My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Old Enough To Know Better’

A performance of “Restless” by The New Nashville Cats featuring Mark O’Connor, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner at the 1991 CMA Awards proved pivotal in shifting Wade Hayes’ life focus towards a career in country music. He had been signed to an independent label by his father when he was eleven, but the deal fell through when the label filed for bankruptcy.

He dropped out of college and returned to Nashville after seeing that performance and became buddies with songwriter Chick Rains, who introduced Hayes to Don Cook, primarily known at the time for producing the catalog of Brooks & Dunn. With Cook working his connections, Hayes was able to score a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1994.

With Cook in the production chair, Hayes wasted no time and had his debut album Old Enough To Know Better in stores by January 1995. The record was preceded by the title track, which Hayes co-wrote with Rains. The uptempo honky-tonk rocker is 1990s country at its finest, still relevant today and boasts a killer hook “I’m old enough to know better, but I’m still too young to care” that made me take notice instantly as a nine-year-old kid when this song came out.

Hayes hit #1 with that song, a feat he wouldn’t repeat again in his career although he would come close. The fiddle and steel drenched contemporary ballad “I’m Still Dancing With You” followed, peaking at #4. The heartbreaking tale of lost love was an excellent showcase for Hayes’ ability to show palpable emotion with his voice, a talent lost on many of his contemporaries. He would have far stronger showcases for this gift, especially as he grew into himself as an artist, but he was doing very well right out of the gate.

A second uptempo honky-tonk rocker was sent to radio in an effort to repeat the success of the title track. “Don’t Stop,” which would stall at #10, isn’t as strong or relatable as the title track and peaked about where it deserved. It’s still enjoyable to listen to today although the music video seems to have been buried in the archives somewhere out of view.

When thinking about ballads from Old Enough To Know Better, “What I Meant to Say” comes to mind a heck of a lot sooner than “I’m Still Dancing With You” and for good reason. The contemporary ballad is the better song, and while both have emotive vocal performances from Hayes, this is the more believable song. Hayes makes you feel his regret deep inside of you. The song would only peak at #5, which is a shame, as it deserved to at least reach as high as #2.

Cook, as I said, was Brooks & Dunn’s producer, the architect of their now classic sound. So I know how Hayes came to record “Steady As She Goes” although I was unaware the duo released any of their songs for other artists to record. It’s a great uptempo song with an engaging melody brimming with steel guitar. Brooks & Dunn would release their version, on a limited edition, promotional bonus disc as part of the joint marketing of their If You See Her and Reba’s If You See Him albums.

Cook co-wrote “Steady As She Goes” with Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, which is another likely reason it fell into Hayes’ hands. He also co-wrote “Kentucky Bluebird,” which became the title track of the first posthumous collection of songs by Keith Whitley in 1991. It takes a lot of courage to sing a song previously recorded by Whitley, and I do think Hayes was up to the task. It also didn’t hurt he got Patty Loveless to provide pretty audible background vocals on the song.

Another song with pedigree was “Someone Had To Teach You,” a Harlan Howard co-write that found its way to George Strait on his Livin’ It Up album in 1990. It’s another phenomenal song and while both versions are excellent, I’m giving Hayes the edge. He brought an authority to it I feel Strait missed.

Howard co-wrote “Family Reunion” with Rains. The traditional ballad is a killer, with a spellbinding twist. The family reunion is reuniting a dead mother with the father of her child, who the kid tracked down at a cemetery in Denver. There’s speculation this could’ve been a true story for Rains, but I couldn’t corroborate it.

Cook was the sole writer on “Don’t Make Me Come To Tulsa.” The track fit right into the line dance craze sweeping Nashville at the time and was even given a dance remix. The song kind of reminds me of Holly Dunn’s “You Really Had Me Going.” I enjoyed it, and the lyric is good, but the whole aesthetic has lost its appeal 23 years later.

The album ends as its singles cycle began, with a collaboration between Hayes and Rains. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” was the third of their songs together on the record, besides the title track and “I’m Still Dancing With You.” The mid-tempo ballad follows in the high quality of the rest of the record.

I can count on one hand, with a leftover finger or two, the number of debut albums I would regard as perfect. Old Enough To Know Better is far and away one of those albums. Hayes didn’t waste any time in showcasing the wide breadth of his talents as both a vocalist and a songwriter.

So many artists, I’m specifically thinking of Clay Walker among others, have let me down with debut albums that deliver in terms of singles but fail on every other level with subpar song selections beneath the artist the singles prove them to be. Hayes far exceeded my expectations and makes me regret having purchased On A Good Night when it came out but not going back and adding Old Enough To Know Better to my collection, too.

If you’ve never heard this album or need to hear it again after all these years, I highly recommend putting aside the time to do so. You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A+

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It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Plain Dirt Fashion’

plaindirtfashionIn 1982, The Dirt Band, as they were then known, reverted back to their former name and moved toward a more mainstream country sound. They scored their first Top 10 country hit in 1983 with “Dance Little Jean”. A year and a label change later, they solidfied their reputation as a mainstream country band with all of their singles through the end of the decade reaching the Top 10.

Plain Dirt Fashion was the band’s first album for Warner Bros., and in the summer of 1984, the song from which the album’s title was derived became the first of their three number one country hits. Written by Rodney Crowell, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” is a nostalgic look back at an impovershed but happy childhood and my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band single. With tight harmonies and plenty of fiddle, it is one of their most traditional efforts, foreshadowing the upcoming New Traditionalist movement which would take off in earnest about a year later. It was followed by the upbeat “I Love Only You”, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz, which reached #3. “High Horse”, penned by Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, became the album’s third single. It peaked at #2 in early 1985. All three singles were tailor-made for country radio without any of the rock elements that had been the hallmark of much of the band’s earlier work. Two album cuts, however, are covers of old rock-and-roll hits — Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch and Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, neither of which is particularly memorable.

In general, while the singles are timeless and have managed to avoid sounding dated, the album cuts haven’t aged as well, mainly due to the somewhat heavy-handed — and typical of the era — use of the drum machine, which mars “Cadillac Ranch”, “Run With Me” and “‘Til The Fire’s Burned Out”. “Video Tape”, the album’s closing track, gives away the album’s age by its reference to a now-obsolete medium. It asks, “wouldn’t you be in good shape if your life was on video tape?” a question that would never be asked in the era of iPhones and social media when so many have regretted having their actions recorded. The one truly great non-single cut is “The Face On The Cutting Room Floor”, about a has-been (or more accurately, never-was) actress who fails to make it in Hollywood after refusing to sleep her way to the top. The tune was written by Steve Goodman with band members Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.

In addition to the band members themselves, the album credits list some marquee names as additonal musicians, with Steve Gibson, Mark O’Connor, and Ricky Skaggs all lending their talents to the project.

Although it occasionally shows its age, Plain Dirt Fashion is still an enjoyable album and worth a listen if you haven’t already heard it. It is available for download or on a 2-for-1 CD with the band’s next project Partners, Brothers and Friends.

Grade: B+

Fellow Travelers – Carl Perkins

‘One For The Money – Two For The Show – Three To Get Ready – And Go Cat Go’
carl perkins

If Elvis was the King, Carl Perkins was the commoner who became a widely respected elder statesman of rock and roll music. Much more of a country boy than Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins perhaps saw his shot at superstardom ruined by a car accident that killed Carl’s brother Jay and put Carl out of commission just as his hit “Blue Suede Shoes” ascended to the top of the country charts (it would reach #2 on the pop charts).

Who Was He ?

Carl Perkins (1932-1998) was talented songwriter, singer and musician who perhaps owed more to the country side of rockabilly than to the R&B influences of most early rock and rollers. Carl had only five songs chart on the pop charts with “Blue Suede Shoes” easily the biggest hit spending four weeks at #2. His other pop hits were “Boppin’ The Blues (#70), “Your True Love” (#67), “Pink Petal Pushers” (#91) and “Pointed Toes Shoes” (#93). Although his chart success was limited these songs, as well as non-charting songs such as “Matchbox”,”Honey Don’t” and”All Mama’s Children” were covered and performed by countless rock and roll and rockabilly acts for the next three decades. The Beatles recorded a large number of his songs. As a guitarist Perkins was revered and respected by some of the biggest names in the music business many of whom would eventually record tracks with him, including George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, NRBQ and Paul Simon. He appeared in live concert with Dave Edmunds and Eric Clapton. The list actually is endless so I’ll stop listing names now

What Was His Connection to County Music ?” (#70)

Carl was from the small Tennessee town of Tiptonville and remained a country boy at heart. Carl had fifteen country chart hits with six reaching the top twenty

He was well liked in the music community and while Carl was at a low point in his career (and in battling personal demons), Johnny Cash added Carl as parting of his road show package. Carl would spend ten years touring with Cash. While part of the Cash show, Carl penned “Daddy Sang Bass” which would spend six weeks as a country number one for Johnny Cash, and Tommy Cash would have a top ten record with another Perkins composition “Rise and Shine”. In 1991 the New Nashville Cats (Mark O’Connor, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner took Carl’s “Restless” back into the country top thirty.

Unlike some singers who sound good only when performing their own hits, Carl seemed to be able to sing anybody’s material and make sound as if it was especially composed for him. Virtually any Carl Perkins recording is worth hearing.

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘Doug Stone’

dougstoneReleased towards the end of the New Traditionalist movement, Doug Stone’s eponymous debut is his best and most traditional album. The Epic album was produced by Doug Johnson and featured top-notch songs and an impressive roster of musicians including Mark O’Connor, Mac McAnally, and Paul Franklin. The album’s first single was the superb country weeper “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)”, an indulgent tale of self-pity written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark. Songs like this are the reason many people dislike country music, but they are also the reason so many of us love it so passionately. Stone knocked it out of the park on his first try; although he released many songs after this that I thoroughly enjoyed, nothing ever matched this masterpiece. It peaked at #4 but deserved to go to #1, and I’ve often thought it might have become a top charter if it had been held back and released after Stone had built up some name recognition, instead of being the first out of the box. But chart position aside, it’s a great record.

The rest of the album is almost as good. Doug’s follow-up single “Fourteen Minutes Old” is another break-up song despite its uptempo arrangement. Written by Dennis Knutson and A.L. “Doodle” Owens, it topped out at #6. The Harlan Howard tune “These Lips Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”, another favorite of mine, fared slightly better by reaching #5. Stone finally reached #1 with the album’s fourth and final single, “In A Different Light”, which was written by the great Bob McDill along with Dickey Lee and Bucky Jones. It is the album’s least traditional song, but its biggest hit, perhaps foreshadowing country music’s imminent shift back to a more pop-oriented sound. It also allowed Stone to showcase his skills as a balladeer and it cast the template for many of his future hits.

I’ve often second-guessed record label choices for singles, but in the case of this album I think that Epic got it right. The album’s remaining songs are good, but not as strong as the ones sent to radio. “Turn This Thing Around” is not quite as good as Keith Whitley’s version from the year before. “High Weeds and Rust”, my least favorite song here, was later covered by its songwriter David Lee Murphy. Producer Doug Johnson’s “We Always Agree On Love” isn’t quite as strong as the rest of the album, but I really liked Randy Boudreux’s “My Hat’s Off To Him” and “It’s A Good Thing I Don’t Love You Anymore” by Bobby P. Barker and Keith Palmer.

I was still in college when this album was released and it certainly does not seem like nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then. In listening to the album again, though, it’s age is sometimes betrayed by the electronic keyboard arrangements, which were considered cutting-edge at the time but seem quite dated today. Thankfully, producer Doug Johnson avoided being too heavy-handed with them, and they are not as intrusive as the keyboard arrangements on other records of the era. It is however, the album’s sole flaw, albeit a minor complaint overall. Albums this good were not uncommon in the early 90s, and thus were sometimes easy to take for granted. This one is especially worth dusting off and listening to again, particularly for those fans who have become disillusioned with the current state of mainstream country. Inexpensive copies of Doug Stone are easy to find.

Grade: A

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘The Restless Kind’

the restless kindAfter the Greatest Hits album, 1996’s The Restless Kind denotes a new start of sorts, with long term producer Gregg Brown dropped for veteran rock producer Don Was, with Tritt also getting a co-production credit. The pairing does a pretty good job, and the general feel of the album is not that far removed from Tritt’s usual style, except that the harmonica is more prominent than the steel guitar. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs, and friend and tour partner Marty Stuart also contributed.

The first single, ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is a very well sung but not particularly interesting ballad of devotion to a wife. The album’s biggest hit, it peaked at #3.

It was followed by ‘Where Corn Don’t Grow’, which made it to #6. Written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer, it had originally been recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1990, and is an excellent story song about a country boy who has to find out the hard way how hard city life is.

‘She’s Going Home With Me’ and ‘Still In Love With You’ both peaked in the 20s, and are equally forgettable mid-tempo numbers.

Sent to radio in between those two, the much better ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ did creep into the top 20 but should have done better. It is a sensitive ballad Tritt wrote and sings with Lari White about a couple both struggling to move on with new partners. An excellent vocal from Tritt is matched by White’s distinctive voice.

My favorite non-single (and a clear missed opportunity) is the ballad ‘Did You Fall Far Enough’, written by Tritt with Troy Seals. The protagonist is wracked with doubt for no clear reason:

You’ve given me no cause to doubt you
And I know passion burns in your heart
But does that same fire keep on burning
In the hours that we spend apart?

If you knew the question that burns in my mind
Then you know why I worry so much
I can’t help but wonder when we fell in love
Sweetheart, did you fall far enough?
]

Mark O’Connor’s beautiful fiddle winds through the song, and with Travis’s excellent vocal, helps to make this a real highlight.

‘Sack Full Of Stones’ is the best of the three songs here co-written by Marty Stuart, a somber breakup song with a fine vocal. ‘Draggin’ My Heart Around’ is a pretty good chugging Marty Stuart/Paul Kennerley song typical of what Stuart was doing at that period, with a strong groove and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen on high harmony. The less successful ‘Double Trouble’ is a self-indulgent buddy duet with Stuart with a silly story of two friends accidentally dating the same girl, which the pair wrote with Kennerley. Stuart also plays electric guitar throughout the album.

‘Back Up Against The Wall’ is pure Southern rock/outlaw, and while it is catchy and enthusiastically performed, I was entirely unconvinced by the hardboiled jailbreak story. A meaty version of the title track, an uptempo number penned by Michael Henderson which has been recorded by a number of other artists, including Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood, is pretty good. The romantic commitment of ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is quite a nice ballad benefitting from a sincerely delivered vocal and attractive folky harmonica-led arrangement.

Overall, this is a fairly solid album with a couple of high spots. It’s worth picking up especially at cheap used copy prices.

Grade: B+

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Diamonds & Dirt’

A full decade into his career as a recording artist, Rodney Crowell finally achieved some long overdue recognition with his fifth studio release, Diamonds & Dirt, which was the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album of his career. Now signed to Columbia Records, Crowell enlisted the aid of fellow Hot Band alumnus Tony Brown to share production duties. In addition, Rodney wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s ten songs. In lieu of the country rock sound that had dominated his previous albums, Diamonds & Dirt sought to capitalize on the popularity of the New Traditionalist movement. Marketing the album to a more mainstream country audience paid off in spades.

Released in March 1988, the album was preceded two months earlier by the single “It’s Such A Small World”, a duet with Rosanne Cash, who was on a hot streak at the time. It quickly rose to #1, becoming the highest charting single of Crowell’s career at that point, but in many people’s minds, it was Cash’s star power that propelled the record to the top of the chart. However, Crowell quickly dispelled the misconception that he couldn’t deliver the commercial goods on his own when the album’s subsequent four singles also reached the #1 spot, making Diamonds & Dirt the first album in country music history to produce five #1 hits. Following “It’s Such A Small World” to the top of the chart was the uptempo “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”, the whimsical “She’s Crazy For Leaving” (a co-write with Guy Clark), the beautiful ballad “After All This Time”, and “Above and Beyond”, which was the one song in which Crowell did not have a hand in writing. Written by the great Harlan Howard and originally released by Buck Owens in 1960, the uptempo steel-drenched toe-tapper is my favorite song on the album — but just barely. The quality of the album’s songs is consistently excellent from start to finish, making it difficult to choose favorites, and all of them had hit single potential.

More often than not, it is the ballads that stand the test of time, and thus, “After All This Time” is the cut that received the most recurrent airplay. It was my least favorite of the album’s singles at the time of its release, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate its simple, stripped down beauty.

In many respects, Diamonds & Dirt is a one-man show, with Crowell singing lead vocals, co-producing and writing the majority of the album’s songs. However, he received a good deal of help from some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians — Glen Duncan (fiddle), Mark O’Connor (fiddle and mandolin), Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash, who both provided background vocals. The album was nominated for a Grammy. Rodney Crowell was on a very hot streak, which unfortunately ended almost as quickly as it began when he was unable to match Diamonds & Dirt’s success with subsequent releases.

Diamonds & Dirt reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified gold. It was reissued by Columbia Legacy in 2008 with three bonus tracks. The album is easy to find and is most deserving of a spot in every country fan’s music library. If you are only going to own one Rodney Crowell album, this is the one to own.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘High Lonesome’

Released in August 1991, High Lonesome was Randy’s first album not to reach #1 on the country albums chart, and his last platinum release. But if Randy’s commercial fortunes were starting to decline, this album is an artistic triumph. His voice is in great shape, and he also seems to have undergone something of an artistic rejuvenation, co-writing half the songs. The consistent quality of the material was the best he had had since Storms Of Life, and is more varied in tempo and mood than No Holdin’ Back, his last solo release.

Lead single ‘Point Of Light’, written by Don Schlitz and Thom Schuyler, was inspired by a phase in President George Bush’s inaugural address, and it was a mildly controversial choice as a single due to the political connotations, as Bush was then standing for re-election. That controversy did not prevent the song reaching #3 on the country chart. Taken on its own merits, 20 years later, it comes across as a deeply idealistic tribute to those performing good works rather than political, but is perhaps a little too earnest to stand among Randy’s classics, and while not at all bad, it is the weakest track on the album.

Randy had been touring with rising star Alan Jackson in the run-up to recording this album. They spent a lot of time on the road writing together. Alan recorded one of their collaborations (‘She’s Got the Rhythm (I’ve Got the Blues)’), and Randy included three on this album. Unexpectedly, all four songs ended up as singles. The ballad ‘Forever Together’ is a fairly straightforward declaration of renewal of love from a penitent man who has put his wife through some hard times, but has at last seen the error of his ways. It is put together quite beautifully and sensitively delivered. It was Randy’s first #1 since ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’, and is one of my favourite recordings of his.

The jaundiced mid-tempo ‘Better Class Of Losers’ then peaked at #2, with its preference for downhome living over city sophisticates like the protagonist’s now-ex girlfriend. ‘I’d Surrender All’, the third and best Jackson co-write, failed for some reason to impress radio programmers, just scraping into the top 20. A classic heartbreak ballad with acoustic guitar opening and sinuous steel winding through the song, this sees the protagonist devastated by his woman walking out:

I never thought I’d miss the early morning smell of hairspray in the air
All the little things I used to take for granted
Now I miss them most of all
Ain’t it funny how a woman walking out the door
Can bring a man to crawl?

Alan also donated the bouncy semi-novelty ‘Allergic To The Blues’, which he wrote with Jim McBride. One of the lesser moments, it is still fun with a light touch and ironic edge as the protagonist goes to all possible lengths to persuade his woman not to walk out.

The tenderly sung opening track ‘Let Me Try’ is a plea to a woman disillusioned by love, with the protagonist offering to restore her faith. Written by Allen Shamblin and Chuck Cannon, it is an excellent song and it is a shame it didn’t get the additional exposure of being a single. Yet another highlight is the gently wailing title track, written by Gretchen Peters, which features Marty Stuart on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on dobro, although Mark O’Connor’s mournful fiddle is the most effective part of the backing.

The playful ‘Oh What A Time To be Me’ written by Randy with Don Schlitz, has the protagonist slightly smugly reflecting on his good luck picking up his friend’s discarded lover and giving his old buddy the news. A brass section lends it a bright swingy Dixieland feel. The pacy ‘Heart Of Hearts’ written by Kevin Welch and Michael Henderson is also enjoyable, as the protagonist decides cheating just isn’t what he really wants to do deep down inside. The album closes on a high with Randy’s first gospel number, the lively acappella ‘I’m Gonna Have A Little Talk’, with backing vocals from Take 6.

This is one of my favorite Randy Travis albums, with the man at the top of his game. He is in great voice and sounds completely invested in every track, while Kyle Lehning oversees the production as tastefully as usual. It is easy to find now, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A+

Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Mark O’Connor and the New Nashville Cats – ‘Restless’ (ft Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill)

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Greatest Hits’ (MCA)

Steve’s move to MCA in 1985 helped him to become a mainstay of country radio, just as the same move worked for Reba McEntire and, a few years later, Vince Gill. None of his first three albums for the label is readily available on CD or digitally, but a good overview can be gained from his second Greatest Hits compilation, released in 1987. The sound was a little less poppy than his RCA work, but still definitely contemporary rather than traditional. Steve’s smooth vocals sound great even on the lesser material.

Steve’s MCA career kicked off with a bang, with ‘What I Didn’t Do’ reaching #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985. Written by Wood Newton and Michael Noble, this remorseful look back at mistakes made by a workaholic husband who failed to pay attention to his wife (left “planning her nights by the TV Guide”) is a fine song, sensitively interpreted.

The up-tempo pop-country ‘Heart Trouble’ (written by Dave Gibson and Kent Robbins) also reached the top 10, but is not very memorable. The last single from One Good Night Deserves Another, Steve’s first MCA album, was a vast improvement, and was to become his second #1. A forlorn ballad about unrequited love, ‘Some Fools Never Learn’ was written by John Scott Sherrill, and Steve sings it beautifully, as the central character faces his loved one’s

Heart like a stone
And a wandering eye

He admits to himself, while he finds a second-best alternative relationship with a girl in the same boat,

It’s no good to pretend it won’t happen again
‘Cause it’ll happen again
Some fools never learn
Play with the fire and you’re gonna get burned
It’s only love when you’re loved in return

This is my favorite of the songs included here.

The lead single from Steve’s second MCA album (and his second album of 1985) was ‘You Can Dream Of Me’, which he wrote with John Hall. It was another #1 hit for him. A mellow sounding cheating song with an attractive melody, the soaring, pure vocal belies a less romantic message, about a married man telling his ex-lover he can’t offer her a full-time or “real” love and she will have to settle for the odd phone call, flowers and dreams.

Next up was that album’s title track, the piano-led mid-tempo ‘Life’s Highway’ written by Richard Leigh and Roger Murrah (and covered by Catherine Britt on her RCA album a few years ago). It was Steve’s fourth #1 hit, and had the most traditionally country instrumentation of his early singles. Carl Jackson and Mac McAnally sing backing vocals, and the track features Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mark O’Connor on mandolin.

The last single was the ballad ‘Starting Over Again’ (written by Don Goodman and John Wesley Ryles), with gospelly piano and soothingly sweet vocals about a constant loser who never loses faith that someday things will work out. It peaked at #4.

Life’s Highway was actually a solid modern country album (by far the best of his early work) which displayed discriminating song selection, including early versions of ‘Back Up Grinnin’ Again’ (soon afterwards cut by Kathy Mattea) and Rodney Crowell’s 1988 #1 hit ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving’. Steve’s somgwriting was also developing, and he wrote five of the ten tracks. It really deserves to be re-issued.

The third album, 1987’s It’s A Crazy World, was a bit of a step backward artistically, although each of the singles reached #1. The first of these was the pleasant but fairly forgettable New York-set ‘Small Town Girl’ (written by John Barlow Jarvis and Don Cook), singing the praises of domestic bliss with the protagonist’s wife, the small town girl of the title. Steve sounds very good on the vivaciously beaty ‘Lynda’, written by Bill LaBounty and Pat McLaughlin, and makes a throwaway ditty worth listening to.

The last single, ‘The Weekend’ was the first Steve Wariner record I ever heard. Written by Bill LaBounty again and Beckie Foster. The protagonist laments having fallen in love with his weekend fling, who is not interested in reciprocating:

You had some fun for the weekend
But I’ll be in love for the rest of my life

..and if I can’t have you tonight
At least I had the weekend

Some will find this ballad a little wimpy, but as a teenager who was new to country music, I loved it and thought it extremely romantic, and I still can’t help liking it and Steve’s sweet interpretation.

The nine solo hits (three from each of Steve’s first three albums on MCA) are rounded out with ‘That’s How You Know When Love’s Right’, a duet with Nicolette Larson which was a top 10 hit in 1986. Nicolette was a country-rock singer with a husky alto voice who had some pop success in the 70s. Her country connections included singing backup on Emmylou Harris’s version of the classic ‘Hello Stranger’, and in the mid 80s she made a concerted effort at a country career of her own. She released two pretty good albums, but this was to be her only hit single – making this the first time Steve’s talents lifted another artist to their greatest commercial success. The production sounds a bit dated now, but not overbearingly so, and the vocals work well enough to overcome this. The two singers’ voices work well together on a pleasantly tuneful if rather generic pop-leaning ballad about falling in love, swapping solo lines in the chorus, harmonising on the chorus, and both sound earnestly sincere. The song was written by Wendy Waldman and Craig Bickhardt. Oddly, the selection omitted another hit from this period, Steve’s duet with Glen Campbell on ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’, a tribute to mothers everywhere.

Grade: B

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply, and the individual tracks can be downloaded.

Spotlight Artist: Steve Wariner

This month’s Spotlight Artist is a multi-talented performer who has been neglected in recent years. Armed with a fine tenor voice, impressive guitar skills lauded by his peers, and no mean songwriting chops, Steve Wariner was one of the few artists to move successfully from mid 80s pop-country to the neo-traditional period, and across several major label deals.

Steve was born in Indiana on Christmas Day, 1954 (hence his seasonal middle name, Noel), and paid his dues playing in his father’s band. By the time he was 17 was working as Dottie West’s bass guitarist, and made his first appearance on record playing on her 1973 hit ‘Country Sunshine’. After three years with Dottie, Steve then worked with rockabilly-turned-country performer Bob Luman. Both sideman jobs helped him develop his performance skills and at just 21 he signed to RCA on a singles basis. The label was patient developing him, and it was another five years before he began to break through, during which time he also played bass guitar for guitar maestro Chet Atkins in the latter’s personal band. Atkins was later to name him one of a mere handful of musicians worthy of his own nickname CGP (Certified Guitar Picker).

The early 80s saw Steve’s first #1 hit single and a couple of modestly selling albums, before he moved to MCA in 1984. This was a canny move, as with MCA’s support, Steve became a mainstay of country radio, scoring a series of hits, many of them hitting the top of the chart. He won his first Grammy nomination at the same time for his hit duet with Glen Campbell, ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’. In 1991, he made another decisive move when he signed to Arista and released his first platinum-selling record, I Am Ready, perhaps his finest artistic achievement, which bridged the shift from 80s pop-country to more traditional sounds.

For some years Steve’s public persona had concentrated on his vocal prowess and, to a lesser extent, his songwriting, but during the Arista years, his instrumental gifts came once more to the fore. He was one of the artists selected to guest on fiddler extraordinaire Mark O’Connor’s New Nashville Cats album, which celebrated the instrumentalists of Nashville, and this earned him a shared Grammy for ‘Restless’, where he, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs shared vocals as well as playing on the track. He has subsequently won Grammy’s for instrumental collaborations with Asleep At The Wheel and Brad Paisley. His final release for Arista was his own first instrumental album, No More Mr Nice Guy.

After his exit from Arista in 1996, Steve concentrated on songwriting for a while, penning hits for Garth Brooks (‘Longneck Bottle’) and Clint Black (‘Nothing But Taillights’) among others. Labelless, he even helped Anita Cochran to her only chart hit by duetting on ‘What If I Said’, which went all the way to #1. He was rewarded by his fourth major label deal, with Capitol, where he scored another brace of hit singles around the turn of the millennium.

The 21st century has been less successful commercially, but Steve is still active, releasing music on his own label, including another instrumental album, a tribute to his mentor Chet Atkins, in 2007. A third instrumental record is due out this month. He has also continued writing, and was responsible for Keith Urban’s 2001 hit ‘Where The Blacktop Ends’.

We hope to share some of the highlights of Steve’s career with you over the next month.

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Shooting Straight In The Dark’

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s third album was released in 1990, and gave her a real breakthrough. Produced with longterm collaborator John Jennings, the record saw her draw on a wide variety of influences. The material (all written by Carpenter herself) is a mixture of slow songs showcasing the velvety texture of her voice, and more commercial up-tempo numbers. It is far from traditional country with fiddle on just two tracks and steel conspicuous only by its complete absence, but it is one of her best records.

The intense lead single ‘You Win Again’ reached #16, peaking in 1991. It’s one of my favorite MCC songs, a despairing mid-tempo tale of a woman in love but aware she is in a losing situation:

I’ve been holding my breath just wondering when
You’ll make some kind of decision
To let me in or let me go
I’ll always lose if I never know
Where I fit in
Baby you win again

The insistently bluesy rock ‘n roll cover ‘Right Now’ followed it to radio and did about as well, reaching #15. The third single, though, was Mary’s biggest hit to date. The irresistible Cajun-styled ‘Down At the Twist And Shout’, featuring Cajun band BeauSoleil, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, and won the singer her first Grammy. Atypical of most of the artist’s work, it is one of her best remembered songs and a sheer delight.

The final single, the measured ‘Going Out Tonight’, written with John Jennings, was less successful, making #14. It is a well-written song with a sultry vocal about a woman “going out tonight to find myself a friend” in the aftermath of a failed relationship.

My personal favorite track is the charming story song ‘Halley Came To Jackson’ about a family watching Halley’s Comet in 1910, and the baby seeing it again as an old woman 76 years later from the same back porch in Jackson. Tasteful fiddle and dulcimer from Mark O’Connor and John McCutcheon respectively underpin the pretty melody, and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen sings backing vocals on the album’s loveliest (and most country) moment. The story was inspired by the life of novelist Eudora Welty, and was adapted some years later into an illustrated children’s book. It is still one of my favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs.

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