs which stands out the most is the uptempo jerky rhythm of ‘Never Took My Eyes Off You’, written by Dave Frasier, Ed Hill and Josh Kear, and although this track (alone on the album) feels a little over-produced and the lyric is rather slight, it is still fun with definite singalong potential as the protagonist can’t pay attention to the football game or great view on his dates with his love interest.

Similar but better is ‘Day Off’, a lively paean to relaxation time written by Al Anderson, Bob DiPiero and Leslie Satcher. For such a heavyweight writing team, the lyric verges on the absurd at times – while it is indeed true that we all welcome a check in the mail, few of us are in the need to break out of a Mexican jail. But as fluff goes, this is entertaining fluff, as Zona tells us with a little growl in his voice:

“Everybody needs a little too much fun
Everybody needs a little coming undone
Take a brain vacation, I’m telling you, hoss
Everybody needs a day off”

The love ballad ‘You Should’ve Seen Her This Morning’ is nice enough if not very memorable, as the protagonist boasts the joys of domestic bliss to his bar friends whose heads are turned when his woman walks in, claiming sweetly, “If you’re thinking ‘Wow, she looks beautiful now’, you should’ve seen her this morning.” ‘Two Hearts’, another pleasant love song, is repeated from Harleys & Horses.

The album is rounded out by three more covers, Strait’s ‘Blame it On Mexico’ and ‘When You Love ‘Em Like Crazy’ (recorded as ‘When You Love Her Like Crazy’ by Mark Chesnutt are both sung well but not as ood as the originals. I am not as familiar with the sweetly delivered ‘Bluer Than Blue’, written by Randy Goodrum, which was a big pop and AC hit in 1978 for Michael Johnson, who was to go country in the 80s. This last song (for which there is a video) has a very pretty tune and has grown on me over repeated listens.

I think the songs were a little stronger on Zona’s first album, but nonetheless this is an enjoyable record. It is available on iTunes or from Zona’s website.

Grade: B